I didn’t make a New Year’s resolution this year. Instead, I’m aiming at a New Year’s conversion, which the dictionary defines as a “change in character, form, or function; spiritual change from sinfulness to righteousness; change from one … belief, viewpoint, etc., to another; a change of attitude, emotion, or viewpoint from one of indifference, disbelief, or antagonism to one of acceptance, faith …”
This year, I’m seeking the grace of conversion to live peacefully, nonviolently. I hope to move from being just another participant in and enabler of the culture of death to someone working diligently to undermine that culture, someone trying to carve out space for the culture of life to flourish, not just in the world around me, but most especially – first, in fact – in my own heart and mind.
Like all conversions, this one is the product of multiple, overlapping events and processes, some great and some small. My reading over the past year has included a lot of Thomas Merton. To read Merton deeply is to move beyond the usual monologue of writer addressing reader, as if in a lecture. It is to move beyond even the dialogue of a reader, full of questions, being answered in the text. Reading Merton is best described as a trialogue between the reader’s false self (the self that, perplexed and questioning, picks up the book in the first place), the reader’s true self (to whom Merton always speaks), and the author himself (who makes every attempt to give voice to his own true self).
Merton writes often of peace, but he seldom means the peace that the world can give: treaties and ceasefires, laws and judgments, the simple absence of physical violence. He means firstly the peace that flows into a heart that desires humility, reconciliation, goodness, and love. And so Merton writes, “instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are war makers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.” Into such a heart, grace can flow. Into a world of such hearts, peace can come.
I’ve also been praying the Divine Office since mid-summer. I’m struck every day by how relentless is the desire for peace among those who wrote the psalms and canticles, even when they take the martial apparatus of their times and transform them into symbols of praise and thanksgiving. I’ve developed a particular love for the song of Zechariah: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” That light is dawning upon us always, shining into the dark places of our lives. The way of peace is always illuminated by the light of Christ, and yet, in the words of Isaiah: “We look for light, but there is darkness; for brightness, and we walk in gloom! Like those who are blind we grope along the wall, like people without eyes we feel our way. We stumble at midday as if at twilight, among the vigorous, we are like the dead.”
Recently, a friend of mine invited me to co-facilitate a four-session course on putting the Kingian principles of nonviolence into practice in daily living. We hammered out a syllabus and found a local parish that agreed to host the course during Lent. But in my study of the course’s raw materials – prepared, by the way, for the International Nonviolence Summer Institute at the University of Rhode Island – I was challenged again by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s insistence that nonviolence is a way of life, that it requires enormous courage, that it is focused on winning friends not making enemies, that its seeks to defeat systems not people, that it accepts suffering, and that love is the only unselfish, creative and enduring “weapon” in the human arsenal.
Finally, the Newtown Massacre on December 14, which claimed 28 precious lives, including the lives of 20 first-graders. And yes, even the life of the shooter – a man made in the image and likeness of God – was precious. I have followed closely the debates that have erupted in the aftermath and have been disappointed with each one. Not because there isn’t a kernel of truth in every argument and response, but because the entire process has taken on the character of a circular firing squad (if you’ll forgive the imagery). Everyone blamed is someone else, and no one wants to ask this question: How am I to blame? How am I implicated in a culture in which such horrors take place with mind-numbing regularity?
I’m not suggesting that there aren’t important public policy questions that need to be answered in the light of Newtown. I’m also not suggesting that there aren’t legitimate issues of rights, including the natural right to self-defense. But the debate has been framed by particulars – of mental health screening and treatment, parenting, school security, gun control, campaign finance, and so on – without reference to the whole. When we pull back from those particulars, and from the hardened, often ideological positions we’ve taken on them, we see a culture awash in an ocean of violence, in our entertainments, our symbols, our language, our politics, our families, our economic system.Our attachment to violence is now viral; the contagion has infected each cell in the body politic. This disease is so prevalent, so insidious that we barely even recognize its systemic power, the hold it has on our collective will, and its effect even on our ability to think clearly. We imagine that with some linear, mechanical tinkering here or there – a new law, more money – we’ll rob the thing of its life-force, or at least channel it into a less destructive course. But these solutions only form a prophylactic barrier around the virus, allowing it to burrow deeper into our cultural DNA. The virus is no longer merely in us, it has become us; and by treating symptoms rather than the host we only extend the sickness.
President Obama, a good man, travels to Newtown and gives a moving speech about protecting our children. He weeps publicly and his face displays genuine grief. But on a fundamental level he fails to make any connection between Newtown and the forms of violence he endorses and even practices. He fails, genuinely, to see any connection to his own life-long support for the violence of abortion, including lethal violence against the nearly born or newly born. He fails, sincerely, to see the connection to his armada of remotely piloted drones, which routinely incinerate Afghan and Pakistani children on the other side of the world. He fails, truly, to see the connection to his enthusiastic supporters in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, people who manufacture entertainments that make Newtown look like a summer picnic. It’s not President Obama’s fault, really, and my purpose isn’t to scapegoat him. He’s just another infected cell in a sick organism. But he’s also a national symbol, our chief of state, and we can see in his obtuseness, his mental and moral detachment from underlying reality an image of the virus at work in each of us, moving deeper, protecting itself behind thick tissue of lies and illusions.
I see myself in the President, my own attachment to my preferred forms of violence, the lies I tell myself about the reality and power of the virus that scours my own conscience. I’ve concluded that health can be attained only by a kind of cell regeneration. Call it “Conversion Therapy.” As Merton wrote, “The chief difference between violence and nonviolence is that violence depends entirely on its own calculations. Nonviolence depends entirely on God and God’s word.” Only the Great Physician, present in the world through the healing, restorative work of the Spirit, can cure our disease. And that cure can only be accomplished one cell at a time. Again, Merton: “The only way to change the world is to change the thoughts and desires of those who live in it.” That is the work of grace, an opus dei, and it begins with me.
Which brings me back to my New Year’s conversion. As of this year, I will seek the grace to
- Pray daily for peace in my own heart, and in my family, my community, our nation and the world.
- Fast one day a week in repentance and reparation for my participation in violence.
- Reject the recourse to physical violence in my own life, even in self-defense. My weapons – yes, I am a gun owner – will be destroyed, not sold or given away.
- Seek reconciliation with those I’ve offended or who have offended me. Abandon any form of accusation or scapegoating.
- Renounce my proclivity for verbal violence, for sarcasm and the stinging retort, and especially the ad hominem, which I have mastered over the years. To speak gently and sincerely; build up, not break down; assume the best in others; be quick to forgive and ask for forgiveness.
- Abjure all television and radio programs, movies, games, videos, websites, and other entertainments that feature (“To give special attention to”) or celebrate violence in any form.
- Work for an end to violence in all its forms, including abortion, war, rape, torture, capital punishment, bullying, child and spousal abuse, and slavery. And to identify myself with the victims of violence, regardless of whether they look like me, talk like me, think like me, love like me, or believe like me.
This is the Conversion Therapy plan for me. I don’t pretend that it should be yours because I suspect I’m worse off than most. But neither should you pretend that you’re not infected, or that the Great Physician doesn’t have a treatment plan waiting for you. May you discover it and begin your recovery this year.
Our Lady of Peace, pray for us!