To listen to the audio recording please click on this link:
I told Morag a few weeks ago that I was tired of watching the news at night. It’s so depressing, I said: wars and rumours of wars, financial crises, global warming, famines, flu epidemics. And these are just the highlights; beyond the headlines we hear stories of community strife, religious tensions, family breakdown, drug dependency, and even flagrant cheating in professional sport. ‘So what’s new?’ you ask. Nothing. It’s the same as ever it was. That’s the point; things are just the same as they’ve always been. Coincidentally, Morag and I have been listening to a series of lectures on Roman history, and last week we learned of the battle of Cannae, which took place in 216 BC, during the Second Punic War, the war of the Romans against Hannibal. It is considered one of the greatest feats of generalship in the history of warfare – Hannibal, with numerically inferior forces, overcame 84,000 Roman soldiers. The Roman historian Livy describes the aftermath of the battle:
So many thousands of Romans were dying … Some, whom their wounds, pinched by the morning cold, had roused, as they were rising up, covered with blood, from the midst of the heaps of slain, were overpowered by the enemy. Some were found with their heads plunged into the earth, which they had excavated; having thus, as it appeared, made pits for themselves, and having suffocated themselves.
It has been claimed that nearly six hundred legionaries were slaughtered each minute until darkness brought an end to the battle. Only 14,000 of the 86,000 Roman troops managed to escape. And that was on one day, August 2nd.
Well, that was over two thousand years ago. We can expect our primitive and ignorant ancestors to indulge in such bloodletting. But shouldn’t things be getting better? Why hasn’t there been the gradual diminution of tragedy and mayhem over the years that we, who grew up in the fifties and sixties, had been led to expect? Aren’t we supposed to be developing as a species, learning more about our nature and our motivations, pushing back the veil of ignorance which has kept us from creating a peaceful and secure world? I was born at the end of the Second World War during a time of tremendous optimism. The Great War, The First World War, was, they told us, the ‘war to end war’ and while they may have got that one wrong, surely, we thought, the next great conflagration should have put an end to it all.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. In my lifetime there has been the Korean War, the Suez crisis, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Falklands War, the First Gulf War, and the current wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. In the last few days we’ve heard stories of massacres of soldiers by those who were their supposed allies. Then there’s the ever-present stand-off between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East and similar enduring hostilities on this island. Now Iran seems to be sabre rattling, its leaders desperate to show their military prowess by developing nuclear weapons. And we haven’t even mentioned the recent genocides in Bosnia and the continuing butchery in parts of Africa. It’s like the fairground game ‘Whackamole’ where you have to smash down your hammer on a mole, only to have him reappear somewhere else. We just deal with one conflict when another one crops up.
Is it any wonder then that one should feel helpless and hopeless? That we should wonder whether those who died in these various conflicts have died in vain? Not as unfortunate but necessary victims in the struggle for human emancipation, as we sometimes fondly imagine, but as futile sacrifices to the pitiless and apparently insatiable gods of war.
I sometimes think that one of the reasons why we don’t have peace is that we don’t really want it. Like freedom, peace is something we like to talk about, to call for, to demand, to fight for, but which really makes us very uncomfortable. Most people can’t handle freedom; that’s why we surrender it as soon as we can, offering it to some political or religious guru, or some enslaving lifestyle pattern, as soon as we become aware of its uncomfortable presence. Peace is equally uncomfortable. We like something to feel superior to, and something to feel safe from. We like people we can complain about, fights we can witness from a distance. We like to blame, to complain, to feel disdain, to shake our heads in disbelief at the follies of others, to feel a kind of fleeting sympathy for the misfortunes of others. These things add interest and excitement to our lives. Of course, we would never admit these things, not even to ourselves; and, we would rather the examples we witness weren’t quite so terrible, but where would we be without them? We love drama in our tired little lives, and, as we all know, there is no drama without conflict.
As I constantly stress, the Gospels give us extraordinary insights into the human condition. In Luke’s Gospel, chapter 18, there’s the disturbing story of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector, a story which we self-righteous religious liberals would do well to ponder. You remember the story: a Pharisee goes into the Temple to pray. ‘I thank you God that I am not as other men – adulterers, robbers, evildoers. I fast twice a week, and I give away a tenth of all I possess. I’m not like this tax-collector here.’
But the tax-collector simply beats his breast and says, ‘God, have mercy on me a sinner.’
The moral of the story is obvious. And there’s a Jewish joke which adds a subtle little twist to it: two rabbis enter the synagogue as the caretaker is sweeping the floor. Offering the lowly workman a perfunctory and condescending greeting, the two rabbis go to the front of the synagogue and start to pray aloud. ‘Oh God, I am a wretched sinner!’ says one. ‘I’m a wretched sinner, too,’ shouts the second. Then the caretaker puts down his brush and joins in: ‘O God, I’m such a wretched sinner,’ he cries.
