Conviction arising from faith is the home base out of which I have worked for the last 44 years since I went to Viet Nam as a civilian volunteer. My time in Viet Nam as a development worker changed my life. In the context of war where I lost friends, local and foreign, and experienced massive destruction, I was challenged to reconstruct my entire understanding of spiritual life and the work of people of faith in our world. I was pressed into activism and, into a deeper understanding of who God is.
In Viet Nam I saw soldiers being asked to die for a nation or for a politic that they may or may not understand or believe in. And, I asked myself if people like me would have the discipline to organize ourselves, the patience to train ourselves, and the courage to engage ourselves to do the things that make for peace just as soldiers were being asked to risk every day to defeat the enemy. Finally I asked what would be required to develop a culture of peace and peacemaking that might change the entire violent paradigm of conflict and reconciliation that has dominated world affairs for at least 5000 years. This is the question I have worked with for these last 44 years.
For the past two weeks I have been thinking about what I should say about war and poverty. Should I marshal statistics, tell stories or dig deeper to try to identify trends or little slices of what seem like truth along the way. People have called me an activist even though I spring from seven generations of Mennonite pastors and still see myself in that line. The role of the activist organizer is to make the connections of poverty and violence into a coherent pathway that people can understand and do something about. Long after I decided to work to end the Viet Nam war and then to continue working on the problem of war as my life’s work I discovered that I was part of a great religious and activist tradition reaching back through the prophets, Jesus, St Francis and into the various social and labor movements.
These friends and teachers, now long gone at least in the template of time as we understand it have continued to cheer me on in the work, Tommy Douglas, Dorothy Day, Louis Riel, Eugene Debs, Jane Adams, Rosa Parks, Charles Finney to name but a few of the great cloud of witness to the victories, the crushing defeats and the persistence that has inspired and informed me in this work. The distinguishing characteristic of every one of these witnesses is that they were part of a group that trained, supported each other, and disciplined themselves with years of practice for a life that points the way to justice and thereby pushed us all forward. Another thread that has connected these activists and me has been their search to find a safe place in their hearts and mine where the divine spirit had space, where transcendent meaning for all of the universe was at home among the stress, the confusion and the impossible odds.
As I was prepared to join you at the Micah Call Conference I had a dream one night last week. In the dream I was in Cambodia as part of a delegation to evaluate a development project. The Cambodia of the dream was not like the one I visited in 1963, lush with fruit, gardens, forests and rice fields. No! In my dream as far as I could see there was hardly a tree. Far in the distance I could see Angkor Wat, a 12th century wonder of the world built largely with forced labor as an act of worship by Brahman and Buddhist imperial rulers. But, in my dream Angkor Wat showed many signs of damage from 20th century warfare. Looking to the Southwest in my dream I saw what was left of the modern day Cambodian monarchy’s palaces also heavily damaged by war. Much of the once heavily populated countryside in the area where I was to evaluate a development project was depopulated due to bombs and genocide. Shrubs and grass had now taken over where once lush green rice paddies had fed a population for centuries. I could see massive craters where bombs had exploded and stagnant water collected to breed mosquitoes and other predators. Our small delegation began to search for the development project. For a time we thought we had come to the wrong country, or at least the wrong place in Cambodia.
But we were stuck because we had no transportation. I had no way out. In the medium distance I saw the shell of an old partially destroyed concrete building. Drab, naked pillars, some pock marked with bullet holes told its story.. It could have been the product of some great project of one of the political/development experiments that overcame Cambodia in the last 50 years, French imperialism, Prince Sihanouk (the last Cambodian royalty who ruled) after independence, Lon Nol a project of American neo colonialism, Pol Pot and fundamentalist utopian communism, Vietnamese liberation, or back to “normal” democracy of today. Our small delegation made its way to the massive dilapidated concrete structure where we found the office of the small development project that was helping local people plant vegetables. I felt confused about this part of the dream because I don’t know a lot about vegetables except that it is good to eat them. The project managers seemed a little nervous about our visit knowing if our delegation did not give them a good report, outside support for the project would be terminated.
This dream was given to me for all of us here. Each of us will see different threads in the dream that make us embarrassed, angry, guilty, hopeless. The dream reminds us of the power that wealth, ideology (theology) has over the survival of whole civilizations. Will the next century be any better for Cambodia, for all of us? Or is the present tiny development project just a recess while the great forces conspire to put forward another experiment of “development through the barrel of a gun”? Can humanity and the earth survive this period through which we are passing? Is there a good thing to do? Now that is a very practical and spiritual question? Is there hope and a pathway to live out the hope? Here the interconnection of spirit and action is not just a luxury it’s a matter of life and no life.
