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.
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.
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,"
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
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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.