PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


Pakistan: The Politics of Blasphemy by peaceprobe
August 9, 2009, 7:59 pm
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Blaming the Victim, Islam | Tags: ,
Pakistan: The Politics of Blasphemy
This past week seven Christians were burnt alive in the Gojra District of Punjab the most populated province in Pakistan.  The rioters alleged that the Koran had been defiled by Christians.  That is blasphemy.  The Punjab government, now ruled by the Muslim League and home to several militant Islamic groups, delayed the launching of an investigation.  A day earlier 70 homes of Christians were burned.  Gojra is a city of 150,000 and headquarters of the Anglican Church of Pakistan.
As a child I was aware of Christian teachings in Luke 12:10 where blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is described as unforgivable.  Like many other children I worried that I might have said something, done something or carried an attitude that might doom me forever.  Finally I summoned the courage to ask a Sunday school teacher what the verse meant and was told that I should not worry about it. I took some comfort but continued to worry secretly about some of my bad words and thoughts.
My comfort level did not increase when I read, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain”. (Exodus 20:7 KJV) And still more frightening for me was the phrase from Leviticus 4:16 where I read that blasphemy is a capital crime and that those who speak blasphemy “shall surely be put to death”.  To be honest I wasn’t sure what the word blasphemy meant.  Maybe my teachers didn’t know either.
In Islam, strict blasphemy is any act of speaking ill of the Prophet Mohammed or any other prophet identified in the Koran, saying that Jesus Christ is the son of God, or speaking disrespectfully of the one God.  The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights calls for everyone to enjoy freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In 1948 when this was adopted most nations did not feel a need to protect God, religious leaders, or activists from blasphemy.  Today militant religious movements – minority though they may be – have reinvented more primitive and literal applications of teachings regarding blasphemy.
In Pakistan the current blasphemy laws, the strictest in the Muslim world, provide penalties including death or fines for persons.  Professional people, Muslims and non Muslims, have been subjects of prosecution, vigilantism or riots.  Americans deserve to be reminded – perhaps some of us never knew – that these severe measures, Articles 295 B and C were put in place during a period of constitutional reform instituted under General Ziaul Haq who came to power through a military coup. General Ziaul Haq, perhaps the most conservative Muslim ever to rule Pakistan enjoyed a warm relationship with the government of Ronald Reagan.  Their two militaries and intelligence services cooperated intensively in the fight to chase the Soviets from Afghanistan.  This was also the period when the groundwork was laid for the Taliban movement.
Until General Haq’s period in the 1980s Pakistan included people from minority religions in its senior leadership.  This pattern has returned only recently.  In 2007 a Hindu was appointed Chief Justice of Pakistan and last year a Christian was appointed to the High Court.
In a show of strength by the local Gojra Christian community, the families refused to bury the coffins immediately but instead placed them on the city’s railroad track to block trains. Their courageous act was a protest against the police who had not taken steps to initiate an investigation.  Sitting with the Christians beside the coffins in his black suit was Federal Minister of Minority Affairs, Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian.
Another bold move was organized by Civil Junction, an Islamabad based safe gathering place and coffee shop which provided valued support for my recent trip to Pakistan.  On August 4th they held a candle vigil for the victims of Gojra as a first step towards condemning the act and the laws which instigate and endorse such acts. The event was telecast live on Pakistani TV, and running coverage went out over radio.  Bigger events are being organized.
After the Gojra killings there was a strong popular and federal government burst of condemnation. The Roman Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace called the incident shocking and said, “There seems to be a growing consensus that society at large must fight this abuse of religion.” Muslim groups also spoke out.
These acts of public protest show that Christians and Muslims are working together in a campaign to put an end to blasphemy laws instituted in the mid 1980s. They also push for firm government prosecution when mob acts and terror is directed against any minority religion.  About 5% of Pakistan’s 170 million people is made up of minority Sikhs, Buddhist, Hindus, Christians and others.  The Ahmadiyya, a minority Muslim group that believes that the Messiah or Muslim Mahdi returned symbolically in the form of its 18th century founder, are considered heretical by some Muslims and they are often treated with prejudice like those from non Muslim faiths.
The attack on Christians was probably carried out by one of many non Taliban militant groups in Pakistan.  Christians who are often from the less fortunate classes are frequently charged by militant groups to have ties with Americans although I found little evidence for that when I travelled in Pakistan.  The strong public condemnation and expressions of compassion from the broad Pakistani population is a reminder for all of us that like the US people’s response to the bombing in Oklahoma City April 19, 1995 there is a strong and decent center to Pakistani society.