‘Look who thinks he’s a wretched sinner,’ whispers one rabbi to the other.
Even in our repentance we like to feel superior to others.
Another reason why we don’t seem ever to be able to create peace is that we don’t really have any idea how to go about it. Peace is something that will happen when other people learn to behave better; when they begin to read the right newspapers, attend the right church; when they vote for the right politicians, when they stop being greedy, or violent, or aggressive; when our leaders ‘get round a table’ and sort out the problems for us. Peace is someone else’s task; it’s something that is created or destroyed in the macro-world of politics and economics. It’s not really an issue for me – except in so far as I self-righteously lament its absence from time to time.
I read last month about the British MP Lena Jeger, who, many years ago, was canvassing in a block of flats when she met a woman in the lift and started talking about the problem of German re-armament. The woman said to her, ‘People have been urinating in this lift. What are you going to do about it?’ To which Lena said that, if elected, she couldn’t promise to be able to stop it. ‘Well,’ the woman replied, ‘if you can’t stop people urinating in the lift, how are you going to stop the Germans from re-arming?’
It reminded me of the story of a little girl who told her teacher; ‘The minister in our church is always talking about world peace, but we can’t even get peace in our block of flats.’
Is it any wonder that world peace eludes us, when neighbourhood peace is not our priority? Peace does not begin in the White House, or Downing Street, or Brussels, or the United Nations. Peace begins here. As the old saying has it, ‘Peace begins with me’. Peace in our homes; peace with our neighbours; peace in our workplace; peace on public transport; peace on our streets. This is the hard peace to create, because it demands more than just indignation and rhetoric. It demands effort and it demands sacrifice. It demands the terrible recognition that I am somehow involved in it all and that my actions and my thoughts contribute to the mess in which the world seems to be perpetually mired.
And this is our role; this is the dimension that religion adds to politics, something which politics – necessary though they are – cannot provide: self awareness and self transformation. We shouldn’t despair at the wretched state of the world, but try to influence our own little corner of it by identifying our own selfishness, our xenophobia, our smugness, our self-righteousness and taking steps to overcome them. This is the hard bit. How do I become more loving? How do I become kinder? How do I still the restless noise and chatter of my mind and my voice in order to hear what others are saying? How do I break down the barriers I have created to keep out the troublesome ‘other’? How do I go against my years of conditioning which have told me that I am pretty much okay, and the real problems belong somewhere else?
‘But,’ you may reply, ‘if I take down my defences, someone is bound to exploit me.’ Yes, that’s true. That’s the reality. We have to be prepared to be exploited. That’s what being religious means. Being religious doesn’t mean believing some fanciful metaphysical nonsense while behaving just like everyone else; it means cultivating a willingness to be vulnerable. We have to show a different way of being in the world, one that has been preached for thousands of years – by the Buddha, by Jesus, by the great rabbis of Judaism, and the great gurus of India – and which has been tacitly acknowledged as desirable but then promptly discarded as hopelessly impractical. We have to put it into practice. Jesus said we have to be ‘the leaven in the lump of dough’, the agent of transformation which works subtly and silently from within. Or, to use a more contemporary image, we have to ‘radiate photons of goodwill’. This is how Marc Ian Barasch explains this term:
Every now and then, I’ll meet an escapee, someone who has broken free of self-centeredness and lit out for the territory of compassion. You’ve met them, too, those people who seem to emit a steady stream of, for want of a better word, love-vibes. As soon as you come within range, you feel embraced, accepted for who you are. For those of us who suspect that you rarely get something for nothing, such geniality can be discomfiting. Yet it feels so good to be around them. They stand there, radiating photons of goodwill, and despite yourself you beam back, and the world, in a twinkling, changes.
I appreciate these compassion-mongers, even marvel at them. But I’ve rarely thought that I could be one of them. Sure, I’ve tried to live a benign life, putting my shoulder to the wheel for peace, justice, and Mother Earth. Like most people, I adore my offspring, even when they drive me crazy; love my parents, dote on my siblings, and treasure my friends. Conventional wisdom wouldn’t fault me for saving the best stuff for my nearest and dearest and giving the rest of humanity the leftovers.
Thus it is, say the sages, that the harvest of kindness is winnowed down to a precious few grains.
But at the centre of all spiritual traditions is the beacon of a truly radical proposal: Open your heart to everybody.
On this day, when we remember those men from this congregation who died in the First World War, and when we remember all those men and women, soldiers and civilians who have died and who are dying as we speak in the continuing conflicts of the world, let us pray that we might become individually more compassionate, less defensive, that we might radiate photons of goodwill, opening our hearts to everybody, so that we can create peace in our communities and help to create real peace in the world.
8th November, 2009