Seeking Peace Amidst Violence

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If there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations, there must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities, there must be peace between neighbors.

If there is to be peace between neighbors, there must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home, there must be peace in the heart.

 

These words are attributed to the Chinese sage Lao-Tse, though I learned from a colleague in ministry this past week, that such words cannot be found in the Tao Te Ching— or else they are a very loose translation. Chapter 54 of that book does contain words that seem similar in spirit:

Cultivate Virtue in your self

And Virtue will be real.

Cultivate it in the family

And Virtue will abound.

Cultivate it in the village

And Virtue will grow.

Cultivate it in the nation,

and Virtue will be abundant.

Cultivate it in the universe,

And Virtue will be everywhere.

 

No matter, though, which version we choose, the lesson is the same: without peace in your heart—your heart—there will be no peace in the world.

Is there a path that runs from peace in the heart of the individual to peace in the universe? I hope we can devote some thought and some emotion to that today, but the question to start with, it seems to me, is “What gets in the way of achieving peace in your heart?” That’s a question each of us can ask ourselves and should ask ourselves, because we won’t find the answer anywhere else.

One of the obstacles you may find that gets in the way of attaining a sense of peace is the feeling of fear. Fear of loss, quite often. Fear that you will lose your job, lose your security, lose your transportation, lose the love of your family members, lose a friend, lose your sobriety, lose your sense of belonging, lose your direction in life, lose hope. All of these losses have their roots in fear.

Another obstacle that gets in the way of attaining peace in your heart is anger: anger at those who would take away something that you have worked hard for, your reputation, your money, your sense of what is fair and just. Anger that someone is depriving you of your peace of mind, even.

Here’s a piece of wisdom that you already know, but which you might lose sight of: There will be times when you are afraid and there will be times when you are angry. The questions then become, “What will you do with that fear? What will you do with that anger?” One choice (and one danger, I might add) is to identify with the anger and to let it guide your actions in harsh words or even blows. You can then justify your anger as the result of what someone has done to you. This is self-justification.

Self-justification starts with yourself and ends with yourself and does nothing constructive in terms of addressing the situation that provoked the negative emotion. And, lest you think I’m lecturing you from a place of superiority, let me assure you whatever I know of these things comes from experience and self-observation.

The impulse to take violent action, whether of speech or bodily action, is an impulse to eliminate something that is threatening us or threatening our peace of mind. Looking closely at the interior dynamic, when the emotions are forming, we can gain a clear picture of the elements contributing to that emotional dynamic and then make some choices about how to handle them.

Is the anger truly and ineluctably us or is it a passing state, a transitory state? Is it completely real or at least partially imagined? Is the anger the whole ocean or a wave on the ocean that, too, will pass?

The popular writer Thomas Moore says, “There is a virus buried deep in all violence that is contagious, that inspires an equally brutal and mindless response.” (This, also, I learned from the talk of a fellow UU minister, Rev. Doug Taylor.) “A virus buried deep in all violence that is contagious”—strong words. In my experience, true words. It is all too easy for violence to beget violence. And violence starts most often in words—unkind words, hurtful words, harsh words, damaging, bitter, cutting words.

Because we are social creatures, because we are made for relatedness, because we are part of a fabric that has interconnectedness woven into its being, we can’t help being hurt by words if we are open to the relatedness which is in our nature. Too much hurt and we tend to shut down— or lash out. We may know this in an intellectual way, but lose sight of such truths in the midst of emotional turmoil.

Chapter Sixteen of the Tao Te Ching:

Empty yourself of everything.

Let the mind rest at peace.

The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return.

They grow and flourish and then return to the source.

Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature.

The way of nature is unchanging.

Knowing constancy is insight.

Not knowing constancy leads to disaster.

Knowing constancy the mind is open.

With an open mind you will be openhearted.

Being openhearted, you will act royally.

Being royal, you will attain the divine.

Being divine, you will be at one with the Tao.

Being at one with the Tao is eternal.

And though the body dies, the Tao will never pass away.

