January 2009


Emma said something privately the other day which she has given me permission to repeat here:

…to speak up for my principles, however politely, in the presence of someone who disagrees with them is hard for me to do.

This is a problem I have as well.  I think it comes from two things.   The first is an unreasoned faith in our own rightness.   The second is the belief that when someone disagrees with us, they are not merely wrong, but that there is something wrong with them that leads them to hold the beliefs they hold.

My upbringing was strongly anti-religious and had a deep undercurrent of logical positivism.   When at the age of 33 a series of events and realizations led me to a spiritual awakening, I felt sometimes as if a stranger was inhabiting my mind.   In a sense I felt as if the culture war that has paralyzed our society since Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” had suddenly come to life within me.   This has given me an unusual perspective on the conflict, because I know why I thought one thing, and why I now think another.   Before my spiritual awakening, my opponents in the cultural war seemed simply to be evil or insane.

I started to have some very uncomfortable conversations with my peers.   Suddenly I could see the logic behind beliefs that I would formerly have attributed to the “other side.”   I had to re-examine many convictions that had once seemed unshakeable.   And I started to feel what it might be like for a person on the other side of the cultural war.   I had the privilege of experiencing a kind of pain with which I hadn’t previously been acquainted – the pain of having a loved one berate me for holding an opinion that, in his mind, was not only unsupportable, but immoral.

Emma went on to talk about a specific incident–a march for peace in Sierra Vista.   She felt uncomfortable marching there–the economy in Sierra Vista flows predominantly from employment at the military base, Fort Huachuca.   I think she was right to feel uncomfortable.

There’s a strong tradition in peace movements throughout the world of assembling, of marching together.   I think this is an important tradition, for two reasons.   First, a peace march allows people who believe in peace to gather and connect, to find solidarity and strength.   Secondly, it is a statement to the people who are deciding whether or not to go to war, that some citizens do not want to go to war.

But what it does not do is to change the minds of fellow citizens who are in favor of the war.   Worse, if they see the peace march as being a statement directed at them, it will make them feel defensive, and disrespected.   Instead of being a peaceful activity, the march actually winds up being a battle in a war.

People hold the opinions they do for a reason.   When we dismiss another person’s opinion as not merely incorrect but unacceptable, and when we see that person’s reasons for holding the opinion they do as essentially pathological, we have only one choice: to stop them acting on their opinion.   To use force.   In our culture, the force we use is largely the power of the pen, and of the vote, and of the pocketbook, but it is still force.

So if we feel uncomfortable at expressing our opinions, perhaps we ought not to dismiss that discomfort as a thing to be overcome.   Perhaps it is telling us something important.

Last week I received a copy of a mass emailing that my mother had received from a cousin in the Bible Belt.   The letter was a paranoid screed about how the new administration was going to legalize twenty million new citizens, and that as a consequence of this, the balance of power in the country would tip irreversibly.   I don’t normally respond to screeds like this.   I am very conscious that if I express myself poorly, I will likely just confirm the fears of the person who sent the screed out in the first place, and so instead of promoting peace I will feed the cultural war.

But because of my experience in becoming a Buddhist, I feel that I actually understand the mindset of a person from the Bible Belt.   And I do think, as Emma does, that it’s important to try to communicate – to try to bridge the gap.   And so I responded to the message, but I tried to use my understanding of the religious mindset – instead of preaching, I tried very carefully to connect.   I reminded my cousin to have faith in his country, and in the democratic principles that have allowed so many generations of immigrants before the current one to become Americans and to participate in American society.   I quoted sections of the New Testament to support the point I was making. I sent the message, and I braced for impact, hoping for the best, but fearing the worst.   A day later, I got back a message, the gist of which was “I liked what you said.”

America’s culture war is largely responsible for the really serious missteps we made during the Bush years.   Because we were so busy seeing each other as the embodiment of evil, we failed to stop a real tragedy from occurring.   I think it could have been prevented, if we’d spent less time preaching and more time listening.   Less time judging, and more time trying to understand.   I think it’s vitally important that we speak out.   But what we say needs to be said carefully, and with purpose, and with respect for the people with whom we desperately need to communicate.