This past week seven Christians were burnt alive in the Gojra District of Punjab the most populated province in Pakistan.  The rioters alleged that the Koran had been defiled by Christians.  That is blasphemy.  The Punjab government, now ruled by the Muslim League and home to several militant Islamic groups, delayed the launching of an investigation.  A day earlier 70 homes of Christians were burned.  Gojra is a city of 150,000 and headquarters of the Anglican Church of Pakistan.

As a child I was aware of Christian teachings in Luke 12:10 where blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is described as unforgivable.  Like many other children I worried that I might have said something, done something or carried an attitude that might doom me forever.  Finally I summoned the courage to ask a Sunday school teacher what the verse meant and was told that I should not worry about it. I took some comfort but continued to worry secretly about some of my bad words and thoughts.

My comfort level did not increase when I read, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain”. (Exodus 20:7 KJV) And still more frightening for me was the phrase from Leviticus 4:16 where I read that blasphemy is a capital crime and that those who speak blasphemy “shall surely be put to death”.  To be honest I wasn’t sure what the word blasphemy meant.  Maybe my teachers didn’t know either.

In Islam, strict blasphemy is any act of speaking ill of the Prophet Mohammed or any other prophet identified in the Koran, saying that Jesus Christ is the son of God, or speaking disrespectfully of the one God. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights calls for everyone to enjoy freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In 1948 when this was adopted most nations did not feel a need to protect God, religious leaders, or activists from blasphemy.  Today militant religious movements – minority though they may be – have reinvented more primitive and literal applications of teachings regarding blasphemy.

In Pakistan the current blasphemy laws, the strictest in the Muslim world, provide penalties including death or fines for persons. Professional people, Muslims and non Muslims, have been subjects of prosecution, vigilantism or riots.  Americans deserve to be reminded – perhaps some of us never knew – that these severe measures, Articles 295 B and C were put in place during a period of constitutional reform instituted under General Ziaul Haq who came to power through a military coup. General Ziaul Haq, perhaps the most conservative Muslim ever to rule Pakistan enjoyed a warm relationship with the government of Ronald Reagan.  Their two militaries and intelligence services cooperated intensively in the fight to chase the Soviets from Afghanistan.  This was also the period when the groundwork was laid for the Taliban movement.

Until General Haq’s period in the 1980s Pakistan included people from minority religions in its senior leadership.  This pattern has returned only recently.  In 2007 a Hindu was appointed Chief Justice of Pakistan and last year a Christian was appointed to the High Court.

In a show of strength by the local Gojra Christian community, the families refused to bury the coffins immediately but instead placed them on the city’s railroad track to block trains. Their courageous act was a protest against the police who had not taken steps to initiate an investigation.  Sitting with the Christians beside the coffins in his black suit was Federal Minister of Minority Affairs, Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian.

Another bold move was organized by Civil Junction, an Islamabad based safe gathering place and coffee shop which provided valued support for my recent trip to Pakistan.  On August 4th they held a candle vigil for the victims of Gojra as a first step towards condemning the act and the laws which instigate and endorse such acts. The event was telecast live on Pakistani TV, and running coverage went out over radio. Bigger events are being organized.

After the Gojra killings there was a strong popular and federal government burst of condemnation. The Roman Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace called the incident shocking and said, “There seems to be a growing consensus that society at large must fight this abuse of religion.” Muslim groups also spoke out.

These acts of public protest show that Christians and Muslims are working together in a campaign to put an end to blasphemy laws instituted in the mid 1980s. They also push for firm government prosecution when mob acts and terror is directed against any minority religion.  About 5% of Pakistan’s 170 million people is made up of minority Sikhs, Buddhist, Hindus, Christians and others.  The Ahmadiyya, a minority Muslim group that believes that the Messiah or Muslim Mahdi returned symbolically in the form of its 18th century founder, are considered heretical by some Muslims and they are often treated with prejudice like those from non Muslim faiths.

The attack on Christians was probably carried out by one of many non Taliban militant groups in Pakistan.  Christians who are often from the less fortunate classes are frequently charged by militant groups to have ties with Americans although I found little evidence for that when I travelled in Pakistan.  The strong public condemnation and expressions of compassion from the broad Pakistani population is a reminder for all of us that like the US people’s response to the bombing in Oklahoma City April 19, 1995 there is a strong and decent center to Pakistani society.

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Obama’s War by peaceprobe

When I arrived in Pakistan May 25 the Pakistani military (617,000 active personnel and 517,000 reservists, 7th largest in the world) was three weeks into an operation in the Swat valley designed to liberate this one time Buddhist kingdom from the Taliban.  The upbeat news carefully crafted by civilian-military writers since journalists were not allowed in the area trumpeted the killing of about 20 Taliban every day plus one to three Taliban commanders.  The impression then was that the operation would take about a month after which the IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons formerly referred to as refugees) would be allowed to return.  In the weeks that followed IDP numbers grew from one million to two and three million people.

