PLUNGING INTO THE UNKNOWN How to be a Peacemaker in a World Torn by Strife

PLUNGING INTO THE UNKNOWN How to be a Peacemaker in a World Torn by Strife September 22, 2013

How to be a Peacemaker in a World Torn by Strife

22 September 2013

James Ishmael Ford
Senior Minister
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island

A Brief Meditation

In the King James’ version of the Gospel According to Matthew we are told, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” In more modern translations the text is rendered more literally from the original Greek, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.” The earlier translators were afraid that calling peacemakers sons of God, one of the titles Christians give to Jesus alone, might suggest peacemakers as the very saviors of the world.

You may recall the scene. Like most of us on the great stage of history, they were standing pretty far back from the mount. And so when the man spoke from all that distance away, they really weren’t quite sure what they heard. One of the crowd says to the others back there at the far end, near where I often find myself, perhaps you, as well? “I think it was, ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers!’” Gregory’s wife asks the obvious, “What’s so special about the cheesemakers?” Her husband replies, “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.” I wasn’t really sure I liked the Life of Brian when it first screened. But, I notice how many of the scenes have stayed with me over the years, and how often they arise as pointers, sometimes in the most unlikely places.

Yesterday, at the annual peace walk, Ginny asked me to give the instructions for where we might tuck our minds as we embarked on that lovely walk along the way at India Point park. It was windy. And the sound system really wasn’t up to the task. I used my outdoor voice, but I wasn’t sure what was heard. What I wanted to share was how we tend to make the pursuit of peace something other than what it is, maybe not confusing it utterly as, say, cheese, but so easily making it something just a little beyond us, somewhere out there in the great beyond.

Today with a bit better sound system, I want to talk, once again, of peace. I find myself thinking of a couple of stories. I hope they take us from a consideration of those manufacturers of dairy products, or other misunderstandings, and toward something even more useful and important than some fine aged sharp cheddar.

I think in fact, as we consider peace and peacemaking, we are dancing very near the heart of our very meaning and purpose in life.

From time to time throughout history there have been interfaith gatherings, usually called by some monarch or other to hear the contending views of his subjects, with the intent of declaring one of them the one and true. In fact our own Hungarian speaking Unitarians claimed their place within the family of Transylvanian religions in just such a gathering when Francis David won just such a debate, with an additional and I find delightful twist of wresting from the king a peculiarly Unitarian edict, where rather than becoming the state religion, the king declared there would be no state religion and instead called for, if not complete, broad religious tolerance. The 1568 Edict of Toleration would become a signal marker on the road toward genuine religious freedom.

The most significant of these gatherings in modern times, however, was not called by a potentate, but rather by religious representatives. A number of clergy, representing for the most part American Protestant traditions thought a gathering of the world’s religions could be an important part of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. I feel there was, as a tip of the hat to the older gatherings, an assumption on the part of many of the organizers, including Unitarians and Universalists, that this exposition would show the superiority of their particular sects. In fact, the show was stolen by a Hindu. The great Swami Vivekananda turned out to be a compelling platform speaker, totally surprising the organizers. Among other significant figures the Japanese abbot Soyen Shaku would make the first formal presentation of Zen teachings on American soil. Whatever was in the hearts of the organizers at first, what we got was the dawn of genuine interreligious dialogue.

A hundred years later, to much less press, a second parliament gathered in Chicago. The highlight for many was an address by the Dalai Lama. For me the most important thing to come out of that gathering was a document, “Towards a Global Ethic.” The principal author was the Roman Catholic priest and scholar Hans Kung. A controversial figure within his church, I once heard Kung described as the Catholic Church’s finest Lutheran theologian, he is nonetheless considered one of the ecumenical Christian community’s finest minds.

The document declares there are “four broad, ancient guidelines for human behavior which are found in most of the religions of the world,” which it listed as “irrevocable directives” for those who would find peace for the planet.

The document was signed by two hundred religious leaders representing, if not officially, pretty much all the world’s religions, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Taoists, Jains, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Baha’i, Native Americans and other earth-centered traditions. The Dalai Lama signed it, as did the Reverend Dr Robert Traer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in the United Kingdom, and, I’m delighted to note, my old mentor the Buddhist scholar Professor Masao Abe.

These irrevocable directives were, I should say, are 1) a commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life 2) a commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order 3) a commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness 4) a commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.

I’m deeply moved by this analysis, which I think cuts through the fog of the conservative part of religions, that part which is meant to sustain and transmit a particular culture, defining inside and outside, us and them, and, which is so often the part of religion which is used as a club to beat people into conformity. And, instead, really, really succeeds at pointing to the radical heart of pretty much all religions, that part which opens us to the finest of what it means to be human.

The first of the directives, the first grand intuition of our deep humanity, is that in spite of our natural proclivities to violence, there is a better way. The second tells us we genuinely are responsible for each other, and how we live needs to take that deep truth into account. The third points to our need for broad tolerance, which is found within our commitment to genuine honesty with our selves and with each other. And, finally, that fourth, so buried in so many religions, but implicit at their heart, that women and men need each other, and can only heal from the wounds of life when we see we are all in it together as equals. I would add that the issues of sexual minorities are bound up with this last assertion, inevitably, inextricably.

