Right now the world is on fire. Fire caused by weapons that are only a projection of hearts that have not yet learned to love. More specifically, by hearts that are hardened by fear. The fear of the other. The fear of not getting what one wants. The fear of losing what one has Most of all, the fear of dying. There is no doubt that what is playing out in our world today points to a larger existential problem – especially in our country.
I have been asked to speak today about peace and justice and to share stories of hope. While there are many specifics to discuss, I think there is a fundamental issue that underlies the conflicts and violence in which the United States is involved. I believe that the greatest obstacle to peace in this nation is the illusory belief that violence can bring about some sort of security when, in fact, life, by its nature, is insecure.
We cannot bring about security by acquiring things and then building walls and missiles to protect these possessions. We cannot insure security by bombing others before they bomb us or by designing missile shields. No . . . at the heart of peacemaking is the acknowledgment that life is insecure. I think once we really internalize this and accept the fact that the only time we are guaranteed is this moment, then we are internally free to do the work of peace.
I recall the day of September 11, 2001. I am a teacher and was at school that day. After hearing the news, I walked into the teachers’ lounge to see how my colleagues were doing. Everyone was in a state of shock except for our Spanish teacher, Anna. Anna had recently migrated
to the States from a Latin American country where violence, torture, assassinations, and death are routine. I will never forget Anna’s words on 9/11 – spoken not out of any kind of callousness or lack of compassion – but words that contained much truth. She simply said, “Welcome to the rest of the world.”
While the horrific attacks of 9-11 were truly criminal, Americans seem to forget that thousands are killed everyday around the globe as a result of negligence: food not shared, water not made available, medicines denied. In Anna’s country, Colombia, humans rights workers and labor organizers continue to be tortured and killed, often by paramilitaries trained here in the United States at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia using weapons sold by our government.
My point is that while we were rightly outraged by the events of 9-11, there was an opportunity buried in that tragedy to ask hard and serious questions about our role in the world community. My prayer that day was that our nation would have the maturity to engage in deep and painful self-examination. My hope was that our nation would have the wisdom to open its heart to grief rather than tighten its fists in retaliation.
While our country’s leaders opted for belligerence, I think that many, many people in this nation awakened to their call as peacemakers that terrible day in a way that was quite profound.
While most of the violence practiced by our nation comes from its desire to keep what it has and acquire more – more possessions and, especially, more power – much of the violence we see coming from other parts of the world is the inevitable violence that occurs when the
world community turns a deaf ear to oppression and injustice. This is best expressed by the poet Langston Hughes who wrote:
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
In the wake of 9-11, our nation’s leaders talked a lot about “connecting the dots,” but have we taken the time to connect the dots of injustice – the dots of suffering – the dots of oppression – the dots of dreams deferred? If we really want to understand the explosions that are rocking our world, it behooves us to understand what others are trying to say even when they speak the language of violence. This may be a hard language to listen to, but it is a language borne of frustration and despair.
The big question that needs to be asked in places of violence is Why? A question seldom asked in our hurry to retaliate and a question that holds the key to peace. Unless we listen deeply to those we call enemies, those who hate us and even hurt us, we have no hope for peace.
Personally, I find our nation’s inability or unwillingness to take stock of itself our saddest legacy. The presumption of superiority and the arrogance of claiming – demanding – for itself what it is unwilling to grant others fuels the fires of resentment and anger that many in the world hold toward our country. If we are unwilling to look at our own weaknesses, our own hypocrisies, our own shortcomings, it is unlikely that we will muster the maturity to listen to the criticism of those we call “enemy.”
This is a fatal mistake. Our presumed enemies can be our greatest teachers if we can gain the spiritual maturity to listen to what they have to say.
I have found that in the classroom it is often the most disruptive, angry, and difficult student who has the most to teach me. When I take the time to look beneath the surface, I find that such students are almost always hauling around a backpack full of needs and injuries that distort their personalities and affect their behavior. Am I going to use violence against such students or am I going to humble myself and listen deeply to their grievances?
If we make the effort to listen to those we perhaps find most threatening, we open the door toreal peacemaking that contains within it the power of radical transformation.
Martin Luther King expressed it well when he said:
Compassion and nonviolence help us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of those who are called the opposition.
To speak of peace without also looking at injustice rings hollow. While we all know the utter importance of inner peace and recognize the need to create a peaceful environment for ourselves and our families, we must take it farther. The cultivation of inner peace must reach outward to the furthermost corners of our neighborhoods, cities, and world to help heal the injustices of our brothers and sisters.
Can I really have peace when my neighbor is oppressed? Can I seek serenity for myself without sharing the struggle of those around the world who are crying out – sometimes violently – to have their grievances heard?
