KEYNOTE ADDRESS BY RABIA TERRI HARRIS
FOR's regional conference at Seabeck WA
July 3, 2005
Nonviolence is jihad: thoughts on the evolution of resistance
I seek refuge in God from the accursed Devil.
In the name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Caring.
Peace be upon you all, and the compassion and blessings of God.
I have begun, today, with a number of statements of faith. I do this because I believe that our only option is to begin with "I believe!" So we might as well be clear about what we are doing.
I hope that the meanings these statements have for me will emerge for you after awhile.
Recently, in my function as interim editor of Fellowship (a position which I will be ceding, with our Nov/Dec issue, to the very fine incoming editor Ethan Vesely-Flad) I published an editorial under the title "The F Word." In that space I was comparing the discomfort many conservatives feel around issues of sexuality to the discomfort many liberals feel around issues of religion. In the course of my reflection I made the comment that ultimately faith is the basis of opinion. This generated a little controversy among some Fellowship readers. Many of us feel quite justified in our suspicion and unease concerning organized religion, especially when it seeks to involve itself with state power. And many of us feel that bringing faith into the foreground is bound to exclude somebody: atheists, agnostics, members of unpopular groups. Surely there is something else to talk about?
What leads to these objections is the notion that faith is a content, some specific assertion or set of assertions that cannot, in the nature of things, be adhered to by us all. Many people hold that it is. Whereas the point I was trying to make is that faith is a process. And that process, it seems to me, is inescapable.
Everybody, I am claiming, believes in something. Atheists believe that there is no god. Agnostics believe that it is not possible to know whether there is a god (and therefore, it doesn't really matter). Members of unpopular groups believe something or another that's not winning any contests this year. And then there are those of us who believe they'll have another beer! But everybody begins the construction of their story of reality, and of the meaning of their own lives, with some kind of unprovable intuition. And it is a matter of great consequence whether that intuition is acquired superficially at the surface of our being, or arises profoundly from the core.
One of the big deals of 20th century mathematics was the discovery that whole alternative geometries could be built by bringing what seemed to be common-sense assumptions into conscious question. It's obvious that parallel lines never meet. Only, supposing they do? It was startling to discover that apparent fundamentals of reality were resting on tenuous perceptual air, not solid objective ground. They were unprovable intuitions. We found that choosing different sets of fundamentals would yield strangely workable sets of different results, and that people were shockingly free to choose the point from which they could begin to construct coherent and functional universes of thought.. What was preposterous and what was rational became much harder to distinguish. Without trial by experiment, it appears, we can only recognize whether or not a worldview is internally consistent. We cannot say anything about whether it happens to be true.
This intellectual realization brought to symbolic focus much of the anxiety of our times-- for a widespread experience of 20th century living has been the crumbling of the obvious, the disappearance of what is relied upon. This has not been a pleasant experience for most of us, and the phenomenon has led directly to our current crisis over freedom, meaning, security, order, and violence. For those among us who have absorbed the modem lessons of plurality and relativity have lost confidence in certitude: we are frequently tentative and even apologetic about the things we believe. Whereas those among us who have rejected the legitimacy of multiple perspectives often act forcefully, without much self-examination or attention to others, but with a strength of conviction that is seductive and compelling. Such people can be dangerous, and there seem to be a lot of them around.
The best lose all distinction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
wrote Yeats in the most-quoted poem of the last 100 years—"The Second Coming." Under such circumstances we might well tremblingly ask, as he did,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
There is a sort of hypnotized passivity in many of us these days, as if it is all doomed to happen, all these bad things, the inordinate cruelty, the stupid waste, the willful blindness. The rough beast of the Apocalypse is coming, no matter what.
In point of fact, we don't know what will happen next. We can never know. But perhaps things needn't be as dreadful as we fear, if we shake ourselves awake and take our stand upon a conscious embrace of the inescapable process of faith.
We can decide to trust what we learn in the depths of our being. It might be interesting to call this stand resistance.
I'll bet that many of us here today grew up on the C.S. Lewis Narnia books, so lots of people might remember the critical incident in the volume The Silver Chair. To those of you who haven't read them, I highly recommend these stories: even though I'm going to give away a major scene now, there are plenty more. Narnia has some important things to say to us.
