PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Courage by peaceprobe

I am preparing for a trip where I will be speaking about peacemaking.  One of the statements that I will hear from some the people I meet, possibly in public discussion but more likely in personal encounter is, “What you have done is worthy but I do not have that kind of courage.”  That kind of statement hints at my own failure to touch the deeper resources of moral power resident in every one of us.  In some cases I suspect these words to be one way for people to distance themselves from an invitation to this way of life.  But, I know that within people’s hearts there is a dialogue in motion, calling, inviting them, to deeper living out of core commitments.  


Most of us who do this work are pretty normal people.  Courage is not the unique and isolated domain of active peacemakers.  Whistle blowers risk everything to tell of ethical indiscretion in the implementation of public policy.  This has been sufficiently recognized as a value for society that in some countries there is even legislative protection for whistle blowers.  Professionals in the helping professions and in industry often face walls of ethical dilemmas.   Occasionally they speak out at great risk.  Soldiers are honoured for acts of daring to save lives of fellow soldiers. However when their daring reaches beyond the battlefield to pointing to the system’s failures, they open themselves to disciplinary action or isolation.   

In the wake of public action and truth telling, people are occasionally recognized, at least briefly, as heroes, however these same people rarely testify to setting out to anything remotely close to heroic action.  They were just being what the pattern of their lives had prepared them to do.   This energy of moral compass for courage comes from somewhere deep within us.   Often it is expressed after a period of semi conscious internal debate.  “It just happened because it seemed right”, said one colleague who single handedly walked into a nest of angry soldiers and got them to stop blocking a road for hundreds of cars and buses.  Often acts of enormous consequence come at unexpected times from unexpected sources.

This past week two career peace workers Fr. Louie Vitale, O.F.M. and Fr. Steve Kelly, S.J. were sentenced  to five months in federal prison for nonviolent action Ft. Huachuca, Arizona, a facility where Army training in torture techniques is carried out.  The priests’ dramatic action draws attention to the problem, but it is routine in the work of peacemaking.  Hidden in the transcript of the trial testimony were the words of another person who gave fresh meaning to the word “courage”. Major General Antonio M. Tacuba  served in Iraq as primary author of the scathing report on torture at Abu Ghraib prison which led to an international discussion about human rights.  Before the priest’s trial began, General Tacuba called the soon to be convicted activists and said,  “history will honour your actions.” What gave General Tacuba courage to write his report which he must have known would decimate any future advancement or throw doubts on his honour?  Was it his Filipino family roots?   Was it his religious foundation?  

I am somewhat familiar with Abu Ghraib story because as it unfolded in 2004 I worked with our peacemaker team in Baghdad. Together we decided to make our focus the stories of house raid victims and systemic disregard for detainees.  We learned of this in very non-heroic but often emotionally loaded conversations with families of victims.   As we discovered patterns of abuse and systemic inconsiderate treatment of detainees, we were able to identify trends and write our findings.  We took those materials to the interim authorities, American officers including senior commanders.  

In my mind at the time I hoped that this work would lead to a process of creating informed discussion that eventually might create space for the people of courage lurking within the US Army to show the moral fibre that had long been planted in their lives.  That courage began to appear much sooner than I expected.  A soldier made available pictures of torture that went around the world.  Other soldiers spoke out.  Finally General Tacuba’s report was released and the world was plunged into a fresh conversation about human rights that continues until the present.  We knew that our word alone was not enough to get that conversation going.  

For Christians, the New Testament book of Ephesians reflects how the Bible used military imagery (Eph. 6 10-17), so familiar in its founding period, to remind us who follow to nurture the stuff of courage.  Long before I eased my way into the work of peacemaking I was curious about the courage of people of faith.  As a child I read the stories of martyrs in a 16th century compilation, The Martyrs Mirror which at the time of its writing was thought to be the history of all Christian martyrs.  “What gave people the courage to face unspeakable difficulties”,  I asked time and time again.  

A recent book, Moral Courage, by Rushworth M. Kidder helped me summarize some of my disconnected hunches and observations to describe people of courage.  Kidder identifies five themes in a life of courage, (1 Greater confidence in principles than in personalities, (2. High tolerance for ambiguity, exposure and personal loss, (3. Acceptance of deferred gratification and simple rewards, (4. Independence of thought, and (5. Formidable persistence and determination.  This is not a list that any of us will check off when faced with decisions that may change our life forever, but it does give hints on how we might structure our families, educational institutions, organizations and churches to awaken the best in us for the moment of decision.  

This reflection is not intended to shout at us to start running towards the next crisis of conscience in our world.  No!  Courage is the stuff within that becomes available, some would say, from the Spirit when the table has been prepared.  Real courage is not the stuff of ego.  The words, the actions, or what is demanded will be given in the moment of testing.  Courage does not exist without risk or new life.  Expressions of courage eventually give everyone new hope, and possibly vision.  Real courageous acts speak to and lighten the burden of all of humankind.


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