Violence takes us very close to the sacred because it shows us our destructive side and our willingness to kill and sacrifice to make things come out right. Since the beginning of recorded history nations and tribes, supported by their religious systems, have been developing rational spiritual justifications for holy war or what they call “just war.”
The startling development in our world today is the movement over the last century to question war and killing as a legitimate human endeavor that will make things better. On the surface it doesn’t seem like this is happening. After all we just came through the most violent killing of any century in human history. We can write the story from that point of view and it will drag us down into a culture of guilt – “aren’t we so awful?” We are tempted to think it is better not to think about it too much and probably better not to do anything because you might make things worse.
Or we can write the story as the century when people like us put our arms around nonviolent change with all kinds of experiments, some of which worked surprisingly well.
I like to use the language of experimentation in nonviolence because it gives us room to create, to imagine and to allow failure in the midst of occasional success. I am uneasy with the language of presence when it carries the freight of uninvolved observation, uninvolved listening and remote judging. Presence may mean no engaged listening. Presence that is uninvolved is meaningless. In fact it may be narcissistic.
For others presence means compulsive activism where bodies are used willy nilly to stop violence or loud words are recklessly stitched together to evoke shock or awe. I fully endorse presence but presence of a middle way that does not rush in with either judgement or complete detachment.
Refusing to abandon those who are in gravest danger is very appealing to me because then “being present” is no longer innocent. It now engages and assumes moral responsibility to listen, to act, and to watch for the right condition and time to do so. Although there are exceptions where lonely prophets speak out with words of bold righteousness, it is also clear that every true prophet speaks from some real historical community of values and hope.