What Are We Willing to Die For?

Imagine for a moment that I walked into your house and murdered one of your children. That would test your ability to remain peaceful. Even if you were able to avoid retaliating against me, you would at least be able to understand why someone would retaliate or why anyone being harmed in that way would respond with violence. That’s really simple logic, actually: hate makes hate.

Whether it’s instinctual or learned over time, it just doesn’t seem today that we know how to respond to violence without wanting to become violent ourselves. I speak from personal experience there, though most of the ways I’ve been hurt are particularly benign. But we’ve all been hurt in some way or another, by somebody; we all understand the desire for vengeance, if not blood. So, if we agree that hate makes hate, then we can see how it would be a cycle. You harm me; I retaliate. You retaliate, I harm you again. The only way the cycle is ever broken is when someone decides to break the cycle and respond to violence without becoming violent themselves.

None of this is rocket science, and most of us get the logic. Some respond breaking that cycle would be nice but since we don’t live in a world of ideals, sometimes a violent response may be understandable if not even necessary. I’ll concede the point here that I would love to believe I could hold myself to an ideal of nonviolence but that I don’t actually know if I could. I confess, and my friends will tell you sadly, that I am a violent man. That doesn’t stop me from striving for nonviolence, for recommending it, believing in it.

Of course, I suppose you may not even buy my argument that breaking the cycle is wise. “It’s weak to let people just walk all over you, which is exactly what they’ll do if you let them,” you might say. “In some cases, we have to show strength which is might and force.” That sounds decidedly American today, especially in light of how to deal with terrorism. This ‘wisdom’ hinges, though, on how you define strength and weakness, as well as how you define your purpose in life. In other words, it depends on what you’re willing to die for and whether you believe there are some principals or values that are more important than life itself. I’m of the mindset that we’ve had so much luxury in modern society that we’ve lost sight of what we’re willing to die for, in part because we haven’t been asked to die for anything. We’ve only been asked to live, and that terrifies us to death as it is. We kill, scared for our own lives, never once considering what might be greater than our lives. Or in other words, we haven’t faced, most of us, a situation that demanded we determine what life and death are worth.

History, though, can help us here. To whatever degree I’m an armchair theologian, I try to draw a lot from Christian history, though I think the lessons are relevant beyond Christianity. From the time Christ dies to the time Christianity becomes the ‘official religion’ of the Empire, some 280 years pass. Christianity in that period, without the speed of modern infrastructure or the internet, manages to spread its message the world over “conquering” without ever resorting to violence. Think about that for a second: wars were historically fought, yes, to gain land but also with the goal of conquering the hearts and minds. Christianity does both without a single war. Constantine, of course, changes that, which is a conversation for another day, but I want to focus for a moment on the reality that a religion spread its viewpoint the world over without resorting to violence. How did they do it?

They didn’t just stop the cycle and take a beating. You might be right in saying that would be “weak.” Nonviolent resistance is not passive, however. It’s in-your-face aggressive. Pacifism would be letting the conqueror beat you up while you say nothing. Nonviolence gets in the conquerors face, taunts them to be violent, then having taken the beating, gets back in their face and taunts them again without ever taking a swing. In this regard, nonviolence is indeed very bloody and very violent. It’s a form of in-your-face martyrdom, and that’s how Christianity “conquered” the world without responding to violence with violence. Why? Because everyone saw that these so-called Christians were willing to die for something but not without first speaking their truth. Their truth, in fact, was in their willingness to die. And people so yearned for that sense of purpose that the movement, instead of being squashed out despite attempted genocide only grew and grew.

Take for example the early Christians a hundred years before Constantine – Perpetua and Felicity: A young woman of noble birth and a pregnant slave who knew they faced certain death but, to everyone’s surprise, welcomed martyrdom and left behind a ‘diary’ of sorts for the world to know that they would rather die than renounce their faith. Their willingness to die – and even the death itself – becomes a powerful message that resonates beyond anything the gun or the bomb can do.

And it’s not just a matter of “breaking the cycle of violence;” it’s exposing those who choose violence for who they are and in the process showing you’re better than them, more at peace. You don’t need the strength of “might and force.” You have the strength of truth and the resolve of peace within. And that – and only that – can flip the oppressors on their head. Oh, sure, to respond with violence may, indeed, win you temporary peace but only at the cost that you were willing to become the aggressor yourself. And when you become what you hated, it’s only a matter of time before the same fate that befell your aggressor also befalls you or your loved ones.