IDPs from temperate climates now found themselves in sweltering refugee complexes or with relatives in lowland cities where temperatures in the summer exceed 100 degrees.  They left behind wheat fields ready for harvest, fruit orchards, schools, universities and a developing economy.  Many left hurriedly on orders from the military with nothing but the clothing they wore.  Without a massive outpouring of volunteer help from Pakistanis everywhere their situation would have been even more desperate.

But the operation in Swat continues and the daily body count remains constant almost like the body counts of Viet Nam more than 40 years ago where numbers were also manufactured.  The decision to move against Taliban rule in Swat came quickly when truck loads of Taliban forces moved into another neighbouring district without warning to enlarge their reach.  The Taliban lust for control sent a message to the majority population centers in Punjab and Sindh provinces to the South where there was little love for the Taliban, only a grudging acknowledgement that they are Muslims too.  Suddenly in May of this year Pakistani people who had been engaged in questioning drone attacks and the American influence rose up to pressure its own military to stop fiddling and clean out the truck bombers, suicide missioners, and Taliban utopians.

Swat is a land of unusual natural beauty that is populated by Pashtoon people, an ethnic group of some 42 million people that occupy the harsh mountains of western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. The Pashtoon people are unified by a Persian related language that has many dialects among is various tribes.   The Swat Valley begins about 100 miles from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad and rises towards the Hindu Kush mountains to the north.  Swat has many village names that date back to the Greek influence when Alexander the Great made his conquering and pillaging trek across Asia.

Despite its size the Pakistan military is ill prepared for the kind of war it faces in Swat Valley or the other boundary areas of Pakistan.  For sixty years all of Pakistan has sacrificed to build its military for the purpose of defeating India in Kashmir and if necessary on the Punjabi plain.  To complement this overwhelming threat the Pakistan military sought to defeat its enemies on its west frontier like the Soviets and the Soviet successors in Afghanistan through proxie armies and guerilla forces of various persuasions but unified under the label Taliban.  In 2001 when the Americans decided to go after Osama Bin Laden it turned out that he was considered a important guest of selected Pashtoon tribes.  Local custom dictates that tribes care for and protect their guest with their lives.

The Pakistani military has been reluctant to abandon its carefully nurtured asset, the Taliban.  In Swat and other border areas Taliban check points and operations were often coordinated with the Pakistani military.  The fact that Taliban were Muslim brothers, allbeit militant activists was not necessarily troubling to military commanders.  In fact when some military groups were ordered to attack and kill Taliban, selected officers resigned because of their conscientious objection to killing Muslims.  During my recent visit I was told of soldiers killed in battle who were not honoured for their service when their bodies were returned to their native villages because they were killed in war against Muslim brothers.

This history of the Pakistani military and the current nation wide engagement over the question of what it means to be a Muslim nation, brings us to the present.  The United States government has set aside 736 million dollars to build a new fortress embassy and refurbish its consulates in Pakistan because of the deteriorating security situation.  The US has also targeted $400 million for counter insurgency assistance for Pakistan this year.  And, the US has announced its intention to provide $1.5 billion in assistance to Pakistan for the next five years.  Even for the US government which has gotten into the habit in Iraq of throwing around money very casually this adds up.

It suggests a absence of confidence that the Swat operation will be completed in one or two months that in fact it will go on for months, maybe years.  It is a monumental commitment for a nation like the US that is not particularly distinguished, experienced or successful in countering insurgency.  Right now Washington is happy because they think they have finally gotten the Pakistan military to start fighting the real enemy, the Taliban.

These are dangerous times.  We now face a situation where a nation of 175 million people is engaged in a major violent internal struggle for its existence. Every week if not every day there is a car bomb somewhere.  Questions of development, education, and nutrition will have to be put off longer while the rupees and dollars buy hellfire missiles and better guns.   How will Pakistan weather this violence and threat over time?  There is not a deep residue of confidence in Pakistan about American advice because of the inconsistent and sporadic nature of US aid and reliability over the last 60 years.  The regional conflict which also includes Afghanistan is now Obama’s war and it could destroy his administration if things unravel as they might.

Pakistan is gifted with a layer of South Asian wisdom and I was the recipient of some of that during my recent visit.  Some of these voices will probably be silenced and imprisoned in the coming months but their spirits will endure.  Our work on this side is to find ways to lift the veil of secrecy.  This situation is complex but complexity should never deter us from working through the fog to the pull towards authentic reconciliation.  Most of all Pakistan needs space to sort out its own priorities and determine how Muslim convictions can energize it into the future.  Another quirky US green zone, Marine guards, civilian contractors, and advanced digitized security gimmicks in a Muslim country will do little to give space for this to happen.



