Samuel put his brush down on the rough board next to the ragged strip of raw canvas he had been working on, contemplating the long strokes that no matter how hard he tried never seemed to have the fluidity and grace that flowed so effortlessly from Zebulon, his teacher.
He looked over to where he worked a few feet away. The old man was sitting on a stool and painting a large, home-stretched canvas that sat on a thoroughly splattered easel. The fine wisps of his silken white hair were lit by the warm glow of afternoon light through the many windows hap-hazardly cluttering the northern wall of the small, clean studio. Samuel watched the gentle rhythmic stroking of his brush, transfixed.
"Do you ever wonder", he began, "if violence is ever good?"
Samuel almost continued his question, but experience of his teacher's insistence on a very precise use of language made him pause.
"I mean, do you think violence is ever good?", he asked.
Again, his teacher said, "No".
"But what about like if you have to stop someone from hurting someone else", he continued, "do you still think violence is bad?"
"Absolutely", Zebulon replied.
"Is that why you gave that man your money yesterday?"
Zebulon sighed, resting his brush across the corded muscles of his dark forearm. "No, I gave him my money because he had a knife".
"But you know the disarming move for that better than anyone... I've seen you do it hundreds of times in our other class", Samuel argued. "And you told me once that it was very easy to do it in such away that the other man's wrist was snapped and useless for months, if you just applied downward..." Zebulon cut him off with a wave of his hand. "The capacity for violence does not automatically imply justification. But that is not what I mean, exactly, when I say that violence is never good. Listen..."
He swiveled on his stool and Samuel tried to hide a smile at what he hoped would be a story or a lesson. The old man rarely spoke much without prompting, so when he did Samuel was always sure to listen. He loved the melodic sound of his teacher's voice. It had aged into something all the more precious for the rare histories it contained in it's musky tones.
"...I learned to disarm so that if I ever had to I would be able. But although that man seemed to be drunk and was probably so inept I could have easily hurt him far worse than he could have hurt me, I could have been wrong or he could have been lucky. With violence, there is always the possibility that you will lose. By giving him my money, I traded the sure loss of a few dollars against the possibility that you or I might have lost our blood, or worse. It was only money, and eventually that man's actions will find him out anyways. Justice is a hard and fickle thing, and mercy is usually not only better for the person to whom it is given, it 'twice blesses', as the bard said. The giver, for his part, is freed from the bondage that power demands. Do you understand?"
Samuel nodded. "But what about when you have to do violence? Like when the man has a knife and you are sure he is about to hurt you, or me?"
Zebulon nodded. His chin dropped to his chest and he seemed to be lost in thought, but when he answered his voice was as clear as ever. "Violence is never good. There are times when one must do violence, because one has to... but these times are so very, very rare, and so very hard to know. The webs of actions, re-actions and consequence that we spin out all around us are a mystery - and often we may believe that violence is our only recourse when there are, in fact, still many avenues available to us. Unless we hate violence... unless we loathe it with a deep and burning passion, then there will always be the possibility that we have not taken the time to give a nonviolent course of action enough of a chance. And that possibility will hang upon our shoulders for the rest of our lives, an invisible weight made all the more terrible by the fact that we probably do not even acknowledge its power over us."
"Is that why you hate war so much?" Samuel asked.
"Yes. Because I find it very hard to believe that the men who make the war machines and grow rich and powerful off their use will hate violence enough that I can trust their decisions to use it. War takes their lack of antipathy to violence and nurtures it. The violence then grows beyond what anyone would ever have intended. It kills the good earth and destroys the lives of the innocent. Even worse, perhaps, is what it does to the hearts of all the men and women who are touched by it, hardening and hardening until it seems there is room for little else than hatred and destruction, which are in fact the same thing. I am an artist. It breaks me when people chose to destroy instead of create."
"But enough... enough talk. We are here to paint. This requires not our words, but our actions."
With that he turned back to his easel and the steady motion of his arm continued. Samuel applied himself with greater concentration to his work and became so lost in the making that an hour later when he again looked up, the old man was gone. All the raw daylight had gone from the studio, but a lamp still burned over each of their work stations.
Samuel stood up, his long-ignored knees creaking, and walked over Zebulon's canvas. It was a scene of war, dripping with rage and anger and passion. Samuel could feel the power in the moment, and he was drawn to its tension and strength. The torn figures of men and beasts writhed in bloody combat, straining in battle with faces contorted in gruesome expressions of hatred, fear and desire. Something about the piece seemed odd, though, and as Samuel leaned in close he saw that each face was the face of the same man. He drew back when he realized that that man was Zebulon himself - young and full of life.
He stood watching, almost afraid, and then after what felt like an age left the room, taking care to shut the door with a gentle whisper as he stepped out into the cool night air.