MYSTICISM: Violence And Nonviolence by Dorothee Soelle

Violence And Nonviolence by Dorothee Soelle

From Christian Peace And Nonviolence, edited by Michael G. Long

It is beyond dispute that a child, even before it begins to write the alphabet and gathers worldly knowledge, should know what the soul is, what truth is, what love is, and what forces are hidden in the soul.  It should be the essence of true education that every child learns this and in the struggle of life be able more readily to overcome hatred by love, falsehood by truth, and violence by taking suffering on oneself. (Gandhi, The Unity of All Living Beings)

Mysticism creates a new relation to the three powers that, each in its own totalitarian way, hold us in prison: the ego, possession, and violence.  Mysticism relativizes them, frees us from their spell, and prepares us for freedom.  Those powers project themselves in very diverse ways.  The ego that keeps on getting bigger presents itself most often as well-mannered and civilized, even when it seeks to get rid of every form of ego-lessness.  Possession, which according to Francis of Assisi makes for a condition that forces us to arm ourselves, appears in a neutralized, unobtrusive form.  The fact that the very entities with which we destroy creation – namely possession, consumption, and violence – have fashioned themselves into a unity in our world makes no impact, whether by design or through ignorance.

When women, like Dorothy Day, are not fixated on their own egos, or when fools without possessions, like some of Saint Francis’s sons and daughters, live different, liberated lives, they are met with smiles of derision.  But when they dare to take real steps out of the violence-shaped actuality of our condition, they come into conflict with the judiciary or wind up in jail.  More than anything else, violence must hide itself and always put on new garments, disguising itself in the form of imperatives, such as security, protection, technological necessity, public order, or defensive measures.

Here is an inconspicuous example.  In June 1997, a member of the White Fathers, a religious community that is part of the “Order for Peace,” was fined for having demonstrated outside the Chancellor’s Office in Bonn with a picket-sign saying “Cancel Third World Debts.”  The office had refused to accept a petition, signed by 12,000 people, sponsored by the campaign “Development Needs Forgiveness of Debts.”  The harmless name of the violence behind which the Chancellor’s Office was hiding is the law of inviolable precincts; under present circumstances it is one of the many, actually quite sensible garments of state power.  But the law is abused when the office of state protects itself against democratic interventions and expects submission to or passivity in face of economic violence rather than a decisive, No! of noncooperation.

This rather insignificant example of civil disobedience illustrates how people make use of violence.  For many, it is no longer good enough to behave nonviolently in their personal lives and to submit to administrative regulations.  For in such nonviolence and submission, as the powerful of this world define them, the real violence that renders the countries of the Third World destitute is left untouched.  To exist free of violence means much more than that: it means to think and act with other living beings in a common life.  These forms of the freedom of opposition and resistance have multiplied in the last centuries also in Europe in the face of the militaristic and technocratic coercion.  An essential and new role is played here by the basic insights of mysticism, such as those of the tradition of Gandhi as well as the Quakers.

In the eighties I was occasionally asked, especially within the contexts of civil disobedience against nuclear arms, whether I did not sense something in myself of the power and spirit of the other, the enemy: “Where is the Ronald Reagan in you?”  I was in no mood to respond with a speculation about my shadow side.  I do not think that a pacifist has to be complemented by a bellicist.  Perhaps I did not understand correctly the seriousness of the question that seeks to grasp the unity of all human beings; to me the question seemed intent on neutralizing or mollifying what we were about.  When I ask myself seriously what the principalities and powers that rule over me as structural powers claim from me, the answer is that it is my own cowardice that they seek to make use of.  Those who submit to those powers also are part of the violence under whose velvet terror we live and destroy others.

Before he found his way to nonviolent resistance, Gandhi used to describe that time by saying that it was as a coward that he accommodated himself to violence.  I understand this in a two-fold sense.  First, I submitted to external violence, which is to say I knuckled under, paid my taxes with which more weapons were produced, I followed the advice of my bank, and I consumed as much as the advertisers commanded.  Worse still, I hankered after violence, wanted to be like “them” in the advertisements, as successful, attractive, aesthetic, and intelligent as they were.  The existential step that the word nonviolence signals leads out of the forced marriage between violence and cowardice.  And that means in practice that one becomes unafraid of the police and the power of the state.