Gaza Letter: To President Elect Obama by peaceprobe
January 6, 2009, 8:32 pm
Filed under: Gaza, Islam, Palestine - Israel

“You cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that caused the problem.”

                                                                                                 – Albert Einstein 

Dear President Elect Obama,

Here and in the Middle East there is plenty of evidence that the paradigms of our analysis are entrenched.   But the thinking of the past has not brought peace to the Middle East.   In organizing work you already know that without new thinking there is no hope for renewal.  Einstein was right, the solutions to old problems require new thinking.  

For 25 years I lived in Chicago’s neighbourhoods and I know a little bit about the problems of neighbourhood violence.  I know you do too.  Even handedness, honest words, respect and confidence building actions that reach across divides help create the way to resolution.  Eventually all episodes of human violence do end, either by burnt out buildings and abandoned civilizations or by way of the mystery of new vision. 

Last week I wrote a little piece where I encouraged people of faith to pray for a break through to arise from the 2008-9 war in Gaza.  Activist do not often call for prayer, although there is a tiny secret that I know about activists.  We do pray a lot more than people think we do.  Sometime I hope you can tell me if that is your experience too.  

I know ethical conviction and balance is part of your character that was fashioned over a lifetime of trying to do what is right.    Unlike you, I don’t need to worry about getting elected or preserving my electoral covenant.  However, I do worry about my spiritual covenant to think new thoughts and to follow through. 

Today I believe you made a start by acknowledging your concern for the civilian casualties in Gaza and Israel.  A good start!   You will survive the people with iron clad ideas from the past who are already grumbling that your statement of sympathy for civilian casualties favoured one side over another.  These won’t be your last words and millions of people here, in the Middle East and around the world are waiting for what you will say and hoping for a new thought path that can create an environment where rigid enemies are invited to become mutual winners.  All the fire power of the United States or any other nation can not make this happen.  However, less heavy handedness will help.  Authentic respect for all the people of the Middle East will also help.  Setting aside the violence of bombs, tanks, military supplies and the bribery of misplaced aid programs is another part of the new era.  

The world is waiting for new, practical and realistic signals from our nation.  By such fairer gestures in your first months in office you will help create the path for a journey towards respect, confidence and peace.  You will be creating the space for development of all peoples, particularly the nations of the Middle East and our own nation.  By the content of your message you will be able to help fabricate decades of growth that are free of violence and empty enemy talk.  

Mr.  President Elect, there may be no single matter in the world where your nudge towards new thinking could do more to rebuild confidence in the future.  There are millions of us, Christians, Muslims, and Jews who are praying, protesting and hoping that our hands might touch into the strengths of one another in ways that are long overdue.  We want to believe in the future.  And we will continue to pray that the great hopes of all peoples might be awakened with a new paradigm that wants to become visible in you and your co-workers in these coming months.   

I speak for many who want to be ready with prayer and active support.  

Sincerely,

Gene Stoltzfus



Gaza: Just Such A Time As This by peaceprobe
December 31, 2008, 11:09 am
Filed under: Gaza, Immagination, Islam, Palestine - Israel

Today I am in sorrow over what is happening in the region of Gaza.  Is there anything I can do?  Am I limited to government statements, last minute diplomacy, or immobilizing personal outrage?  How do I respond from this place of despair?  What do I tell the children?  Is this the time when the posture of prayer may provide the spirit of openness for a solution waiting to be recognized from the treasures of mystery?

What is at issue in this crisis?  Israel is outraged due to persistent rocket attacks from Gaza.  Hamas is outraged by the Israeli authorities’ ongoing harassment at border checkpoints where supplies and people must travel from Gaza’s confined space to the rest of the world.  

There is also an elephant in the room that most governments across the world are ignoring; the attack and destabilisation of a duly elected government.  In the most recent elections in the Palestinian territories including Gaza, Hamas won with wide popular support.  There were good reasons for this, relating to governance by the Palestinian Authority over the past decade.  But when democracy is promoted across the world and the people elect a government that other nations do not like, by what guide of democracy can the outside world unilaterally decide that this is not acceptable and deliberately undermine that election?  Grumbling about an elected government is part of democracy everywhere, but destabilizing an elected government is not a part of the democratic way of life.  

There is also a stark military economic inequality between the two sides in this violent conflict. Isn’t it suicidal for Gaza residents through their defence institutions, to attack Israel?  Why would anyone make a fight that will surely bring harm to one’s family and neighbors?  One answer may be that when people are pressed to the limit of their flesh, they find a way to struggle.  The people of Gaza are not the first peoples to do so.  Suicidal mission is inherent in any war.  Soldiers in service of a cause – freedom, empire, democracy or religion – know that they may die for that cause .  They believe, sometimes with positive outcomes, that their sacrifice might reach beyond the limits of today’s reason into tomorrow’s solutions.  In this case self sacrifice in their mind is honourable.

