PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Worth Living For—Worth Dying For by peaceprobe
March 14, 2010, 2:26 pm
Filed under: Detainees, Iraq, Militarism, Nonviolence, Philippines, Politics of Empire

This is Gene Stoltzfus’s last essay, completed on Wednesday, March 10, 2010, just before he headed out on his beloved motor-assisted bicycle on the first spring day of the year. He picked up his U.S. mail in International Falls, MN. Then on his return journey, less than a kilometer from home in Ft. Frances, ON, his heart stopped. Please feel free to leave comments after this post on his blogsite: For more background on Gene’s life and updates on his memorial services, see:
Gene Stoltzfus, 1940-2010, Presente!
–Phil Stoltzfus, Gene’s nephew
–Dorothy Friesen, Gene’s wife

I have talked to survivors of military interrogation around the world who at some point thought they would not live for another day. I never write about it in the U.S. and Canada because it seems so unbelievable and out of place in a world of sanitized shopping malls and super highways. When I retell their stories I notice that people here fidget. But interrogation processes are one way in which martyrs are created. Martyrs in the original sense are “witnesses to the truth,” with a deep commitment of conscience that sustains them through moments of cruelty and abuse.

Some people are killed during interrogation. They never get to tell the story themselves. So I have learned to listen to those who narrowly avoid interrogation’s brush with death. This might be the time that you will prefer not to read on. But if you stop here you will skip over an important part of living and dying that stretches around the world and touches the entire human family.

I spent two hours in Iraq talking to a 22-year-old student who was arrested in a house raid along with two of his brothers. Until the time of his capture he was relatively uninvolved with anything political, not an unusual story in the Iraq of 2003. After his capture by American military personnel he was not allowed to sleep for two days. After 48 hours the American GIs told him that he would be killed unless he told them where Saddam Hussein was hiding. He was continuously blindfolded. He was told that his brother, taken into custody at the same time, was just now being shot. In the distance he could hear a gun being fired. If he didn’t want to die, he must tell all. Then nearby he heard a gun being cocked and felt a revolver touching his head. He expected to die. There was more shouting from the soldiers and then silence.

“I believed I would die,” he told me. “And then after a long wait I felt my hand to be sure I was still alive.” His blindfold was temporarily removed and then he was marched off to one of Iraq’s prison camps where he met others who experienced similar beatings and moments of terror. He was released three months later because of persistent outside intervention – an advantage that many disappeared people do not have.

My time with him left me exhausted and jolted me to wonder how I would respond to interrogation. Would I make up a story? Would I lie? Would something I say implicate others? Would I respond with anger or physical struggle? Would I go quietly to my death as some martyrs are reported to have done? Would anyone know how I died?

After my talk with the unlikely martyr, the connection of this Muslim student to my own ancestors in 16th-century Europe fluttered in my mind. Did the stories I read in my youth about the Anabaptist martyrs prepare me for this? Death by burning or drowning is now little practiced, but current authorities still believe that truth can be accessed by means of brutality. The pattern of torture used for their interrogation blended now with the people I was meeting. The Anabaptist stories recorded in the Martyrs Mirror (subtitled “The Bloody Theatre of the Anabaptists or Defenseless Christians who suffered and were slain from the time of Christ until the year AD 1660) are part of the continuous tapestry of state-sponsored cruelty reaching to our very own day.

In the late 1970s I worked in the Philippines. One day I was invited to meet a pastor and former political prisoner. The Marcos dictatorship had sent its military and paramilitary to his community and their tactics were designed to control popular discontent through cruelty, terror, domination, killing and confiscation of property. The pastor felt bound by his convictions to do what was possible to protect the people of his church. He was arrested and interrogated for weeks. His body was spent. Finally he was encased in a blindfold and told he would be killed. He felt the barrel of a revolver that touched the temple of his head and rested there for a time while his interrogator demanded that he give names of the people with whom he worked. “I was silent because I couldn’t think any more,” he told me.

“Were you afraid you would endanger others?” I asked. “Of course I was worried that what I said would implicate others but when the gun was put to my head I just expected to die. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I even thought about being a pastor but that didn’t seem very important in the moment. I was ready to die. I just told them to get it over with. During those days I thought about the martyrs. The interrogator didn’t pull the trigger. I don’t know why.”

