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Drumming for Planet Earth

At the climate rally in Chicago last week, people started drumming in the rain.

Pardon me while I walk uncertain ground here, looking for clues and connections in a smattering of unlikely places. The world is in a fragile, dangerous place. We need to create peace, fairness and sustainability. We need to create a world that doesn’t yet exist, but this is only possible if we look at the world we have with awareness that transcends the limits of our knowing. I don’t know how to do this, but I’m going to try.

And so I listen again to the native drums beating in the rain, in the bitter wind, in the company of several thousand people huddled next to each other in the city’s Federal Plaza, many of them bearing signs that expressed fragments of hope and alarm:

“Defend Our Mother.”

“We are the Earth, rising up to defend herself.”

“Save Our Planet. I don’t want to move!”

“Give kids a future.”

Yes, of course, of course. But the sound of the drums, at least for a moment, added a dimension beyond science, beyond law and policy: a spiritual dimension, a sense of and a cry for wholeness, which I know underscores all the fermenting movements in this country. The drumming pulled the moment, here in the rain, into something seldom noticed, let alone acknowledged, during the normal course of things: the circle of life, which a segment of humanity — the “advanced” and “civilized” segment — left maybe 10 millennia ago in order to grab hold of the planet for its own purposes.

Thus began a separating process that may be coming to an end, one way or another. As I listened to the drumming I thought about Rupert Ross’s book, Returning to the Teachings, which is a Western writer’s — indeed, a Canadian prosecuting attorney’s — quest to understand the native culture he had been helping to destroy by inflicting Western justice on it.

As he began to learn about this other culture within the borders of his country, he gradually came to realize how differently they viewed their relationship to this planet, and to one another.

For instance: “the Lakotah had no language for insulting other orders of existence,” he wrote: “pest . . . waste . . . weed. . . . They are the whiteman’s import to the New World.”

He also came to grasp that they have a different concept of justice — something based on healing rather than punishment. The native approach to dealing with destructive behavior begins not by asking “who did it?” but by asking “what has been harmed?” and “how can it be fixed?” This changes the focus in a way that makes profoundly good sense to me. What if this was where we put our social focus: not in “balancing” one act of destruction by committing another one; not in the exercise of power and domination over a deemed criminal, in the process increasing the divisions and wounds in a community; but by giving all concerned a chance to address the harm and heal it.

Ross quotes criminologists John Braithwaite and Stephen Mugford, who note: “Criminal trials tend to leave criminal identities untouched. . . . Indeed, degradation tends to harden them. It is not a major challenge in identity-management for a tough guy to sustain his identity during a criminal trial. The challenge is more difficult in an open dialogue among the different parties assembled for a community conference.”

“By contrast,” Ross writes, “the stigmatizing and blaming system of Western justice seems to encourage offenders to deny their emotional and spiritual dimensions, to deny their own hurt just as they deny responsibility for the hurt they have caused.”

In a healing context, however, this changes. Ross describes the outcome of one such healing process, where the victim of a crime — a young woman who was robbed one night at the gas station where she worked — sat, with her mother, in a protective circle that included the man who had committed the crime:.

“Until that day,” Ross writes, “he had been, in their eyes, a one-dimensional monster who had lurched drunkenly out of the night, threatened violence, then disappeared as fast as he had come in. In that way he had been a haunting figure, not only for the daughter who saw him but for the mother who only imagined him. After that day in the sentencing circle, however, the monster had been replaced by a man. . . . Whole people, no matter how troubled and occasionally dangerous, seldom fuel full-fledged nightmares.”

And this is what I heard in the drumming that morning, and it opened a hope for me that we can begin to see that the damage we’re doing to the planet and to one another — through war and through the prison system, through every attempt to dominate, condemn and dehumanize an “other,” including Planet Earth — transcends all intellectual critique of capitalism and politics. It has a spiritual core.

And I felt that word emerge: peace. It’s synonymous with wholeness, synonymous with awe and wonder, synonymous with . . . community.

Writing in The Atlantic two years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates, addressing the horror of police shootings of African-Americans, asked: “Was Walter Scott’s malfunctioning third-brake light really worth a police encounter?”

Citing a 1953 book called The Quest for Community, Coates notes that author Robert Nisbet “distinguishes between ‘power’ and ‘authority.’ Authority, claims Nisbet, is a matter of relationships, allegiances, and association and is ‘based ultimately upon the consent of those under it.’ Power, on the other hand, is ‘external’ and ‘based upon force.’ Power exists where allegiances have decayed or never existed at all.”

And so in the drumming, in the hope, in the clarity of values — in the rain — I felt a beginning.

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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