I send lovingkindness to George W. Bush. I role-play Osama bin Laden so as to better understand him and how I am like him. These exercises, offered by religious teachers, have been my efforts for peace over these last few months. In his recent book Is There No Other Way? The Search for a Nonviolent Future, Michael Nagler writes about people who inhabit such frames of mind as a way of life rather than as isolated experiences.
Dr. Nagler is eminently qualified to write this book. He is founder and chair of the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of California in Berkeley, and has taught nonviolence and meditation for a quarter century. He is also a scholar of Gandhi and plans to create a center for Gandhian studies. His scholarly background is evident in the thorough and methodical way he develops his central argument—that violence harms the sacred connectedness of life.
Like Thich Nhat Hanh and many others, Nagler believes that behind all nonviolence lies an ethic of interconnectedness, where one identifies with the welfare of others in what Gandhi calls “heart unity.” This unity gives life a profound meaning, in contrast to the violence through which people see one another as separate, material creatures doomed to conflict in a world that holds no meaning. Most important for this post-9/11 period, this book preaches hope and a deep belief that nonviolence works. Violence may appear to produce results in the short run, but over time these results are overturned. Nonviolence, on the other hand, may appear to fail at first but over time proves itself.
Nagler makes his points—albeit a bit repetitively at times—through elegant and inspiring stories, giving example after example of individuals like Nelson Mandela and others less well known, as well as collective efforts like the civil rights movement, that have all successfully chosen “persuasion and inclusion over threat, power and domination.” Nagler would have little use for President Bush or Osama bin Laden’s labeling each other as “evil.” Instead, our path must be one of healing the wounds of alienation rather than rewounding by further humiliation. He quotes St. Augustine as saying, “We hate the sin but not the sinner,” and makes an eloquent case for a culture of peace where we work to restore the ability of antagonists to get along with each other.
Certainly war cannot lead one to “humanize your enemy and let your ‘enemy’ humanize you.” Instead, Michael Nagler believes that nonviolence can work in the arena of war—violence on the largest scale—a theme he takes up after an incisive consideration of how nonviolence applies to the prevention of crime and racism. He argues that with sufficient knowledge of how nonviolence works, we can make war obsolete, pointing to the Prague Spring, the Philippines, Tiananmen Square and Moscow in 1991. Peace forces can intervene in large-scale conflict situations, just as Witness for Peace groups helped deter Contra attacks in Nicaragua during the 1980s.
The author himself is involved with the fledgling Peaceworkers organization, which is developing an international group of volunteers to be formed into rapid response teams to stop wars or act in emergencies around the globe. A Peaceworkers spokesperson described to me how such teams could have visited civilian communities and refugee camps in Afghanistan as an international “eyes and ears of the people” and could in the future travel to different parts of the world to listen to others’ concerns about the United States and report back to Congress.
But the question is not just how to stop war but how to start nonviolence. While deeds count, they must be joined by a transformation of thoughts and words. One way this occurs is through meditation, which the author himself practices for several hours every day. He extols meditation for its power to discipline the mind so we can choose responsiveness over violence; so we can transform the ill will that makes violence possible; and so we can examine how our words and metaphors create an atmosphere of dehumanization.
Michael Nagler led me with conviction on a heart path from my own loving- kindness practice on the cushion to the possibility of creating a loving community that sees beyond surface differences to our underlying connectedness. His message needs to be heard and practiced in these times of disunity.