All of that, of course, is said in the context of a President-elect who wants to solve our problems with violence. It’s said in the context of an America that has bombed its way through our history and left an ugly stain on almost every nation-state we’ve touched. It’s said of a day and age when long-gone is the Christianity that was once so faithful in its resolve of what life is worth and its trust in something greater than death that “love your enemies” has become meaningless and the Babylonian “eye for an eye” has been embraced as a replacement for most of Jesus’ message. We have an opportunity to reclaim that with the conviction of a love built on faith and not on fear. And the next several months will certainly test how serious we are about such matters.

A Paradigm Shift for Empathy, or the Cultural Case Against War and Violence, or a Review of Maleficent

A little more than a decade ago, when the United States was preparing for war with Iraq, the Bush administration used a lot of dichotomous language, like “axis of evil” or “evildoers” when referring to regimes and terrorist cells, if not large swaths of the Middle East. Like a good Western, there was the “good guys,” us, and the “bad guys,” them. Kipling was probably rolling in his grave. But that’s a theme we’re used to seeing in movies; it’s a theme we read in books. Good vs. evil is so nicely simplistic that even when it gets complicated, we don’t generally lose sight of which side we want to win.

But culture is shifting – and maybe drastically. It’s hard to come across a good television show or movie these days where you don’t find yourself rooting for the “bad guy,” at least on some level. I mean, no one is going to argue (hopefully) that Walter White is a good guy, but we all love him a little. And a Miami serial killer who only kills whomever he decides is a “bad guy”? Or how about Game of Thrones, where every character exemplifies the epitome of human depravity. I don’t think there’s a single “good” character on the show – just characters who murder only when they feel they have to as opposed to those who murder for pleasure.

This week, I watched Maleficent, the story of Sleeping Beauty retold through the lens of the mysterious, evil fairy who cursed Princess Aurora in the original animation. Warning: spoilers ahead. It’s a beautiful film that takes an “evil” woman from the original story and gives her purpose and struggle. We’re made to identify and empathize with her story to the point that we begin to see her not as the self-proclaimed “Mistress of All Evil,” as she was in the original but as someone wounded who, rightfully or not, responds through her wounding. Essentially, it’s a story of how hurt people hurt people and how only love can redeem that hurt. Most strikingly (big spoiler here), as she learns that only her true love – and not the romantic love of a prince in shining armor – can end the curse she cast on Sleeping Beauty, the “evil” fairy Maleficent finds healing, and you almost get the sense that the curse she cast on Sleeping Beauty was actually a curse she’d cast against herself, as the beautiful princess comes across as oblivious and almost unfazed by what has transpired.

If only it were that nice in the real world. I know all too well what it is to be wounded, to need to wound others, and then to again turn inward wounded again by what I’ve done. The wounding stops when someone decides enough is enough and decides not to respond in kind but to take the higher road. It reminds me of the too-often quoted (and yet not quoted enough) MLK quote that goes, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And that’s nice and something we all nod our heads to until a terrorist bombs a train or until a world leader uses drones that accidentally kill civilians or until someone hurts someone you love or hurts you. I mean, if anybody ever tried to harm my dog, Abner, I’m pretty sure all my hippy words would just get tossed right out the window, and I’d go purchase my first 12-gauge (that’s a type of gun, right?). But the philosophy I’m advocating, that’s been advocated a thousand times before me, is spot on. It’ll still be spot on no matter what happens to us that changes our minds. The question is, how do we remember that when we’re loading the guns or preparing for battle?

I think a cultural shift, at least in part, is the answer to that question. To teach the world to step in the shoes of others, to hear their wounded experience from their perspective is about the only way we can ever even hope to replace vengeance with non-retaliation. It’s not a debate about whether or not evil exists, and I’m not arguing for some kind of relativism (at least not intentionally), but to view “evil” as having a cause rooted in grief is to recast the conversation about how that grief should be dealt with. And when I watched the movie this week, I got the overwhelming sense that a call for empathy is the new paradigm and isn’t just something being whispered on the fringes or only spoken by a handful of great men and women the way it once was. We’re slowly but surely teaching each other to step into the shoes of the strangers who hurt us and be profoundly moved by that hurt before we fight fire with fire.

It’s nice to think we can keep selling that message until it takes hold.