Words Create Worlds.1

This is a series I have been publishing over the past couple years in the online journal The Badger. The Badger is not a political journal, but in my work with Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) I have been seeing the intersection between spirituality and politics – particularly when politics is against peace and is against human rights. The spiritual path leads to ever greater states of union and love – and yet we are witnessing a resurgence of fascism which is based on separation, division and hate.

Thank you to The Badger for giving permission to post these essays in my blog. You can find the hub for all the issues here, and I will provide a link to the specific issue for each of these essays.

Words Create Worlds.1

A Memoriam for those Killed in the Christchurch Mosque Shootings

Originally published in The Badger, 2019, Year 5, Volume 1

“Words create worlds.” These are the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, here is the full quote, remembered by his daughter, Susannah Heschel:

“Words, he often wrote, are themselves sacred, God’s tool for creating the universe, and our tools for bringing holiness — or evil — into the world.  He used to remind us that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda.  Words create worlds he used to tell me when I was a child.  They must be used very carefully.  Some words, once having been uttered, gain eternity and can never be withdrawn.  The Book of Proverbs reminds us, he wrote, that death and life are in the power of the tongue.”[1]

I am writing this the day after 49 people were killed in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand (March 16, 2019). I have a personal connection to New Zealand, having lived there from 2010 – 2013. I visited Christchurch days before the second earthquake in 2011. I have a series of selfies my wife and I took walking across the courtyard in front of the Christchurch Cathedral, which was destroyed in the quake.

Since leaving New Zealand, I have been working with military veterans. The way I conceptualize my work is that I am helping to guide veterans from a war culture of the military world to the peace culture of the civilian world. It can be a tough journey after speaking words of war to speaking words of peace.

Red Begonias, Christchurch Botanical Garden, (D. Kopacz, 2011)

During this work, I was befriended by Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow), who has been working for world peace since the 1980s when he had visions of Sound Chambers, Peace Chambers: circular structures, half above ground, half below ground, with men and women chanting for peace. He has created over 50 chambers for peace across four continents.

Working with Joseph has reinforced and shaped my identity as a psychiatrist who is not just treating mental illness, but is supporting cultural transitions and transformations, and is creating peace. Joseph would agree that “words create worlds.” He often talks about the power of sound and speech. When we were working on our book, Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD, Joseph would tell me, I am my brother’s keeper.” As I contemplated this saying, I realized he was not just stating a world-view of many indigenous people—that we are all interrelated and connected—but that he was also speaking an antidote to the first murder documented in the Bible. After Cain killed his brother, Abel, God asks Cain where Abel is and Cain says, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”[2] With these words an identity of separation is created in the Biblical tradition. Joseph, in saying “I am my brother’s keeper,” is using words as an antidote for an illness of separation which is once again becoming an epidemic in our world.

“Words create worlds.” J.M. Berger, author of Extremism, would likely agree with this statement. Writing for the Atlantic, he writes of the dangerous impact of publishing and thus publicizing the words of mass murderers.

“It is far past time to reconsider the standard for publishing such manifestos. That does not mean we should abandon the search for meaning. But manifestos are rarely simple confessional documents. They are works of propaganda, just like ISIS beheading videos and al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. Like those publications, journalists should report on manifestos, but they should mediate their propagandistic intent instead of blindly amplifying it. . .We have only begun to suffer the cost of these writings, crafted with an intent no less lethal than their authors’ violent crimes.”[3]

We find ourselves in a war of words. I try not to use the word “enemy.” To think of someone as an enemy is to make them “other” and this is the very root cause of violence, hatred, racism, and bigotry. To meet violence with violence or hate with hate does not create peace. Rather than enemy, I think opponent is a better term. The United States fought wars against England, Japan, and Germany. They were our opponents during the wars, but they are not our enemies. Consider the relationship between Gandhi and Jan Smuts. Smuts was the only person to sign the peace treaties ending both World War I & II. He advocated for the League of Nations following World War I. Yet, earlier in his life, he was a proponent of apartheid and he had a worthy opponent in South Africa on this, Gandhi. While Gandhi was imprisoned he made Smuts a pair of sandals. He returned the sandals for Gandhi’s 70th birthday, writing, “I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”[4]

These two men struggled against each other for their beliefs, and yet they were not life-long enemies. Smuts literally walked in Gandhi’s shoes. We can wonder if this influenced Smuts’ later 1926 book, Holism and Evolution, in which he coined the word, “holism,” the concept of not seeing things through separation and isolation, but as component parts of a larger whole.

