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Step Ladder to Peace

Posted by Ryan Hall
09.26.15

A talk prepared for The International Day of  Peace at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas by Tom Keene

Let me begin by telling you a bald faced lie. You and we have no power to do anything about the wars, refugees, violence, hunger and poverty of the world. There is nothing we can do about it because that is the way things are, the way we are, and we are powerless. Nothing we do will make a difference. All we can do is go along. Real power comes from what is outside us, like money and guns.

In the next few minutes we will unmask that lie and claim for ourselves the truth that we not only have power but that we are power.

Picture a step ladder with 3 steps planted solidly on the ground. The top step is peace, the middle step is justice, the first step is power. With that we consider how we can’t get to peace without first getting to justice. There can be no peace without justice. We see that demonstrated in Ferguson, Mo.

What is justice? Justice happens when we practice a basic principle of our humanity: From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Where do we see that kind of justice? If we look carefully, we can find it right under our noses. We see it in the family, not all families, but in the families that work as families. Sharing, caring, holding together.

Then there is the first step, power. Justice can never be established without the exercise of power. We are not talking the outside powers of money and guns. We are talking the inside powers that come from our very being. Our Declaration of Independence alludes to these powers when it tells us that governments get theirpowers from the consent of the governed.

I once told a high school freshman that a certain homework assignment was optional, he didn’t have to do it. He replied, “The only thing I have to do is die.” He understood and claimed his power.

Then there is the ground on which stands the step ladder. Without being grounded on something solid the step ladder doesn’t work. So too with the power that brings justice that brings peace. That power is planted on the solidity of being. Being who we are within ourselves and being what we are with others and in the commonness we share with the universe and all-that-is.

This calls for some thoughtful considerations.

We can start at the bottom: the ground of our being, then to the power that flows from being, then the justice that flows from power, then the peace that flows from justice.

All being has power, energy. This energy, modern physicists tell us, pervades the universe such that the universe is energy. That includes us, since we are part of this universe. So much for the lie that we are powerless. Indeed, not only do we have power, we are power.

Let us consider this ground of power that is the universe and that we are. Picture two lines intersecting: one vertical, the other horizontal, a cross. The vertical line represents the unique power in which we are grounded as our being the oneparticular person we are. No one else has this particular power. It is unique to us. The ancient Romans called it our genius and understood that each and every one of us has genius and is one.

The horizontal line is the power we share in common with the universe and with our sisters and brothers in the human family.  We can call that power solidarity.

We can think of the vertical line as Frank Sinatra singing, “I did it my way,” and the horizontal line as Barbara Streisand singing, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”

At the intersection of these lines is the Source empowering both lines. Accessing that Source is the key to finding in ourselves and others the power that generates the justice which generates peace.

There are many ways to access that Source of power. Here are two ways readily available to us: action and meditation.

A religion teacher was asked, “What is meditation?” The question surprised him. He said, “I don’t know. Let me think about it.” Days later his two year old daughter came to him and gestured with her arms she wanted to be picked up. As he held her she laid her head on his shoulder. After a few minutes she wiggled to be let down. As she toddled off, the teacher had his answer….. Meditation is being quietwith someone you love…and who loves you. It’s just that simple for kids, but for us adults it takes some thought and then practice.

Let’s put ourselves in the mind and body of that child, her head on her father’s shoulder. She gets energy from him. He from her. Each feeds the other with the energy of their unique being and the energy of their common being, their community as family. Their solidarity. The same happens in meditation with our Source. Life nourishes life. It is the way of the universe. The way of discovering our completeness, our wholeness, even our holiness.

In meditation we look within ourselves, where lies our deepest being, the root of our being, the ground of our being, the Source of all being. It is all there, within, waiting for us. The elders tell us we should all meditate 20 minutes a day, unless we don’t have time. If we don’t have time we should meditate an hour a day.

Each of us is called to find our own way in meditation. As did the girl who found her father’s shoulder. We do whatever works. We learn from others and from trial and error. Eventually, we get it right. And like the girl, we know and feel we are not alone.

Another way to access the Source of power, along with meditation, is to take action. Action is a measure of commitment. There’s a story of the pig and chicken observing a sign that read BREAKFAST: BACON AND EGGS. The pig said to the chicken. For you, eggs are a generous gift, for me, bacon is commitment.

Commitment is that to which we give our lives. It’s like choosing a marriage partner, choosing to have or adopt children. In turn, such choosing, such commitment is a measure of our freedom. Freedom to expand ourselves, to become more than what we were. Such choices are risky. Anything can go wrong. But we say to ourselves, “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.”