I felt my gut twitch after the pastor described the near-death moment. Was there anything I could say or do? Anything healing? Anything personal? The pastor, like the Iraqi student 25 years later, only requested that I tell the world what happened to him. That was enough.

Accounts like these stories of people living on borrowed time reach back centuries to pre-Roman times and show me that the impulse to domination is still alive in our as-yet-uncivilized reptilian brain stem. In our time the word “martyr” has morphed from its root meaning of “witness to the truth” to a description of someone who dies for his or her beliefs. The Greeks and early Christians who used the term understood death to be a possible outcome of the path towards truth and light. Eventually “martyr” referred exclusively to those who died for their belief. Those who began as witnesses to truth became martyrs at the time of death. For the Muslim, shahada (martyrdom) also springs from the internal struggle that results in the witness to truth. Both religious traditions have departed from the core understanding of martyrdom in times of political conflict and triumphalism.

From where did my childhood curiosity arise to steal into my father’s study to read about the martyrs? Those drawings of torture and burning bodies awakened wonder within me. In one of my early return journeys to North America from the lands of torture – before I understood that torture techniques had their home here – I was introduced to a new psychological disease called the martyr complex – seeking persecution to fulfill an inward need. Had I been the unwitting recipient of this disease? Or was the use of the term “martyr complex” the work of a psychologist who had never met a torture victim or known the honored path to witness practiced by martyrs?

Church buildings pay tribute to martyrs, including long-forgotten soldiers who died in distant lands to protect the nation or empire. Their deeds are celebrated and interwoven with patriotism. I have visited churches in the Netherlands, the birthplace of Anabaptist martyrs, where they place the Martyrs Mirror on their altars before the service of worship and return it to a locked closet after the service. I once inquired about the influence of the book of martyrs in the life of worshipers and was told that, “Most of us have no idea about the stories in that book. It’s from another time.”

Why are soldiers and interrogators still trained in the craft of torture? Can moral outrage and attempts to protect the prisoner change things? Why do Christian crusaders or Muslim suicide bombers slip into patterns of domination that kill and destroy in a manner that cannot possibly reveal truth? Can respect for and veneration of martyrs draw us closer to the truth when the patterns of our lives are so remote from the authentic truth-seeking represented in martyrs?

Genuine martyrs appear when people believe that their witness on earth is connected to the whole of the universe. Martyrs are not inclined to draw attention to themselves, but their path can draw people to the glory and faith of a vision. Martyrs have all the foibles of the rest of us. Some may not deserve the label. In our human family great movements that push us to transcend boundaries with visions of hope produce martyrs. But organizations and movements become emasculated and ineffectual when they protect themselves too much from the risk of bold witness. On the other hand, they also undercut themselves when they slide into violence against others in order to try to control the outcome of their vision. We have the challenge of incarnating a blend of vulnerability and boldness.

The test of martyrdom is whether that particular witness to the truth helps to support and sustain the community’s commitment to a full-bodied vision of peace and justice. The martyrs are present with us and may be more powerful for their witness in death than they ever could have been in life.


Why Halloween Matters by peaceprobe
October 27, 2009, 4:45 pm
Filed under: Philippines, Viet Nam | Tags:

My old masques are lost somewhere in storage but something inside me still wants to dress up like Dracula for Halloween. All Souls Day and All Saints Day and Halloween, all special days from popular cultures at this time of the year, help me remember the underworld and the dead.  The origins of these festivals cover a range of cultures from pre modern religion that combine threads of various holidays. When someone knocks on my door impersonating a  robotic looking devil that person is projecting a fear already present in my culture. By impersonating the demons of evil I make them visible so that I can do something with them perhaps even re form them into objects of opportunity rather than enemies.  

Many of my neighbours around the world believe that unless departed spirits are treated respectfully their spirits will haunt the living.  All of us remember our loved ones who have died.  In Viet Nam josh sticks are lit on special days and food is set out for the spirits of the dead especially the ancestors.  According to one tradition the custom of “trick or treating” goes back to the middle ages when poor people begged for a donut like soul cake and if they received a cake they would agree to pray for departed souls. The prayer connection to “trick or treat” has not survived but its interconnection to another world of devils is alive at Halloween usually at our front doors.  

