State-sponsored violence, racist violence, domestic, gang and police violence, violence in the name of religious fundamentalism, violence in the name of politics, violence in the name of corporate greed, psychotic explosions of violence in the name of nothing: There is much in our world that generates hurt, resentment, injustice and hatred.
Given humanity’s unthinking propensity for belligerence in this nuclear age, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the admonition: “The choice is not between violence and nonviolence, the choice is between nonviolence and nonexistence.” On the brink of a resumed arms race, a new generation of armaments threatens to spill forth with enhanced killing capacity, poised to fly viciously in the face of King’s prophetic warning.
If the U.S. and other nations embark on that mad pursuit, trillions of dollars needed for festering human and environmental needs will be consumed by the weapons industry. Hope for nuclear abolition fades. Collective unease is stoked by omnipresent media habitually amplifying social dissonance. Depression and anxiety are widespread.
Into this maelstrom of widespread discord comes a timely and enticing little tome, “Loving Our Enemies,” by longtime peace activist Jim Forest. The book is filled with inspiring vignettes of brave individuals throughout history whose faith and courage illustrate the power and efficacy of nonviolence and love in the face of brute power.
The book had its origin during Forest’s first visit to Moscow as a member of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). The Soviet Union had not yet dissolved. Soviet troops were mired in Afghanistan. IFOR opposed the war, and Forest and others were considered high-risk visitors. “A Soviet journalist visiting Amsterdam told me that there was worry in the Kremlin that our attempt at dialogue in Moscow might only be a pretext for holding an antiwar demonstration in Red Square.” Visas were eventually granted. The visit convinced Forest of the critical need to meet and converse with “people at whom our weapons are aimed.”
Forest is the son of American Communists. His father was arrested as a “top Red” in 1952. Though charges were eventually dropped, the family remained on America’s enemy list. “The FBI not only kept close tabs on my parents but even fingerprinted my brother and me one afternoon when our mother was out of the house.” After Forest’s discharge from the U.S. Navy, he soon found himself in the company of Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker. Her radical commitment to peace and the poor reflected her resolute refusal to hate. She met enmity with love. Ever since, Forest has been a conspicuous activist of the Christian left. Through Day, Forest connected with the monk and writer Thomas Merton, who in a letter wrote: “One of the most important things to do is to keep cutting deliberately through the political lines and barriers and emphasizing that these are largely fabrications and that there is a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension.”
Forest asserts that the “Gospel According to John Wayne” is our contemporary world’s basic story wherein “John Wayne is a good man with a gun killing bad men with guns.” While there is some truth in this mythology, the problem “is that there is no such thing as a completely evil person — also the equally uncomfortable fact that not one of us is a completely good person.” Fear is a base ingredient in our inability to perceive the common thread of our humanity with others deemed different or dangerous.
We recoil from “their skin color, accent, clothing, neighborhood, religion, or nationality.” While sometimes fear is justified, “the self-protective cage we create and inhabit, supposedly a safe place, is in reality a cramped and miserable place to live in, and scary in its own right.” Forest shares an amusing story about his Marxist father’s first response to Merton’s argument that the root cause of war is fear. His father stated “bad economics” was the root of war. Years later, the elder Forest wrote to his son that he had concluded “that the root of bad economics is fear.”
Adamantine walls, being unbreakable, prevent understanding between individuals. The same goes for nations fortified by weaponry. “In at least seven countries, at every hour of the day, missiles armed with nuclear warheads stand ready for launch. So far only two such weapons have been used in war —in two blinding flashes Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed in 1945 — but there have been many close calls and accidents plus hundreds of test explosions, with even these, when done in the open air, causing many deaths by cancer for those downwind.”
Forest compares mainstream news media “to a trash collection agency” often clouding rather than clarifying current events, promulgating “the propaganda of enmity.” Individuals, cultures, movements and nations portrayed as threatening are often unknown to us in any other aspect. Forest says “rarely do we know them and rarer still are we able to speak even polite fragments of their language.” Thus are they easier to hate and denigrate.
In these times of global uncertainty all are challenged to embrace a new profoundly rejuvenating ethic. Indeed, Forest’s book is a call to metanoia, a fundamental change of heart, mind and soul that can open the portal through which humanity and the biosphere can embark on reclaiming life for all that comprises our living Earth. Forest’s book is spiritual food for that necessary pilgrimage on the road to sanity, survival and justice.
Book Review - Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment by Jim Forest