I am told by Native American friends active at Standing Rock that the elders are counseling the Water Protectors to undertake each action prayerfully and to stay off the warpath.
I would like to explain why this advice is not only spiritually sound, but politically astute as well. I would like to translate it into a strategic compass for anyone who is going to Standing Rock or supporting the Water Protectors from afar. I also want to explain how it contains a recipe for the kind of miracles that we need for the healing of our planet.
Let me explain what I mean here by a miracle. A miracle is a kind of a gift, an occurrence that is beyond our capacity to make happen. It is something beyond the normal rules of cause and effect as we have understood them. These include the rules of political and economic power that determine what is practical and “realistic.”
The halting of the Dakota Access Pipeline would be miraculous simply because of the array of powerful ruling interests that are committed to building it. Not only has Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the pipeline, but a who’s-who of global banks has committed over $10 billion in lines of credit to ETP and other involved entities. Those banks, many of whom are facing financial stress of their own, are counting on the profits from the loans at a time when credit-worthy capital investments are hard to come by. Finally, the United States government has (in its estimation) a geopolitical interest in increasing domestic oil production to reduce the economic power of Russia and the Middle East. To hope to halt the pipeline in the face of such powers is in a certain sense unrealistic.
Since when has a Native American people successfully thwarted large-scale plans of mining, energy, or agricultural interests? The usual pattern has been one land grab after another in which resistance is at best futile and at worst suicidal. But at Standing Rock, something different is possible. It is not because the Dakota Sioux have finally acquired more guns or money than the pro-pipeline forces. It is because we are ready collectively for a change of heart.
That would be good news not only for the people directly affected by the pipeline, because the whole planet is in need of similar miracles on a massive scale. Around the globe, powerful interests are destroying ecosystems and landscapes, clearcutting, stripmining, and polluting. In every case, the destroyers have more military, political, and financial power than those who would resist them. If this planet and our civilization is to heal, it cannot be through winning a contest of force. When you have a chance of overcoming an opponent by force, then fighting is a reasonable option. Absent that condition, victory has to come some other way: through the exercise of a kind of power that makes guns, money, and other kinds of coercive force irrelevant. Dare we call this power love?
Before I go on, let me convey to you my awareness of the injustice and suffering that the Water Protectors have endured. Many of my friends have witnessed them first hand. These things must be taken into account if a philosophy of nonviolence is to be relevant to the real world. Furthermore, I am no armchair philosopher in this matter. My own son is at Standing Rock as I write this.
OK then, love. I am not talking about shying away from confrontation and hoping to stop the pipeline by loving the police or energy company from afar. Standing Rock has given us many examples of love in action that offer a hint of the miracle that is possible.
I heard about one incident in which a group of Water Protectors went to talk to the sheriff about the water cannons. They were met with police who began to arrest them. While she was being arrested, one of the women began to sing a native prayer song; soon all of the group were singing in unison. The police began to look uncomfortable; one of them even started crying. Another, who looked like he might have Native heritage himself, started to take off his helmet but thought better of it when he saw none of the other police were doing it.
There have been many actions like this at Standing Rock involving song, prayer, ceremony, and nonviolent resistance. To a great extent the urging of the elders has been heeded, and as the above incident demonstrates, these actions have an effect on the police. They disrupt the narratives that legitimize the forceful suppression of the Water Protectors, narratives about violent extremists, criminal elements, protecting the public, and so forth. This has already born fruit: if not for the resolute nonviolence of the resistance, the government would surely have forcefully evicted the Water Protectors by now, justifying violence with violence.
If the Water Protectors go onto the warpath and see and treat the police as enemies, they play into the narratives that legitimize state violence. Consider this report from an army veteran, Harlan Wallner, who wrote to me after spending some time at Standing Rock: “I witnessed people on the shore shouting that the police were fat donut-eating pigs, cowards, etc., that they should be ashamed of themselves, that they have no honor. I heard one man shout that a curse was being placed on them and all of their descendants. I saw one man throw a rock at police in a boat and then be shot in the leg with one of their bean-bag bullets. On two occasions when the anger got particularly fevered I shouted ‘It's still important to be kind! It's still important to be kind!’ and the second time I was nearly attacked. ‘Fuck you! Fuck that, it's way beyond time for that!’ one man nearly growled at me. I shut up after that.”
Now put yourself in the shoes of the police officers. Nothing creates solidarity in the ranks like a common threat. Slurs like “donut-eating pigs” eliminate any possibility that the police will sympathize with the protestors. They play into the very narratives that justify police action to begin with: maintaining law and order in the face of violent extremists. In other words, by engaging in this kind of verbal violence against the police, the militants comply with their own demonization. They put themselves in a position where the only kind of victory possible is a victory by force.
