‘Violence begets violence’ - Moravian College’s Peace and Justice Scholar examines waging war, promoting peace
During a stirring talk at Moravian College, titled “Watering the Seeds of Peace: Facing Inequality, Violence, and War,” Claude AnShin Thomas shared his experience as a helicopter crew chief during the Vietnam War and the way it has shaped his life since.
Thomas was Moravian’s ninth Peace and Justice Scholar in Residence. This year’s Scholar in Residence was co-sponsored by Moravian’s Peace and justice Studies program, the Religion and Sociology Departments, the Healthy Minds student club, and the College’s inFocus Speaker Program.
When Thomas enlisted in the army at age 18, he brought to it what he called “a mythological image of
military service.” Thomas was born in Waterford, Pa., into a legacy of war. His father had served in World War II. For Thomas the “truth” of military service proved very different from the reality. The truth of the war, he said, lives with the reality of the people he killed. The enemy was the enemy because that is what he and his comrades were told, so they burned villages, destroyed homes, and killed children.
“There is nothing clean about war,” Thomas said. On a personal level, participation in the war had a
devastating effect on Thomas. He used drugs and alcohol to overcome its effects. For a time after he returned, he lived in a burnedout car in Pittsburgh, and all he worried about was “how to get the next drink.”
War is “an expression of the violence in all of us,” Thomas said, and, though less than 1 percent of the
population experiences war, we need to take “collective responsibility” for it. Regarding the many suicides of Vietnam veterans, Thomas commented that at least they escaped many of the effects of war, such as homelessness, an inability to get jobs, drug addiction, and high rates of divorce and incarceration.
Today Thomas is a Zen Buddhist Monk. He was ordained at Auschwitz and hiked from there to Vietnam on a pilgrimage to promote peace. In 1994 he founded the ZALTHO Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to the goal
of ending violence by using practices that incorporate Zen Buddhism’s spiritual principles. The organization has done a good deal of work to address the problems of veterans.
An international advocate of nonviolence, Thomas published “At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace” in 2004. Today he offers programs around the nation to facilitate healing and transformation. He is also involved in dialogues to promote peace between government officials and guerrilla groups in Columbia and between Basque separatists and government representatives in Spain.
At one point in his talk Thomas asked a member of the audience (coincidentally also named Thomas) to join him on stage. When asked what he would do if the speaker hit him, the audience member replied, “probably
hit you back.” Thomas commented that “in hitting back, the victim becomes the perpetrator,” and “violence
begets violence. We must break the cycle of violence and suffering,” he added.
Moving from the killing of humans in war to the killing of animals for food, Thomas declared that we should stop eating meat, fish and poultry. It takes 26 acres of land to support one cow, he said. “Go visit a slaughterhouse, watch the cows, and listen to them being killed.”
When he was young, Thomas gave up meat because his friends were hippies, so he thought it was “cool.” Now, he says he has given meat because doesn’t support killing.
During the question and answer session following his talk, Thomas addressed a wide range of issues. Asked if the military serves any purpose, he answered in the affirmative and cited the “incredible resource” the military proved to be in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. About the use of robots in the battlefield, Thomas said there shouldn’t be any battlefields.
“I am thoroughly committed to ending war in my life,” he said.
How can we conquer our fear of the enemy?
Thomas replied that that there is no enemy.
“We’re constantly conditioned to be afraid,” he said. “If I confuse you with fear, I have the possibility of controlling you. If we can’t understand each other, we must accept each other. We must agree to disagree.” He added that there are two refugee camps in France that are sometimes attacked because refugees are seen as enemies.
“We need to bring humanity into the equation,” he said.