Yesterday I posted this quote from the British Benedictine Cardinal Basil Hume on my Twitter feed: “It is very difficult to be a praying person and then go and be beastly to your neighbour.”
The response from my friends was interesting. Basically, people said, “It’s a nice idea; too bad it’s not true.” Examples ranging from Oliver Cromwell to Arjuna to Samurai Warriors were offered as evidence that, alas, prayer and abusive or violent behavior are not only not opposed to each other, but often do exist explosively within the same person.
Certainly, any military chaplain will understand the challenge inherent in the spiritual call to love and compassion, balanced against the very real-world reality of engaging in kill-or-be-killed scenarios. One does not ponder the ethical subtleties of “love your enemy” when that enemy has a gun pointed at you and your job is to stop him from shooting.
So is Cardinal Hume just a sweet, naive idealist? I don’t think so. I think the key to unlocking the spirituality & violence paradox lies in theories about human consciousness. Mystical consciousness is the consciousness of “love your neighbor as yourself” and “love your enemy.” But no one stays at any one level of consciousness permanently. Call me a heretic for thinking so, but I believe even the Buddha came down after a while, and the Gospels are pretty candid that Jesus who was radiant with light on Mt. Tabor was of a different mindset than the man who was sweating blood in Gethsemani the night before his execution. So even though true mystical consciousness probably renders a person incapable of doing real violence, that incapacity is tied with the level of consciousness: come down off the mountain, and the mystic is just as capable of violence, or military service, as anyone else. Indeed, to be an effective soldier, one must be capable of a level of consciousness that is comfortable with tribal boundaries: otherwise, how could one be clear about who is friend and who is foe? And once a sense of tribal boundaries are accepted, it is a small step to accepting that the “others” can ethically be killed.
Now, I’m an aging peacenik and I wish that we human beings would grow up already and get over our need to hurt one another. But war has been going on for pretty much all of human history and I’m afraid it’s not going to stop now, even though for the first time in history we mortals have the capacity to commit global suicide. Hopefully, as a species we can continue to take baby steps toward that level of consciousness where being beastly to one another is unthinkable. And I am convinced that a life immersed in prayer can only help us along that way. But we must not be surprised even when a deeply spiritual person commits acts of violence, whether as a rogue criminal or as a disciplined, conscientious soldier. We can be saddened by such things, but we should not be surprised. After all, even Cardinal Hume said it was “very difficult” — but not impossible — to treat one another badly after praying.