A Peace that Surpasses Understanding (Dr. Anthony Stringer)


Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them.

Ralph Waldo Emerson


There are places so beautiful that they etch their imprint not just upon the eye, but upon the spirit itself. There are places that speak not just to the ear, but directly to the heart. There are places that reach deep inside you to touch the very core of your humanity. There are places just this beautiful. The Mountain is one such place.

If you’ve looked out onto Sky Valley from Meditation Rock, you will know that such is the beauty of this place that it leaves an afterimage in the mind. You can still see the sensuously rolling mountains even with your eyes closed. I’ve spoken and written often of that unshakeable impression formed as I sat upon Meditation Rock early one morning, waiting for the sun to rise. As I ran my hands over the cold, bare stone, I got the distinct impression that no human-to-human violence had ever been done there.

There are simply places too beautiful to the human eye to permit an act of violence. Places that touch too deeply the human spirit. Places that lift us up too high, for at least that moment, for us to sink into any act of savagery. The Mountain is one place where nature affords us the opportunity to discover that sense of peace alluded to across religious traditions-that peace so potent, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, that it surpasses human understanding.

What surpasses my understanding is why such places exist. Or rather, why do we find them beautiful and why does that beauty have such an impact upon us. I could venture an answer grounded in evolution, if not actually in biology. The evolutionist might say: What appears to us as beauty in nature is no more than that which is necessary for our survival. There is some truth here, but the answer is a bit too facile. It has the ring of science, but not the rigor of science.

A hawk saw me on the deck of the Rec Hall at the Mountain. It came to look me eye-to-eye. It hovered on motionless wings, its perfect weight supported by the upward push of an air current. Stock still in midair. As we stared into one another’s eyes, I don’t know if the hawk thought “God, what a beautiful human being!” But I certainly thought “God, what a beautiful hawk!”

But my experience of the hawk is not really linked to my individual survival, nor do I think it can be proven that the human propensity to see beauty in nature is biologically linked to the survival of our species. The views that move us to scale mountains lure us to land that is not good for growing food. They lure us away from the valleys where the game is plentiful. They put us in the path of lightning strikes or they perch us on cliffs where we might fall to our deaths. If it were only about survival, mountains and hawks would be ugly, and not glorious in our sight. No, the peace that nature inspires, the peace that surpasses understanding, seems to have little to do with our survival.

The Indian poet and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, offered another answer to the question of why there is beauty in nature. Reflecting his Hindu tradition, Tagore spoke of nature as if it were a jewel from a lover, a thing of surface beauty given in token of a deep, abiding affection. Nature, to the Hindu poet, was a jewel from the deity serving as a reminder of the deep and abiding spiritual love of God for creation. Nature’s beauty is given to us in symbol of that love.

Though poetically beautiful, I find such a spiritual answer to the question of why we see beauty just as unconvincing as the evolutionary answer. It turns the universe into a bauble for our pleasure. A trinket to convince us we are loved. It centers nature around us, rather than placing us within nature. It subordinates the virtually limitless universe to a creature such as us, finite in time, space, and perception. I can’t quite fathom a deity so besotted with us that he, she, or it, creates an entire universe for us to admire. No matter how much I may wish to, I don’t find a conviction in nature’s beauty that there is a god somewhere who loves me.

It seems to me that beauty remains a mystery to science and to spirit alike. I don’t know why the world is so glorious; I only know that it is. I only know the impact such beauty has upon us. I only know the peace that nature inspires abhors violence, and makes anything but love unthinkable. And that does surpass my understanding.

But this kind of peace, for most of us, is a fleeting experience, a single stitch in the broader cloth of our lives, a moment in the expanse of a lifetime. You and I are not the Buddha. We are not the Christ. This peace that surpasses understanding, for most of us, will not last.

So I’d like to suggest a second meaning to that phrase, peace surpassing understanding. It is usually taken to mean a peace that is ineffable, a peace that is overpowering, perhaps even intoxicating; a peace that leaves us immune to trouble and worry; a peace that comes to us through Buddhist enlightenment, Muslim surrender to Allah, Christian faith in Jesus, or for me, through the religious naturalist awe in nature. That is the kind of peace I felt that morning at Meditation Rock, a peace that surpasses understanding.