All Souls Day  is a time of great celebration especially in Latin Countries and the Philippines.  A festival atmosphere not unlike a Mennonite relief sale pervades as families spend the day and often the night at the cemetery where the departed ones are buried. In the Philippines people bring food, flowers, and candles to be placed on the grave site.  Tents are constructed for overnight stays.

The cemeteries are so crowded that people sleep on top of the grave sites. Children invent new games like collecting melted wax and compete to be the one who makes the biggest ball of wax for recycling back home to make candles.  Family ties are strengthened.  People who have not talked to each other for months or even years due to disputes are forced to converse at the door of the  land of the dead.  Politicians move among the people giving words of greeting and comfort and silently courting support.  

In former times traditional priests sold prayers on behalf of departed souls who may be awaiting final entry into  heaven.  The religious significance of All Souls Day is being eroded by advanced market practices.  Chain stores set up temporary outlets to push their products at the cemetery where there is steady traffic.  All Souls Day and night is a time to wear good clothes.  It is an occasion when returning overseas workers show off how well they are doing.  Rich people build mausoleums, an extended crypt with amenities for living, at the cemeteries where they can stay in comfort for the entire celebration.  Young people dance and karioke music competes (and usually wins) over the sound of prayers and passion music.  Masked behind all the dancing, eating and festive activity is the experience of unbroken connection to the spirits of those who continue to make us who we are.

This year in the competition to wear the best Halloween costume that impersonates a modern devil I bet an award somewhere will go to the one who imitates a high finance “too big to fail” capitalist who just made off with a fantastic bonus.  And if the devils work as a team which the top ones tend to do I bet they will find a way to shmooze with politicians.  Like priests in long forgotten cultures they will raise money and garner power in places where the dead, whose good we celebrate, can’t talk about what bothers them and the living are cautious.

When Halloween is over some of us will go to church where we might be reminded that this is All Saints Day a time to  remember the Saints including martyrs.   Originally many Christian martyrs were executed because they refused to worship a Roman emperor, the symbolic head of the public religion of the day.  Some came to Christian faith as soldiers.  Their faith interrupted very promising careers and sometimes led to persecution and death. Beside these ancient martyrs this year we may choose to remember people like Tom Fox, the CPT worker (Christian Peacemaker Teams) who was taken hostage and killed in Iraq while trying to live out the way of nonviolent love.  

This season, Halloween reminds me of the dilemma that all people of the book face at some point.  If God is so good and perfect why is there so much evil and violence?  By remembering my freedom and autonomy I am respected.  I am allowed to get stuck with an obsession that one of those devils offers by tricking me for a treat.  I am also allowed to make choices about who I am and where I want my weight and overweight to be felt.  

The masks and elaborate masqueraders of the season remind me of the dangerous energy around me.  I can do better. By remembering the Saints and Souls I am inspired not to be trapped, tricked or captured by the gambling energies of high finance, consumerism and the attendant armaments required for their protection.  I don’t know if Dracula had all of this in mind when he inspired me to dress up for Halloween.  If he comes to my door later this week I will thank him for reminding me of all this bad stuff around me and that I (and the people of the earth) have some important choices to make in the coming year.

Hope by peaceprobe
May 1, 2008, 2:43 pm
Filed under: Peacemaker spirit, Philippines

Some years ago I led a delegation of North American church people, professionals, young and old to the Philippines to explore the realities people face there. 

One day we spent time in the Manila’s urban poor neighbourhood of Tondo where we met families, community groups, and an organizer – leader.  We also walked in the nearby stench of a mountain of garbage where thousands of people filtered the waste of Manila’s middle and upper class in search of recyclable items that could be sold.  Wherever we went, people found time to talk.  

A garbage collector told how her landless family migrated to Manila from a remote island to find a life in the urban world.  Her face was covered with a cloth to ward off the smell as she excitedly told her story to visitors.   The energy in her voice was partly enlivened by the news that her squatter housing had evaded demolition for another two months.  In Tondo’s filth, and discarded stuff, stink was everywhere except in neat rooms where whole families including relatives survived.  Our hostess at the garbage site would have regaled us with stories of tiny victories all day if our local facilitators had not moved us along to keep to our busy schedule.  

