CLOUDS OF WITNESSES: A Memorial Day Reflection on the Nonviolent Way


A Memorial Day Meditation on the Nonviolent Way

James Ishmael Ford

26 May 2013

Bell Street Chapel
Providence, Rhode Island


No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

John Donne

Many years ago I found myself in a camper taking six kids up to Big Bear, in Southern California’s mountains. As we drove into the campsite, the first thing I noticed near the entrance was a large bear trap. I thought, oh, maybe that’s why it’s called “big bear.” As we continued in I noticed the trashcans were all full to overflowing. I began to feel anxious. Fortunately, as we drove around I saw no open sites. I explained to the kids that there was no place to stay and we would have to go down the mountain some to find a place to pitch our tent. They were very disappointed. I wasn’t.

Then, just as I was ready to pull out a man ran up and said, “Mister, mister, if you want a site, we’re leaving.” So, for reasons I no longer recall, we took that site and set up our tent. Sometime in the middle of that night I heard a crash. It seemed to come from the direction of the nearest trashcan. I said to myself, “a dog.” Then there was another crash. I sighed, got up and crawled over to the tent entrance, my flashlight in hand, but turned off, and gently opened the flap. I looked in the direction of the trashcans.

Two bright eyes glowed in the dark, staring right into the heart of my nightmares. I felt a lump in my throat.

Apparently this isn’t a completely uncommon experience. A couple of years ago my old friend, the Zen priest Dosho Port was camping with his kids, then ten and thirteen, at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of the Lake Superior National Forest in Minnesota. Dosho tells how “One night I awoke to what sounded like a bear near the campsite. Incredible adrenaline surged through me, and all I could think about was that I had to protect my kids. Fight to the death, even, of me or the bear.”

I know exactly what he meant. There’s the sole grownup, the one with the responsibility, and danger presents. In truth, in life, there are always situations that call for someone to step up to the plate, and here, in this moment, who that was, was easy to see.

In his case, as Dosho tells us, “The snap-crackle-pop gradually disappeared…” He then adds he couldn’t really be sure whether it was a bear, at all. In fact, he suggests, who knows, “it may well have been a chipmunk.” For me, not so much. I turned on the flashlight, casting the beam at the two glowing eyeballs. It was a bear. Even scared out of my mind I could tell it wasn’t very big for a bear. In retrospect, probably an adolescent brown bear. Without a conscious thought, in the rush of adrenaline, I gave the loudest “Shoooo” I could. It tumbled over backwards, and hopped away like a bunny rabbit, a very, very big bunny rabbit.

Dosho reflected on his bear moment, and how it struck him, “this is the root of a lot of wars. Guys getting convinced that a bear is out there and it is our role to kill it.” Then he asks what I consider one of the most difficult questions. “I wonder if we are hardwired for this kind of response.” I look into my own heart, and my own bear moment, and I have a hard time arguing with that question. Today in the middle of our American Memorial Day weekend, I feel a deep need to reflect, not on bears, interesting metaphor for danger that they provide, but also directly on war and peace and through that reflection to consider where we, you and I, as religious liberals, might best give our attention to this profound matter of human existence, of our hard wiring, and our larger obligations.

In my opinion a really good guide for such a reflection comes to us from the Unitarian Universalist theologian Paul Rasor, author of the seminal study “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Toward a Unitarian Universalist Theology of Prophetic Nonviolence.”

I find as someone living in this world starting as it is, not how I would rather it was, I think about those bears and I believe we are compelled to think about violence and a propensity to violence as a fact on the ground. Acknowledging that we can address a number of questions. Is this propensity to violence ever justified in practice, and if so, under what circumstances and with what limits? This is a question for us as individuals. And beyond our individual actions, what about the social nets within which we exist? While we may be, and I hope we are, evolving toward a world community; for now we live in webs of nation-states, often in conflict, as well as among independent actors, such as religiously driven groups and multinational corporations, all with contending goals.

In some hypothetical, although I think genuinely possible, last analysis I believe war will end when we as human beings belong to a single world community, owning how our lives and fortunes on this small planet spinning around a middling star at the edge of one among uncountable galaxies, are indeed one. We are radically interdependent, and ultimately we need to see this and act from this. Until that glorious time, however, we have real situations of conflict, of contending goals, that involve violence and war. And we must make our ethical, our moral decisions based in reality, the realities we actually live with.

The question is how do we deal with these circumstances, the hard facts of our lives? We live in a world where war is a fact. How do we face this, informed by our liberal religious intuition of a profound interdependence mitigated by the realities of nation-states and religious/cultural/political/economic forces with contending and frequently incompatible values and goals?

Whatever else we might think, I’m going to assert as one of those facts on the ground that war is an evil, and the question is, if we can’t completely prevent it, which seems to me a unavoidable assumption in a divided world, how, today, given our circumstances, do we limit it? With that, my points of concern for our brief time here are pacifism and just war theories, and from that reflection a call to a particular witnessing.

