Can We Get Along?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 23, 2005
Rodney King, of course, was the African-American motorist who was videotaped by a bystander being struck repeatedly by Los Angeles police officers during a police stop in March of 1991. There was a great outcry about the incident because many people, both within and outside the African-American community, believed that the beating was racially motivated, excessive, and a blatant example of police brutality. The acquittal in a state court of the four officers charged with using excessive force in subduing King led to the deadly 1992 Los Angeles riots and mass protest around the country.
It was during these riots, ostensibly raging in his name, that in King made an appearance before television news cameras to plead for peace. His heartfelt, sincere, yet somehow pathetic words became famous: "Can we get along here? Can’t we all just get along?"
In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her classic study of Yugoslavia between the two world wars, the great British author Rebecca West presents a vivid image of the way the (seeming) inevitably of war and mayhem can carve itself into our psyches:
“Were I to go down into the market place,” Dame Rebecca wrote, “armed with the powers of witchcraft, and take a peasant by the shoulders and whisper to him, 'In your lifetime, have you known peace?' -- wait for his answer, shake his shoulders and transform him into his father, and ask him the same question, and transform him in his turn to his father, -- I should never hear the word 'Yes,' if I carried my questioning back for a thousand years, if by my magic,” she concludes, “I raised four thousand from the dead. I should always hear, 'No, there was fear; there were our enemies without, our rulers within; there was prison, there was torture, there was violent death.'”
History would certainly forgive any of us being cynical about the possibilities for people “getting along”, let alone nations finding “peace in our time”. We’ve heard those words before. “Peace, peace, the voices cry, but there is no peace,” the Old Testament prophets tell us. Blindfold yourself and randomly point to any spot on a map of the world, and you’ll probably be able to find war, or the threat of a war, no more than a few hundred kilometers away.
We may be forgiven if we despair of the possibilities of peace in our time—or any time, for that matter, and find something more than a little pathetic in Rodney King’s heartfelt plea. “The years we have gone through have killed something in us,” Albert Camus wrote in the early years of our nuclear age. “Today no one speaks [of peace] any more (except those who repeat themselves [and to whom no one is listening]) because history seems to be in the grip of blind and deaf forces of ideology which will heed neither warning, nor advice, nor entreaties.”
In her classic study Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, Joanna Rogers Macy writes:
We who have been born or who have grown to maturity in the years since the dawn of the Nuclear Age feel numb in the face of a faceless terror which has not gone away. In spite of the fall of Communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, this world is as dangerous a place as ever. Who knows when some renegade Russian—American—or British—or French—or Chinese-- or Ukrainian—or Belorussian—or Kazakh—or Pakistani—or Indian—or Egyptian—or Israeli—or Iranian—or (heaven help us) North Korean-- political leader might decide to become the first to use nuclear weapons against an enemy since 1945, unleashing God-only-knows what kind of response? Who knows when a rogue scientist might choose to sell his country’s nuclear secrets to this-or-that terrorist organization for 40 pieces of silver? If we think about it (and it is much more comforting just not to, and to go on amusing ourselves to death, and go on being comfortably numb), this world is still a numbingly dangerous place, and “The years we have gone through have killed something in us,” to be sure.
Do we have any choice, then? Is there any reason to hope for peace? Is an organization like the United Nations anything more than a complete and total waste? Or is there still a more excellent way—a way that leads to peace—and can we get along at least enough to try to find it together?
I am not a pacifist, even thought I have the deepest respect for those who are. I would agree with Gandhi, the modern world’s greatest disciple of non-violence, who once reminded us that sometimes, when the choice is between violence and cowardice, we must choose to fight. Sometimes, in m opinion, there are human creations so irrational and evil that they need to be confronted, and sometimes we have to meet violence with violence. If they drafted old men like me, I would not qualify for conscientious objector status. (That’s just my opinion, and if you want to argue a purely pacificist option, you’ll get a more than respectful hearing from me.)
In spite of the fact that I wouldn’t call myself a pacifist, my faith continues to cry out to me—almost with the desperation of Rodney King at time, perhaps—that the human spirit is more powerful than any force which can be mustered against it. It is more powerful than the gas chambers of Auschwitz. It is more powerful than the inferno of the World Trade Center. It is more powerful than the blood-soaked hills of Bosnia or the carnage at Ramallah or the devastation of Baghdad. It is even more powerful than the living hells of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which our own nation unleashed upon the world.
The human spirit is more powerful than any human-made hells because the human spirit is part and parcel of the indestructible spirit at the heart of the universe, the indestructible power of the Creation. We are limited only by the boundaries we place upon ourselves and upon our consciousness. My faith tells me that we can draw a new map of this world of ours—if we but dare to break free of the patterns of domination and control of the past, and see the world in new ways, and live the world in new ways.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” The call to be peacemakers is found in all of the world’s holy scriptures, Jewish and Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim. We approach closest to the Divine, closest to God, closest to the true Source of our Being, when we put aside the man-made weapons of war, and take up the soul-inspired tools of peace. We are human; we are not gods. We will not always realize the full potential that dwells in our souls. We do make war upon one another; at times, perhaps, unavoidably. But let our faith proclaim that we can make peace as well!