Where do we turn for a resolution?  Thousands of board rooms, staff meetings, and grand peace councils set up to deal with crises like this have not produced solutions. When diplomats desperately grope for chimerical cease fires, the time is ripe to feel and acknowledge despair and guilt over lost opportunities.   Will solutions ever come from diplomacy or councils of peacemaking?  Will the 60 year stalemate continue for another 40 years, a full century to explain to the children of Christians, Jews and Muslims?

Alternatively, can the fruits of our  imaginations be ignited through the Gaza crisis of 2008? Can we believe that our collective imaginations of this day might help?  Have we been given one more opportunity to sharpen our seeing and listening for what wants to be revealed from divine mystery?

People who are deeply committed to social justice and peacemaking, religious and secular, are suspicious that meditation belongs only to the pious and spiritual ones who hide behind their exercises to avoid engagement.  The split between people of action and people of prayer is a false dichotomy that appears in every tradition.  If political analysis, dissecting the holy, the manipulation of shame and guilt, or raw activism could have provided the basis for peace in this region of God’s earth, it would have happened long ago.  What has been lacking is the acknowledgement of the mystery of unknown forces at work among and through patterns of violent conflict so heavily focussed on Israel and Palestine.  

The war in Gaza today invites me to prayer.  I don’t promise that prayer will enlighten my imagination in a fresh way. I will try because I know that liberation from false myths of security is born in moments of irrational violence.    I share our common desperation for a break through.  When a sign or nudge to action comes I hope I have the courage to acknowledge it.  And if it comes to me or you,  we can share it with the people on the peace councils, in diplomatic corps, or organizations, share it with all the people on this journey with us.  We may be here for just such a time as this.



Hearts and Minds by peaceprobe
March 12, 2008, 12:45 pm
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, First Nations People, Iraq, Islam, Viet Nam

This week I participated in a conference here in Northwest Ontario on “Systemic Racism in the Justice System” sponsored by Aboriginal leaders and members of the justice system, lawyers, jailers, members of the community of human services and rehabilitation specialists.  

As I sit at one of the 20 round tables in the well heated Best Western Hotel in Kenora, the resort capital of this region, I listen to the world views of two communities backed by hundreds and thousands of years of conviction within their hearts and minds stretch towards one another.  

Our gathering is equally divided between educated white servants of the law from as far away as Toronto, and Aboriginal elders, chiefs, healers and employees of native offices all seeking a common ground.  Aboriginal people speak in phrases that illuminate pain, pockets of a victimized culture which is overcoming at the cost of great personal and communal suffering.  This is a people who communicate, teach and pass on their own law through stories, and make their decisions by means of consensus.  Stories told in this gathering are greeted by polite silence from us, the white participants, who have not yet been wisened in the ways of truth telling through story.  The courtroom and law may be similarly jarring and remote to Aboriginal peoples who speak from the heart.

I am swept into centuries past when elders, healers, warriors, male and female gathered around the sacred fire to deliberate momentous matters of community life, treaties, inappropriate behaviour and safety. The stories are prefaced by an acknowledgement of respect for the Creator, other elders and the grand circle of life in the universe that surrounds all of us.  I know it will take me a generation to understand the nuances of  phrases and the implications of each story teller’s words which point to deeper things.  Custom, law, and spirit are interconnected in this webbed story of survival, celebration and hope, sometimes ponderous, sometimes humorous.  

When technicians of the justice system are given their moments at the microphone I listen for personal stories, hints of hope and error.  Finally a judge from a distant Aboriginal community admits to the gathered assembly of two peoples that his legal training prepared him little for the decisions he administers clothed in the power of the court.  By now I know that both sides are reaching for a common understanding of the simple phrase, “the rule of law”.  I hear others describe experiments in the court and rehabilitation that sometimes show signs of hope.  I hear my white colleagues clawing to find formulas for justice that respects continuity for their law reaching back almost three thousand years to the world of Iraq.  

In those forgotten days Hammurabi codified the law that  first taught us,  “An eye for an eye”.   In those days it was reform legislation because it was better, more just and wiser than plundering and killing an entire village or people, something previously accepted to be a just recompense to an infraction.  Now Hammurabi’s successors are being nudged to reform again.  Armed with and sustained by their commitment to objective facts rather than gossip, rumour, or a political culture that employs a heavy hand, they stretch their minds as they learn to listen with their hearts.  

