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Spiritual Literacy
in Wartime

Spiritual Literacy in Wartime Project Index

By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat



Living in Wartime: An Introduction to the Project
We're living in wartime, and it may always be this way. We mean wartime in the broad sense of the term — not just the war in Iraq but the ongoing war on terrorism, the culture wars between races and religions, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the war on nature, and other conflicts. Fortunately, for centuries spiritual and religious traditions have offered strategies to help people cope with difficulties, challenges, separations, and quite a few wars. They tell us there is another way to see and be in this world. Spiritual Literacy in Wartime, a project of, shows us how to take wartime situations and transform them into catalysts for reconciliation, peacemaking, and justice. Here is an overview of the structure and contents of these articles.

Our Wartime Spiritual Practices
Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, leaders of the e-course Spiritual Literacy in Wartime, discuss what they are doing to keep their souls alive in wartime.

(most recent first)

What I Would Say to Osama bin Laden
In this interview, originally published right after 9/11, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offers an alternative approach to terrorism than violence and revenge. He explains how deep listening and understanding of suffering can lead to compassion. We are reprinting it now after the death of Osama bin Laden, which was mentioned often during the U.S. election campaign and is the subject of a popular Hollywood movie.

Amorality in the War on Terrorism
The movie Zero Dark Thirty is a leading contender for the Academy Award, prompting us to comment on this single-minded revenge film about the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. The story centers on a CIA agent named Maya and the techniques used to find the terrorist. We see it as an amoral film that positions the job Maya is doing and the larger context in which she operates as outside the realm where moral judgments apply. We review the film and share the messages we take away from this movie.

Spiritual Responses to the Death Penalty
The execution of Troy Davis by lethal injection has reinvigorated the campaign to end the death penalty in the U.S. This collection of spiritual responses includes readings by Sister Helen Prejean, Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, nonviolence activist John Dear, mother of a murder victim Antoinette Bosco, and many others. Films, both dramas and documentaries, offer sobering views on this ethical issue. Anti-death penalty activists share their spiritual practices and prayers.

Living with Financial Insecurity
Following the collapse of the financial and credit markets in September 2009, panic, fear, and dread spread around the world. Economists and politicians alike predicted a long and hard recession with tight credit, rising unemployment, and for many people, the loss of their life savings. One thing is becoming crystal clear: all of us are going to have to find ways to live with financial insecurity. Here are readings and practices from the world's religious traditions that give us strategies for making it through tough times.

The Spiritual Practice of Hospitality: Now Part of the U.S. Religious Landscape
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's report on the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey found that 70 percent of Americans affiliated with a religion or denomination agreed that "many religions can lead to eternal life" and 68 percent of Americans say there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religions. This broad trend toward tolerance is a sign that religious pluralism in the country is resulting in people being more open to people of other faith perspectives -- i.e. practicing hospitality. We've found readings and practice to help your own hospitality. Mentors include Rumi, Sri Ramakrishna, Amos Yong, Thea Jarvis, Mary Blye Howe, Scotty McLennan, Reb Noson of Breslov, and Jane Richardson Jensen and Patricia Harris-Watkins.

Urgently Needed: A Peace Surge
The signs are ominous in February 2007 that the Bush Administration is planning to bomb Iran. The projections on what could happen next, especially if the war goes nuclear, are absolutely terrifying. We are in a moment as dangerous as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The difference is that there is still time for citizens and their representatives to stop this descent into violence and destructiveness. Here are readings, practices, and ways to act to create a peace surge, including a seven-day program from Deepak Chopra, peace prompts from John Dear, and a slideshow set to Yusuf Islam's "Peace Train" that takes you to Iran today.

