The Common Good
February 2005

A Life of Faithful Integrity

by Ann E. Helmke | February 2005

In the final analysis it is not how many times one prays but how eager one is to imbibe it.

Arun Gandhi,

Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi and cofounder of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Memphis, Tennessee, and Ann E. Helmke, a Lutheran minister and director of the San Antonio Peace Center, recently traveled together on a nonviolence tour to Palestine and Israel. Their trip provided the opportunity for this dialogue.

Ann Helmke: The world and its leaders are busy redefining, justifying and rationalizing, spinning and executing actions based on words. Words without actions are empty, but actions without discipline are very dangerous. How can we responsibly use the words "nonviolence" and "war on terror" in the same sentence? How can we bring the debate and actions to higher ground?

Arun Gandhi: Words without action and actions without discipline is a dangerous concoction. This is the nature of politics. My grandfather [Mahatma Gandhi] regarded politics without principle as one of the seven sins of human society. Politicians have ceased to be servants of the people. They have become masters, taken control of our lives. They decide the fate of a nation and its people. We, the people, are content with this because we simply want to enjoy our rights without responsibilities—the eighth sin of humanity.

How can we utter the words terrorism and nonviolence in the same sentence? That signifies the duality in human life. We wouldn’t appreciate right if we did not understand wrong. This is why Gandhi said, "Only those who have experienced the worst form of violence would appreciate the value of nonviolence." However, because of our ignorance and our arrogance, instead of looking at the roots of terrorism and how we feed it by our own actions, we took the easy way out. Blast the terrorists off the face of the earth, no matter if we have to sacrifice our own and our perceived enemy’s innocent lives in the process. Anger can motivate people to do good or bad things. The sheer audacity of the terrorists moved the nation to anger, and our politicians exploited this by promising to eradicate the evil. Being introspective, trying to get to the truth, changing our relationships, and letting greater compassion take over requires the kind of moral and spiritual strength that we are lacking.

We accuse the conservatives and fundamentalists of wearing their religion on their sleeves, but I notice this is a universal habit. It is so common to find people talking about being a Christian peacemaker or a Christian peace group or a Christian soup kitchen or a Christian children’s fund. I never heard Grandfather talk in terms of being a Hindu peacemaker or working for Hindu peace. Why is it necessary to make the world know one is a Christian?

Helmke: We could look at history and point all the way back to Constantine when Christianity became a state religion. More important is to recognize the dynamic between religion and nationalism and ultimately the dynamic between inclusivity and exclusivity. All the major religions of the world have or are engaged in these dynamics and have also participated in horrendous acts of violence in the name of faith. None of us can deny this. However, on the other side of this divisiveness is the great potential for restored relationships that faith traditions and spiritual disciplines provide. It’s somewhat like looking at the two sides of each of Gandhi’s seven social sins: politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, and you added an eighth, rights without responsibilities.

Are these only statements of morality and practicality? Or do you see them within the context of spirituality? Is there a connection between spiritual disciplines and nonviolence?

Gandhi: Of course there is a connection between spirituality and nonviolence, but first we need to define spirituality. This can only be done by understanding religion itself and the way it is universally practiced. Over the years we have reduced religion to rituals. There are rituals that believers are expected to practice almost mindlessly to be considered religious. True religion requires that we live our lives according to the scriptures, that we practice what we pray. In every religion there are people who practice something very different from what they preach. That kind of hypocrisy is not religion. In the final analysis it is not how or how many times one prays but how sensitive one is to the prayer and how eager one is to imbibe it.

Helmke: As peace activists and socially responsible people of faith, our actions need to be the same as our words, our practice in line with our prayer, the means must meet the end. Gandhi’s list of social sins are, in a sense, social spiritual disciplines. How do we strive for and nurture such authentic and faithful integrity in this violent world?

Gandhi: There needs to be greater understanding between people if we wish to live in peace. The world is shrinking fast. Communities around the world are becoming more and more integrated. If we don’t learn to understand each other we will face strife. This means that our educational program needs to be revised so that young people not only become aware of the different cultures, but also learn ways in which one can practice self-improvement. I think it should be the ambition of every individual to improve the self not only in terms of economic status but moral, ethical, and spiritual status as well. This is where religious leaders should play a more constructive role and not foster competition between religions, but [rather] understanding and appreciation. True religion means living the message and incorporating in life the values that our religions teach.

Arun Gandhi’s most recent book was Legacy of Love (North Bay Books), and Ann E. Helmke had just authored Peace is Our BirthRight, when this article appeared.

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