First of all, I want to thank Amy for inviting me to speak to you all today. It is a real joy and privilege to be asked to talk about something that I think is so important for us, always, but perhaps especially in today’s world. “Peace” is very elusive, especially during this time. People are stressed because of the pandemic, social unrest, the weather, the smoke – days moved to weeks moved to months and now we’ve had a half year of “shelter in place” and “social distancing” and people are beginning to act out.
I think about the post a friend of mine made on FB where he detailed waking up to find an intruder in his home. The intruder grabbed a couple things and left. No one was hurt, my friend was able to replace the missing items with fairly little trauma. It wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t scarring either. Still, the responses that he received on FB were things like “You should have shot and killed that guy! That would have taught him!” And “Too bad you weren’t able to beat him up with a bat and permanently ruin his life!” I was shocked by these responses, but probably shouldn’t have been. We live in a culture where violence tends to escalate, and where people react with such intense anger that nothing short of death satisfies some people as the appropriate consequence for a stolen watch. This is the world in which we dare to breathe words such as “peace”. And that action of looking for and seeking peace is an act of courage in such a world.
The other day I was walking in a parking lot with my daughter at the grocery store (both of us with our masks on) and we were just about to get to the car to put in the groceries, when some rage-filled person started cursing and screaming at us. I have no idea why. I assumed at the time that it was because they wanted us to move more quickly to get our groceries in the car so they could have my spot, but, putting aside the fact that there were other open spaces, that just didn’t explain the rage that this person (who I had never seen before) was expressing. Of course, the temptation for me then, as it often is for many of us I think, is to respond to that kind of anger with anger in return. The temptation was to turn and yell back, to sarcastically critique his lack of vocabulary or to do something else that would have hurt him as much as he was upsetting me and my daughter.
But in that moment, I found Martin Luther King Jr.’s comment rattling in my head when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” The reality is we cannot get to peace, true peace, through anger, rage, hate or violence. Those angry attacking responses leave people hurting, damaged, and that damage and hurt festers, and usually builds resentment and pain. While violence may lead to a time of non-violence, there is a difference between peace and non-violence. Peace is when people are okay within themselves and within their world. Peace is when people see each other for the deeply connected siblings that we all are. Peace is when we remember our deep connections to and within all creation. Peace is when each person and each part of creation has enough, has what they need to live, to breathe, to survive. That peace can never be full, real or profound when even one person is hurting.
But responding to anger, violence or hatred with peace is hard. So in that moment in the parking lot, I also found myself thinking about a Star Trek Next Generation episode in which all these different species are fighting to get this “thing” first, pieces of which have been planted into the different DNAs of different species across the galaxies. Some species think what they will find when they solve the puzzle by putting all these pieces from their DNA together will be extreme wealth. Others think it is massive power. Some specifically think it is a powerful weapon. All think that they better get it first and they are willing to kill one another to get it. They need each other’s piece of the puzzle to find whatever it is however, so they are all at the final place together; all gathered with their weapons out, preparing to fight to get it and claim it first for their people, their world, their community. When they finally gather everything together, what they have been given is a message about how important it is to work together and find peace together in order for all to live. The hologram that is produced by their DNA puzzle pieces gives the message that within each of them is a piece of one another, that they are literally within as well as among one another, and that it is only together they are whole. But once they hear the message of peace and deep connection to one another, they respond by still trying to fight each other. “We cannot possibly have anything in common,” one declares in rage, and “I would have killed her if she were alive” another says in response to the Hologram’s message. They are so caught up in their anger that they cannot hear or see, and peace remains a distant, elusive dream for them all.
In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Gandalf said, “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”
As we seek to be people of peace, we have to start with the small, with the ordinary, with the opportunities we have to meet hatred and anger with kindness, compassion, and peace. I thought about one of my heroes in life, Rev. Ben Weir. He was a Presbyterian pastor who was working in Lebanon when he was kidnapped and held hostage. He was held for 16 months as a hostage. But after his experience, he did not come home seeking revenge, seeking the destruction of those who had kidnapped him. Instead, he remained a voice for peace, for non-violent resolutions to problems. I personally knew the man and he was, until the end, the most compassionate, sweetest man I have ever met.
There is a wonderful book titled “Tattoos of the Heart” written by Father Gregory Boyle. He is a priest who works with gangs in LA, giving them work, jobs, a sense of belonging to something and to people who do not require violence or aggression as part of their membership rituals. He writes about his experiences with these boys, these men, these families. But his book begins with these words, “If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives. William Blake wrote, ‘We are put on earth for a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love.’ Turns out this is what we all have in common, gang member and nongang member alike: we’re just trying to learn how to bear the beams of love.” (pxiii).
The idea of Ubuntu is that “a person becomes a person through other people” – we are deeply and completely connected to one another. When I am injuring you, it is me, myself who is damaged in the process. And when I am kind to you, I am offering that kindness to myself as well.
These ideas are the foundation of peace: the recognition of our interdependence, our interconnection, with all people, but more, with all of life.
All of these examples and thoughts flashed through my head in response to the man screaming at me at the parking lot. And I made the decision in that moment to do other than I wanted to do. I chose then to wave, to smile (though I’m sure he could not see that behind my mask), and to quickly get my groceries into the car so that he could have the spot. Fortunately, the space across from me was empty so I pulled forward and out of the spot. I saw that he did not take the spot, but continued to shriek at me and even follow me out of the parking lot. I still have not one clue about why. I asked my daughter who was with me if she could see why he was so angry, but she said “no”, and finally we were able to pull away from the man and to drive home. I acted the way I wanted to act. I did not give him power to change my behavior from the peace I wanted to communicate and exude. I did not give him the ability to make me angry or hateful or destructive. I acted with the peace and compassion I choose to demonstrate. But I have to admit, I did not feel peace after that interaction. I was shaking with fear, with anger, with visions of yelling back, or calling the police or something else. I felt torn up inside by a person I don’t know, will never meet, who was just… ANGRY. It didn’t make me feel better to act with kindness. It did not make me feel better to be kind in the face of that kind of anger/hate. But it didn’t make me feel worse either. If I’d acted in anger, I would have felt more angry. If I’d chosen rage, I probably would have felt guilt on top of everything else, if only for giving that example to my daughter. Instead, after a few minutes had passed, I felt a bit of triumph that I had not allowed myself to be controlled or changed by his behavior. And my soul moved to a place of acceptance, wondering what that man was suffering with, and peace within myself much more quickly than it would have done if I had acted in any other way.
There is a saying in many 12 step programs which is “Act as If.” The theory behind it is that you act your way into being someone else. Act as if you are a peaceful person and you will become one. Act as if you are no longer angry and you will stop being angry. Act happy and calm and confident and those feelings and attributes will follow. That is my choice for now. I don’t know that it will always work. I don’t know that I can always think of the kind way to respond in the face of anger or hate. But I can try. And perhaps in trying, I will become more the person of peace that I want to be.
I may not change the world. I may make no difference at all in the scheme of things. But I also will not let the world make me more angry, hateful or fearful. I don’t choose that, for myself or for those around me who are affected by my behavior. For today, I hope that is enough.
Peace is elusive in this time. But it must start and end with each one of us choosing to be beacons, voices, examples of the peace we hope to find. We create the world around us one word, one act, one choice at a time. For today, let that choice be for peace.