Witnessing to Peace in the 21st Century

“Working for Peace: Our peace testimony in the 21st century” was the theme of this year’s annual meeting of Dutch Quakers – Netherlands Yearly Meeting – which took place a few weeks ago. This subject is very dear to my heart, as is surely obvious to those of you who are familiar with my blog. Witnessing to peace is central to my understanding of what it means to be a Quaker.

Note that it is “witnessing to peace”, rather than “working for peace”, which I believe to be significant. As disciples of Jesus, we witness to the peace which God gives us. George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement in the 17th century, told Cromwell’s commissioners that he “lived in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars”. There is a life and power which is life-giving and life-supporting. This is a much better defence against all that threatens to damage or destroy us than any use of military force or violence would be.

When we live in the virtue of that life and power, our lives become a witness to God’s peace. We become peaceable people who have no need to resort to violence. Whenever we do violence to a fellow human being, we demonstrate a lack of faith in God.

Living in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars, and following the leadings of God’s spirit of love, may well lead us to work for peace in various ways. But at all times we need to put our faith in God rather than in anything that we can do. As soon as we begin to trust our own judgement and to put our faith in our own actions, we risk making matters worse when we become engaged in conflict.

On the Saturday morning at Netherlands Yearly Meeting Antal (“Toni”) Frei, pastor of the Evangelical Friends Church in Hungary, reminded us of our calling to be peacemakers who are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told those who had gathered to hear him: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God”.

Paul of Tarsus, in his second letter to the Christian community in Corinth (2 Corinthians 5:17-20), wrote: “Therefore, if someone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come. All this is the work of God. He has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation. It is God who through Christ reconciled the world to himself, he has not charged the world its violations. And he has committed to us the word of reconciliation. We are ambassadors for Christ, God makes his appeal through us. On behalf of Christ, we beg you, be reconciled to God!”

During the weekend we were reminded now and then of the prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi, which begins: “Make me an instrument of your peace.” I prefer the translation: “Make me a channel of your peace”. Maybe God uses us as instruments. I don’t know. But I find it more helpful to think of opening myself to God’s spirit of love, so that God’s peace can flow through me into whatever situation I find myself in, especially when I’m in a situation of conflict.

Each day during the weekend we met in small base groups. I’m grateful for the depth of sharing that I experienced in the group that I was in. When we introduced ourselves on Friday evening, we shared our experiences of being peacemakers. When we met after breakfast on Sunday morning, we shared our ideas about the next steps which we might take as peacemakers.

I noted down and shared a number of thoughts and ideas:

  • My first next step is to write a blog – as I’m doing now!
  • This week my wife and I are taking part in the German Protestant Kirchentag (church gathering) in Stuttgart.
  • I’m going to look out for “The Gentle Art of Blessing” by someone-or-other Pradervand, a book which was recommended to us by a member of our base group.
  • During the coming months I want to do what I can to facilitate a smooth transition during a changeover of staff at the Quaker Council for European Affairs, where I work.
  • I am planning to move house within the next couple of months, in which case I shall want to support the peace work of Quakers there and play a more active part in the life of the Laurentiuskonvent, an ecumenical community committed to working for justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.
  • I will continue to translate articles for Church and Peace, the European peace church network.
  • And as background or context for my peacemaking activities I will take the Charter for Compassion, a multifaith commitment to compassion as the basis for all our actions.

Wish me luck! – or rather God’s blessing.

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Kindness

This morning I read a short poem by the 14th century poet Hafiz:

Once a young woman said to me, “Hafiz, what

is the sign of someone who knows God?”

I became very quiet, and looked deep into her

eyes, then replied,

“My dear, they have dropped the knife. Someone

who knows God has dropped the cruel knife

that most so often use on their tender self

and others.”

We need to be kind to ourselves as well as to others. How else can we love our neighbours as ourselves?

Jesus tells his disciples to “love one another, as I have loved you”. And he tells us to love our enemies as well. Somewhere in the Old Testament we are told “If your enemy is thirsty, give him something to drink.” We are to be kind to our enemies as well as to our friends.

We need to be sensitive to each other’s needs. If we see that someone is thirsty, we can give them something to drink. If we see that they are hungry, we can give them something to eat. If we see that someone is struggling under a heavy burden, we can try to carry a share of the burden or provide support in some way. We should, at the very least, avoid adding to their burden.

As well as giving to our neighbours, we need to receive what they have to give us. Healthy relationships depend on give and take on both sides. I’m reminded of the chorus, or it might just be the first verse, of a song which I have often joined in singing at ecumenical events or on the odd occasions when I’ve attended an Anglican church service:

Brother, sister, let me serve you

Let me be as Christ to you.

Pray that I may have the grace to

Let you be my servant too.

There is an ancient story told in various parts of Asia – you may well know it – about heaven and hell. In hell a large number of people are sitting around a table laden with food, but they are all starving, because the spoons that they each have are too long for them to be able to feed themselves. In heaven, the situation is virtually identical: people sitting around a table laden with plentiful food. They even have the same long-handled spoons. The only difference is that the people are feeding each other. No-one is going hungry. And everyone is having a great party!

