I was in a yoga class the night the results of the 2008 US presidential elections were announced. Midway through the class, the door opened and an instructor poked her head in. “We have a new president,” she announced in a soft voice, as if proclaiming the arrival of something important, like a new baby. After a hushed pause, she continued: “Barack.” And it was as if a warm glow cast itself throughout the small studio.
The intersection of politics and spirituality is a funny place, where massive disconnects between espoused beliefs and worldly actions are often revealed. It has become cliche to point to Christians who profess to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, yet enthusiastically cheer on every new war waged by their own nation’s government.
What is less remarked-upon and perhaps less apparent, is something I have noticed over many years spent among Western practitioners of Buddhism, yoga and other spiritual practices: A profound disconnect between professed adherence to “non harming”, peace and kindness — and support for institutions and policies that have coercive violence at their core.
There is the yoga instructor who supports forced certification - using the force of the state to prevent people from taking classes from instructors who have not been certified. There is the friend who meditates daily and espouses a life of both inner and outward peace - yet eagerly calls for the forced distribution of wealth and the nationalization of health care. And there are the many many friends and acquaintances who are willing to use force to impose their choices on other people, from banning smoking in private businesses to enforcing minimum-wage laws, banning plastic bags, and forcing food producers to put certain labels on their products — the list seems endless.
While the merits of each of these goals is open to debate, there is one question that rarely seems to come up: Whether or not the use of force — violent, state-imposed force — is justified in accomplishing any of them. It’s not that their proponents argue that force is justified, it is that they simply don’t address the question at all — as if they don’t even recognize government violence as something to be concerned about.
This may be about to change, as violence imposed by the state is more and more at the forefront of our culture’s consciousness. The killing of Eric Garner last summer, for the crime of selling unpackaged cigarettes without tax stamps on the streets of New York City, and the death of Sandra Bland in jail after having been beaten and arrested for the crime of failing to signal a lane change, have made it graphically clear to us all that every single law or regulation we have is backed up by the threat of brutalizing, incarcerating, or even killing those who disobey it.
Legal scholar Stephen L Carter articulated this well. He wrote, following Garner’s death:
“Of course, activists on the right and the left tend to believe that all of their causes are of great importance. Whatever they want to ban or require, they seem unalterably persuaded that the use of state power is appropriate.
“That’s too bad. Every new law requires enforcement; every act of enforcement includes the possibility of violence. There are many painful lessons to be drawn from the Garner tragedy, but one of them, sadly, is the same as the advice I give my students on the first day of classes: Don’t ever fight to make something illegal unless you’re willing to risk the lives of your fellow citizens to get your way.”
It is time for those who profess to care about human suffering to start being honest about this. If we are truly going to take a stand for peaceful coexistence and non-harming, then we can no longer remain oblivious to the violent implications of the government acts that many of us support: from immigration restrictions to anti-trust law, mandatory GMO labeling to medical licensing, environmental and workplace regulation to taxes on cigarettes ...or indeed to taxation itself.
There is a belief prevalent in many spiritual communities that says we cannot attain a world of peaceful coexistence until there is a near-universal shift in consciousness. I don’t believe this. I think there are many things we can do to address the institutions that allow for war, poverty, police violence and other social ills, and to lay the foundations for people to live peaceably with each other, without waiting for the great majority of humanity to become enlightened. But in order to do these things, those of us who seek change need to first recognize and own up to our own attachments to violent institutions and practices.
If we are to have peaceful societies characterized by civilized coexistence, then we must abandon the social systems that have coercion at their roots. For an awful lot of people, that is going to mean ending a long-standing love affair with government power and all that it promises. It is going to mean taking off the blinders that allow some of us to see a fundamentally violent institution as something benevolent, humane, even compassionate. It is going to mean being brutally honest about something many of us have come to attach our identities to.
And so perhaps it does entail a shift in consciousness, at least for those of us who choose to take on these issues. It certainly entails a deep examination of what we actually mean when we say that we seek to avoid harming other living beings and to lead lives of peace.