During my trips to Iraq in the first two years following the American led occupation I often met soldiers and their commanders. Many of them sincerely wanted to do good. We needed to be in touch with them to keep human rights matters in front of their minds. Often they would say to us, “We are just here to help the Iraqis help themselves. And we will get out when our job is done.” My eyes would glaze over when I heard those lines, the same words I heard in Viet Nam and elsewhere around the world. It didn’t work very well there and it doesn’t seem to work in Iraq. I remained friendly to the soldiers while masking my deeply felt ambivalence about the presuppositions present in their sincere but innocent statements.
But we are not here today to blame the military and its political/industrial support structures for the smart bombs and weapons they introduce in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military is part of us. We pay for it with our tax dollars. They make visible who we are, our addictions to consulting, advising and schemes that make things come out right. They remind us how hard it is to listen to people, especially poor people, to communicate heart to heart and also remind us to carry our projects and schemes lightly with moist convictions that are deeply informed by local people. We really like to use the language of empowerment which our politicians and economist teach us. And we sort of believe that “If you give a person a fish they can eat for a day but if you teach a person to fish that they can eat for a lifetime.” We like to believe that the reason First Nations people have such a hard life is that they don’t know how to do anything but fish and scrounge in the forest for food and that the government programs are lousy. Sometimes they are lousy. But those government programs are us too. They express our convictions about fishing and forests and food and the accumulation of wealth.
Poverty and war!!! In Colombia where I visited our group often worked with villages along the Opon River. The villagers had become refugees because several competing underground and national armies wanted to control their area and by extension access to a lucrative gas pipeline. The gas waited to be stolen to support someone’s revolutionary program, paramilitary mob or military. By showing up there in canoes – foreigners and Colombians together – on a regular basis we have been able to help create a bit of security so that most of the people came back to their villages but not without the price of assassinations.
Now these folks did not need to learn to read, to cook, to fish, to plant vegetables or to engage in micro business enterprises. They were not University graduates but by and large the Opon people could do all of these things probably as good as or better than University graduates. What they really needed was for armed groups, official and unofficial, to get off their backs for good. Last week there was an engagement between the Colombian armed forces and FMLN, one of two revolutionary armies in that area. The fire fight could be heard by the Opon villagers and several soldiers were killed. This is very bad news for the Opon villages and there is more to come. The soldiers who did the fighting last week earn about $200 per month and a cell phone, about the same as an elementary teacher.
In parts of the world like Iraq security contractors, modern day mercenaries are known to earn upward to $1000 per day. You do the math to figure out other things that could be done in the Opon villages if the money went to the people and not to war. If you were an undereducated villager and soldiering was offered to you at $200 dollars per month and your other choice was unemployment with a dismal landless future what would you do even if your friends and family didn’t like the idea of you being a soldier. And if you are a former soldier trained in the ways of weapons it is equally difficult for you to turn down generous Pentagon incentives to join the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Colombia many warriors have cell phones and we learned in our work that we could contact them for dialogue. The soldiers believe that if their group could win they would bring in real development and the people will be happy. They believe that after the final battle the guy at the top will be toppled, peace will prevail and the road to the good life is open. Some form of this is present with all the factions. Another form of this is present in most of us too.
Come to think of it, their language is not a whole lot different than the publicity around Canadian Forces in Afghanistan who don’t even presume to wait until the last battle is won. They are there to bring security and development at the same time. They believe it. Many Canadians believe that you can do appropriate and real development with a rifle in one hand and paint, a hammer, and vegetable seeds in the other hand. Maybe they can. But, I would like to remind you that in Afghanistan no one from the outside has had a lot of success making things come out their way since Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C.
In modern times the British and Soviets both were rebuked by Afghan forces. After 9/11 Al Queda was ecstatic because the Americans and their supporters were now coming to Afghanistan and this would provide another opportunity for them to spread multinational Islamic jihad. I notice that things aren’t going real well for Canadian Forces. Maybe it is time to resurrect and improve upon Canada’s four decades of historic peacekeeping in the world. If Canadian development and poverty workers want to set a real identifiable goal for the next ten years how about one top priority – the complete elimination of the Canadian Armed Forces as a fighting force and its transformation into an unarmed premier peacekeeking and peacemaking body to be called upon by the nations of the world. I can think of no single act that would be more encouraging to millions of your admirers in the many nations south of your border.
One of the things we did in refugee communities and poor areas of Viet Nam when I was there was distribute appropriate vegetable seeds and cuttings. In my work with hamlet schools sometimes I took those seeds along to give to people, always hoping of course that they wouldn’t ask me too many technical questions that I could not answer because I was a sociology graduate before attending seminary. Over time some of our volunteers learned that a specific type of sweet potatoes did very well in Viet Nam, so when we had them we often took a pile of sweet potato cuttings into the countryside. Even I could understand the technical details of sweet potatoes. Just plant the cuttings and give them a little water once in a while. Hallelujah, in a few months there will be big healthy tasty sweet potatoes. That worked for a while but of course as the war expanded people were forced off the land and the sweet potatoes rotted in the soil.
