“This gun of the hand is for the taking of human life. We believe it is wrong to take the life; that is only for God.”
When I search my memory banks for the origins of my quasi-pacifism, the above quote from the 1985 Harrison Ford film Witness always springs to mind.
I confess: I fight back tears every time I watch the Amish barn-raising scene in that film. Be it fiction or not (not), there is something inside me that celebrates the idea of a community that seeks a way of peace and a meaningful place for each of its members.
(Before you make a reference to Amish Mafia, at least consider the fact that a number of Amish culture experts have spoken out and declared that show to be an outlandish pile of Pennsylvania Dutch horseshit.)
The anthropology professor who rescued me from the Abaddon of a fundamentalist Christian worldview is an expert on Amish and Mennonite culture, as well as a man who studied under famed anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon.
His name is Dr. James P. Hurd. He is a Hero. He has superpowers of wisdom that put Wolverine’s adamantium to shame. And he deserves to have his name enshrined on the Internet.
I spent many classroom hours listening to Dr. Hurd discuss Amish culture. As a professional anthropologist, in no way did he excessively glorify the Amish. But through his teachings, I came to believe that the Amish, and similar subcultures, were on the cusp of “getting it.”
Later, this personal theory of “those who get it” versus “those who do not” was reinforced by numerous trips to Haiti and encounters with men and women who serve humanity on behalf of the Mennonite Central Committee. Unlike many of the missionary groups I met in that abandoned though wondrous land, the Mennonites had no interest in Bible thumping and every interest in “responding to basic human needs and working for peace and justice.”
At about the same time, I stumbled onto the life and teachings of Albert Schweitzer thanks to The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, of all places. (Parents of youngsters, this series is an incredible resource to get your children interested in history.) Ultimately I added Reverence for Life to my burgeoning quasi-pacifist philosophy.
I call it quasi-pacifism for the fact that this philosophy has rarely been tested in my life. If I’m being honest, I do not know how I would react in every possible violent situation.
I only know that I find it idiotic for human beings to resort to violence to solve problems. I also find it absurd for human beings to be compelled to resort to violence for self-preservation.
The latter statement is far more complex than the former. I believe that one can maintain that he or she is a pacifist and still leave open the door for engaging in acts of self-preservation. I refuse to endorse premeditated violence of any kind, but I probably would react instinctively to a madman storming into my home.
Does a belief in such actions of self-preservation leave open the door for military service? Perhaps. But only if one is forced to wear ridiculous costumes like the Pontifical Swiss Guard.
More seriously, as I watch women and minority groups celebrate their various advancements in the world of camo fatigues and C-rations, all I can think is: Why the hell would anyone want anything to do with that?
I do not wish to get stuck in the vast muck of Holy American Empire militarism. Suffice it to say, in my opinion, our nation has bankrupted itself morally with a multi-generational investment in non-peaceful solutions. If you don’t agree with me, take it up with the Five-Star General who knew more about war and violence than any President before him:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”
But this essay is about personal choices—not communal madness. After a generation on our Little Blue Planet, with the experiences described above as well as trips to Yad Vashem and Haiti’s nightmarish Ft. Dimanche under my belt, I have chosen a personal path of non-violence; I seek solutions of peace. For me and my five-year-old daughter.
The other evening, my daughter and I sat in the recliner reading a Ranger Rick cover story about the snow leopard. I supplemented Ellen Lambeth’s article with a few YouTube videos via Kindle Fire on snow leopard hunts plus my remembrance of a snow leopard encounter at the San Diego Zoo.
Toward the end of this wildlife learning session, my daughter burst into tears. Her emotional reaction sprang on me suddenly like one of those mysterious Asian cats pouncing from behind a jutting Himalayan rock. I asked her what was the matter.
My daughter had reached a bit of a wildlife discovery breaking point. She was sick of hearing that every magnificent creature on our Little Blue Planet is about to go the way of the dodo bird. Unfortunately, this is nearly unavoidable in the 21st century; just about every amazing animal species seems tagged with the same standard, “last chance to see” prologue:
“Snow leopards may never have been plentiful. And now there are even fewer—so few that they are an endangered species [boldface mine]. Too many leopards have been killed for their beautiful coats and also to keep them away from livestock.”
(Hello, Sharkocalypse Now.)
My daughter gathered herself and declared, “Papa, someday I will be the first woman President of the United States. And I will make a law that kills anyone who hurts a snow leopard.”
I spend a lot of time thinking about my paternal duties, but never had it occurred to me that I would encounter such a Reverence for Life conundrum via the pages of a child wildlife magazine.
My daughter and I have had many conversations about Schweitzer’s Paradox: In order to feed his pet pelican, Dr. Schweitzer had to take the life of a fish. Both animals are “life in the midst of life that wants to live.” How does one make such determinations?
Some days my daughter gets it, while I do not. Other days I get it, while she does not.
Reverence for Life and peace are not simple paths of living.
I have taught my daughter that humans are to be caretakers of Planet Earth. But what is the lesson to teach when one beholds the caretaker betraying his or her role and instead of protecting nature, destroys it?
I think I did the right thing by respecting my daughter’s passion, dabbing her tears, and offering several questions. “And you think you could take such a person’s life?”
My daughter returned my gaze with surprising steel. “Yes. There are so many of us. There are almost none of them. And when they’re gone, they’re gone forever.”
Then came her challenging, wordless gaze, as if to say, “Father, if a poacher of one of these rare and magnificent creatures stood before you, gun cocked, what would you do?”
Five year olds deserve answers to such questions.
As much as I believe in peace, deep in my heart, I wanted to tell her that this is the deserved fate of anyone who engages in simian assholery against snow leopards.
But I did not. In moments like this, thankfully there are others far wiser than I to lean on.
“Do you remember when we visited the Gandhi Room at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial a few weeks ago? Well, Mr. Gandhi had a neat saying: ‘There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no cause that I am prepared to kill for.’”
My daughter slowly digested the thought, then wrapped her arms around me for a big hug.
My reply did not bring the snow leopard back from the precipice of extinction. But it did provide my daughter and I with a new path to travel down. Ultimately that will help us both become better caretakers of our environment and better champions of peaceful solutions.
It bears repeating: Reverence for Life and peace are not simple paths of living. But I believe it is the only path that will save snow leopards and human beings alike.
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