James Ishmael Ford

A voice from the dark called out,
‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only

the absence of war.’
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

Making Peace by Denise Levertov

For many years the headquarters for the Unitarian Universalist Association was anchored at 25 Beacon Street, right next to the State House. Right across from the front doors on the Boston Common was an amazing monument. It’s officially named the “Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial.” It was erected in honor of the second African American regiment mustered in our American Civil War. Two of the enlisted men were Frederick Douglass’ sons. Of course, need I say, of course, the officers were all white. Shaw was their colonel. He came from a prominent Boston Unitarian family, all radical abolitionists. And he features in the center of the image. However, the sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens made sure the black men who composed the actual troops were prominently displayed. It works. They are all of them together. And it is an awesome sight to behold.

I have often stood before that monument commemorating the one hundred seventeen black men and their white officers, half of whom died in a failed assault on a Confederate stronghold at Fort Wagner just outside of Charleston. As it happens that battle occurred one hundred and fifty-eight years ago, today. Today, the 18th of July.

Among the survivors, Sergeant William Carney, was one of the first people of color awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Also among the dead was Robert Gould Shaw. While the bodies of the other white officers were returned, the Confederate commander announced of the regiment’s colonel, “We buried him with his niggers.” The bodies of the soldiers had been stripped naked, and then thrown into a ditch as their common grave. Throwing the dead white man with his black soldiers into that ditch the Confederates thought they were adding insult to injury.

So many thoughts and feelings flow out of this. One. I find myself wondering, who would I want to be buried with? An interesting question. Who would you want to be buried with?

What is unique it seems about our humanity is that we can reflect, and we can project at least some of the consequences to our actions. We have been thrown up into the world by the world as the eyes and ears and mind of the world. And I believe with that knowing, we have a host of obligations, to ourselves, to our families, to our neighbors, to the world itself.

Here’s what I know from the bottom of my heart. The individual is precious, beyond calculation. And, at the same time, we don’t exist in isolation. In fact, we have no existence outside of relationships. This is a harsh, and at the same time, if we consider it, a beautiful truth. We’re all in this together. Every single blessed one of us on this globe, every one of us. We are connected. For me, this is axiomatic. It is in fact the core of how I engage the world, spiritually, politically, everything I consciously do.

And. So. As a consequence. In practice, what does this mean?

As I continue to look at the shape of our relationships, with the planet, with other forms of life, and particularly how we relate to each other as humans, I find proximity counts. Why is hard to unpack, although I have opinions about it. But, for the moment I find it enough to assert this as a fact on the ground. We have pressing obligations to ourselves, then family and friends that appear to have stronger demands than to people more distantly related. I am deeply aware of my deepest obligations to my spouse and to my neighbors, both in the literal sense of those with whom I live, and in the somewhat more abstract sense of those who form my communities. I’ll do crazy things to take care of my family. I will do somewhat less crazy things for the church or my Zen community.

By the time we get to the nation state, I find my sense of obligation is real but not so strong as my feelings for those closer. I do feel love for country, particularly the stated ideals upon which we formed our union. The Declaration of Independence for one. And within that terrible Civil War, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is another. The rest of it, like the Constitution is trying to put that vision into action. And all of it remains very much a work in progress. It’s always tentative, it’s always subject to falling apart. Our most recent election shows what that can look like.

And, today, I think about the specifics of our American Civil War. It was a horror. 750,000 people died. Those wounded, displaced, brought to poverty probably numbered in the millions. It is easy to see why out of that some radical abolitionists like Julia Ward Howe would turn to pacificism. Others hypothesize some kind of alternative, including waiting out the end of slavery. Something that has gradually become at least the rhetorical assumption of modernity.
However, I am aware of no one of African descent making these arguments. When the Civil War began there were by best estimates approaching 4,000,000 enslaved people. Most were living in situations where abject poverty would have been several steps up. Starvation, rape, humiliations, uncounted humiliations, and murder were normative. I suspect from the position of the enslaved, and their descendants, it is possible to see the Civil War and its horrors simply a bit more equitably distributed for a few years.

I’m deeply stirred by the story of the men of the 54th and feel proud that Colonel Shaw was Unitarian, and how those men fought and died for that unfinished promise by standing up to shameful actions inflicted in the name of profit and justified by a radical dehumanizing of people. I even feel a need to continue that struggle. These feelings in their various degree spread out across the globe.

That’s me.

So, for us, for you and me, what are we to do with these facts on the ground? To frame that, sort of a bottom line, that question. With whom do we wish to be buried?

Here’s how I see it. Through the glass darkly. Always.

Our issue, the real deal for us here in this community, is how to act in a sacred manner in this mess of relationships that are our lives. Faced with the complexities of war and peace and never having enough information, but being the eyes and ears of the world, and the mind and heart, too – what do I do? What do we do?

For me the reality starts with how ultimately it’s impossible to be right in some absolute sense. The great thirteenth century Japanese Zen teacher Eihei Dogen, spoke often of this problem and how it presents. In our contemporary Zen world, we summarize his constant admonition by saying the way, our way, the way of the human, the intimate way, is one continuous mistake. So, there is always that.