We learned to swim by getting in the water. We learned to ride a bike by getting onit. We learn action by getting into it. It may seem risky at first, speaking out for justice, joining with justice and peace action groups, people who don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk.

But in taking risks, we experience power, power to choose, power to act. These risky actions transform us. We become more than we were before. Action and meditation go together: meditation without action becomes navel gazing; action without meditation leads to burn-out.

Also, in taking action, we experience not just our power, but also our limitations. That can move us to meditate, to look within, consider our weakness, embrace it, let our very weakness become our true power. This may sound paradoxical, but life itself is a paradox. The more we engage each paradox, the more we grow in making our life a meaningful life.

It helps to understand that life charges us with two basic tasks. The first is to survive. Without survival life is over. Our other task is to find a meaning for our life because survival without meaning is meaningless. It is our commitment to meaning that leads us to discover our inner powers, our power to work for justice, to facilitate peace. With this commitment to meaning, we engage power.

So let’s talk about power as the ladder’s first step to justice.

It is through meditative action and activist meditation that we discover and realize we not only have power, we are power. We actually experienced this at birth: our lungs took in air, our voice broke out in cries, our eyes opened to see, our fingers opened and closed. Soon we crawled, walked, ran. Later we saw other kids riding bikes. We knew if they could do it so could we. After a few falls on our new bike we found that with earth’s gravity and a little forward momentum we could balance and go fast.

We saw other kids swim and believed we could too. With the help of others, we discovered we could float. The water actually held us up. And we swam. Only later did we encounter the lie that we had no power.

The power we discover is power not over others but power with others. This ground-of-being-power is the power of love. A love that is organic, in that it grows in height, depth, breadth and length. A love that frees us to be the power we are. And frees us to become co-creative with the creative ground-of-being in evolving a just world at peace with itself.

Now, about Justice.

Only a people who believe we are powerless will take for granted a world that structures its global economy to deliver Coca Cola everywhere while everywhere hundreds of millions go hungry. Silence in the presence of injustice is not power but weakness. Habitual silence is complicity. When in the presence of injustice we declare the truth of justice we add to the tide of critical mass. It is this raising of awareness that inevitably erodes and dismantles injustice, and its many cousins: racism, violence, and poverty, to name just a few. History tells us that the 8,000 year old institution of slavery was outlawed in just 100 years of conscious activism.

The just world and the peace we co-create with the Source begins with us. Like yeast in the dough of the world we initiate words, actions, events that promote justice. But what exactly is justice? It is simply this: the practice of living by one rule. That rule is: From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. 

As we mentioned before, justice happens in families, not all but in many. It happens in families that work as functional families, where all commit to care for and support one another. Family and home is where food, shelter, clothing, and comfort abide equally for all. Home is where when we go there they take us in.

There are some among us that would say, “That is fine for some families, but this is a dog-eat-dog, devil take the hindmost world.” We have candidates for president who compete with one another to exclude the needy from the public agenda. One answer to these perspectives is the first sentence in the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Does that sound a little like, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need?” Isn’t that a principle of socialism? Consider this: In 1987 our nation celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention. Hearst newspapers surveyed citizens as to what they understood about the Constitution. One question asked, “Is this in the Constitution? From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. It is not in the Constitution, yet forty six percent answered yes. It would seem that the 46 percent think of our Constitution as an effort to get us, as a people, to work together as a family where we practice from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

Our first step is to start consciously behaving like family with our own family. Then with friends, neighbors, classmates, and strangers. In doing that we experience our power to instigate justice and facilitate peace right here and now. Each of us alone and all of us together will discover ourselves as family, realize it, become it. For now, we do our part. The rest will follow as sure as dawn follows midnight.

We will become instruments of justice and peace. And what is peace? It is more than the absence of war, violence and hunger. It is the presence of justice oozing out to all. For us, that presence begins with our own presence whenever and wherever we be. We are the yeast that gives new life to the dough of society. We are the spice that flavors conversations that raise awareness, denouncing injustice, advocating justice, offering alternatives to war, violence and hunger. We are the catalyst that wakens sleeping powers in others, that urges we not just talk the talk but walk the walk. And because we walk the walk, others will take us seriously and consider savoring for themselves the zest and spice of a meaningful life.

As we reflect on the presence of injustices that breed war and violence, we remember that the lie that we are powerless is a lie. We remember that our silence in the presence of injustice is complicity. We consider what we will do about it. We may hear a voice within asking, “What will we do about this?” We can answer: Be patient. I’m getting ready. As we go forth, we know that the strength of this powerful universe and its Source go with us.

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