On the same trip our delegation visited a remote rural village that rarely hosted visitors from anywhere.  The children showed signs of malnutrition – distended bellies, discoloured hair and vacant looks.  And yet, our hosting families gave us their best in conversation and cuisine. From somewhere in the 400 years of colonial influence the villagers learned that we must be served meat.  So they served us the only available meat, stray dogs.  The hard to chew meat meal was completed with a little bit of rice and a fried egg.  The evening conversation about life was animated and lasted long into the night.   They told us how they rebuilt after typhoons, and shared meagre resources among families when the rains failed to come.  Do you have any idea how we might improve our life, villagers inquired after recalling another story of disaster and tumult told with a humorous twist and ever present hope? 

Later our delegates gathered to reflect and sum up what we learned.  Every participant expressed awe at the hope they had seen in the people they had met despite their desperate situations.   Was this just a misunderstanding of this advanced culture of hospitality where we could not read the signs?  Did these folks know something we could not know in their day to day life of toil and survival?  I have experienced this shocking juxtaposition of tragedy and  hope in  communities around the world including North America.  What is this hope that some people know and others of us find so hard to understand?  We owe it to ourselves to understand it better. 

What we experience in these conversations is not a hope of optimism based on economic models,  political stability or easy access to ministries of faith. Nor is hope to be confused with exhortations to positive thinking, an emotional stance that can sometimes be coaxed into being by will power.   Hope is not based on confidence that peoples above or outside will deliver on aid and development promises or forsake the bulldozers that may level houses or apartment buildings to make way for schemes of modernization.  Hope is not dependent upon a mushy notion that everything will get better.

In my fast pace of building systems for learning and action I did not take enough time to understand hope. The Christian scripture places hope inside a trilogy, faith, hope and love, the combination of which leads to new life.   Identification of hope should not blind us to depressed, despairing, worn down people who are also present.  But, how do I explain the hope?

There is a common thread in the story of hope.  When people are really engaged with others in the business of constructing a fairer, more just world, the language of hope appears.  It is not hope based on the next election, a windfall profit or success in one of the various lotteries of the world.  It’s a zero sum hope based on confidence that there is a way.  In fact, people of hope have learned not to place too much confidence in the ideal job or next grant cycle.  Hope cannot be measured in monetary graphs.  Hope is present when people take control and responsibility, which is not to say that all of us don’t lose the way from time to time.  That is why real hope is usually sustained by a larger movement.  People of hope live fully in the present moment.  Hope includes the future but does not depend on how the immediate future unfolds.  

I learned from the people who joined in the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT).  They too reflected a healthy dose of this kind of hope.  I noticed the absence of cynicism which might be the opposite of hope.  With very little compensation and considerable danger, people were invited into a journey of risk and away from despair.  It is this hope that gives courage for the methodology that nonviolent love will overcome.  It is hope that gives space for individual, national and racial diversity and allows us to claim unity.  Nevertheless, some of us may be overcome by stress after long periods of being subjected to personal danger or situations of war, cruelty, betrayal or just plain disappointment.  That means it is time to make some space in our schedule to rebuild.  

In the work of CPT daily and weekly I was asked if the financial support was adequate.  We regularly prepared financial reports with as much transparency as could be practically engineered.  Over time I could see that the financial reports never fully created a complete picture of our common life which was part of what people were asking. Of course they did not have language to request information about our current hope index?   We needed money but all the money in the world could not buy the character of hope that held us together on the way.  And, when our hope was clear we could overcome our differences, recreate our faith, and refine our tactics.  The money would come.  When hope was replaced by despair, the money could not save us.   

As I became more attuned to the depth of hope between us and in all communities I realized that our world had a little acknowledged resource, rooted deeply in our DNA.  Sometimes it is expressed in voluntarism and sacrifice. It sustains us over disappointing events and helps us overcome suffering.  Some day I suspect someone will try to quantify hope in individuals, communities, nations, organizations, and religious institutions.  When that happens, we will know with even greater precision the distinction between hope which arises from a deep place within our common life and other forms of optimism which rely upon outside events. 

Hope is that special ingredient that sustains us in ordinary times and keeps us focussed and on track during ridiculous times.  Hope nurtures the courage that is essential when leaps arising from imagination are required.  It gives us energy when wide margins of extra effort  are needed to connect today’s efforts to a broader vision that includes the future and the past as it is lived in the present moment.

