In the early 1990s I joined with a group of six people who went to Miami, Florida where Haitian boat people, refugees from the military regime in Haiti were being held by U. S. officials in federal detention facilities. Many had fled life threatening circumstances in Haiti only to be detained by the U. S. Coast Guard when their overloaded ships arrived at the U.S. shores. The federal authorities denied our group entrance to the detention facility to speak with the Haitian refugees. Our goal was to give greater visibility to the refugees so that a just and humane solution could be reached that would allow them to be free people.
Finally after two days of quiet vigils and building rapport with officials, we decided to push the envelope a little further using color, air and humor. We purchased several bottles of bubbles usually designed for children’s play. The next day at our vigil we alerted supporters and the press that we would be blowing bubbles into the prison facilities with sacred messages of freedom for Haitian boat people. When we arrived to carry out our action the guards took up their normal positions. We prayed, sang one song and then began blowing bubbles towards the prison facility. Fortunately a slight breeze carried some of our bubbles all the way to the prison facilities. Of course, the guards were made curious by our bubble blowing and wanted to know immediately what this was about.
We explained that since we were prohibited from entering the facility we decided to blow these bubbles towards the facility. We explained further that these were not just normal bubbles, that they had power and were carrying special messages for the freedom and release of Haitians held inside. We warned the guards that since these were blessed it would be better for them not to try to touch or destroy the bubbles, rather to allow them to reach their natural and intended destination. The guards cooperated and their behavior suggested that we had found a thoughtful way to carry our message. Others who came and went were curious and we explained the meaning of the bubbles through our leaflet and conversations.
The light hearted yet serious touch of this action helped to create something we might call, space for unexpected outcomes. Word of the bubbles spread. Unknown to us another delegation was also at the prison attempting to interview Haitian detainees for a national organization of lawyers as part of a major human rights report. The group contacted us immediately when they saw the bubbles and even joined in the action although they may not have been naturally familiar with our style of prayer vigils. They had received permission to visit the prison but none of them spoke Creole, the Haitian language. One of our group was fluent and that person was immediately certified to join the lawyers on the following day for interviews. Our two groups agreed to coordinate our work. The innocence of children’s bubbles lowered the level of threat on all sides and created space for several days of interviews and vigils. Both were needed in the long struggle to provide a pathway towards normalization and hope in Haiti and to bring about greater safety for refugees. No one would consider the action a final answer, however it did bring about a context for change to happen.
Creating space in peacemaking is the work of fashioning a place in time where sights, sounds, feelings, hearings, words or art are presented within the context of a nonviolent perspective. This space can be characterized as having both external and internal dimensions. The external space reaches across rigid boundaries of governments and security institutions. The internal space in the actors on all sides invites a spirit of flexibility and openness. When this happens in a non judgmental spirit, the hardened lines of thinking are freer to reach for new possibilities. Something new can be born. The newness also requires a confidence for flexibility to innovate and an abandonment of ritualized and hardened positions on all sides. In the absence of this safe zone, a new reality is not possible, and positions harden. So for example, the judgements of Chiefs of States like Saddam Hussein and George Bush prevented each of them from considering other options than intransigence and war. Inflexible thinking insists that honor and respect for the nation is sustained only by resorting to guns, bombs and killing.
Creative space is not the product of weakness, capitulation or fear. It does not arise out of hardness, stubbornness, narrow, or cramped thinking. Because this place combines external and internal dimensions it can be sensed in the atmosphere through body language, as well as words, or expressions of hospitality. Creative space is recognized as safe for all participants. People who are in jail always have the option of sustaining the flexibility and freedom of their internal space. History documents the treasured stories of their perseverance and even joy in well known personalities like Nelson Mandela or long forgotten persons who endured jail in struggles for religious freedoms.
Could something have been done before the outbreak of the Iraq war to create a place where all participants might have recognized the logic of a less violent way? Problems, particularly conflicts, are rarely solved at the level at which they are created. A solution requires a shift of mind set sometimes sanctioned by elders, wise people, or even in modern parlance, facilitators and peacemakers. New space for leading actors gives safety to forsake their ritualized demands, “you must change”, a refrain that normally pushes people to dig in.
The new place that we are looking for invites access to all the possibilities of the five senses. In some cases a well thought out clearly articulated, holistic position can move things along. In other cases, surprise or artistic expression sets the stage for the universal imagination to show itself. The deliberate statement of moral sensitivity, and rootedness in faith can awaken interest because of the reference to transcendence and universal hopes for humankind. None of these actual words were used in the discussions with the guards in Miami, however the attitudes they imply helped us create.
When peacemaker teams went to Colombia to join with Colombians to find a way for refugee villagers to return to their land, the imbalance of forces between four different armed groups and the refugees or peacemaker teams was impossibly weighted toward the people with guns. By preaching or yelling or leafleting at any of the armed groups we would have accomplished little and may have increased the danger for everyone. However the sight of one or two unarmed peacemaker canoes on the Opon River, the only means of travel to and from the village sites helped keep armed groups at a distance. Some of the assassinations continued further up river and the violence was not completely stopped. Gas continued to be stolen from nearby government pipelines by armed actors. But a context for new thinking was created. The refugees returned.
Before the war broke out in Iraq, our peacemaker team tried to imagine how an action like a boat trip down the Tigrés River loaded with olive oil might help send the world and the two contending nations lubrication, energy, and firm resolve to awaken the interior lights of George Bush and Saddam Hussein. A similar such boat on the Mississippi River loaded with canola oil may have extended the rippling space for life in the other country. But the problem was not only in George Bush or Saddam Hussein the problem was in us too. We failed to find a mode or symbol for creation We may have been too timid, too lacking in imagination, too fearful of failing and looking dumb. We may have come too late to the place of conflict so that without the experience and credibility, we lacked the authority to kindle on the imagination of Iraqis and peacemakers from the outside.
The public ministries of great teachers often begin in villages, market towns and with marginalized populations. When Jesus entered a village he often became part of an event where new thinking about God and human beings became possible. He used a healing, a marriage celebration, or even an upside down imitation of politicians as in his entry into Jerusalem on a peasant’s donkey. These well timed events were easily understood by ordinary people. Some responded enthusiastically and others were outraged. The space that was opened inherently shook up or rearranged long held convictions, even to the point of challenging whole systems. Some were inclined to dig in. But for many, it was a space that pointed to the sacred knowing that leads to peace.
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