2003 – Dancing in Chaos: Working for Peace Within Conflict

Dancing in Chaos: Working for Peace Within Conflict


Brendan McKeague

The Tasmanian Peace Trust 2003 Lecture

Held at the Friends Meeting House, Hobart

Wednesday, 22nd October, 2003

It is a grand privilege for me to be invited here to speak to you about nonviolent peace-making at this Tasmanian Peace Trust Lecture. I am not sure why you asked me as I am unused to, and not known for, delivering speeches. So I’m hardly going to become a seasoned witty and articulate raconteur overnight. I am needing to beg your patience with my ramblings, because, as the very title of my talk suggests, I enjoy and welcome the chaos in my life. How then could the next 45 minutes be any different?

I will begin, as is my wont, with a wee story from my homeland. Like all good stories where I come from, this story is true, and then again, it isn’t.

There was a young lawyer from the city holidaying in the north-west of Ireland and one day he went duck-shooting into the countryside of Donegal.

He shot a duck which fell into a field and started to climb over the wall to get it when an old farmer came shuffling up the field and asked him what he was doing there

“I shot that duck, it fell into this field and I’m going to get it.”

“No you’re not” said the old farmer, “this is my field and that makes it my duck. If you come in here I’ll set the dog on you.”

“Now listen here old man” said the young lawyer, “you don’t know who you are talking to but I’m a lawyer, specialising in litigation, and I know my rights. I shot that duck and it’s mine. If you don’t let me go into your field to get it, I’ll sue you and take your whole farm from you.”

The old farmer paused and pondered for a few moments and said:

“Well young fella, if that’s the case, how about we settle this the way we usually settle our little disputes around here.”

“And how might that be?” asked the young lawyer.

“Well” said the farmer, “I get to have three swings at you, then you get to have three swings at me and whoever is left standing can have the duck.’

The young lawyer looked the old farmer over and mindful that he went jogging every day, trained in the gym three times a week and was an accomplished student of Karate, he said:

“Okay, old man, you’re on. Let’s do it your way.”

He took off his jacket just as the old man let fly with a left hook to the ribs, followed by a right punch to the jaw and finally a wicked thump to the stomach. The young lawyer fell flat on his face and lay there groaning in agony. He slowly pulled himself up to his knees, the only thing keeping him going was the knowledge that it was his turn now and he’d fix that old coot for sure.

As he drew himself up to his feet, the old farmer helped him up and said compassionately:

“Listen here young fella, I’ve just been thinking – this violence will get us nowhere – I’ll tell you what – you can have the duck!”

This is a story of true conversion! I reckon the old farmer must have had a moment of grace and behold, a miracle occurred – he converted to nonviolence in an instant. I wish every story of violence could include such transformation.

Where Do I Come from?

However, the world doesn’t seem to work like that – at least my world doesn’t. But it does lead me into telling you a bit more about the world I come from and the world I now inhabit – as I see it. I was born in Northern Ireland over fifty years ago and after a fairly uneventful childhood I was confronted rather forcefully with a decision that would change the rest of my life.

I had spent my youth enjoying my life and doing all the things that young men in Ireland do – as you know – playing football, going to the pub, going to Mass, going to the pub. studying at University, going to the pub, visiting my relatives, going to the pub… .there was an inevitable round of weddings, funerals, celebrations and drinking and, of course, the never-ending accompaniment of singing. Most of the songs were either for something or against something, leaving somewhere or returning somewhere, celebrating great beauty or some momentous victory or defeat in battle (it didn’t seem to matter which) All seemed to roll into one long round of tears, cheers and beers.

Then came ‘the Troubles’ and my first encounters with the terrible violence and horrors of war. Many of my school friends are no longer with us today as a result. I was hauled out of a pub one night and told that if I hired any more Catholics in the factory where I was working as the Personnel Officer, my father’s pub would be blown up . .an invitation to run away from it all. And I did.

I left Ireland and went to teach in England where I worked for seven years before coming to Australia with my young family in 1981 -April Fool’s Day to be exact – and when I arrived in Darwin on a sticky hot morning with the temp at 32% and humidity at 90% I wondered what sort of fool I really was.

