PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Activists: How to Thrive in Recession by peaceprobe
January 13, 2010, 9:44 am
Filed under: Nonviolence | Tags: , , ,

Everywhere I travel grassroots organizations have felt the impact of recession and are worried about their financial future. There is no formula for grass roots organization that will assure an organization’s future or make for growth. Big foundations will continue to fund big organizations and educational bodies who write slick proposals, and governments will continue to support their favourite generally uncritical groups.

Everybody including grass roots change groups face financial challenges just like businesses. Under our economic system if there are profits they are reserved as much as possible for the people at the top. This year Wall Street executives and traders will get bonuses worth 25 billion dollars. Meantime most of us at the bottom already live at subsistence level and took a cut last year. No one else will find a way for us through this financial crisis. Our natural partners overseas, peace groups, community groups, environmental groups are feeling the pinch of less money and hurt even more than we are.

Some of our organization will recover and some will not and as they pass let us celebrate and honour the good work that they have done. Fresh initiatives being born as you read will take their place. Those that recover likely enjoy exceptional leadership and a diverse population of committed participants and supporters who don’t resort to backbiting, gossip or blaming in hard times.

Here are 5 ways to think about thriving in difficult times.

1. A diverse funding base that relies heavily on individuals or community groups, religious bodies is always better than a single source.

I was once a member of an organization that received almost all its support from a single government source. It had done excellent work in grass roots international development even speaking out against U. S government policies during the Viet Nam war. I sat in board meeting after board meeting as we wrung our hands in search of grass roots fund raising models. In the 1990s even the limited government support faded and the organization closed. Nothing worked well enough and the organization had to terminate projects. If early on we had worked for more diversified and community based support I believe we could have continued some very innovative work.

2. In recovery always think about outreach and enlargement of the circle rather than hunkering down and retreating into a mind set of scarcity.

I briefly worked with one organization that had to cut expenditures during an income drop. The process accentuated long held grievances, including sexism, racism, and accusations of hidden favouritism arising from religious convictions. The working atmosphere was barely tolerable. All the organizational consultants in the world could have been only marginally helpful. The experience reminded me of how much work we have to do to enlarge our circles of trust long before the fury of financial crisis explodes. Even without the residue of long held grievances and unfairness there is always a collective psychic cost to lay offs. I know of one group who avoided depleting their collective energy last year during cut backs by agreeing to organization wide pay cuts of 10%.

3. As the crisis of survival unfolds it is tempting to forget the vision that drew the energy of people together. Someone will probably encourage the organization to go on a new vision quest forgetting that a vision quest is usually done by individuals, especially native warriors as they set out early in life. Instead this is the time for a revision quest, a moment to clarify the vision’s pillar that keeps it going financially. If the group has developed a body of individuals who have given financial support over the years, many or all of them may need to be personally visited or phoned to get an honest assessment of what might be possible. In cases where support was limited to one or a few big funders the personal visits are imperative but the problem of funding may be terminal.

4. There are three components of any solid grass roots endeavour, good committed people, a clear explainable program, and money to support it. People who give money out of a sense of wanting to be part of a healthy mission want to know that even in times of crisis, the strategy for coordinating these three pillars are in harmony and attended to. They don’t have to be told that these are hard times. They might like to know that their hopes, thoughts and commitments do count.

5. Even in the most desperate situations there are moments of surprise when unexpectedly good things happen. People who do social justice work with the tools of nonviolence know this but easily forget. It can help to know that the major adjustments that we must face from time to time in organizational work can be grounded in spiritual energy and kindness. The breath of God and the light of the Spirit creates the surprises of unity that otherwise may not be expected.

This is the time to remember that an enduring characteristic of our work is the element of surprise. This is different from magic which is the science of entertainment with manipulation. Surprise and joy lubricated with humour comes in hard times. If you don’t believe me go visit the folks fighting mountain top removal in West Virginia, or to Pakistan where people are overcoming violence in the context of so much craziness, or to the Nevada desert where people are standing against nuclear bombs and drones. In the end the rewards are bigger than our survival. It includes laughing at our mistakes, celebrating an occasional breakthrough, and enjoying a good meal together. By itself the best economy will not buy any of these things. We can create the context for them to happen. That’s where the fun starts.


The Terror of Disappearance by peaceprobe
September 15, 2009, 11:31 am
Filed under: Iraq | Tags: , , , , , ,

The most terrifying condition in a culture where terror is practised is the disappearance of the suspect.  The victim is at the mercy of the captors.  The family is totally devoid of information and feels helpless. Responses from supporters range from outrage to violence or depression.  Absolute uncertainty and raw fear fills the void created by the absence of information.  A person may be tortured, molested, and killed and no one may know for a generation or forever.