For Martin Luther King, the answer is “No.” We are a world community completely interdependent. It is impossible to create a peaceful
bubble for ourselves that excludes the pain of others. As King says:
As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases run rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy even if I just got a good check-up at the Mayo Clinic. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.
That we could recognize the truth of these words! I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be! We are interdependent. This means that the struggles of our brothers and sisters are our struggles as well. It means that in cases of injustice and inequality, we must take a position.
Earlier in my life I believed that a detached neutrality was at the heart of peacemaking. A philosophy in which I could stand outside the dirty world of politics and wrap myself in a spiritual blanket of my own making. Once upon a time I thought that choosing sides was the antithesis of peacemaking, but I have grown into a new understanding.
Bishop Desmond Tutu, a deeply spiritual man who was engaged in the struggle against apartheid in his country of South Africa expresses perfectly why neutrality cannot be a basis for peacemaking. He says:
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has his foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.
As my understanding of peacemaking has grown, I have embraced fully Bishop Tutu’s position. As a person deeply committed to nonviolence that means that I must take certain risks for justice if I am to really be a woman of peace in situations of injustice and oppression. Unless those of us who condemn violence are willing to risk our own lives fighting for justice using nonviolent means, we cannot in good conscience condemn others who resort to violence in their struggles.
How often I wonder is the violence we see in our world today simply the consequence of cowardice and indifference on the part of those of us who say we want peace. We cannot have a soft, easy peace in which we shield our eyes from the very real injustices suffered by our brothers and sisters. Many are surprised that Mahatma Gandhi himself said, “I believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” These are hard words coming from Gandhi, but they are at the heart of what it means to be a peacemaker in the real world.
Ultimately, in the face of oppression and injustice, we have only three options: The first is acquiescence, which means accepting the injustice, doing nothing, cowering under the boot of the oppressor. This is the option that both Gandhi and King condemned as the coward’s
The second and most popular option in our world is the option of retaliation. The old “eye for an eye” scenario that we know all too well. This is the way of death. The false belief that violence is somehow redemptive and can bring about peace. This option fails to recognize the fact that if you plant the seeds of violence you are not going to get a peace plant and that violent means never lead to a peaceful ends. This way never works as we finding out so tragically in our world today.
The third option – and the road less traveled – but a road that more and more people are choosing to walk – is the path of nonviolent resistance. This means not acquiescing, not striking back, but rather, consciously choosing to stand up to one’s oppressor nonviolently. This is the only option that preserves the dignity of both the oppressor and the oppressed and that paves the way for real reconciliation.
Listen, once again, to a rather long quote by Martin Luther King. This is what real peacemaking looks like:
I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many White Citizens Councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”
In King’s words, we hear echoes from the beatitudes: Blessed are the
peaceMAKERs. Not the peaceLOVERS. Not the peaceSEEKERS. No . . . the peaceMAKERS. This suggests that the road to peace involves active engagement and participation. Getting our hands dirty.
Our great teachers, including King and Gandhi, teach us that peace is anything but passive and cowardly. As one of my favorite tee shirts reads, Peace Takes Guts. I am convinced that until those of us who desire peace are willing to take the same risks as those who believe in the efficacy of violence we will only see the violence in our world escalate.
Currently, I am on a thirty-day fast in solidarity with friends who are walking this third road – the road of nonviolent resistance – in a
small village in the West Bank called Bil’in. Just over a year ago, I spent time in this small Palestinian village where a huge chunk of the village’s land has been stolen so that the Israeli government can build a separation fence and on the other side a large settlement. This land theft and construction of the wall on Palestinian land is illegal under international law, but the world community has remained mute.
Facing this gross injustice, the people of Bil’in have only three options: roll over and acquiesce, respond violently, or resist nonviolently.
The people of Bil’in have organized a popular committee and are opting to walk in the footsteps of Gandhi and King. They are resisting this injustice with all their might, but they are resisting nonviolently. Like Gandhi, like King, they are paying dearly for their resistance, but they carry on.
It is hard to describe what life under occupation is like: road closures, checkpoints, arrests without due process, home demolitions, collective punishment, beatings, and torture. The Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem meticulously documents abuses in the
territories. It is not a pretty picture. Hence, for a village to resist nonviolently in the face of such power requires a great deal of courage and creativity.
Each week the people of Bil’in hold a Friday protest at the site of the wall usually with a specific theme. One week protestors chained themselves to the olive trees that were about to be bulldozed, another week, the protesters marched with mirrors on which were written
messages of both love and resistance that then reflected on the shields carried by the soldiers who confronted them. Another week, a renowned concert pianist and Holocaust survivor from Holland had a large piano shipped to this tiny village and held a concert at the wall’s construction site as an act of resistance.
