Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A world without violence

Psalm 140
Journal entry dated September 11, 2005

"Rescue me, Lord, from evil men; from the violent keep me safe"

In this psalm, the psalmist appeals to God for mercy, meaning protection from the plots and evil intent of violent people. The violent will suffer what they planned for others, and will be ultimately cleansed from the earth: "let evil hound the violent man to his death."

On this day, our nation remembers 9/11, but for the most part, it is an evil memory, not a transformative one. We have dashed their infants against the rock, rocked the nations of our foes with shock and awe, killed our enemies, their children, and their children's children.

Is there less violence in the world as a result?

Hurricane Katrina came as a massive embarrassment to us, because it showed us that, despite our efforts to rid the world of evil, evil remains in our midst in the form of poverty, racism, and utter selfishness. We quickly lowered the curtain, cut the microphones of those who said it openly, but the damage was done. The world saw the ugliness, the evil of our doings.

The times are calling us to broaden our appeal for mercy. Like the psalmist, we pray that we may not suffer violence. But we must also learn to pray this on behalf of our enemies, or better, "on behalf of all, and for all." If we seek a world without violence, as the psalmist does at some level, then we must have the courage to create a world without violence. A world without violence only for a few is a world perpetually at war. A green zone of safety within a world of violence is a bubble waiting to burst.

The bubble burst on 9/11, and we responded, at best, with immaturity. Perhaps the close coincidence of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina may lead us as a nation this year to a deeper reflection as to how we might create a world without violence.


Erich said...

Preface: I read your book list on your profile and am impressed by it. I would recommend reading even more by Dostoevsky and Kazantzakis. Perhaps you have but those are your favorites. Personally I'm inclined to the Last Temptation by K, Spiritual Exercises is also interesting. Given your propensities, I'd also recommend some things by Mounier, like Personalism or Be Not Afraid.

Comment: Anyway, I do see your points in reference to violence, and am probably more sympathetic to your positions that most of our overlapping set, but I wonder about what's involved in creating a world without violence. For the record, I do agree that our response to 911 was problematic and have argued against the war in Iraq from before it occurred, when it was just a 'looming storm'. Still, there is much talk of ending violence but one has to consider what this means on the ground. Julien Benda wrote that lasting peace will never be achieved by a fear of war, but only through the love of peace. In a world that does not love peace, what is to be done? Is violence to be eschewed at every turn? I have often thought so, but am not sure. Mounier would say that to eschew all violence is to ignore the human condition. That the presence of evil in the world demands that violence be done to it. The monks of old believed in struggling with their demons not pacifying them. In a world full of demons, can we think that humanity could be served by simply pacifying them? In other words, do you think that a world without violence is an achievable end? And if so, do you think we could reach it without violence?

olympiada said...

Sampson, I am finding in our liberal community there is a lot of hate and violence, as well as in our Orthodox community. Hate is everywhere and it makes me sick.

I think we have to face our own communities and pour the love out there, especially in our international on line communities where we come in contact with so many.

As I said on Alternet today, we have to be the light and salt of the world even as others try their hardest to snuff us out.

Sampson said...

Dear Erich,

As you suspected, I've read more of Kazantzakis and Dostoevsky than I put on my profile. The Greek Passion is the last thing I read by K., and perhaps his most fascinating work inasmuch as he anticipates many of the insights of liberation theology. I read Greek, so I've read bits and pieces in the original. My favorite by K. is probably St. Francis, which he wrote immediately after Last Temptation. I think K. said better in St. Francis what he was trying to express in the Last Temptation. And I've read a lot of Dostoevsky as well: all the major works, many of the minor works and short stories, and parts of his diaries.

I haven't read Mounier, but perhaps I'll give him a try, though my reading pendulum has swung away from philosophy the past few years.

More on your comment below. Thanks for taking the time to share reading resources.


Sampson said...

Dear Erich and Olympiada,

Thanks so much for sharing your insights.