But I want to suggest another meaning to the phrase. I want to suggest a second meaning, just as important as the first. A second kind of peace, which like the first, can be seen at the Mountain. However, it is a peace inherent not in the place, but rather in what we have tried to make of the place.

I used to fantasize about what it must be like to work in a place of constant beauty. What idyllic lives the Mountain staff must be living. What unending bliss they must know, being able to push away on a moment’s notice from their desks and computer screens and amble over to a window where nature’s spectacle waits. How wonderful it must be to live permanently in a room with a view. That was my fantasy of Mountain life. And then they asked me to join the Board, and I began to see things differently.

Despite its natural beauty, the Mountain has never been an easy place to work. The community surrounding the Mountain is not as liberal as the community we have formed on the summit, and it has been a challenge for staff to overcome local suspicion and fear about what may be going on at this place that openly embraces life’s diversity.

The Mountain is home to good people and it is a place of solid community. Not perfect people and certainly not perfect community. Our history includes people falling apart just as it includes people coming together. It includes individuals discovering inner resources they never knew they had, just as it includes individuals discovering weaknesses they had never wished to know. Our memories hold failures right along with the successes at the Mountain.

The community that heals also sometimes hurts. The community that achieves also sometimes falters. But what makes this Mountain community special, what makes this a beloved community, is the dedication to seeking the good. To finding the good in one another even when we disappoint one another. To honoring each other’s inherent worth and to affording each other the dignity we deserve simply by virtue of being born.

The Mountain is a Unitarian Universalist experiment. It is an experiment still in progress, the outcome of which we can only hypothesize about. The Mountain is not a UU congregation, and hence the people there are not exclusively Unitarian. We don’t exclude non-UUs from the Mountain; we welcome them to our community as guests, as staff, as members, and as board trustees. The Mountain is not a UU congregation. We don’t preach Unitarian Universalism at the Mountain, we live it. And when you’re living it, you’ve no need to preach about it.

The Mountain community, at its core, is an attempt to not preach Unitarian principles, but rather to live them. To live them in a world of diversities. We are still discovering what it means to live these principles. And we are still failing at it, maybe as often as we succeed. It is an experiment still in progress. But it is an experiment that must progress. We must know what it means to not just believe that everyone possesses inherent worth and dignity, we must know what it means to actually practice this belief.

Why must we know? Why is it so important for the Mountain experiment to continue? Why must the Mountain progress? It goes back to that second meaning of peace surpassing understanding.

We live not in the constancy of peace, but in the seeming inevitability of conflict. I could site statistics on war. I could tell you what I’ve read about the Sudan, or about Iraq. I could remind you of 9/11, or of what just happened in London. But you can read about such things as well as I can tell them. And for both you and me, these things are apt to be impersonal. They are things that have happened to someone else.

But real conflict, real violence is personal. At the moment that we commit an act of violence, we try to make it something other than personal. Indeed, we try hard to do so. I’ve been reading a memoir written by Gunnery Sergeant Jack Coughlin1 who recently ended a 20-year career as a sniper for the Marine Corps. He is credited with killing more than 60 people over the course of his career, including 36 during the American invasion of Iraq. He admits that many of the people he killed were noncombatant civilians. But he doesn’t write about the people he has killed, instead he writes about his “targets.” And he doesn’t murder, he “smoke checks,” in the parlance of the marines. “I tried to dehumanize the target,” Coughlin says in an interview2. “It is not a natural act for humans to kill each other….That’s why I came up with those euphemisms.” And that’s why all he admits to feeling when he smoke checks a target, when he kills a human being, is a sense of professional satisfaction.

But violence is personal and I want to talk about it in a personal way. I’ve known violence; both as a victim, and yes, as a perpetrator. I grew up in Detroit, a place that was far from any mountains, and that sometimes could erupt into violence. I was a child during the race riots in Detroit. It was a time when the smell of smoke never left the air. A time when National Guard soldiers rode armored vehicles, with weapons drawn, across my school playground. A time when a curfew meant I had to be off the street by 7:00 p.m., because later than that, even a child might be mistaken for a rioter and be shot or beaten. It was a time when we slept in the basement for fear of bullets coming in the windows. A time when an ambulance came to my house early each morning to ferry my mother to the hospital where she worked, because as a nurse she was needed there, and it was not safe for her to drive.

