Love South of Heaven

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Love South of Heaven

"The usual way to generate force is to create anger, desire and fear," writes Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, peace activist. "But these are dangerous sources of energy because they are blind . . ." (Photo: paul davis/flickr/cc)

Write about love, as in love thy enemy, and the social recoil sounds like this:

“There is no nexus at which we can speak with ISIS. Singing Kumbaya while being led to a beheading can’t work.”

Or this:

“Any thug who threatens a cop gets what he deserves. One bullet or ten — I could care less. If a thug will threaten a cop or a prison guard, he will kill or maim me or mine without hesitation for very little reason. You want to give these thugs ‘civil rights’ — I want to give them a funeral. My way insures me and mine do not get killed or maimed. Your way insures I probably will.”

These are responses to recent columns, in which I have tried to address the American and global hell created by the belief that violence, rather than endlessly begetting itself and spewing consequences far beyond conventional perception, actually solves problems in something other than the shortest of short terms. This is tricky. “Love thy enemy,” or words to that effect, may be the foundation of Christianity and every other major religion, but they’re utterly misunderstood and belittled in the realm of popular culture and I doubt they’ve ever been taken seriously at the level of government.

It’s what they do in heaven. Sing Kumbaya, play the harp, love the other dead people (who, of course, went through a vetting process to get in similar to what we impose on refugees from Syria or Iraq). Here on Earth . . . come on, get real. The cynics cry “Trump! Trump!” because he tells it like it is, the way a junior high bully would. It’s simple. It’s linear. A bullet for a thug and the thug is dead. Problem solved.

Of course, a bigger problem is also created, but to relate this problem — ISIS, for instance — to one’s own actions, or the actions of one’s country, is way too complicated, so the cynics choose to stay simple.

How do we counter this simplistic-mindedness?

“The usual way to generate force is to create anger, desire and fear,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, peace activist. “But these are dangerous sources of energy because they are blind . . .”

Let’s pause mid-quote and summon the memory of our own impulsive emotions, our own anger and fear and blindness. Now let’s arm those emotions. Whether or not we’re “justified” in what we do next, the person on the receiving end is certain to have lost his or her humanity, at least for a terrible instant.

But what could happen next is so much worse: When these emotions become collective, the result is mob mentality. And when they become institutionalized — buried deep in the nation’s soul — the inevitable result is war . . . and war . . . and war. And it’s self-perpetuating. The dehumanized enemy strikes back, perhaps with horrendous actions, which of course justify what we do next. Eventually one side or the other “wins” and “peace” prevails for a moment or two, but it’s always a broken and temporary thing, requiring armed guards at the perimeter. This is peace with fear.

And it’s a way of life, humanity’s normal: being perpetually armed, perpetually terrified, perpetually blind.

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But Hanh’s quote continues: “. . . whereas the force of love springs from awareness, and does not destroy its own aims. Out of love and the willingness to act, strategies and tactics will be created naturally from the circumstances of the struggle.”

The force of love springs from awareness. What, oh God, does this mean? What, especially, does it mean beyond personal acts of big-hearted decency? Is love always distorted, often beyond recognition, when it is institutionalized?

Consider, for instance, the idea of the “penitentiary.” With roots in the word “penitent,” it was conceived by early 19th century prison reformers to be a place of resurrection — spiritual rebirth — for wayward souls. Maybe there was always a moralistic lunacy attached to the concept. In any case, it’s no accident that the concept degraded over the decades to the word “pen” and the incarcerated have pretty much lost all their humanity.

“Prison must be something they fear, not just a momentary . . . way station on the road to the next crime,” my correspondent, quoted above, a former prison guard (I think), wrote in his reply to my column from last week, in which I discuss an inmate’s beating death by guards. “Today’s prisons are a joke. The guards live in fear of the inmates — not the other way around. . . . Beatings are all that will keep some inmates in line. Who ever said there is no such thing as a bad boy was a lunatic. There are bad boys — more than you want to contemplate, and all they understand is superior violence.”

I quote him in order to let his words percolate next to those of Thich Nhat Hanh. “The force of love springs from awareness.” Again I ask, what does this mean? What does it mean in a world where violence is the answer to so many of our problems and a large percentage of the population is angry, fearful — and armed? What does it mean in a war- and prison-dependent economy, stoked by a too-often clueless media with a financial stake in more of the same? What does it mean in a world where cynicism rules?

I reach out to the planet’s peacemakers. I know there are millions of you, enduring hardship and risking your lives to free us, to free the planet, from our self-inflicted hell.

“The careless habits of mind and heart that allow us to pollute and waste also allow us to treat other human beings as disposable,” the editors of Commonweal wrote last June, commenting on the papal encyclical “Laudato Si.” “‘A true ecological approach,’ (Pope) Francis writes, ‘always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.’”

I would add: the cry of the refugees, the cry of the warriors, the cry of the inmates, the cry of the police, the cry of the prison guards . . . the cry of all humanity. Let us listen, let us reach out, let us look one another in the eyes no matter how difficult this proves to be.

Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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