Now – the sort of background I grew up in, at least for the latter five years of my life in Ireland, was one of fear, suspicion, violence, intimidation, prejudice and lots of drinking and singing to dull the pain of reality and to keep the old cycles of hatred and revenge on the go. We knew how to immortalize our martyrs and to breed a brotherhood of bullies who would know well how to maintain the music of separation and sadness. Indeed how well I remember the annual ‘marching season’ especially around the July 12th Orange Parades when the gathered assemblies of bands would work themselves up into a frenzied hatred of vindictive violence and superiority. The Nationalists were no different, tarred with the same brush of fierce loyalty and pride in their ancestral heritage, all too easily immortalized in the singing, the grandstanding and the large quantity of Guinness needed to fuel the whole shebang.

Thus the cycle of vengeance and violence continued to escalate and I was glad to be out of it. This intimidating, yet ‘normal’ background where we were regularly stopped by armed soldiers and police on the streets and searched from head to toe, our cars cleaned out and never put back together again, babies taken out of prams and their very nappies searched for incendiaries while anxious mothers looked on in pale powerlessness. We even got to the stage where we had to go through 30ft high perimeter fences to get into the local pub to have a pint. Now that’s when I knew I had to leave!

I wanted to get away from all this and seek a new life in a new country on the other side of the planet. And guess what – here we are, a mere twenty-five years later and the same scenario is playing itself out over here. More armed security guards on the streets, in the trains, in shopping malls, higher perimeter fences being built around the houses of the rich and ‘wannabe rich, fuelling an increasingly rapid expansion in the market for security ‘toys for the boys’ and spreading a pervading sense of fear and insecurity. I recently saw a book advertised on the internet entitled: How to Survive a Chemical Attack on Your Home. Now that’s what I call an opportunistic piece of marketing. We have got to wipe out the terrorist and the only way to do it is to terrorise our communities into becoming so frightened that they will do whatever we suggest needs doing…!

As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Or another way of putting it: “if all we’ve got is a hammer, we’ll see every problem as a nail”

Where Am I Now?

All this points me to the current situation for me. I was deeply conditioned in an atmosphere of denial, internalized oppression, passive aggression and extreme violence, where hatred, martyrdom and religious-camouflage were hallmarks of the environment, and whole swags of energy went into fighting for, dying for, mourning for ‘the cause’. We knew what we were ‘for’ and it was always to be ‘for those’ who were ‘against them’, a cause built on power over others, avenging this deed or that person, maintaining the old order or struggling to insert the new one at whatever cost in human life and suffering. I will never forget some of the tragedies that I witnessed, mostly on television of course, the shattered lives and broken bodies of interrupted histories laying splattered on ruptured pavements, the Bloody Sundays, Mondays. Tuesdays and every other day of the week that kept renewing the lust for sacrificial victims on the altars of righteousness, idealism, liberation, revenge and retribution – all in the name of religious rights or national identity.

So, where is this leading me? As I said earlier, probably best not to ask that question for fear I’ll tell you the answer. I have no idea, but by the time I’ve finished I’ll have got there! It’s a bit like the two men of indeterminate ethnic origin who came out of a pub one night and one of them got down on his knees by the street-light to search on the ground for something.

“What are you looking for?” said Pat.

“I’ve lost my keys and I’m trying to find them” said Mick

“Well if you tell me where you lost them, I’ll help you find them'” said Pat.

“I lost them over there’ said Mick, pointing to the bushes over the other side of the footpath,

“Weli if you lost them over there, why are you down on your knees searching for them over here” said a curious Pat.

“Ah sure it’s as obvious as the nose on your face” said Mick, “there’s much more light over here!”

Violence is an Old, Old Story

And that’s the story of the next part of my life and the dancing with the chaos. I’m afraid I’m a bit like my cousin Mick -1 like to stay where the light is. I don’t particularly like going over to the darkness where the unknown is lurking and there are shadowy figures, preying beasties, uncertainty and

insecurity around every corner. It’s a tough place to go, and even tougher to stay there. However, it is where we need to go if we are to learn to live in the chaos of disorder, paradox and beauty, to dance along the pathway of life and celebrate the surprise that is available to us each day in our confusion, conflict and confrontation with truth.

