Sunday, September 27, 2009
Walking in White
I'm reminded by Code Pink, and recent experiences, that nonviolent actors can use the color of their clothing to demonstrate solidarity and communicate meaning in symbol.
Fernando told me I needed to wear white for the Peace Walk. We were in Monterrey, Mexico for a three day workshop on Gandhian nonviolence. The Walk was the last event of the workshop. Organized by workers at a local plant and supported by the community peace group Mesa de Paz, we were walking about two miles from one city center plaza to another, through the early evening traffic.
All the white clothing I had were my undershirts, so Fernando brought me three shirts from which to choose. Little did I know that when we arrived at the meeting site, white T shirts with appropriate slogans would be passed out to all the participants. I ended up wearing three white shirts in the humid heat.
I've been thinking about the symbolism of peace people wearing white clothing. White is the combination of all colors. We tend to associate white garments with divinity. Angels are always garbed in white, as is the Pope, as are Muslims on pilgrimage. And I began to recall other situations in other settings where white garb was the choice of nonviolent actors.
I remember how moved I was by Joanna Macy's description of the Peace Meditation she attended in Sri Lanka in 2002.
"I arrived at Anuradhapura on the day of the meditation. The sacred site, probably half a mile in diameter, contains several great stupas and the world's most ancient bodhi tree, grown from a cutting taken from the tree that sheltered the Buddha during his enlightenment, brought to Sri Lanka by King Ashoka's daughter, Sakyaditta. When I got there, people were streaming in from all directions. In the tradition of these events, everyone was dressed in white and moving in silence. They had arrived from all over the country on foot and on trains, bicycles, and, according to one person's count, four thousand buses. ...
The meditation ceremony took place at 3 PM. Members of the clergy of all the religions of Sri Lanka were gathered on a platform, and each said a few words. In front of them on a slightly lower stage, surrounded by flowers, was Ari. After the spoken prayers, he began to lead us all in anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing in and breathing out. The silence was the most exquisite sound I've ever heard. It was the sound of a half million people--actually it turned out to be 650,000 people-- being quiet together, in the biggest meditation ever held on planet Earth. I said to myself, "This is the sound of bombs not exploding, of land mines not going off, of machine guns not firing. This is possible." That is what I went to Sri Lanka to hear."
Only this week, I watched the documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell." In it, the women of Liberia organize and act decisively to bring their war torn country back to its senses. The shirts they chose were white, with their organization and values printed on them.
The sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka speaks of a 500 year peace plan. Sometimes it helps to think long term. In the meantime, maybe I need to wear my Peace Walk shirts every day, wherever and whenever I walk.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
When Peace Led the Way
Our story is set in Assam, which, over the last two decades, has
witnessed tremendous unrest, bloodshed, loss of lives and
destruction of property. People know only fear, and uncertainty. They
are never sure, when they leave their homes, whether they will ever
return alive, or not... Our story is about the brave women workers,
belonging to an organization, known as Kasturba Gandhi National
Memorial Trust, of which I happened to be the Secretary, at that time.
These courageous women had been conducting padyatras (foot
march) through all those areas which were infested by violence and
regarded as trouble prone. Bodo, ULFA and other terror groups were active in this area. As they walked
through these areas, they made it a point to talk to the local people, especially to the young, who were the
most likely recruits of different terrorist groups. These groups would often force their way into people’s homes,
and would demand food, and just live there, whether the people wanted them to, or not. The terrified villagers
were too scared to say “NO”, and just gave in to their demands, for fear of a bloody reprisal. In a way, they
were coerced into supporting them, against their wishes. The main problem was that there was no unity
amongst the villagers themselves---another reason why they were easy victims of terrorists.
It was obvious that the task the women activists had taken on themselves, was not an easy one. Their first
priority was to give the villagers a lesson on the importance of unity. This would give them the courage to resist
any opponent. In meetings with groups, big and small, they would stress this. These activists would visit
people’s homes and talk to the families; they would talk to people sitting in small groups, in little shops in the
wayside villages—wherever the people had gathered. They would try to infuse in the villagers the courage to
say “No” if the terrorists tried to force their way into homes. They advised the villagers to go to their neighbours
to seek help, rather than give in. If they were together, the terrorists would find it difficult to threaten them.