In the scene I have in mind, the young hero has been fixed to a silver chair by the dark magic of a wicked enchantress, who has captured him in her kingdom underground. The property of the chair is that whoever sits in it forgets everything that came before the sitting: it makes memory fade. And our hero has got into this adventure through his love for a magnificent lion who radiates kindness, grandeur, gentleness, strength, wisdom- the natural king of the wondrous world of Narnia, who goes by the name of Aslan. (It's an Arabic word for "lion," did you know?)
Sitting in that chair, our hero finds to his horror that he cannot visualize Aslan anymore, that all of their experiences together are passing out of his mind. . . that the whole aboveground world is becoming tenuous. Meanwhile the witch keeps intoning persuasively to him, "Let it go ... it was all a fantasy, it was all a dream ... there is no other world except my kingdom. ... there never was an Aslan. …"
He teeters, our hero, on the brink of despair, on the brink of belief in her insinuating, so- logical words. But at the last moment, something in him rallies. His heart wakes up, and liberating words force themselves from his mouth.
"I'm on Aslan's side," he finally bursts out defiantly, triumphantly, "whether there's an Aslan or not!"
And with that act of resistance, the spell is broken.
I know no better illustration of the process of faith as the assertion of the heart, as the spontaneous declaration of our own deepest inward principle, of something that we cannot help but live from, once we dare to be real. It is something that makes us what we are, and that makes what we are, worth being.
Faith, in this sense, lies at the origin of every ideology, but is far stronger, more primal, more real than any. For faith is personal. Faith is not about yielding to insinuating words of any variety, not about "should" and "ought," not about proof. It speaks to us of the good, of what we know to be good, when the good is nowhere to be seen. It is the exaltation, by the infinite, of the native intuition of an individual soul.
Affirming it saved our hero. It might do the same for us.
Looking at what frightens us around us, we feel the need to offer resistance-but to what? And based on what? And in support of what? Most wars are fought in the name of offering resistance to something that has been inadequately defined. We call it "the enemy" and it is "out to get us," but we have a hard time pinning it down. When we localize this enemy in each other, we tend to attack each other, only to discover afterwards that we are no better off despite all the bloodshed, that we feel not a lick more secure. We have done terrible things, yet the enemy has shown up somewhere else. So we form yet another theory of what afflicts us, based on the same premise. We blame someone new, and try to ignore what we ourselves have done. But the more lies we force ourselves to believe, the sicker we become, the more deeply frightened and miserable we are. To deny the witness of the heart is to destroy the heart.
I submit to you that what is really at issue in our work together in FOR--and in the entire spiritual work of our time -- is the resistance of hearts to the destruction of hearts. Geometries of belief that present themselves to human beings must be tested by experiment, and the heart is the only touchstone we can trust. Of any belief, of any sentiment, of any worldview, the question must be asked: Does it honor the actual experience of real persons? Does it respect the sovereignty of the heart? To the extent that it does, if it is new to us, we might learn from it something unexpected. And to the extent that it doesn't, we know directly that that belief, that sentiment, that worldview is not of any use.
When we speak of human dignity, we are referring to this connection to truth, this sovereignty of the heart. And it is necessary for us to see clearly that there are forces abroad that seek always to obliterate our awareness of the sovereignty of the heart. Whatever wishes to control us must invalidate us first, so the denial of intrinsic human dignity is the fundamental technique of illegitimate power. And historically, it has been extremely successful.
Fortunately, in this world, everything has a limit. And the limit of illegitimate power is real persons waking up.
My tradition contains a key teaching story-the Qur'anic story of the origin of evil. I would like to tell it to you now. For me it conveys the essential information about our situation in the world.
In the Islamic tradition, in the Qur'an, we are told that before the creation of human beings, God brought the angels together and said, I'm going to make a representative on the earth.
The angels raised objections, saying, "What? You're going to do that? You're going to put somebody there who is going to cause corruption and shed blood when we already sing Your praises and glorify You?"
God replied, "I know something you don't know," and He created the first human being. This was before the separation of the sexes, so this was a universal human being, which we call Adam. Then God brings Adam before the angels and He asks them, "Can you tell me the names of these?" In the Qur'an this term "these" is kind of mysterious. You know, of these, of what?
So, the angels reply, "Well, You know perfectly well that we only know what You have taught us and we can't answer that question."
