Taking Sides

by Mark Chmiel

Carol, you posted, “Alas, Mark, must we always ‘Take sides’–or is there a middle way?”

You know the Buddha would say there’s a middle way, for sure.

You saw what Dom Pedro did, no “ifs, ands or buts,” he took sides with the exploited against the exploiters.

Thich Nhat Hanh says not to take sides, but help each side see the suffering of the other side. Although when he was living in Vietnam, he and his School of Youth for Social Service did take the side of the war victims in the South, they even distributed peace literature (his poems), which were seen as subversive by the government of South Vietnam. Some of the Buddhists protested the repression and violence of the U.S.-backed Saigon governments, other Buddhists didn’t.

Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Regarding the issue of “always ” taking a side, Fr. Daniel Berrigan said, “What you understand depends on where you stand.”  We can only stand in so many places, understand only so many situations.  We’re limited that way, but these experiences (and relationships) can open us, can even challenge us to gain greater clarity.  So, for example, I am sure you have heard–because you have been friends and have stood with and by her–many stories from Nadia about what systematic oppression the Palestinians have faced for decades at the hands of Israel, with strong U.S. backing. I suspect she would agree strongly with Archbishop Tutu: Palestinians wouldn’t appreciate our neutrality, when they are being dispossessed, bombed to smithereens, and denied their most elementary rights.

We each always have 24 hours a day to apportion among many valuable aspects of our personal and collective lives.  The prophetic tradition, out of which Dom Pedro, Archbishop Tutu, and Fr. Berrigan come, typically disturbs our peace with how we usually allocate those hours.  But then Thich Nhat Hanh would  say if you’re going to work for peace, you have to be peace.

Last thing I’ll mention: In The Book of Mev, I included two chapters on sitting: one on the need to sit still (Thich Nhat Hanh) and the other on the need not to sit still, given the state of the world (the prophetic, via George Steiner).  We each have to figure out this balance of sitting still (being peace) and not sitting still (when others are suffering).

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