Skyline, Fall - 2001

By Diane Pendola

If even one great nation
Were unconditionally to perform the
Supreme act of renunciation,
Many of us would see in our lifetime visible peace
Established on earth

September 11, 2001

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I was in the midst of writing a very different sort of EARTHLINES when the world irrevocably changed on September 11. I have found myself wanting to reach out to my “community” with the acute awareness of being part of something so much larger than my individual self. At the same time I experience that larger community, that larger Self, as something intensely personal. I feel part of a common heart, a common suffering which is not exclusively American but inclusively human, I dare say planetary.

In my urge to reach out I have felt particularly impelled to contact those people who have been teachers and mentors in my life. In calling to talk to one such person, I was shocked to hear that he had died just two weeks earlier; that his memorial service had just been celebrated the day before my call. Therefore I want to dedicate this issue of EARTHLINES to Robert McAfee Brown: teacher, mentor, friend.

We have on our property an octagonal structure, which we built from standing dead cedar poles and recycled lumber from a house we dismantled some years ago. The lumber encloses the bottom third of the rounded structure. The rest of the walls are screened so that one can have the experience of being outdoors in the breeze and the bird song while feeling embraced in a protected space. The roof ascends steeply and the center is enclosed with glass so you can look out into the tops of ponderosa pine trees and open sky. Looking out towards the south the expansive view descends through pasture and meadows, through forest to a blue expanse of lake and the broad skyline beyond. It was here that I knelt on a prayer rug left behind as gift from a dear friend’s vision quest. The light had nearly faded. The stars were coming out. The night birds were calling and the nocturnal creatures were stirring. I lit a candle for my friend, Robert McAfee Brown. I sang a chant I learned to love during my time in the Carmelite Monastery, a chant often sung at vespers, the evening time: May our prayer, rise like incense our hands like an evening sacrifice. O Lord come to our assistance. O God make haste to help us. Hear our prayers when we cry to you. I watched as the smoke from the candle, lit by the glow of the flame, rose toward the pine tops and the night sky. It was then that the loss I felt for this wonderful man flowed into the currents of sorrow being felt throughout the country. I grieved and wept.

Bob’s life was a life dedicated to peace, justice and the articulate defense of the poor and the powerless. He was an advisor on my masters’ thesis when I was a student at The Franciscan School of Theology, part of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley where he was a professor at the Pacific School of Religion. He supported me, encouraged me, and championed me in the face of opposition to the controversial subject matter of my master’s project. He was an embodiment of the teachings and spirit of Christ and had a very large part in shaping my own theological thinking about war, peace and non-violent activism.

On September 15, five days after the horrific events in New York City and Washington I sat down and processed what I was feeling in my journal. I offer those reflections to you now. I hear Bob’s words in my words. I feel the teacher present in the student. I call on his help and his prayers. And I ask for a share in his generous spirit.

September 16, 2001:

Five days after the world irrevocably changed with the airliner/bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington. I’m afraid for the future; afraid for where this talk of war will take us. “An eye for any eye makes the whole world blind”, Gandhi said. I Thank God for this beacon of light in the 20th century who did show that a massive movement for non-violent resistance is not only possible but, because of him, now a fact of history.

“Hatred never ceases through hatred but by love alone is healed. This is the ancient and eternal law”, the Buddha said. The great lights of our human history are unanimous on this: “I say to you, love your enemy. Do good to those who hurt you.” (Jesus) What would happen if we as a nation returned good for evil? What if we turned our attention to the sources of suffering, hatred and despair that produced these 19 young suicide hijackers? What if we took the billions of dollars we are now willing to dedicate to war and the newly mobilized energy of millions of Americans and supporters around the world and began to see that the poor were fed, the naked clothed and the oppressed set free?

The religious underpinnings that motivated this attack are becoming clear: The United States and the western world represent the Great Satan- the great evil- to these religious extremists and therefore it is holy to go to war against us. Do we not hear our leaders using the same language to justify war, violence and hatred against our designated enemy of democracy and western values?

I hope that we have matured sufficiently as a race- a human race- to see that we can no longer project our “shadow” upon an enemy in order to expel the shadow within ourselves- the evil within us.

“Before you see fit to remove the splinter from your neighbors eye, first remove the log from your own eye”, Jesus wisely counseled. We have our own repenting to do.
We have championed countries and institutions and terrorist groups in order to protect our own economic and power interests. The little people have been murdered, raped, displaced from homes and homelands. They have mourned the loss of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and co-workers. Is it any wonder that there is some satisfaction among those people that they finally see “us” suffer what they have suffered? Do we not see that to retaliate is only to create more of the same suffering?

George Bush has declared this the first war of the 21st century. I feel so sad when I hear this echoed by too many of our leaders. This terrorist attack has certainly been a wake-up call. It has mobilized the American people and our allies across the world. But let it wake us not only to the hatred that is harbored against us in many parts of the world, but also to our own complicity. Let it mobilize us to a new consciousness- one that does not seek to undo violence by violence. It is not a hateful heart that can transform hearts that hate. It is a pure and compassionate heart. We do not need hearts of stone but hearts of flesh that can feel the suffering of the entire body of humanity- and of the planet- as one body. The 21st century is not about “us” and “them,” it is about “US”. It is about one world “where nation no longer rises against nation, neither do we study war”. Let this be the challenge of this horrible event. Let us mobilize our young people not to militarism and nationalism but to non-violence and world citizenship; not to hatred but to love; not to war but to peace. And not the easy peace of comfort and convenience that has too often established itself on the backs of the poor third world countries, but a peace that does cost, that does demand sacrifice, that demands a “humble and contrite heart”.

