Monday, March 07, 2011

Practical Peacemaking

In late summer 2010 as I was walking downtown, I observed a vehicle parked along East Main Street with a large sign in the rear window.  The sign read, “Save America; shoot a Liberal.”  Because at the same time there was an anti-President Obama demonstration going on in front of the Post Office, my first concern was that there was potential for a shoot-out on our streets.  Later I learned that the two were unrelated.  While the demonstrators had come from a national organization to set up shop with their signs and pamphlets for a few hours and then move on, the vehicle appears to belong to someone with local ties.
Over succeeding weeks I have reflected on what response to this very public advocacy of violence against political opponents should be forthcoming from one who aspires to Christian peacemaking.  Some groups that advocate for minority rights teach that one way to defuse expressions of bigotry against a group is to present an individual face and personality.  For example, they observe that it is easier to hate Blacks or Hispanics in general than to show contempt for your Black brother-in-law or your Hispanic co-worker. 
So if I had seen the driver of the car, would I have had the courage to approach and ask, very politely of course, if he or she could please explain how shooting me would help the situation in our country?  Would coming face to face with a liberal neighbor cause the driver to think twice about advocating violence, or would I have simply drawn attention to myself as a possible target?  And in doing so, would I have been a faithful witness to my Christian faith?
Jesus was very clear in teaching his followers that peacemaking was one of their primary tasks.  Peacemakers comprise one of the groups he singled out for blessing in the section of the Sermon on the Mount referred to as the Beatitudes.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  (Matthew 5:9)  As for how to be peacemakers, again Jesus’ instructions are very clear: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  (Luke 6:27b-28) 
The love of which Jesus speaks is not an emotion, but a call to action.  Over the centuries faithful Christians have found many ways to be active peacemakers.  This column highlights just a few of them.
During the civil war in El Salvador active peacemaking took the form of what was termed a “ministry of accompaniment.”  International delegates, many of them impelled by their deep faith, committed their time and energy to being with those who were in danger from the military death squads.  This international presence provided some measure of protection for the human rights advocates and religious and community leaders who were most frequently the targets of assassination.  In some instances, such as the assassination of the four American women religious on December 2, 1980, those who accompanied the endangered Salvadoran poor sacrificed their own lives.
Another example: Originating within the traditional Anabaptist peace churches during the 1980’s in response to a challenging sermon delivered by Ronald J. Sider (Ph.D., Yale), Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry and Public Policy and Director of the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary, the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) are noted for their creative and effective use of non-violent tactics in areas of extreme conflict.  According to the history on their website, “By the end of 1998, when the organization finally reached the goal of a twelve-person Christian Peacemaker Corps, it had set up and staffed violence-reduction projects in Haiti; Washington, DC; Richmond, VA; Hebron, West Bank; Bosnia; and Chiapas, Mexico.”  They currently support projects in Iraq, Colombia, Palestine, the African Great Lakes region, and among the indigenous of the United States and Canada.
While participating in a Peace Pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine in 1998 I was privileged to meet with CPT volunteers in Hebron and to learn more about their work.  Hebron is located in a volatile area where clashes between Israeli and Palestinian youth can rapidly escalate from name-calling through rock throwing to armed conflict.  CPT members, wearing bright red caps and arm bands, patrol the streets and intervene quickly when they note a potential clash.  Having earned the grudging respect of both sides through their use of non-violent action, they are frequently able to separate antagonists and prevent violence.
 It is not necessary to travel far from home in order to be part of a peacemaking effort.  The final group which I will mention is Silent Witness Peacekeepers Alliance, with which I have been volunteering for the past three years.  Their mission is to help the GLBTQ community to have safe and peaceful events.  Silent Witness volunteers are required to complete non-violence training and to adhere to a strict code of conduct while on duty.  No matter what the provocation from anti-gay protesters and street preachers, we are taught not to react or to engage with them.  With our rainbow umbrellas serving as barriers, we welcome and escort Festival participants.
Working closely with Festival organizers, police authorities, and security services, Silent Witness directors help with strategies to avoid confrontations between Festival-goers and protesters.  The goal is zero arrests, and in the six years since Silent Witness began, that goal has been reached for every event at which the group has served.  More than 700 volunteers, most from Central Pennsylvania but some from as far away as North Carolina and Kansas, have been trained in the non-violent principles of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. by Silent Witness leaders.
When I first learned of the work of Silent Witness and was invited to volunteer, I thought to myself, “Well, I’ve stood between Salvadoran campesinos and the military.  A protester with a bull horn can’t be any scarier than a Salvadoran soldier with an AK47.”  So I signed up.  Volunteering with Silent Witness is indeed an excellent way to engage in practical peacemaking.
By no means do I mean to imply that only Christians engage in peacemaking.  Gandhi, one of the premier non-violent leaders of the 20th century, was Hindu.  Buddhists figures such as the Dalai Lama and Joanna Macy demonstrate that peacemaking is central to their practice.  The directors and many of the volunteers with Silent Witness are members of the Unitarian Universalist Association whose actions stem from the deeply held principals of their faith.
As for the driver of the vehicle that I observed, and others who likewise urge violence against political opponents, I shall pray that neither they and their families, nor those they oppose, may fall victim to the violence that they advocate.  And may we all, according to our own faith traditions, seek the things that make for peace.

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