I have had ample opportunity to reflect upon more of my life than I care to admit during the last 6 months. I have been confronted with my sins and fallibilities. There are many that like Paul’s thorn in the flesh may never go away and others that I find diminishing over time. It is my sincere hope that through self-examination, confession and repentance that I will continue to grow into the human God intended me to be on this earth. One area that has had a radical transformation over time has been my views of violence. In such a radically either/or culture how does one find a realistic view of violence that is both ethically broad and practically moral?
All too often I find that the justice advocates of my and recent past generations have decided to trumpet peace without even the slightest definition of violence. This of course was not true for such vital authority on the subject as Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Jacques Ellul, Hannah Aredht and Cesar Chavez. They came to their theories of peace through a thorough investigation of the dialectically opposite force, violence. Nor, do I find it very helpful for the hardened peace activists of today to merely parrot views of violence from generations past. In a world where we have consciences raised to the plight of civilian casualties, clergy abuse, drone attacks, family abuse, rape and hate crimes we must not be complacent in the far too limiting definitions from our past.
I must admit that my own experiences cloud my perspective on violence and make it hard for me to have a non-biased outlook. I grew up in a family that believed strongly in corporal punishment, I had four frightening encounters with guns from age 18-21 (including being shot at doing children’s programs in Cabrini Green), I served on the board of a battered shelter and I have been an advocate for non-violent resistance for over two decades. Yet, I am always compelled to re-visit my views of what violence entails and whether I am fully able to morally stand against it when it rears its ugly head.
My personal definition of violence is probably broader than many are willing to live with comfortably. I believe that it is both words and actions that cause physical or psychic blows against others intended to cause chaos. Violence is a act that at its core dehumanizes another and sees both their bodies, spirits and minds as inferior to other humans, corporations or states. There are a canopy of ways in which our culture, government, churches and personal relationships do violent damage to our neighbor’s humanity. This to me is the essential goal of a spiritual people in that we affirm the full humanity of all human creatures and that striving for peace can then extend to all living creatures on this planet.
So, “Blessed are the peacemakers” has been one of the most important texts from my life. It is probably because there is so often turmoil in my mind that I feel compelled to practice this as a daily reminder. I remember the day that I left fundamentalist ideology was the day I was told the Beatitudes where not for us today, but were for another dispensation. I have strongly affirmed their need for our daily practice in the life of the church ever since.
Early on in my recovery from addiction I was taught that one of the best things for a troubled mind was to pray for the peace of the person you hate or are in conflict with. This often gets me out of the supposed wrongs that have been done to me and forces me to do the only thing that I have control over in a situation, to pray. Over the past few months I have encountered attacks from conservatives who disagree with my actions on Gay marriage. My integrity has been questioned online and in public Presbytery meetings by some who are called to ministry in the Presbytery in which I have recently moved. I decided the best response was practicing this principle of prayer. Unfortunately, many of my supposed enemies thought I was joking and making light of them. This however was not the case. I did begin to pray for them. Even in the midst of what I do considered ugliness I have been given a freedom to look at these people as humans. I do believe that prayer works.
Although, this practice has been formative in making me lose resentments and holds up others in prayer, I do think there is a limit to this practice. For those who have been severely abused I think this might be a practice that could negate their pain and anger. I am only suggesting it as a restorative action, but if it leads to self-negating this is harmful to full recovery.
However we practically respond to violence and chaos in our own personal life I think it is important to hold up one vital principle in our reaction to it in the world surrounding us. It is embedded in Christ’s exhortation that he came so that we might have life and that it might be more abundant.
Every time that I make a study of violence in my own personal/spiritual life I am left convicted. I believe, with most mystics, that peace is a byproduct of our own intense spiritual growth. It is when peace flows from our personal experiences of forgiveness, mercy, justice, grace and love that peace is possible in others.
As a church, neighborhood, society, government and corporation have we fully functioned in a way that brings life and brings it more abundantly?
If we have not it is time for us as spiritual beings to bend our histories toward bring about full and abundant life to all in our spheres. It is in that striving that we will find our own.