Every day this week, my dad and colleague, bestselling author John Robbins, is interviewing some of the top food revolutionary leaders on the planet. This is your chance to get cutting edge information about healthy, sustainable, humane and delicious food — from sources you can trust.
The Food Revolution Summit is packed with potent and even gamechanging insights. Like take yesterday, for example. Our theme was Feeding Compassion.
We started with one of my heroes, Dolores Huerta. Dolores, now 82 years old, may be looked back on as one of the great leaders of the last century. Her work has led to breakthroughs in the rights and humane treatment of farm workers, including passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, public assistance for immigrants, toilets in the field, drinking water protection from pesticides, and an immigration act which gave legal status to over a million farm workers.
At one point in the interview, my dad and colleague, John Robbins, said to Dolores: “I recently took out 20 books from my library on food, diet, agriculture, and the environment. I looked at all of their indexes, and I found that not a single one had a single index entry for farm workers.”
Dolores responded: “That is really sad. And you know, it is not just farm workers. We have a society that demeans people that work with their hands. A lot of our young people are helpless because they have been raised to not want to get their hands dirty. We often don’t value the people that work hard, the people that pick up our garbage, that clean our buildings, or the people that make or grow our food.”
What would happen, I wondered, if we treated the people who tend our crops with respect? Can a society be truly healthy if it consistently degrades and exploits the people who grow its food? Or if it poisons farmworkers, and the food they harvest, with pesticides?
Can a humane world be fed by an inhumane system of food production?
One thing’s for sure: We make better choices when we have accurate information. And when it comes to treatment of animals, the truth is becoming a precious commodity.
You don’t have to be a vegetarian to want animals to be treated decently. And you don’t have to be an animal rights activist to think that you should have a right to know how your food is produced. But our second speaker, Will Potter told us that we are seeing a wave of “ag-gag” bills that make it illegal to so much as take pictures of farms and agricultural interests.
Let’s get real here. This isn’t about stopping you from taking photos of broccoli growing on the side of the road. This is about keeping anyone from seeing the cruelty that is the norm in today’s factory farms.
As Will Potter told us: “There’s virtually no oversight of factory farming and big agriculture in this country. This is an industry that wants to operate in total secrecy, and with total immunity.
Next we heard from Zoe Weil, who has helped hundreds of thousands of people to become spokespeople for a more humane world. Zoe’s passionate and accessible message invited us bring more compassion into our lives and into our food choices.
Zoe talked about how important it is to work for a vision without making needless enemies. “Unfortunately,” she told us, “the discourse around food choices often lends itself to side-taking instead of problem solving. People often want to latch on to the ‘right way’, and whatever way they’ve latched on to, they close the door to thinking about the bigger connections.”
Summit participants have been entering into lively dialogues, and sharing moving stories, on our Facebook page. Check it out and join in here.
The Food Revolution Summit is a place to get distilled wisdom from some of the top food leaders in the world.
If you want to take the Food Revolution home with you, you can get CDs, transcripts and downloads of all 24 inspiring interviews. Check out the Empowerment Package.
Feeding the Heart and Soul
In the past thirty years, Geneen Roth has worked with hundreds of thousands of people using meditation, inquiry, and a set of seven eating guidelines that she sees as the foundation of natural eating. Geneen has appeared on many national television shows including: The Oprah Show, 20/20, The NBC Nightly News, The View, CBS Early Show and Good Morning America. She has written monthly columns in Good Housekeeping Magazine and Prevention Magazine. Geneen is the author of nine books, including The New York Times bestsellers Women Food and God, Lost and Found, and When Food Is Love.
This interview features John Robbins interviewing Geneen Roth for the 2012 Food Revolution Summit.
Get more info on Geneen’s work here.
Food, Body, and Divine Perfection
This interview was conducted for the 2012 Food Revolution Summit and was edited for inclusion in Voices of the Food Revolution: You Can Heal Your Body And Your World With Food!, by John and Ocean Robbins
Marianne Williamson is one of the world’s most beloved spiritual authors and lecturers, and the author of six New York Times bestsellers. She is founder of Project Angel Food, a meals-on-wheels program that every day serves more than 1,000 homebound people with AIDS. In her latest bestseller, A Course in Weight Loss: 21 Spiritual Lessons for Surrendering Your Weight Forever, Marianne brings to food and weight loss the same piercing insight and spiritual principles she brings to so many areas of our lives.