Peace Is the Way: A Collection of Inspirational Quotations for Peacemakers
"I have spent twenty years fighting to see all human beings as one," wrote one of the early Christian desert fathers. It's one thing to love peace; it's another to be an active peacemaker. This collection of quotations, which we assembled in 2001 the day after the United States started bombing Afghanistan, brings together the words of peacemakers from all traditions: Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, Mahatma Gandhi, Jim Wallis, Sri Sarada Devi, The Dalai Lama, Henri J. M. Nouwen, John Dear, and many more. (Republished for the International Day of Peace, September 2006)

Talking with Children about War
What do we tell children about war? We have collected some children's books that would be good entry points for these discussions. Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso's powerful retelling of the Cain and Abel story is the perfect choice for discussions about what causes wars and how to prevent them. Thich Nhat Hanh's The Coconut Monk uses the friendship of a monk, a cat, and a mouse to demonstrate that it is possible to live in peace. Fourteen more suggestions cover celebrating diversity, prayers and poems for peace and comfort, everyone can do something, and keeping hope alive. And as a special bonus for children: 50 Tips for Keeping Your Soul Alive in Tough Times, with a gallery of children loving life in all kinds of situations. (First published March 2003; updated August 2006)

Celebrating Diversity
What has happened to unity within diversity? Can't we dine at the same table anymore? Reports on pressures to stifle dissent on public television, to blame the media for stories about Qur'an abuse instead of questioning the attitudes that produced it, and the Republican Senators attempt to eliminate the minority right to filibuster all signal a nation divided into opposing camps where Anakin/Darth Vader's philosophy 'If you are not with me, you are my enemy' rules. Readings from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Shunryu Suzuki, William Sloane Coffin, and James Conlon explore the ramifications of this development. Practices from Christopher Titmuss, Larry Yang, Karen Jones, and Brother David Steindl-Rast help us celebrate diversity and develop respect for those with whom we might disagree or whose views we don't understand. (May 2005)

The Spiritual Practice of Compassion
Our world gives us plenty of opportunites to exercise our compassion. For many people the tsunami in Asia has become an experience of identifying with the suffering of our neighbors and recognizing our common humanity. Readings from the Dalai Lama, Karen Armstrong, and Philip Simmons explore the meaning and value of compassion, and Rodger Kamenetz asks the tough questions about where God was in the tsunami tragedy. Pema Chodron offers a practice to arouse your compassion, and Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat explore the gift of tears. (January 2005)

Facing Death
Saint Benedict advised us to keep death daily before our eyes. Medieval philosophers kept a skull on their desks to remind them of the impermanence of life. Still, most of us fear death and want it out of sight and out of mind.As the numbers of the dead in wartime rise, we need to practice facing death. Readings by Michael Lesy, John Aurelio, Marie de Hennezel, Alan Jones, Robert Frager and James Fadiman, and Rodney Smith examine attitudes toward death in our culture and the world religions. Practices include using the "d" words, keeping a memento of death, a daylong contemplation of seeing the world without ourselves in it, observances similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead, and a guided imagery exercise to experience the natural passage of death. (October 2004)

Communities of Hope
Hope is built in community. We are called to be lights of hope to each other, often on what theologian Howard Thurman called "the growing edge" of our world. Although it may not be fashionable to have hope, theologians Mary Grey and Jurgen Moltmann, novelist/essayist Barbara Kingsolver, historian Howard Zinn, Episcopal priest John Claypool, and activist Anna Lappe see it as a necessity and point to reasons to hope evident all around us. We do what we can, and there is plenty to do. Suggested practices to build hope include dialogues, just getting out there, prayer, and imagining a house of hope. (August 2004)

The Spiritual Practice of Patience
The world's spiritual traditions tell us that patience is a good thing to have in times of great stress and difficulty. Yet it is human nature to want things to change for the good, right now, not in some distant time. Waiting has become almost uncivilized in this era of hyper-speed. A Jewish and a Zen story illustrate the value of patience, as does the movie The Terminal. Paula D'Arcy, Eknath Easwaran, Hazrat Inayat Khan, David Baily Harned, Doris Donnelly, and Mark Ridell contemplate the many meanings of patience. Practice suggestions show you things you can do everyday to become a more patient person. (July 2004)

