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Nonviolence & the Gulf War

Let Us Gather Blossoms Under Fire

 

An Encouragement in Time of War to Those Prepared to Give Peace a Chance

 

 

Alastair McIntosh

 

 

First published in Reconciliation Quarterly, Autumn 1991, having been put out on GreenNet's Middle-East internet conferences at the peak of the war earlier that year.

 

Alastair McIntosh, a Quaker, co-inspired and helps run the GulfWatch News Service to provide Scottish religious and peace groups with uncensored information of ethical concern. He is development director at the Centre for Human Ecology, Edinburgh University.

 

Believing in non-violence and trying to live it can be a little rough at a
time like this. Anger readily flashes our way as the intent behind the
politely clad question, "So what would YOU do about Saddam?", gives frightened
and confused people a focus to round on. If you cannot have a go at Saddam
personally, try a pacifist, a "foreign looking" person ... anyone on whom the
psychology of fear and insecurity can be vented.

 

So how do we pacifists justify our refusal to back the war effort?  For me
personally, the bottom line is trying to live by the premise that I would
rather be killed than kill another human being. Although everybody is
justified to kill in self-defence and the collective response of war is
particulary understandable in oppressed peoples, it is a right there are good
reasons to consider renouncing.

 

This is because killing is an irreversible and ultimate thing to do to a
person.  It denies the potentially redemptive experience of physical life to
the other who, for all we know, may need it more than we do. 

 

Those of us who will give the benefit of any doubt that consciousness and love
extend beyond what we know of this life; those of us who feel even a hint that
the greater part of our Selves have never been "born", let alone be capable of
being killed - we, surely, do not need to grasp so tightly to physical life as
to deny it in others. We, surely, must be the first to reject violence and try
to live in a way consistent with the greater dream where all are members one
of another.

 

Renunciation of violence or at least efforts to minimise it as far as is
culturally possible can be found in perhaps all the major faiths and natural
spiritualities of the world. An aphorism attributed to Mohammed states, "Faith
is a restraint against all violence; let no believer commit violence". And as
for the much-hyped Islamic equivalent of Christendom's Crusade, the Jihad,
another saying proclaims, "The most excellent Jihad is that for the conquest
of self".  The Hindu Bhagavad Gita similarly reflects that the real holy war
is within ourselves, arising from the illusion (maya) that we are separate
from others and the rest of reality.  Life is about awakening to deep reality,
real-ising interconnectedness, so that we can be true to our deepest selves.

 

In Christianity (as distinct from Christendom and much churchianity) we see
Jesus teaching non-violence even under occupation by the cruel Roman Empire.
He forsook the sword, forgave his oppressors, and entered into his own
tortured death. Yet, what he stood for has outlasted all military regimes.
This is because his teachings lead us to the eternal level of reality; to a
level of being which is both in and beyond this world, but not of the world's
blindness.  Jesus showed how the ultimate play of life extends beyond
constraints of space and time. Just as an atomic explosion transmutes matter
into energy, non-violence opens our restricted consciousness to the ever
unfolding expression of cosmic love; to 'God'.

 

This, it might be replied, is all very well for those who have had the luxury
of abstract thought sitting under the protective confines of a nuclear
umbrella which, arguably, kept the peace until this January. But what happens
when confronted face to face with an aggressive person? 

 

I can only speak from limited personal experience. Since starting to
experiment with non-violence some fifteen years ago, I have been in a number
of situations at home and abroad which have been gently testing.  I have been
pushed around, spat in the eyes, struck to the point of blood being drawn and
had death threatened more than once.

 

What surprised me was the discovery that refusing to fight disarmed the
aggressor. It has made it possible to defuse difficult situations where
colleagues or others avoided intercession. Twice, when feeling particularly
frightened, I have felt swept up by a surge of near-blissful calm. It was a
sense of alrightness, a glimpse of that ultimate interconnectedness. It seemed
to show that at the deep level of Life's process all was well, and would
remain well no matter what the apparent outcome.

 

This has been a joy and a challenge to discover, though I see it as having
been serendipitous rather than an experience always to be expected in tight
situations. It probably has much to do with being face to face with a violent
person, but seeing and treating them as wholly human.

 

What about an attack on your children? people ask. When of an age that they
are under my care, I would try to apply the same principle to them as I apply
to myself. This, however, would not prevent trying to restrain an aggressor by
placing myself between them and my family. It would not rule out a struggle if
gentle talking and other ways of reaching the human being had failed. But I
would do my best to refrain from any action which might carry a serious risk
of causing death.

 

In practice, this meant not keeping a weapon in the house when our family
lived for two years in a violent location overseas. Most people had revolvers,
shotguns or bush knives as law and order had broken down to the extent that a
curfew was imposed. We did have a break-in one night during which a friend
sleeping with our children was held at knifepoint while many of our
possessions were stolen. Had violence been used to counter violence, the
chances are that her throat would have been slit.  As it was, the kids just
slept through it all and the gangs kept away for a while because they knew the
place was cleaned out. 

 

A really courageous and loving example was set by a teenage Quaker friend
there who was abducted and "pack raped" by fourteen youths.  She announced
that she wanted none of the usual police reprisals on their squatter
settlement.  Instead, she requested a traditional peacemaking ceremony of
remorse.  The outcome was that most apologised. I saw tears in the faces of
some.  Hearts had been touched. I don't think anybody suffered long term
traumatisation except, perhaps, the local expatriate castration and gallows
lobby who wrote furious letters of protest to the press.

 

Non-violence certainly does not mean being passive. Indeed, veteran war
mediator, Adam Curle, has pointed out that to call it "non-violence" is like
calling love, "non-hate". Ghandi's word, satyagraha, meaning "truth force" or
"soul force", much better captures the concept's true power. Far from being a
cop-out, satyagraha means being on a "war footing" about issues of justice and
peace throughout life, and not just when war breaks out or somebody threatens
us on the street. It is a whole way of life; not a spare time charitable
activity.

