Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Neighbor and Non-Violence
distributed 11/2/18 - ©2018

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Donald Rankin, of East Greenwich, RI. His generous support helps make this publication possible.
See our new calendar of Colorado events, including a lecture on the ethics of animal rights, and an invitation to a November 17 concert in Denver to benefit Eco-Justice Ministries!

Last week, in "Neighbors and Election Choices", I lifted up the phrase "love your neighbor" as a three-word guideline for ethical decisions in this fall's election. It was an adequate exposition of a worthwhile theme -- and my thoughts tended toward abstraction.

Less than 24 hours later, there was nothing abstract about the violence in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Eleven congregants were willfully gunned down while attending Sabbath services. All indicators point to virulent anti-Semitism as the gunman's motivation.

The shooting in Pittsburg followed closely on the heels of a dozen pipe bombs mailed to prominent citizens in an act of domestic terrorism, apparently targeted for their political beliefs. As many commentators have noted, the angry and divisive tone of political discourse in our country has been fertile soil for these, and many other, acts of violence -- violence that is both physical and verbal.

Love your neighbor is more than an abstract ethical principle. It is a commandment which must shape our daily and communal life. Those of us who claim to be followers of the Prince of Peace must be agents of peacemaking.

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There is a sign in our front yard that was planted almost 20 months ago. It says -- in Spanish, English and Arabic -- "No matter where you are from, we're glad you're our neighbor." I see signs with similar messages frequently as I travel though Denver. I saw many variations on the theme when I walked through residential neighborhoods of Washington, DC, in July of 2017.

Our sign went up in early 2017 as the Trump administration's aggressive moves toward a "Muslim ban" and the deportation of Latinx immigrants were taking shape. Both policies embodied Mr. Trump's campaign rhetoric on immigration that was filled with stereotypes and false information. Painting with a very broad brush, Mr. Trump stirred up fear and anger directed toward religious and ethnic minorities.

In the presence of such hate and exclusion, my wife and I felt that it was necessary to be public in stating an opposing view. We put up the yard sign to refute "un-neighborly" policies. We haven't seen any reason to take it down yet.

Indeed, in the days before this election, Mr. Trump is sending up to 15,000 US troops to the southern border to address the non-emergency of a caravan of migrants, with hundreds of miles still to walk before the even get close to the border. Fear of the "other" still is being used to stir up campaign fervor.

The Trump administration is not the only source of incendiary language, of course. Social media provides an easy outlet for bigotry, lies and hatred. There are offensive voices all across the political spectrum -- although, from my less-than-objective perspective from the far left, the racist and anti-Semitic and other categorical forms of hatred seem to come primarily from the far right. (My "tribe" of political progressives vents angry messages more toward individual enemies and political opponents, perhaps.)

Hate-filled language can encourage those who are prone to act with violence. Language by itself is a form of violence, too. It causes pain and fear. It sows discord and demolishes trust. The presence -- and now the prevalence -- of such language is a deep flaw in our society.

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"Conflict is inevitable, violence isn't." I learned that wise saying from The Conflict Center in Denver.

When I speak out against violent acts and the language of division, I'm not advocating the cheerful idealism of "Why can't we all just get along?" We won't. But we can do a far better job of dealing with our conflicts and disagreements.

Seeds of Peace, in their work for non-violent communication, says that "conflict arises from differences between us -- differences in temperament, upbringing, culture, the way we deal with things." Their emphasis is on interpersonal communication, but there are abundant differences in culture, perspectives and worldviews in our social and institutional relationships, too. They describe how violence appears in communication in times of conflict:

this language -- the language of Labels, Blame, Judgement, Imposing my Judgement, Language implying No Choice, and Demands -- is violent too, in the sense that it attempts to use 'power over' the other person, and supports that by denying responsibility for my actions. ... violence leads to fear, anger and resentment. And fear, anger and resentment are the conditions for further violence. Even without actual words or blows, there will be lack of connection, lack of trust, lack of cooperation.

It is possible to be honest and constructive in dealing with those conflicts. Seeds of Peace encourages us to get in touch with our own human needs, rather than blaming the other. "This is what I want" opens up far more communication than "this is what is wrong with you."

Such openness about wants and needs may be harder in a political or social setting, but it is possible. It means that each side, each faction, each constituency has to be somewhat aware of what it really does want. Policies and statements need to include an affirmative goal -- "this is what we want" -- and not consist entirely of attacks on the other side.

In the face of conflict or miscommunication, there's a tendency to see the other side as "mad or bad," as crazy or evil. Communication that falls into that trap, that primarily labels or blames a fault in the other, leans toward violence, and rarely leads to constructive outcomes.

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"Love your neighbor" is a mandate for relationships and communication on a daily basis. It demands more respect and less violence, both on a personal level and in society.

There are concrete steps that we can take in that direction.

  • Public witness against hate and exclusion is meaningful. Our yard sign is one form of welcome and support, and a rejection of the politics of exclusion. A "coexist" bumper sticker affirms diversity. Standing in solidarity with impacted communities after notable acts of violence is meaningful, both to those who have been hurt, and as a witness to the broader community. (I'll be attending such an event at a Denver synagogue this evening.)

  • Rejecting hate speech is essential. Post a comment on social media when you see the language of violence and othering. If it is safe to do so, speak up at work or church or on the street when you hear the language of hate. Call on politicians to stop their own use of hate and bigotry, and call on them to demand more appropriate speech from their party leaders.

  • In faith communities, we need sermons and classes and newsletter articles which affirm civility and respect as expressions of love of neighbor. We need training in non-violent communication. Faith communities can be places to foster respectful conversation on divisive topics -- both within the church, and bringing together factions from the larger community.

"Love your neighbor" is a central command in the Judeo-Christian tradition. As an eco-justice mandate, I expand the notion of neighbor to include all people, future generations, and all species. Those are big and expansive principles.

Love of neighbor, though, also needs to be part of our daily lives and our civic behavior. The violence and othering that are too common around us must be rejected. They must be replaced by more constructive, more civil, more neighborly relationships.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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