What are Marianne’s top insights to help you bring love and consciousness to your body, your relationship with food, and your own healing journey?
John Robbins: You are using principles that have been established and manifest strongly in recovery and twelve-step movements, and applying them to weight loss. How does that work?
Marianne Williamson: When you are dealing with a serious compulsion or addictive pattern, then by definition self-will, self-discipline, and any other machinations of the conscious mind are not enough by themselves to handle the problem. It is like a breaker switch in your brain is simply flipped. Anybody who has had this kind of a problem knows that it doesn’t matter how intelligent you are. Sigmund Freud said, “Intelligence will be used in the service of the neurosis.”
Often people will think, “I know enough not to do this stupid self-sabotaging thing, so why do I keep doing it?” When you look at obesity in the United States, clearly it is not a bunch of stupid people. It has nothing to do with intelligence. Sometimes people who are dealing with issues of obesity and compulsive eating know more than I will ever know about nutrition, metabolism, and exercise, because they have studied it. But clearly the real problem, and therefore the real solution, is on another level of consciousness, and that is where the spiritual work comes in.
John Robbins: In A Course in Weight Loss, you wrote that “This course is not about your relationship with food, it is about your relationship with love.”
Marianne Williamson: Your relationship with love is your relationship with the essence of who you are. It affects your relationship with your body, and your relationship with food. When you realize that you are a spirit and that this body is a temple, then you want to treat it well. Once you see that everything in life is a gift, you see that food is also a gift. If you are about to eat chemically processed, unhealthy food, you realize that to do so is, on a certain level, an act of violence against yourself.
John Robbins: Do you think that as people increase their sense of connection to their source, to their true nature, and to their body, that they will then develop a more healthy relationship with food?
Marianne Williamson: Oh, absolutely! People who are meditating every day and involved in a serious spiritual practice don’t usually wake up in the morning and want to rush out to eat a bunch of junk food.
John Robbins: I have seen in some spiritual circles, the idea that what you think determines pretty much everything, and so to concern yourself with things like nutrition and eating healthfully is to embody a lower level of consciousness.
Marianne Williamson: If I am eating something that is unhealthy for my body and irreverent towards life, that is a thought. And all thought creates form.
John Robbins: What do you see as the spiritual underpinnings of widespread hunger and malnutrition?
Marianne Williamson: Mahatma Gandhi said, “The problem of the world is that humanity is not in its right mind.” The cause of so much that we struggle with today stems from a fundamental separation from love. There are 17,000 children on this planet who starve to death every day. They are part of the hungry bottom billion on the planet, the people who live on $1.25 and less a day. Now the economist Jeffrey Sachs has statistically proven that for $100 billion, spent over a ten-year period of time, we could eradicate deep poverty from the planet. So here we have $700 billion a year that we spend on defense in the United States, and for one-seventh of that, spent over ten years, we could eradicate deep poverty.
It all goes back to a fundamental insanity and lack of love. We have so many people who are under nourished or malnourished or starving, and that fact is juxtaposed with the fact that at least as of now, we have enough food.
John Robbins: Scientists fear that global warming could create 150 million environmental refugees by 2050. And while, despite distribution problems, we do grow enough food to feed humanity now, climate disruptions and a rapidly growing human population may change that in the not-too-distant future. To look at our collective predicament through the lens of a twelve-step program, I sometimes think that the modern industrialized world is like an individual who is addicted or who is possessed by their alcoholism, and is very near hitting bottom. But we haven’t yet turned over our consciousness to what is greater and higher and truly possible—to the power of love. Following that metaphor, do you see that we are capable of collectively becoming sober?
Marianne Williamson: There is always a possibility, and I think that hope is a moral imperative. Do I see humanity bottoming out? Do I see humanity having a mass experience of all of us looking at each other and saying, “Wow, let’s do it another way now?” Absolutely—it’s inevitable that it will happen. The issue is how much human suffering will have to occur first. I mean if we start lobbing nuclear bombs, and eventually there are only fifty people left in the world, they will look at each other and choose to go on another way. How much human suffering has to occur first? I think that is up to us.
John Robbins: There are a couple of bumper stickers that I have seen. There is one, “If you aren’t outraged you aren’t paying attention.” And then there is another one, “If you aren’t in awe, you aren’t paying attention.” In some way, it seems that our hearts are being stretched to span the violence and the suffering in our lives and world, and at the same time we are also witness to so much magnificence and brilliance. We are a species that has produced nuclear weapons, and also one that has developed profound insight into the nature of life itself.
