MOVING FORWARD TOGETHER: HOW DO WE HEAL DIVISION THROUGH NONVIOLENT ACTION?

This is the text of a talk given at the Dialogue institute on November 12, 2016 – the Saturday after the election – it was originally scheduled for October, at which point the topic was “The courage to be non-violent in a violent world.”  After the 2016 election, the topic become “Moving forward together  – how do we heal division through nonviolent action?” This is the text of that talk….unfortunately, it is even more important today, two years later, than it was then. It is important to state that this is NOT a political statement…we can all agree that there is division in US society today. We can probably also all agree that our society would benefit from a healing of this division.    Because this is such an important topic, this post appears on this Cultural Crossroads KC blog, as well as on the Balance Beams blog.  This is not the first time this idea has been presented, but it bears repeating — until peace and harmony is finally established.  (Mary McCoy)

Thank you to the Dialogue Institute for a wonderful brunch and the opportunity to meet and talk with new friends!

When I was first invited here, the topic was simply “The Courage to be Nonviolent in a Violent World.” While that is still the focus this morning, the world has changed since that topic was first chosen.  The presidential election this past week, after a long and contentious campaign, has resulted in extreme reactions – from euphoria to despair.  Half of the country views their future as one of power and the other half views their future as one of fear.   I suspect that it was destined to end up in exactly that polarization, with the only unforeseen element being the identity of those populations.

It is even more important now to find the courage to be nonviolent and to advocate nonviolence to our fellow citizens – to both the winners and the losers of the election.

Violence in our society is, unfortunately, the defining issue of our times.  Especially now, it is important to hold peacemaking in our hearts and to look upon others with Love.  Whether your candidate won or lost, we are living in a time of division and violence (real and perceived).   We must face that fact and work to change this into a society of unity and nonviolence and that means acting through Love…whether we speak in Love or work in Love or vote in Love.

We are at an important crossroads in our national journey.  In the late 18th Century, the architects of this nation knew they were creating something new in governance: self-governance by the general populace.   Although the United States is hardly the oldest democracy in the world (Athens, Iceland, the Iroquois Confederacy and some others are older), it is, arguably, the first nation to be deliberately crafted on a democratic model and, at the time, encompassed the largest population to do so.   The idea of a Rule of Law, rather than a Rule of Man, was – and still is, today – breathtaking in its power.  The Founding Fathers realized that it would be difficult and fraught with problems never seen before or possibly never imagined before – this was something new and untried in its breath.  So, now, we can look back at it, some 240 years later, and we can decide: How have we done?  How has the common man used that power?  For good, as hoped, or for evil, as feared? Well, perhaps — like democracy itself – the answer is mixed.

This country was founded on the principles of freedom and plurality, but now we find ourselves confronting hatred and violence.  We ask ourselves – HOW did this happen here?

Unfortunately, the flaws were there in the beginning and have now become evident.  Like tiny cracks and fissures in a foundation that are not evident until years later (when time and stress have caused them to widen into dangerous flaws that threaten the entire structure), the flaws in our country’s foundation should have been obvious from the beginning and repaired long before now.

The Constitution begins with the phrase “We, the People” – but the word “people” at that time was defined in a  very narrow fashion: white, male, freeholders.   The promise of America did not include women or the poor or people of color — even the Declaration of Independence states that “all men” are created equal.   The US was founded on the abomination of slavery and the attempted genocide of the native population – these are serious flaws that have been addressed only piecemeal.   We need to ask the question: are those fatal flaws?  Is our great experiment over?

My answer is a resounding NO!!!   We may not be moving forward as quickly and smoothly as we would like, but to give up on our “grand experiment” now would be to concede defeat to the forces of negativity…to say that humans are not capable of evolving politically and socially.  I think the human race does retain that capacity although, as we have seen, there will be some setbacks.  We CAN evolve but that evolution will not happen without some help from all of us.