First, I am becoming more and more convinced that the word "peace" may not be particularly helpful in discussions such as these. I wrote in a previous post that peace may at times simply be the unchallenged preeminence of an unjust status quo. Perhaps more to the point, peace has become a word that means whatever one wants it mean. One can fight, go to war, for peace, a proposition that has been aptly, if somewhat baldly, compared to "fucking for virginity." In Soviet Russia, the word "mir" (peace) became practically a synonym for war and the struggle for world dominance. I see the same thing happening in our nation with words like "freedom," which is rapidly becoming a synonym for war. And as Olympiada points out, even in the so-called "peace" movement one frequently finds people who are anything but peaceful, and a few who are prepared to resort to violence in the name of "peace" (the "Weather Underground" comes to mind).

So I think that its better to speak of non-violence, or a world without violence, than to speak of peace. It makes things plainer.

Is a world without violence an attainable goal, and can it be accomplished without violence? My best and most honest answer is that I don't know. But if it were possible, I think I know where it begins.

I think that a world without violence and cruelty begins not at the national or international level, but in our homes. Living a cruelty-free life begins with the food we choose to eat. It begins with the clothes we choose to purchase and wear. It begins with how we treat our children. I am convinced that to the extent that we tolerate violence in such areas, we will be willing to tolerate violence at other levels. To the extent that we see violence or superior force as an acceptable means to resolving disputes with our children, for example, to that extent we teach and inculcate violence as a means of conflict resolution.

Many parents are deeply concerned about bringing violence into their homes through television and video games, but seem to have no awareness of the way they are bringing violence into their homes through things like chocolate (almost all of which is produced through slave labor), coffee (most of which is produced by severe exploitation), clothing (produced in sweatshops by workers living in squalor) and packaged meat (the modern production of which involves such unspeakable cruelty that most people would vomit if they witnessed it).

The question of creating a world without violence is a deeply personal one. Ripples work their way outward, not inward. A world without violence begins with a rigorous examination of the way we live, coupled with an increased understanding of the other options, alternative ways of being in the world. We cannot do everything. But each of us can do something, as the Monks of New Skete say, to "leave the world a better place at the end of the day."

That's where it begins.


Eudoxia, a lover of the Lord said...

Hurray! A forum where meaningful conversation can occur about a topic often ignored! I agree with everyone, but would add that a non-violent world begins with a non-violent theology. Show me how you behave in any given day, and I'll tell you your theology. A world where God kills God, and our lives are forever threatened by a wrathful (but loving?) God who will mete out punishment is not one where I think non-violence can have its genesis. Eastern theology, and a sense of humanity as ill, needing wholeness -- not as bad, needing punishment -- seems to me to be the most likely non-violent theological source for a non-violent world. Perhaps, I'm wrong. But, for me, with all of its warts and dimples, eastern Christianity has a greater propensity for love and lovingkindness than its counterpart.

Thanks, Sampson, for again giving us the space to think, comment, and maybe learn something new.

Erich said...

I'm still having a bit of difficulty coming to a functional theory of what the French would call engagement (slightly stronger meaning than the English counterpart). So let's look at violence then, instead of peace. Mounier once wrote that "Violence must be condemned, but to evade it at any cost is to renounce all the principal task of mankind. Only when the value of communication has been realized can the subject know the peace that arises from the depths; and even then not perfectly, since value can never be grasped and communicated in all its fullness." In other words, in order to honestly condemn violence, one must "do violence" to it, engage it actively. You say that ripples go out, not in, but ripples come in from other directions as well. We are not the only actors in the world, and our ripples are bound to collide (maybe violently) with the ripples of others. I accept your theory in the ideal, but I run into trouble in terms of application, in terms of getting at an actual theory of engagement "in the world."

