Posts Tagged ‘Henri Nouwen’

Side By Side

“Long before we start a war, we have already killed our enemies mentally by making them into abstractions with which no real intimate human relationship is possible.” –Henri Nouwen

As I actively seek to live into a life of pacifism, I keep finding ideas that make it more difficult to consider myself pacifist. The last month has been filled with instances where I thought I was doing fine, but it turns out that my heart and my head weren’t quite in the right place to be considered peaceful.

From my experience, distance makes the heart grow harder. When I am frustrated with my husband and I don’t talk it over with him, the distance between us grows until a small misunderstanding has become a major rift. When I am hurt by a friend’s words and stop talking to her, the bond of friendship begins to break.

But it’s even more damaging when I assign my frustrations and hurts to whole people groups and cultures. It’s the old “us and them” scenario, one in which I dehumanize people who are different from me. When I was a child, growing up in a conservative Republican home, I tended to demonize those lazy bums on welfare, who I assumed must have been poor beggars trying to take advantage of families like mine. And now that I am grown and have found myself in the position of being a hard-working mama on food stamps, I admit that I have also cast judgment on those who are in the top income bracket. Largely I judge them for the way I think they are judging the poor.

Whether I’m casting judgment on a brown-skinned prisoner or a pale-skinned CEO, I’m committing an act of violence. I am guilty of lumping “those people” into categories that can be dismissed because I simply cannot relate.

So what’s a struggling pacifist to do when “they” really just aren’t acting right?

I’m not going to pretend that I have some sort of golden ticket answer to this question. Henri Nouwen begins to address the solution with a few words: “intimate human relationship.”

As soon as I place someone into a group that could be considered “them” I’m in serious trouble. For example, when I’m angry with my husband, I quickly begin to write off all men. When I’ve been hurt by a woman friend in a catty situation, suddenly all the other women out there are nasty bitches who are just waiting for the chance to humiliate me. The break in intimacy is made worse by sweeping generalizations.

And once I transfer those sorts of generalizations to people I don’t even know, it’s so easy to decide that I must be right, therefore making them wrong. When they continue to live their way of life in the face of my rightness, I feel threatened, and I lash out to protect the things I fear losing – things like my sense of security and safety, my chosen way of life.

So here is one answer: stop fighting people, and start fighting the tendency to create abstract people groups with no relation to yourself. Believe in the assertion of Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable, that everyone is your neighbor. If you feel so moved, start writing letters to prisoners, or start visiting a homeless shelter and getting to know the people there (both the volunteers and the ones being served). If it’s wealthy people you judge, try attending a church in a well-to-do neighborhood and really getting to know a few of the members. Or hang out in the up-scale coffee shop and try striking up a conversation with the man in a business suit at the next table, and make friends with the baristas too.

Or, if you’re like me, you are probably very busy in the details of your own life, and starting in on a new “cause” sounds pretty daunting. So for myself, I will pause next time I sigh over the strange behavior of the entire male population, or the next time I find myself cursing all the investment bankers who got bailed out by the government. I will think twice before I dismiss the woman at the thrift shop that is preaching and asking for others to shout “Amen” as she browses the clothing racks. I will dig deep into my pockets to hand out the dollar I don’t really need and give it to the beggar on the street regardless of how I think he will spend it.

But most importantly, I will try to remember to pray for those I want to judge. I will stop waging war with my thoughts. I will put down my weapons of self-righteousness and judgment and be willing to listen to the stories of those whose lives are outwardly different from mine. And in the process, I know I will discover fellow humans, with the same longings and struggles as I face. After all, it’s much more difficult to start a battle when you’re standing side by side.


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