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks of peace in the voice of the Hebrew people: “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast because they trust in you.” (Isaiah 26:3)

These teachings are not in conflict. In fact, they express the same truth in different terms. When Isaiah says that those who “trust in (God)” will be kept in perfect peace, he uses language that seems to say that God is different from us, but in reality, if God’s nature is that of perfect peace, all we need to do is keep our minds steadfast and the peace of God will be present.

To be steadfast is to be unwavering, watching intently, refusing to be distracted. This is the nature of mind that is achieved through mindfulness, though few of us achieve such perfect mindfulness as to live in perfect peace. But, when it happens, duality vanishes, and the perfect unity of God and mind is realized. Mindfulness, of course, is central to Buddhist practice, so we see the three traditions of Taoism, Judaism, and Buddhism coming together in these teachings.

The Christian tradition also teaches this truth. This is from Paul’s letter to the Colossians 3:15: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” We are members of one body, the human race, in our humanist language. To follow the teachings of Christ leads to peace because the body of Christ and the body of humanity are one. Taoism, Judaism, Buddhism, humanism, Christianity: they all teach that peace is the ultimate goal. And yet, with so many religions and so many religious teachings, we find ourselves always living in the midst of violence and asking “Why? Why? Why?”

If peace were the natural state of the world, we would not need religious teachings. It’s clear that we have violent impulses. It’s clear that we must train our minds and hearts to recognize these violent impulses.

We have been trained in other ways as well. We have been trained in a culture of competitiveness. After last Sunday’s coffee hour, I made my way to a local sports bar so I could root for my favorite football team in a game that is admittedly (and sometimes it glorifies in it) violent. In addition to the elegance of a well run pass play, the success of a football team depends on brute force, one body against another at the line of scrimmage, the fullback churning his legs with all the strength that he has to force his way through the scrum of bodies united to stop his progress and to bring him to the ground. Brutal. Primitive. And, somehow, exciting. How can we reconcile these conflicting desires, one, to compete, the other to cooperate?

And it’s not just in sports. The conflict exists in politics and entertainment, as well. You’re all aware of the developments in the so-called “race” for the presidency in the past week, developments that include the revelation that one candidate declared a loss of $916,000,000 in one year and the likelihood that that allowed him to pay no taxes for 18 years, that one candidate was caught on tape by a “hot mike” making comments about the right of men of privilege to treat women as objects for pleasure and dominance, that transcripts from another candidate’s speeches to financial investors indicate positions she would rather not be revealed to the public at large.

How are these stories covered in the press? In one online source, the headline of an article featuring a video clip reads, “Veteran Journalist Bob Schieffer Obliterates Trump Surrogate on CNBC Panel.” Another major news outlet headlines a story this way, “It’s Time to Bury Donald Trump Once and for All” (The Huffington Post, October 7, 2016).

There are ways to address these issues without the language of violence. For a candidate to succeed in a political election, their positions on the issues have to be made clear and stand up to close scrutiny by both experts and the public. But, we seem to insist that “obliterating” and “burying” are appropriate words to address political differences. And can you distinguish what one person is saying versus another when they talk over each other and shout at each other in what is called a “debate”?

And this is just the first level of violence. We all are aware of the physical violence against African American men by uniformed police officers in cities all across the country, violence that has been caught on tape and widely disseminated on social media. The goals of the Black Lives Matter movement have been relativized by a competing slogan, “All Lives Matter”: as if pointing out the obvious— that Black lives certainly appear to be of less worth when you view how blacks are treated versus how whites are treated for the same crimes or, often, for the same behaviors— diminishes the lives of non-black persons. And yet another slogan develops, “Blue Lives Matter,” as if demanding justice for those who are unfairly targeted— and killed— means that the lives of police are not valued. And if we don’t know that encouraging this polarizing discourse will lead to more violence, we should.

And we are acutely aware (or we should be) that thousands of Syrian children, refugees from war, are killed or will be killed in the next few weeks as a result of violence at such a level that whole cities are destroyed and hundreds of thousands killed and more displaced— with no new “place” to go to. This may seem like a far cry from the simple language of violence that we hear and see in the media, but it springs from the same source, personal response to threats, real or imagined, that manifests itself in fear and anger.