Christchurch, New Zealand (D. Kopacz, Feb 2011)

In this war of words we are struggling with our own darker natures, as well as the darker nature of all humanity. It is human nature to view ourselves as separate tribes and clans and peoples based on the superficial colour of our skin or which football team we support, or which religion we belong to. Yet there is also a deeper truth that we are all one, we are all interconnected, sharing the same Earth. The findings of scientists about Mitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosome Adam tell us that we all are, literally—not just figuratively—brothers and sisters.[5]

This war of words is a struggle about what kind of world we are going to create: a world in which everyone is equal and everyone has a place and a voice, or a world which is only for some people, a world where some people have more rights than others. This is a struggle of words and world-views which is being waged in the hearts and minds of all human beings on planet Earth as we try to come to terms with our interrelatedness and oneness.

Gerald Arbuckle, a Catholic priest and cultural anthropologist (who is from New Zealand and lives in Australia) has been studying the effects of loneliness and isolation and the resurgent rise of fundamentalism in our world.

He calls this a “global epidemic of fundamentalism both religious and political,” and he defines fundamentalists as “boundary-setters . . . marking themselves off from others.” Arbuckle sees, “A typical fundamentalist leader is a populist, homophobic, charismatic, authoritarian man who likes to bully,” a personality type that is only all too common in positions of power across the world.[6]

To see ourselves as separate from others opens the doors to discrimination, racism, and violence. Separation leads to loneliness and authoritarian and fascist movements promise a way out of loneliness through belonging to a tight-knit in-group based on an exclusionary identity opposed to another group or culture. Fascisms power comes from having an “other” who is an enemy. We should be very suspicious of the use of this word “enemy,” for instance in hearing the press called the “enemy of the people,” which is an age-old fascist trope.

Christchurch Cathedral – February 2011, prior to being destroyed in earthquake (D. Kopacz)

New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern’s response to these recent killings was this: “Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion. A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who needs it. And those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack.”[7]

New Zealand is geographically isolated, tucked away in the South Pacific, it has a strong anti-nuclear policy, refusing to allow nuclear U.S. warships into port. In New Zealand, the police do not openly carry guns. One former patient of mine, a teenage refugee from the Balkans, told me, “As soon as I saw the police here in New Zealand do not carry guns, I finally felt safe after years of war.” Now we have a major act of terrorism in New Zealand. In the United States we have debates over gun violence. Second Amendment Rights advocates always argue for more guns after gun violence, but research on gun ownership and gun violence shows that guns are more likely to be used in suicide or against someone in the home than they are against a violent “other.” In the United States, powerful lobbies and ideologies actually banned scientific research on gun violence for fear that it will lead to restrictions in gun ownership.[8] How do we respond to gun violence, terrorism and acts of hatred? Research for individual gun ownership does not support that we should all arm ourselves. The suspected killer in Christchurch, a 28 year-old, Australian born man targeted this gun debate and wanted to fuel the flames. Reporting in the New York Times states:

“Writing that he had purposely used guns to stir discord in the United States over the Second Amendment’s provision on the right to bear arms, he also declared himself a fascist. ‘For once, the person that will be called a fascist, is an actual fascist,’ he wrote.”[9]

We should take a closer look at this word, “fascist,” including its current manifestations and history, because it is like a disease that our global civilization has had a recurrence of in recent years.

Duke professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Omid Safi writes of these killings,

“This terrorist attack is not an aberration. This is not about mental illness, it is not about one person. This is where all the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant discourse over the last few years leads to.”[10]

Safi sees the roots of these killing in the ideas and words of white supremacy and he anticipates the gun rights arguments that “guns don’t kill people, people with mental illness kill people.” Yet when we have the confluence of easily accessible lethal means and a growing epidemic of violent words, there is an increase in violent actions. “Words create worlds.”