I’ve had sufficient experience of the ‘always doing what you’ve always done’ bit to know deep down in my bones that it doesn’t work, if what we’re really looking for is to create sustainable peace. Then again, regurgitating the past is not meant to work for this purpose of peace-making. It is actually meant to prolong, maintain and glorify the cycles of violence that have been the characteristics of societies and cultures since Adam’s dog was a pup.

Let me explain what I mean. Borrowing on the insights and understandings of Gil Bailie (who based his early work on the research of anthropologist Rene Girard), Richard Rohr and Angle O’Gorman, I will briefly refer to the depth to which violence is embedded in our culture.

In the nature of the formation of societies and cultures, there exists a need for the creation of victims, those who will become the sacrificial lambs for the slaughter. Since the beginning of time, when bad things happened that were largely inexplicable, it was assumed that this was because the gods were angry with us mortals The angry and blood-thirsty deities needed to be appeased with human sacrifices so that they would look favourably on the tribe or society that offered such prize pickings. The better the sacrifice the more likely the tribe would be to do better than any other tribes competing for the favours of the gods. If we mortals pledged to atone for the evil we did or even to get rid of the evil in our village or country, then the gods would be satisfied and our world would be a better place.

It was no wonder that this lust for security, certitude and insurance against the unknown was embodied as a central part of many of the early religions of the world.

Bailie says:

“No amount of sociological, political, economic or psychological analysis can provide the anthropological backdrop against which the resurgence of religious violence in out time must be understood. For a genuinely anthropological comprehension of our present historical situation, we must turn to the biblical tradition…”

This connection is illustrated well in the Old Testament ritual of ‘scapegoating’, where the villagers would bring a goat into the centre of the village, heap all the sins or evil of the people onto it and then beat it out of town…. it was assumed that the evil of the village would disappear with the ‘escaping goat. This was a ritualized way of cleansing the community of evil, replacing the need for human sacrifice let’s sacrifice the animals instead. The point however is the same – the expulsion of the evil by sacrificial means. By sacrificing someone or something else the evil, the sin is out there now and not in here! A bit like the mythology of imprisonment – that’s where all the evil people are housed and we, the righteous good ones are out here.

This scapegoating ritual was also cathartic in nature. The blood-letting ritual of public violence managed to release the internalized needs for hatred and, where it was enacted in a ritualized way within a container of public safety and cultural legitimation, it provided an outlet for the thirst for violence that dwells within both individuals and society. As a famous Pharisee once said:

“It is better than one man should die than the whole race perish.”

Let’s sacrifice one so that we all can be saved, an interpretation of collateral damage at it’s most justifiable.  What else does this type of ritual violence do? It galvanizes the community to join together in order to rid us of the evil that exists out there in the demonized figure we can more easily hate, torture, terrorise and eventually kill. And, perhaps the most insidious, deceitful and terrifying aspect of all this is that we can do it in the name of God. God wills it this way, God is on ‘our side’ and by virtue of deduction, therefore not on ‘their side’ God allows us, encourages us even, to smite down ‘His’ enemies -who just happen to be our enemies as well. How very convenient and thus we can legitimize what we do to them in God’s name, a very clever way of allowing us to continue the cycles of violence so deeply ingrained in our psyches and our culture.

Walter Wink has described this process in great detail and named it as the Myth of Redemptive or Sacred Violence. We can violate you, your people, your country, your culture, your economy, your very spirit in order to redeem you, to save you from the evil in which you are obviously embedded. After all, if God is on ‘our side’, God cannot be on ‘your side’ as well!

And, even more compelling, it is our sacred duty, the core of our evangelizing mission to go out there and show these evil ones the errors of their ways. It is only by pure chance that they might just happen to possess something that we want from them.

The notion of separation and disconnection, alienation and polarization, adversary and demonisation of our enemy all contribute to the sacred justification for our acts of destruction, oppression, violation and killing. How else will we manage to transform the enemy into being as ‘good’ as us? We need to save their souls, to redeem them, to bring them salvation and this is not just something I am describing from centuries ago It is among us here and now in the 21st century. Indeed, it is often with a heavy heart that I say it has been with us since time immemorial and is likely to be with us for a few more years as well.