As I watch and listen I remind myself that this elegant tradition of rigorous objective and adversarial legal culture and  fact finding in the service of justice has laid the foundation for human and civil rights.  I have been protected by this system of legal priests and their auxiliaries of my civilization, because they have created the space I needed  to work out a critique of violence, state supported and private.  

What is more difficult for me to hold and admit, though I must, is that this rational system that has protected so many in other contexts, rests upon an underbelly of violence.  Across the Americas the primary engagement of Aboriginal people with white colonial and legal civilization has been the experience of physical violence, deceit and treachery used against their communities.  And it is not yet over.

I do not doubt that many practitioners of the law, want to do right.  I listen as they describe circles of latitude for punishment of offenders.  Occasionally the story tellers, and drummers/singers who open each session come forward like messengers from another world to awaken the professional servants of the criminal justice system.  Another story from the heart reminds me that I am a child of enlightened reason, and that my thought process is different from the multilateral thinking that incorporates justice as part of the whole universe of spirit and life.  

“Working Together For a Change” shouts out at me from the T-Shirt handed out by the organizers.  Its multiple meanings appeal to me.  For those who have eyes to see, it allows the reader/hearer to grow as far as she or he can at this time in the circle of life.  For those of us working together for the first time, that is already a change.  For others of us the word, change, hints at the great mountain before us that we are all invited to climb the mountain of overcoming racism.  Despite our feelings of entrapment in the legal system, the journey requires us to climb that mountain together.  It’s a way that may occasionally be helped by the law, but only if it incorporates the deeper stuff of spirituality, confession, discipline, hope, truth telling and probably civil disobedience so that a genuine rule of law might someday prevail.  

My mind wanders from the proceedings to the Middle East and beyond, maybe because the conference reminds me of rumours of a clash of civilizations.  Who decided that civilizations have to clash?  The conference is taking place at the same time as NATO requests more soldiers for Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and their Al Queda allies.  

The climb of this mountain where story tellers and lawyers work together has much to do with foreign policy.  Maybe the language, clash of civilizations, is a gift from God to remind us that wisdom comes from unfamiliar places.    I think of village jurgas (councils of elders) across that region of war in Pakistan and Afghanistan who resist the foreign troops.  In my mind I see the circle of elders, some heavily bearded, meeting today like us in Kenora to explore their way to justice and peace as they have for centuries.  

Once upon a time a great nonviolent army arose from these Pashtoon villages and, guided by their village jurgas, organized themselves as a nonviolent peace army in the independence struggle to insist that British colonialist go home.  They were put down and disrespected but their efforts contributed immeasurably to the structure for peace and democracy that followed, although those who came after, often forgot their gifts and sacrifices for the common good.   The commonality of Aboriginal elders here and Pashtoon jurgas in Pakistan and Afghanistan is that they have both  suffered from legal systems that were put in place and sustained by state sponsored violence.  

Had I summoned the courage to share my story at the conference it would have arisen out of the gift that activism brings to my journey up the mountain of hope towards overcoming racism.   Our western justice system built on foundations of colonial violence, does occasionally respond to extrajudicial actions when they come from people whose life stories point to healing.  We should not be surprised when we see more strident active expressions of civil disobedience across this continent.  These experiments in truth do not arise from a disrespect for the ways of the heart or the laws of the mind.  They arise when hearts and minds are rivetted together by a vision for the rule of law that has space for the wisdom of the ages.



Bookends and Dreams: Yezidi people by peaceprobe
August 25, 2007, 11:07 am
Filed under: Iraq, Islam, Politics of Empire

The death of 500 people in the Yezidi villages in Northwestern Iraq August 4, 2007 is an overwhelming tragedy.  For a nation the size of Iraq it is catastrophe on a scale two times as large as the 9/11 tragedy was to the U.S.  In my untamed fantasies I wish that it could be the closing bookend on this horrific era that began with 9/11.  But my realistic side tells me that, though fantasy gives me goals, more reasoned reflection will provide the steps and the hard work that is needed to put the bookend in place.  

 

Whenever I have visited Iraq people have asked me, “Did you meet some of our Muslim devil worshipers?”.  They meant, the Yezidi, a minority group with an estimated 500,000 adherents.   The Yezidi believe that God created the world but that the world is now in the care of seven Holy Beings or angels, the most important of whom is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel.  In popular thinking the Peacock Angel is equated with the devil, or Shayton in the Koran and that is how the Yezidi came to be thought of as devil worshipers.  Yezidi do not believe that the Peacock Angel is the source of evil in the world but rather that he allocates blessings.  They believe the source of good and evil is within people.  Many Yezidi practice prayers five times a day and an annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Sheikh Adi, the Muslim leader who led the Yezidi into Islamic culture  in Lalish, near Mosul, the ancient city of Nineveh where Jonah once preached.  With roots going back to Zoroastrianism the Yezidi culture incorporates a variety of closely held secretive beliefs, annual festivals, pilgrimages, and scriptures that have sustained their faith and culture over the centuries.  

