Living in a Time of War

The Rev. Alison Cornish

Sunday, January 29, 2006 – 

The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks.

– Tennessee Williams

In one of my favorite movies, Hear My Song, the youthful protagonist pulls out a terrific line whenever he wants to wheedle something from someone older than himself. It’s the mid-1970s, in northern England. And, finding himself in yet another pickle, Micky O’Neill steps back, gazes into the eyes of his elder and says, I was born in peacetime. I haven’t been where you’ve been. I haven’t seen what you’ve seen. It’s a brilliant line, and it works. It instantly softens the heart of the person posing the obstacle, and doors fly open because, well, he’s right. It’s an appeal to the heart of the matter about war if you’ve lived through war, you know it. And something happens to you that changes you. And others can only acknowledge what you must have seen, and experienced.

And yet this character Micky O’Neill, charming though he might be, certainly is not truthful. I, too, was born after the war, World War II, that is, the great reference point of all things of the 20th century. But I don’t feel as if I’ve been born in peacetime. Since the Second World War, the United States has been at war with or has attacked, among other countries, Korea, Guatemala, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan. And this is not a complete list. In the words of Arundhati Roy:

This list should also include the U.S. government’s covert operations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the coups it has engineered, and the dictators it has armed and supported. It should include Israel’s U.S.-backed war on Lebanon. It should include the key role America has played in the conflict in the Middle East. It should include America’s role in the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It should include the embargos and sanctions Put it all together, and it sounds very much as though there has been a World War III. (Roy)

Add to these military actions all the other wars that have defined this last half century the Cold War, the war on drugs, Star Wars, the war against terrorism and all the armed skirmishes that barely make the back pages of the New York Times, the civil wars, and the ongoing rebellions. No, no one that I know was born in peacetime.

But what a thought!

Yet, our good fellow Micky O’Neill still does have a point. When he’s talking to someone of a particular age living in the north of England, he knows that she has felt the bombs shake her very home. Emerged in the morning from a bomb shelter to see a changed landscape. Lost family members to the violence and mayhem on her own doorstep. Eaten rationed foods for years following a peace treaty. World War II was her war because there was no way to avoid its daily presence in her life.

It’s much harder, as an American, to say that about the recent wars that have involved our country. Though we have greatly expanded media coverage, available 24/7; we witness the involvement of U.S. troops all the way through local National Guardsmen; and we watch a ballooning proportion of our national budget devoted to so-called defense. Still, many civilians particularly in this country do not feel the direct impact of war. There are many conditions that contribute to this. Recent conflicts have been framed as local or regional disagreements, rather than global or ideological issues. Many of these wars have been fought in places not well known to us. It is not easy to keep track of the players, or the issues, in a far-off land such as Afghanistan.

Our military has reverted to, at least in theory, a volunteer force, smaller in number, so fewer of us have direct contact with military personnel or their families. And let’s not forget our own government’s reticence to be straightforward or clear about our involvements sometimes legally, and at other times, clearly not. The result is that, for many of us, war is a remote reality. Even so, I cannot believe that we don’t care deeply that human beings, whole societies, experience horrific violence from war every day.

And so I raise this question this morning: how are we, those of us gathered here in this room, and our families, our friends and neighbors, touched by war?

I raise this question because I am troubled by the lack an acceptable answer for myself.

I can’t answer this question. Some of you have shared with me your own aching questions about the most visible of today’s wars, the one in Iraq, and the suffering of so many people Iraqis, Americans, soldiers and humanitarians and civilians from around the world. You’ve told me that some of the stories are so disturbing that you’ve had to stop watching. Some of you ask, how can I live my life so freely when others are suffering so deeply? These are hard and important questions. I think on them as I take in the stories of young men and women of our military who have died, and are profiled by NPR or Newsday or the Lehrer Report. I try to make the two dimensional newspaper pictures of civilian victims into three dimensional, living breathing human beings. What I find is this steady stream of images and words tells me what’s happening in such detail, but is devoid of instructions on what to feel. And when I don’t feel as much as I hope or wish, I wonder have I become numb? Uncaring? Am I too frightened to take it all in to my heart?

With these questions in mind, in search of insight for myself and perhaps to share with you, I have been reading three very different authors Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian singer-songwriter; Michael Lerner, a progressive rabbi and activist; and his holiness the Dali Lama. An eclectic crew, no doubt. But three men for whom I have great admiration for their wise words and also their commitment to act on behalf of their beliefs. All have been touched by contemporary wars in different ways, and all have put into words their thinking about living during wartime.

Two definite themes emerge from these writings. First is the critical importance of recognizing the reality of our interconnectedness as humans around the globe.

All of these writers lift up what we, as Unitarian Universalists, know as our seventh principle, the respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part, as perhaps the most fundamental truth of our times. In the words of one, the sharp distinction we make between self and others arises largely as a result of conditioning our individual well-being is intimately connected both with that of all others and with the environment within which we live every deed, word and thought, no matter how slight or inconsequential it may seem, has an implication not only for ourselves but for others, too. (Dalai Lama)

The second theme is this war creates suffering that takes a terrible toll on every aspect of human life. In the words of the Dalai Lama, although paradoxically the aim of most military campaigns is peace, in reality, war is like fire in the human community, one whose fuel is living people. We fail to acknowledge that the very nature of war is cold cruelty and suffering. And by doing so, we fail to see the long reach of war, and its lasting effects far from the battlefields.