Philippines: Team Host Assassinated by peaceprobe
May 7, 2007, 10:22 am
Filed under: Philippines

Usman Ali was one of several people who hosted our recentChristian Peacemaker Teams trip to the Philippines. In the last two years he had been appointed to work with a reconstituted elementary school where operations had previously been suspended due to armed conflict in the surrounding villages. The villages had been attacked by reported government supported groups. Many villagers were forced to flee the most recent event in a long simmering dispute reaching back to the dawn of the American occupation of the Philippines that began in 1898. The dispute which has frequently led to outright war over the last century, is a struggle over fundamental issues of Islamic autonomy and social vision. The conflict in Mindanao is one of the many world wide tentacles where real and imagined terrorists are identified to the post 9/11 world war on terror. For the past two years because of the hard work of local leaders including Usman Ali, a relative calm has prevailed in the villages where Usman served.

Usman Ali was shot by an unidentified assailant. The Philippines is under siege now by extrajudicial killings often carried out by armed masked men riding motorcycles. Legislative elections scheduled for later this month and election violence as a fact of democratic life in the Philippines is used by officials to explain many of these killings. However this thread of abuse has been building for well over a year. Victims are largely rural leaders and organizers known to be critical of the government. The pattern of the killings has similarity from the northern reaches of the 7000 islands to the heart of Mindanao, the large island in the south where this killing occurred in the village of Pikit located some one hundred miles to the west of Mindanao’s largest city of Davao.

A Muslim, Usman was a leader in a community with an expanding body of educated people who operate confidently with non Muslim neighbors. Over snacks in the local elementary schools Usman and others warmly welcomed our group of three peacemakers and regional facilitators who accompanied us. He and his colleagues helped us understand the history and current problems of peace and war. There was an undertone during our visit that suggested to me a residue of deep anxiety that new violence was possible.

As I left from the late January visit to Pikit I felt stretched between joyful waves and smiles from the 20 adults and children who had gathered to welcome us from the surrounding villages and dark hunches that violence may return to this cluster of hamlets. My worries were confirmed last week when I received news of Usman’s death. Usman was a candidate for election from a Muslim – Christian list of candidates for the Philippines national legislature. Usman will never serve in the Philippine legislature but his memory can inspire us all to sharpen our eyes and ears to identify and condemn coordinated assassination strategies when they appear.

Assassination pogroms have been instruments in the hands of many governments and underground groups for generations. Philippine military culture has long enjoyed close ties with the United States government through military and intelligence organizations who refined the art of modern political assassination campaigns in Viet Nam where more than 40,000 persons were killed in the long forgotten Phoenix program. That program was carried out in the year leading up to the end of Viet Nam war which ended in defeat in 1975. Despite legislation prohibiting such behavior in the US and elsewhere arms length initiatives such as the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines persist in our modern cultures of national security. We can honor our deepest commitments to faith, hope and love by seizing the life and death of a single person like Usman Ali to recommit ourselves to ending assassination by using the free space that is available to us to demystify it and condemn it.

Philippines: Peace Talk by peaceprobe
February 10, 2007, 9:13 am
Filed under: Philippines

Peace Talk in the southern island of Mindanao here in the Philippines is definitely in. It’s so “in” that everyone tries to have some kind of program that serves up generous helpings of peace language. The Armed Forces of the Philippines has peace programs, peace houses and training in peace. Local officials talk of peace. NGOs try to get peace and human rights education into the schools. Development agencies now call their programs, Development and Peace projects. In colleges you can study peace and development. Training by mediation groups is widespread often accompanied with the language of peace-building, now the world wide word of preference in peace circles. Occasionally chunks of nonviolence training are incorporated in these seminars.

“Everybody is now using the language of peace here but I would like to know what is really meant by the word?” asked a professor. This writer, a child of Viet Nam war had to hear that question several times before I got myself centered to give an answer in this marketplace of peace. I lived in a time when the word was so controversial that we invented ways to talk about it without using the word so that our audience wouldn’t dismiss us before we reached a little deeper into the mind of the time. We thought it meant to stop the war and stop building the means of war. We thought it meant it meant to stop killing other people to get things to come out right. We learned to steel ourselves for silent rejection, charges of naivete and reasoned arguments. This is a new world. Peace is everybody’s favorite word. I guess people of peace could be happy that the spin masters and public relations agents have discovered our language and made us use it instead of reaching for synonyms.

