Pacifism is not Passive

A sermon delivered by
Laura Friedman
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 15 December 2002

I heard a story of a young Israeli soldier who was stationed in the Gaza Strip. Each day he passed an area where Arab children would sit. When the children saw the soldier, they threw rocks at him, at least the first few times they did. Then one day the soldier bent down and picked up a few of the rocks and started to juggle them. After that, instead of throwing stones, every day the children gathered to watch him juggle.

The actions of the Israeli soldier transform acts of violence into connection, and human relation. From destructive, the pendulum has swung all the way back towards creative. Pacifism is creative. A Muslim theologian, named Maulana Wahiduddan Khan writes, "Violent activities breed hatred in society, while non-violent activities elicit love. Violence is the way of destruction while non-violence is the way of construction. In an atmosphere of violence, it is enmity which flourishes, while in an atmosphere of non-violence, it is friendship which flourishes…In short, violence is death, non-violence is life."

Pacifism says yes to life. Pacifism is creative and life-affirming. Khan continues, "Non-violence should never be confused with inaction or passivity. Non-violence is action in the full sense of the word." So too is pacifism. Pacifism is a choice to which you must continually recommit yourself. In a situation of conflict how do you manage to stay true to yourself? It may seem easiest to resort to violence as a form of punishment, but what will this solve?

There is a place that is broken and hurting inside each of us. We must see that violence is not an isolated occurrence, but a reflection of our own human brokenness. To choose non-violence and pacifism is to choose the difficult and perilous path of walking with our own brokenness and ugliness. I believe the potential for acts of violence lies within each of us. By choosing to sit with my own pain and sadness, I am trying to realize that I am broken. In my brokenness is a possible source of violence and a potential source of healing. Can you sit with your own pain in order to begin the process of healing? Do you walk your days with a consciousness of your brokenness? Are you willing to reveal it to the world in order to become whole? For after all a wound only heals with the aid of fresh air and light.

We are all broken and seeking a life of healing, a life of wholeness. But only in realizing our own brokenness can we begin to move away from destructive, life killing ways of being, towards healing life-affirming ways of being. Violence is destructive of life. Pacifism is life affirming.

The Members of Toronto First share a set of principles, posted here in Sunderland Hall. The second of these principles that we "affirm and promote" is, "justice, equity and compassion in human relations." Our sixth principle reads, "The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all".

For any one of us in this room to affirm and promote these principles, I think we need to take a serious look at what justice is. The Oxford dictionary sitting at my house holds that to "do justice" is to act fairly. But doing justice, it seems to me more commonly takes the appearance of a punishment. Alan Senauke a Zen Buddhist monk writes, "Conventionally, peace is understood as the cessation of armed violence. Conventionally, justice is identified with punishment. Such an understanding of peace and justice pulls in two directions. The peace and justice we speak of here is one thing, one direction…it is simply not living at the expense of another."

If you are a member of this congregation, you have committed to a relationship of work that you will undertake during your lifetime in order to carry those principles into your life, and into the world. How are you living your life according to the values and principles you hold most dearly? Be honest with yourself, what are the values you hold most dearly?

As Unitarians we also believe in tolerance, and that each one of us is on a path seeking greater truth. And along that path each of us must make decisions. The Unitarian church has no official viewpoint on war. Perhaps there are those among us for whom violence is the solution to the problems in the Middle East. No one need be a pacifist to be here. We try to create a space that is safe for all people to come together to create community and to work towards justice.

Is this war against Iraq a viable way to bring peace to the Middle East? In the best possible situation, will such a war destroy the potential for terrorist acts?

For me the truth is peace, and non-violence. For me war is not the answer. But how can I leave room for other points of view? I encourage discussion here, with the other thoughtful and compassionate people you meet today. Discern for yourself. You have to judge for yourself. You have to seek your own truth in this media mess, as even in the most peaceful of times we are bombarded with headlines and information.

I can only encourage you to stay on the path, to keep seeking the truth, and when you find it to speak it. Speaking your mind is a courageous act. So too, is questioning. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, "The peace principle [is not] to be carried into effect by fear. It can never be defended, it can never be executed by cowards." We are a denomination of courageous heretics. Let us proudly carry that mantle and that tradition by continuing to each seek the truth, to each question ourselves, and those around us.

I want you to think about the war, this perpetual war, war in Iraq, war in Israel/ Palestine, and all the wars that manifest themselves in each of our lives in a variety of ways. What ways of living do you have that are destructive? What is standing in the way of your own happiness, your own wholeness?

Pacifism is a moment-to-moment commitment to life. Pacifism is not passive; pacifism is radically life affirming. I am not here to encourage you to become pacifists. I am here to encourage you to live each and every moment of your lives. Every one of us here today, will die. The only thing that distinguishes one from the other really is how we choose to live our life.

When even for a moment, we lose gratitude for the magic of life, we become complacent. And here in Canada it is easy to lose sight of gratitude because our lives are saturated with violence from the TV, radio and newspapers. In order to keep from being overwhelmed, we become desensitized. And so we become complacent and passive.

Realizing that complacency and apathy is not our natural- in-tune response to violence is the beginning of an awakening. Bearing the suffering of the world on your shoulders will kill you. But bearing witness to suffering will heal you. So how today can we be healed from the violence in our lives?...with radical, courageous love, love that defies destruction.

Only human beings are capable of creating weapons of mass destructions. And only human beings are capable of feeling love.

Only human beings are capable of compassion. And ultimately only human beings are capable of making (compassionate) decisions based on a balance of mind and heart. Only human beings are capable of radical courageous love, that witnesses our individual suffering and pain, and responds not with violence, but with life affirming pacifism.

Pacifism is a decision at every moment, at every twist and turn in the road, away from violence. Pacifism is a refusal to be a cog in the war machine generated by the governments which rule in our name. Susan Griffin, a popular feminist writer claims,

"To sit quietly when faced with aggression may seem unnatural. But it is no more so than to advance into a rain of bullets. A soldier must be drilled over and over to habituate him to advance when his natural bodily desire is to flee…Frederick the Great…was inspired to invent the Prussian drill by the newly emerging scientific view of the universe as a great machine. The peasants in his army were to be like cogs in the mechanism of official will."

Not only is the idea of being a cog in the mechanism of official will scary to me, but the thought of surrendering my free will to my politicians seems completely irrational. If I were a soldier I would have to surrender my life, be willing to die, for the official will.

Instead I choose compassionate non-violent action. Instead I choose courageous love. Instead I choose life-giving, life-affirming pacifism.

As with the Israeli soldier, pacifism is a continual commitment to use non-violence rather than violent action, to stay engaged rather than tune out. It is far easier to just take in what you see and accept that violence is the only solution. It is much harder to stay in relationship, to keep searching for truth in any situation, searching for the just, and questioning. Be a heretic and know that you will be supported if you are truly acting in conscience.

If you are acting in accordance with our common desire to create a just and compassionate world, you will be supported here. Let us support and question each other. Let part of our spiritual journey be discernment of truth. Let this congregation be life-affirming, healing and creative.

Today I have offered you insight from the pacifist teachings in several traditions, Islam, Zen Buddhism, Unitarian Universalism and feminism. Let me now offer a final thought from Christianity. Jesus said turn the other cheek. Who among us willing to be a heretic to popular culture and follow that simple, wise advice?