As the war progressed we got more involved with human rights. One of our projects was to try to bring the tiger cages to the attention of the world. The tiger cages were part of a special prison on an island off the South Vietnamese coast in the South China sea. The cages were at ground level and people were thrown into the pits below, some for months at a time. Sometimes, to overcome the smell, lime was thrown on the prisoners. On several occasions we tried to take congressional people or journalists to see the tiger cages. We could gain access to the prison but never to the tiger cage area until one time several congresspersons agreed to accompany one of my colleagues who once did a lot of work with sweet potatoes.
At one point in the carefully crafted tour over manicured prison facilities the visitors came upon a small sweet potato patch. My friend initiated a conversation with the prison officials about sweet potatoes and the guards behind the hidden door got curious and wanted to meet this foreigner who actually spoke Vietnamese and was interested in sweet potatoes. Suddenly the secret and hidden door to the tiger cages was flung open, and photographers, congresspersons and volunteers poured into the tiger cage area to the consternation of the prison warden. Pictures of that encounter that spread around the world helped end the war. But remember it was the humble sweet potato that opened the door.
Our goals for development which include the transfer of resources to poverty areas carry hope, when and if they do not come out of the barrel of a gun. Militarism, gangs and warlords are pushing us in the opposite direction. If we are going to stop terrorism we need to stop being terrorists.
In the dream that I referred to earlier we noticed that the project was planting vegetables in that barren war ravaged land of Cambodia. In the dream the wars were now over. The B-52s had gone home at least for now and their role in future wars was gradually subsumed by smart bombs and missiles. Only the carnaged concrete buildings remained with the tiny plots of vegetables. But are the tiny plots of vegetables enough to pronounce the development project as a success. One of those vegetables was probably sweet potatoes, the same species that opened the prison doors of the tiger cages so that the world including the prisoners could breath. In the dream I felt trapped. There was no place to seal myself off from the devastation that lingered. Neither the twin towers nor the gated communities of advanced capitalism are secure. So how am I going to evaluate this development project? What is success? A few plants have survived the battle. People, albeit with wounds have survived. At some level my dream engine wanted to find a way out of this evaluation project. But there was no way out. I felt like the Prophet Ezekiel when he was placed in the valley of dry bones (ch 37) – “Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost. We are clean cut off.” And then the dream engine talked to me, and said, out of the dry bones, the bomb craters and the weeping cement, breath will enter and there will be life. It said this earth and its people shall live again and together you will complete the project.
The dream did not explicitly present several other effects of war, psychological dysfunction (PTSD) and its cousin the destruction of culture and community. Many of us may have failed to notice that the process of war-making in the Cambodias of this world brings in its wake spiritual nihilism or absolutism, and replaces wisdom with one of the many forms of Fundamentalism. My dream occurred long after the real battles in Cambodia and did not explicitly draw my attention to criminals, opportunism and corruption that reach new and disgusting depths of demented legal and illegal behavior. There is not a village in the Cambodias of our world that do not have what you might call multiple monographs of stories and patterns that tell about loss of family and neighbor, loss of property and possessions loss of respect and human dignity.
Among us here today are future activists, scholars, prayer warriors, record keepers, artists, and money people. We are all needed in this work. Have we made any progress at all in the last century? We are invited to look behind the record of humanity’s most violent century. Massive social change has happened nonviolently. From India to Eastern Europe, from democratic movements in China to freedom walks in the USA, from little known villages in Afghanistan (where I visited in 2001 and listened to village stories) to farmers and fisherfolks in Colombia people have discovered the power of nonviolent action. This power is deeply rooted in the gospel. These signs of hope never come without imperfection because we are human. A few of us may be learning to listen and read these signs of the times. Some of us are overcoming our guilt, hopelessness and individualism. The air might be clearing in this new century as we grow one step at a time, acting, reflecting, leaning, stumbling, practicing, training, then moving forward again. The promise of that old South African freedom song now adopted by peace movement is with us, “We shall not give up the fight we have only started. We have only started. We have only started. Together we’ll have victory. We have only started.”
Why do I close on this note of hope. I have led many delegations to desperately poor and violence infested areas. In some places there is silence because of fear, fear that visitors like me might be connected to some military or security program like the CIA. But in most places, the startling impression is people engaged together to move forward. When I ask delegates to evaluate their experience often the first word to come from their mouths is – hope. Often they say I came to learn, but I leave with hope. Hope comes when people do something concrete and practical about their situation, when they work together, when they train themselves for the next step, when they pray together and then when they act, reaching a bit beyond the zone of comfort. Hope is the renewable fuel that gives us power to organize and reach beyond the boundaries of past centuries and paradigms. Hope is the fuel that gives us courage to build alliances with people we once saw as enemies or war victims but with whom we now can become partners. We are invited to be part of this great global 21st century experiment in hope. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to the earth. We owe to humanity. And we offer it to God. Amen