 

If in our minds we do leave open the option of violence, our incentive to
resolve conflict will never be as committed or sincere than if satyagraha is
our only protection. Consequently, non-violence releases inner strengths which
the cop-out of violence otherwise deadens. Violence may give power: but its
renunciation empowers.

 

With regard to the Gulf War, the most appropriate time for action was
throughout the past decade and longer, when not enough of us were busy writing
our Amnesty International letters about Iraqi human rights, not enough were
protesting the presence of nearly twenty British companies at a Baghdad arms
fair just a year before Kuwait was invaded, not enough were deploring Europe
and America's "business as usual" approach when Saddam gassed his own people
...  or raising money to provide Kurdish students with scholarships, and
calling for international action to implement UN resolutions on Palestine.

 

Understood as these sorts of pre-emptive action, the successes of satyagraha
greatly outweigh war.  Consider if the West had gone to war when the Soviet
Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968.  We might, had they possessed "our" oil!
But was it not better to wait twenty years for the non-violent movement within
to grow? We now see a country with a playwright as president, and little
residual bitterness from the struggle.

 

To all who mock pacifism in the face of the Gulf War, I want to ask, "Where
have you been in recent years? What did you do to combat the conditions which
made this war almost inevitable?  Why did you vote for politicians who
squandered our wealth on nuclear weapons, instead of using it to bring justice
and build peace?"

 

Like Hitler, Saddam is a symptom of underlying circumstances as much as the
cause. If such tyrants had not filled niches in regional and international
political psychology, somebody else probably would have.

 

And the West too is not without its tyranny, albeit more subtle. We too have
an unacceptable face to ourselves - a face which allows poverty to continue in
the midst of riches, which destroys the Earth's ecosystems out of greed and
establishes unjust economic groundrules backed by military aid to conserve
"Western interests".  This is all the less excusable when we have democracies
and a free press.

 

Refusal to acknowledge darkness in either ourselves or a whole society creates
what Jung called the psychological "shadow". This invariably seeks an enemy on
which to "project" or externalise the unacceptable. The scapegoat's genuine
shortcomings become merely the flimsy framework on which our filth is hung. It
allows us to feel pure in direct proportion to the other's perceived
defilement, and sets up a vicious cycle where falling standards of decency are
justified out of necessity in the face of mirrored tyranny.

 

Having lost the Soviet Union as prime scapegoat, it was predictable that the
Islamic world should start being raised as the West's new Satan.  Islam's own
shadow is tinder dry to reciprocate, openly regarding the hypocrisy of Western
values and leaders as demonic.  Also, both Christian and Islamic theology are
particularly prone to dealing with the problem of evil through projection,
through demonisation. This adds a deeper truth to British member of parliament
Dennis Healey's remark that "Saddam is a monster of the West's own making".

 

Without love in action, without satyagraha, hatred will boil blacker and
hotter than oil. Yet, paradoxically, the very word, "pacifism", is enough to
set many people fizzing.  What does this say? Perhaps it calls us to recognise
the forms taken by the almost bottomless insecurity of many people and asks us
to be understanding of their fears. Better, if we can, to listen creatively,
reflectively, than argue against a sealed mind. Let the other person unload
their tensions, and only then, if they are ready to listen, talk about what
George MacLeod of the Iona Community describes as the power of love being
greater than the love of power. 

 

Also, we should not expect perfection of ourselves or allow critics to squeeze
us into positions beyond where we feel comfortable. We are all struggling
along the path, making mistakes, thinking we're there when we're not or
feeling miles away when we're close.  So we need to acknowledge our
inconsistencies and even laugh at them. I have to say this, not least because
a friend recently pointed out the contradiction that I happened to be
speaking about peace while shouting at the kids!

 

In the same vein, we should not be afraid to admit that if it truly came to
the crunch none of us really knows that we would not fight back with all the
instinctual force which the heat of the moment might muster. So let us simply
be human, and just try.  Don't worry too much about success.  After all, how
can we hope for others to start experimenting with satyagraha if we who are
come across as ivory towers of lofty rectitude!

 

Exploring psychologies and spiritualities of liberation can be a helpful part
of learning to live non-violently. Mixing with gentle, empowered people is
invaluable, as can be reading the work of those who see or saw deeply into the
human heart such as Ghandi, King, Alice Walker, Gustavo Guttierez, Illich,
Friere, Audre Lorde, Thoreau, Mary Daly, Walt Whitman, Alan Watts, Starhawk,
Matthew Fox, the social and transpersonal psychologists and mystical (as
distinct from theocratic) writings from the great faiths and natural
spiritualities.

 

Above all, we must gradually learn how to open our hearts to feel and sense
at-one-ment with all being; with God. Through this re-enchantment of the
world, we can start to understand the spiritual not as some abstract force on
high, but as the passion of love in all its meanings. 

 

This points to a new world order which the bitter legacy of violence
constantly postpones, and that is why war is always wrong. So let us be
unafraid to proclaim non-violence!  Let us start living it, even just a very
small start, now.  Let us, in our hearts as Alice Walker's poem suggests,
gather blossoms in the midst of war.

 

                While love is unfashionable

                let us live

                unfashionably.

                Seeing the world

                a complex ball

                in small hands;

                love our blackest garment.

                Let us be poor

                in all but truth, and courage....

                While love is dangerous

                let us walk bareheaded

                beside the Great River.

                Let us gather blossoms

                under fire.

 

                          (Revolutionary Petunias, Women's Press, 1988)

 

 

 

 

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