I would like to tell you about one particular incident, set in Padampur village of Lakhimpur district, in North
Assam, where a Peace Centre of the Kasturba Trust was functioning. Earlier all the centres of the trust in
Assam were known as Seva (service) kendras but realizing that the work of Peace was of prime importance in
this area, the nomenclature was changed to Peace Centres.
The Centre workers had been going around 12 villages in the area, persuading the people not to buckle down
to terror, but face it boldly. They should not be cowed down by violence and bloodshed. The women workers
gave a call for a Peace rally or a “Rally against Violence” in which women from all the 12 villages had agreed
to join. One of these workers, Kunj Baruah, who was also the Chief worker of this centre, was busy preparing
for this rally. Other sisters were helping to prepare placards and banners. The rally was to start at 10 am.
Suddenly, a little boy came running and informed the worker, “Baidev” (sister), someone is calling you. She
asked him who it was, and as the little boy took his name she recognized him at once, as he used to attend the
balwadi run by the Centre, when he was small. She replied that she would take a little time and would come
after finishing her work. But the boy came back and said, “He is calling you now. Please come immediately”.
So, she followed the little boy. He led her to a dark room, where she found the young man, dressed in “filmy”
style, wearing dark glasses, along with another young man. Both were sitting on two chairs, they had an
“attitude” about them. Placed before them was a table, on which various kinds of guns and pistols were laid
out. She realized at once that this was a terrorist outfit.
“Why do you want to take out a Rally against Violence?” he asked. “I want you to stop it at once. I believe in
violence, and work for it!” he added
“It is not my decision alone…..the women of 12 villages around have decided to take out the rally. I have no
right to stop it….” she replied.”And I do not want to stop it because I believe in nonviolence,” she countered
“Do you realize what the consequences could be?” he said threateningly. Immediately, another young man
stepped out of the shadows, picked up two guns, and placed them on her two shoulders, on either side of her
head. However she did not lose faith or courage.”Kill me if you wish, but I will not stop the rally.” Her voice was
firm, but had love and compassion in it.
The young man who had called her said, “I have no wish to kill you…but at least you can take our message to
the village women and tell them that we do not want you to go ahead with the rally against our wishes...”
She replied calmly,” I work for peace and nonviolence. This is a peace rally, and I will not stop it simply
because you tell me to…….but I can certainly take your message to the village women, and tell them that you
do not wish that we go ahead, and then see what they have to say. I know they would not stop the rally.”
The women started the rally at the scheduled time, carrying placards and banners with messages of peace, of
nonviolence. It was a spectacular sight…..all women, walking in silence, peacefully, through the streets. There
were no speeches. The rally ended with Sarva Dharma Prarthana (all religions prayer). No one dared to
obstruct or prevent it from passing. There were no disruptions of any kind.
Later, one evening, the young man along with one or two others came to see her and said, “baidev,(sister) we
really admire your courage and strength. Despite all our threats, you stuck to your decision.”
Again she replied calmly, “Ours is the power of Nonviolence; yours is the power of violence. If you will follow the
path of nonviolence, you too will gain the strength and courage that we have, my friend!”
Kunj Baruah was asked by her seniors in the Trust to leave the centre in the village, and the area in general,
as there was a danger to her life. But she decided to stay on and continue her work of helping and serving the
people while spreading the message of nonviolence and peace, side by side. She continued to persuade the
young people, especially young boys, not to join or help the terrorists. It was a slow process, but it worked.
Gradually, the area became more and more peaceful and the young men of the area also changed their minds
and activities because they were impressed by the power of nonviolence.
