AS A CHILD, IT WAS THE SHIMMERING, deeply blue bay, the playful, mysterious wind in the long grass, and the cricket's sun-chants that first let me experience God for myself. These were so much my friends, so real, that little of what was not real in organized religion had much impact on me. However, what was real would intertwine with all of this to give me a stronger sense of God. I'd seen and touched. Now I also heard: "God is love." "If someone says, 'I love God' but hates sister or brother, that person is a liar!" "Love one another." "Happy the peacemakers. . ." "Perfect love casts out fear." And then, "Love your enemies!"
I was shaken. I'd felt the powerful, mysterious presence of God in the community of nature. I was beginning to feel the equally powerful, equally mysterious presence of God in the human community. The blue bay and "love your enemies" seemed to embrace.
THAT WAS then. What does this all mean now? After all, I am a serious, busy adult! Religion or no religion, I live in a world crackling with violence. So what does it all mean now?
A great deal. I sensed back then that this kind of radical love was necessary for my spiritual survival. Now I have begun to understand that spiritual and physical survival are more intricately linked than most people suspect or admit.
In the peacemaking movement, physical destruction is recognized as very real. Religion shows that spiritual death is just as real and devastating -- for nations as well as individuals. To lend our sacred human energy to the conception, design, manufacture, and financing of weapons for murder seriously damages us -- even if they are never physically used. In the same way, it is faith in the world as one body that allows us to see, as German theologian Dorothee Solle noted, "Our peace kills; that is, the nuclear non-war --or if you want: the balance of terror -- costs every day thousands of human lives in the world's poor countries and classes."
If religion does not involve both a passionate, practical love of this earth and a constant discovery of how to "love your enemies," I cannot see how it promotes peacemaking. After centuries of blessing a culture of violence, we come to the crucial point in human history: either we continue toward assured global annihilation or we come full circle to that moment when Christ said, "Love your enemies."
"Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one's enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival," declared Martin Luther King. Today, "peacemaking" becomes the work of survival -- both from global war and from the killing of farmland, lakes, rivers, and air with our profit-making poisons and our garbage.
Love of creation and love of enemy will now determine our spiritual and physical future. I question any religion's capacity to face this historical challenge simply by organizing itself better. But the passionate search for a way to love my enemy will yield its own strategies and tactics. Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Argentinian nonviolent resister and Nobel Peace Prize winner, puts it this way: "We struggle by rendering operative the force of love in the battle of liberation. Active nonviolence is a response ... that is based on the gospel. Nonviolence is a way of answering evil and injustice with truth, and hate with love. For truth and love are the weapons of the spirit in the face of repression. Nonviolence is not passivity or conformism. It is a spirit, and a method. It is a spirit of prophecy, for it denounces all sundering of a community of brothers and sisters and proclaims that this community can only be rebuilt through love. And it is a method -- an organized set of ruptures in the civil order so as to disturb the system responsible for the injustices we see around us."
Love is clearly at the heart of all world religions. We need to share with each other how to put it into practice.
I can recall certain moments, my own turning points. On those occasions, I saw that I'd either have to learn how to love, or else go deeper into violence.
On the playground in Grade Six, I've led my soldiers into a glorious battle and am ready to slay my foe with my sword -- a wooden Coca Cola ruler. "Turn it over," my victim cries out, "and read the other side!" I pause, then read the inscription. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!" says the ruler. I am overwhelmed and confused.
Senior high school, in the boys' locker room. A guy calls me a "frog," and he's not joking. I grab him, shove his head into the urinal and flush it. Inexplicably, I realize afterward: "If I use violence, I'll be committed to it. I'll be forever perfecting and refining it." That experience becomes one of the most important beginnings of my search for another power and another way of resolving conflicts.
YEARS LATER, IN A Palestinian village where I've come to learn from both Jews and Palestinians who practice radical nonviolence, I meet a rabbi just my age. Our encounter is profound for both of us. He works with young Palestinians, and he's participating in the movement of Jewish soldiers who refuse to fight in Lebanon. At first he had not opposed all violence, but only the Lebanese war. However, the experience is leading him deeper into nonviolence. The friendship between us is immediate, and as I leave he says, "You have awakened in me spiritual resources I'd forgotten I had."
Ecumenism is the coming together of different religions to listen, exchange, pray -- and act when necessary. "Deep ecumenism" is a term describing ecumenism that enables us to learn from the deepest wisdom in each other's traditions. This "deepest wisdom" can best be called mysticism. But we must face this: We can never hope to share in the other's mysticism, to pray or act deeply with those of other traditions, until we understand and try to live deeply our own mysticism! Few of us do so. One proof of this is the shallow understanding that people in the West have of Francis of Assisi. Why have we killed so many lakes and lives, turned the rain itself into acid? Is there not behind this a violent attitude toward creation? A lack of respect? A lack of mutual relatedness? Now that this attitude threatens our very survival, maybe we can begin to understand this. When Francis of Assisi said, "Sister Water," he was expressing a revolutionary mystical relationship. This kind of mysticism, we can now see, is as practical as it is passionate. Our need of it is urgent.
If "religion" tries to contribute to "peacemaking" without generating this kind of mysticism, will it not leave out the essence of its contribution to peace? The result will be an organized, yet hollow, religion.
Religion encounters many problems in the work of peacemaking. I will mention only a few of them.
False obedience. Obedience is often associated with religion. True obedience carries within it a strong capacity for disobedience. How can there be any honest, radical "yes" to peace without an equally radical "no" to war? We need to use the powerful tools of active nonviolent resistance.
Outdated assumptions. "Religious" and "secular" peacemakers still hold outdated assumptions about each other. We need to test our beliefs about each other if we are to work together in networks and coalitions. This young Communist may have more compassion than the principled Christian minister. That older nun may be more radically committed to genuine feminism than the young university professor who teaches a course on it.
Fear and intolerance of the other's sacred space. A few years ago, men were afraid of women who created space for themselves. Women have since shown that this can enrich their working with men. In the same way, we need to respect those who keep a spiritual space in their peacemaking work. This too deepens our capacity to work with others of different religions -- or of none.
One such example in my life is "River" -- a group of us who've begun a long-term exploration of the spirituality and practice of Christian nonviolence both in our neighborhood of South Riverdale (Toronto) and at a local factory of war, Litton Systems. While we continue to work with others in peacemaking, River offers us sacred space in which we can also celebrate our faith without restrictions.
Faith is not ideology or philosophy. Faith is passionate (but not fanatical) because faith means relationship. "Religion" without faith (it does exist)amounts to only rituals and regulations. Faith is to be respected -- others' faith and my own. Whether or not I share your faith, I must respect it.
ALL EXPERIENCES of God open us to community with the earth and with each other. Interdependence is a central theme in religion. In North America, the poverty of community cripples our actions for peace. Dorothy Day, a radical resister to U.S. militarism who lived in community with the victims of violence, pointed to this. She said, "the situation is not going to be changed just by demonstrations. . . It's a question of living one's life in drastically different ways." (She didn't say, "instead of demonstrations.")
However liberating our role in peacemaking may be, it cannot replace rooted, ongoing community, being with sisters and brothers beyond the level of doing, being with the trees and animals without the obsession to own, control, or exploit. Here in North America, building community in general (and communities in particular) may be the greatest task of religious peacemaking. Community is perhaps our greatest hope. From community can come the capacity for deep ecumenism, which can release the collective wisdom and passion we need to heal the earth and ourselves.
Len Desroches, a founder of Catholic New Times, leads retreats on nonviolence.