On religious tolerance and anti-violence

One reason that I maintain a blog is that it helps me to clarify my own thoughts on various issues. Actually putting something into writing helps my head to process information–particularly on more complicated issues. One of those issues is what I’ll call pacifism and anti-violence. This topic has been drifting through my head for a bit now, but was brought to mind most recently by the violent forced eviction of Zen monks and nuns in Vietnam. I’ll be delivering some thoughts on violence and religious tolerance at an event tomorrow, and so thought I’d ramble a bit.

Non-Violence versus Anti-Violence

What is violence? The term ‘violence’ carries negative connotations, and labeling something as ‘violent’ is a political act. For my purposes, I’ll describe violence broadly as any coercive force, language, or institution. That definition may be too broad for many, but I’ll run with it and see where it goes. I’m using this definition rather than something like “intense, destructive action” because it gets at the human aspect of violence. This definition also removes some positive forms of violence from the discussion; a volcanic eruption may be violent, but it also provides nutrients, enriches the soil, etc.

Some people call me a pacifist. The term pacifist has a wide range of meanings, so I prefer to think of myself as anti-violent. Not non-violent. Bill Leicht describes anti-violence as having an active component that isn’t implied by non-violence. He links anti-violence to satyagraha (holding to the truth) and ahimsa (doing no harm), and I think he is on the right track. Satyagraha resembles the Quaker idea of speaking truth to power. It also calls to mind the Aikido idea of irimi or entering–moving toward an attack rather than cringing away. This doesn’t mean an aggressive move, but rather moving in with compassion to address the roots of violence.

Violence and Power

Defining violence as coersion links it explicitly to power. Steven Lukes (1974) talks about power as having three aspects: the power to act directly, the power to set agendas, and the power to shape beliefs. Violence could be said to operate in these three modes as well. The soldier driving you from your home at gunpoint or mugger on the street with a knife is one form. An elite group making decisions about what issues are open for debate is another. Constructing issues so that public debate becomes polarized, or so that people willingly participate in their own domination, is a third. All of these are coercive, and in my view all are potentially violent. In this framework, the violence against monks and nuns in Vietnam didn’t begin with their eviction–it started with limiting religious freedom and polarizing public opinion.

A former teacher of mine said that tolerance is inherently hypocritical, that we need to go beyond tolerance toward acceptance. In terms of religious tolerance, we should recognize that the third mode of power permeates culture in general, influencing personal beliefs, values, and actions. Even when monasteries are not being destroyed, people may feel tremendous social pressure to conform in order to be able to participate fully in their own communities. In our country, we tend to believe that people form their beliefs rationally on an individual basis–but we should realize that while people have free will, their opinions are strongly influenced by the larger system in which they are embedded. Religion can serve as a tool of an oppressive and divisive system, as Marx said when he described religion as “…the opium of the people.” It can also become a threat to the larger system–either by working directly in opposition to it, or even just by refusing to participate fully.

Structural Violence

Utah Phillips quotes the Christian anarchist Ammon Hennacy, on pacifism:

“You were born a white man in mid-twentieth century industrial America. You came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons. The weapons of privilege, racial privilege, sexual privilege, economic privilege. You wanna be a pacifist, it’s not just giving up guns and knives and clubs and fists and angry words, but giving up the weapons of privilege, and going into the world completely disarmed. Try that.”

That old man has been gone now twenty years, and I’m still at it. But I figure if there’s a worthwhile struggle in my own life, that, that’s probably the one. Think about it.

I think what Hennacy is talking about here is structural violence. Just the fact that I am a white male may be an advantage for me–and coercive to others–in some situations, even if I don’t intentionally take advantage of that fact. Of course, giving up these ‘weapons’ is easier said than done–but it is possible to cultivate an awareness of them. And, giving up these weapons is part of what the monks and nuns at the Bat Nha monastery were trying to accomplish.  But, when the continuation of the political system depends on people retaining their weaponry–believing that it is necessary to fight between a small number of politically-imposed choices–disarming becomes a threat.

Recently, I heard someone talk about shifting attitudes in the US away from the Myth of Redemptive Violence toward the Myth of Redemptive Suffering. A myth here is a story or set of stories with a message; it doesn’t matter if the stories are truth or fiction. Redemptive violence describes a situation where oppression, injustice, or violence is used as justification for other violence. Redemptive suffering describes forgiveness or merit gained for oneself or others by passively accepting ones fate. I’d propose a third direction: the Myth of  Redemptive Action. Unfortunately, this path involves both overcoming our fight-or-flight instinct and a good deal of introspection. That requires courage, focus, and compassion–something the monks and nuns of Bat Nha continue to demonstrate. It also requires looking deeper into violence to address its systemic roots.