Marianne Williamson: I sometimes say that if you are not grieving, you are not conscious. But if you are not rejoicing in the possibilities of how this could all change, then you are not looking through the filter of the greatest spiritual perspicacity. Both grief and awe are realistic feelings about the state of the world today. The issue now is about what we are going to do. In every moment, we make a choice about which direction we are going to go. Once we realize that this is a self-correcting and self-organizing universe, then we don’t have to look any further than our own life circumstances, the relationships and situations that we are in, to begin the transformation.
John Robbins: There is a belief behind our disrespect for the earth, for our feelings, and for ourselves as members of the earth community. It is a belief that we are here to dominate, we are here to control, and that the earth and the living web of life is subservient to us.
Marianne Williamson: The beginning of the environmental crisis in Western civilization really began with the early church’s systematic destruction of pagan culture. Because in pagan culture, part of the role of women as the High Priestesses (or witches, as they were sometimes called at the time) was to hold a sense of divine and sacred partnership with the earth. One of the reasons the effort was made to systematically destroy that culture, was because the early church was seeking to introduce the dispensation that we were in fact not in divine partnership with nature, but rather that God had given it to man to dominate nature.
That is when a very insidious and poisonous thought form took such strong hold in Western consciousness. Yet today even ardent adherents to the dominator thought will often agree that we need to be good stewards, and I think that that is really where the conversation needs to begin. Some of us believe humanity should be in divine partnership with nature, some people believe that man has been given by God the right to have dominion over nature. But since even they say that we should be good stewards, that right there should be the common ground.
Recently I was at a conference sponsored by The Humane Society. It was about abuses to animals and laws that need to be changed. It was a rather small group, and it included a very high-level group of people who were like the head of the Southern Baptist Convention and other serious players in conservative Christianity. What I noticed there, and it was absolutely fascinating to me, was that if you say to those people that the same spirit of God is in an animal that is in you and me, they bristle and shut down. However they do believe that God has instructed us to be merciful, kind, and tender towards the animals. Within that context, I was amazed and deeply respectful by how politically organized and active they are regarding laws that will regulate the treatment of animals.
We were watching these videos of horrible animal abuses. I saw a woman who heads the Moral Majority or some similar organization, sitting there with tears streaming down her cheeks.
John Robbins: I often think about the biblical injunction that we are given dominion over the animals. What does that mean? If I have two sons and I go out for the evening and I say to the older one, “You are in charge while I am gone,” and I say to the younger one, “Will you please do what your older brother says until I get back?”, I am in effect giving the older boy dominion over the younger one for the time being. But I wouldn’t be happy if when I returned home I found that the older son had tortured, cooked, and eaten the younger one; or performed some macabre medical experiment on him; or had been otherwise less than merciful, kind, and tender towards him. Even if we accept dominion, what does it mean to be reverent and compassionate?
Marianne Williamson: There is a responsibility that comes with dominion. If we are supposed to be good stewards of the earth, then we should ask: How is it good stewardship to destroy the Amazon? How are factory farms good stewardship?
John Robbins: And how are we being good stewards of our bodies when we eat poorly and abuse them? Yet, many of us carry compulsions that arise from levels of the psyche and from our relationship to life that are beyond self-will. Some of these compulsions stem from childhood. How can we help our children grow up with good food habits, confidence in themselves, and a positive body image?
Marianne Williamson: All of us as parents see on a daily basis the way that our own choices affect our children. My daughter is 21 and at about age 20 the jury comes in. At that point, I felt like I could see where I got it wrong and where I got it right. I look back now and think that in parenting, you have to know when to hold and when to fold. One of the places where I folded and wish I hadn’t was with food. I remember that when my daughter was an adolescent, she used to bring all these chips and empty carbs into the house. I would say: “We don’t have things like that here. We have fruits and nuts and vegetables.” She would reply: “But all the other kids do and I have to have them when my friends come after school or I’ll be a total dork.” That is a place where I folded and I wished I hadn’t.
We are responsible for what we have in our homes, and what we serve our children. But I do work with a lot of women who say: “I want to have healthy food in the house, and I want to feed my children healthy food. But my husband insists on junk.” It can be hard for a lot of people, even when they have the best of intentions, to fill their homes with healthy food.
John Robbins: There is an intricate dance between will and surrender—between determination and unconditional love. This shows up in families, and also in relation to our own bodies.
