Seeing as Peacemaking
Offered by NEC member
Rt. Rev. Dan Edwards
Unless these people are to be exterminated in a genocidal war or an endless guerrilla insurrection, they must be converted. And no one can show others the error that is within them . . . unless they are convinced that their critic first sees and loves the good that is within them. -- Walter Wink citing Thomas Merton
Premise: before one can be a peacemaker, one must become a person of peace.
You have seen it happen. Someone honks their horn, shouts obscenities, acts aggressively – sometimes prompted by injustice; other times by some inconvenience or afront to their sense of self-importance. The people around them catch the passion like a virus and either join in or react against the instigator. There is never any shortage of blasting cap people to make violence explode. Violence is such a common way of being in the world that it is hard for any of us to be otherwise. In the face of this way of the world, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” You have also seen this. The room is full of turmoil and tumult. But someone enters the room bringing a balance, an equanimity, and the volume lowers, the tension loosens, people begin to breathe. Peacemaking begins with being people of peace. But how is it possible? How do we become people of peace?
Peacemaking has clear political implications challenging all forms of systemic violence, injustice, and oppression. But in itself, peacemaking is a spirituality before it is a political agenda. Any political agenda for peace and justice not grounded in such a spirituality is doomed. So, the first step – which must be taken again and again each day – is to become people of peace. “Peace before us, Peace behind us, Peace under our feet. Peace within us. Peace over us. Let all around us be peace.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pevH0Ez6bms
Such a spirituality of peace includes prayer, reflection, and disciplined acts of mercy. But first, it begins with seeing. Peace begins with how we look at reality including each other. In The Art Of Attention: A Poet’s Eye, poet, literary critic, and translator Donald Revell (an Episcopalian whose first literary influence was the Book of Common Prayer) says that to simply see things as they are is an act of obedience. I do not think he would hesitate to say it is an obedience to God. “Attention,” Revell says, “is an act of obedience informed and/or inspired by faith.” He contrasts this with the aggression of seeing reality through our own agendas.
Aggression is always predicated on fantasy; it is the imagination’s preemptive strike upon sovereign facts whose reality it refuses to concede, much less to worship. To
see the sovereignty of what is seen is quietly, really to worship. And to articulate such worship in a poem Wages Peace.
He goes on to say that there is a kind of ego-transcendence, not in a mystical state but a clear-eyed appreciation of the Reality before us – setting aside the “I” to allow the “eye” to really see. I would add that setting aside our anxious/aggressive assertion and defense of the “I” is possible only through faith that our existence and ultimate well-being is grounded in God, and God is not at risk. Faith allows us to see, to appreciate, and so become people of peace capable of waging peace in a world whose way is war. In classical moral theology, such clear-eyed, unbiased seeing is called prudentia and it was regarded as “the mother of all virtues.”
Perhaps the greatest poem expressing this truth is The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge whose day job was being an Anglican Theologian. He also wrote the best English book of theology in his day, Confessions Of An Inquiring Mind. https://www.amazon.com/Samuel-Taylor-Coleridges-Confessions-Inquirer/dp/1780009356 .The Ancient Mariner is about the spiritual journey of a young sailor who, through his own act of aggression, was left alone on a ship lost at sea. His aggression was the killing of an albatross that was hung about his neck by his fellow sailors before they all died leaving him alone on a “rotting sea,” and unable to pray, his “heart as dry as dust.” His epiphany was a vision of what could have been terrifying, but wasn’t.
Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.
Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
We are at odds in the world. We who perceive ourselves as seeking peace set ourselves against those we see as seeking all manner of injustice and oppression, and they look to us like Coleridge’s water snakes. We are right to take our stand. But as Walter Wink and Thomas Merton taught us, “No one can show others the error that is within them . . . unless they are convinced that their critic first sees and loves the good that is within them.” Dr. Martin Luther King followed Jesus teaching to love our enemies. He said that “in seeking to love his enemy (one must first) discover the element of good in his enemy, and every time you begin to hate that person and think of hating that person, realize that there is some good there and look at those good points which will over-balance the bad points.” This is not a matter of tolerating the intolerable or passivity in the face of evil. It is a matter of “respecting the dignity of every human being” no matter how wrong headed, enraged, and ornery.
Becoming people of peace within ourselves, in our personal relationships, and in the public life takes prayer, discipline, and first of all a willingness to see the pain and fear that lie behind the aggression of others and then to find the imago dei in them. That willingness is possible only if we can set aside the “I” in order to allow the “eye” to see as God sees, into the heart.