Tough Doves, Tender Warriors
by: Jon Spayde
A Second Season of Peace on Earth
by: Andy Steiner
The Enemy at the End of the Block
The Freelance Peacemaker
Winning a New Kind of War
Discuss e-books in the Literature forum in Café Utne’s: cafe.utne.com
The notice called it a ‘Men’s Peace Retreat,’ a half-day gathering of men, in a Unitarian church, to reflect together on personal and global peacemaking. Before September 11, 2001, I would surely have passed it by; after all, I knew the drill: good-hearted middle-class males gather, peek beneath culturally encrusted codes of stoicism and aggressive toughness, find flame of compassion, and gently fan it for a few hours. To me, such gatherings had always seemed more like rituals than catalysts for real change.
But now I needed a peace retreat, if only to figure out what peace had become.
After the World Trade Center attack, for a while, there was a strange new depth of feeling and thinking everywhere in our country–along with jingoism, scapegoating of Muslims, and other predictable pathologies. Still, this wasn’t the Gulf War; Americans seemed willing to mourn and wonder, not just hit back. Many sensed that the terrible events were a call to reflect on our role in the world and to initiate peacemaking–whatever form that might take. There was a feeling in the air that peacemaking would have to go deeper than striking at terrorist networks and the governments that shelter them.
But I could not imagine anything in the world with which I was less eager to ‘dialogue’ than Muslim fundamentalism. I wanted to understand Muslim anger at America. But the face it wore on September 11–‘pure’ Muslim martyrs, eager for alcohol, lap dancers, and credit cards, murdering thousands of innocents on a fine fall morning–was not a face into which I expected to look with compassion.
Then the postmodern ‘war’ began. America dumped tons of bombs on a suffering country in an attempt to destroy an odious regime that protected a millionaire terrorist. All that seemed certain was that the terrorist’s global army would survive, and that America would probably not bomb London, Hamburg, or any of the other First World cities where his cells operate. Meanwhile, the United States cemented an alliance with Pakistan, whose religious schools spawned the Taliban, and maintained its close ties with Saudi Arabia, where the Taliban’s harsh brand of Islam originated, and many of whose elite support fundamentalist terror.
None of this hypocrisy warmed my feelings for the Taliban or Al Qaeda or the Pakistani street demonstrators, who seemed to hate with a frenzy that was erotic, way past any call for justice. There was so much evil, and so much innocence, everywhere I looked, that I wondered where to start.
So I showed up in the big room at the Unitarian Church in St. Paul where minister Ted Tollefson was to lead us through a four-hour reflection. There were 15 of us, ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-60s–quiet, thoughtful, serious men, willing to be peacemakers, but full of questions too. One declared quite straightforwardly that he supported military action against Afghanistan. Another took a moment to reflect on the appeal of fundamentalism: its moral certainty, the sense of drama and significance it gives to life. He took a breath, closed his eyes, and said, ‘I’m envious.’ A third said, ‘I am embarrassed that I cannot shield my child from the horrors of the world. But in this case I do not believe in turning the other cheek.’
Tollefson responded with a definition of peace that opened my eyes wide. ‘In the biblical tradition, and in the Koran too,’ he said, ‘peace is not the absence of conflict. Martin Luther King said that peace means wholeness, integrity, the different parts of the world fitting together in such a way as to please God. Not the absence of conflict but the right relationship between peace and justice. So if you feel the conflict between peace and justice, you are at the heart of the matter.’
Okay, I thought, that’s right where I am. But where do I go from here?
Tollefson then set down an ingenious adaptation of the stages of grief laid out by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. We are still grieving the events of last September and all that has followed, he suggested, and explained that the five Kübler-Ross stages that precede acceptance–shock, sadness, anger, guilt, and bargaining–are descending upon us all, in no particular order. It is a classic cycle of grief, he said. Each stage offers something we need, but each carries a danger too.
-Shock is a natural anesthetic that protects us from the enormity of a loss, a war, a changed reality. Linger in it, though, and it becomes permanent denial–a rupture of reality.