In case there is some doubt about the prevalence of this redemptive mythology and it’s application beyond the religious roots of its explication here, how about listening to the words of General Westmoreland who, in his defence at his court martial for ordering the destruction of a Vietnamese village and the killing of it’s entire population, said:

“We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Or perhaps more recently, the notion that ‘You’re either for us or against us’, as dominions seek to separate, polarize and demonise these who are different from us or, perhaps more to the point, those who have what we want. I am sure that you can think of many contemporary situations that illustrate this notion.

I think I’ve said enough to let you know that I believe we are living in a time where the dominant culture displays all the hallmarks of a great exemplar for redemptive violence, where ‘if you’re not for us, you’re against us’ and you obviously must therefore be ‘with them’. This dualistic thinking seeks separation, disconnection, impersonal demonisation and ultimately justifies the destruction of the enemy, at whatever cost, in order to save them from their ignorance and to protect us from contamination. Such strategies win elections, prop up the powerful and create the fear-based reactions needed to manipulate the masses of public opinion to play out the scapegoating rituals in contemporary culture. If you wish to have further evidence of the pervasive nature of this process, just ask the asylum-seekers, the Muslims, the indigenous people or any group of vilified people upon whom the wrath of public pillory has been dumped.

Breaking Free from the Conditioning

So having illustrated the connection between ‘sacred violence’ and violence, how do we break out of this ancient, archetypal myth that is so deeply embedded in our culture and in each of us? Oh yes, as individuals we too are tarred with the same brush of scapegoating, blaming and seeking someone out there on whom to lay blame for our own shortcomings. As Richard Rohr points out;

“.. .the most effective way to turn social hatred into social harmony is via the scapegoat It works so well, it gathers the community so quickly, that it has perdured through most of human history. Now it is the normal storyline, so normal that we hardly see it. It remains denied, invisible and unaware. Carl Jung saw the same pattern in the individual that Girard sees in society and culture: that which you fear, deny and avoid will be projected somewhere else with 100% certainty! In other words, there is an intrinsic connection between fear, hatred and violence.’

So, this points to my own views on redemption or perhaps, I should say, healing the hurts of violence. Whatever else I set out to do by way of transforming others or any situations, must first begin within me.

I believe that we need to learn to dance, and to teach others how to join us, so that we can find peace in the chaos of transformation. Joanna Macey says we are in the time of The Great Turning and I will return to this in a moment. Thomas Berry refers to the Moment of Grace that is the defining link between the end of the old century and the beginning of the new- ‘a comprehensive change of consciousness coming over the human community, especially in the industrial nations. We have a unique opportunity to respond to the crisis confronting our planet and those who dwell on it. And thus it has always been. We have never been in a state of balanced equilibrium. We are only able to achieve that about fifteen minutes after we’re dead.

If we imagine a continuum line between chaos and order, theorists are telling us that when we’re close to the order end we start to seek chaos in our lives otherwise life is just too boring, stagnant and plain dull, a recipe for a slow and lingering dying.

It seems that organic, self-organising systems, of which people are a part, seek some chaos in their lives in order to stimulate growth, transformation and the challenge of change. Let’s face it, for anyone or anything io grow healthily, there needs to be stimulus, nutrients, fertilizer to create the right chemistry for the bursting out of the buds in which they have been so delicately nurtured. How beautiful is this image illustrated in our seasonal spring surroundings After winter, the season of dormancy, comes the spring of new creation, new life and vitality. We do well to pay attention to the cycles of life in our natural habitat,

In this dynamic cycle of re-creation, as we move towards the uncertainty and confusion of chaos, we gather our energy to move again towards order, not the old order that we’ve broken out of. but to seek a new order, a new shape, a new creation. So we’re continuously in the dance between the two – where are we right now?

