PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


Is Neutrality Ever A Good Thing? by peaceprobe

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”                                                   – Bishop Desmond Tutu 

When I left Viet Nam in October 1967 to work against the war in the U.S. I thought it would be a fairly simply matter of getting the word out that the war was wrong.  No sooner did I start the work in North America than I discovered that some co-workers subscribed to the notion of neutrality, a new concept to me at the time. They insisted that as a person of peace I should propose a way for the various sides in Viet Nam to get along and the person of peace, by definition, stood in the middle and got them to talk long enough to agree on a solution.  I couldn’t understand how someone who respected peace could be neutral when the overwhelming source of the big foot in Viet Nam was US policy.  The prickliness of my responses when confronted with this position were apparent.  Over the years I have learned that the notion of neutrality can be used to avoid taking risks.  I have also learned that in selected situations neutrality has a place.   

History in the Bible points to sacred neutrality, the sanctuary.  According to Scripture persons who fled the law found asylum in the sanctuary where God was nearest.  The tradition continued among Christian churches and was never completely lost even in modern times.   Beginning in fourth century English law, a person could be safe from arrest in the sanctuary.  Out of office royalty may have benefited from these practices more than common folks but we don’t know very much of grass roots history.  In the 1980s, 440 churches in the U.S. provided sanctuary asylum for persons seeking safety from the wars in Central America.  In this ancient practice the neutral sacred place was the safe refuge of last resort.  It worked because of an acknowledgement of the sacred more than because of legislation.  This power and principal of sacred space should not be overlooked in the work of faith based peacemaking.

Switzerland, the home of some of my ancestors is held up among the nations for its neutrality because it does not take sides in war.  This policy has survived through several centuries.  However, Swiss neutrality in war time has not been applied to its economic life.  Swiss neutrality provides asylum for money, and perhaps in only limited ways, for people.  Swiss financial institutions provide safe and secret hiding places to political misfits and opportunists, Nazis, disenfranchised communists, shady capitalists, dictators, and crooks to stash billions of dollars.  The Swiss experience is a vivid example of how the principle of neutrality can be turned into  profit, far removed from the sacred heights of a nobler neutrality that creates space for the victim.

Very early in the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams we were challenged by some casual supporters not to enter selected situations where we could not practice neutrality because, our challengers said, it would undermine our ability to function from a nonpartisan perspective and destroy our good reputation.  I suspect that CPT continues to receive such warnings despite the fact that from the beginning it has deliberately identified itself as standing with victims in situations where the plumb line of justice is violated. 

That kind of simple guideline does invite differences of interpretation and can be used or misused depending upon the convictions and analysis of participants.  Over time we also learned that we may be called upon for help in high tension situations where a degree of neutrality (perhaps more correctly termed independence) was exactly what was needed.  For example, CPT was asked to be present in a special action organized by Sioux people in South Dakota who resisted the take over their land through federal legislation.  

The goal of a team presence was very specific, to help monitor, document and resist vigilante type attacks from the surrounding community and keep watch against pressures from law enforcement agencies.  In this case and others like it, CPT was able to promote the peace because of its independence.  In this situation a neutral participant would not have entered without the consent of political leadership and law enforcement.  CPT did not seek their consent.  The invitation from the Sioux people came because CPT was independent and trusted not to meddle in internal tribal affairs while we worked to create space for grievances to become visible.  

I have come to see that my choosing to be neutral at times may simply reflect more of my own personal needs and fears than a strategy for change.  I have learned to recognize what for me are negative para messages inherent in the language of neutrality.  There are risks in taking a position and personal benefits to being neutral.  Taking a position may lead to trouble, loss of job, respect, all kinds of misunderstanding and even hostility.  Neutrality is safer. Most of us have highly developed ways of not taking sides in controversial matters.  When I feel this kind of neutrality coming on I know it is arising from my weakness. I have learned that the skills of conflict avoidance are deeply rooted within me.   To be fair, sometimes I do not take positions because I just can’t carry one more divisive concern.  

People inclined not to take sides during the war in Viet Nam deepened their orientation towards neutrality, sometimes with the language of impartiality.  By becoming specialists in the processes of mediation, practitioners felt the neutrality of the facilitator was essential in order to reach towards reconciliation between individuals and some groups.   Conflicts could be resolved if people would just talk to each other.   In the context of war, injustice and oppression I felt that neutrality was morally suspect.  Professional conflict resolution people remained more open to both sides.  Occasionally these differences have erupted into disputes with each position marshalling arguments of efficacy, practicality and morality.  Now after all these years and more wars we have generally just gone our separate ways and probably talk to each other too rarely.  

Differences between mediators and activists arose from the need for language to work for peace in very different contexts. Our separate positions arise from a moral or philosophical base and also from practical goals. The mediator works to create a fair framework often between individuals, for example, a difficult divorce or the resolution to staff conflicts. The mediator tries not to force a solution between people because she or he believes that forced solutions won’t last.  A mediator tries not to judge, threaten or leverage the solution in the media or take sides.  By prodding, encouraging and helping to create a safe confidential framework, the mediator believes that a way can be found that works.  

The social activist organizes to make hidden disparities visible. The activist is not primarily focussed on a balanced middle ground solution between individuals.  The activist works with at least two populations one of which has more military or police power, property, money, lawyers and a supporting political establishment. For the activist, neutrality is acceptable only when both sides have equal power and a midpoint compromise is possible. In any other case neutrality is morally unacceptable.  Dante Alighieri author of The Divine Comedy said it succinctly, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”

The activist also understands that the victim lacks social, political and economic power and tries to create the context for a fair solution out of a different set of instruments, instruments that move in the direction of levelling the field so that fair talk can happen.    The instruments of the activist – marches, campaigns, voter registration drives, nonviolent actions, press releases – might be a little ridiculous in some of the settings where mediation is practised.  The mediator practices some of the arts of powerlessness.  He or she only has power that is given from the consent of the disputants.  

A good activist knows that a solution will require negotiations at various points along the way.  Authorities are contacted to put them on notice that grievances exist. Military and police personnel are engaged to seek quick release of people who may have been arrested, clear roads and to provide equal protection for civilians, particularly in war situations.  Public actions are supported.  Religious communities are engaged and invited to join.  The media is invited and work is done to encourage healthy life giving interpretations.  All of this requires negotiation, communication skills, imagination and awareness of when the skills of mediation might be called upon.   

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