First Published in SAPA (South Asia Peace Alliance) Bulletin, August 2009
Sunday, September 20, 2009
The Law of Our Being
"Are human beings basically violent or nonviolent?" This was the question my friend M.P. Mathai and I encountered again and again as we spoke with various audiences in Monterrey, Mexico. We had been invited to come for a three day workshop on Gandhian nonviolence by Mesa de Paz. But since we were there together for ten days, they kept us busy with speaking engagements: 3 TV interviews; 2 radio interviews; a women's organization working against family violence and human trafficking; incarcerated adolescents; four university audiences including a couple hundred psychology students; two high school audiences, one of several hundred young people; and church groups. Almost without fail, in every setting, the question arose. "Are we basically violent or nonviolent?"
By the mid point of our visit we had developed a standard three point response. First, I spoke about my own appreciation for the creation story in the Jewish/Christian tradition, where God gives human beings the "breath of life." In nonviolence training, I focus on breath. In fight/flight situations, the breath of life is what enables us to relax the body, clear the mind and envision unexpected responses. We have this energy of divinity in us. The creation story also says we were made in the "image of God." For me, these dimensions of divinity in our origins suggest we are fundamentally nonviolent, whereas our problem with violence comes later, perhaps in the Garden of Eden.
Then Mathai would ask the questioner a series of questions. "In what environment are you most at home and happy; one that is violent or nonviolent? In what environment, violent or nonviolent, is the human being most at home and happy? In what environment, violent or nonviolent, is the human person most able to exercise development and creativity?" In every instance, the questioner answered "nonviolent."
Finally, one of us would reflect on Gandhi's response to this question. Of course, we all have both violence and nonviolence inside of us. But Gandhi contended that nonviolence was the law of our being. He called our attention to all of those conflicts and disputes that arise daily in families and communities all over the globe that are settled peaceably, without violence. The aberrations, the conflicts that break out into open violence, are the ones that make the news. There is nothing new in the settlement of conflicts nonviolently. It happens all the time.
The human challenge is to cultivate the basic nonviolence in our being. It can be nurtured and tended, trained and developed. Violence can be identified, named and crowded out. Self assessment can help with both. Gandhi suggested a journal to his young grandson for keeping track of his anger. M.L. King suggested we count our times of violence/nonviolence at the end of the day the same way we count our money. We need some way of tracking our spiritual health just like we watch our physical health.
In the end, I believe Matthew Fox is right. He claims the original word in the beginning is not "sin," but "blessing." I agree. And God said, "It is good! It is good! It is good!"
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Grief and Violence
As a grief counselor, I find myself often describing the four primary emotions of grief as sadness, anger, fear and regret or guilt. These primary emotions and their many variations are the emotional landscape of grief. And grief is what humans experience after any significant loss, whether death is involved or not.
See for yourself: recall a recent experience of any of those four emotions and see if the feeling isn’t in response to one kind of loss or another. Remember that loss is not only death related but is almost always a part of the experience of change, e.g., a child leaves home for school or marriage, a job is lost or changes, an illness comes upon us unexpectedly, etc. Loss also involves immaterial things, like hopes and dreams. How often is “mid-life crisis” the experience of the loss, i.e., the lack of realization, of the hopes and dreams we had about who we would become and how we would bring about changes in the world? Yes, change and the loss that accompanies it, and the grief that comes in response to it are common threads of our everyday experience.
These threads are, unfortunately, intimately connected to a great deal of the violence that exists in the world. Too often when afraid, we react with some form of violence to protect ourselves. Too often when angry, we react violently to avenge what we’ve lost or to throw off the conditions that have been imposed. And too often these violent reactions substitute for allowing ourselves to feel the sadness and the pain of the loss.
Men are particularly susceptible to this pattern due to the USA dominant cultural conditioning that encourages males to be angry rather than sad and to express their anger aggressively. We needn’t look far to see countless examples of fearful and/or angry men inflicting harm in an attempt to right a situation in which they feel they have been wronged. There is often a felt obligation “to do something” (where inaction is perceived as weakness), fueled by the energy of anger, and shaped by judgments clouded by the intensity of the emotion itself.