I am someone who attempts to embody the teachings and the spirit of Christ. I know there are many that are Christian who can cite scriptural texts to legitimate war, just as there are Muslims who can cite their holy texts to legitimate war. But I believe the essence of all of our spiritual traditions is of love and of non-violence. I believe non-violence is the only way into the 21st century. If we are honest with ourselves, we know this is the essence of our spiritual teachings. The consciousness of the founders of our great spiritual traditions were grounded in love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, and the unity of the human family and of all life. We allow ourselves to fall short, to live lesser lives of pettiness, animosity and violence because we feel unable to live up to the call of our teachers, saviors and gods. We elevate them to a super-human status thus excusing ourselves from becoming like them.

This is the true challenge- not whether we are willing to lay down our lives in war against other members of our human family, but whether we are willing to lay down our lives in non-violent resistance to hatred and war for the sake of our human family. “No greater love can a person have then to lay down their life for a friend”, Jesus said, then laid down his life in non-violent resistance to the evils that crucified him. His last words from the cross: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

The Dalai Lama calls the Chinese who invaded his native homeland of Tibet, “my friend, the enemy”. Let us find the friend in the enemy and extend a hand that can lift us all to the level that our human hearts and spirits have been called to by all of the true spiritual teachers through time. Let us discover our highest calling. Let us stop the war within ourselves and find the peace that transcends our individual deaths. The young men who chose these suicide missions felt they could find that peace through violence and the taking of thousands of human lives. But we witness their violence begetting more violence. As the Dalai Lama said in his acceptance of the Nobel prize for peace, “I believe all religions pursue the same goals, that of cultivating human goodness and bringing happiness to all human beings”. This terrorist attack was a perversion of Islam as certainly as Timothy Mcveigh’s attack was a perversion of Christianity.

It seems to me, the only way to stop the violence is not to engage in it- at any level. Looking within my own heart I see I have much work to do. I pray we all begin this work in earnest, helping each other and encouraging each other, to awaken our hearts. And may all of the gods and goddesses, buddhas and bodhisattvas, martyrs and saints, angels and numinous powers pray with us to lift us to a transformed level of consciousness, to help us through this perilous door that could well open upon the very gates of hell.


I would like to close this issue of EARTHLINES remembering Bob Brown. I took a class on Elie Wiesel from Bob while I was a student at the GTU. For those of you who are not familiar with Elie Wiesel, he is a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, and has received international respect for his efforts to help us understand the moral and social implications of that dark time in our human history. Bob’s book “Elie Wiesel, Messenger to All Humanity” along with that particular class, had a profound impact on my thinking about the existence of suffering and evil in the world. Given the context of the holocaust, the text that I cite here from the end of that book, takes on a poignant significance. It speaks to our own suffering and search for meaning in the wake of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.

Suffering can never be “justified”- a thousand theodicies to the contrary notwithstanding. Nor, apparently, can suffering be ended, as a thousand experiences confirm. However, by remaining defiant in the face of suffering, seeking to limit it, refusing to accept it as a justifiable end or a necessary means, we can still deal with it… There is massive evidence to justify giving way to despair and concluding our journey with a dirge or a requiem. And yet, and yet… the messenger urges us to sing a song of joy. There is no absolute victory, he has already told us, but there can be “a small measure of victory. ” In spite of everything. (p. 225).

The messenger Bob speaks of is a man, Elie Wiesel, who lived through hell and emerged as an eloquent spokesman for peace on behalf of all humanity. His voice carries the authority of experience and hard-won faith. His small measure of victory is his refusal to surrender hope or his faith in the ultimate goodness of God or Humanity. We, by extension, are also invited to be messengers, genuine participants in the overcoming of evil through the transformation of our human heart.

In the last paragraphs of his book “Spirituality and Liberation: Overcoming the Great Fallacy” Bob invites us out of the role of spectator and onto the stage of life and of liberating activity. The deeds that proclaim spirituality/liberation, liberation/spirituality, praxis, shalom-whatever-are not there just to be admired. They are there as signs and pointers to us. This is the way to come, they are telling us. You can’t just watch from the sidelines. You have to come onstage. You are part of a community now. You have to venture, to risk. You are needed. After all, the life you save may be someone else’s. (p153).


I wrote the following poem for Bob in 1987. I offer it to you now in his memory, inviting you, as he did me, into the courage and confidence of your own heart’s calling.

An Encouraging Voice

The meadow streams
towards the darkening gate
hinged by pine,
over-arced by oak,
opened by a bird’s call.

He sounds,
piercing and true,
inviting to risk into and through
to the night’s dark heart,
to spend this night awake
in the lap of the wild,
of the unknown and untried.

He scours my ear
painful in his pure and primal cry,
resonates in an ache
that haunts through
my body like a ghost
wandering and restless,
hungry for a home
that can finally hold her.

I stand
in the wide open palm
of pasture grass
ringed by irrigation waters:
domesticated, fenced, contained.
There are times it clenches
into a fist
that would choke me,

but this evening is liquid
and all the colors run
toward the forest gate,
released finally from
this frozen still life
by a bird’s
couraging call

Recommended Reading:

Elie Wiesel: Messenger to all Humanity, by Robert McAfee Brown. University of Notre Dame Press, 1983
Spirituality and Liberation; Overcoming the Great Fallacy, by Robert McAfee Brown. Westminster Press, 1988
Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict, by Joan Bondurant, University of California, 1971
Gandhi: Selected Writings, edited by Ronald Duncan, Harper and Row, 1971
Ethics for the New Millennium, by the Dalai Lama

©Diane Pendola, September 2001. You are welcome to print or make a copy in electronic form for personal use or sharing with interested persons as long as the copyright notice is not removed or altered. Please do not print it in any other publication, or sell it, by itself or as part of another work, without express written permission of the author. Thank you!

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