That kind of victory is unlikely. Worse, even if it is achieved, it creates the conditions for an eventual defeat. What are the deep conditions that give rise to the desecration of indigenous peoples and destruction of nature? In the case of indigenous peoples, their oppression is invariably facilitated by their dehumanization or even demonization. This is the deep template of genocide, the primary prerequisite. By demonizing the police or ETP executives, one contributes to the field of dehumanization. One upholds the basic premise that some people are less fully human than others, that they are contemptible, abhorrent… deplorable. That is the essence of racism and the enabler of war.
The dehumanization of the Other that happens in war, racism, and genocide is no different from any reduction of the sacred to the profane. It is the same mentality that informs the reduction of nature from a sacred, living intelligence into a collection of insensate things: mere resources to be exploited or an enemy to be conquered. The reduction of humans to enemies or to subhuman caricatures like greedy executives and donut-eating police pigs is the same mentality that makes it OK to threaten a river with catastrophic oil spills. Invoking the principle of morphic resonance, by entering into war mentality we strengthen the field of war, including the reduction and domination of nature. That is why victories in war so often lead to just more war. The war is won, but the ideals for which it was fought remain as distant as ever. So it has been for five thousand years.
In other words, if we seek to win a fight using the tactics of dehumanization, we are contributing to the sacrilege that is at the root of the problem. No pipelines would be built if we loved the river like a grandmother.
When the elders ask us to proceed prayerfully, what do they mean? To be prayerful is to be in awareness of the sacred. We too easily forget the sacred, whether in relationship to human beings or to other-than-human beings like trees, soil, and rivers. If prayer is sacred speech, then to act prayerfully is to be reverent in action as well as speech. The dehumanization that leads us onto the warpath is the opposite of reverence.
It is not easy to stay off the warpath. Each new atrocity and outrage renews the invitation into hatred. Lord knows we’ve received many such invitations onto the warpath. The attack dogs, the pepper spraying, the water cannons, the woman whose face was shattered by a rubber bullet, the news that the police will start carrying live ammunition, the state government’s fines for those bringing supplies to Standing Rock, the fact that ETP’s drilling is currently illegal, the historical robbery of native lands and the breaking of every treaty... there are any number of reasons to adopt a good-versus-evil view. As tempting as it is for me, all the more for people at Standing Rock who have been subjected to violence personally or witnessed it first hand. To counsel forgiveness or nonviolence from afar seems almost arrogant, were it not echoing the elders and so many others on site.
Each of these invitations onto the warpath also presents an opportunity to defy the enabling narratives of violence and to take a step toward victory without fighting. It is an opportunity to employ what Gandhi called “soul force.” Meeting violence with nonviolence invites the other into nonviolence as well. Refusing the invitation onto the warpath automatically extends a counter-invitation to the enemy to cease being an enemy. That is why it is so important to remember that the purpose of nonviolent action is not to make the other side look bad. That would be a kind of attack, a kind of violence, and a tactic of war. No, the purpose is to invite the other side and onlookers alike to join you in courage. Of course, they may decline the invitation, but it grows more powerful with each escalation of violence.
Each time you refuse the invitation onto the warpath, you become more powerful. Those who can stay peaceful in the face of any terror or threat become virtual miracle-workers. I am reminded of an Afghan woman I know named Sakena. She does peace and education work in Kabul, including the education of girls. This is a dangerous line of work in a place where religious fundamentalists believe that educating girls should be punishable by death, and indeed Sakena receives her share of death threats – something to be taken seriously in that place.
One day Sakena was in a car with her driver, two staff people, and her unarmed bodyguard. Suddenly the driver stopped. A makeshift roadblock was ahead of them, manned by twenty or so young men dressed in fundamentalist garb and armed with rifles, which were pointed at the car. “Tell Sakena to get out,” they shouted.
Bravely, the driver said, “You’ve got the wrong car. There’s no one by that name here.”
“Oh yes there is,” they replied. “We know she’s in there. We’ve been watching her.”
Sakena got out of the car and strode up to the young men. “I’m Sakena,” she declared. “What do you want?”
For the next half hour, the four people in the car watched as Sakena talked to the young men. Finally she returned to the car and said, “OK, we can go now.” Astonished, her staffers asked what happened. She told them that the young men had decided that they wanted to be educated too, just like the girls, and had arranged to meet her again the next week outside a certain mosque.
Such is the potential power of staying off the warpath. Even with guns pointed at her, Sakena refused to see the young men as anything less than divine human beings. She refused to reduce them in her vision to crazed terrorists or subhuman “fundamentalists.” She saw them as promising young men who of course wanted an education. Her fearlessness and goodwill exerted an invitation so compelling that the men were nearly helpless to refuse it.