This point is well illustrated by the powerful prayer mantra about our need to change the things we can, to accept the things we cannot change, and to have the wisdom to know the difference. This reminds me of a young student of Buddhism who on returning to the city after a retreat in the monastery couldn’t resist a quick diversion into MacDonalds, where he bowed reverently and said to the young waiter. ‘Make me one with everything’ The waiter made him up a super burger with the lot and after receiving a $20 note from the young student, put it straight into the till and turned away. The student of the Buddha asked politely, ‘Excuse me, what about my change? to which the waiter replied, Oh, don’t worry about that mate, change comes from within …’

The Ohio Senator, Dennis Kucinich, who has been trying to establish a Department for Peace in the White House, echoes the same sentiments when he said:

“If we can change ourselves, we can change the world. We are not the victims of the world we see, we are the victims of the way we see the world.”

So, I digress again. My point is that once we recognize that we’re all part of the problem and the solution, we lose the need to become frantic about fixing it all up right away. This system of sacred violence and transformation has been around for a mighty long time. I remember well one of the catch cries in our campaigns to create sustainable, nonviolent social transformation, ‘slow is fast’, l agree. If we are to create sustainable personal and global transformation to a more peaceful planet, then we need to recognize that this is going to take a long time – and be prepared to embark on this journey. Quick fixes will only provide short-lived solutions and are likely to do no more than re-arrange the chairs on the ill-fated Titanic.

This is not to say that we need not be involved in the struggle to transform. Indeed it is necessary for us to commit to that struggle if we are serious about peace-making. However, it is not about a commitment at all costs, a commitment that attracts us into the same strategies and polarising tactics of the so-called enemy It is about a commitment to a journey during which we give witness to new ways of being on this earth, to new ways of resolving our conflicts and dealing with our differences, to new ways of dancing, singing, laughing and engaging with the chaos, conflict and confusion of our violence-saturated world. I’m not sure if it was Gandhi or one of his students from the West, A J Muste, who said, There is no road to peace, peace is the road’. Another famous icon of the nonviolent way, Francis of Assisi once said, ‘It is no good walking anywhere to preach unless my walking is my preaching’. In other words, in today’s parlance, we need to’ ‘walk our talk’.

How do we choose to ‘be’ in the Chaos?

What can help us to develop the capacity to dance in these times?

Let me share with you some of the characteristics of such a life of paradox, of powerful and prophetic witness to a new, yet ancient, way.

We must first understand and recognize that what we see out there in those we hate, vilify or condemn is also deeply embedded in us. Gandhi said it well when he indicated that it was impossible to walk the path of nonviolence unless we first accept that the evil that I see in those with whom I struggle is also contained within me. And the good that I know is within me is also contained in those with whom I struggle. This is the first lesson for serious students of the nonviolent way. Incidentally, the very first followers of Christ were not actually called Christians but were known as People of the Way because of their commitment to the radical way of Jesus, the nonviolent way. It wasn’t until Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century that they were even allowed to carry weapons and, even then, in defence of the state and not of themselves.

I will now share with you some of the strategies and skills I have picked up from my Franciscan friends at Pace E Bene that have helped me on my personal journey towards a less violent life.

First – I need to observe what is going on inside of myself in response to what I am observing out there. This means paying attention to the environment in which I find myself and recognizing, honouring and monitoring my own reactions. This is key to being able to understand when and how violence is occurring in and around me. I know some people who walk through life believing that they are not violent people or that violence never happens to them. And, for them, this is true, people often disguise their ignorance or fear of violence with patterns of subconscious early intervention like walking on the other side of the street or avoiding certain people or situations of confrontation or conflict. Anything for a peaceful life – I wonder!

Second – I need to be able to centre myself quickly when the threat of danger or violence is immediate or imminent. This is about putting myself in touch with the centre of peace within myself, with those who will help me in this moment of risk, danger, chaos or confusion. Too late for the textbook now. I need to connect with my deepest truth in this moment and act from there rather than from any temporal stimulus fuelled by the emotional or aggression of those who would hurt me.

Third- I need to be open to. and listen for, the truth of the one who would violate or abuse me. This can be somewhat difficult if a person is hell-bent on attacking, hitting, or hurting me Nevertheless, it is what I need to learn to do if I am to seek the truth of ‘my enemy in this moment. I can develop my skills in this regard by practicing regularly in situations of less threat.

Fourth – need to identify and speak my own truth. This too can be quite difficult unless I have the capacity to know what my own truth actually is. This can often be denied, disguised or diminished by years of conditioned thinking or personal behaviours that reflect the repetitive messages of false humility and resulting feelings of worthlessness, passivity or suppressed anger. I need to learn how to speak my truth without violating the truth of my ‘opponent’, or anyone else for that matter.