The fat acceptance movement holds that people are unfairly discriminated against because of their size and appearance, and that this discrimination is a form of violence. It seeks to change discrimination in employment and cultural stereotypes, and also to help fat people come to greater levels of self-acceptance.
I want people to feel good about themselves. There is beauty in everyone, of every size and shape. There is beauty in people at every level of health and illness. At the same time, I want people to be healthy. I know that weight is not just a question of vanity or cultural conditioning. There is a tension that I think many people feel between self-acceptance and unconditional love on the one hand, and the courage to change what we can on the other hand.
Marianne Williamson: It is a basic truth that a situation has to be accepted fully before you can have the power to change it, so accepting yourself where you are is important. However, there are real health implications to obesity. I often tell people: “You can hear it from me now, or you can hear it from your doctor later.” There is no way that carrying fifty or sixty extra pounds is easy on your heart, your lungs, or your liver. That’s a fact. Every person in the world, no matter what size, shape, or form they are, deserves respect and love. But that doesn’t mean we are supposed to pretend that something is healthy when in fact it is not.
John Robbins: What do you see as the relationship between the body and the spirit?
Marianne Williamson: How we sit within the body is an extremely important part of the spiritual journey. The body itself is used either by the spirit within us, or by the fear-based mind. When it is used by the spirit, then it is a thing of holiness. How we dwell within it, how we treat it, and how we use it in relationship to other aspects of the planet is extremely important. When we use the body without reverence, we are destructive elements on the planet. We become destructive to ourselves, to other life forms, and to the earth.
So the issue of whether we see the body as a temple of God or as something we hold with disrespect is an extremely important spiritual issue. Both the Christian cross and the Jewish Star of David are visual symbols of the intersection of the mortal and the divine. In A Course in Miracles, in talking about Jesus, it says: “He lived on the earth yet thought the thoughts of Heaven.” That is really what we are after from a spiritual perspective. To be very grounded, to live in our bodies in very healthy, vital ways. And to spiritualize the body as well as grounding the spirit.
John Robbins: Would you like to close with a prayer?
Marianne Williamson: Oh Spirit, Divine Creator, we pray. We place in your hands our precious earth. We place in your hands all living things. We place in your hands our bodies. We place in your hands our relationship to food. We place in your hands our relationship to animals. We place in your hands our relationship to the earth, and we ask that a great wave of blessing come upon us. May our minds be healed of all illusion and falsehood. May we be lifted in thought and in action. Please purify our thoughts that all behavioral patterns might be lifted to Divine right order, that there is only reverence and love between us and all life. And so it is. Thank you, God. Amen.
John Robbins: Amen.
To own this and 20 more gamechanging interviews, check out Voices of the Food Revolution: You Can Heal Your Body And Your World With Food!, by John and Ocean Robbins.
Many of us tend to think that human nature is inherently competitive and destructive. We hear about “selﬁsh genes,” as if our genetic makeup predetermines that we will be egotistic people and that we will ﬁght with one another. We’re told that our species contains a built-in “killer instinct,” that we are descended from apes who needed to be brutal and ferociously aggressive to survive the hostile conditions of prehistoric times. According to such notions, the natural world is an unrelenting battle for survival, and it is mere wishful thinking to believe that people can live in peace with one another and with their environment for any signiﬁcant length of time. “War,” said Dick Cheney when he was Vice-President, “is the natural state of man.”
Cheney and others who think like him believe that the human condition is inherently and inexorably competitive, and that all of human experience is an expression of the Darwinian principle of “survival of the ﬁttest.” If they are correct, then given the existence of nuclear weapons, our species is almost certainly doomed. But Charles Darwin himself would not agree. In fact, in The Descent of Man, Darwin mentioned the survival of the ﬁttest only twice, and one of those times was to apologize for using what he had come to feel was an unfortunate and misleading phrase. By contrast, he wrote 95 times about love. In his later writings, Darwin repeatedly stressed that the “survival of the ﬁttest” model of natural selection dropped away in importance at the level of human evolution and was replaced by moral sensitivity, education and cooperation.
It’s true that chimpanzees, whose genetics are very similar to our own, have quite a propensity for deceit, violence, theft, infanticide and even cannibalism. But it’s equally true that among chimps, the toughest rivals will reconcile after a ﬁght, stretching out their hands to each other, smiling, kissing and hugging. And besides, there is another primate who is as genetically similar to us as the chimpanzee–the bonobo, an ape species native to the Congo. If, instead of studying chimps for clues to the origins of human behavior, we had been studying bonobos, we would have come to very different conclusions. Instead of the killer-ape model, we would have had the lover-ape model, for these primates show a phenomenal sensitivity to the well-being of others.