State officials normally deny or claim an absence of information that the vanished person is in fact detained.  The final days of Jesus life included attack on his spirit and body.  We don’t know all the details.  However, experiences with US and other foreign forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and domestic armies in Latin America help us fill in some of that detail.  By tuning ourselves more closely to these tragedies we gain greater access to the core of the Jesus we read about in the gospels.  According to a study by the Pew Research Center 62% of white American evangelical Christians polled said it is “often” or “sometimes” justified to engage in torture to gain information from suspected terrorists.  Would a faith that fully understands Jesus’ last days lead contemporary Christians to a more confident life of nonviolent sacrifice?

In my work with Christian Peacemaker Teams I spent time in Baghdad in 2003, four months after the occupation began.  Before I arrived in late July families had already begun to contact the team seeking help and information on disappeared family members who were snatched by American units.  In our search for information on the status of disappeared persons we tried various tactics.  One day we went to Abu Ghraib prison to seek entry and information.

When we arrived we were greeted by hundreds of family members of the disappeared who overwhelmed us with tragic stories.   Because we stopped to listen to some of their appeals for help it took a long time to approach the gates of the prison. We were denied both entry or information. The anger and raw fear outside the gates was palatable.  For several hours we listened.  Some in our group took notes.

In explosive conditions like that day my conscience vacillates between two responses, don’t give false hope or delve deeply into each case.  On the one hand I hesitate to listen too much because even listening is an indication of commitment to find information and create a strategy of intervention.  At Abu Ghraib on that particular day my colleagues and I had no response method for individual cases except to publicize the trends through our church and human rights channels.  This was not enough.

My second response was to lean more deeply into each individual case to follow through with specific actions and to accompany the fear stricken families to the few offices in the occupation administration that existed.  We had tried that route before with no success.  With hundreds screaming for help we were overwhelmed.  In those days we could have set up a table for complaints outside of Abu Ghraib every day and we could have taken stories from sun up to sun down. Such a strategy would could have been dangerous but danger is inherent in authentic nonviolent work. We didn’t do that in part because we had so few ways to help the desperate family members.  Maybe we should have.

On another day we went to Baghdad Airport to seek information about prisoners held there too.  Once again we encountered hundreds of persons outside the gates who were beside themselves seeking information on disappeared family members.  Again we were overwhelmed with stories.  The American guards tried to help.  A sargent even went to get his lieutenant to talk to us.  He could not help.  Finally, in desperation the sargent pleaded with us to go but promised to take the matter up with his colonel, the senior officer .  We never heard anything and the disappearances continued as house raids increased throughout Baghdad.  Later we went to military bases, holding areas and restricted offices set up to support Iraqis where we encountered more scenes of desperate people literally grasping for help and information.  Only months later when a low level military person gave us access to a data base of detainees were we able to provide at least rudimentary information for some desperate families.

Each day before we departed on these missions of fact finding and intervention among foreign soldiers we gathered for prayer, reflection and strategizing.  We were reminded of the efforts of Jesus’ followers and family to keep track of him during his interrogation, trial and execution.  Little did we know that Jesus’ last days of torture were being reenacted inside the walls of the places that we visited.  We saw his bold and pushy follower, Peter, in a new light.  We remembered Peter’s denial as he sat in the courtyard around the fire with the religious leadership who instigated the arrest.  But now we recognized the Peter within ourselves who went to the place of disappearance, interrogation and mocking to try to track Jesus’ treatment.  Peter wanted to protect the disappearing one, but his own survival meant denial of association, a kind of quick interim ethic that shows its face among allies convinced they must help the targets of torture..

We remembered the women of Jesus’ life at the execution and seeking the body at the tomb in order to perform the rites of death and purification of the corpse. For them, disappearance of the corpse was shocking.  Even the apparent appearance of two unexpected persons at the tomb did not overcome their terror until their memories were jolted about his earlier words.  When they went to inform friends and supporters of Jesus’ absence from the tomb the story was treated as an idle tale.  Belief, disbelief, rumours, depression, and urgent attempts to do something and keep the network informed, are all present in this story, a story that reflects the culture of the disappeared and their supporters today.

In the modern world we have two widely acknowledged resources to follow the disappeared.  The International Committee for the Red Cross is charged by international customary law to make contact between prisoners and their families through letters.  In August 2003 the Baghdad offices of the ICRC were bombed, severely curtailing the ability of the ICRC from doing its work in the unfolding emergency.  Secondly, we have the widely established principal of habeas corpus in modern law, a writ ordering that the prisoner be brought before a judge in order to protect the prisoner from illegal imprisonment.  Those rights were suspended for detainees in Iraq.

Disappeared (the word is now used as a verb) detainees is one of the most terrifying forms of control that political authorities engage in.  According to the UN more than 70 countries have  “disappeared” people since 1980.  The story of the interweaving of the culture of fear surrounding the arrest of Jesus is one in the long history of the use of this tactic to control populations.

Among Peter and the women who were close to Jesus we see a very personal and moral response more akin to what families everywhere must do in their reach for information and hope.  At Abu Ghraib I learned that our responses in those moments calling for urgent action are determined by a lifetime of preparation.

