1/26/08

Which God Would You Rather Know?

The true measure of power is not in how it is exercised but in how it is not. Restraint makes peace possible where use of force sets the stage for unimaginable conflict.

My good friend Maurice chose pacifism during the second world war. This choice cost him his freedom for several years. It's difficult for good people to view restraint as more than mere cowardice.

Our cultural supports activism that often includes sanctioned periods of violence. We have sanitized our social discourse to make violence acceptable when used for "good" purposes. Violence in conjunction with patriotism, nobility, or loyalty is necessary for the preservation of values, goodness, freedom, and civil liberties. How does one argue with this and not find oneself the object of scorn and hostility? Worse, how does one object to sanctioned violence without sounding unappreciative or unpatriotic?

We have grown up believing we have what we do because of the sacrifices made by military men and women in the service of country and cause. Since we cannot estimate or imagine what we might have had under circumstances where we chose not to use military force, it seems to many that we are better off now than we might have been. What is not calculated is the loss of life, damage to families and communities, or diminished creativity.

I can think of many national heroes who are adored for their acts of war but few revered pacifists come to mind. Those that do are recognized for their activism and non-violence stance in the areas of human rights: Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., etc. Add to this many examples in the Old Testament where use of force, including assassination, appears to be sanctioned by God and it becomes treasonous to advocate for restraint and non-violence.

This post did not begin as a treatise on war and peace. I was working out with my trainer. He complained that he was in a funk. He cited an example where he was playing basketball with some friends when a new person with inferior skills joined the game. While on the court, the new person fouled my trainer by catching him under the chin with his elbow. My trainer reported that his usual response is to meet aggression with aggression. In this case he chose to let it go.

After the game, a friend approached my trainer and teased him for being different - remarking that since becoming engaged to a woman my trainer has gone soft.

"What's wrong with me?" My trainer asked plaintively. Of course our conversation was semi-serious but I could tell my trainer has one script for dealing with an affront - respond with aggression and use force to put someone in his place. In the same half-serious tone, my trainer said he needed to go home and watch Rambo movies.

During a more serious moment in our conversation I asked, "Which god would you rather know, the one who destroys the world each day or the one who saves it?" He answered, "The one who saves it." I replied, "There you go." He looked at me quizzically so I continued, "This isn't about what happened during a basketball game. This is about you not being able to affirm your own non-violent solution to a problem you would ordinarily solve with violence. You don't like the peacemaker in you - you much prefer the Rambo." He smiled and remarked that letting someone push you around for any reason was not OK in his book. I didn't probe too deeply, partly because he was putting me through an exercise routine that required most of my blood to supply places other than my brain.

When I had a minute to rest between exercise sets I explained a recent experience where I chose restraint over force. I had a sixth grade student in my office. He'd been assigned to responsibility room which is why he was spending his lunch in the school office. I gave the sixth grade student a very stern look and asked him why he was in RR again after having been there once already earlier in the week. The student explained that he had not been given another RR but that he was serving the second part of the first one. "So I don't need to be on your case about this?" I asked, softening my approach. "No." He said.

I started to walk away and turned back. "Do you know why I don't want to see you in RR?" The student replied that he did not. "I don't want to see you in RR because you're one of my best students. You're probably going to visit me in 10 years to tell me you became a doctor, lawyer, pilot, teacher, or something along those lines." We talked for several minutes about the fact that not everyone gets to do whatever he or she puts their mind to. I told him he's wasting his talent by not taking school seriously and doing work he knows he can complete. The student smiled at me and I left to go to my next meeting.

At the end of the day, I saw the student and said hello. He smiled at me and said, "I got a respect ticket after lunch today." I replied by smiling and congratulating him. He went on to say, "What you told me about being one of your best students made me feel really proud and good. I want to do my best." I smiled and congratulated him for his effort - appreciative that his teacher recognized him for his effort. He wished me a good weekend and we parted.

The interaction made me think about war and peace. Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall inherit the earth." We live in a time when those who do not make peace have the potential to ensure there will be no earth to inherit. But peace is not simply the absence of violence - it's the active effort to use one's personal power, resources, energy, and time to empower those who would otherwise languish in shame, disability, or some other margin on life's script.

I told my trainer, "You save the world every day when you choose restraint and look for a way to redirect force. It's in the very small acts of goodness, mercy, kindness, and understanding (what Jesus referred to as turning the other cheek)where we are most apt to ensure a future for ourselves and those around us. Wars have started with forceful words and peace is made when we discover the limitless possibilities restraint has to offer.

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