So let us be kind to one another. Let us persist in being kind even to those who hurt us. Perhaps they will, given time, be kind to us in return. If not, no harm is done by our being kind to them. And it may be that those who hurt us are themselves most in need of kindness. We also hurt each other unintentionally, due to a lack of sensitivity or a failure in communication. We need then to forgive one another and accept forgiveness from one another. We need to be able to forgive and to recognise our own need for forgiveness. Forgiveness is an act of kindness not only towards the person who has hurt us, but also an act of kindness towards ourselves. Harbouring bitterness or a grudge seriously damages our spiritual health. On the other hand, few things do more for our spiritual health than being kind to one another. So let’s drop the knife!

Peace

“I told (the Commonwealth Commissioners) I lived

in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.”

George Fox

 

Peace is about people living in right relationship with each other and with the planet. Peace is about justice and wellbeing for everyone. No individual can live in peace, unless the whole community is at peace.

“Shalom”, the Hebrew word for peace in the Bible, encompasses the wellbeing of the whole community. Shalom is characterised by just and peaceful relationships.

“Pax”, peace imposed by force, is not peace at all. It may be better than open warfare, but it serves to perpetuate systems of injustice.

During the Pax Romana of the Roman Empire Jesus challenged unjust laws which allowed a soldier to compel a peasant to carry his pack, a landowner to take the cloak of someone who was unable to pay a debt, or the master of a house to humiliate a servant by hitting him across the face with the back of his hand. Walter Wink has described how Jesus advocated imaginative forms of nonviolent action as a way of overcoming the violence of unjust laws and customs: carrying a soldier’s pack beyond the one-mile limit, giving the landowner one’s shirt as well as one’s cloak, turning the other cheek to the master of the house.

Jesus wasn’t advocating meek submission. He was encouraging poor folk to harness the power of active nonviolence, to stand up for themselves whilst at the same time demonstrating goodwill towards their oppressors. He told his followers: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you and spitefully use you.”

Martin Arnold, a retired German protestant pastor, has coined the term Guetekraft for the power of active nonviolence, the power of goodness. In four volumes Martin explains how Guetekraft, “goodness-power”, works – even against a ruthless dictator. Martin’s books are the fruit of research into the life and works of three practitioners of nonviolence who have successfully employed Guetekraft: Hildegard Goss-Mayr, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Bart de Ligt.

It is because Guetekraft is powerful, that we do not need to resort to armed violence, which is invariably counterproductive, as Holly Near points out in the chorus of her song, “Foolish Notion”: “Why do we kill people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong? What a foolish notion that war is called devotion, when the greatest warriors are the ones who stand for peace.”

If we live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars, as George Fox did, we will not be persuaded to join an army, however just their cause may seem to be.

Violence cannot be overcome with violence. Violence breeds hatred and further violence.

On the other hand, peace grows from the seeds of peace. Small gestures of goodwill begin the creation of a climate of trust in which antagonists can eventually cooperate to dismantle systems of injustice. It may be a long and painful process, but it is far more likely than military action to bear the fruits of peace.

Key to the way in which Guetekraft works is the willingness to accept the costs of engaging in nonviolent action rather than do violence to one’s opponent. Peace warriors may sometimes be called upon to make the greatest sacrifice as Jesus did. Franz Jaegerstaetter, the Austrian farmer who was executed because he refused to serve in Hitler’s army, comes to my mind.

Millions of soldiers died in the First World War. What a fruitless undertaking!

When he was dying, Jesus prayed for those who tortured him. He is the Christ within us, the life and power in whom we live and move and have our being.

Jesus told his disciples: “My peace I leave you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives peace do I give you my peace.”

This war-torn world of ours is very much in need of peace – in Syria, in Palestine and Israel, in Ukraine, and in northern Iraq.

Britain is in need of peace too. A society in which significant numbers of people have to go to food banks to get enough to eat is not a peaceful one. And Britain’s possession of weapons of mass destruction makes the world more dangerous and less peaceful.

The world is in need of the peace that Jesus gives. We are called as individuals to be peacemakers. And we are called as communities of faith to be a force for peace in the world.

It is hardly surprising that we have got into the habit of thinking that life is a right to be defended. But we need to think of life, like peace, as a gift to be shared.

There are Quakers serving with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). I know of a Friend serving with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Ukraine. And there are Quakers serving in Afghanistan and in northern Iraq.

By no means all of us are called to this kind of service. There is much that we can do to foster peaceful community relations wherever we happen to live. And we can play our part in the peace campaigning and advocacy work of our faith community. When we join together with other faith communities and harness the power of goodness, we will become a force to be reckoned with.

Where is the Palestinian Mandela?

It has been reported that a 14-year-old Palestinian boy, Wajih Wajdi al-Ramahi, was shot dead yesterday by an Israeli sniper whilst walking near his school in Jalazun, a refugee camp north of Ramallah.

The boy’s father said that he was shot by an Israeli soldier from a watchtower in nearby Bet El. “He was hit directly in the back, and there were no clashes in the area.”