“Primatologists,” writes author Marc Barasch in his book, Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, “are ﬁnding in the bonobos evidence that it is not tooth-and-nail competition, but conciliation, cuddling, and cooperation that may be the central organizing principle of human evolution.” One of the world’s leading experts on primate behavior, Frans de Waal, calls it “survival of the kindest.”
What kind of creature, then, are we? There are those who believe human beings are fundamentally selﬁsh, and there are those who believe we are essentially kindly creatures who need only love to ﬂourish; but I stand in neither camp, or maybe I should say I stand in both camps. It appears to me that we have nearly inﬁnite potential in both directions. There are in each of us forces that can produce a Bernard Madoff, and also those that can produce a Martin Luther King. Depending on what we choose to afﬁrm and cultivate within our children, and ourselves we can collectively turn this planet into a hell or a heaven. Whether we like it or not, and whether we accept it or not, our choices make an enormous difference.
In these deeply uncertain times, I believe that the effort to create a web of caring, support, authenticity and trust among your friends and family members, and in your larger community, may be among the most important acts you can undertake. With the economy and the biosphere deteriorating and potentially collapsing, nothing may be more imperative than overcoming the isolation and disconnectedness that so often pervades contemporary life.
Down through history there have been sages and philosophers who have spoken of the fundamental unity underlying the human condition. They have taught that each of us is truly part of an extended family that includes all people everywhere. But today the human future depends on more than just a few wise people understanding the concept. The quality of life for humanity in the years to come depends on ever-increasing numbers of people incorporating this understanding into their everyday lives. The health and survival of the human species now depends on how deeply we grasp the reality of our interdependence.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have a choice to be either accomplices in the status quo or everyday revolutionaries. We have a choice whether to succumb to the consumer trance, identify our self worth by our net worth, and race by each other in the night — or to build lives of caring, substance and beauty.
In our so very troubled times, hope itself can seem like a romantic fallacy. The news we hear is so filled with horrors and tragedies, so replete with examples of humanity’s failures, that it can seem like a childish fantasy to still root for all that is good in us. But I believe the real news on this planet is love — why it exists, where it came from and where it is going.
This is why, even though I fail at it far more than I succeed, I still try to follow the advice of the author Og Mandino, who wrote: “Treat everyone you meet as if he or she were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster, and do so with no thought of reward. Your life will never be the same.”
Jack LaLanne died on January 23, 2011 at the age of 96. He was a mentor to me, as he was to many. He was a great man, more so than most people realize.
His wife of 51 years, Elaine LaLanne, knew. “I have not only lost my husband and a great American icon,” she said, “but the best friend and most loving partner anyone could ever hope for.”
When it comes to exercise and health, the name Jack LaLanne has long been virtually synonymous with ﬁtness. Jack literally inspired millions to live a healthful life. But Jack LaLanne didn’t start out as a model of health. Far from it.
When he was a teenager, he dropped out of school for a year because he was so ill. Shy and withdrawn, he avoided being with people. He had pimples and boils, was thin, weak, and sickly, and wore a back brace. “I also had blinding headaches every day,” Jack recalled. “I wanted to escape my body because I could hardly stand the pain. My life appeared hopeless.”
Then he met the pioneer nutritionist Paul Bragg, who preached a new way of living, and to his credit, Jack listened. Bragg asked Jack, “What do you eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?”
“Cakes, pies, and ice cream,” Jack answered truthfully.
“Jack,” Bragg replied, “you’re a walking garbage can.”
He pointed young Jack in a healthier direction. That night Jack got down on his knees by the side of his bed and prayed. He didn’t say, “God, make me the strongest man in the world.” Instead, he asked for a new beginning. “God, please give me the willpower to refrain from eating unhealthy foods when the urge comes over me. And please give me the strength to exercise even when I don’t feel like it.”
Jack set out to see what he could accomplish with a good diet and exercise. He found a set of weights and began to use them. He ate only the most healthful of foods. He developed exercise equipment that evolved into what has become standard in many health spas today. In 1936, he opened the ﬁrst modern health club, paying $45 a month for rent in downtown Oakland.