Fifth – I seek to make an agreement about what to do next. This may end up by ‘agreeing to disagree or perhaps suspending, or even ending a relationship that continues to be abusive or manipulative. I may need to withdraw my cooperation, my complicity in, or my tacit approval of, situations that remain unjust. Even though there may not appear to be an immediate, sruccessful outcome to the listening and the speaking, there is always the possibility that something will emerge as seeds sown take root and sprout in their own time. That is the gift of hope we can always offer. In any event, the aim of using these steps is ‘to seek the truth with love, to speak the truth with love and to act the truth with love’ (From Violence to Wholeness).

In all of these interchangeable phases, I am conscious of my connectedness to something or someone outside of myself, to a greater power and purpose of this moment, to a bigger story than is being enacted in this crucible of terror, violation or fear. How can I do this in what Bill Moyer (social activist] calls ‘moments of fatal peril’ unless I am in touch with my own source of this power on a daily basis. For me personally, the source of this power is my own rich Irish heritage of deep spirituality and grounded connectedness. I have a process for centering myself in my firm belief that I arn created for this moment in history and that my God is present with me and also with those with whom I struggle. What this meaning-making process may be for you is yours to discover.

I need to mention here that there is both good news and bad news about this process. The bad news is that nonviolence doesn’t always work. However, violence never works. The good news is that it doesn’t always need to work. We are invited to be faithful to our own journey into nonviolence regardless of the actions of the enemy or the opposition. That is what faith, integrity and spirit is about. As Martin Luther King Jnr said:

“The nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it.”

Dancing and Singing in The Great Turning

I mentioned earlier about Joanna Macey and the concept of the Great Turning. Once we know that ‘the history of hope brings the hope of history’ into our present time, then we can chose to look on the world and everything that happens in it as part of the journey of turning, or as early Franciscan scholars called it: the Great Chain of Being that sees everything and everyone as sacred. Everything belongs in my life and in my world.

I would like to share with you a form of ‘body prayer1 that I developed as part of a memorial to the September 11 tragedy. It combines Joanna Macey’s Personal Guidelines for the Great Turning, a time of transition while we are moving, slowly and painfully, from an industrial⁄growth civilization to a sustaining one. I invite you to join with me to integrate these together with a ‘bodily internalisation’ of key reminders of what we stand for. Mahatma Gandhi used this process to illustrate his famous Satya-graha, meaning Soul-Force or Truth-Force, using the fingers of his hand to illustrate, and to re-member, what it is that he held significant in his struggle for independence in India.

Thumb: Come from Gratitude

To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe -to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it – is a wonder beyond words. Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions, the hallmark of the mystic, the source of all true art. Furthermore, it is a privaledge to be alive in this time when we can choose to take part in the self-healing of our world. Practice this gratitude on a daily basis in prayer, word and deed, I would like to share a brief extract from the journal of Neville Watson writing in Iraq in March this year:

4am, Baghdad

It was a beautiful time this morning with no need of a mantra. The cool breeze enabled me to slip into it (contemplation) very quickly. It was however somewhat dampened by the noise of a B52 overhead and then the succession of explosions so typical of carpet bombing. Somewhere nearby the gentle breeze had turned into the soul and body blast of terror…the wind had suddenly become chilly but the reality of my contemplation continued, and now I am set up for the day. What it will bring I do not know, and as far as I personally am concerned, I have no anxiety. It is enough for me that I am here responding to what I see as the moving of the Spirit.

First Finger: Don’t be Afraid of the Dark

This is a dark time, filled with suffering and uncertainty. Like living cells in a larger body, it is natural that we feel the trauma of our world. So don’t be afraid of the anguish you feel -or the anger or fear-for these responses arise from the depth of your caring and the truth of your interconnected ness with all beings. To ‘suffer with’ is the literal meaning of compassion. ‘Fear not’ or ‘be not afraid’ were the words spoken often by Jesus of Nazareth – 365 times apparently in the New Testament.