“Clashes” usually take the form of stone-throwing by Palestinian youths, which is met with tear-gas and rubber-coated steel bullets by the Israel Defence Forces. Perhaps the boy had been involved in “clashes” in the recent past and was singled out by the sniper. His father said that “Israeli soldiers target youths and kill them, in order to amuse themselves”.

Perhaps the soldier who killed Wajih Wajdi al-Ramahi wanted to avenge the death of an Israeli soldier who was stabbed by a Palestinian whilst sleeping on a bus a week or so ago.

Will Wajih Wajdi’s brothers now seek revenge? It is unlikely that anyone will be tried for his murder. Israeli soldiers literally get away with murder, as we have seen in the case of a young Palestinian who was shot dead with a tear-gas canister at very close range two years ago. The soldier who fired the tear-gas canister out of the back of a vehicle claimed that he couldn’t see the young man and has recently been acquitted in court.

I can’t condone Palestinian relatives of murder victims taking revenge on Israeli soldiers, who are mostly young conscripts. But it is understandable that they should want to do so. It is perhaps also understandable that young Israelis should want to avenge the death of a comrade.

So where will it all end? Jesus said, as he was being arrested, that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. I think it was Gandhi who said that “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” would leave everyone blind and toothless.

Jesus had the answer. He advised his listeners, who were suffering under the Roman occupation, to turn the other cheek, to go an extra mile, and to give their shirt as well, when their coat was taken from them.

Walter Wink has explained how each of these actions would have been a form of nonviolent resistance. Roman legionaries, for example, were allowed to force a local peasant to carry their pack for one mile only. If the peasant were to continue to carry the pack for more than a mile, the soldier could get into trouble. I can imagine a soldier pleading with a peasant to give him his pack back. The soldier might begin to question whether it is right and just for him to demand that a peasant carry his pack in the first place. He might even begin to question the legitimacy of the occupation.

Until the time of Constantine Christians were forbidden to serve in the army. If a soldier became a Christian, he had to leave the army. The three historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers, and the Church of the Brethren) all sought to revive the discipleship of the early Christian Church. They all promote active nonviolence as the way to overcome injustice and oppression.

In Palestine today it isn’t only Christians who are advocating nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation. Muslims are advocating this too.

Sometimes people ask: Where is the Palestinian Mandela? Well, maybe there are thousands of Palestinian Mandelas. Most of them are probably in Israeli jails. And some of them have been shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

Sabeel

If you get off at the right bus stop on the way from Ramallah into Jerusalem, you will find yourself just a few yards from the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre. “Sabeel” is an Arabic word meaning “the way”, a “channel” or “spring”. In this case “Sabeel” refers to the Way of Christian discipleship.

As well as the Centre in Jerusalem, Sabeel is “an ecumenical grassroots movement among Palestinians”, which “seeks to make the Gospel contextually relevant, and strives to develop a spirituality based on justice, peace, nonviolence, liberation, and reconciliation for the different faith communities”.

I spent much of yesterday and today at the Centre in East Jerusalem, helping with preparations for the ninth international conference of Sabeel, which will be held in Jerusalem next week. Friends of Sabeel will be coming from the USA, Canada, Sweden, the UK, one or two other European countries, and Brazil. An unknown number of Palestinians will be joining the 180 participants who are expected from overseas.

Before lunch today a group of Friends of Sabeel from the USA arrived in time for the weekly communion service, presided over by Naim Ateek, an Anglican priest who is director of Sabeel. The Gospel reading was from Luke’s Gospel.

Some Sadducees, who didn’t believe in resurrection, asked Jesus what would happen in heaven after a woman had been married to each of seven brothers in turn after each one died. When she then also died, to which of the seven brothers would she be married in heaven? Jesus explained that people would not be married in heaven. And he went on to tell the Sadducees that God is the God of the living and not of the dead. Moses recognised God in the burning bush as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, implying that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alive.

Instead of a sermon, Naim Ateek shared some reflections on the two Bible passages which had been read and invited other people to share their thoughts. Naim highlighted the contrast between Muslim and Christian Zionist fundamentalists on the one hand and followers of Jesus, who focus on living a life of discipleship during this life, on the other hand.

Both Muslim and Christian Zionist fundamentalists focus on life after death. Muslim fundamentalists imagine that if they are martyred whilst killing their enemies, they will enjoy a life of pleasure and comfort in heaven. There was mention of the stabbing a day or two ago of an Israeli soldier by a 16-year-old Palestinian who had crossed the border from Jenin into Gallilee.

Christian Zionists seek to hasten Christ’s second coming and are not at all concerned about people, Palestinians in particular, who suffer injustice today. Their support for Israel’s Zionist colonisation of the West Bank is extremely destructive.

In contrast, Jesus’ option for the poor and his option for nonviolence form the basis of our discipleship. And discipleship is about how we live our lives in this world, never mind what we imagine might happen in the next.

I’m looking forward to learning more about Sabeel’s theology and praxis during next week’s conference.

Unfortunately, it will be difficult for Palestinians from the Occupied Palestinian Territories to take part. They need to obtain a permit for entry into Israel. Jean Zaru, the presiding clerk of the Quaker Meeting in Ramallah, is scheduled to speak at the conference. But she has been refused a permit. So she is having to put in a new application…