 

For all religious minorities and ethic groups in Iraq the modern era has been hard.  Jews have left Iraq except for a handful of families.  Of the million Christians, 500,000 have joined over two million Iraqis who have fled the violence in Iraq since 2003.  Included in this number is over half of the medical doctors.   Like all of us, these people’s first need is security.

 

What needs to happen so the tragedy that has fallen upon the Yezidi people becomes a wake up call for all of us around the world to do the things that will put in place a culture that does not permit smart bombs or suicide bombers?  Is there enough good and courage within collective humanity to take the steps that make for a culture where the accepted mode for conflict is protracted negotiations, and other means of nonlethal but organized social pressure?   This is the seed for future generations of hope.

 

First, we work to cleanse ourselves of the fanaticism within us.  Fanaticism breeds quick-fix, one-stop solutions for all time, that don’t work.  The opposite of fanaticism is an openness to refine our methodologies as we make them consistent with real needs and our deepest convictions and hopes.  

 

Second, we stop expecting government to solve the problem of violence with police and military action. Governments often respond with military force after tragedies like 9/11 and the Yezidi village massacre because they think their populations expect them to. We are not going to get a solution from government until we have a broad based movement.   Political leadership even within so called democracies, is constrained by quick analysis, election cycles, and polling numbers.

 

Third, we need not assume that all of our conflict transformation projects of peacemaking are a failure because we weren’t there to stop the armed trucks that killed 500 people or the airplanes that killed 3000.  We might have done more good if we had been there to interact with the perpetrators before they started their planning.   Listening is the first step.  We earn our right for the second conversation by good listening.  The next step is to follow up on what we agree to do.  We build the structure step by step over years and decades because we keep our word and fulfill our spoken and inferred promises.  In this long process we build a culture where the natural mode of dealing with conflict is characterized by nonlethal means instead of threats and terror.

 

Fourth, we can trust our best instincts.  The challenge is that most of us have also inherited some form of mechanistic thinking that simplistically divides the world into good and bad.  We then spend our lives feeling trapped by the evil side.  Our common health however is much better served by learning to recognize the great spirit for good that God has placed within us and learn to listen to it.  By doing so, life is no longer a battle for survival, or protection from scarcity but new opportunities and experiments in life giving transformation.  Lodged within is the strength and instinct to choose to resolve conflict without violence.  The Yezidi understand that any event even outside of ourselves provides a choice – we can see it as or an opportunity for good to arise.

 

Much as I would like for the Yezidi massacre to be a bookend that closes out this era of the cycle of violence, I know that I need a better metaphor.  The massacre is more like a bad dream which jerks me out of my sleep and forces me to face my blinders.  Why wasn’t I there to get to know the Yezidi people five or ten years ago?  What is inherent in their culture and other world cultures that might have helped prevent this tragedy?   What should I do to encourage the awakening of peacemaking initiatives that are circling the globe?   If I act on these questions maybe I will be given another dream.  In that dream I see a monument to the 500 Yezidi people who were killed August 14, 2007 – a little like the one at the Trade Towers in New York.  In the dream I see millions visiting that monument right there in the same part of the earth where the prophet Jonah so reluctantly once called for transformation and I see us awakening collectively to the many alternatives to senseless violence.



Saviors of the World by peaceprobe
June 17, 2007, 10:46 am
Filed under: Iraq, Islam

This past week the Golden Domed Mosque in Samarra, Iraq was bombed for a second time. In February 2006 its dome was destroyed. Last week two minarets were destroyed. Built around 944 AD the Mosque and shrine was the burial site for the 10th and 11th Imams, venerated personalities among Shia Muslims. The event will be noticed and mourned by the majority Shia in Iraq and Iran and around the world. The Mosque is adjacent to a shrine for the Twelfth or “Hidden” Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi born in 868 and expected by various traditions to return to earth as the Savior of the world and the one who will bring justice to humankind. Shia believe that Mahdi will reappear at a time when the world is in great stress due to war and chaos. He will appear from heaven wielding God’s sword while true believers gather.

Over the centuries various people have claimed to be Mahdi only to be swept from favor. In 1979 the Great Mosque at Mecca was seized by a self proclaimed Mahdi and his 1500 followers in an event that required a two week siege by the US trained Saudi Arabian security forces to retake Islam’s holiest site. In the Iranian parliament Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian revolution was asked if he was the Mahdi. He did not give a clear reply.

