Can we critique US militarism when we benefit from it?
This is an open letter to Brad Warner of Hardcore Zen who critiqued BPF’s banner action in front of the White House this week.
We haven’t met, so … hello fellow dharma traveller! Thanks for the opportunity to say something more about BPF’s banner action at the White House.
I wanted to respond to your provocative blog post, “I Wish I Could Agree,” where you take issue with the US Buddhist Leaders convergence at the White House, and particularly the photo with the banner “U.S. Militarism Breeds Violence, Not Safety. I Vow to Work for Peace and Freedom.”
I wanted to clarify that the banner action was not an official part of the convergence, but a side action organized by us here at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. I’m not sure if you are familiar with us – we’ve been around since the late 1970s doing peace and justice work from a foundation of Buddhist practice. These days, we’ve undergone a bit of a radical rebirth, embracing compassionate and unflinching confrontation of the out-of-control systems that cause harm, from racism to capitalism to U.S. militarism.
We’re actually in 100% agreement with you when you say, “we won’t solve those problems by pretending that merely smiling beatifically and putting daisies in soldiers’ gun barrels is a permanent solution.” That’s why our main push this year is training five communities in nonviolent direct action, linking our practice to larger social movements which are confronting racism, climate catastrophe, and militarism. In our home region of the San Francisco Bay Area, we’ve been working with local BPFers to hone our own skills at planning direct actions against racist policing, fracking, and destruction of community-built urban farmland. All these actions are in connection with broader social movements for change, because we believe that it’s going to take large numbers of people working together to transform these life destroying systems.
As a Buddhist activist, I appreciate how the dharma helps me to hold paradox and contradiction, which is necessary for challenging systemic harms while not having the luxury for stepping outside of them. There is no pure place from which we can critique. In saying, “We Buddhists only get to be nice, soft, peace-loving wimps (let’s please be honest about that) because other people are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect us,” you imply that critique is not possible from this paradoxical position. I respectfully would argue that our position within U.S. empire requires us to critique it, and also be prepared that our lives and privileges will change as it transforms.
At BPF, we also held paradox in our discussions of what to put on this banner, partly because our group isn’t the “peace-loving wimps” you seem to imagine. Some BPFers wanted to be sure we were specific about critiquing “U.S. militarism” and its problematic role in empire building, rather than making a statement about “militarism in general.” Their support for freedom movements that won independence through militarized responses, such as African resistance against European colonialism, made a simple critique of “militarism in general” feel complicated. Political banners never quite capture the full complexity of our political stances, but the best ones point to the possibility of transformation and freedom.
I’m curious (honest questions here): You say a lot about what won’t change the logic of militarism. What movements or actions are you feeling more inspired by? What are the leverage points that might help us transform the logic of violence that’s perpetuated by U.S. militarism? What do we do when the best short-term choice involves harming others to protect ourselves, even if we know it will have long-term consequences? Is it different if we’re talking about individuals, oppressed groups, or countries with enough power to start pre-emptive wars to ensure “safety”?
These would be good questions not just for you Brad, for all us of peace-loving, compassionately-confronting, justice-demanding folks to explore together.
From a fellow dharma traveller,
Buddhist Peace Fellowship