Nonviolence, God, and a Theology of Not Knowing
What can feed the hungry ghosts?
Posted Jan 10, 2013
Recently, I've been plagued, again, by the tragic nature of this pervasive condition. Caring for the hungry ghosts, wanting to find a way - personally and collectively - to leave no one behind, has been one of the consistent motivating factors in my continual efforts to do my work. Although I believe that just about any of us has some degree of this affliction, some people, for reasons we may never know, are so extreme in their insistence on being given what they cannot receive, that they become self-fulfilling prophecies: every community they join eventually discards them; every relationship anyone enters with them eventually ends; and they remain isolated and in extreme agony, often without understanding why. If they happen to be people in positions of power, they may be surrounded by people who do what they want and say "yes" to their requests and demands, and yet their experience doesn't become better, because they know it's done without really wanting. Since I am in essence working for the possibility of a world where everyone matters, the hungry ghosts are of paramount importance to me.
Today, on my weekly walk with my one friend with whom I talk theology (funny, given I live in a god-less world), I brought up with her the startling response I got from my Buddhist friend: "According to Buddhism there will never be a future that works for all people. There is radical acceptance there of the suffering inherent in the lives of humans, animals, hungry ghosts, etc..." I wanted to talk with my friend about this because, although she is a practicing Christian who does preaching, and I am a non-practicing Jew who doesn't believe in any god, we nonetheless have a compatible theology. I thought, given this unique conjoining of the Buddhist, the Christian, and the Jewish, and with the lens of nonviolence shining light on our conversation, we will get somewhere. And we did.
Non-Attachment to Outcome
Some years ago, as I was starting to imagine my way into attempting to support social transformation after decades of living without much hope for anything better being possible, I did a massive piece of inner work to integrate and accept the brutal reality that I was most likely going to die in a world not significantly different, certainly not significantly better, than the world in which I was living at the time. I can't say I am fully there, perhaps not even as integrated as I was when I did this work, because I have not re-visited this unsettling clarity repeatedly, as I now realize I must in order to maintain my sense of peace. I do know that even as a conceptual clarity without full emotional integration, this awareness serves as an antidote to urgency and anger. I know without any shred of doubt that my contribution will be forever more useful to the extent I can shift from being motivated by the desire to see results, however deeply life-affirming the results are that I want to see. Dependence on results cannot but compromise my power.
The passion for that luminous vision of a world that truly works for all, including the suffering, the children, the outcasts, even those who have no capacity to contain their violent outbursts, is a key source of fuel in my heart. It informs everything I do, both personally and globally. The details of that golden future are clear and vivid in my mind and heart. I see them behind every failed interaction between people, around the corner from every act of violence, underneath every war.
The "if" in the previous paragraph is huge. I have lived with the ongoing crushing reality that there is absolutely no guarantee that we can create that world. The obstacles, both external and internal, are astronomical. Even if we all mobilize, whoever "we all" is, we don't know if we will succeed, if nothing else because we may indeed be at the point of no return with regards to climate change, as well as several other exponential processes that are at the takeoff point and threatening to destroy our life support systems.
Grace and God
So what about the hungry ghosts, then? That question lingers, symbolic, insistent, poignant. My friend the Christian now invokes God, which isn't satisfying initially. Like I said, there is no god in my life. I do, however, palpably sense the existence of non-material reality. I have no name or shape for it, no idea what it is, how it operates, whether there's an "it" at all. I only know and sense mystery. I have partially recovered from the mechanical and scientific reductionism I grew up on, the result of a few centuries of European "Enlightenment". So, when she talks about there being love that doesn't have to come from one person, certainly not from me personally, I have no difficulty. Almost. I still find I must reiterate what she already knows: that I am open, truly open, to whatever this mystery might be, except for the possibility that there is a god there who punishes, who checks and monitors each person's actions and delivers consequences, and who receives individual requests through prayers and decides who will get what. I cannot get behind this image. In the context of this conversation, it was particularly meaningful, revelatory, I would say, that my friend immediately said this kind of god would not be nonviolent. Yes, I have long known, ever since I heard from Marshall Rosenberg in the early days of studying Nonviolent Communication, that the whole form of thinking that revolves around the concept of "deserve" is at odds with a nonviolent consciousness. I just hadn't made the amazing leap that even if it's a god who decides, this category of "deserve" still contributes to separation, to the very essence of what maintains violence on this one sad and beautiful planet.
She recounted stories from the Christian Scriptures, where love came unannounced and created miracles. That helped us both remember the many unexpected ways in which our work, our presence, our willingness to put our actions in the service of what we hold dear, created unexpected results. Just days ago I heard from a dear friend and former student in Japan, who shared with me how one phone call that I had with him in 2008, in which he found the courage to take the leap and come for a yearlong training in the US, was pivotal for a journey that now has him and several other people traveling in Japan and sharing Nonviolent Communication on a visible scale. Then I remembered a former student from the days when I was a teaching assistant at UC Berkeley. This was a young man who was skeptical and cynical about what sociology had to offer. Tall, blond, the kind of man the world tends to open doors to, he sat in class without engaging. Then, two or three years later, he came to visit, and told me just how much what transpired in those classes ultimately helped him confront himself, and the transformation that took him on a journey of service. Magic happens. We just can't predict or control it. That is simply not given to us.
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