I tried to make an unscientific collection of what people understand by peace language here. In the military, peace means defeating the insurgencies by killing, persuading, capturing or negotiating the way to an end to the conflict. Sound familiar? For leftists, peace means land to the tiller – read serious redistribution of land and perhaps capital to the people. For Muslims it means governing your own people. For peace and development folks, peace is the goal and the way to get there is through well designed development projects that bring economic growth to people. For the Philippine government, peace means a Presidential Peace Commission charged with the responsibility of negotiating with rebel(s). For some missionaries and churches here the way to peace is to be born again. Converts are said to attend born again churches as opposed to Catholic churches or other churches that emphasize service with the poor or social justice as part of the life of the spirit.

When I visit grass roots groups I listen as they describe three day seminars on peace for the village. There seems to be excitement in the organizer’s voice but I can’t describe the content or the methodology – lecture, reading, role play, discussion, or fact finding and interpretation. When another village tells me of a march for land rights, I think that is probably a fair goal but I know that the peace at the end of that tunnel leads through a welter of bureaucracy and conflict.

A respected NGO leader describes the hard work of preparing for conflict resolution training. I take special note of the research that has been done to discover or highlight existing or forgotten local ways of dealing with conflicts in a manner that violent escalation is avoided. I ask if that research also includes deliberate attempts to understand modes of nonviolent confrontation in traditional societies. I am told that sometimes the training work is viewed as “nicey nicey”, we don’t go into the confrontational questions. But even as I listen and work my way through my questions about polite peacemaking, I sense a momentum here for something called peace, flashes of light in places where stubborn habits of settling things with somebody’s version of sacred violence persists. The similarity to the gun violence of gangs of self appointed armed middle class border marshals, or occupying armies in lands distant from here is striking. But the details and the means of legitimizing violent conflict are different here from those distant and “developed” lands.

I come from a world that loves to view this nation of People Power as a shining example of nonviolent change often mistakenly thinking that this festival of peace that sent President Marcos packing to Hawaii in February 1986 arose in a milieu still waiting to be convinced that nonviolence works. Actually most of the great nonviolent “victories” (we usually only remember the victories and forget to study the defeats) in the last century happened in places like the Philippines.

Today we are teetering at, probing, and testing the language and meaning of peace. I am not sure if we are in a phase where peace is just popular or if we are coming to a place where people recognize that something called peace is a basic human need. The flashes of light that I see across this island carry a little hope that readers deserve to taste. Many of the folks here were pleased when they saw outpouring of peace action (there is that word again) this past week across North America. That told me that they saw something there that might give them a little more space for hope and light.

I know you might like me to give a good reasoned definition of peace now that I have confused you. Either because I am lazy or because I don’t do things this way, I am going to try something different. Since I am in a place where some people believe the land is sacred I thought I would quote something from a Holy Book about peace. It might not satisfy you because it describes a process rather than an end. Maybe you just don’t like the idea of a Holy Book. Whatever! Just give it a chance. People in this part of the earth at least appreciate the language.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

You are the salt of the earth but if the salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to the Parent in heaven. Matt. 5: 9-16

Philippines: Mannequin at Clark Museum by peaceprobe
February 9, 2007, 9:19 am
Filed under: Philippines


The mannequin woman I met in the Clark Field Museum two weeks ago continues to jolt me with challenges about my goals for the last 43 years ever since I first visited the Philippines in 1964. She came to the Islands as a Thomasite more than a century ago to develop a Philippine educational system, patterned after the American experience. As soon as I saw her I knew I had to have my picture taken with her. So I gently held her hand while the cameras clicked. I found her dress quite attractive, however the long sleeves, high neck and floor length skirt made me worry about her ability to adjust to the heat.

I also couldn’t help but take notice that she must have stood out boldly in the town where she was sent, and I worried that her fancy dress might have been easily soiled or muddied as she moved about in the Filipino towns of a century ago. Deep down I cringed first from her size and dominance over the other museum artifacts; and after I thought about it, how her mission so deeply affected and perhaps distorted the development of this Southeast Asian nation. As I held her cold mannequin hand, I was struck with how much the mission that carried her here was still alive in America today and maybe even in me.