Reverence for Life
People all over the world have seen the pictures of humiliated and tortured Iraqi prisoners. The antidote to this kind of torture and humiliation is reverence for life, a spiritual practice shared by all the world's religions. The path of radical respect recognizes the presence of the sacred in everyone, including supposed enemies. We explore the impact of irreverence using the movie Das Experiment and readings by torture victim Sister Dianna Ortiz, Robert Fuller, Frederick Franck, and Rabbi Robert Levine. In the movie Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring we see how a young monk learns to revere all life. Other recommended practices include refraining from diminishing others, making a self-assessment, and, a simple everyday one — bowing. (May 2004)

Reflections on Revenge
Revenge is on top at the movie box-office, given the success of the Kill Bill movies and The Punisher. But what do the spiritual traditions teach about how we should respond to violence and injustice? Readings include John Dear on our culture's addiction to violence, Sam Keen on feeling our pain rather than projecting it, and Mohandus Gandhi on training in nonviolence. For our practices, the Dalai Lama explains an appropriate counteraction to violence; Robert Thurman gives an imagery exercise for nonretaliation; Thich Nhat Hanh encourages empathy with the pirates in our lives; and Harold Kushner tells a story about how a widow was able to let go of the urge for revenge. (April 2004)

Spiritual Responses to Security Concerns
On the anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, is the world safer than it was a year ago? The issue in the headlines is security. Yet spiritual teachers from all traditions have made it clear that security is an illusion. Quotations point out the impermanence and precariousness of life. Readings from Ezra Bayda, Susan Corso, Thich Nhat Hanh, Father Thomas Keating, and Kerry Walters present definitions of security and illuminate our typical responses to vulnerability. Suggested practices give us everyday ways to embrace insecurity through nonretaliation and trust in God. (March 2004)

Holding Up Hope
It may seem strange to focus on the spiritual practice of hope when so much despair-inducing evidence is accumulating in the world today. But peril and despair breed hope, not the other way around. Readings from Scott Russell Sanders, Joan Chittister, Michael Downey, and Melannie Svoboda look at hope as leaping up, expanding, a bedrock, an opening to possibilities, and getting more than we wish for. Suggested practices focus on ways to reinforce hope in your personal life in your conversations and family activities, by using affirmations, and by doing a ritual. (September 2003)

Gladiator Culture - Part 2
It's not just the media creating our adversarial culture. Conflict is being set up through competition and a societal preference for winners. And when we don't have games to set ourselves apart, we do it by gossiping about each other. Read Alfie Kohn, Mariana Caplan, and Sylvia Boorstein on the impact of competition and gossip. The video movies Spellbound, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Gossip, and A Cry in the Dark offer other insights. Rabbis Michael Strassfeld and Rami Shapiro recommend spiritual practices to help you opt out of the gladiator culture. (May 2003)

Gladiator Culture - Part 1
While our attention has been focused on the war in Iraq, another kind of war has been taking place in American living rooms, courtesy of the spate of "reality shows" on television. Entertainment has become a gladiator sport with millions tuning in for the chance to give a thumbs up or thumbs down. Deborah Tannen and Steven Carter help us see all this dirt slinging and judgment for what it is and is not. Then from the Desert Fathers of early Christianity and contemporary Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck come suggestions for the spiritual practice of nonjudging. (May 2003)

War Movies for Empathy Practice
Veterans tell us that nobody can know what it's like to be in a war without actually being there. But war movies still try to approximate the experience. Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron reminds us that spiritual work requires that we turn toward situations that disturb us. In an excerpt that provides a blueprint for empathy practice with those on the front lines, Louise Diamond describes how she prepared to work in areas of ethnic conflict by watching war movies. We have 11 recommendations to get you started. (April 2003)