The forms of resistance that revoke the common consensus about how we destroy creation have deep roots in a mysticism that we often do not recognize as such.  It is the mysticism of being at one with all that lives.  One of the basic mystical insights in the diverse religions envisions the unity of all human beings, indeed, of all living beings.  It is part of the oldest wisdom of religion that life is no individual and autonomous achievement.  Life cannot be made, produced, or purchased, and is not the property of private owners.  Instead, life is a mystery of being bound up with and belonging one to another.  Gandhi believed that he could live a spiritual life only when he began to identify himself with the whole of humankind, and he could do that only by entering into politics.  For him the entire range of all human activities is an indivisible whole.  Social, economic, political, and religious concerns cannot be cultivated in sterile plots that are hermetically sealed off from one another.  To bring those sterile, sealed-off plots together in a related whole is one of the aims of the mysticism whose name is resistance.

In a long poem, Thich Nhat Hanh names the identification with all that lives in all its contradictoriness:

I am the mayfly that flits on the river’s watery surface.
And I am also the bird that dashes down to catch it.

I am the frog that happily swims in the pond’s clear water.
And I am the grass snake that devours the frog in the stillness.

I am the child from Uganda, just skin and bones with legs thin as bamboo sticks;
And I am the arms-trader selling the weapons that rain death on Uganda.

I am the twelve-year old girl,
refugee in a small boat,
that was raped by pirates
and now only seeks death in the Ocean;
and I am also the pirate—
my heart is not yet able to understand and to love.

The poem is entitled “Name Me by My True Name,” and the writer gives himself the most diverse names.  He is the “caterpillar in the heart of a flower,” a “jewel hidden in stone,” but also a “member of the Politboro, and, at the same time, its victim who, slowly dying, pays “its bloodguilt in a forced labor camp.”  Animals and plants become the “name” of the immersing and expanding I.  In his poems, the Zen teacher and poet who developed the concept of the “engaged Buddhist” sends his learner on their own search for names, a search which, without them knowing, can never end.  Friends and foes are distinguished; perpetrators such as the rapist are judged to be blind but not excluded – on them too does God’s sun shine, as Jesus put it.  That life has horrible, violent enemies is not denied.  But this realism of naming is overcome into the mystical sense of being one.  Difference is acknowledged but not absolutized in the destruction of community and the postmodern denial of every kind of universality.

Call me by my true name, please,
so that I may hear all at once
all my crying and laughing,
so that I may see that my joy
and my pain are now one,
so that from now on the door of
my heart may stand open—
the door of sympathy.

According to Buddhist teaching, dissociating the self is one of the four causes of suffering next to greed, hate, and infatuation.  The division of I and non-I, in other words, the delimitation of the self from others, is the onset of violence.  If I “am” not the fly – in the changed mystical sense that the word “to be” gains here – then I can also kill it.  If I “am” not the trader of arms to Uganda, then I cannot enter into a dialogue about economic alternatives or a blockade.  The trader remains for me an accomplice in murder and I remain a spectator.  The everyday question, “What business is that of yours?” lives by the dissociation of the self and allows violence to spread.  What does not concern the I does not exist, and in our culture the non-identity of the I and the non-I is virtually built-up and transfigured.  The dissociation of the I is a self-expression of actualized, legitimated, or suffered violence.

This violence is overcome when the belief in the I is expanded and transposed until, as the poem declares, one finally lives “recognizing oneself in everything.”  Buddhist wisdom teaches, “what I am, they are also; when one makes oneself thus equal with the other, one does not wish to kill or permit killing.”

The mystical foundation of the life that, according to Albert Schweitzer, “desires life in the midst of other life” is the foundation of the ever-to-be-searched-for-freedom from the practice of violence and of the at least equally dangerous habituation to violence that rules among us.  When one renounces one’s attachment to the self, the consequences are truly great: no killing or acquiescence in it.