The way we see and treat someone is a powerful invitation for them to be as we see them. See someone as deplorable, and even their peace overtures will look like cynical ploys. Distrust generates untrustworthiness. On the other hand, when we are able to see beyond conventional roles and categories, we become able to invite others into previously unmanifest potentials. This cannot be done in ignorance of the subjective reality of another’s situation; to the contrary, it depends on an empathic understanding of their situation. It starts with the question that defines compassion: What is it like to be you?
That question is anathema to the militant and the warmonger, because it rehumanizes those that they would dehumanize. Broach it, and they will call you soft, naïve, a fool or a traitor.
What it is like to be a police at Standing Rock? Or what it is like to be an ETP executive? Can you bring yourself into the knowledge that they are our brothers here on earth, doing their best under the circumstances they have been given? I imagine myself in the ETP executive suite. The stress level is high. The board of directors are freaking out. The banks are threatening to pull their funding. We’ve spent tens of millions leasing capital equipment. Maybe we have bond payments due. Business is tough enough as it is, and now these protestors come in who don’t realize that pipelines are safer than rail tankers. They use gasoline too, the hypocrites! And they’re making us into the bad guys! And look how hate-filled they are! Yup, it’s obvious who the good guys are.
I am not endorsing this viewpoint. I am merely trying to understand it. One product of that understanding that is uncomfortable for the ego of the militant is that it would take courage for the ETP executives to halt the project — to do so would require sacrificing their self-interest as they understand it. Similarly, it might take courage for a policeman to defy orders or disbelieve propaganda or break ranks. In a way, we are all in the same boat; we are all facing situations that invite us to choose love over fear, to listen to the heart when it feels unsafe to do so. We need to help each other obey that call. In that, we are allies. We can be allies in calling each other to our highest potential.
Another friend described his encounters with pepper-spraying police at Standing Rock. He noticed that in each instance, it was only one or two police who were doing most of the violence. The others were standing around looking uncomfortable, probably wishing they were somewhere else.
What would activist tactics look like if they were based on the conviction, “Most of the police don’t really want to be doing this”? What would it look like to express in word and deed an underlying certainty that each of them is here on earth to carry out a sacred mission of service to life? How would it feel to them to be told, “I am sorry you are being put in this position. I am sorry you are under such pressure to contravene your heart. But it is not too late. We forgive you and welcome you to join us in service to life.”
As I write this, the first of two thousand U.S. military veterans are entering the camps at Standing Rock. They have vowed to stand with and protect the Water Protectors with their own bodies. They are not bringing weapons. Many of them are leaving jobs and families in order to help protect the water. If they too can keep peaceful hearts, they will magnify the invitation to the government, the company, and particularly the police to make the courageous choice themselves.
Victory at Standing Rock will have far-reaching consequences. It may seem inconsequential in the macro view if the pipeline is merely rerouted or replaced with rail tankers (which are even worse than pipelines). On a deeper level though, a victory will establish a precedent: if it can happen at Standing Rock, why not globally? If a pipeline can be stopped against great odds in one place, similar violations can be stopped in every place. It will shift our view of what is possible. That’s one reason why I agree with the Sioux elders’ preference to keep the movement focused on the water and not let it be hijacked by climate change activists. Climate change is the result of a million insults to a million places on earth. Honoring the place of Standing Rock establishes a principle of honor to all places.
Writ large, the situation at Standing Rock is the situation of our whole planet: everywhere, dominating forces seek to exploit what remains of the treasures of earth and sea. They cannot be defeated by force. We must instead invite a change of heart by being in a place of heartfulness ourselves – of courage, empathy, and compassion. If the Water Protectors at Standing Rock can stay strong in that invitation, they will demonstrate an unstoppable power and win a miraculous victory, inspiring the rest of us to follow their example.
What if I am wrong? Not every nonviolent action succeeds in its explicit aims; not every invitation, no matter how powerful, is accepted. Yet even if the pipeline goes through, if the Water Protectors stay off the warpath another kind of victory will be won – the creation of a psychic template for the future. With each choice we face, we are being asked what kind of world we want to live in. The more courage required to make that choice, the more powerful the prayer, because Whoever listens to prayers knows we really mean it. Therefore, when we choose love in the face of enormous temptation to hate, we are issuing a powerful prayer for a world of love. When we refuse to dehumanize in the face of atrocity, we issue a prayer for universal dignity. When thousands of people sacrifice their safety and comfort to protect the water, a powerful prayer issues from their gathering. Some day, in some form, it will be answered.