The question for me is how to respond in my daily life to situations that annoy, frustrate or anger me, how to respond in a way that is thoughtful and not reactive, in a way that states the truth as I see the truth without my employing strategies that will lead to divisiveness. And that, in itself, is quite enough to occupy my mental and emotional life. But, it is not enough when I recognize myself as part of an interdependent web that I see fragmenting in so many places and so many ways.

What to do? My weekly visits to the two inmates at the Warren County Jail continue to provide me with a window into lives that are much more controlled and regimented than mine, lives lived in close confinement with others where patience is daily tried and the arguments are about what television shows to watch, at what volume, and until what time at night. In addition to living in the midst of conflicting demands from fellow inmates, the prisoners are subject to the whims of the guards in small—but important—things.

It sometimes seems that rules are enforced arbitrarily, and as a way for the guards to assert their power rather than as ways to maintain order. I often find myself congratulating these women for the restraint that they show, the patience and fortitude that they have learned to maintain— not perfectly, of course.

Their environment is one where the lines of power are strictly drawn and violence always lurks in the shadows. Even the periodic cell searches and the seizing and disposing of books contains an element of violence. (The women are allowed no more than six books at a time in their cells; any more is considered “hoarding.”)

These visits enrich my life by broadening my experience. They give me a chance to provide some words of comfort and sometimes, guidance. They provide for the inmates the assurance that someone is willing to spend time with them and cares about them and is invested in their spiritual development. There is a sense of peace that is achieved in virtually every visit.

As for the larger social issues, I have reached out to all those I know to reach out to in the African American community to offer our support for whatever local efforts are undertaken to advance the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. I have not advocated our putting up a Black Lives Matter banner because I believe the role of whites in the community is to support movements of black empowerment, not to disempower by taking the lead. There are other opinions on this in our congregation, and I hope and expect a vibrant dialogue to emerge in the coming months.

As for the refugee crisis, I expect that you know that Bowling Green will be helping to resettle 400 refugees in the coming year or so, 40 of whom will be Syrians. Albert Mbanfu of the International Center spoke to our Ministerial Association in September about the obstacles confronted by refugees and the procedures that the International Center has in place to help them with their transition to life in Kentucky. I will be speaking with Albert in the coming week, and I’m hoping that he can join us for our service in two weeks when we talk about the refugee crisis and consider ways that we can help.

For now, I’d like you to know that if you go to the International Center of Bowling Green’s website (icofky.org), you can find a variety of ways to offer volunteer time: teaching refugees how to shop for groceries, how to use the bus system, how to use the laundromat, how to clean an apartment, even what American expectations are regarding personal hygiene. Granted, none of this addresses the violence that is shaking Syria, but it does address the trauma that is the inevitable effect of having endured such violence.

How do we seek peace in the midst of violence? I suggest this: that we look closely at not just our own actions, but the thoughts that lead to those actions, and not just the thoughts, but the emotional flare-ups that trigger the thoughts. Monitor the tendency to show off, to be superior in some way, to be unkind when hurt or irritable. Be the peace that you want to see in the world. And get involved. Step out of your comfort zone. See what it feels like to treat another person’s child as your own. Feel your pain, but don’t use it as an excuse to lash out at the world. And model what it means to be a religion of reason, respect, and reverence.

We have some time for reflection and response. How do you model peace in a world whose face is so often violent?

Sources:

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu translated by Gia-Fu and Jane English. Vintage Books. NY, NY. 1972.

http://uubinghamton.org/2007/09/having-peace-being-peace/ “Having Peace, Being Peace,” a sermon by Rev. Douglas Taylor, September 16, 2007. Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton, NY website.

http://www.biblestudytools.com/topical-verses/peace-bible-verses/ Peace Bible Verses

http://icofky.org/volunteer#Volunteer: International Center of Kentucky website

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ Huffington Post, October 8, 2016

http://worldofwonder.net/veteren-journalist-obliterates-trump-surrogate-cnbc-political-panel/

 Presented by the Rev. Peter Connolly

at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY

om October 9, 2016

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