“Violence is the means, as all dictators have known, whereby the few dominate and exploit the many. Non-violence is the means by which the many can reclaim their rights and advance their interests.”
-- Jonathan Schell
Prince Sutasoma was renowned for his wisdom and compassion, the 4th century poet Aryasura tells us. The prince was busily distributing alms one day, as usual, when the man-eating giant, Kalmashapada, crashed through the city gates scattering the guards to the four winds. The monster was a fearsome sight to behold:
“Stinking garments hung loose around his waist, and a diadem of bark crowned his filthy, dust-covered hair, which hung matted around his face. A thick and disheveled beard shrouded his face like darkness. His eyes were swollen with tremendous and awesome wrath, as he brandished his sword and shield.” (Aryasura, The Marvelous Companion, Dharma Publishing, 1983, p.314)
It is no accident that Kalmashapada is described as “the Terror of the World” - he is clearly intended as the embodiment of all that is murderous, cynical and cruel in human nature.
Unafraid, Sutasoma called out, “Why are you tormenting these poor people? Come here!” Whereupon the monster saw and seized the prince, and carried him off to his forest lair to be roasted and eaten - the dismal fate that had already befallen 99 other princes.
The monster’s stronghold was a hell-hole - it was My Lai four hours after Charlie Company had arrived; it was Latifiyah after al-Zarqawi had done his work: bones of slain men lay tossed on the stinking ground still wet with blood, the leaves of nearby trees were tinged red by the smoke of funeral pyres.
Imprisoned in this place and recalling a promised gift of charity that he would now be unable to keep, tears welled in the eyes of the altruistic prince. Noticing this apparent display of self-pity, Kalmashapada responded with the cynicism that fuelled much of his brutality:
“Stop your crying! You are renowned the world over for your many virtues, and yet as soon as you are in my power you begin to cry. How true it is: ‘Constancy collapses in the face of calamity!’”
Sutasoma explained the cause of his sadness and made the extraordinary request that he be released so that he might keep his promise, after which he would certainly return for the monster to kill and eat him. The latter laughed bitterly:
“Do you expect me to believe such nonsense? It goes beyond belief! Who, once released from the jaws of Death, would willingly return there?”
Sutasoma assured him that his promise and his respect for truth certainly guaranteed his return. Assuming this to be mere artifice, Kalmashapada was, we are told, greatly irritated. But anyway, on an arrogant whim, as a kind of sport, the man-eater decided to agree to the prince’s request:
“Well, then, go ahead. We will see your great truthfulness in action, we will see how you keep your promises. We will see your great righteousness.”
And yet Sutasoma did return, and not merely to keep his promise but in hope of actually helping the monster who “deserves only pity, who is immersed in the mire of wicked habits... and has no one left to protect him”.
On catching sight of the returning prince, the ogre was so astonished that not even his cruel nature could prevent him from thinking:
“Ah! Ah! Wonder of wonders! Truly a miracle! The truthfulness of this prince exceeds the most that could be expected of gods or kings. To me, a man as cruel as Death, he returns of his own free will, without fear or anxiety. What constancy!”
Intrigued, Kalmashapada questioned Sutasoma to discover what on earth his reasoning and motives might be. He quickly discovered that Sutasoma was authentic, that he was utterly sincere in his fearless commitment to charity, truth and compassion for the benefit of all. At this realisation, Aryasura tells us, the ugliness of the monster’s own conduct was suddenly revealed to him as by a “mirror of Truth” -- tears welled up in his eyes, the very hairs of his body stood on end. Looking with reverence on the prince, he exclaimed:
“Beware! May evil be averted! O foremost of princes, may those who wish evil on beings such as you wilfully swallow the poison of Halahala.”
I Killed Your Father
The above is far more than just a fable, it is a profound teaching, with awesome implications for our own time. It tells us that cruelty, cynicism, brutality and violence of even the most outrageous kinds really can be subdued by selfless compassion and reason, that these really do have the power to dispel the 'Terror of the World'.