Let our faith proclaim it not just in words, but also in deeds. “We have assumed the name of peacemakers,” Daniel Berrigan has written, “but we have been unwilling, by and large, to pay any significant price. And because we want peace with half and heart and half a will, war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total—but the waging of peace, by our cowardice, is partial. So a whole will and a whole heart and a whole national life bent toward war prevail over the [half-heartedness] of peace.”
As Jewel Kilcher sings:
If peace is to have a chance, we must do more than talk about peace, or pray for peace. We must wage peace and live peace. As Gandhi said, we must become the peace that we would see in the world.
The first step on the road to peace is self-understanding. We must stop blaming all those enemies “out there” for all of our failures. We have to come to grips, first of all, with the demons within—with those addictions and afflictions and diseases and prejudices in our own beings—which make us less than that person whom, God intends us to be. Unless we are dealing with these, then our relationships with other people can never be built on the basis of true peace. There is so much wisdom in that little song which goes, “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”
The second step is to adopt a lifestyle based upon peace, and not upon oppression or exploitation of others. We can only hope to live as peacemakers if our relationships to others are based upon non-violence, in every sense of the term: non-violence toward their spirits and beings, as well as toward their physical bodies. That means treating everyone around us with profound reverence, and recognizing how genuinely sacred each moment is. A non-violent attitude is one of actively living life, and loving life, and nurturing it toward its fullest possibilities, in ourselves and in others.
And the third step on the road to peace is actively to translate who we are as personal beings into who we are as public citizens. Opportunities for our human race, however golden they might at first appear, have this way of slipping away in the face of unimaginative, uninspired, un-prophetic leadership.
Our leaders are so often like the ancient geographers which the great Roman historian Plutarch wrote about. They knew, in fact, nothing whatsoever of the world beyond their homelands, the world in which they had grown comfortable and lazy and self-satisfied. When these geographers were called upon to draw maps of the “whole world”, Plutarch said, they would put their own homelands dead center, taking up the greater part of the page; then, they would “crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they did not know about, adding notes in the margins to the effect that beyond this lies nothing but sandy deserts, full of wild beasts and unapproachable bogs.”
Those ancient geographers weren’t able to imagine a world beyond the boundaries of their own limited experience. How, then, could they ever be expected to chart “the whole world”? They couldn’t. So, instead, they just wrote it off; they said it wasn’t worth knowing about anyway; no one would ever want to explore there; that it was impossible to reach, too dangerous, forbidden, beyond the pale of “civilization” as they knew it…
Now, the ways in which we hear the voice of God (or, if you prefer, the voice of Truth) can differ widely, from person to person. But it seems to me that nonetheless we are obligated, as religious men and women, to try—each in our own way—to do something to make this world a more peaceful place, a safer place for future generations call their home. We are obligated as religious men and women to try to get along, and that means we’re obligated to try to sit down and understand others, talk to them, negotiate with them, try to come to some understanding with them.
The United Nations is an incredibly imperfect human institution (though, I must admit, I can’t think of many human institutions that aren’t incredibly imperfect—sort of like all of us…) But where else do we have to go to sit down together and begin to redraw our maps of the world? If not at the U.N., then where else can be go to start our long journey to “get along”? No, the United Nations is imperfect, certainly, but in my heart I know it remains “the last best hope of humankind”, and that is why we observe United Nations Sunday in our church, and fly the United Nations flag in our sanctuary, and that is why the U.N. deserves our support, as religious men and women.
This is a sad old world in many ways, and the events of the past couple of years have but deepened our sadness. But let the hope prevail that our human race will finally emerge on day from under the dark, gray cloud of “politics as usual”. We may awake one day from out of the “nightmares of politicians”, as Ursula LeGuin describes our times. We may finally be starting to recognize and embrace again those dragons of possibility which have haunted the edge of our worldviews for so long—dragons of wonder, dragons of enchantment, dragons of justice, dragons of peace. They are the spirits of possibility written in the pages of every sacred scripture. They beat wildly in the hearts of men, women, and children all around the world.
It is these spirits, alive within our consciousness, alive within our creativity, which will help us redraw the maps of our world; they will help us draw at last a new map of a new world community.
It is not easy work, and there is no guarantee of success. But it is up to us to begin the effort, as best as we are able.
“We are tired, we are weary, but we are not worn out.”
We are so small; we are so weak—but we still have so much to live for.
As Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings: “The quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong… such is oft the course of deeds which move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”
It is not we, the Americans, who will bring peace. It is not we, the Democrats or we, the Republicans. It is we, the mothers and fathers-- sons and daughters-- brothers and sisters of this blessed Earth— who will finally bring peace.
We are the weavers of the tapestry of peace. The things we do—the ways we act—the choices we make—determine how far our tapestry will extend, and how vivid and alive its colors will be. We determine whether or not there will be peace among the children of Mother Earth.
“Holy mother, life bestowing, bid our waste and warfare cease.
Fill us with your grace o’er flowing. Teach us how to live in peace.”