Setting Patterns: Defaulting to Justice

Nishioka with the writer

Nishioka with the author

“You know why we drill?” the Lt. Colonel said; “to establish a pattern.”

That brief story was told recently by Dr. Rodger Nishioka, keynote speaker at a conference that was all about establishing patterns – possibly changing them for the better. Well, about patterns and a few other things. But the business of pattern-establishment is particularly relevant. “In a time of crisis,” Nishioka says, “you will default to your pattern.”

Soldiers drill interminably so they can take their rifles apart without thinking. Nishioka suggests that others of us might install default patterns to create peace and bring justice. An associate professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, Nishioka was speaking at a church retreat, to a Christian audience. But the message is universal. “All three major Abrahamic religions,” he points out, “Judaism, Islam and Christianity, have a core belief in peace and justice.” Add the followers of decidedly peace-loving Buddha, and one would think there should be a little less war and injustice on the planet.

Nishioka maintains that one person can make a difference. He tells the story of a seven-year-old girl whose father had been taken from their California farm by the F.B.I. one night in 1942, and who was waiting with a crowd of other Japanese Americans for buses that would take them to an internment camp. Her mother, in the rush to pack what the family might need, had forgotten to bring anything to eat or drink. The girl wandered off looking for something for her hungry little brother, and found a lady handing out sandwiches and juice. “We are Christian Friends (Quakers),” she explained, “and we think what is happening to you is wrong.” The girl lived through three years in the camp, where her father soon joyfully joined them, and through hard years and several moves after the war ended. She managed to enter college, where she met and fell in love with a young Japanese-American man. They married, and raised four sons who all finished college and/or graduate school, one of whom is now a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary. On the top of his list of people he’d like to meet in heaven, Nishioka says, is the lady who gave his mother sandwiches and juice.

But back to patterns. Quakers practice patterns of quiet and tranquility, reinforcing their persistent efforts to right injustice. Yogis practice meditation. Buddhists chant. Practitioners of almost all religions repetitively recite creeds as a way of establishing patterns of belief and action. In California we have earthquake drills designed to instill a default pattern of Drop, Cover and Hold on. School children, sadly, are drilled to take cover in the event of an assault. If your default pattern is ingrained enough, you might even be able to grab your cellphone and passport on the way out the door when the house catches fire.

What if large numbers of us altered our driving pattern just to let that jerk in the next lane break into the line ahead? Road rage deaths would nose dive. Or we could default to smiling, as Jaden, the incredibly precious six-year-old Georgia orphan is trying to make us do. Or we could default to justice: trying to create better lives for those less fortunate, those without power, those who need sandwiches and juice.

It is possible, Rodger Nishioka suggests, to change the world, one person, one pattern at a time.

 

 

Obama's speech: inspiring or incoherent?

“Evil does exist in the world,” President Obama said. We cannot negotiate away our problems with Al Qaeda. “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.” We must not, he said, compromise “the very ideals we fight to defend.” Plus, there was whole business of the ‘just’ war: as long as it’s in self-defense, is a last resort, and you try not to kill too many people, especially civilians. It was a strange Peace Prize speech.

Many of us who voted for him with such optimism and (too-)high expectations caught our breath at the news of the peace prize. And listened with some skepticism to his Nobel address. We wish the options were better. We still hope.

The speech, comments Michael Muskal of the Washington Post, was “part political science lesson, part sermon and part politics, designed to answer domestic and international critics,” But I think the commentary that best summed up the speech came from Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things and a guest on PBS NewsHour Thursday night. It was “incoherent,” Bottum said, repeatedly, while addressing the points listed above.

The good word incoherent is defined, in old-fashioned dictionaries, as “without logical connection,” “rambling in reason,” “without congruity of parts.” Maybe this has to happen, when one is trying to answer critics and please supporters and whatever else in the world one speech, in accepting a peace prize, is intended to do. But for our most articulate, thoughtful and presumably peace-loving president in decades, it was a little disappointing — even if I can’t imagine what he might have done differently.

At the regular breakfast meeting of the San Francisco Interfaith Council, a peaceful group if ever there was one, the primary topic that same day was homeless veterans. Guests spoke of services being created and expanded to help the ever-growing population of returning veterans who wind up on the streets. Several members of SFIC are among the group which has shown up every Thursday at noon, rain or shine, for many years outside the Federal Building, to stand silently for peace. Many of them are Quakers, but there are always people of other faiths, or no faith at all except in the possibility of peace. One of them commented, at the end of the breakfast meeting, that the best way to solve the problem of homeless veterans would be to have fewer veterans. Perhaps even no veterans at all. “War,” he said, “is a choice.” His remarks were absolutely coherent.

Perhaps, one of these days, there will be a Nobel Prize for peace that has been made. It would be a lovely follow-up for Mr. Obama to receive a second time.