06 November 2000

Thoughts on Peacemaking

The Necessity of Non-Violence

contributed by Robert Franklin

But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the almighty
We forward in this generation
All I ever had, is songs of freedom
Won't you help to sing, these songs of freedom
Cause all I ever had, redemption songs
Redemption songs
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look
Some say it's just a part of it
We've got to fulfill the book
Won't you help to sing, these songs of freedom
Cause all I ever had, redemption songs
Redemption songs, redemption songs"
- Bob Marley, Redemption Song
Somewhere between starting a new book for an anthropology class and Goodbye Earl by the Dixie Chicks, I was struck by the powerful feeling that violence is inescapable. The book I was reading is entitled: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (Piccador, 1998). Striking as the title seems, what struck me more was the following paragraph:
"We went on through the first room and out the far side. There was another room and another and another and another. They were full of bodies, and more bodies were scattered in the grass, and they were stray skulls in the grass, which was thick and wonderfully green. Standing outside, I heard a crunch. The old Canadian colonel stumbled in front of me, and I saw, though he did not notice, that his foot had rolled on a skull and broken it. For the first time at Nyarubuye my feelings focused, and what I felt was a small but keen anger at this man. Then I heard another crunch, and felt a vibration underfoot. I had stepped on one, too." (p.20)
Gourevich describes the aftermath of a massacre, one of many in a planned genocide perpetrated by the Hutus against the Tutsis in Rwanda. Upon flying into this village in Rwanda, Gourevitch is exposed to the aftermath of death — of murder, of brutality, of ... the product of human action.
Initially I wasn't sure why the paragraph I quoted struck me, why it got me thinking. Then it hit me - Gourevich unconsciously stepped on a human skull too. He had become angry with the Canadian colonel for accidentally desiccated a kind of sacred space, a grotesque and macabre combination of graveyard and slaughterhouse. Then, Gourevich found himself committing the same transgression - desecrating the remains of the dead.

Twenty-seven pages into We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families, I had to put it down and stop for a while since it had become too hard for me to read. It made me feel sick to my stomach. Why? The incident in Rwanda is nonunique. By now, with our history, you'd think I would be fairly nonplused by massacres. After all, how many have there been in the twentieth century alone? How much exposure have we, as a culture, and as individuals, had to this kind of violence? For starters, there was the Holocaust during World War II.

Art Spiegelman brings Auschwitz tortures to life in Maus:
"But after a few weeks I got too sick even to eat ... Typhus! I got very hot fever and I couldn't sleep. Typhus! Every night people died of this. At night I had to go to the toilet down. It was always full, the whole corridor, with the dead people piled there. You couldn't go through... You had to go on their heads, and this was terrible, because it was so slippery, the skin, you thought you are falling, and this was every night. So now I had Typhus, and I had to go to the toilet down, and I said, 'Now it's my time. Now I will be lying like this ones and somebody will step on me!'"
If Spiegelman's account doesn't move you, there's always Eli Wiesel's Night or perhaps Speilberg's Schindler's List.

Yet it goes on. The Killing Fields of Asia. The Scorched Earth Campaign in El Salvador. But this is nothing new, considering our blood littered history. Cortés and the conquistadors. The Spanish Inquisition. The Crusades. Violence seems to be the brutal and inescapable reality.

Considering the intrinsic nature of violence in our world overwhelms me. In our culture, we constantly immerse ourselves in violence. We entertain ourselves with violence: Our movies - Full Metal Jacket, Braveheart, The Godfather, to name a few (I have intentionally listed movies I count among my favorites); Our television; And our high culture, even the Immortal Bard - are infused with violence. One of my favorite works of western literature, Hamlet, has, at it's base, an act of violence. Even our children's toys. Thinking about it, almost all of my toys as a boy involved violence in some way shape or form, from the obvious G.I. Joe to my Legos. Even chess is, at the most basic level, a war game.

At this point all the pop culture sermons about the inculturation of violence are knocking around inside of my head. And I've decided to ignore them. Let me explain.

I am a pacifist.

I have chosen to live my life without intentionally committing an act of violence against another human being. This however, becomes something of a pragmatic and philosophical problem for me. As an American who is physically ineligible for police and military service (necessary violence?) and who does not own a gun — the odds of me killing someone intentionally are pretty slim. Besides, if worse comes to worse, I have no qualms about turning tale and running. Yet it's relatively easy for me to commit an act of violence against someone unintentionally or indirectly. I can easily do physical or psychological harm to someone I've never met by buying clothing made in a sweat shop and thus perpetuating the exploitation of an oppressed group of fifteen year old girls. I can say something in jest that does psychological harm to someone around me. I can ignore the cry of someone for help and commit an indirect act of violence by allowing violence to happen.

