Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Courage of Peacemaking

Like many others, I have been dismayed that members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams have been taken hostage in Iraq by a group called the Swords of Righteousness Brigade. Martin Kelley has compiled good web sources of information and commentary. There are two commentaries I would especially like to reflect on.

Johan Maurer on Can You Believe? in his entry "Define 'reckless'" notes:

A New York Times story (November 29) included the following assessment: "A human rights advocate in Baghdad, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Christian Peacemaker Teams have acted with reckless disregard for their own safety by moving unprotected through communities generally hostile to the foreign presence."

And Johan's response, in part, was:

Everything we have heard from participants in the Christian Peacemaker Teams demonstrates that their "disregard for their own safety" was anything but reckless. (If I understand correctly, "reck-less" means "without reckoning.") ... My interpretation of their reckoning: There is no true community and no true security outside the realm of love.

I very much appreciate Johan's response.

The whole notion of peacemakers having "reckless disregard for their own safety" reveals such a deep misunderstanding of what peacemaking is all about. What if a reporter was writing instead about more U.S. military deaths in Iraq, and added, "the U.S. soldiers acted with reckless disregard for their own safety"? It may be a true statement. It may be that war, by definition, is the most extreme form of acting "with reckless disregard for one's own safety." Yet if that sentence were published, imagine the outrage! "We can't blame the soldiers! We can't blame the U.S. military! Soldiers are brave! They are willing to risk their lives for service to their country! They are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice!" would likely be the predominant response from the U.S. public.

Soldiers, we know, are trained to courage. They know they face the risk of injury or death. And so we do not regard their facing danger as "reckless."

The question that has most haunted me about peacemaking is: "How is it possible to have the courage to be willing to walk straight into conflict unarmed?" Because of course peacemakers too know that they are taking a risk. Peacemakers have to have every bit as much courage as soldiers, if not more -- because, after all, peacemakers remain unarmed.

This relates now to the next posting I would like to respond to: Zach Alexander on A quaker anarchist wrote in Testimony to Peace about the courage required to engage in peacemaking work, and personally struggles with the challenge of this. He sees how necessary it is that some be willing to do this kind of work, take on this kind of risk. He sees the potential power of requiring young people to engage in such work. And yet, he wonders at the potential cost -- what he might sacrifice in terms of dreams about his own life, and what the world might lose if he got killed instead of going on to make a difference in some larger, more significant way.

These hugely important questions require careful discernment. I believe that each of us is called differently in life. Some are called to work actively (and at great personal risk) for peace. Others are called to contribute to the world in different ways. And callings may change throughout one's life.

But the question of courage is an especially important one, requiring special attention. Courage cannot simply be willed. Nor is it something that one either is born with or not. Courage requires cultivation. And the cultivation of the kind of courage required for effective peacemaking can take time.

The military knows this, and trains people in courage. I'm assuming that many peacemaking organizations do so as well (though differently from how the military does it!) Those that don't really need to do so.

And we as individuals can learn ways to cultivate our own courage, and can support each other in doing so. An important part of cultivating courage is to develop the habit of facing our fears fully, and thinking in advance about how we might respond if fearsome things happen to us. Fearsome events catch us by surprise and focus our attention very narrowly on self-protection. An important part of nonviolent courage is learning how to widen perception back out to some form of "caring" for "the enemy" as well, and looking for the creative response that would not only protect oneself, but protect the "enemy" from doing something terrible that they might later regret.

So, I pray for Tom Fox, Norman Kember, James Loney, and Harmeet Singh Sooden to find courage. I pray that they seek ways of responding to their predicament that would be disarmingly transformative. I pray that their captors come to realize what amazing people these are, and how tragic it would be if they killed them. I pray for some surprise outcome that ends up dramatically and positively furthering the cause of peace in the world.


  1. Actually, my blog's name is called A quaker anarchist :) It's an honest mistake though, because Blogger has thought my tagline was my title, and I've only just now figured out how to fix that without messing up the visuals.

    It's interesting what you say about courage needing to be cultivated, not just willed. That might be another way of saying what I said early in the post: the missing piece isn't any elaborate argument; the missing piece is the virtue of courage.

    Just for the record, I wasn't suggesting that we (whoever we is) require more Quakers to go abroad on CPT-like missions, just wondering what might happen if it (voluntarily) became universal. I realize my parallel with universal military conscription probably gave a lot of people that impression though.

  2. Sorry about getting the name of your site wrong -- I'll correct it.

    And thanks for your clarifications!

  3. And I would like to refer you to Simon Fisher's 2004 Swarthmore Lecture Spirited Living. There, he eloquently proposes us to become more professional in our peacemaking. He does not mean more full-time CPTs maybe paid by peace taxes. What he means comes from his definition of peace as the way of transformation to a life of less violence and more love - some would say a life of disciples, others a life of mindfulness. What he means by professional is "serious." The serious spiritual endeavour of peacemaking. A spiritual endeavour can only be serious (and a blast at the same time). Serious means as near to 100% as you can get.
    Now courage means for onething the opposite of mindless. So acting without minding cannot be courageous. But then courage is what makes you go and follow the lead when you know - in all your mindfulness - that you have to go. That is why "courageous" people would usually refuse to be called that way and insist that they just did what they had to do.
    A nurse can be a courageous peacemaker by helping old people let go of their aggressions and find peace, finally find away to understand the miracle of life. A teacher, a doctor, a garbage collector. All peacemakers. I doubt about the car mechanic - but maybe in her afterhours ...
    Have a prayerful day.

  4. Dear Scholar, thanks for your kind words.

    Sehen, I agree with your comments and I also appreciated Simon Fisher's book (the lecture version is available as pdf from this link).

    I still want to leave room for those who are spiritually gifted and recognized as "released" or "full-time" peacemakers. (Simon Fisher himself, for example.) What I don't want to see is a perpetuation of the divisions in our meetings and churches that get started when the activist subculture becomes isolated from people of other gifts and temperaments.

    Fisher's book expresses it nicely in chapter 8 of the printed version (pages 10 and 11 of the pdf), where he talks about combining the best of the amateur and the professional, and not dodging the implications for how we treat leadership roles.


  5. Dear Sehen and Johan,

    Thank you so much for your comments and for the reference! I look forward to reading Simon Fisher's lecture! (At the moment, I've been busy wrapping up the semester's courses, but soon more contemplative time will open up for me again!) I very much appreciate all that you both said.


  6. A later update: Not only have I now read Spirited Living, I had a chance to meet Simon Fisher when I was in the U.K. Very inspiring!