It is high time to stop playing the part of the “willing executioners” or of the allegedly uninvolved onlookers.  The toil for possible alternatives to violence, which takes place, for example, in prison-work, in youth groups, and in the resistance against the violence of the nuclear industry, always recalls the spiritual basis of community.  Devotions and meditative elements of very different kinds are today part of blockades or protest actions.  The inner peace, as freedom from greed and the limitation of the self, translates itself into the practice of peace.  The mystical peaceableness of the many “true names” leads to new forms of creating peace.

“Our Weapon is to Have None”: Martin Luther King, Jr.

At Union Theological Seminary, during one of my seminars on mysticism and resistance, a student came to me wanting to talk about Martin Luther King, Jr.  Somewhat confused I asked, “King, terrific but – a mystic?”  He asked me whether I knew about the kitchen table experience.  I had no idea, but this is how I came to know something about the “dark night of the soul” in King’s life.

It all began on a bus in December 1955 as a forty-two-year-old black seamstress was traveling home from work.  Even though 40 percent of the inhabitants of Montgomery were black, seats on the buses were reserved primarily for whites.  Rosa Parks was seated in the section segregated for blacks; as more people got on the bus the driver told her to give her seat to a white passenger.  She was tired and remained seated.  The driver called the police; she was arrested, and, as was the custom, put in jail.  “I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day,” she writes in her memoirs.  “No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”  At the time, she was the honorary secretary of an antiracist organization that had been founded in 1909, in honor of Abraham Lincoln, to provide legal assistance and voter registration.

The evening following the arrest of this highly respected woman, young Reverend King invited well-known and influential black citizens to his church.  The atmosphere was explosive.  A boycott of the bus line was decided upon, and most black citizens honored the call not to ride the buses.  For a year the buses drove their routes empty; taxi drivers took the strikers to their destinations for the price of bus fare.  In the course of time, Baptist preacher King became the spokesperson for the local civil rights movement.  At the same time, he had to cope with threats and fears that the well-educated son of a Baptist minister had never encountered before.  His father had taught him that “no one can make a slave of you as long as you do not think like a slave.”

In January 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr., was jailed for the first time under the pretext that he had exceeded the legal speed limit of 25 miles per hour by five miles.  On the way to prison he became scared: the car he was being taken in was being driven out of town.  Was he going to be lynched?  A few months before, a black fourteen-year-old had been abducted and sadistically murdered; the three white perpetrators were never punished.  With good reason to be scared, King also had reason enough for relief when he was taken “only” to the run-down jail, a place reeking of urine and overflowing with homeless people, vagrants, drunks, and thieves.  “Don’t forget us,” they shouted as he was released on bail.

It was not much better at home: the family received between thirty and forty telephone calls and hate letters per day.  “Get out of town or else.  KKK.”  “You niggers are getting yourself in a bad place.  We need and will have a Hitler to get our country straightened out.”  King and Coretta, his wife, could not disconnect the telephone because they depended on calls from their friends.  They jumped every time it rang and had to listen to threats, unspeakable obscenities, and hatred.

A white friend informed King of a serious plot to kill him.  King did not know which way to turn.  He came home from a meeting exhausted, wrung out from a long day, and he went to sleep.  Again, the phone rang, he picked up the receiver and heard an ugly voice telling him, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken from you all we want.  Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.”  King could bear it no longer; he got up and walked the floor.  For the first time, he feared for his life.  He went to the kitchen table and put on a pot of coffee.  Then he sat down at the table and wondered how he could leave Montgomery without appearing to be a coward.  There was no alternative; he had to get away.  He thought about his father.  At this point, King, Jr., was just twenty-seven years old.  Something inside him said, “You can’t call Daddy now.  He’s up in Atlanta, 175 miles away.  You have to call on that something, that being, that your Daddy told you about, this power that finds a way where there is none.”  Later King said that he discovered then that religion was for real, and that “I had to get to know God for myself.”  Sitting at the kitchen table and bowed over it, he began to pray aloud: “O, Lord.  I’m down here trying to do what is right.  The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength or courage, they too will falter.  I am at the end of my powers.  I have nothing left.  I can’t face it alone.”  Subsequently, King himself told what happened to him then at the kitchen table in Montgomery.  “It seemed that an inner voice was speaking to him with quiet assurance: ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness.  Stand up for justice.  Stand up for truth.  And lo, I will be with you even unto the end of the world.”  King heard the voice of Jesus telling him to keep up the struggle.  He then heard or sang a hymn rooted in black piety: “He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”  In that moment, King was to say later, he felt God’s presence like never before.  His fears left him all of a sudden, his uncertainty vanished, and he was ready to face anything.  He made his decision, he did not quit, and he did not take the easier route of going along.  He realized that suffering taken up voluntarily has a transforming power.