The Thomasites were a group of about five hundred pioneer American teachers from Kansas and the other 40 some states sent by the American government to the Philippines in August, 1901, three years after the defeat of the Spanish in Manila Bay in 1898. Though at the same time, Philippine nationlaists had declared an independent Republic, US President William McKinley, after praying to God for light and guidance said, “… we could not leave them to themselves- they were unfit for self-government – and they would soon have anarchy nd misrule over there. There was nothing left for us to do but to take them and educate the Filipinos and uplift and civilize and Christianize them…”

The Thomasites were part of that vision and their mission was to establish a public school system, to teach basic education and to train Filipino teachers, with English as the medium of instruction. The name “Thomasite” came from the transport vessel, the USS Thomas (formerly Minnewaska), that brought the original Thomasites to the shores of Manila Bay. The independence fighters of that era who clung to a Philippine nationalist vision were all eventually overwhelmed by the firepower of the US forces, in battles that in the eyes of history may not have been a victory for anybody.

In August 26, 2001, 100 years after the first group arrived, the U.S. Embassy Charge d’Affaires Michael E. Malinowski commemorated the Thomasites with words that might have been penned to honor humanitarian workers of our own time instead of 100 years ago.

“Young, idealistic American teachers, known collectively as the Thomasites, were responsible for creating the Philippine public school system. Their goal was to offer education to all strata of society and in the process to create the “educated citizenry” which Thomas Jefferson called the foremost bulwark of democracy.

It was this kind of dedication, this spirit of service, which earned these American teachers the love and respect of Filipinos. They were not here for gold or glory. They were here to work with Filipinos — and they did.

Creation of a public school, system in the Philippines moved ahead dramatically… By 1940, only 97 Americans remained. But throughout the Philippines Filipino schoolchildren were learning their lessons from an army of 43,682 trained Filipino teachers.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is an amazing record. The sacrifices made by these pioneering teachers bore treasured fruit. By the time independence came in 1946, the Philippines had the highest literacy rate in Asia and was Asia’s only democracy. That is an achievement which Americans and Filipinos can celebrate together.”

But not everyone is celebrating. Filipinos paid an enormous price for this system. Thousands were killed during the Filipino resistance that lasted until 1915, or depending upon how you read history, until today. There is also a very frank question of the appropriateness of that foreign educational system which is still being cobbled together to make things work. The language of daily life is the local dialect.

The written language of the class room is usually English but the language of classroom lecture or discussion is local with occasional English phrases. And, the language of government is English which is native to no one and Tagolog which is native to only a small percentage. This kaleidescope of words, grammar and phrases has brought literacy at a horrible price to masses of people who think and feel in a local language, but try to be an official citizen through another language system. You may be confused by this explanation. So are millions of Filipinos.

For as long as I can remember people have been telling me that the road to progress leads through education. Questioning such a proposition is risky. Isn’t it good that almost every town and village has a school and that often one sees stately colleges in remote towns, testimony to the universal belief that education is the way out of the traps of life, poverty, pain, sickness – whatever. It’s hard to imagine that 100 years ago we already had a “no child left behind” thinking. It also makes me a little queasy to think that I have shared in more than half of that history and imbibed great helpings of the values and assumptions that purport to be good for humankind everywhere.

Some years ago I attended a gathering of International Voluntary Services, a non-governmental group I joined in 1963 to volunteer with in Viet Nam. My assignment was to do rural educational work which I did for two years. My time with IVS was formative. At that alumnae meeting I learned for the first time that a man named Nafzinger was the first director of IVS and that he first whetted his appetite for international work as a Thomisite in the Philippines. When he left IVS before I joined, he went over to the Peace Corps where he was a key aide to Sargent Shriver who helped organize a new era of American idealism.

All of this was bouncing around in my brain as I took the Thomasite mannequin hand to be photographed. My Filipino friends laughed embarrassingly as I explained to them that the mannequin and all the pictures and artifacts in the museum represent a time capsule that Filipinos and Americans each in their own way need to dissect and understand. For over a century we have built our lives together on a scaffolding that could not and should not have been permanent. In our minds, in our faith, in our families, even in our memories, our roots are distorted. And this makes it hard to grasp a vision. Yes there is hope but probably it’s that tough kind of hope…, the kind that will force me to look behind that need to educate the world. And for others it might be that need to be educated into someone else’s dream, someone else’s way of thinking.