The personal nature of these problems is an uncontestable point, at least from me (a personalist). However, it seems to me that what we're articulating here is a sort of pristine ethic, something for an ideal realm. As there is no perfect or ideal action that we can make, we have to "settle," so to speak, for doing what we can with what we have. Back to Mounier: "A philosophy for which absolute values exist is tempted to put off action until the cause is perfect and the means irreproachable. But this amounts to renunciation of action. The Absolute is not of this world nor even commensurable with it. We are never actually engaged except in questionable conflicts for causes more or less impure; and to refuse to engage in them for that reason is a refusal to accept the human condition."

By the way, on a technical point, the Russian word "mir" took those meanings because it actually had both meanings. Before the revolution, the Russian word for "world" was "мiръ" and the world for peace was "миръ". However, with the Soviet simplification of the language system, both words were reduced to "мир".

Sampson said...

Dear Eudoxia and Erich,

Thanks for your comments and enriching insights. I agree with Eudoxia that this has been a very meaningful conversation. I'm going to reserve comment on theologies of violence for the time being, as I think that is good enough to have a post all to itself. I need more reflection on this. Other thoughts, Eudoxia, would be appreciated.

Erich, perhaps "doing violence" is not the only way to engage violence. Perhaps one can also "do non-violence" to violence. There is not a good word for this in English, but Gandhi's satyagraha ("holding onto truth" or "non-violent resistance") is as close as I can come. Most people would divide the possible responses to violence into basically two categories: to respond with violence, or not to. But Gandhi actually speaks of three categories of people: those who respond to violence with passivity, those who respond with violence, and the satyagrahi, the one who actively engages violence with non-violence.

What I find interesting about Gandhi's teaching in this regard is that Gandhi places the satyagrahi, the true practitioner of non-violence, closer to the person who responds with violence than to the person who does nothing. In other words, Ernesto "Che" Guevara is closer to Gandhi's philosophy than all the Rolex liberals who sit in their nice homes and do nothing while the world goes to hell, and call it "pacifism."

Satyagraha requires courage. In my family's case, it is the courage to invite a man we don't know, who lives in a van parked on our street, into our home last night for ice-cream and a movie. The courage of my eleven-year-old daughter to stand on the street corner and talk to a drug addict. The courage of my wife to stand on another woman's side and support her against a violent and abusive spouse.

Satyagraha calls us to inhabit dangerous spaces fearlessly in the cause of justice.


PS Recommended further reading: Gandhi on Non-Violence, with an introduction by Thomas Merton.

Nathan said...

I've never read Mounier, so I'm wondering how he would describe the "principal tasks of mankind." If it is anything like "opposing injustice", then I cannot help but think that this is an ethic that similarly belongs solely to a utopian ideal. If all of our actions are compromised, then to assume that our pursuit of justice can actually accomplish it is to fall prey to its own particular delusion. Perhaps he, or you, are only advocating an approximation of justice - a sort of "best we can do" approach, but I don't see why deciding to absorb violence is any less pragmatic than deciding to oppose it on its own terms. While Mounier's critique that those who wait for perfectly pure opportunities to act are, in reality, foreswearing action completely is accurate, I think the other side of that coin is important; those who deny just conditions can ever exist can easily slip into justifying unjust actions on that basis. If justice is impossible, why bother trying? I think, on a pragmatic level, this is the reality we are faced with more often than not from even those of very high-minded ideals.

Erich said...

For Mounier, the principle task of mankind is the creation of a "personal universe" as opposed to an impersonal one. I realize it's an ambiguous term, but I don't have time or space to go into the details here, I'll say though that it was a reaction to dehumanizing and totalitarian regimes and tended to advocate something akin to the Orthodox notion of theosis on a collective level. As to the possible charge of utopianism, Mounier being a good Catholic would be quick to say that this end result is would not be "in history" but outside of it (something Orthodox writers along similar lines would generally not be so quick to say). Still, for Mounier, in history or not it's worth working toward in as much as human initiative is able to collaborate with God.