One possible way out of this cycle is to develop the skills and nurture the intention required to feel the emotions and cultivate a caring and kind relationship with them. This requires the ability to be with what is unpleasant and even painful, and to consider that it is not harmful or a sign that there is something wrong, but is, rather, an intimate part of a process that is healing and beneficial, e.g., the pain that occurs during physical therapy, the pain of childbirth, the emotional pain of grief, etc. This does not mean that the circumstances that brought about the loss, e.g., losing one’s job without just cause, the death of a family member or friend in an auto accident involving someone driving while intoxicated, etc., are not wrong, only that there is nothing wrong with you because you are feeling the pain of your grief.
This does not mean that one does not address the wrongful conditions that have caused the loss, but only that one cultivates the intention to be careful that their judgment when considering different responses not be clouded by the intensity of the emotion. This may require postponing a response until the intensity of the emotions have subsided enough that one can make a truly wise judgment, one that chooses the course of action that is most beneficial and least harmful.
There are countless causes and conditions that lead to violent speech and action. One cause is the inability of many of us to relate to and embrace our grief in its fullness, including the sadness and pain that often lie just beneath the surface of our anger. Creating physical and emotional places of safety where we can explore the full range of our emotional response to the changes and losses in our lives is a part of the daily work of nonviolent living.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Mightier Than a Sword
“I have been given a piece of information I didn’t want or need. It is tearing me apart. I can’t share it with anyone and it will destroy my friendship with the person who told me and with the person it is about.” My friend sat behind the driver’s wheel of her car, weeping uncontrollably. I realized I was watching the drama of the effects of lashon hara (evil tongue – derogatory or defaming speech) unfolding in front of me. The interaction between me and my friend was timely. I had been reading about gossip in Rabbi David Cooper’s book, GOD IS A VERB. Gossip is subtle and dangerous. A word misused can destroy a person’s reputation in seconds; it can ruin a life. A word planted in someone’s mind can poison a relationship forever.
Because derogatory speech is such a common fact of life in contemporary society, we hardly recognize when we are engaging in it. It ranges from the simple “he said, and then she said….” at the water cooler to the excessive and damaging discourse that follows politicians, entertainers, policy makers and others in the public domain. In the guise of “information” lashon hara assassinates character, destroys relationships, kills policy before it can ever see the light of day. Alan Morinis, in EVERYDAY HOLINESS, writes that “…speech is judged more powerful than the sword because a physical weapon can injure only those in proximity, while speech can kill at a distance. Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
As I watch my friend suffer, I see the effect of the violence that spins out from a casual, unskillful act of imparting damaging commentary about one person to another person. This kind of violence strikes very close to home and no one is impervious to it. My friend’s suffering challenges me to a greater mindfulness about the ways in which I exercise my tongue. But as I read further, it is not only my tongue that needs guarding. The rabbinic tradition teaches that I am not even to listen to gossip. Even to listen is to allow damage to occur whether I pass on the words or not. If I can summon the courage to tell the other person that I do not wish to hear the gossip she is ready to share, I can stop the violence right there. So – guarding my ears is as crucial as guarding my tongue.
Learning about the nature of lashon hara makes watching or listening to the daily news a challenge of epic proportions. Innuendo, fear-mongering, half truths and blatant negative mis-information are powerful forms of lashon hara.
Maimonides warned that wrong speech is a transgression that is the equivalent of murder, but more heinous because it kills three people: the one who said it, the one who heard it, and the one about whom it was said. Absorbing this wisdom leaves me feeling challenged to a greater mindfulness as I listen to the “news” - - to a greater level of discernment in order to see what is actually important information and what is really lashon hara at work. I am convinced that somewhere in the process of guarding ears and tongue, there is wisdom to be found that will lead me to less participation in the violence of the unbridled tongue.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
The Mystery Lily
I glanced east across the yard
And there to my surprise
There was a mystery lily
From bare ground it did arise.
How can one day there be nothing
The next, this gorgeous flower
Indeed a magic wonder
And proof of higher power.
It reminded me of friendships
Whose leaves have died away,
But at times when least expected
When old pains have resurrected
Friends emerge from nowhere to make my day.