I’d like to go into more detail about this, but I think it will have to wait for another article, because I’ve already broken a thousand words, even though I’ve been trying to be succinct.
Instead I’ll leave you with a link to an article in the New York Times magazine about how Facebook is changing the way activists communicate – providing an alternative to the peace march in places where peace marches aren’t a safe option.

Any human institution is liable to find itself in conflict. Yet some institutions respond better to conflict than do others. On the one hand, in some institutions conflict almost immediately turns vicious and nasty. On the other hand, in some institutions conflict doesn’t get nasty, and in fact can wind up being a source of energy that moves the institution forward. So why is it that some institutions recover very quickly from conflicts, and others don’t?

As it happens, this question has been central to my church career — I’ve spent a good part of my career helping churches move beyond conflicts. Churches are like any other human institution, and they periodically erupt into conflict. Over fourteen years of working in local churches, I’ve seen some pretty nasty conflicts up close and personal, and I’ve seen how some churches recover from conflict more quickly than others. There’s no one simple reason why this is so, but generally speaking I have found that well-managed churches are the ones most likely to recover from conflict quickly. Under the heading “good management,” I would include the following (at a minimum): transparent and open decision-making processes; a working mission statement and strategic plan; a well-maintained building that is safe, clean, and uncluttered; a motivated membership committed to the church’s mission and willing to donate time and energy and money; a contented staff who are fairly and adequately compensated and committed to the church’s mission; sound and transparent accounting practices; attention paid both to improving revenue stream and to controlling expenses.

Most of these basic principles apply beyond churches, of course. My sense is that when an institution has good management practices in place, the institution as a whole can respond to conflict productively instead of destructively. For example, when you have good decision-making processes in place (e.g., a mission statement and strategic plan), then there are institutional structures in place to channel the energy that comes with conflict. If safety and trust are built into the institution (e.g., with a safe physical plant and trustworthy accounting practices), then you have enough safety and trust to go around so that again you can harness the energy that comes with conflicts, without having that energy turn into an emotionally destructive force.

Management guru Peter Drucker believed that good management was the answer to many of the world’s problems. I have become convinced that good management is one of the taproots that allows peacemaking to flower. What do you think? Is good management necessary (but not sufficient) to peacemaking efforts? If so, what does that imply about how we should be organizing for peacemaking locally, nationally, and globally?

In the 1960s, my father’s heroes and mine included two men. One said, “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.

martin_luther_king_jr_nywts

The other said, “I don’t call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.”

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My dad thought Martin Luther King was one of the bravest men alive, but for pursuing justice, Dad preferred El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, the former Malcolm X. When Mom taught me Jesus’s advice to turn the other cheek, Dad taught me Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code: “The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.” Dad believed that if someone hit you, you hit back. If you couldn’t win, you made losing so hard for your enemy that he would never want to win again.

Dad was a civil rights activist in Florida. When the word came that the Ku Klux Klan planned to burn our home, Dad let people know he had served in World War II and Korea, and anyone who wanted trouble would find it if they came. Dad taught me how to bring the shotgun to him, but I never had to. Maybe the Klan’s threats had been bluster; they did not always follow through. Maybe Dad’s shotgun made the difference.

But when I think of meeting violence with violence, I remember something that happened years later, when my parents had moved to northern Ontario to run a trading post near an Ojibwe reservation, and I had come to work for them. One day, two drunken white men, hunters or fishermen on vacation, drove up to the store. They didn’t have time to get out of their car before Dad told them to come back when they were sober. The men started yelling that they only wanted to buy a few things, but they finally drove up to the road, and I, having run up when the yelling began, thought it was over.

But then their car turned down our second driveway, coming back fast, swerving on the gravel. Dad jumped out of the way as they braked. The men were cussing him for not selling them the little things they wanted, some cigarettes and bread, I think. The passenger began opening his door, saying he was so going to get served, that he had a right to be served.