Bruce Cockburn has traveled the world, not only to share his music, but also to observe first-hand the devastating and lasting effects of war on civilian populations. For example, Mozambique’s people continue to suffer the consequences of civil war through extreme poverty and inaccessible or poisoned land. He writes about the painstaking clearing of land mines. It takes over a month for specially trained volunteers to clear an area the size of a football field, to ready it to be safely farmed.

Think of it — people who cannot grow their own food because the land has been made lethal. Cockburn reflects, There’s no way to feel kinship with other living beings unless we let their suffering in. (King) He understands this kinship with other living beings this interconnectedness as an antidote to evil. This makes sense to me. If we stay separated from one another, it’s much easier to cause pain to another. And, conversely, if we understand that we share more than we differ, it is impossible to not share in another’s suffering. One way that we stay numb to the pain of others is by separation, and an emphasis on differences. Through his powerful music, Cockburn urges us to awaken to our interconnectedness. We may not have been where he’s been, or seen what he’s seen, but nonetheless his raw messages break through to many.

Rabbi Michael Lerner picks up on these same themes with his work on Palestinian-Israeli issues. He writes that what the planet needs is for us to overcome separation and recognize the fundamental unity of all human beings. And that means really caring about the other, not just mouthing pious words. (Cooper) Lerner also speaks of the pain that is at the root of so much of the world’s violence. He asks, When is our own pain so great that it blinds us to the pain of others or when do we see the pain of one, and not the other? Is one person’s pain more important than another’s? If we can’t acknowledge our own pain, and the pain of others, recognize it for what it is, seek and offer forgiveness, we stay separate from each other. For Lerner, even the most intractable conflicts, like those of Israel and Palestine, must begin by acknowledging the pain that has been suffered by everyone and, at the same time, affirm the fundamental decency of one another.

Lerner also points out that, wherever there is violent conflict, when there is war, spiritual values get left behind. I had never really thought about it in this way but it’s true, warfare requires that generosity of spirit, repentance, forgiveness, and open-heartedness be absent. It’s impossible to both engage in violent conflict and ask the spiritual question, does what I do bring well-being to humanity?

If the fields of war banish the practice of spiritual values, I think that one way war spreads beyond localized conflicts is by making so many of us non-combatants lose our connection with these same values. It is in this light that I find his holiness the Dalai Lama to be such a profound example of someone attempting to publicly maintain these qualities of the human spirit in the face of war, violence, cruelty and oppression. The Dalai Lama is a clear example to me as to how one might live in a time of war. He does this by his commitment to the cultivation of the qualities of the human spirit, by not capitulating to the anger and revenge and retribution to which he is surely entitled. He names love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility and a sense of harmony as the spiritual values he seeks to strengthen in himself, but writes that these qualities are only meaningful when they bring happiness to both the self and to others. What unifies all these spiritual values is that they imply some level of concern for others’ well-being. They help to counter our habitual preoccupation with our selves.

Let’s pause here for a minute. The reality of interconnectedness. The extent of suffering. The absence of spiritual values. I see these as the challenges of living in any times. And, if any times are also wartimes, perhaps the correct question is this: how does the presence of war anywhere in the world make it even more difficult to truly understand our interconnectedness, let others’ suffering in, and nurture spirit? Here I turn again to the observations of the Dalai Lama. Warfare, he notes, is never portrayed in its true colors. Instead, it is sold as, in the least, the way to peace and, at the most, as exciting, a glamorous opportunity to prove competence and courage, to be a hero, to control the technology of weaponry. Each and every one of these constitutes a way of denying the suffering of war. Add to this the very real possibility that people who have endured years of warfare are no longer moved at the sight of another’s suffering. People who live in an atmosphere of violence develop not empathy, but indifference to others. And finally, throw in the distortions of consciousness that happen when people live in a state of war that differences are magnified and made to seem irreconcilable.

If all times are wartimes, as it seems from the recounting of the involvements of just this country a few minutes ago, then the poison of war is ever present, to all people. Perhaps this is the truth, Micky O’Neill: By now, we have all been there. We’ve all seen what there is to see. And we all live with the effects of war.

The terrible events of September 11th showed us the folly of believing that physical distance would keep us safe from the horrible violence wrought by rage and ingenuity in other parts of the world. In much the same way, I believe it is now time to realize that the effects of living in a time of war have already lodged in us. Perhaps not as missing limbs, or mined farmland, or as the nomadic life of a refugee. But the separation and divisions between peoples that are needed for war live in us. The numbness to pain and suffering required to wage battle are within us. The deadening of spirit that is a prelude to conflict is in us as well. We are living in a time of war. We are living as if at war. We are in the war.

That seems a bleak prognosis. Yet, none of the writers I’ve mentioned this morning are pessimistic. Each of them has witnessed the survival even triumph of the human spirit in circumstances beyond what most of us could even imagine. It comes when we, in Cockburn’s words, awaken to our interconnectedness. In comes, in Rabbi Lerner’s words, when we see the universe first as filled with human beings fundamentally connected and impelled by a spirit of generosity. It comes, for the Dalai Lama, when we take the time to reflect on how war is actually experienced by its victims. It comes, for me, by recognizing that I, too, am a victim of war. And so are you. And so are our families and friends and neighbors. And the sooner we realize that, the sooner we will understand that peace really does begin at home.


Arundhati Roy, War Talk (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2003).

Greg King, In a Dangerous Time Bruce Cockburn on his Rage, his Music, and his Hunger for the Divine, The Sun, #342, June, 2004, 4-11.

Arnie Cooper, Resurrecting the Revolutionary Heart of Judaism An Interview with Michael Lerner, The Sun, #340, April, 2004, 4-15.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millenium, (NY: Riverhead Books, 1999).

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