-Sadness opens us to depth, helps us feel the enormity of loss; we see the waste of lives, American and Afghan and all the others, as the fathomless tragedy it is. But sadness clutched too tight brings depression and deadness in our soul.
-Anger ‘mobilizes resources for change and steels the will,’ said Tollefson. But, overindulged, it becomes a savage and simplistic desire for vengeance.
-Guilt in the proper perspective prompts questions like the ubiquitous ‘Why do they hate us?’ Searching for the answers can show us connections that have been broken and need mending–like the connection between American ideals and American policy. ‘Frozen’ guilt degenerates into shame: There is nothing that we as individuals, or as a nation, can do, or do right.
-Bargaining, the use of our smarts and skills to try to fix things, can address some of the problems associated with our loss. Its trap: the temptation to devise a clever way out of the inevitable pain of life. To put sky marshals on airliners is a rational measure against terror; to expect them to make air travel safe forever is delusional.
We meditated and wrote about the grief cycle in journals for a half-hour. I surprised myself by discovering that I was stuck in the guilt and bargaining stages–that is, in shame and the single-fix mentality. If Americans just understood Islam better, I wrote. If we just grasped geopolitical reality more deeply. If I, as a journalist, could just get them–my readers–to get what I get . . . if I just understood it better myself . . . if I knew Arabic . . .
I realized that the place where I was stuck was superficially more intelligent and peace-loving than the ‘stuck’ form of anger–vengeance. The mainstream media were doing their best to freeze us all in revenge mode. But what was I denying in my nervous certainty that cultural knowledge would redeem us from this horror? Perhaps I was just a little uncomfortable with the messy humanity of all the actors in this drama, from the hijackers to the dead New York office workers to all the folks with flags in their yards. Maybe I had found a subtle way to substitute something I like and know how to control–book learning–for something that takes me to pieces. But maybe you need to be taken to pieces to be a peacemaker, the way you need to be wounded to be a healer.
Next, Tollefson led us through an exercise in identifying values, the discipline of asking questions in order to find out what is important to us and why. And he discussed the idea of loving our enemies from a Jungian psychological point of view: How are we projecting, attaching the things about our selves we do not acknowledge to our ‘enemies,’ and hating what we can’t face in ourselves?
While this was intriguing, (and might also explain why some of the terrorists spent their last days enjoying Western ‘evils’ like vodka and strippers), I couldn’t get the grief cycle out of my head. Maybe, I thought, becoming aware of the elements of the cycle might do more than just calm and purify the mind, as Tollefson had suggested. Maybe keeping the cycle circulating was itself the best way of balancing justice and peace in our strange new era. Maybe when anger dances with healthy guilt, and both are partnered to living sorrow, when the mind’s ability to protect itself from too much pain joins with a problem-solving spirit, and then they all dance together, peace becomes possible.
But as I left the church, all of this suddenly sounded implausible: fine in the personal realm, a good metaphor maybe, but what about the harsh realities of a hard world? And what about hope, for God’s sake? Did I mean to base my whole process of peacemaking on grief?
And then I thought, why not? Peacemaking and grieving aren’t strangers–that’s what we felt in those blessed and awful first few days after 9/11. Healthy grief is angry and hungry for justice, connected to deep truth by sorrow, morally alert thanks to guilt. It seeks a renewal of the world, and it celebrates life. It is universally human. And it is a decent way of saying good-bye to a national security that was far too dependent on ignorance of the wider world, overconsumption, and blindness to the suffering that pursuit of our ‘vital interests’ has caused, from CIA-backed coups to the homicidal Iraqi sanctions.
And no, I don’t know how to share it with terrorists or with high-tech warriors. I only know that the country I love can use it, plenty of it, as a rite of passage out of a long adolescence and into the deep joys and terrors of the real world.
Does peacemaking make sense in the real world? Discuss with Jon Spayde in Cafe Utne’s special forum ‘Terrorism: 9/11 and Beyond’ at cafe.utne.com.