In his study Paul gives a thumbnail of the history of just war thinking. “While the idea of limited war appeared in many ancient cultures, the just war theory as we know it today emerged in the Catholic tradition during the fourth century CE in the wake of Christianity’s establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire.”

Citing the historian and ethicist David Gushee, Paul Rasor parses out two kinds of just war theory. There’s a “hard” one that without much effort pretty much justifies anything the state calls for. Here I think of former president George Bush’s justifications launching two wars in the Middle East as the result of the attacks on 9/11.

And, there’s a “soft” or as Paul prefers, a vastly more “restrictive” model, which allows reluctantly for very limited engagement focused on self-defense. I think we see what that is meant to look like in president Barack Obama’s 2009 Nobel speech as well as his recent address on counterterrorism and the use of drones. I think in president Obama’s administration we see how difficult it is to hold to that more restrictive view. Nation states seem inevitably to drift toward more maximal justification for violent responses to threats.

The alternative, of course, to just war thought is pacifism. Pacifism is actually rather hard to define beyond being a philosophical or religious opposition to war. One scholar suggests there are at least twenty-nine different models of pacifism. Here I will just hold that number up as a placeholder for the complexity of the position.

I’ve looked into my own heart, I’ve reflected upon the predator’s incisors in my mouth and the predator’s forward looking eyes in my head, I’ve held in my heart all the violent thoughts that have ever coursed through my body, blood hot. I think of bears. With my friend Dosho, from personal experience I know that I am ready for that bear.

And with every particle of my being, I know my actions count, everything I do is a pebble thrown into a pool, with ripples, cascades of consequence. There is no way to avoid consequences to any action.

So, for me the dilemma of a hard pacifism is that it doesn’t adequately address the realities on the ground. I recall a pacifist friend when challenged as to what would he do if someone were attacking his wife, to say, he would stand between his spouse and the perpetrator. I found that totally inadequate. In this hypothetical he gives his life to buy seconds, and, ultimately, nothing more. I just cannot accept non-resistance to evil. If someone attacks my wife, I’m going to do what I can to stop it. And, I recall that bear, and I know I would try to kill that person.

I, like most of us, live within a net of obligation and responsibility. If we follow a householder way, a life with vows of commitment to others, I feel we’re called to a path of mindful engagement, one that acknowledges our human propensity to look for bears, and the harsh reality of bears, but which also heartfully takes us toward our larger intuition of interdependence and its ethics of care and justice.

There is a larger way, that acknowledges connections and obligations, and moves us in deeper ways of care and love.

I feel a need to be a citizen in today’s nation-state, and as we evolve, of the world. And that demands not standing aside, even when it means dirtying my hands, or worse. But, this needs to be done mindfully, gently as possible, with love for all. After all, if we really are all bound up together, if in a very real last analysis we are all one, one family, well, how does that affect our actions? This path I suggest we need to follow might best be called the nonviolent way. It is as Paul suggests, a leap beyond both pacifism and just war thought.

This is a call to a realistic encounter, and a realitistic stance, not of pacifism, but of nonviolence. A subtle, but I feel, a critical difference.

Speaking as a Unitarian Universalist, Paul points out how “This is only a small step from where we have stood over time. But, this conscious move allows us the greatest opportunity to be of use in this world.” Historically, he reminds us, “Unitarian Universalism has never been a peace church, but we have always affirmed peace as among our most basic values and for two centuries pacifists have found a home in our congregations. We have always been involved in work to create the kinds of just communities out of which peace emerges, and we have long supported the use of nonviolent methods of conflict resolution at all levels, including conflict among nations.
“This is the legacy we share with the traditions of nonviolence and pacifism.” But, we offer something more, as well. “Unitarian Universalism has (also) always been an engaged religion, one that is involved in the world and that tries to make a difference in the world. An important dimension of this involvement is our tradition of speaking prophetically – of bringing reasoned judgment and critique to bear on the social conditions that generate injustice and violence.” This is the nonviolent way in practice. It isn’t pacifist, but it comes really close. And I think it really is what we offer to our country, and to the world.

So, what does it look like? One very small but practical way, I feel, is that we need to honor those who step forward and take on the terrible responsibility of serving in our country’s armed forces. On this Memorial Day weekend we should pause and remember it isn’t all about barbecue. Young women and men put their lives on the line on behalf of the larger community. We need to honor them, and we need to not forget them, particularly those hurt physically and psychically in those conflicts.

And, I think we need to hold our leaders accountable for how they use those young men and women. Our goal must be, always, a world without war, which is that constant call to world community, to a larger perspective. And while we achingly slowly evolve toward that goal, and while on that way some acts of violence are to my mind unavoidable, we need to hold our governments to limited actions, clearly defensive, whoever is the leader of the government.

We’ve heard our president articulate a pretty good just war model. And we’ve seen despite what seems to me the most self-reflective presidency in modern history, how easily he’s been drawn into pushing the boundaries, the limits of violent engagement.

Our task is to call him back, to call our governments back, to hold us to a better way.

Our voice is a prophetic one, calling us from where we are, to what we can be.

It is a healing way.

It is the nonviolent way.


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