Nietzsche warned us that those who fight something risk becoming the very thing they fight, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look too long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”[11]

Pink Begonias, Christchurch Botanical Gardens (D. Kopacz, 2011)

Clarrissa Ward, from CNN, sees a similarity in the ideas and words of the far-right and terrorist organizations.

“To me, there’s almost a symbiotic relationship happening right now between extreme terrorists on the far-right and between some of these other terrorist organizations that we’re more familiar with.

The other thing that’s interesting, and disconcerting, frankly, is how much of the language and ideas he [the Christchurch killer] talks about have also seeped into mainstream political rhetoric.

He talks a lot about the idea of invasion, that Muslim migrants are invading white Western countries. He talks about the birth rate, the idea of replacement, that white culture is being replaced. We’ve heard such words coming from the President of the United States. We’ve heard them coming from far-right governments in Europe, whether it be Italy, whether it be Hungary. . . .

When you look at the zeitgeist and the rise of the far right in Europe and the US, ideas that were once considered as taboo to talk about are now being flaunted and public discourse invariably sets a tone.”[12]

Ward raises this disturbing spectre that Western Democracies are at risk of becoming our enemies—state-sponsored terrorism and extremism. The disturbing rise of far-right ideologies and words is being supported at the highest levels of governments across the globe.

Over the next year, I would like to write about some of these topics of how our “words create worlds.” In working with Joseph Rael, writing our next book, Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality, I felt compelled to write about the responsibility of mystical, visionary, and shamanic experience—that we must work toward “Spiritual Democracy.” At its deepest point, mystical experience leads to an awareness that we are all one and this comes with a responsibility to challenge words of separation which ultimately lead to fascism. Mystical experience is a pathway that leads us to question who we are and gives us a responsibility to use our words wisely to create worlds where we are becoming the medicine that our world needs. As Rumi says, “We are pain and what cures the pain.”[13]

Cape Reinga, North Island, New Zealand – meeting of the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea (D. Kopacz, 2013)

[1] Life Between the Trees blog. I first came across a shorter instance of this quote in the Omid Safi reference below.

[2] The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition, Genesis 4.9.

[3] J.M. Berger, “The Dangerous Spread of Extremist Manifestos: By sharing the writings of terrorists, media outlets can amplify their impact,” The Atlantic online, 2/26/19, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/christopher-hasson-was-inspired-breivik-manifesto/583567/.

[4] Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas, ed. Louis Fischer, 98.

[5] This is discussed in National Genographic DNA results. Also see Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History and “Y-Chromosomal Adam,” Wikipedia.

[6] Gerald Arbuckle, Fundamentalism At Home and Abroad, 28, 9, 15. Also see his recent book, Loneliness: Insights for Healing in a Fragmentary World.

[7] Lucy Bennett “Christchurch mosque massacre: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to nation following shootings,” New Zealand World Herald, 3/15/19, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/crime/news/article.cfm?c_id=30&objectid=12213187.

[8] Arthur L. Kellermann, et al, “Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home,” New England Journal of Medicine, 10/7/93, https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199310073291506. February 13, 2013

Arthur L. Kellermann and Frederick P. Rivara, “Silencing the Science on Gun Research,” Journal of the American Medical Association, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/1487470. J. John Mann, M.D., Christina A. Michel, “Prevention of Firearm Suicide in the United States: What Works and What Is Possible,” American Journal of Psychiatry, Published Online: 22 Jul 2016, https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2016.16010069 .

[9] “New Zealand Shooting Live Updates: 49 Are Dead After 2 Mosques Are Hit,” New York Times, 3/15/19, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/15/world/asia/new-zealand-shooting-updates-christchurch.html.

[10] Omid Safi, Facebook, 3/15/19, https://www.facebook.com/omidsafi/posts/10157227737858793.

[11] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146, trans. Walter Kauffman (1989).

[12] Clarissa Ward, “How language in the attacker’s purported manifesto mimics the words of ISIS and al Qaeda,” CNN, 3/15/19, https://www.cnn.com/asia/live-news/new-zealand-christchurch-shooting-intl/index.html.

[13] Rumi, “We are the mirror as well as the face in it,” The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks, 106.