If we are to heal the current divisions and re-energize the American spirit, it will take all of us, working together, to renew our sense of community…by listening to each other and giving respect to each other, by validating other people’s feelings, even if we don’t agree with them, and by talking together.  I propose that we will only be able to revive that sense of community through nonviolent actions.  Violence is, by definition, divisive and no permanent beneficial healing can be achieved through violence, whether that violence is by word or deed.

From the media, we hear too often of shootings and wars and attacks and the news is horrendous.  Whether wanton or directed, unwarranted violence is a sad fact in today’s world.  We seem to be surrounded by violent action and words.

BUT – is the entire world a sad and violent place?  I think not – at least, I don’t think the world is as overwhelmingly violent as it would seem to be from listening to the media and the politics of fear.

Why is there so much emphasis on portraying the world as a violent place? Perhaps those who spread the idea of overwhelming violence do so because they will gain money and power – at a minimum, attention – from such talk. We have definitely seen that ploy at work during the past campaign.  For the media, it’s because sensationalism sells; unfortunately, people are much more likely to read and talk about the latest murder than the latest charitable event.  A headline that screams about the number of traffic deaths gets more attention that a headline about an increase in urban farms.  AND…as for the politics of fear – if people are afraid, as we have just seen, they will act instinctually and hand over their power to those who promise safety.   In order to create  a society where we can move forward together, we must move past the politics of fear by creating an environment of safety and security for everyone.  In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the need for safety and security is second only to the needs of the body for sustenance and must be fulfilled before we can move into the levels of love, self-esteem or self-actualization.

The popular media would have us believe that there is nothing in the world except violence – and, from our own experiences, we know differently.  We know the world is blessed by joy and beauty, friendship and loyalty, and gratitude.

For our self-preservation, we must acknowledge that there actually are instances of real violence in the world.  We avoid places and situations which make us feel vulnerable; that’s simple self-preservation, the result of a “gut feeling” that danger exists and we should continue to do that.   It is to our benefit to focus on true violence, but not imagined violence. While caution and awareness are needed and instinctive, it is the continual expectation of violence that creates paranoia, which is destabilizing to the individual and to society.

This destabilizing force was recently exposed in a heartbreaking circumstance, when a plot was uncovered to target the Somali community in Garden City, Kansas, of all places.  I quote from the article in the Kansas City Star: “Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst with the Department of Homeland Security, said the political rhetoric has played a key role in the [recent] surge [of hate violence]. ‘You have politicians talking about deporting Muslims and saying that the vetting process isn’t good enough,’ he said. ‘So people start thinking that ISIS is around every corner.'” This is the real danger of Fear. FDR said that “the only thing we have to fear is Fear itself” and, while it may not actually be the only thing, it is probably the worst thing we have to fear. Fear is a powerful force — think back on all the old Twilight Zone classics and you will recall that the scariest thing was the Fear inside that caused people to become the problem.

REMEMBER – the opposite of Love is not Hate – it is Fear.

So, how do we calm the fear that is so rampart in today’s society and that results in violence? How do we make our lives an example of non-violence and, through that example, change the attitudes of those around us?  We already know that, while we cannot control what happens to us, we can always control our reaction to what happens.  Just as our lives are what we believe to be true, so will our future be what we jointly envision.

If we look at the world with awe and to the future with hope, we can make that future come true.

To make that happen, we need to act and work through Love and not fear. By doing so, we CAN affect both our little corner of the world and the larger world, through individual action and through community action.

Acting in community, I work for a society of mutual respect — through interfaith work with the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, through multicultural education with Cultural Crossroads, and through spiritual awareness with the Alliance of Divine Love.  Mutual respect should work on all levels to reduce violence and increase peace in society.

We act at a group level by meeting and working and talking with people, in circumstances like this one, where the goal is to encourage friendship and understanding through relationships.  It is more important today than ever – both to strength the bonds of friendship and to provide security for yourself…that you are not alone in your desire for peace.  Your participation in interfaith and multicultural events does change your part of the world and it also affects everyone with whom you come into contact.  The Dialogue Institute provides many such opportunities, as do other organizations in the city, and I have brought some flyers with me today about some of those opportunities.  Cultural Crossroads maintains an acclaimed event calendar of interfaith and multicultural events and you can sign up for free e-calendars on our website.  One wonderful opportunity is coming tomorrow, when the Heartland Alliance of Divine Love sponsors the Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Dinner, a tradition in Kansas City for more than 30 years, bringing our interfaith community together in joy and gratitude (and I have tickets and flyers about that event).   And, of course, the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council hosts many opportunities throughout the year.