So, God says to Adam, "Teach them the names." And the human being teaches the names to the angels, becoming the teacher of the angels. At that point, God says to the angels, "Prostrate yourselves to Adam!" And they do, except for this one character, and this character refuses to do that.
What this character is doing there, in the first place, is left open in the Qur'an, but there he is. He is held to be a spirit, and there he is in the convocation of angels, and God said to him, "What's wrong with you? Why won't you prostrate yourself to that which I have created with My two hands?"
The spirit replies, "Well, you have created me of fire and you have created that of clay. I am better!"
And there we have the original sin. It is not a human problem. This spirit, later called the Devil, is the one that committed the original sin, by not honoring the human.
So, God says, "We don't need you here anymore. Go away."
And the Devil says, "Wait, wait, you're wrong! Let me show You that I'm right about this thing that You just made. I'm going to mislead these beings from every possible direction and these creatures will never remember You!"
Then God responds, saying, "Go ahead and try."
After that, the whole Biblical story of the Fall develops (except, mind you, in the Qur'an the newly masculinized Adam doesn't blame it all on Eve!). So, what we take from this Qur'anic prologue to the classic story of Genesis is that the human being, even before the Fall, was expected to fall. That was the objection of the angels. "Are You going to put somebody there who is going to cause corruption and shed blood?" The value, though, of humanity was such that God was willing to risk those dangers in order to put us here to do our job. For humans were to be the representatives of the divine qualities, to reflect and recall the divine qualities, in the material world.
The way the Sufis have understood this mysterious business of "the names," which has been taken up by a great many mainstream Islamic theologians (although Sufis have developed it to a high degree of subtlety and beauty), is that those names are the divine names. In Islamic tradition, there are ninety-nine names of God, but these stand for infinite names of God, which are relations between human beings and the Divine. The human being encompasses all the possible relations between creatures and the Creator and it is for the beauty of the manifestation of all of those possibilities that we are here.
To me, one of the most important things about this story is that it suggests to us precisely what we are called upon to resist. The Devil here is not just a superstition, nor an easy way to duck our responsibility for our acts. The Devil is what Walter Wink might call a Power--a perennial tendency, a transpersonal and yet subpersonal force, with which we need not identify ourselves, or each other. The Devil often acts through us, but is not of us, because it acts against us. It's important to see that the Devil is not by nature the enemy of God. The Devil is the enemy of the human being. Where the Devil is present, the abyss of hatred for what is human makes itself known. Whenever we feel the whisper of that terrible contempt--that horrible sinking into shame or that dreadful false elevation- -whenever we hear, whether around us or within us, "You have created me of fire and that of clay, I am better".. . it is time to take refuge in God from the accursed Devil. And God, we are promised, will welcome us home.
You see, nothing prevents us, at any moment, from declaring for Aslan. And no matter what happens next, to declare for Aslan is victory.
God says in the Qur'an, "We have honored the children of Adam." It is my favorite text. God doesn't say "some of the children of Adam" or "under some circumstances" or "if you believe in God." This is an absolute honoring, to which we are all heirs. No one, but no one, can take it away from us. All that can happen is that we can lose track of it -- and it is the object of the Devil that we should lose track of it. It's no surprise that the Devil loves tyrants, telling them extravagant lies about honor, just as he tells them extravagant lies about faith. The statement that Pharaoh makes in the Qur' an, the statement that tells us what we most need to know about him, is: "I am your Lord; the Supreme." It is a direct descendant of Satan's statement "I am better." But we need not believe those lies. Indeed, we must not believe them.
The technique of true resistance is to oppose the suggestions of the Devil with the native intuition of the soul, with the connection to truth of every human being, with the great affirmation. The struggle requires us to remember the dignity of humanity, and to act upon it: no alternate geometry will permit the world to flourish. And to move forward in that conviction, at whatever risk, despite all appearances, is the ultimate meaning of struggle, or jihad.
The Prophet said to his disciple Anas, "My son, if you are in a position to pass your morning and your evening keeping your heart free from malice against anyone, then act accordingly." He added, "My son, that is my sunnah, my way. And whoever loves my way, loves me, and whoever loves me will be with me in Paradise."
Do you hear the voice of Aslan? Who is Aslan, exactly?