Here, I think, we find something terribly important being held up, a life of authenticity and truth, and a way of healing for hearts and a world torn by strife.

For me there’s a next step that takes this document and its four irrevocables from ink on paper and into our actual lives. There is a Japanese saying, gyogaku funi, which means “practice and study are not two.” We’re invited by life itself into our own, your own, my own life. But how do we avoid confusing peace for cheese? There are so many false steps we can take. And the stakes are never higher. The hope of the world hangs in the balance.

Here I find myself thinking of Bernie Glassman. Bernie is one of those characters that step on the scene, and after they pass through, everything is a bit different. He originally was meant to be a rocket scientist, earning a PhD in applied mathematics from UCLA. And he did some of that rocket work. But while at grad school he met the Japanese Zen missionary Taizan Maezumi, and would eventually become the Zen master’s first American Dharma successor. Bernie would go on to have an unconventional Zen career, first as a pretty conventional Zen priest and teacher, but then dropping the priest part, then putting on a clown nose, literally going to clown school, and calling on people to lighten up a bit.

And then on to various social justice oriented projects, the biggest at first something that would come to be called Greystone Foundation, a Zen center, evolving to these days being mostly a social service agency focused on the needs of the homeless and hungry. A small aside: My sense is that if you have money you should steer clear of Bernie, because he has an uncommon gift for separating you from it, which he then spends on various do good projects. He also seems to have trouble staying on track and has moved on a number of times, usually leaving competent folk behind to carry on, although I’m not sure always. Again, one of those bigger than life kinds of people, brilliant, and more than a little chaotic, as a spiritual practitioner and peacemaker, he’s thrown a lot of stuff against the wall to see what sticks.

For me the important thing that did stick, and the point for bringing him up, is that he and his then spouse Sandra Jishu Holmes took those four irrevocable directives from the world parliament to heart and created what is now called the Zen Peacemakers. He reframed the directives as four commitments. And they’ve caught on. I would say more people are unaware the commitments come from Chicago, and instead think they came from Bernie’s fruitful heart. Did I mention he’s a salesman? My own Zen community, which has no connection to him and his, has incorporated these commitments into the vows we take when we undergo a formal commitment to a spiritual life. As have others. I tend to think of them as the unspoken commitments we all take when we sign the book as members of this old church.

As the leader says in the ceremony for our Zen community, “The wheel of the Dharma turns and turns. Each generation manifests the great way. Today we commit ourselves to the way of awakening manifesting as peacemakers in a world torn by strife.” It’s time to step up to the plate. It’s time to do things. Maybe, as you grow into your spiritual life, maybe as you become one with this three hundred year old community at the corner of Benefit and Benevolent, it is time for you, as well?

Then, in the ceremony, the new initiate on the way responds together with all those who’ve made the commitment before, “I commit myself to a culture of nonviolence and reverence for life; I commit myself to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order; I commit myself to a culture of tolerance and a life based on truthfulness; and I commit myself to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.”
But Bernie’s gift to us wasn’t just grabbing these four insights and pitching them to the world, but rather finding a clear, if not easy, path to their realization. Study and practice as one thing. He took something else called the three pure precepts, which are part of the standard Japanese derived Zen initiation ceremony, and reframed them in a very interesting, and I find, compelling way, as guidance for people of any and perhaps of no spiritual tradition, inviting us to plunge into the unknown, to bear witness to the pain and joy of the world and, with that to strive to heal oneself and the world.

The call is to become peacemakers.

Let me repeat the method: Plunge into the unknown. Bear witness to the pain and the joy of the world. And with these two things, are they tools, invitations into the heart, the secret alchemical formula we’ve all been seeking, even when unaware of it? I feel all of these things, definitely, as I feel from the bottom of my heart, this is the secret to healing for myself, and, for the world.

This is how we become peacemakers.

First there’s that plunging into the unknown. I believe that a deep curiosity is the heart of our liberal religious way. We are called to look humbly at the evidence, and only accept that which we are compelled to by the power of reason and heart. And, we need, always, to keep open the option that we’re wrong. As one sage put it, only don’t know. We keep that heart of not knowing, and we are eighty percent of the way to our goal.

Like on to it, we don’t turn away. Or, rather, we’re called to not turn away. Let’s not mistake peacemakers for cheesemakers. Sometimes it is very hard to not cloud reality, reality has some pretty harsh aspects to it. But, the truth is if we wish to be open to the lovely, we can’t at the same time hide our hearts from the harsh. The yes and the no are both part of the package, and a whole, and wholesome life demands of us our presence. Showing up is eighty percent of the way.


And, last, turn the gifts we find in our wild appreciation of the world as it presents minimally shaped by our pre-conceived opinions. The way is returning to the moment, returning to presence over and over. Do this, and, truly, we find the way of healing, for our own hearts, and the ways of healing for our lovely, sad, and broken home.


A way of hope.

The way of being peace.


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