Ah! Wondrous flower
Ah! Friends divine
You grace my life and give me hope
In ways beyond define.
Monday, September 7, 2009
Personal Renewal and Renewal of the Land
There is a certain peace of mind that comes with summer. Life slows down some, allowing moments of pause in which to reflect and renew. Whether in a garden, on a trail, or in a hammock, there is more time to think about life and the way of our living it. It shouldn’t need to wait for summer, or for the Sabbath in the gift of its weekly pause. While summer is unique from other seasons in the social structuring of summer-time, as the Sabbath is from other days in its hallowing of time, our wellbeing requires moments of pause at all times and seasons. Pausing in the course of doing to consider the impact of our ways on others and ourselves, fosters a healthy ecology, environmental and human.
One of the more theologically challenging passages of the Torah that is read during these weeks of summer and that finds its way into the Jewish prayerbook is Deuteronomy 11:13-21, beginning with the words, If you will listen, really listen to My commandments. It is said in prayer following the affirmation of God’s oneness with the Sh’ma (Deut. 6:4). Its “if-then” dynamic often read, I would say simplistically, as a teaching of reward and punishment, this passage is much deeper than that, offering God’s warning for the natural consequence of human behavior. If you will listen, really listen to My commandments…, then I will give the rain of your land in its season—the early rain and the late rain—so that you may gather in your grain, your new wine and your oil, and I will give you herbage on your field for your livestock; and you will eat and be satisfied.
In the saying of the Sh’ma, a Jew is meant to serve as witness to God’s oneness, Hear, O Israel, God our God, God is One, and to the consequent oneness of humanity created as one in God’s unique image. In the passage beginning If you will listen, really listen…, we are then called to affirm that oneness in all that we do, in our relationships with people and with the earth. If we really listen, if we are really cognizant of God’s hope and of the earth’s needs, then the rain will fall and fructify the land to give of her bounty. In the “if-then” equation, the consequence, of course, of not really listening is that the earth shall not give of her bounty: God will hold back the heaven, and there will be no rain, and the soil will not yield its produce, and you will quickly vanish from the good land that God is giving you.
After we are told that we will eat and be satisfied, we are warned not to give in to enticement, not to turn aside and serve other gods. Just a little bit earlier in Deuteronomy (8:10) we are told, and you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless. We turn aside to other gods, gods of consumption and appetite, when we consume the gifts of earth without gratitude, without pausing to bless and consider their Source. Without pausing to reflect on the consequence of actions, and on our own being and place in the web of creation, we bring harm to the land and to others and to ourselves. Gratification rather than gratitude drives a culture of consumption that lays waste to forests, poisons earth, water and air, and brings a dangerous fever to the fragile ecosystem that sustains all life. In the personal ecology of our lives and relationships, appetites destroy what is most precious. More innocently, surrendering to life’s very real pressures without pause for love and joy, for renewal and reflection, causes meaning and purpose to quickly vanish.
In Chassidic teaching, the foreboding words and you will quickly vanish are turned into a their own corrective. The Baal Shem Tov taught: a person needs to always be of peaceful mind, and not in a state of haste, and so should the words be understood “and you will quickly vanish”—one needs to cause haste and hurriedness to vanish. Engaged with the needs of the world and in the living of our lives, it is not likely to always know peace of mind. Creating time and space in which to slow down, to banish haste if but for a while in every season and in each day, we can find the peace of mind that comes more easily with summer-time and Sabbath-time.
Rabbi Victor Reinstein
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Farewell to a Big-Hearted Rascal
I am not a Catholic. But my faith runs deep. And as I struggled to listen to the senator's funeral mass last Saturday morning, driving down the highway with my family on an out-of-state trip, trying desperately to distinguish the words of the speakers from the static on the lone radio station carrying the service, tears welled in my eyes. Tears of sadness, yes, but also of renewal. For in reflecting on this man's life, I felt my spirit enlarged, re-inspired.
