I have heard Thich Nhat Hanh, beloved Vietnamese Buddhist teacher and wise one, talk about the 1960’s and the “peace movement” that Buddhists and others were involved in. He talks about how the passion of those involved quickly evolved in to the very same kind of passion that makers of war engaged. Those in the peace movement began to fight among themselves over varying views of how the peace movement ought to proceed. In some real sense, the energy that drove war began to take over the peace movement itself.
In various works for social justice, it seems that this is always a potential danger that we must be aware of. On the one hand, oppression in various forms is suffering not only in the oppressed but in those who witness the oppression. Out of that suffering both in the oppressed and those who witness it an anger and rage that when loosed itself becomes the cause of new levels of suffering and even oppression. The oppressed become the oppressors.
If justice work in all its forms is the work of compassion, seeing the suffering of others and extending ourselves to alleviate suffering is the constant work of social justice. How then, as witnesses to oppression, do we begin to see the suffering in the oppressors as well as the oppressed? How do we begin to proclaim the suffering we see in both? How do we begin to extend ourselves to alleviate the suffering we witness in the oppressed as well?
I don’t have answers to all of these questions, but it strikes me that unless we extend our willingness to see the suffering in the oppressor, we will only see the cycle of violence and injustice perpetuate. The more personal question for me: how willing am I to allow that the oppressor suffers, too? Do I just need someone to be opposed to? Do the oppressors of the oppressed that I see provide me a “straw man” enemy. Does opposing the oppressors that I see make me feel justified in whatever sort of “fight” in which I engage? I don’t have easy answers to these questions. Sometimes I would say yes. At others, no. What sort of energy moves me?