What makes the story of Bil’in, and other Palestinian villages like it, such a sign of hope is that their struggle has attracted the attention of many peacemakers from around the world, including Israel. These Palestinians are joined each Friday by Israelis and internationals who are willing to take a stand for the kind of justice that leads to real peace.
One night when the Army drove into town to arrest those who had organized the demonstration earlier in the day, the people of Bil’in and their supporters greeted the Jeeps and soldiers with a midnight volleyball game in the middle of the road. Last December, the village
built a peace camp at the site of the wall and invited settlers to come down from the settlements and get to know their neighbors.
This kind of nonviolent resistance provokes a crisis, as King said it would, but also wears down the oppressor. In fact, the response to nonviolent resistance often becomes even more harsh and violent as those resisting hold firm because those holding the guns simply do not
know what to do with a group of people who refuse to back down despite the punishment meted out. Mohammed and many others in the village as well as Israeli and international activists have been beaten, shot at, arrested, and interrogated, yet they do not back down. This is exactly the kind of noncooperation of which King spoke.
Does it work? As state violence leveled against the people of Bil’in has increased in response to the protests, a number of Israeli soldiers have refused military service in the territories and, over time, one’s conscience cannot remain unaffected watching others suffer for the sake of justice. The way of nonviolence is not the way of expediency and fast results, but rather the slow and often painful route of wearing down one’s opponent by appealing to his conscience.
Sadly, this story and others like it receive little coverage in our papers. Our textbooks are full of tales of war but contain so little on peace. It is a shame that high school students know the names of generals but know little about Gandhi. I am fasting, in part, to draw attention to this nonviolent struggle in the village of Bil’in, or, as I call it, the Birmingham, Alabama of Palestine. As peacemakers, we must pass these stories on to others since they give us sustenance and strength and hope.
As peacemakers, we must also do our homework. Like King, I too have a dream and my dream is that every American would really study widely, deeply, seriously the later writings of Dr. King. The Dr. King who named the real axis of evil in our world: militarism, consumerism, and racism. The King who told us to get on the right side of the world revolution, and who urged us to shift from a thing-oriented to a person-oriented society. The King who declared that a nation that
continues to spend more time year after year on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
Read King’s speech, “A Time to Break Silence,” delivered exactly one year before his death and substitute the word Vietnam with Iraq. It is one of my greatest heartbreaks that the radical, prophetic Martin Luther King has been reduced to a kind man who had a dream. His spirituality, his analysis, and his critique of where our country is headed is more timely now than ever.
I know that many of you here today are spiritual people grounded in meditation, prayer, breathing. This is the other side of action and the wellspring of our work. All peacemakers start their work from a place of contemplation. When we ground this work in contemplation,
however one defines it, we come to understand that we are indeed interdependent and part of the same human family.
Through our spiritual practices, whatever they may be, we slow down enough to look deeply at our world, allowing our hearts to be broken. The French philosopher, Simone Weil, said “It is looking that saves,” and she was right. Looking closely at our world, our brothers and sisters, ourselves saves us from selfishness, from greed, from violence. When we look upon our wounded planet, we allow our hearts to be broken and wounded themselves.
To look is to suffer, and to suffer is to know compassion, the root of all real peacemaking.
So today, I invite you to look closely. Look at what is going on in the Middle East. Look at what is happening to our beloved planet.
Look deeply at our communities, our schools, and our families. If we look long enough to allow our hearts to be broken, we will find that our lives are really not our own.
We will discover that it is not about our personal survival, our reputations, or our possessions. Rather, as all the world’s spiritual traditions teach, it’s about letting go of our own agendas and making ourselves available to our human family with all the passion and compassion our hearts can hold.
I opened this talk by saying the world is on fire – and it is. Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and many other places.
There is another kind of fire, however, that is raging through our world – a fire that you will never see on CNN News or Fox TV. A fire that has far more power than any weapon that humans can devise.
We saw the flames of this fire on February 15, 2003 when millions around the world turned out to say NO! to war and it was announced that this movement constituted the world’s second superpower. Each time an individual or a group breathes, speaks, or acts for peace this fire is fanned.
I think we find that when we allow our hearts to be broken, they become big enough to hold the holy fire of compassion that burns away the fear and indifference that hold us back from acting for peace and justice and freedom and reconciliation.
I would like to close with the words of a woman who allowed her heart to be both broken and filled with this holy fire, Sophie Scholl.
Sophie was part of the White Rose movement that resisted the Nazi Party. In February 1943, 21-year-old Sophie was arrested, sentenced to death, and beheaded. These are her words:
The real damage is done by those millions who want to “survive.” The honest men (and women) who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves – or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.
May all of us choose to burn with a desire to work for peace, justice, and healing in our world.
May we become flaming torches in a world looking for light!
Talk given at Yoga for Peace gathering, Dearborn, MI,
July 22, 2006