Dad shoved the car door, telling the men to drive away. The passenger pushed back hard, still swearing, and the driver leaped out of the car and started running around it. Dad yanked the passenger door wide. As the passenger, off-balance, came forward, Dad threw him to the ground.

I was maybe a hundred feet away and running toward them without the slightest idea what I would do. I can’t remember exactly what happened next. Maybe Dad hit the driver. Maybe he shoved him hard, knocking him down. All I know is by the time I was close, the second man was on the ground, and Dad was yelling at them to stay down and yelling for Mom to call the Ontario Provincial Police.

In some part of his mind, Dad had to be flashing back to something that happened to him thirty-some years before in Germany, just after World War II: two Germans jumped him, and Dad got on top of one, holding him by the neck while the other kicked Dad’s head. Every time the one kicked him, Dad slammed the other’s head against the ground. That ended, I think, with soldiers dragging the fighters apart.

So as the driver tried to rise again, Dad shoved him down again, and yelled at me to make sure the passenger stayed down, too.

That’s probably when Dad saw what I saw. The passenger lay on the ground, unable to get up. His legs were twisted, maybe from birth, maybe from something that happened to him long ago. I can’t remember if there was a cane by the passenger seat or crutches.

The driver was saying something about how they didn’t want trouble, they only wanted some groceries. The passenger was begging for his cane or his crutches.

I’ve never asked Dad about that day. I just remember his face as he saw the crippled man, and the story changed in our heads: the men were drunk, and the car was being driven too quickly, but the yelling was only bravado, a drunk’s sense of entitlement. When the driver came around the car, he wasn’t coming to attack Dad. He was coming to help his crippled friend.

Today, I can’t say anyone is wrong to defend themselves. I believe the spectrum of peace includes those who think like Malcolm X, Gene Autry, and my dad. But I know those who think like Martin Luther King, Thoreau, and Gandhi never have to wonder if they went too far.

NPR reported this afternoon that Barack Obama made a positive impression when he visited the U.S. State Department. Reportedly, Obama was well-received by the State Department staffers who were invited to hear him speak — and further that he lingered to chat with other staffers. The clear implication of the NPR report is that the State Department believes that Obama will be relying more on diplomacy, whereas the Bush administration had placed relatively more importance on military power.

Obama named George Mitchell as a special envoy to move the Middle East peace process forward. At a press conference where he was flanked by Obama and Secetary of State Hillary Clinton, Mitchell said in part:

There is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted, and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings.

If taken out of context, these words could be interpreted as an indictment of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Instead of taking them out of context, I will assert that these words strike me as a clear departure from the Bush administration’s saber-rattling postures and policies. And the BBC Web site said much the same thing:

With Thursday’s announcements, Mr Obama has signalled that American diplomacy is under new management, says the BBC’s Kevin Connolly in Washington.

I’m hoping today’s news represents a new trend for the U.S. — a trend of relying on diplomacy as the primary means for furthering the country’s foreign policy.

“Peace is like bread.  You have to make it every day,”  I’ve often said, riffing off of Ursula K. Le Guin.  Lately, I’ve been saying that peace is bread.  Or bread is peace, anyway.

Think about it.  At the most basic level, carbohydrates help our brains produce serotonin, a chemical that makes us feel calm, cheerful, and capable.  Dare I say peaceful?  Maybe it’s because of this, maybe not, but many major cultures consider “breaking bread” a central tradition.  Breaking bread together enables, and so has come to symbolize, gathering together, sharing life, having things in common.  The word “companions” literally means “those who share bread.”

It’s a bad idea to get too abstract about this.  Sharing bread — or sharing bread as part of a larger meal — isn’t an idea.  You have to do it.   We’ve all heard that families who eat together are more stable,  have better lives together.  Friends, too.

But what about opponents?  I have learned by doing over the years that inviting people into my home for a meal changes our relationship.  If I know that someone in my community is opposed to a project I’m involved in, I invite them over for dinner. We don’t even have to talk about the issue we don’t agree on.  In fact, I usually make sure that we don’t (much), in the interests of having a pleasant meal.  But here’s the thing: I can’t hate someone in quite the same way after I’ve shared a meal with them.  I still may not agree with them, but they aren’t just opponents or obstacles anymore.   They’re on their way to becoming companions.