Aryasura argues that altruism and concern for others have the power to “regenerate hearts burned black by the fires of hatred, transmuting them into the gold of tenderness and faith”. A result that no amount of bitterness, bullets, beheadings, or B-52s could ever hope to achieve.
Some would have us believe that it is wrong to negotiate with “evil doers”, that some human beings are so inherently wicked and irrational that thoughts of discussion, understanding and compassion are absurd, even treasonous. This is the philosophy of greedy manipulation and permanent war, not peace. The anarchist Emma Goldman wrote:
“The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weakness of human nature.” (Quoted Howard Zinn, The Zinn Reader, Seven Stories Press, 1997, p.610)
This week, twenty years after the Brighton bomb that killed five people in the Grand Hotel, the IRA man responsible, Pat Magee, and Jo Berry, the daughter of one of the victims, came together to discuss their meetings in the aftermath of the atrocity. Berry said:
“The year before I met Pat I did a lot of raging. I was ready, if it was right, to meet Pat. I wanted to hear his story. Why he planted the bomb, what had happened before and after. To meet each other as human beings.” (Simon Fanshawe, ‘I killed your father,’ The Guardian, October 13, 2004)
Magee described to Berry the fear he felt when meeting her for the fist time:
“I certainly was scared, I'll tell you that... I had this political hat on my head... the need to explain. But then I had to confront something that I have to confront every time I meet you and perhaps more so now because of where we are and the day it is, and that is that I am sitting with someone whose father I killed. Here in Brighton. Twenty years after your father's death. I do not shirk my responsibilities for that. It was an IRA action, but whatever the political justification for it, I was part of it and I killed your father. And every time I meet you that is at the forefront of my mind. It is full of profundity and it's shattering. Quite honestly, there's no hiding to be done behind politics. The rehearsed arguments and the line might be sincere, but it's inappropriate. We were communicating as two human beings.”
“That political hat came off and I think, Patrick, you took your glasses off; there was a tear. And you said, ‘I have never met anyone so open, with such dignity’ - is that what you said? You said to me, ‘I want to hear your anger, I want to hear your pain.’ And that is when I knew that we were going on a journey. That this was not going to be one meeting. And as you say, we were meeting as two human beings. My need to meet you matched your need to meet me. I did not expect that because I heard from other ex-prisoners who said to me, ‘Jo, you may need to meet Patrick, but he doesn't need to meet you.’"
Berry and Magee were asked what they had got out of the meetings. Berry said:
“When Pat talks about the other choices not being there, not just in Ireland but around the world, that helps me understand why people resort to violence. It makes my passion stronger to find other choices. That is what this is about. Nothing is going to bring my dad back. Caring for Pat makes it easier to get some of my humanity back.”
“The big lesson is that if you see people as human beings, how can you possibly hurt them? Then you think of all the barriers to that simple relationship occurring -- political, social, economic. When people are marginalized or excluded they are left only with their anger. So do everything to remove the blocks and let people be human with each other. That's the lesson from my meeting Jo.”
The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict Violence Or Non-Violence?
Last month, Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Tikkun magazine described how the recent formation of a non-violence campaign in Palestine had been spurred by the visit of the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, generating impassioned debate in both the Israeli and Palestinian peace movement about the effectiveness of non-violence. Tikkun presented an article by journalist Uri Avnery, ‘How Are You, Non-Violence?’, that discussed different sides of the argument being expressed in Palestine.
In his article, Avnery imagines a debate between two young Palestinians: Yussuf and Hassan.
Yussuf believes the armed intifada has failed.
Hassan disagrees, arguing that without armed resistance the world would long since have forgotten the Palestinian cause.
