The Things That Make for Peace
by Theresa Scherf
The terrorist attacks of September 11 have left not only a nation but much of the world in shock. The sheer number of those who died, the magnitude of the physical destruction involved, and the unexpectedness of this traumatic event have been difficult for many of us to fully absorb. And, on its heels, we have been dealing with the specter of biological terrorism as well, the precise methods and potential effects of which are not yet fully known.
Equally disorienting has been the way we have found ourselves catapulted from a worldview of relative calm, even detachment, into what has been called variously ‘America’s new war,’ ‘the first war of the 21st century,’ and ‘a new kind of war. The ‘Attack on America’ has been an assault targeting our national community and culture as a whole, and we have suddenly had to respond while experiencing a kaleidoscope of feelings.
Some of us have felt extreme anger and the desire to retaliate, to inflict equal pain, to exact justice. Some of us have felt immersed in grief, mourning the loss of those who were killed, personalized by the many television interviews with family members and friends whose bereavement we have come to share. Some of us are strongly opposed to the course of violence through military action that our country has taken and the ‘collateral damage’ it will inevitably exact—a course some also feel will be ineffective or even counterproductive.
Some of us have simply felt numb, finding that our whole world has changed in an instant into something that we do not recognize, a place that is both alien and makes us aliens to one another. Our sense of a ‘global community’ and hopes for its future seem shattered. Underlying this, for some, are feelings of a vulnerability and fragility, an unpredictability, about life—and about our own lives in particular—that have not been experienced before.
Insofar as we have been able to move beyond anger, shock, and the initial pain of these events to a deeper grieving, we have been confronted in one way or another with our need for spiritual connection, including deep reflection and soul-searching, as we seek to understand what has really happened to us and our world and how we ought to respond. Amnesty International Director William F. Schulz suggests that grieving is the true path to a search for justice.
To get to grieving, we must go through anger. And to get to justice, we must go through grieving.
Because, as the theologian Sam Keen so eloquently put it, “Every day we are not mourning is a day
we will be taking vengeance” and vengeance is different from justice.
The best that is in us…knows that blind hatred corrupts the hater. It knows that the greatest power
evil has is to entice the innocent to mimic its practices. It knows that every action has unintended
consequences. It knows that the truly strong never forget that in the heart of every stranger lurks a
reflection of our own.
These thoughts lead in a straight line to the principles and teachings of most of the major faith traditions of our world. Buddhist teacher and peace proponent Thich Nhat Hanh voices something of the essence of this as expressed through his tradition in the interview excerpts reprinted elsewhere in this issue. Gandhi articulated them from a Hindu perspective within the context of his teachings and practice related to non-violence.
Christians are drawn to the teachings of Jesus and the example of his life of self-giving that extended even to acceptance of a violent death:
You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evil doer…. You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven… (Mt.5:38,43-45).
I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse
you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from
anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt (Lk.6:27-29).
Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and
you will be children of the Most High… Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Lk.6:35-36).
And in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk.10:29-37), we find that the neighbor whom we are commanded to love is the person we most hate and fear.
No one who reads the gospels can mistake what Jesus teaches and calls those who follow him to do. But from the first century up to our own, most Christians have had to struggle with all that this means. Some have sought to maintain that these teachings only apply to individuals in one-on-one situations, that they should not be applied to groups and nations. Some have developed ‘just war’ theories to deal with situations like the one we are presently facing.
Some would argue that no war or other form of violence is ‘just,’ but that it is sometimes necessary as the lesser of two evils. And yet, when the high priest’s armed guard came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane and some of his party drew swords and began to fight back, he admonished: “Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt.26:52). And he healed the man who had been struck.
When we seek at this time and place in our life to reconnect more deeply with our faith traditions as a comfort and resource for the circumstances we are facing, we find some hard teachings. Moreover, many of us are out of practice in terms of seeking to live by them. We are a nation that has become almost toxic in its levels of anger and violence—from ‘road rage to ‘going postal,’ from child and spousal abuse to violence perpetrated by children, who, by the time they finish grade school, have witnessed 100,000 violent acts on television. We have the world’s largest crime rate and prison population. We are also the world’s number one producer and seller of arms.
It is probably not coincidental that there seems to be a kind of parallelism between the increase in violence domestically and our exporting and/or supporting of violence elsewhere. From coups and assassinations in Africa and Latin America to corruption and repression in the Middle East, we have condoned and even promoted violence at the expense of human rights and democratic processes. Ironically, Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is now Osama bin Laden’s closest advisor, was tortured by instruments and methods supplied by the U.S. after his arrest for taking part in a street demonstration as a young man.
Asia specialist Chalmers Johnson, whose book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire has received considerable attention recently, commented in an interview that the events of September 11 were not an attack on the American people. “This was an attack on American foreign policy. It was an example of the strategies of the weak against the overwhelmingly powerful.” He warned against making the mistake once again of seeking to resolve such a situation through military force.
Power issues lie at the heart of the violence we and others in the world are experiencing. Violence is the misuse of power. It is not that we are worse than other people—we manifest much good. It is that we have so much more power, which coupled with our level of consumption of the world’s resources and seeming insulation from its problems creates a perception of gross inequity and disregard. We have not come to terms with our power and its implications in a conscious and discerning way. Too often we have used our power reflexively and abusively; at other times, when it could be of great benefit, we have not used it at all.