Jack LaLanne touted the value of exercise and nutrition long before it became fashionable. Many people thought he was a charlatan and a nut. When he encouraged the elderly to lift weights, doctors said this was terrible advice. They said it was a good way for the elderly to break bones. But now, of course, we know that weight-bearing exercise is precisely what is needed to build bone strength and prevent elderly bones from breaking. He was among the ﬁrst to advocate weight training for women. Doctors said women who tried it would not be able to bear children. Now we know that regular exercise is one of the best preparations for childbirth. Over the years, he’s been vindicated a thousandfold. His television programs brought his ideas to hundreds of millions of people and helped change the way we all view health and ﬁtness.
It has been said that without eccentrics, cranks and heretics the world would not progress. I don’t think Jack LaLanne was a crank, but he most certainly was an eccentric. On his 60th birthday, he swam from the notorious Alcatraz island prison to San Francisco while handcuffed, towing a thousand-pound boat. “Why did you do that?” people asked. Jack’s response: “To give the prisoners hope.” (The prison has since closed, and today Alcatraz Island is a U.S. National Park Service attraction.)
On his 65th birthday, Jack LaLanne towed 65 hundred pounds of wood pulp across a lake in Japan. On his 70th birthday, he celebrated by towing 70 rowboats with seventy people on board for a mile and a half across Long Beach Harbor, all while handcuffed and with his feet shackled.
He said his purpose in these phenomenal performances was to demonstrate that a healthful lifestyle can work wonders.
Having pioneered health and ﬁtness gyms in the United States, Jack was gratiﬁed that physical ﬁtness and nutrition have become a huge growth industry worldwide, because he believed that the emphasis on exercise and a healthful, natural diet creates stronger, smarter, and better people. “With healthier citizens,” he said, “we unburden society from sickness, and reduce the medical bills that are draining people’s savings and causing so much grief.”
Even in his 90s, Jack was a living testimony to the value of regular exercise and a healthful lifestyle. He was for many years a vegan (no meat, dairy, or eggs), but in his later years, though he still ate no dairy products — “anything that comes from a cow, I don’t eat” — he occasionally ate egg whites (from truly free range chickens) and wild ﬁsh. Mostly, he ate organic raw fruits and vegetables. And he took vitamins.
His vibrant message was that it’s never too late to get in shape. “Those who begin to exercise regularly, and replace white ﬂour, sugar, and devitalized foods with live, organic, natural foods, begin to feel better immediately,” he said. He emphasized that it takes both nutrition and exercise. “There are so many health nuts out there who eat nothing but natural foods but they don’t exercise and they look terrible. Then there are other people who exercise like a son-of-a-gun but eat a lot of junk … Exercise is king. Nutrition is queen. Put them together and you’ve got a kingdom!”
Even at the age of 95, Jack LaLanne was still a model of ﬁtness and vitality. Full of life and spirit, his one-minute “Jack LaLanne Tip of the Day” pieces were still being shown on seventy television stations. As energetic and ﬂamboyant as ever, he was still speaking all over the world, inspiring people to help themselves to a better life, physically, mentally, and morally.
When he was 94, Jack was asked if he thought he’d live to be 100. His answer was to the point. “I don’t care how old I live! I just want to be living while I am living! I have friends who are in their 80s, and now they’re in wheelchairs or they’re getting Alzheimer’s. Who wants that? I want to be able to do things. I want to look good. I don’t want to be a drudge on my wife and kids. And I want to get my message out to people.” He smiled. “I tell people, I can’t afford to die. It would wreck my image.”
He was once asked about George Burns, the famous comedian who made it to 100 though he smoked cigars, drank alcohol and was not health-oriented. Jack, it turns out, knew George Burns well, and he answered, “George Burns was more athletic than you think he was. And he was a very social man. He loved people, he enjoyed life. He worked at living. Old George was a social lion, he got around and did things. That’s the key right there. It starts with your brain.”
Jack LaLanne was a man of great accomplishments. But perhaps his greatest achievement was that this once painfully shy and sick young man learned to love people and to love being alive.
On October 2, 2006, one of the most brutal, senseless, and unforgivable acts of violence in U.S. history took place. And that day also brought one of the most extraordinary responses to unspeakable violence our culture has ever known.
The schoolchildren had just returned to their classroom from recess on the morning of October 2, 2006, when a 32-year-old milk-truck driver named Charles Carl Roberts backed his pickup truck up to the front of an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We may never be able to understand what possessed Roberts that day, but we do know, to our horror, what he did.