During the recent U.S. presidential campaign, there were some who expressed outrage because Barak Obama had apparently said that he would “sit down at the table” with anyone, friend or foe.  My immediate reaction was, “I hope he does!”   Of course, I know that the “table” they were referring to is the table of negotiation, the table where people sit opposite one another with piles of paper and positions stacked squarely in front of them.  But what if it were a dinner table?  Not a state dinner for hundreds of guests in formal attire, but a dinner for six or so, where bread and salt are passed back and forth, and at least one person at the table has made at least some of the food being eaten?

Would the hosts and guests of such a meal be forced to agree with one another on policy afterward?  Of course not!  But it’s possible that they wouldn’t be able to think about one another in quite the same way as before.

Of course, I also know that this is a fairy tale of a sort.  World leaders don’t do this sort of thing.  But they could.  More importantly, though, we can.  We can.  So let us.

In response to Steven Gould’s post, On Confirming My Stupidity, Andrea wrote:

This definition of peace has been bothering me for weeks. Just as love sometimes means denying loved ones, and liberty includes the freedom to set limitations, can peace come from actions which initiate strife? What does it look like fully formed, and how do we reconcile ideas of what we’re striving for?

I think this is a very important question.   When somebody puts forth the proposition that war always perpetuates the cycle of violence, someone who puts their faith in war will often respond with an example like that of World War II, which was supposedly a just war.   This example is then used to argue that other wars can also be just wars.   It’s difficult to argue against this example because victory finally ended the holocaust that was going on in the death camps.

But World War II didn’t just happen, for no reason.   There’s not even a lot of controversy over why it happened.   And it’s very clear that the Holocaust was the result of a culture of racism and hate absent which no such atrocities could occur.  So when we talk about these problems solely in terms of what to do once they have occurred, we are ignoring the fact that they were at least theoretically preventable.

There was a wonderful story on NPR last year on the topic of predicting genocides before they happen.   It turns out that they can be anticipated.   What is lacking, then, is not the ability to prevent them, but rather the will to do so.

This is why the idea of a Department of Peace is so important.   For all its faults, the United States is an amazing country.   When we set our minds and hearts on a goal, we find a way to get to it.   But we have never set out to have an explicit goal of proactively preventing wars.   We have never, as a country, made a science or an industry of figuring out what causes war, identifying incipient causes of war, and fixing them before war actually breaks out.

So yes, it’s an interesting academic question whether or not the definition of peace can include some kind of war that leads to peace.   But at this point I don’t think we are qualified to say because, as a culture, we have only ever systematically tried war.

“Perhaps peace is not, after all, something you work for, or ‘fight for.’ It is indeed ‘fighting for peace’ that starts all the wars. What, after all, are the pretexts of all these Cold War crises, but ‘fighting for peace?’ Peace is something you have or do not have. If you are yourself at peace, then there is at least some peace in the world. Then share your peace with everyone, and everyone will be at peace.” —Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

“In the 60s we fought for peace, when the Vietnam war was on. We were against the cops and against the politicians and there was a lot of waving banners and all that. And I think in a way, just as they were enjoying that machoism of war, we were enjoying the machismo of being anti-war, you know? So I thought, not this time, it’s too complicated a situation. We cannot enjoy the machoism of fighting for peace.” —Yoko Ono

“Fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity.” —George Carlin

“Let us face squarely the paradox that the world which goes to war is a world, usually genuinely desiring peace. War is the outcome, not mainly of evil intentions, but on the whole of good intentions which miscarry or are frustrated. It is made not usually by evil men knowing themselves to be wrong, but is the outcome of policies pursued by good men usually passionately convinced that they are right.” —Norman Angell

“Warmaking doesn’t stop warmaking. If it did, our problems would have stopped millennia ago.” —Colman McCarthy

In the name of peace
They waged the wars
Ain’t they got no shame

—Nikki Giovanni

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