I believe that underlying all of what is happening to us in this time is a widespread sense of spiritual resourcelessness in coping with modern life—and now in coping with our disillusionment regarding the assumption that modernity equals security and stability. Closely related to this is the disconnect that has been going on over the past thirty years in our society between outer and inner life, between the public and private spheres in which we are engaged, between tolerance and defined values. Along with ‘values-free’ education, we’ve embraced values-free economic and political policies, including foreign policy, as well as values-free interpersonal behavior.
The problem with this is that there is no such thing as ‘values-free,’ for that itself becomes the normative value. And ‘values-free’ generally translates somewhere down the line into ‘unethical.’ It is a laissez-faire, anything goes approach that usually ends up in some form of utilitarianism wherein the end justifies the means. That was the rationale of Caiaphas, the high priest, for having Jesus killed: “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn.11:50).
In his book Landscapes of the Soul: The Loss of Moral Meaning in American Life, Douglas Porpora finds that Americans today manifest a lack of moral purpose. Thus truth becomes relative, ultimate questions are ignored, and one’s sense of self is provisional. This, he says, has made larger moral undertakings such as creating a better society very difficult. It results in spiritual numbness. He calls for a sense of larger purpose transcending individual interests and for a return to the “Most High”—the inspiration for a communal ‘cosmic vocation’ characterized by social-mindedness.
As those who live in a world growing ever smaller, among peoples who live ever closer to one another, we can no longer afford, if we ever could, to be morally purposeless and spiritually numb. We must reclaim our conscience and our values in order to seek and find the things that make for peace, justice, and mutual well=being. Most especially, we must become willing as individual citizens to become involved in and assume responsibility for shaping the policies and practices that we pursue as a nation. As but one example, 5,000 Iraqi children are dying each month for lack of proper health care because of our economic embargo. We must be willing to articulate and be accountable for the values underlying our words and actions. “The first job of a citizen,” says Günter Grass, “is to keep your mouth open.” That is what it means to be patriotic—as well as prophetic.
However horrendous and unjustifiable, the events of September 11 and afterward have not happened in a vacuum. In the words of the prayer book, we have not loved God with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. One interpretation of the commandment to love our neighbor as our self is that we are to love others as being a part of our self, a completion of who we are. We can no longer continue to embrace the illusion that we are a country set apart and a law unto our self. We can no longer ignore the consequences of our actions as they affect others around the globe, seeking our own ends by any means.
In a September 20 newspaper column, George Ella Lyon wrote: “It is not just that the enemy has no return address, but that we all have the same address. The presence of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and the dispersal of terrorist groups make it clear that we can no longer divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Ultimately, it is all us.” Or, in the words of the cartoon character Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” The real lesson of the terrorist attacks, suggests philosopher Slavoj Žižek, is that “the only way to ensure that it will not happen here again is to prevent it from going on anywhere else.” To love one’s neighbor, he adds, “means ‘Love the Muslims.’ Or it means nothing at all.”
President Bush notwithstanding, the ‘war against evil’ is not about us against them. It is about the state of our heart, about our loving or not loving and what that may mean. “If only there were evil people out there insidiously committing evil deeds and it was only necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them,” writes Alexander Solzhenitsyn. “But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who among us is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?”
Both the love commandment and the other teachings of Jesus make it clear that violence is not an acceptable option in the way that we relate to one another. However difficult we may find it to be, returning good for evil is what we are to aim for. We need to put this into practice globally and in the small moments of our daily lives. I believe that this is important not only because it belongs to a value system many of us claim to follow, but also because pragmatically it works better.
We must seek creatively loving ways to break through what Mark Shapiro calls the ‘vicious cycle of victimhood and revenge’ threatening to engulf our world—ways that make for peace. We must do this collectively, and we must do it individually, within our own heart. We have to work at what is within us as well as what is outside. Everything that we feel most deeply from our outer experience is linked to something deeply rooted inside us. This inner work demands, among other things, the courage to risk living with the new vulnerability we are feeling, to sit with it and enter into it, until we begin to feel growing within us the qualities of compassion, forgiveness, and understanding that will ultimately lead to healing for ourselves and for the world.
As we do this, we are able to become peacemakers, instruments of peace. The writings left behind by the terrorist hijackers reveal a poignantly chilling attempt to justify violence spiritually. As a moral force they failed—and so will we. However unpopular or difficult, we must seek to live out the words of the song: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” We need to see this as a vocation, a calling, for our time.
In his lament over Jerusalem, over the failure of his fellow believers and countrymen to understand God’s call to them, Jesus said:
If you…had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden
from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts
around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you into the ground…
because you did not recognize the time of your visitation (Lk.19:41-44).
For those with ears to hear, the violence we have experienced is a reminder of these words and how they came to pass. They have continued to come to pass again and again. We have a new opportunity to try to break this cycle. Our very closeness as a human community, unlike any every seen before, has much potential for good. But we must recognize God’s visitation and the things that make for peace as being one and the same. It is the peacemakers, Jesus tells us, who—like himself—will be called sons and daughters of God (Mt.5:9).