PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Is Neutrality Ever A Good Thing? by peaceprobe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Walking with War On our Mind by peaceprobe
August 23, 2008, 2:28 pm
Filed under: To those who disagree, Walk in Wisconsin 2008

Last week for eight days I joined a walk from Chicago to St. Paul, Minnesota, a seven week trek that will culminate at the Republican National Convention in the opening days of September.  Our numbers varied from fifty participants to ten as we wound our way along highways, town boulevards and bicycle paths in south central Wisconsin towards and along the Mississippi River.  A core group of ten nonviolent practitioners at Voices for Creative Nonviolence began in January to organize foot soldiers like me for this dialogue of the village  For years I have wanted to learn how walks of this nature unfold.  Travel by foot brought me closer to the feel of  Gandhi’s freedom walks and Jesus journey with his handful of disciples through the towns of Palestine.

I had allowed my mind to be tricked into thinking such experiments hold little promise for engaging fast track civilization .  Occasional evening gatherings along the way reminded me of how encouraging a walk can be for local people.  A bicycle and trailer provided replacement water that the summer heat soaked from our bodies.  Walkers learned to massage sore muscles and treat oncoming blisters.   I was enormously thankful that I had prepared by practising with a walk of several miles on alternating days for a month.  From those prep times I learned that after mile five I encounter a boundary created somewhere in my body memory that sends sore signals to my hips.   But, I also learned that I could press through those  physical barriers and that by the following morning the miracle of renewal had occurred because my body felt relaxed.  

Local news outlets prepared people for our coming with generous helpings of announcements, pictures and stories.  “We have been expecting you”, a coffee shop hostess said as I awaited an ice coffee, my luxury for that day.  Her face radiated a backyard or supper table conversation about those walkers coming through and what they are walking for.  Her questions about the mechanics of walking great distance and themes of peace displayed genuine curiosity.  My mind and spirit still has callouses from earlier and shorter walks that I helped plan where I heard angry shouts, “Get a job”, or was given mean gestures and hand signal with the raised middle finger shouting at me.  I didn’t experience any of this in south central Wisconsin.  Horns and waves of support were frequent.  

By tenting in parks, staying with local people or camping in places like the English Lutheran Church (La Crosse) our group enjoyed glorious hospitality, mixed with moments of joy, engaging discussion and occasional times of uncertainty as rain threatened or the distance for the day remained unclear.  Little things caught my attention like the amount of oncoming traffic, the quality of the shoulder on the road, water supply, and even the sign that I carried which grew sticky from sweat.  Wisely, in this journey the organizers had easy to read, firm but respectful signs printed ahead of time thereby avoiding confusion of purpose that can sometimes divide participants.  

Earlier walkers had met with the Wisconsin’s Governor’s staff to challenge his support for another deployment of the Wisconsin National Guard.  The news coverage of the event helped to remind citizens of Wisconsin that the culture of hospitality and decency so apparent in Wisconsin’s community life is not visible in the deployments to Iraq.  By praying, singing, or crossing lines into restricted areas at Camp Douglas and Fort McCoy, the reality of this nation at war and the power of confrontational witness became visible and sometimes  even supported by soldiers.

In my days with the pilgrimage I encountered several veterans and their supporters who are still  fighting the Viet Nam war or its contemporary surrogate, Iraq.   Their words betray inward wounds that have held so much power over our body politic.  Jim Nelson of Onalaska, Wis. reminded me of images I awaken in some of them when I walk.  On August 15 he wrote the following letter to the La Cross Tribune which on the previous day had placed a prominent photo and article about our journey on its front page.  His letter helps us remember a slice of American mythology.  



“Resurging from the Canadian woodwork and hippie havens around the United States, we find old hippies out recruiting young, like minded liberal loonies to provide front page nostalgia for their left-wing ravings once again offered up by the left-wing media as heroes for a cause.  To address the peace walk, let’s all admit that no one “likes” war.  Especially our men and women in uniform.  They all too often pay the ultimate price.  

