“How does one live in a world that needs to be reconceived at its core? We have to change course and I have no idea where or how to start, except in a million places at once, but all of these starting places have at least this much in common: reverence for the planet and life itself; acknowledgement and awe that the universe is alive and we are connected to everything in it; and a sense that even the small, mocked, discarded fragments of civilization are to be valued…that they are sacred.”
Prayers disguised as op-eds! That’s how Robert Koehler describes the column he has written for more than three decades.
The message – the prayer—at the core of his words is that humanity must make the transition beyond violence and dominance to a world where all life is sacred, where listening and healing matter, where vulnerability is understood as the precursor to empowerment and where the future is the newborn child we hold in our arms.
Koehler is a peace journalist.
Peace journalism is an evolving concept, he explains. Its goal is to bring an outside source of wisdom to a complex situation. It seeks to empower the reader by activating compassion rather than judgment; and it reports the complex story, not the simple story. A peace journalist must look at all sides of a conflict and maintain awareness that the solution is not victory for one side but the creation of a new reality, which addresses everyone’s needs and grievances.
Born in Detroit, Koehler later moved to the suburban town Dearborn, Michigan. When he was just two years old, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown and by the time he was ten, his father had suffered a stroke. But according to Koehler, his entire thought process was permanently altered one afternoon when he was 11 as he walked home from school.
“My knuckles were bruised, I may have had a rip in my trousers, gravel burn on my knee, big wet tears in my eyes. I’d just been in a playground fight.”
He was a boy and he got into fights, he admitted. It wasn’t the fight itself that struck the chord that changed him, however; from what Koehler remembers, the fight started over something as simple as marbles, but had managed to summon the forces of racism amidst a group of pre-teens. The fight, he says, would push a crowd to a boiling chant that would pit a “nigger” against a white boy and incite a war.
Koehler notes that this wasn’t an uncommon occurrence in this predominantly white community, but after this particular fight, Bob Koehler was forever changed. He decided on the way back home that he would never fight again. In fact, Koehler called it more than a
decision… even more than a vow. On his website, CommonWonders.com, he states that, “it was a personal paradigm shift, preverbal, life-shaking,
Koehler attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo; then – after he was finished being a hippie, after he had gone back to the land for several years – he moved to Chicago to find a career as a writer.
He cut his teeth as a journalist at Lerner Newspapers, a chain of neighborhood weeklies on the North Side of Chicago: a pulsating, complex community through which pretty much the whole world passed. He worked at Lerner for a dozen years, covering police and politicians, crime victims, community activists, teachers, artists – everyone who had a story to tell. It was at Lerner that he realized that journalism was his destiny: to listen to people, to hear their humanity, to find the words to convey it. While grinding out stories as a reporter, he began writing a weekly column.
Eventually he moved on to the Chicago Tribune. He worked there for many years as a copy editor and resumed writing a weekly column, which the Tribune syndicated, giving him a national and international audience. His column has appeared in many papers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Detroit Free Press, as well as on numerous websites, such as Huffington Post and Common Dreams.
He has also worked as a writing teacher at different points in his career, both in the Chicago Public School System and at DePaul University, where he teaches a class called Peace Journalism. He has worked with people of all ages, from adults to children as young as age eight, trying to convey the message that everyone has something valuable to say.
His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound, is a collection of essays – secular prayers – written at the intersection of the personal and the global.
As a columnist and journalist, Koehler has addressed most of the pressing issues of the day, from war to climate change to nuclear disarmament to gun violence. For instance: “Before we need a gun debate in this country, or on this planet, we need a sensible discussion about the nature of empowerment, and we need to wrest the concept from the hands — if necessary, the cold, dead hands — of gun-industry shills who claim that unarmed means disempowered, and who forget, among much else, to warn us that it’s possible to be both armed and disempowered, and that this is perhaps the most dangerous state of all.”
He has written at length about the concept of Restorative Justice: a system of justice based on healing rather than punishment. He is a major proponent of peace circles, which he describes as people sitting in vibrant equality with one another. In the peace circle, everyone’s presence is vital to the whole:
“I don’t know if words can transform the world,” he has written. “I know they can’t bring back a murdered child, but I have a few of them to scatter on the grave of Derrion, the Chicago boy whose brutal slaying two weeks ago stunned the city and the nation:
“Power with, not power over.
“I would ask that we sit with these words for a moment — in his name, in the name of uncountable others — until we feel a click of understanding, until profound possibility slides into place. We can make this a different sort of world, and the simplest, perhaps the only, way to begin is by altering our relationship with power, and with each other.”
Over the course of his career, Koehler has been the recipient of multiple awards for writing and journalism from organizations including the National Newspaper Association, Suburban Newspapers of America, and the Chicago Headline Club. Koehler still resides in Chicago and now writes for the Huffington Post, Common Dreams, OpEd News and TruthOut. He speaks publicly on such topics as election fraud and the nature of peace.
He has been called many things by his readers. His favorite: blatantly relevant.
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