The Prophet also told his people, "Help your fellow Muslim, whether oppressor or oppressed."
"We know how to help the oppressed," the Companions objected, "but how on earth are we to help the oppressor?"
"Your help to him," he told them, "is to prevent him from oppressing."
This is what the struggle is all about. This is the spirit in which it must be fought. It can only be fought like this by the people of living faith, the people of the heart, the people who are too awake to say "I am better." And these days, they go by many names.
But to God, we say, to the ultimate beautiful mystery, belong all of the beautiful names.
Let me tell you another story to complement the story of The Silver Chair. It is also a tale of the process of faith and of the power of words, but it teaches a different lesson. And this one happens to be history.
Once upon a time in the highly political cut-throat trading city of Makkah there lived a small group of people committed to social justice, mutual service, the purity of creation, and the direct presence of the human heart with the ultimately real. They called themselves muslim, "surrendered." Their leader had the annoying habit of warning the Makkan oligarchy that the ingrained habits of cruelty, competition for power, petty- mindedness, and economic exploitation were on the verge of destroying both them and their world. He said that God had called him to warn them, and to demonstrate another way to be. What a joke! What a bore. At first they ignored him. Then he started to scare them. He was a blasphemer and a subversive, and his ideas were spreading among women and the poor. It was necessary to stamp these people out. Pressure was applied. Suffering followed.
'Umar ibn al-Khattab was one of the great warriors of Makkah. A man of high temper and physical presence, rigorous toward himself and others, he was widely influential and conservative to the core. He made up his mind to rid society of the menace of the muslims by personally killing their leader, Muhammad. That would put an end to this nonsense of revelation, these words that were turning things upside down.
As he strode though the city with this righteous intention, an acquaintance stopped him. "Where are you going, 'Umar, in such high dudgeon?"
"I am going to kill Muhammad and restore order to this city."
"Well," the acquaintance laughed, "maybe you had better restore order to your own family first. Haven't you heard that your sister has become muslim?"
It was news to 'Umar. Furious, he turned and headed for his sister's house. From outside the door, he heard her reciting something strange. The words confronted him, somehow. "What was that?" he demanded, barging in. She shoved a scrap of parchment down the front of her dress. "Not for you!" she declared. He yelled and screamed at her, but she would not turn the bit of writing over to him. Finally he gave up. "Just show it to me: I won't hurt it," he promised; and she knew his promise was good. So she produced the scrap, and he read it. And this is what it said:
We have not sent down the Qur' an upon you to distress you But only as a reminder to those who are afraid;
A sending from the one who created the earth and the highest heavens: The Most Compassionate is established upon the throne.
To Him belongs what is in the heavens and upon earth, and all that is between them and what is beneath the soil.
You may pronounce the word aloud; but He knows what is secret and even more hidden.
God! There is no other. To God belong the most beautiful names.
We know these words as the first verses of Surah 20. They stopped 'Umar cold, and the powerful warrior began to weep. For he felt personally addressed: his heart recognized their meaning. He himself was a man of violence, and violence was disorder. It was only the Most Compassionate that could govern, does govern, the world.
'Umar left his sister, went to Muhammad, and instead of killing him, joined him. The heart had spoken. And in Makkah, the tide began to turn in favor of the beloved community.
As the Prophet said, the best jihad is to speak a word of truth to an unjust ruler.
"There can be no compulsion in religion," God commands in the Qur' an. "Guidance has been made distinguishable from misguidance. Whoever breaks faith with idols and keeps faith with God takes hold of the strongest of hand holds, which never breaks: God is a listener, a knower."
There are always two kinds of religion abroad in the world. There is the religion of Pharaoh, and there is the religion of Moses. There is the religion of compulsion, and there is the religion of humility and freedom. There is the religion of "I am your Lord; the Supreme," and there is the religion of "There is no god but God." As a rule, these two religions are both known by the same beautiful name. Islam. Christianity. Even Communism. Even democracy. Even pacifism. Whatever it is that has the potential to move us. Whatever it is that might open, or shutter, our hearts.
No belonging can exempt us. There is always a choice to be made.
It is necessary to our sanity, and to the world's welfare, that we learn how to tell these two religions apart.
... and God knows best.
Rabia Terri Harris
July 1, 2005
web posted 8/29/05
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