Be honest in your appraisal of what you fear most and address it. For many it is the fear of death or dying, loss of family and loved ones, loss of job, status, wealth or privilege, or landing on a foreign shore knowing no-one and no-one cares. A common phrase bandied about these days by cynical, detached folks devoid of connection is ‘go tell somebody who cares.’

Third Finger: Dare to Vision

Out of this darkness a new world can arise, not to be constructed by our minds so much as to emerge from our dreams. Even though we cannot see clearly how it’s going to turn out. we are still called to let the future into our imagination. We will never be able to build what we have not first cherished in our hearts. Dream of how I wish to be in the world and then act as though my dream has come true.

As someone much more astute than I once said, ‘We cannot think our way into a new way of living; we must live our way into a new way of thinking.’ This was the phrase, more than anything else, that enticed me into the maximum security prison at Casuarina in Western Australia almost ten years ago to begin my journey alongside the most despised, vilified and scapegoated men in our society I was so afraid of engaging with sex offenders, rapists, child molestors and other vicious criminals that, somewhere deep within me, I knew I needed to go into that ‘darkness’ to discover the meaning of redemption for my own soul. From these men I learned about a new way of living without judgement and blame, about the power of persistent presence alongside people who are suffering, and about the necessity of not wishing to fix anything for others.

Fourth Finger: Roll up your Sleeves

Many people don’t get involved in the Great Turning because there are so many different issues, which seem to compete with each other Shall I save the whales or help battered children? The truth is that all aspects of the current crisis reflect the same mistake, setting ourselves apart and using others for our gain. We are hooked into the dominant cultural model of competitiveness, separation, individualism and alienation – ‘my cause is better than your cause’ or ‘this is the only way – and obviously the right way to be’ mentality.

So to heal one aspect helps the others to heal as well. Just find what you love to work on and take joy in that Never try to do it alone. Link up with others; you’ll spark each others’ ideas and sustain each others’ energy.

Fifth Finger: Act your Age

Since every particle in your body goes back to the f rst flaring forth of space and time, you’re really as old as the universe. So when you are lobbying your local politician, or joining in a peace rally, or testifying at a hearing on uranium mining, or standing up to protect an old growth forest, you are doing that, not out of some personal whim, but in the full authority of your 15 billions years. Remember, honour and respect your AGE.,..it brings you authority, strength and courage together with the capacity to love and to have compassion for all.

I am standing here before you this evening feeling very connected to my own spiritual and cultural roots way over there on the other side of this planet. I know I have some experience of living and dancing in the ‘Troubles’ and do have some wisdom to share around while picking up the wisdom of others. I am much more than ‘the me’ you see and hear speaking to you tonight.


All of these separate digits, and energies that they symbolise, are connected through our wrist which represents the movement of nonviolence. In all that I do, let me remember not to violate myself or others in the process.

The Hope for the Future

Where will this lead us? Perhaps like my talk – nowhere in particular. I think we can have fun on the journey. As Gandhi so rightly reminded us, We must become the change we wish to see in others.’ We need to model these new ways of being to the dominant culture of fear, suspicion, anger, terrorism and the other hallmarks of a cynical, hopeless and helpless worldview that seeks to make peace through war.

We will continue to build a world of hope and creative responses that return love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness for hatred, violence and revenge. Bailie says that ‘it will fall again to Christianity to inspire a hope capable of filling a vacuum left by the collapse of modernity’s naive optimism and the shrugging hopelessness of postmodernity’. I’m not convinced that Christianity can do this alone – many expressions of its historical application and interpretation have added to the altar of redemptive violence rather than to the altar of the suffering Jesus. After all, it was in that seedbed of misbegotten religious fanaticism where my journey started earlier this evening.

What I really do like about my own spiritual and religious tradition, as I interpret it, is the power that it has to break the cycle of scapegoating and to model the process of redemptive suffering necessary to free us from the chains of sacred violence. Bailie again:

“The single most decisive element in the historical decline of sacred violence…is (he moral concern for victims aroused by the expose of sacred violence that occurs at the centre of Christian New Testament, a concern subtly fostered for centuries by Christian iconography and Christian ethics.”

Jesus invited us to love our enemies, not so much to transform them, but to transform us! I look around me today and I see many ways of replicating this type of willing crucifixion in order to break the cycles of violence.