Whether you march in solidarity, attend a rally or contribute time or money to a cause, your actions and, especially, your energy helps to affect the opinions of others and maybe even the course of legislation.   I do ask, though, that you “work for peace” – not “fight for peace” … Not only is “fighting for peace” a logically fallacious statement, it also subtly promotes the very idea of violence.

The group Grandparents Against Gun Violence urges us to change our language and refrain from using “weapon” terms in everyday life, on the basis that such language causes weapon terms to become commonplace and acceptable.   They say “Don’t shoot me an email – just send it!” They even publish a thesaurus to point out the many commonplace instances where we use the language of gun violence in our culture: Armed with the facts, Half-cocked, Locked and loaded, Under the gun, and numerous others.   Through the generosity of the Kansas City Coalition Against Gun Violence, we have copies here today of the Gun Thesaurus for you to take home and refer to in your speech and writing.  (You can also find it online at http://www.moksgagv.org/)

When you stop to think about it, it’s actually incredible how much our daily language has become permeated by these and similar terms. (In fact, it is so insidious that I originally wrote that the language had become “infiltrated” until that militaristic term leaped out at me and I changed it to “permeated.”  It is very insidious.)  It has created a situation that is actually the opposite of the “Newspeak” of Orwell’s 1984, wherein that  book’s totalitarian government erased certain words to discourage free thinking.  Words rooted in violence have become added to today’s common language to such an extent that we become unknowingly complacent with the ideas of violence and of living in a violent environment.

When we become inured to the language of violence and the pervasiveness of violence, we permit our society to become more violent.  Fear can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: if everyone in the country carried a gun, for fear of encountering a gunman, then the streets would be filled with people carrying guns; if every motorist acted as if they were constantly encountering road rage from other drivers, then the streets would be filled with angry motorists. Fear can cause an otherwise peaceful person to lash out in what is perceived as a preemptive self-protective action.

Please understand that I am not saying that shootings and incidents of road rage don’t occur; they occur all too often.  I do submit, however, that expecting a threat at every juncture of life can create an aura of fear that can spawn violence, because everyone is “on edge” all the time.

A study just released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety revealed some amazing statistics: 9 of 10 drivers believe aggressive drivers are a serious threat to personal safety and fully “8 million U.S. drivers have engaged in extreme examples of road rage, including ramming another vehicle or getting out of the car to confront another driver.”  The statistics are sobering: 104 million drivers have purposefully tailgated, over 90 million have expressed displeasure at another driver by yelling or honking and 12-24% of drivers in the survey have physically tried to block another car or have purposefully cut off another car in traffic.  We were all probably taught to “drive defensively” but it appears that too many people are now driving “offensively” and that increases the level of violence in the entire society.

Our perception as individuals – and as a collection of individuals – can create a world of violence or a world of peace.   We’ve all heard the axiom that “if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”   That saying implies that cognitive function is the primary – perhaps, even, the only – filter through which we experience the world.

There is a deeper level, though, through which we both experience the world and manifest to the world.  Depending on your particular religion (or, as I prefer to term it, “life philosophy”), you may call that inner level of knowing the “core of being” or the “soul” or the “spark of God.”