I find as someone living in this world starting as it is, as best I can discern, not how I would rather it was, I think about slavery and the 54th. And I believe we are compelled to think about violence as a fact on the ground. And sometimes, it seems justified. With this, a big question. 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? We may be, and I hope we are, evolving toward a world community. It seems a race with our killing ourselves off as a species, and maybe taking a lot of other life forms with us, but, it also looks to be possible. However, 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. All potentially if not already, oppressive.

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?

One option is Just War theory. There seem to be two kinds. 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. Twenty years later, we are just winding down from the invasion of Afghanistan.

There is also a “soft,” or more “restrictive” model, which emphasizes reluctance, while allowing for very limited engagement, only 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 address on counterterrorism and the use of drones. And I think in President Obama’s administration we see how difficult it was to hold to that more restrictive view. Nation states seem inevitably to drift toward more maximal justification for violent responses to threats. The blood of lots of innocents pour into the dust.

Bottom line as I see it, Just War theory does not actually work.

The principal 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’m holding up that number, twenty-nine, 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, sometimes blood hot. And I think about the 54th and their families, and all those who find themselves in situations where revolt is the moral position. I think about who do we owe what? And with whom would I be buried?

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 spouse Jan, I’m going to do what I can to stop it.

There is also a bottom line where at least some hard pacificism does not work.
With every particle of my being, I know my actions count, everything I do is a pebble thrown into a pool, with ripples, cascading consequences. There is no way to avoid consequences to any action. And, of course, that includes inaction. We’re there; consequences follow.
The question often is, which mistake are you going to make? So. So, knowing it is one continuous mistake, in that last moment, who do I wish to be buried with?

I, like most of us, live within a net of obligation and responsibility. Knowing that I feel we’re called to a path of mindful engagement, one that acknowledges our human propensity for conflict and violence, but which also heartfully takes us toward our larger intuition of interdependence and its ethics of care and justice.

This I believe. There is a larger way, one 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 as a fact on the ground. I am also a citizen of the world. Another fact on the ground. And with these truths I feel obligations which include not standing aside, even when it means dirtying my hands, or worse. But any action 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 is a call to a realistic encounter, and a realistic stance, not of pacifism, at least in some of the more stringent and unyielding of those twenty-nine variations, but of nonviolence. A subtle, but I feel, a critical nuancing. It is the way I try to follow.

Here’s the deal as I see it. The world is on fire. Human hearts are blazing. Some of this is wonderful. Flame can be good; it warms us on cold nights and cooks our food. The fires that enter our hearts and drive us toward the deepest, most generous and open; those are terribly important. But some fires are horrific; they destroy homes and devastate communities. The fires of fear and anger and certainty and grasping and prejudice feed the flames that can burn the world down to ashes.

And we are called to discern between the fires, between those passions that birth connection and respect and love, and those fires born of hatred and greed. And we need to do this discerning on the run. The world is in motion, and we need to make our decisions while already acting.

Small wonder, one continuous mistake.

A lot of my thinking is informed by the American Zen priest Bernie Glassman. In 1994 as part of a project that has come to be called Zen Peacmakers, he articulated three tenets. I’ve not joined that organization, but the tenets inform how I meet this world of fire.
They are my vow of nonviolence:

1) Not knowing.
2) Bearing witness.
3) Taking action.

Let’s unpack them as an expression of a nonviolent life.
The first is not knowing. It is a call to give up fixed ideas about the universe and ourselves. The second is bearing witness. Simply witnessing fully and without turning away, the joy and the suffering of the world. And last it is a call to loving actions. These actions are equally turned toward others and ourselves.

Denise Levertov says the work of peace is like writing a poem. It is. To side with love, sometimes involves throwing ourselves on the barricades. It might mean storming a fort, knowing it nearly impossible to win. Knowing who you will be buried with.

And still other times it is doing nothing. Doing nothing is an action with consequences, and sometimes doing nothing is exactly the way.

Sensing when to do what requires that we don’t know. Like writing a poem we need to draw upon resources we don’t really understand. So, it involves surrendering certainty. This calls for a profound spiritual agnosticism, something UUs and Buddhists should be good at. And this is a good thing. The great not knowing is the true source of wisdom. Only don’t know is the universal solvent of spirituality and the work of justice.

And this leads to bearing witness. If we don’t know, then we purely witness. We see what is going on. We see the fire around the world. We see the fire within ourselves. We see. Here the perspective we need begins to emerge. We start by witnessing. We continue by witnessing. We end by witnessing. To see is to know where to go. To witness is to find love.

And finally, we must act. In this world of motion, we must act. What we do, what we refrain from doing, everything has consequences. There are no bystanders in this world. But, informed by love, our actions will usually be helpful. If not knowing and bearing witness are alive within me, I will meet the situation as skillful as it is going to be possible.

And the consequences will follow. One continuous mistake.

Not knowing. Bearing witness. Taking action.

It is engaging life with a vow. And, it becomes a poem. It becomes a dance. It becomes the work of God.

And I believe with all my heart it unveils an answer to the question with whom would you be buried?

Exactly, how? Well, that’s in your heart. And that’s in your hands.


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