Our military men and women have volunteered for very dangerous and often times, thankless job.  They follow orders.  Saying that soldiers have made the statement “the war is a bunch of crap” obviously is not a majority opinion.  The mission, goals and objectives may be honorable and achieveable.

There were “peaceniks” around in the 1930 and early 1940s.  Had they prevailed, we would be speaking German or Japanese rather than English, which should be our undisputed national language.  

Western Wisconsin is an area that houses a small nest of radicals who will attempt to disrupt any event they disagree with.  The old hippies and flower children have a refuge in our media.  

Be prepared for the left-wing nut cases and their symbol “footprint” to disrupt the Republican Convention in Minneapolis.  Their history tells us that violence is part of their strategy of dissent, so much for peace.  Here we go again.”  

Lest I become too innoculated with the kindness and niceness that surrounds us in our Wisocnsin village culture this letter reminds me that there is still miles of walking in store before the completion of a party platform for the age of righteousness.

Freedoms We Enjoy by peaceprobe
June 10, 2007, 10:44 am
Filed under: Peacemaker spirit, To those who disagree


Gene, I read your message on Cindy Sheehan. If it would not be for these individuals in the military and also law enforcement, you and Cindy would not have the freedoms you enjoy.

– A. Dale Welty 

Dear Dale,

For at least 10 years I have received regular messages from you firmly staking out a position critical of the work for peace that people like me engage in. I understand that you disagree with what we believe about how peace and security will come. Sometimes I suspect that you would prefer that people like me would just go away and lacking that, be quiet. The fact that you take the time to communicate to us indicates to me that you have not given up on us completely.

I know that I could allow myself to be pulled into a lengthy discussion with you about who is right. But, that might not get us any further now than it has for the many years you have been trying to correct my thinking and action. You know very well that my faith convictions have led me to active nonviolence and that those convictions are rooted in the Gospel of enemy loving. You are also smart enough to recognize that those of us who have freely chosen this path are sometimes inconsistent and maybe even wrong in the way we apply our convictions. But we are learning from our errors and our convictions have even grown deeper.

On the surface there is not much that you and I agree about regarding the use of force and Americas wars. You believe that the only way to achieve security is to use force. I understand that. You probably understand even better than I do how destructive military and police force can be. You believe it is necessary. I believe we can do better and that history including our contemporary world teaches us the possibility of the use of nonviolent power for transformation of people’s hearts and society.

The freedoms that I enjoy came about because groups of people organized themselves to speak, pray, worship, and agitate and they didn’t stop because military, police, or intelligence forces told them to stop. Some gave their lives. Others went to jail or sacrificed careers. There is a price for this way of life which is amazingly similar to the hard price that is paid by soldiers.

On my trips to Baghdad I had occasion to meet many soldiers in my efforts to speak with senior officials about Iraqi detainees and the general human rights situation. In probably 80% of those random and scheduled meetings with soldiers I explained our point of view for the work. I then described the specifics of a case of a disappeared Iraqi or shared our learning from the general trends of human rights that we had experienced with Iraqis. You may be surprised to learn how often soldiers and officers who knew first hand the complexity of the situation would warmly welcome our work. It was not unusual for us to be asked how they could join in such work. We always replied that the work required that the gun be put away for good and that expectations of discipline also required in military work is a characteristic we admire and attempt to integrate in our work too.

Often we concluded the conversation by simply saying that we have one very important commitment already in common. We are prepared not only to organize ourselves for peacemaking but we are prepared to accept the consequences even if the outcome is death. Far more often than you might believe, these encounters closed with a warm handshake or even a hug because we acknowledged the danger and vulnerability of our work.

So Dale, I doubt that this letter or others written by me or colleagues will change your mind immediately. But I do know that we live in a world where the paradigms do change, that someday we may be allies for a specific cause. I am confident that my faith stand is firm and that part of that firmness is an openness to flashes of new light.

Thank you for reminding me of your perspective on freedom. As you know freedoms for peoples of this earth is not yet complete. I believe that we can look into the hearts of humankind and see the hope for an order of reconciled peace that neither you nor I have the imagination to comprehend yet. I hope that we both have the eyes to see the light when it appears.


Gene Stoltzfus