Parkside, the street I lived on in Detroit, ran east to west for miles, and spanned all of the city’s social and racial classes. I used to bicycle that street, riding from one end to the other. At its eastern point of origin lived the very poor and the very black. Some miles west on Parkside were the homes of the affluent and the very white. And sandwiched in the middle was my block of Parkside. I lived in a kind of transitional zone, peopled by those like my family who were not quite poor, but also not quite rich. My block was one of the few on which whites and blacks were neighbors.

My block was a way station for people on the way up, or on the way down. Next door was a teacher who became the Detroit Superintendent of Schools, and then moved away. Across the street and down the block was a lawyer who became a judge, and then moved away. Those families were on the way up. And there was my family. One of three on the block in which there was no father, only a mother doing the best she could. That is, until a heart attack disabled her and forced my family into bankruptcy, and, for a time, put us on welfare. We were on the way down.

It wasn’t a dangerous neighborhood that I lived in, but it wasn’t quite safe either. We didn’t live in the midst of violence; we just lived in its proximity. It would visit us from the east. The riots were to the east, just close enough for us to smell the smoke. We were the buffer zone for the affluent western blocks of Parkside. Violence clawed at us occasionally, but stopped short of reaching the rich.

I learned about violence from the youth gangs that wandered into my neighborhood some years after the riots, seeking a toehold. My friend Michael, the neighborhood fat kid, was an easy target. He was from one of the other families that lacked a father-I suppose that’s why he and I, for a time, were best friends. After several weeks of his being taunted, cornered, and beaten by this new youth gang in our neighborhood, Michael’s family finally called the police. But Michael was too frightened to say who his tormenters were. Not having had the kind of direct experience with violence that might have made me frightened as well, I spoke to the police for Michael, naming specifically who had been attacking him.

The police did their job. On the strength of what I told them, the police detained the boy who had been the leader of Michael’s attackers. But they detained only the leader. The others they left behind and still on the street. And those others became my attackers. I didn’t have Michael’s weight problem and so I was somewhat swifter of foot. I was swift enough to avoid these new neighborhood “thugs.” Notice even today how easily I use a word that characterizes these boys as something lesser, something criminal, “thugs.” My own bit of dehumanizing propaganda.

Eventually I grew tired of running from these boys, and tired of feeling like a coward. After weeks of running, there appeared to be a better alternative to my adolescent, male mind. A confrontation, a showdown, seemed to be the only way out.

I’m not proud to say this, and not proud to have done it. But this is what seemed right to me, at least for a moment, back then. And this is what I did. Michael and I armed ourselves one evening and went to meet the youth who had been tormenting us. Perhaps if the action of the police had put an end to the violence, rather than stoking it, we would not have found ourselves with weapons under our jackets. Perhaps if there had been men in our homes, we would have perceived of another option. But neither of us wanted to trouble our mothers further and both of us wanted the violence to stop. The irony is that the only option we seemed to have for stopping the violence was to plunge headlong into it.

We had our confrontation at the mouth of an alley just a block away from Parkside. A block away from where I lived. The confrontation didn’t go as I’d planned. There were far more of them, and only two of us. Michael grew very much afraid and surrendered the weapon he had made-a blackjack-in exchange for being left alone. The gang let Michael run home while they used his club on me. I can’t help but be reminded of the beating I took that evening when I read about the violence in today’s urban America. I’m actually grateful to have grown up in an earlier era when youth gangs were more likely to beat their victims than to kill to them. I lay for a time sore and bleeding in that alley, a block away from my home. But I lived to tell the story and to learn better from the experience. I fear the outcome would have been far worse were I growing up fatherless today.

I tell you this story so that you know that I know, of what I speak. I tell you this story because it’s personal. It’s not Iraq or Sudan. It’s not a young black or Hispanic male in a neighborhood you don’t frequent. It’s me. Someone you know. Someone I believe you respect. Violence is intimate and personal, for victim and perpetrator alike. To deny this is to perpetuate the circumstances that make violence possible. The same marine gunnery sergeant who writes so dispassionately about his murderous vocation reminds us of his own humanity. “I have two daughters,” he says. “I do all the same things as any normal family does….Don’t look at us as stone cold killers. Understand, we’re people.” I trust the irony of these words is not lost on you, but I fear it will continue to elude the gunnery sergeant.