Years later King explained what this meant.  He assumed that society was diseased with racism and hatred, and bent on keeping its privileges and advantages.  These diseases are not healed if all that we do is try to make misery known, for example, by taking photos of starving children in Africa.  Such diseases become treatable when minorities actually stand up for justice in economic relations, and when they do not let themselves be defeated by failures and ridicule, by being told that they are inferior, or by being rendered invisible.

When white racists threw a bomb on the porch of the King house, enraged blacks gathered in a crowd, armed with pistols, knives, sticks, and stones.  Arriving at the house, King implored the crowd not to answer violence with violence.  Those who answer violence with violence, bombs with bombs, and killing with killing solve no problems but descend to the level of the enemy.  He told the outraged people to take their guns home or to throw them into the sea.  “Our weapon is to have none,” he said.  “When I decided that, as a teacher of the philosophy of nonviolence, I couldn’t keep a gun, I came face-to-face with the question of death and I dealt with it.  And from that point on, I no longer needed a gun nor have I been afraid.  Ultimately, one’s sense of manhood must come from within him.”  King had read Gandhi in his student days and for him also pacifism was not a “method for cowards.”  He called hooligans reactionaries because they resemble too much their enemies; he himself was a moderate radical, proud of being “badly adjusted.”  He favored methods of direct action but only after precise analysis of the situation.  Action is to be taken only after negotiating with the other side has been tried as long as possible.  Nonviolence means to forgo the desire to win and to avoid the defeat of enemies, which always includes their humiliation.  The issues of peace, justice, and – as must be added today – creation are always the enemies’ issues as well; they, too, need air to breathe.  Their issue is also ours.  Every form of the spirit of hostility has to be rejected.  King called white racists “our sick white brothers,” which angered some of his comrades in the struggle.

An important component of nonviolence for King was the unearned suffering that resulted from the conflicts.  He said that there would be rivers of blood, but we are determined to make sure that it is not the blood of the enemy.  And so the method or the different style of living out nonviolence gives precisely to the disenfranchised and powerless a different sense of their own dignity.  This was rooted deeply in the piety of blacks, more deeply than King had initially assumed.  Simplicity, clarity, depth – learned during centuries of suffering – is how King understood the Sermon on the Mount.

He had learned much from the Black theologian and philosopher Howard Thurman, who, as a teacher of the way of mysticism, spoke on behalf of the disenfranchised and underprivileged.  In his lectures on “Mysticism and Social Change,” Thurman wrote in reference to the well-known words of the socialist Eugene Debs: “It is not only the socialist but also the confirmed mystic or the man seeking the fullness of the vision of God who must say truly, ‘while there is a lower class, I am in it.  While there is a man in jail, I am not free.’  The distinction between personal selfishness and social selfishness, between personal religion and social religion which we are wont to make, must forever remain artificial and unrealistic.”  The inheritance of this humane mystical tradition of unity is what King took up and, in his admirable rhetorical talent, declared it to be valid for his own people as well as for this century.  “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.  We will meet your physical force with soul force.  Do to us what you will and we will still love you.  We cannot in all conscience obey your unjust laws and bide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you.  Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you.  Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us up, and we will still love you.”

Between Hopes and Defeats

This fluctuation between defeats and hopes must be something a religious culture of resistance cannot avoid.  Religiosity borne by “positive thinking” always strikes me as being embarrassingly void of spirit and opiate-like.  This “dark night of the soul” cannot be voted out of existence, nor will buttons calling us to “Take Jesus!” help us to get over it, much less over the dark night of creation.  That we are and shall always be in God’s hand, according to the woman cited earlier, becomes credible when with Teresa of Avila we also know, mystically, that God has no other hands but ours.  To be aware of the “silent cry” in our world means to become one with it.


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