I wonder at the courage and perseverance of Aung Suun Sui Khyi in Burma and her great passionate commitment to the nonviolent struggle for freedom. I gaze in awe at the lives of those lived in honour of this way of peace-making: Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchu, Martin Luther King Jnr, Xanana Gusmao, Vincent Ligniari and the Gurundji people, Neville Watson…Neville who?

Neville Watson is a Uniting Church minister from Wembley Downs in Western Australia who chose to go to Baghdad and, in his words, ‘stay in the country being bombed rather than remain in the country doing the bombing’.

The members of the first Global Nonviolent Peaceforce currently exper-menting with peace-making in Sri Lanka. Their commitment is to establish a five thousand strong ‘army’ of nonviolent peace-makers by the end of this decade, which if you didn’t already know is the UN Decade for a Culture of Nonviolence for the Children of the World {2001-2010} and the World Council of Churches Decade to Overcome Violence.

Hector the Elder is from the Warmun people in Turkey Creek. I discovered the Massacre Stories (twelve in all happening between 1928 and 1938) around that area earlier this year. One of these refers to a massacre at what is now known as Mistake Creek where a mob of Aboriginal women and children were cold-bloodedly shot by the hotel keeper at Turkey Creek. When asked how the Aboriginal people could forgive this act of terror, Hector said: “If we do not forgive, Juwarn (the evil spirit) will enter into us!”

At this time of the Great Turning. Moment of Grace and Hope-filled future, the words of Robert Miller, former assistant General Secretary of the UN ring loud and clear:

“I am moved by what is going on in our world today. Never before in the history of the world has there been a global, visible, public open dialogue and conversation about the very legitimacy of war. Can it be that even in these difficult times, we are in the midst of a world-wide transformation in which more and more people are actually withdrawing their belief in war. Now there are two super powers: the United States and the merging, surging voice of the people of the world waging peace.”


After all these words, where have we been?

For me, it is relatively simple.

Know yourself, where you’ve come from, on whose shoulders you are standing, where do you wish to go and how do you wish to be on your journey. As Richard Rohr says, ‘every point of view is a view from a point’ – my reality has been viewed through the lens of an Irish Catholic upbringing and an adventurous, risk-taking pilgrim traveling from one end of the globe to another. I have some idea of who I am and where I stand.

Be involved in the dance, join the Great Turning in whatever way does your heart and soul good. For me, I travel with men in prison, with social justice and peace activists, with community and faith-based groups and, in what is often the toughest place of all to live out my commitment to nonviolence, my family.

Keep singing your song, it has been composed with the notes of your life. Enjoy the music of those with whom you travel. If it’s not fun it’s not working, even when it’s painful! A good sense of humour and joyful awareness of the ridiculous is one of the strongest tactics for disarming violence and aggression.

And I will leave you with the blessing of my friend and mentor, Neville Watson a man whose great courage, commitment and compassion I honour and respect here tonight. I invite you to still your mind and body for a moment to allow the words of this contemporary prophet to fill your hearts.

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers,

half truths and superficial relationships

so that you will live deep in your own heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression

and exploitation of people and the earth

so that you will work for justice, equity and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer so trial you will reach out your hands to comfort them and change their pain into joy

And may God bless you with the foolishness to think that

you can make a difference in the world

so that you will do the things that others say cannot be done


  • Bailie, Gil Violence Unveiled; Humanity at the Crossroads (New York: Crossroad, 1996)
  • Butigan, Ken and Bruno, Patricia. From Violence to Wholeness: a ten part process in the spirituality and practice of active nonviolence. Pace E Bene Nonviolence Service
  • O’Gorman, Angle. The Universe Bends Towards Justice: a Reader on Christian Nonviolence (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1991).
  • Owen, Harrison. The Practice of Peace (Australia Open Space Institute 2003)
  • Rohr, Richard ofm. Hope Against Darkness the transforming vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (Cincinnati: St Anthony Messenger Press, 2001)
  • Watson, Neville. Traffic Light: an on-site account of the 2003 Iraq War as seen through the journal of Neville Watson (self published, 2003)
  • Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis. Fortress, 1992)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s