Though Betsy wrote this piece more than a decade ago, prompted first by the events that unfolded in this country on September 11, second by our indefensible invasion of Iraq, and generally by cultures of violence, a world continually at war, I find this short essay to be timeless. What makes it so is what makes Betsy such an important contemporary voice among us—her ability to articulate her enduring, unbreakable commitment to a proactive, dynamic nonviolence in the face of so much madness.—ed.
“We have yet to shape and clearly articulate, even for ourselves, a vision of peace defined not in relation to violence, but as an energetic and creative, vibrant, diverse, and engaging state unto itself.”
As the heartbreaking news from New York sunk in on September 11, I was shattered— shattered and chastened to realize that such violent and enormous loss was required to bring home to Americans the urgency of the pain, frustration, injustice and rage simmering around the world at our intrusions and policies. I grieved that this incredible loss must happen to finally bring us to our knees and to our senses.
That afternoon, my teenage daughter wept in fear and anger. “Why did they do this to us? I hate them for doing this. I hope they die. It’s the start of World War III,” she sobbed. Seasoned by Viet Nam protests and numerous movements since then, I assured her and myself that she was wrong. “No, no, my darling, that isn’t what this will mean. This horrible violence will finally, finally wake us up.”
Yet months later, bombs are falling, flags are waving and American ignorance and arrogance are in full bloom. With each new plane crash or power outage that winter brings, we will shudder fearfully and speculate darkly. Yet even with the enormity of September 11, nothing really has changed at all.
Around me, friends question the validity of a philosophy of nonviolence in dealing with such madness. But philosophy is not even the point. If we desire increased safety, and the rule of law and justice as opposed to terrorism to create a climate of international support and stability, then active commitment to nonviolent strategies is the only obvious choice. Dropping bombs on a ravaged people who bear no responsibility for the September 11 atrocities can only inflame seething resentment and legitimize retaliation. A pragmatic, strategic analysis in that light leads directly to an energetic, just, nonviolent response. This response would have moral clarity and garner international respect, support and inevitable success in reducing danger and moving us toward meaningful, sustainable peace.
Amid the rapidly rising tides of war, my increased immersion in the currents of peace has moved me to engage actively to expand this dialogue related to the pragmatism of violence, and to support efforts for fundamental cultural change. I try to comprehend the horrific reality of geopolitical warfare being conducted both against me and in my name. In that regard, at the winter solstice celebration that my organization, Living Earth, sponsors each year, we will take contributions for UNICEF‘s refugee relief efforts, and also to support the courageous resistance and refugee work of the Revolutionary Afghan Women’s Association (RAWA).
Moral purity is hard to come by. It is challenging to note that on their website, RAWA indicates possible support for certain military actions (strategic commando raids, for example) against the Taliban, and affirm their undying hatred of fundamentalism anywhere. Yet as I read of their dedication and fearlessness, I am challenged by glimpses of life that I can barely stand to even imagine. Were I to suffer the barbarity, brutality and madness that Afghan women and girls confront every day, I cannot imagine that I would have RAWA’s astonishing courage. I also cannot be at all sure I would not share their pain-borne views that allow violence against the perpetrators of their suffering.
It is comfortable for me to think my time-honed commitment to nonviolence would hold all life sacred under any conditions, that I would renounce all violence under even the most horrific circumstances. Yet I cannot afford the sanctimony required to judge others who have been steadily, systematically and savagely wounded beyond human tolerance. The fundamental contradiction, of course, is that peace cannot come from violence, now or ever. Philosophy notwithstanding, RAWA’s work is radically courageous, and overwhelmingly focused on providing bare survival help to the flood of refugees, and we will offer as much support as we can.
Peace activists hear all too often these days that violence is equivalent to “rolling over and playing dead,” or that, as one flag-waver spit at my husband recently, “peace is death.” After digesting that epithet for a moment, I realized the man had a point, though perhaps not the one he intended.
The pallid vision that has come to be associated with “peace” does look a lot like flatlining. It’s a rather dull version of a Sunday-school heaven or a medicated psych unit: no bright colors, no rambunctiousness, no loud noises, only pastel homogeneity, calmness, maybe soft ethereal music. Indeed peace as death, or near-death, anyway. In this vision, peace is a total absence of energy, dynamism, passion, exuberance, responsivity, and vitality, qualities that are common positive references when people talk of their experiences in war or wartime. There must be room in a world at peace for brilliant colors, thundering rivers, crashing tambourines, howling winds, cacophonous birdsong, and exuberant human-song as well.
So, in such a dangerous time as this, with so much adrenaline and headiness about patriotism and belonging, danger and fear, how do we define peace other than as the absence of conflict? How do we define peace on its own terms in a meaningful, credible and compelling way? And how do we include in that definition strong, proactive means of responding to conflict, including violent attacks, in effective and violent ways?
We have yet to shape and clearly articulate, even for ourselves, a vision of peace defined not in relation to violence but as an energetic and creative, vibrant, diverse, and engaging state unto itself. Communicating that vision effectively beyond ourselves will be the next challenge. Countless skillful, creative, and visionary individuals have been working across disciplines for years defining various aspects that will ultimately be integrated into this vision: economists, ecologists, systems thinkers, the labor and social justice movements to name a few. The monumental challenge presented now to each of us is to increase our participation in the cultivation and expression of that vision, and in forging links between the innumerable disparate and multicolored threads that in time will be woven together into the whole-cloth of a world that is truly and vibrantly at peace.