Just wars, pacifism and grace

This column was written in response to several angry replies to my first column which appeared on the editorial page of The Standard-Times (New Bedford, MA) October 4, 2001. It was printed on the op ed page of The Standard-Times October 18, 2001.

by Greg Stone

While I could do without some of the personal rancor, I did appreciate the several replies to my comments of Oct. 4. They gave me pause to think long and hard about how I feel and why.

Intelligent, elusive, determined

Mr. Richard C. Connor (Oct. 9) suggests that this whole business ". .. is about dealing with an intelligent, elusive and determined enemy whose one great goal in life is to destroy our society and kill as many of us as possible."

Maybe - but if our enemies are so "intelligent" where did they come by the idea that we have to be destroyed? Shouldn't all the good we do in the world be obvious to them? And why are they so "determined" to carry this out? It is a terrible thing to have someone hate you so much that they want to kill you even if it means sacrificing their own life. If we are going to successfully battle that kind of evil, we need to start asking ourselves hard questions and stop being satisfied with soft answers.

Why haven't the peace-loving folks solved this?

Mr. William C. Westgate (Oct 8) asks "Why is it that with all these peace-loving people we have on this planet, the ones with all the good ideas on how to get all of mankind to get along haven't gotten the job done."

I don't know. I assume he's talking about men like Jesus of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King? Jesus was peace-loving and had a lot of good ideas about how we should love one another, turn the other cheek, and even love our enemies. For the past 2,000 years many people have said they believe in him. Why they ignore his advice is beyond me. Maybe because though simple, it's incredibly hard to follow. We can think of a thousand reasons why in any particular case we don't want to follow it. ( I can't follow it, but I do try.)

"Just War" an oxymoron

Mr. Chris Sullivan (Oct. 9) says: "Sounds like a very late convert to non-violence; probably Sept, 11, 2001."

No, I didn't "convert" then. In fact, I can't imagine any American converting to nonviolence on that date. Who wants to be known as a pacifist when your country is grieving the sordid slaughter of 6,000 innocent people? I think a lot of people who had leanings towards pacifism changed on that day and embraced the concept of a "just war." That's what violence does. It doesn't end at a single event. It feeds on itself.

I first heard the term "just war" from my dad, an Episcopal minister, explaining to me that in the 1930s he was a pacifist until he saw what Hitler was up to in Spain and elsewhere. His lessons stuck with me a long time and I continued to believe in the concept of a "just war" until some time between the Gulf War and now.

But now I believe all war is lunacy. Sure we get maneuvered into tragic situations where there appears to be no other way out. That might have been the case in 1941. I don't believe it is today. War is the ultimate failure of leadership - Republican, Democratic, Communist, or Taliban. Old men and women who wanted power can't use it properly, so many others die, and ghastly failure gets hidden under a stream of bold words and memorial parades.

I didn't willingly - or suddenly - come to that conclusion. I can't remember at any particular moment deciding that I would be a pacifist. Becoming a pacifist was a result of a more profound, gradual, and unsolicited change. It was one of those changes that bubbles to the surface of your consciousness when you're looking the other way, and then won't let you go. Part of the change was rational - a slowly growing conviction that Jesus - and others of a similar mind - were right. You should love people - even your enemies. But I could say that a thousand times without it having any real impact on me or others. That's because there's meaning beyond the ability of words alone to express.

Experiential learning

This meaning emerges as an experience. I don't know where it comes from or how to summon it. I just know it happens and suddenly, for a few precious moments, you have a sense of unity with all living things. At such moments I can see myself as a small part of an endless, magnificent, living universe, and I can value everything in it. It is one of those moments, when, like the Ancient Mariner, you find you can bless all those slimy things on the surface of the sea. I think this is what Christians call "amazing grace." I believe the Navajos arrive at a similar point which they speak of as "harmony." I'm sure other cultures and faiths have related experiences. If sin is separation from God, this is the opposite - a sidewise glimpse at eternity that leaves you in awe.

For me, nonviolence was one of the natural outgrowths of this experience of grace, though I still doubt the depths of my conviction. Faced with an immediate threat to myself or a loved one I think I would do anything, including kill, to prevent them from being harmed. But that's an immediate threat where there are no alternatives and no time to think. Your reptilian brain takes over in such circumstances. Sept. 11 brought into sharp focus a different kind of threat and there are alternatives and there is time to think.

I don't defend the terrorist. I don't make excuses for them. What they did was evil, plain and simple. They should be brought to justice. But they were - and are - human beings and I want to understand how a person comes to do such a thing. I want to know what we can do better so that my grandchildren - any children - do not grow up in a world filled with violence, want, and fear. I don't think we'll accomplish anything of lasting value when our whole focus is on violence, death, and destruction.


An added note about grace that did not appear in the original

About a week after I wrote this, Bren (a psychologist, good friend, and wife) pointed me to a book she's impressed with called "The Man Who Tasted Shapes." It is written by a neurologist with apparently solid credentials and published by the MIT press. Essentially what he says is that several pieces of split-brain research since the 1970s confirms that we can know things that we can't put into words. Here's one key passage:

"Because only humans can speak, we arrogantly assumed for years that language was our highest ability. It turns out that language is only one ability. Not everything we are capable of knowing or doing is accessible to or expressible in language. This means that some of our personal knowledge is off limits even to our own inner thoughts! Perhaps this is why humans are so often at odds with themselves, because there is more going on in our minds than we can ever consciously know.

Richard E. Cytowic, M.D. , "The Man Who Tasted Shapes," p. 17

I find this rather profound in its implications. It - and the rest of the book - could be taken as confirming that what we regard as spiritual experiences are something real taking place in an area of the brain that is inaccessible to the part of our mind that thinks in words. That doesn't mean, of course, that the non-verbal thinking is of a higher (or more fundamental) order than the verbal thinking. It just convincingly removes it somewhat from the imaginary and/or illusionary category.

Comments - email to: gstone@giveyoujoy.net

Last updated October 19, 2001


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Samuel Taylor Coleridge's, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", is one of the best expressions of the experience of grace. Here are some key passage that lead up to the climatic moment, then the moment itself. (To understand the context better, first read the column "Just wars, pacifism, and grace.")

. . .

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

. . .

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I

. . .

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The self same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.