Regardless of our philosophical or religious terminology, it’s the true method through which we experience reality when we’re not consciously thinking about it.  Combining her Buddhist practice and her work in cognitive psychology, author and lecturer Eleanor Rosch writes: “How does all of this apply to peacemaking and nonviolence? It applies first to the state of being of individuals.  One’s false and ego-oriented sense of self thrives on drama and conflict.  Were a person immersed in such a sense of self to arrive at a peaceful heaven, he might well reject it as insufficiently entertaining. A peacemaker must be strong, stable, and grounded in her own relationship to peace in order to withstand the temptations and challenges arising from the manipulative aggression inherent in present societies.”   I submit that what Ms. Rosch calls the “manipulative aggression inherent in present societies” is the result of our collective action – and, just as we, as a society of individuals, have created this atmosphere, we can, as a society of individuals, alter that atmosphere to a more peaceful, non-aggressive environment.

IF WE DO NOT HOLD TO PEACE, WE CAN FORGET WHAT PEACE IS LIKE…When Greg and I were married 20 years ago, we wanted a beautiful outdoor setting and we chose the Pavilion at Swope Park; the classical columns framing views of the wooded hillside provided a perfect setting.   Unfortunately, there were those people in my own family who were concerned about the location, because they feared “a drive-by shooting” or some other form of violence in the park. (There wasn’t, by the way, and the entire day was wonderful.)  That attitude, though, amazed me because I was raised with stories of when my mother and her siblings were youngsters, living on the edge of Swope Park in the days before air-conditioning.  Mom said that whole families would spend all night in the park, sleeping under the trees where it was cooler, and even making it a community event, with the ladies of the households bringing out their best linens for the neighbors to see.   And, yet, within my mother’s lifetime, that scene changed from being seen as a cool haven in hot weather to being viewed as a dangerous location.

As a society, we have elevated the so-called “celebrity” to a role model (right?) and we have elevated sports practically to the level of religion.  We celebrate fame and competition as desired ends of all human activity.

We teach our children to value “winning” as the ultimate goal of life and that they will learn valuable life lessons on the ball field – then, having promoted winning and competition and self-aggrandizement as desirable traits, we are amazed that there is gridlock in Washington, D.C. and we deplore the lack of common courtesy and caring in our community.   That is a result of years of teaching unrestricted competition and self-gratification.

If we want a society of respect and caring, we should teach our children to value cooperation and to compete against an “Ideal” of what they want to be; we should teach them that there are no real winners, where there are enforced “losers” and that life is not just another game.

While there is great work to be done on a macrolevel (through politics or social work), we must also work at the level of the individual if we are to nurture the flame of respect within each person.

Far from believing that the issues are “too big” for us to attempt or  “too widespread” for us to affect, I want to focus hope on the everyday actions of individuals – just like each of you – to effect change in our world.

We don’t want to work on the individual level – we each want to make sweeping changes that will last for generations…we want to change whole societies and the course of history.  Me, too – but, I must acknowledge that such far-reaching change is likely beyond my ability to accomplish in the remaining years.   That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t do what we can and affect those we can and make the changes we can.

We all know that this idea has been espoused even by those giants of history who have touched the world:

Gandhi famously said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Mother Teresa said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

We sometimes forget how far those ripples can spread.

In today’s world of vitriolic rhetoric, short tempers, and open-carry laws, it takes courage to be different, to be calm, to refrain from the language of hate, to stand for the Light, and, frankly, to hold hope for the future.

Why “Courage” rather than, perhaps, Forbearance or even Tolerance?  “Forbearance” implies patient

endurance and self-control and “Tolerance” implies indulgence – the world is in need of more action than that.    It is possible to refrain from all action when practicing “forbearance” or “tolerance” but “courage” demands action, demands a positive choice to act to effect change.

Every time you refrain from answering violence with violence, you act as a witness to others of the ability to create a peaceful world.  If someone cuts you off in traffic, the initial desire is to accelerate and cut them off in turn…if someone cuts ahead of you in line at the grocery store, the initial desire is to loudly proclaim that heinous act to everyone else in the store…and, if someone posts a hateful message on Facebook, the immediate desire is to respond in kind and let them know, in no uncertain terms, exactly how wrong they are – and, as we all know, this is the most trying circumstance of all.