Philippines: More on Lance Corporal Smith by peaceprobe
February 7, 2007, 9:17 am
Filed under: Militarism, Philippines

On an earlier blog entry here you may have read my open letter, Dear Lance Corporal Smith, which appeared early in January. I challenged the Corporal in the letter to transform his situation into a moment of opportunity for himself and his nation by requesting that his superiors rise to the challenge in training and all war making to develop soldiers of the future who cannot and will not violate the integrity and rights of the cultures where they are sent to perform. I also challenged him to consider another kind of soldiering, nonviolent peacemaking. After its posting the letter received a number of responses, some challenging the appropriateness of my letter, and others thanking me for it. Now I am back on the subject once again with a few more musings. I have not received a note from Smith nor have his guards at the US Embassy responded, to my letter.

Here is the story in brief. When I arrived in Manila on the first day I was greeted by news stories about a US Marine rapist who had been arrested by Filipino authorities, tried and convicted in a Filipino court process. However, in a startling late night operation the young Marine had been moved from a Filipino jail to the US Embassy as his case wound it way through the appeals process. The move opened 108 year old wounds about the nature of the Filipino nation and the continuing ability of an imperial grasp to reach within Filipino checks and balances of justice to make things work out for super power needs.

I suspect that somewhere in the belly of the State Department inside the machinery of what is called US foreign policy there was a debate, papers were written and strong arguments made on the appropriateness of such a move. Something similar may have happened within the Filipino government. In the end on both sides there was an agreement to act as the Christmas holidays approached. It was short term needs on both sides that won out over long term healthy process and democracy. The Filipino government needed the support of the American administration one more time because of its weakened condition of public support from its people. The American government needed to get rid of or take control of a cover up of one more military calamity. In the long run everyone is a loser but politics is not very often the art of building deep foundations of trust and deep roots for justice. In our time it is the art of finessing problems in the months and years between elections. Politics is the art of painting the foundation in the hope that no one will notice the termites.

The political analysis was pretty obvious, but how to respond as a helpful actor. The outrage of Flipinos was everywhere. The silence of the international community deafening. Where I came from no one had even heard of the incident and probably never would unless as sometimes happens in human affairs, this rape case becomes one of those flukes of opportunity to tell the truth of life and death in war like Abu Ghraib or My Lai. Suddenly and unexpectedly a single event works its way to the top of world consciousness. This leads to investigations and hearings.

This was the Philippines that I had left 25 years ago, but with a twist. In those days people would say with heads hung low, “Its so hard to fight the empire.” Then they might go on to do just that in their little ways. This time there was a convergence of groups and individuals, a kind of festival uprising like happens in the Philippines when things move ahead a little. Therefore for the first time the people and the state said no, not here, you don’t rape us any more. How many times had there been rapes of Filipino women by American soldiers over the last 108 years. Never once had one of those soldiers been brought to justice under Filipino law. Now it happened. Victory? Yes! But very muted victory because the long reach persists through the late night removal to the US Embassy..

I have been taught that an adult relationship invites looking into the face of unfairness, pain of the past, admission of error. Then there is a process of reconciliation, occasional flashes of light which lead to new confidence and sometimes a new relationship of hope. And this means victims no longer rely upon the habits of victimhood and the abusers forsake the fleeting security of forced relationships. The incident shouted to me from another distant war in Iraq. Old victims need to talk to new victims so that all of us, the children of the invaded and the children of the invader are not trapped forever in a relationship of dysfunction. Some folks my think it hysterical and silly that a convicted rapist could be the instrument for more respectful soldiering. But its not beyond the reach of possibility in this age of surprise.

It is, of course, ridiculous to think that an Iraqi government would invite Filipinos to come and make some suggestions for them on how to limit the social and physical destructiveness of foreign soldiers. It’s ridiculous but of course most of the break throughs in the last century were ridiculous so my little suggestion is my way of keeping hope alive. I have learned to expect surprises and hope for them just like those Filipino festivals of hope that culminate in various manifestations of People Power.