Afghanistan: The Right to Life by peaceprobe

In the heart of Kandahar, Afghanistan (population 450,000) a bomb went off last week killing 43 people.  “Anything can happen to ordinary Afghans. We are not safe. We are without value. We have no right to life,” said one victim whose family is among the living wounded.  Who does he turn to?  Who will speak for his family?

In 2002 I was in Afghanistan with Christian Peacemaker Teams.  It was a time of change.  Our peacemaking mission was welcomed.  People allowed themselves to dream that the 20 years of war that began when the Soviets invaded might be ending. I returned home hoping that we could place peacemakers there because I saw signs that suggested unarmed violence reduction could augment what villages, groups, and individuals already had, based upon their own patterns of peacebuilding developed over generations.

I listened to village elders describe how they deal with violence, murder and injustice.  I heard people describe the bombs that fell near or on their homes after 9/11.  I was surprised by people’s candour, their hospitality and their confident formulas for conflict resolution.  I am old enough to know that hospitality may be a means of masking the truth, but I also know that by accepting their generosity we each became surer of one another’s sincerity.

I saw rubble and rusting hulks from the Soviet period, the acres and hectares of destroyed city where warlords once fought for spoils.  On the road to Bagram Air Force Base I witnessed deserted fields, irrigation systems and villages where crops of wheat and vegetables once fed people of Kabul.  “Where have you been all these years?”  asked an Afghan when he heard we were sent from the people working for peace.  Similar sentiments came from others too, in small gestures of kindness and big dreams shared privately over tea.

I learned from seasoned Afghans that armed and uniformed soldiers would have great difficulty creating the conditions for reconciliation.  Even as a civilian I was not convinced that I had a secret instrument for peace.  I wanted to be honest but worried that Taliban and the war lords would ignore my fumbling peace probes.  Being a foreigner particularly an American didn’t help.  After decades of work in conflict situations I had learned to live with my uncertainty.   My instinct told me to test and try various words, actions, suggestions in conditions where violent conflict resolution had become routine.   Surprise!  Something usually works even when society seems to be coming apart .

The signs of the futility of foreign military intervention have been there for at least eight years, and for centuries for those of us who take the time to read the pointers in Afghan history.  When a nation is submerged in the political economy of war, turning the dial towards a peaceful direction is more difficult than juggling American citizens to consensus for health care reform.  The promise of more foreign troops erects an even higher threshold.

Neither drones, nor F-15s nor brilliantly trained marines can find the path to harvest a new political economy where the things that make for peace sprout and blossom.  If the dominant threads of development, crop improvement and infrastructure, are combat-clothed, security is lost for everyone.   Suspicion, and opportunism always win in conditions of war.  We should not be surprised by the daily rants from the foreign press describing corruption and opportunism. War and development don’t mix.  Even the recent elections are exercises in political entertainment, devoid of trust.  Our huge social-cultural mind set that violence can be redemptive does not work.

As American or Canadian or British soldiers continue to depart for the conflicted front I hope someone tells them about the kindness of the Afghan people.  I hope the soldiers can listen in ways that generations before them would not or could not.

If they do listen they may come home early, not because of bullet wounds or truck bombs, but because they learned that they were sent into a conundrum of the impossible.  They will remember the wise voices in the villages where they took extra time to listen.  For some foreign soldiers those voices will resonate within because their hearts have been prepared.  For them this will launch a new vision that includes all of humanity.  I want to support them.

The US and its NATO partners are tired.  The people of Kandahar are tired.  Everyone is less secure.  The 2500 Canadian soldiers in Kandahar, like their partner to the south are stuck.  The government of Canada, its people and its soldiers anxiously await 2011 when the government has promised to end the military “mission”.  Meantime the United States is preparing to send 20,000 additional soldiers.  Without a “right to life” where is the hope?  The way we invest in Afghanistan is more costly and treacherous than security swaps on Wall Street.  Must we wait until all sides are exhausted to end it?

For the past 8 years I have been thinking about what we can do for Afghans who ask, “Where have you been”?  Peace people, let us find our voices. Here are three suggestions.

1.  Listening delegations can be organized to spend time in Afghanistan to learn and feel the void of meaning in the violence.  Their experience will rev up all of us to engage.

2.  Local efforts of listening to returning soldiers will help them sort out their story and complete at least a piece of our own.  What have they learned from the Afghan people?  about war?  about this war?  about themselves?  about what is worth living for or dying for?

3.  When the town meetings happen or the legislative telephones wait to ring, how about a simple message, “The Afghan War is bad for my health”.

Find the local and national organizations who are already working on these items.

For people of faith there must be a response for the words from Kandahar, “We have no right to life.”  When I came back from Afghanistan in 2002 despite my best efforts I could not find the people and financial support to place teams in the field there.  A whole team of peacemakers could have been placed there for the cost of just one foreign soldier.  And for the cost of another soldier several local teams could have been trained and put to work.  Those bold words are still calling out to me.  “Where have you been all these years?”  And, where are we now?