How we live our daily lives can make a big difference in the world – this idea is central to many religions and life philosophies, although it may be stated in different ways.  The Dhammapada text of Buddhism says “Like a garland made out of flowers/Make your life out of good deeds.”  A Cherokee spiritual elder, Grandfather Bearclaw, suggests that we live each day like a prayer.  Two statements of one vision – that our seemingly small actions are not so small or insignificant as we might think.  Creating peace is within our reach.

On an individual level, we can, for example,  choose to be generous in traffic – realize that you have control of the situation when someone tries to cut into your lane, and you can use that control to either “fight back” and refuse to “give up your place” on the road – or you can choose to graciously “allow” them into the lane.  The effect of this simple act is to immediately reduce both your stress level and the stress level of the other driver.  You are no longer “fighting” and you have taken control of the  situation.  Admittedly, the other driver  will probably think he “won a point.” (Why does everyone seem to be playing an invisible game with “points” to be won?)   Regardless, the chances are much less that the other driver will continue to drive so aggressively that he will cause an accident somewhere down the road or arrive at work in such a state of anger that he picks a fight with the first person he meets.  So, with one simple act, you have elevated your day and his day and the experiences of the people you will both encounter throughout the day.

Thinking of the other driver can also give you possible insights into the life of another – is that person’s life really so depressed that the only achievement he can imagine is to get in front of you on the freeway?  If so, give gratitude for the blessings in your life and say a little prayer for that driver…he probably needs it.

Violence takes many forms: the person-to-person violence of bullying and crime, the social violence of discrimination and hatred, the economic violence of poverty, even the ecological violence of pollution and destruction of habitat.   Can we change them all by our individual acts of kindness?  Not all at once – probably not even in our lifetime.

But we can act in Love to bring kindness and nonviolence to the world…starting with our own lives, our family, our friends, our acquaintances…and then it spreads to their friends and acquaintances and then to their friends and acquaintances.

We have all heard that Margaret Mead said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world” – however, according to the website of the Institute for Intercultural Studies, which was established by Mead herself, there is no written work providing the context of that quote, and it was likely a response during an interview.   But that is the power of Idea…that an offhand remark lives on through the years and provides hope for today’s “thoughtful, committed citizens.”

The society we face today may seem different than the society we were living in just a week ago, before the election, but it isn’t, really.   The election results underscored a division that has existed in the United States for some time, but was easy to overlook, because it was out of sight.   That division can no longer be ignored – partly because those who feel disaffected are now vocal where they were perhaps silent, but also because it is incumbent upon us to find a solution and to heal our society.

If you are inclined to become involved in the political process directly, I applaud such action.   It is apparent that there is work to be done on that level.   We also need to increase opportunities for dialogue, in events like those sponsored here at the Dialogue Institute.

More importantly, perhaps, we need to foster direct conversations on a personal level —  conversations, not arguments or debates.   We need to reach out to those who are hurting (whether through discrimination or actual or perceived inattention to their wants).

You will not find that everyone is willing to talk – or, if they do talk, they may not want to listen.  There has been evidence lately that there is a substantial portion of the population who simply want to be heard – they have made that desire quite clear.    Those who are willing to talk and listen and learn have the opportunity to turn some of the current wrath aside, simply by listening and validating that desire to be heard.

Easy?  Probably not.  Necessary? Probably so.

We have several goals in the days and months ahead (perhaps for the next few years):

FIRST, stay true to your vision of our society and stay true to the vision of peace – that must be our guide.

NEXT, protect the vulnerable!  We have already seen too many instances of emboldened hatred in the past week since the election – people who blame their circumstances on others may now feel secure in their ability to act.  It is incumbent upon us, as individuals, to stand with the vulnerable against that hatred.**

STAND for the Rule of Law and respect the institutions that protect us, whether the institution is the presidency or the local police force but do not neglect to call out any deviation of those institutions from their restricted authority and hold the individuals in those positions of authority to account.

FINALLY, ACT in love and in peace – use every opportunity to turn a situation into an example of peace.  After all, just as children learn by example, so do adults.

So…I won’t “challenge” you, but I do “invite” you –  be courageous, be thoughtful, be committed…above all, hold to peace – and we will change the world.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

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