Wartime Prayers and Meditations
"To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world," wrote theologian Karl Barth. Wartime prayers and meditations enable us to be present with what is happening in Iraq and to practice compassion, empathy, forgiveness, and peace with all those affected by the conflict. Here are links to a collection of prayers, meditations, teaching stories, and other devotional resources for wartime. (March 2003)

The world has mixed feelings about war — always has, always will. But one thing is certain: War means death and destruction and grief and weeping — the spiritual practice of weeping. Read a definition of lamentation expressed as a Call to Worship and contemporary examples from Daniel Berrigan and Edward Hays. The faith traditions and today's spiritual teachers offer practices and wisdom on the path of grief. We call again for empathy for those experiencing the direct impact of the bombing. Finally, a Sufi shaikh and a mother and her 12-year-old child offer another appropriate remembrance for these times. (March 2003)

Vigils for Peace
Vigil-keeping is a time-honored way of responding to danger, crisis, and even death in most religious traditions. The word means "watch" in both the sense of "observe" and "guard." We kept this traditional understanding of vigils in mind during a global candlelight vigil for peace on March 16. Read Mary Margaret Funk and Marcy Heidish on this practice and then view pictures from some of the 6400 vigils that took place in 129 countries. Or light a virtual candle for peace. (March 2003)

Little Courtesies
Little things do count. Sometimes they are all we have. "What can we do?" is a question we're hearing a lot these days. Spiritual teachers agree that what's important is that we do something, even if it seems to be just a little thing. Quotes from the Buddha, Eknath Easwaran, Jean Vanier, and St. Augustine support this perspective. Readings from Peter Reinhart, an Eastern Orthodox chef, and Sister Mercedes, a Dominican sister who wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century, focus on how courtesy and good manners bring people closer together. Writer Bo Lozoff and e-course participant Jan Lawry give us practices for civilizing our world. (March 2003)

Facing Fear
Dealing with fear is a major spiritual challenge of our time. Considering all the mentions of this potent emotion in spiritual texts, it has always been so. Our readings explore how we can turn this challenge into an opportunity for spiritual growth. Miriam Greenspan shows how "conscious fear" reminds us of the power of compassion and connections while mobilizing us to act on behalf of others. Cynthia Kneen uses a story about a Tibetan yogi who found a demon in his cave to introduce the practice of going in and coming out of fear. Yitzhak Buxbaum tells a Jewish story about laughing in the face of fear. To practice dealing with your anxieties, we offer a 21-day program of Fear Busters. (February 2003)

Empathy Practices
Empathy involves being sensitive to the feelings and situation of another person. We need to develop our ability to empathize if we are to truly live out of an awareness of one-world consciousness. Read an excerpt on how empathy enables us to see connections, making strangers less strange. Then practice empathy by watching Iranian movies about children and doing a meditation with a photo gallery of Iraqi children. (February 2003)

Shock and Awe
"Shock and Awe" is the name given to a military strategy that could be used in the threatened United States war on Iraq. The U.S. would put on such a shocking display of military might that the Iraqis would be awed into an immediate surrender. Looking at the implications of such terms is part of the search for meaning and purpose in wartime. This week's readings and practices from Paul Woodruff, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Lama Surya Das examine the spiritual significance of a word associated with awe: reverence. Imagine what would happen if any country decided to shock the world with its reverence. (February 2003)

Our Wartime Spiritual Practices
We discuss what we are doing to keep our souls alive in wartime. Our practice began when while watching the movie West Beirut soon after 9/11, they found themselves weeping. We found themselves identifying with the boys in a bombed city and turned to the Buddhist practice of tonglen. Other practices are disarming the heart, intercessory prayer, learning about other cultures, and finding wartime spiritual mentors. (February 2003)

One World
This is one world. But what does that mean in wartime? "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other," Mother Teresa wrote. These readings and practices ask you to work with what it means to truly belong to each other: Thich Nhat Hanh on True Safety, Ram Dass on Loving Everyone, Jane Vennard on Holding Someone Up to the Love of God. (January 2003)

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