Is it possible to oppose injustice with an open, loving heart?

 On an autumn morning in 2010, I joined a couple of thousand activists on a march through our nation’s capital to protest the unbelievably destructive coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal. In the past three decades more than 500 mountain peaks have been blown up so mining companies could get at the coal seams just below their surfaces. As we marched that day, people from different parts of Appalachia held up placards listing what has been lost: RIP Mingo Mountain. Destroyed: Workman’s Branch. RIP Pumpkin Knob. Cole Spur. Manns Knob. Looney Ridge Spur. And many more.

Similar marches have been held each year since. Mountaintop removal has gradually attracted more scrutiny, but coal companies have simply replaced it with “surface mining,” a technique in which mountainsides are carved away while the peaks are left intact. This is not an improvement.

I have never been much of a marcher. I wanted to attend the 2010 demonstration in hopes of answering a question that has bothered me for decades. Is it possible to effectively oppose injustice in a loving way? What would that look like? There’s the Quaker model of nonviolent social protest, of course, as well as the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s. “We will accept the violence and hate, absorbing it without returning it,” wrote the civil rights activist James Lawson.

 Indicted: Coal boss Donald Blankenship

Indicted: Coal boss Donald Blankenship

But here’s the thing: National coverage of the civil rights protests trained a merciless spotlight on the racist segregation policies of the American South. African Americans received full rights only when outraged citizens from other regions demanded it. For many decades impoverished residents of Appalachia have tried to attract the same national attention, with little success. I had to wonder: Has the world become so inured to violence and injustice that nonviolent protest is no longer effective?

Recently a friend wrote me that she sees selfless service only as something that involves one individual helping another. To her, social activism falls outside those bounds. I tend to disagree. This is a very old debate, and one we’re not going to settle here.

Still, I’m intrigued by the notion of infusing activism with loving kindness. The Dalai Lama has long advocated this approach in his crusade against the brutal mistreatment of the Tibetan people by China. It can be done. It’s just really, really hard. It takes a larger, steadier love than most of us can reliably muster.

Thankfully, recent events have shown there’s good reason for us to try.

In April 2010 an explosion at a West Virginia coal mine killed 29 miners who were working 1,200 feet below ground. An investigation found that “an explosion of methane gas spread like a fireball through two miles of tunnels, fed by illegally high levels of coal dust” (The New York Times).

In 2013 three coal company managers were found guilty of perpetuating a corporate culture of deception that encouraged cheating on safety measures in mines. Among other things, ventilation and coal dust monitoring systems were rigged so they would fool safety inspectors.

Such serious charges had never been brought against high-ranking coal officials.  Federal prosecutors subsequently established a paper trail to the most powerful man in the West Virginia coal business, Massey Energy CEO Donald Blankenship. Massey owned the mine where the explosion occurred. On November 12 Blankenship was indicted on charges in connection with the miners’ deaths.

The Charleston Gazette wrote, “This indictment is momentous.”

I first heard about Don Blankenship when I spent some time in West Virginia in 2010 after the protest march. He’s notorious there. He once methodically drove a small company out of business for buying coal from suppliers other than Massey Energy. He contributed $3 million to defeat a West Virginia Supreme Court Justice who made rulings against Massey’s interests.

Did you think labor practices had been strengthened to eliminate the horrendous conditions in which miners worked in the early 20th century? I did, largely because of the rise of unions. But Blankenship took credit, with pleasure, for busting the United Mine Workers Association in West Virginia. Miners there told me of policy changes that eliminated union safety inspectors and required miners to keep air quality monitors in their pockets, rather than pinned to the front of their mining suits. Residents told me of sky-high cancer rates and well water that had turned black from pollution.

Blankenship maintains his innocence. His lawyer issued a statement saying the former CEO, who retired in 2012, was a tireless crusader for mine safety.

I suspect Blankenship never would have been indicted if not for the hundreds of activists who have been fighting for justice in Coal Country. Their efforts have received scant mention in the national press. But someone, apparently, was listening. News of the indictment brought tears to my eyes.

Spiritually speaking, however, this is when the going gets hard.

The American system of justice is built on the principle that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. The 41-page indictment against Blankenship certainly contains compelling evidence. But the legal test is still to come.

West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller was quoted as saying that when Blankenship goes to trial in January, “he will be treated far fairer and with more dignity than he ever treated the miners he employed. And frankly, it’s more than he deserves.”

I can understand Rockefeller’s anger, and the outrage of the dead miners’ families and neighbors.

But we’re all spiritual beings, and we deserve to be treated with fairness and dignity, regardless of our crimes. The Dalai Lama, not to mention Jesus, would want no less for Don Blankenship.

If we really want to help the unfortunate, if we long to live in a world of justice, our job now is not to call for Blankenship’s blood. It’s to monitor the legal proceedings and make sure they’re scrupulously fair. (This may include urging federal prosecutors to vigorously pursue conviction, since Blankenship is likely to have an abundant legal fund.) It’s to pray for justice in Coal Country—and then to keep fighting for it after Blankenship’s trial is over.

By the way, I did find a clear example in Coal Country of how it’s possible to fight injustice with an open heart. But to read about that, you’ll have to wait for my forthcoming book, Searching for Seva.

            Here’s a link to a New York Times news analysis about Blankenship’s indictment.

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AuthorJan DeBlieu