It seems violence is inescapable. Unless I choose to make all my own cloths from material I wove myself, never say a wrong word, and run to the aid of anyone who might remotely stand the risk of being in physical danger, I can't escape violence. And if I managed to accomplish all of those things, I'd be a mute Martha Stewart meets Ghandi meets Superman. That's not something I would choose to be, though I wouldn't mind being a little more like Ghandi.

I am therefore left with the inescapable, so what now?

Micah 6:8 says, "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

As with most things scriptural, the interpretation of this passage is up for grabs. I feel comfortable in saying four people I hold in the highest regard, all Saints in their own right, would each say something different about the passage. Roman Catholic Arch-Bishop Oscar Romero demonstrated his as he turned against the oppressive structure he had his origins in, and eventually was martyred for his (our) cause. Episcopal Arch-Bishop Desmond Tutu demanded justice on a global level for his (our) people. Mother Theresa lived her interpretation in the streets of Calcutta. St. Benedict had an intense personal understanding of humility.

I have chosen those four because each represents a different aspect of Micah 6:8 for me. Archbishop Romero and Archbishop Tutu demonstrated what it was to do justice. I chose them because they did not exhibit justice as most Americans today think of it. Their justice was not one in which individuals received due punishment or reward for their actions. On the most basic level, if we all got what we really deserved, based on our individual sins, we'd be in a lot of trouble. Romero and Tutu had a concept of peace making justice. Instead of demanding the blood of those who oppressed them, they demanded compassion and equity for everyone. Most importantly, they put themselves on the line for justice. Tutu marched countless times in protests and spoke out directly and clearly against the oppressive power of Apartheid. Romero celebrated the Eucharist with peasants after being stripped and humiliated by soldiers and was eventually martyred for his pursuit of justice.

Mother Theresa understood, on a level much deeper than I ever may, what it was to love kindness. She gave intense and personal care to the sick and dying that no one else would touch. If picking up a disease infested, maggot ridden, starving, smelly, dying beggar out of shit strewn sewers doesn't show what it means to love kindness, nothing does.

Benedict knew what humility meant. The first word of his Rule is "Listen." The Rule of Benedict teaches us to listen to others, and to defer to others without letting go of who we are and our own needs. We are taught balance and inner peace. These are the things we need for humility.

Yet these are not the only valid interpretations of Micah 6:8. Each of us must come to terms with our own world views. Each individual must come to terms with what being human means. Each of us must come to terms with what it means to cope with violence in our world.

I offer a few caveats though. It is not possible to shut ourselves off from the world. Just because something involves violence does not mean it looses its value. Exempla gratia, the movies I listed earlier. They all have tremendous value as cinema and art. As for Hamlet, anybody who tries to convince me that because it involves violence it has no value might as well take up arguing with brick walls. Violence is indeed a part of our culture, yet we are indeed called to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.

Sometimes, violence is inescapable for the oppressed. What options do the victims of a genocide campaign have but to try to defend themselves lest their race be wiped off the face of the earth? Can we say, in all fairness, that the Hitler should have been fought with only non-violent means?
Realistically, there is no way we will ever be rid of violence as long as humans run the world. Does pacifism then become an exercise in futility?

Not in the least.

Pacifism and peacemaking are no more futile in the dealing with violence than medicine is in fighting disease and death. Everyone will inevitably get sick and die. This does not make medicine useless or invaluable. Medical science keeps us healthy and improves our quality of life, it helps to advance us and to preserve us. Medicine makes whole what was broken. Peacemaking and pacifism do no less.

Those that choose to respond to violence with peace, with justice, mercy, kindness, and listening, are the brokers of healing in a world ridden with violence. When somebody has lost everything - family, home, land, worldly possessions, faith, and identity, the only thing left is a story that nobody can take away. A little over a year ago I got to spend a considerable amount of time with six massacre survivors from El Salvador. These folks experienced a whole sale exodus from their home to another country, across the mountains and back again. What they had to give were their stories. And the telling of these stories was a healing experience for them. The act of telling the story is an act of peacemaking.

Peacemakers are the recipients and the tellers of these stories. Yet to receive a story is not the end. There is a call to act on the story. Ask Desmond, Oscar, or Theresa.

It is painfully clear that peace does not immediately come from these stories; look to Northern Ireland. But they give us a starting point. Once we come to grips with the stories, we have a road map of sorts to follow. We know where the injury is and where the healing begins.

Gourevitch and Speigleman gave us stories. This is the way peace is made, by the telling of stories and by listening. How does this solve my pacifist dilemma? I accept that violence is a part of my world and de facto a part of my life. I choose to not directly perpetrate violence against others. I choose to avoid perpetrating indirect violence against others when it is in my power to do so. I choose to listen. I choose to act on what I hear. I choose to share what I hear with the masses, speaking truth to power. I choose to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God.

Pax domini semper tecum sit.

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