Yussuf claims that a six month lull in suicide attacks brought genuine progress - the International Court has declared the Israeli’s ‘security wall’ illegal and the UN General Assembly has confirmed this with a huge majority. All of Europe voted in the Palestinian’s favour, he says. Palestinians are winning in the arena of world public opinion, Israel may even be subject to sanctions. Hassan rejects this utterly:
"We have achieved nothing. On the contrary, the Israeli generals boast that they have defeated us with their targeted assassinations, incursions into our territories and all the other acts of oppression. And all this time they have been enlarging the settlements, putting up new 'outposts' and continuing to build the racist wall... Because of the lull in suicide attacks, the Israeli economy is reviving. Tourism to Israel, that had stopped altogether because of our actions, is starting up again. If the Israelis feel comfortable and are no longer afraid of suicide bombers, why should they talk with us? Why should they give back any territories? Why should they stop enlarging the settlements? They don't give a damn." (Avnery, ‘How Are You, Non-Violence?’, September 4, 2004, www.gush-shalom.org/archives/article320.html)
Yussuf responds: "We have to win international public opinion. We can do this only by non-violence. I admire the martyrs who are ready to die for our people. I am proud that we have such heroes. But they don't get us anywhere. They only provide Sharon with pretexts to oppress us even more."
Hassan: "As if Sharon needs pretexts! He wants to break us, and world public opinion will not lift a finger for us. The treacherous Arab leaders will not do anything for us, either. Only our heroes will save us."
Avnery comments that this kind of debate is now going on everywhere in Palestinian society, perhaps in every Palestinian family. The Yussufs have no success in convincing the Hassans.
Avnery argues that Palestinian violence is the predictable result of Israel cutting off every other available option. He argues that it is possible to put an end to violence only if Palestinians are offered a non-violent way of achieving freedom and justice.
Tikkun then comments on this debate and on Avnery’s article as a whole. It rejects Avnery’s suggestion that "We've tried non-violence and it has failed", arguing that a demonstration is not non-violent when its participants ‘only’ throw rocks at the Israeli Defense Force. It may be ‘less violent’ but it's not non-violent. Tikkun then proposes a remarkable, strategic argument for non-violence:
“Every oppressor gets locked into their position as oppressor in part out of fear that should they remove their boot from the neck of the oppressed, the oppressed will jump up and do to the oppressor the same horrific things that they oppressor has done to the oppressed. If you want to get the oppressor to lift the boot, you must convince the oppressor that he/it/they will NOT face this reversal in which the oppressor becomes the oppressed. And that is no easy sales job, because understandably the oppressed have lots of anger, and that anger is felt by the oppressor who feels the need to strengthen their hold on the neck of the oppressed - for self-protection.” (‘Violence or Non-Violence Debate in Israel/Palestine,’ September 4, 2004. www.tikkun.org)
The major strategic goal of the oppressed, in this case, then, must be to convince the oppressor that the oppressed have been able “to retain a sense of the humanity of the oppressor, and have decided not to return ‘eye-for-eye’ vengeance should they be in a position to do so”. The commitment to non-violence is one of the most powerful ways to convey that message.
We recall the effect of Sutasoma’s fearlessness and compassion in undermining Kalmashapada’s cynicism, and in reviving his compassion and humanity.
We recall, also, the moment when Pat Magee said to Jo Berry: “I have never met anyone so open, with such dignity... I want to hear your anger, I want to hear your pain.”
Tikkun point out that if conveying a humane message is the goal of non-violence, then non-violence must be total. If we want to convince an oppressor that we recognize their humanity and do not intend to wreak revenge on them, we cannot be partially or tactically non-violent: the non-violence must be persistent, determined, and principled:
“That is the kind of non-violence employed by Martin Luther King that thawed through the consciousness of racists in the South and the kind of non-violence used by Nelson Mandela in South Africa.”
Rabbi Michael Lerner argues that there is an important distinction to be made: the difference between what is right and fair, on the one hand, and what is likely to achieve results, on the other. He argues that it is not fair to ask an oppressed group to take on the burden of convincing the oppressor that the oppressed continue to see the oppressors as human beings deserving of respect and compassion:
“NOT FAIR. But, IT IS SMART.”
Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. Visit the Media Lens website (www.medialens.org) and consider supporting their invaluable work (www.medialens.org/donate.html).
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