The possibility of slipping into unjust justifications for justice (I suppose you are thinking something along the lines of communist utopianism and its requisit sacrifices) is something alien to Mounier because he refuses to allow any future good that is built on the sacrifice of the human person. Nor does he deny the possibility of justice (you're putting words in the mouth here and maybe setting up a bit of a straw man), but only the absolute nature of it. In other words, justice is a relative concept, as are most such concepts when the Person is the point of irreducibility. However, the difficulty of such notions of absolute or perfect justice has some very obvious faults. For instance, if you shot someone defending your family, you would have committed a terrible act, no matter how just the cause. Likewise, if you refused to shoot out of high-minded principle and allowed that person to kill (or worse) your wife and child, then you have likewise committed a heinous (perhaps worse) act. This is what he means by the "condition of man." Schmemann puts it an interesting way, claiming that the human condition is effectively symbolized by the fact that the continuity of our life depends on death. Vegetarian, vegan, or whatever, the reality is that you cannot continue to live unless something else dies to feed you. Your life is wrapped up in death. This is perhaps the best example of the relativity of justice.

Nathan said...

Erich -

"Still, for Mounier, in history or not it's worth working toward in as much as human initiative is able to collaborate with God."

That is something I could definitely agree with, but there are, of course certain dangers in that position. I'm interested in reading some Mounier - what would you recommend as a good place to begin?

Sampson said...

Dear Erich and Nathan,

One of the philosophers I have enjoyed reading, Nikolai Berdyaev, has some interesting comments on a related topic. Berdyaev believes in something he calls "active-creative eschatology." What this means is that humans beings are called to become co-creators of the future together with God.

Here is one of my favorite quotes:

"The Kingdom of God denotes not only redemtion from sin and a return to original purity, but the creation of a new world. Every authentic creative act of man enters into it, every real act of liberation. It is not only the other world, it is this world transfigured. It is the liberation of nature from captivity; it is the liberation of the animal world also, for which man is answerable. And it begins now, at this moment. The attainment of spirituality, the will to truth and right, is already the beginning of of the other world."

Berdyaev was highly influential in the thought of the person who was, in my opinion, perhaps the greatest Orthodox theologian of the twentieth century: St. Maria of Paris.


Erich said...

Berdyaev and Mounier definitely had a considerable influence on each other. I think there have been some things written about their interaction. After Berdyaev was kicked out of Russia he went to Germany. Of course, that wasn't the greatest place to be in the inter-war period, so he ended up in Paris, where Mounier was just getting going with his Personalist Movement and his journal Esprit (which I think Berdyaev wrote some things for, or at least influenced).

Anyway, all that to say that they both considered each other Personalists and on a similar wave-length. During this period, their use of certain words starts to seem eerily similar. For instance, I was reading something by M the other day that mentioned that Christians are called to "become gods", which I figured was probably something he was picking up from B. Then again, he spent a lot of time reading Eastern Fathers like John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa, too.

So, as far as reading goes, with Berdyaev, his most famous Personalist book, so to speak, was called "Slavery and Freedom." However, he has many other things. There's a really good website run by one of our priests in Buffalo who has translated a lot of his untranslated articles. It's www.berdyaev.com On it there's a little search engine and you can just plug in "personalism" and some things will come up. The first is an interesting article called "Personalism and Marxism."

As far as Mounier reading goes, there is not a whole lot in English. If you read French there is much more. His primary work on Personalism is simply called "Personalism" and is in English. Other things in English are "Be not Afraid: Studies in Personalist Sociology" (which I recommend if you're interested in theories of progress, technology, etc.), "The Character of Man", and an introductory work called "Existentialist Philosophies." His early "Personalist Manifesto" was translated by some Catholic group I think, but is hard to find nowadays even in larger libraries (U of Minnesota doesn't have it).

Sampson said...

The quote from Berdyaev referenced above is from Slavery and Freedom. I also really liked his book on Dostoevsky, which was how I first started reading B.

Thanks for the very interesting connections.