The idea that a great Savior will appear to save humankind and bring in the day of peace first appeared in Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion that began in Persia. Often the story includes a great battle where good or the forces of God overcome evil leading to a 1000 year reign. Fragments of these stories appear in the Bible and continue to influence us up to the present time.

In the early 1990s I coordinated a delegation to Israel and Palestine to join with groups from around the world on a peace walk from Haifa in northwestern Israel to Jerusalem. Our group of over a hundred walked through searing heat and finally reached the now almost forgotten Green Line where Israel ends and Palestine begins in the Valley of Jezreel. Today it is a farming valley. Just before the border to the south of the main road I remember a big jail where I was told Palestinians were held at the time. This was a staging area for the Roman army in 67AD when it prepared for its assault on Jerusalem. The Hebrew Bible also refers to Megiddo as the site of a battle which precipitated the decline of the dynasty of David and eventual captivity of Israel. For some Christians, Megiddo is also the site where the final climactic battle between God and Satan, good and evil, the event that will coincide with Christ’s return for a 1000 year reign. Many children of revival meetings have shuddered in fear at this symbolic site of end times, judgement, heaven or hell and the cosmic importance of getting right with God.

At Megiddo our tiny group marched on to the border where Israeli security forces met us and told us that we could not continue beyond the Green Line into Palestine and Jerusalem to the south. More than half of our number were arrested and held in jails in the nearby cities with Biblical names like Tiberias and Caesarea. In a particularly powerful moment one of our number, a Scottish theology student insisted on playing his bagpipes to the tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In” as we tried to walk into Palestine. He was one of the arrested and his arresting officer told him it was illegal to play bagpipes but he told the officer that his instrument was full of air and he could not stop the music. The officer gave up and just pushed him on the bus whereupon he continued playing “When the Saints Go Marching In”.

Those of us who were not arrested were confused and generally leaderless – without plan B. By bus we roamed the countryside to find a place to camp late into the night and finally decided to try to pass the Green Line again. When we reached the border at midnight the soldiers were gone so we passed over and reached the Palestinian village that had been waiting for more than 12 hours to host us. Eventually all of us reached Jerusalem, our captives were released and we proclaimed victory in the nonviolent peace walk through Megiddo. Sometimes I now tell friends that the Battle of Armageddon is over. The victory has been won. The Spirit is alive and waiting for us to do our peacemaking work.

The notion that a great savior event, person, or both will bring about the age of justice, peace, and fairness after a great battle between armies of the earth has been around for a long time. Nazis believed that the Third Reich would accomplish this. In the 1960s and 1970s I tuned in to short wave Radio China or Radio Moscow to listen to their take on events of the earth. From time to time their reporting would be interrupted by the Communist International which I thought had a very well crafted tune. “Tis the final conflict” they sang as they extolled the international working class and its role of leading humankind into the final great conflict and eventually to peace and justice everywhere. Centuries ago many of our European ancestors embraced the New World as that new beginning and then in turn felt the need to “civilize and Christianize” First Nations people decimating both culture and the people.

All of this is playing in my mind as I learn of one more bombing – this one at a special spiritual site, that like holy sites anywhere hints at the salvation of the world. These stories of final events, and a new age of peace awaken us although as children of the age of reason we can get a little nervous with these stories. There have been a lot of mistaken predictions about when and how Jesus is coming back to be with us just like Shia Muslims have gotten it wrong with Mahdi. Most of them have had trouble understanding that maybe he is not coming back to knock over bad governments and militarily impose a new age of justice, by getting rid of Saddam, King Herod, Caesar, or President Whoever. We still persist in a kind of theology of cosmic coup d’etats where things will get better if we change the guy at the top. Even in the scriptures there are differing opinions about the content of Jesus return. Many believed that it would happen in the life time of people who personally knew Jesus. Well Jesus didn’t come back to knock Caesar or his regional warlords off their thrones. But that doesn’t mean that he would have been more effective if he had become their Minister of Health, Religion or War.

The point of faith is that there is a timeless power at work sometimes described as love, sometimes as prayer, sometimes as specific activism with a transforming expectation of history. It is everywhere and particular, specific to concrete situations in life and society. The Mahdi never comes as we might prescribe it (him or her) because the spirit is already here if we have eyes or ears to recognize divine energy and power. It isn’t stuck in a specific place or mode. The template of the universe is different from the template of nations, Presidents, and Kings. This in fact is a source of hope and confidence for our work and allows us to think outside the time frames of election seasons or congressional bills. If we are listening it might also inform us on how to deal with those we call terrorist who want to blow up holy places wherever they are, Jerusalem, Samaara, caves that once hid persecuted believers, or forests of North America held sacred by the First peoples.