Violence is a human aberration. It is important to know this, because the level of violence in our world can make it appear otherwise. It is important to know this because the moments are fleeting when we are in contact with the kind of ineffable beauty that inspires us to peace, and it is therefore easy to become convinced that violence is the norm for human existence. I want to say that this is not so. Violence is not natural or human. Indeed it only becomes possible when we deny both nature and humanity.

Robert McNamara has played a unique role in American history. As an army air force captain in the 1940s and later as Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he influenced U.S. military policy in World War II, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in the War in Vietnam. Of all wars, we tend to think of World War II as a just war. It was the war against Hitler. It was a war to end genocide. It was a war against tyranny both in Europe and Asia. Just or not, it was a war in which atrocities were committed by both sides.

“I was on the island of Guam,” McNamara says3, “in March of 1945 [when] in that single night, we burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo: men, women, and children.” According to McNamara, the U.S. killed through fire bombing, fifty to ninety percent of the populace of 67 Japanese cities, some of which were the size of such U.S. cities as Cleveland, New York, Chattanooga, and Los Angeles. And that was all before we dropped the atomic bomb. McNamara quotes Major General Curtis LeMay, the man responsible for the decision to use incendiary bombs on Japanese civilians. “‘If we’d lost the war,’ LeMay says, ‘we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.'” And we were ones fighting against Hitler.

The irony that seems to escape the marine sniper, who pleads his humanity while still denying the humanity of his victims, is not lost on McNamara. Now in his 80s, he seems to have grown aware of his culpability. “I’m at an age,” he says, “where I can look back and derive some conclusions about my actions. My rule has been try to learn, try to understand what happened. Develop the lessons and pass them on.”

Critics have accused McNamara of simply trying to ease his conscience, trying to find absolution for the unconscionable. But whatever his motivation, the prime lesson McNamara seems to want to pass on is simply this. Again, in his words, “War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, is not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.”

There will always be this limit to human understanding. There will always be issues dividing us and our capacity for rationality, and compromise will fail to span this divide, time and again. Given that reality, McNamara’s primary lesson is simply this: Empathize with your enemy. Our reason will not bring conflicts to an end, our rationality will not save us from violence, and our intelligence will not guarantee our survival as a race, a people, a species. If anything will, it will be our capacity to empathize, one with another.

This is the second meaning I want to give to that phrase, peace surpassing understanding. Peace, growing not out of our ability to resolve differences, not out of our ability to compromise, but simply out of our ability to empathize. Peace grounded in our refusal to ever allow ourselves to ignore or deny one another’s humanity. That is a peace that surpasses understanding. That is a peace that supersedes understanding. That is a peace that need not be fleeting.

What makes the Mountain community a beloved community is the faith it places in each of us, faith in our ability to change and in our ability to grow. It is a remarkable community because it is full of remarkable people: flawed people, people with quirks, with issues, with weaknesses. Real human beings, who despite all this, manage to embrace the good. Manage to embrace one another. Manage to embrace the diversities of life.

The Mountain is a special place; a place where nature works its magic upon the human spirit. But, I am religiously vain enough to believe that the Mountain is special not just because of nature, but because it is in special hands. Our hands; Unitarian Universalist hands. It would be a different place were it in anyone else’s hands, and yes, I’ll say it. If the community at the Mountain was centered on anything other than UU principles, it would not be half as magical. It is a place of such transforming power and of such abiding peace, not just because it is beautiful, but because it is beauty wedded to UU principles. I said I was religiously vain, and I am. I don’t think any other people could have forged the community that we have forged there.

We know from painful experience that it is difficult; we know that we will fail at it many times, and we know the constant labor required to maintain it. But despite all this, we believe it is possible to center a community on the conviction that everyone has inherent worth and dignity. And we believe that that makes all the difference in the world. Peace.

1Jack Coughlin, Casey Kuhlman, Donald A. Davis, Shooter, St Martins Press.
2The Atlanta Journal Constitution, June 26, 2005, Section B, Page 1.
3All quotations are from http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Fog_of_War.