The Prerequisite for Salvation

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

The poster exploits the howling demons of our culture. It’s my morning smack-in-the-eye, bright gold, four feet high, dominated by a female in stark silhouette striding resolutely into the wreckage of post-apocalypse Las Vegas. She wields a wicked-looking blaster in each hand.

The ad, for the movie “Resident Evil: Extinction,” occupies the spot on the elevated train platform where I await the start of my daily commute to work. This is not a movie I’m going to see, but I can’t avoid feeling the impact of its throbbing message: Justice cometh, and she has a nice butt, and she’s armed.

Wow. The gears mesh — yet again! — on the perfect delusion. For entertainment, we hop ourselves up on sex and road rage, and fantasy bleeds into reality. The result is an armed, frightened society and a high-tech war on terror that promises to cut a terrible swath of destruction across the planet before it runs out of, so to speak, gas.

Last week I wrote a column about what theologian Walter Wink called “the myth of redemptive violence” — the ancient and all-purpose justification for war, conquest and exploitation that permeates our belief system at both the macro and micro levels. Over and over again, we mobilize around the illusion of consequence-free, violent eradication of threats and annoyances and, in the process, run roughshod over a more complex view of human interaction and effective problem-solving.

In the spirit of challenging the cultural dominance of the myth of redemptive violence, I invited readers to e-mail stories to me of their own or a friend’s use of unarmed presence of mind to defuse a dangerous situation. The invitation is still open. The idea is to establish a clearinghouse on the effectiveness of unarmed conflict resolution.

The stories I’ve received so far, which can be viewed here, vary widely, of course, but have a few common threads, the most significant of which was summed up by Barry Stevens, who wrote: “I really believe in that power of locking in the humanity through the eyes.”

Eye contact! This is the prerequisite for salvation.

Some of the correspondents wrote of breaking an assailant’s resolve by piercing through to his humanity; others did so with a convincing threat or contemptuous dismissal of the assailant’s ability to do harm. But in every case, the “victim” held eye contact and refused to surrender his or her power in the moment, just because the person making the threat A) had a weapon, or B) was physically intimidating.

“I am a psychiatrist,” said a writer who requested anonymity. “I was treating a combat survivor for PTSD-related issues. He had an argument with his wife and had gone into ‘combat mode.’ I was sitting in my study when he broke into my house, Marine K-bar in his hand, ready for violence. I also went into the hyperalert, engage-the-attacker mode.

“I was unable to distract the man from his violent intent,” the writer continued, “until I thought to say, ‘You know, I’m going to have to call your wife and tell her you’re here at nine o’clock at night.’ At this he immediately sat down on one of my chairs and started crying. His wife eventually came and got him, and the episode was over.

“The next day, I went out to the garage and saw that the man had taken the axe used to split wood and slammed it so hard into the chopping block that no one could extract it. THEN I got scared, really scared. It took a while before I settled down again.”

My friend BC, who lives in Arizona, wrote of encountering a different sort of threat, twice in the same day. The first time, she panicked when she saw a three-foot rattlesnake in her back yard. “I ran like hell, falling headlong into the gravel.” She made it to her deck with a bleeding knee and arm.

“Later that day, it began to thunder outside,” she wrote. “After about a half-hour, I decided I’d better go out and turn off my fountain since lightning was likely in the area. To my surprise, when I opened the back door, a beautiful bobcat was stationed at the other water dish, drinking. I was mesmerized and knew if I went in to get the camera, it would likely leave. I talked to it very quietly, telling it it was OK and to drink all it wanted. Its green eyes never left my face and once it had its fill, it walked down the stairs, out into my back yard and down the ravine.

“I guess I didn’t have presence of mind in the first instance — just fear — but in the second episode, presence of mind took over and I just talked calmly to something that was a wild and beautiful creature.”

This is the truth of redemptive connection. We connect primarily through the eyes. And when we connect thus, it’s with a nakedness and honesty that makes me think of nothing so much as the words of philosopher-priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Someday, after we have mastered the wind, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of Love. Then, for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire.”