He walked into the classroom holding a 9mm handgun. He then ordered the male students to carry items from the back of his pickup truck into the classroom. These items included a shotgun, a stungun, wires, chains, nails, tools, and a bag, which included sexual lubricant and flexible plastic ties. There was also a wood board with many sets of metal eyehooks intended to be used for securing his victims.
Roberts ordered the female children to line up against the chalkboard. He then released the male students, a pregnant woman, and three parents with infants. One female student managed to escape, leaving behind 10 hostages, all of them girls.
The teacher, who had somehow also managed to escape in the confusion, immediately raced to a nearby farm and called 911. Within a few minutes, police and emergency medical personnel began to arrive. As they did, Roberts was using plastic ties to bind the arms and legs of the schoolgirls he held hostage. A group of state troopers approached the schoolhouse, but Roberts threatened to shoot the girls if they did not leave immediately. The police backed off.
A police negotiator, using the bullhorn on his cruiser, spoke to Roberts, asking him repeatedly to put down his weapons and come out of the school house. He refused.
Barely more than 30 minutes had elapsed since Charles Carl Roberts had first driven up to the schoolhouse when the shooting began. He shot all 10 of the schoolgirls execution style, in the back of the head. When the shots rang out, the police immediately rushed the building, but the shooting stopped just as they broke through the windows and began to force their way inside. Roberts had killed himself.
Three girls died at the scene, and two others died in the next sixteen hours. Five others were left in critical condition, struggling for their lives. The victims ranged in age from six to 13.
Janice Ballenger, deputy coroner in Lancaster County, told the Washington Post that she counted two dozen bullet wounds in one child alone. “There was not one desk, not one chair, in the whole schoolroom that was not splattered with either blood or glass,” she said. “There were bullet holes everywhere, everywhere.”
There is probably no way most of us could comprehend the grief and horror that this unspeakable brutality caused the Amish community and the families of these innocent victims. There are no words that can even begin to express the violence and its devastating toll.
But somehow, these people did not respond with hate. They did not cry out for revenge. Their hearts were filled with unimaginable grief, but they sought and found ways, miraculously, to turn their misery toward compassion.
Impossibly, the Amish actually reached out to the family of the gunman. The afternoon of the shooting, the Amish grandfather of one of the girls who had been murdered publicly expressed forgiveness toward the killer. That same day, Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain. One Amish man held Roberts’ sobbing father in his arms for nearly an hour, comforting him.
The Amish didn’t hold a press conference. They didn’t cast blame or prepare to file lawsuits. Instead, though their hearts were filled with grief and shock, they reached out with compassion to the killers’ family.
Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls. Amish mourners were the majority of those gathered at the funeral of Charles Carl Roberts. And the Amish later set up a charitable fund for the family of the killer.
The story became the subject of national attention. Many reporters asked, “How could these people forgive such a terrible, unprovoked act of violence against innocent children?”
It’s a good question. Part of the answer stems from how deeply devoted the Amish are to the teachings of Jesus, who taught his followers to forgive others, to place the needs of others before themselves, and to find peace in the reality that God can bring good out of any situation.
This is who the Amish are. This what they do. When they are harmed, they seek to forgive. They do their best to embody Martin Luther King’s recognition that “forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude.”
We live in a world where forgiveness is often seen as a sign of weakness, a world where revenge and retaliation are taken for granted as an appropriate response to evil. Could the Amish be showing us another possibility?
The Amish capacity to forgive may seem superhuman to the rest of us. But is it possible that Amish forgiveness and grace have something to teach us?
I think it’s something that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have understood, and Gandhi, too. They taught that the most effective way to counter violence was not to condone it, nor to react in kind, but to respond to it with creative nonviolence. They knew that an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind. They taught that you can hate the sin, but you must try to love the sinner.
Becoming merciful rather than hateful is difficult work, and can seem all but impossible for those who have been taught to nurse fantasies of revenge against those who have harmed us. We do not live in a culture where forgiveness is given much value. We identify justice with payback. We have highly developed capacities for blame.
I can get as angry as the next person, and I think that a capacity for healthy and constructive anger is a necessary part of our emotional wholeness. Sometimes injustice needs to be corrected, and there are people in the world from whom we, and our children, absolutely need protection.
Maybe the Amish can remind us of this: Yes, there is unimaginable anguish and violence in the world. But when all is said and done, love might still have a strength that hate can never defeat.