The work to which Teddy Kennedy devoted his life wasn't his alone. I recognize it also as my own, undertaken in my own way, as it has always been undertaken, and will ever be, by all who believe in the dignity and worth of every human being; by all who seek to lessen the violence that we human beings perpetrate against one another, in more forms than can be counted. The work belongs to us all.
In tribute to that work, and to Teddy Kennedy's part in it, I want to share with you the "Prayer of the Faithful" from his funeral mass. It was just as this series of blessings began, offered up in Teddy's own words by some of his nieces, nephews and grandchildren, that the radio in our car went to full static. Voices unrecoverable. Reluctantly I switched the sound off. Entered silence. Though I suspected that I'd eventually be able to find the video of the prayer, or to read its transcript, I was still disappointed. I wanted to pray in that moment with the people, and for the people. All the people. Even those who spoke ill of the dead.
As a person of faith who is committed to living as nonviolently as possible, I vow always to live this prayer as best I can, despite all my frailties, and perhaps even more, because of them.
Deep peace on the running wave to you, Edward Moore Kennedy, you big-hearted rascal.
KATHERINE "KIKI" KENNEDY: Now we pray to the Lord. Not only for Teddy, but for all of us he leaves behind. Among his brothers and sisters, he was the youngest. So now his grandchildren, his younger nieces and nephews, and the youngest child of one of his nieces will offer the intercessions. Each time, please respond, 'Lord, hear our prayer.'
Teddy served for 47 years, and he summoned us all to service. And so these intercessions are in his words, for the work of his life is our prayer for our country and our world.
KILEY KENNEDY, granddaughter: For my grandfather's commitment and persistence, not to outworn values, but to old values that will never wear out. That the poor may be out of political fashion, but they are never without human need. That circumstances may change, but the work of compassion must continue. We pray to the Lord.
RESPONSE: Lord, hear our prayer.
GRACE ALLEN, granddaughter: For my grandpa's summons, that we will not in our nation measure human beings by what they cannot do, but instead value them for what they can do. We pray to the Lord.
RESPONSE: Lord, hear our prayer.
MAX ALLEN, grandson: For what my grandpa called the cause of his life, as he said so often, in every part of this land, that every American will have decent quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege. We pray to the Lord.
RESPONSE: Lord, hear our prayer.
JAKE SCHLOSSBERG, nephew: For a new season of hope that my Uncle Teddy envisioned where we rise to our best ideals, and close the book on the old politics of race and gender, group against group, and straight against gay. We pray to the Lord.
RESPONSE: Lord, hear our prayer.
ROBIN LAWFORD, niece: For my Uncle Teddy's call to keep the promise that all men and women who live here, even strangers and newcomers, can rise no matter what their color, no matter what their place of birth. For workers out of work, students without tuition for college, and families without the chance to own a home. For all Americans seeking a better life in a better land, for all those left out or left behind, we pray to the Lord.
RESPONSE: Lord, hear our prayer.
KIM SMITH, niece: For my uncle's stand against violence, hate, and war, and his belief that peace can be kept through the triumph of justice and the truest justice can come only through the works of peace. We pray to the Lord.
RESPONSE: Lord, hear our prayer.
ANTHONY SHRIVER, nephew: As my Uncle Teddy once told thousands and millions, 'May it be said of us, in dark passages and bright days, in the words of Tennyson, that my brothers quoted and loved, that have a special meaning for us now: I am part of all that I have met. Though much is taken, much abides; that which we are, we are; one equal temper of heroic hearts, strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.' We pray to the Lord.
RESPONSE: Lord, hear our prayer.
RORY KENNEDY, niece: For the joy of my Uncle Teddy's laughter, the light of his presence, his rare and noble contributions to the human spirit. For his faith that in heaven his father and mother, his brothers and sisters, and all who went before him, will welcome him home. And for all the times to come, when the rest of us will think of him, cuddling affectionately on the boat, surrounded by family as we sailed in the Nantucket Sound. We pray to the Lord.
RESPONSE: Lord, hear our prayer.
TEDDY KENNEDY II, grandson: For my grandfather's brave promise last summer that the work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on. We pray to the Lord.
RESPONSE: Lord, hear our prayer.