Peace activists are often accused of being naïve dreamers when it comes to dealing with conflict or dangerous enemies.
So what is the alternative? Usually it’s to fight fire with fire (i.e., revenge and retaliation).
The very nature of peacemaking, however, is not to fight but rather to confront “the opponent” with intelligence, craftiness, humor and a thirst for justice. We have some splendid examples of this approach in Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, just to name a few. Skeptics recoil and sputter that such people were exceptions.
However, let’s not forget that these “peace heroes” inspired ordinary people to follow them and choose to become part of a movement for change.
Skeptics also claim that the American “sheeple” cannot be moved because they are asleep, unaware, too numb and too busy to care about injustices. They also say it is impossible to fight against the awesome power of Corporate America, Big Government and other power brokers.
OK, then maybe that’s a cue for peace activists’ next challenge: How can we inspire others so deeply that they choose to form a movement for change from violence and war to peace; from hatred to love; from revenge and retaliation to forgiveness and reconciliation; from an obstinate refusal to communicate to negotiation?
Let’s look at some recent examples of the impossible.
On October 2, 2006, ten Amish girls were gunned down in a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.
A community known for its gentleness, religious faith and the rejection of modern technological society had been severely violated. However, within six hours of the shooting, Amish leaders reached out to family members of the killer to let them know that they forgave him and still regarded them as part of the community.
The typical Amish attitude about forgiveness is: “We have to forgive others so that God will forgive us.” They formed this outlook on life 300 years ago when their ancestors, the Anabaptists, were persecuted and tortured by Catholic and Protestant religious authorities who objected to their belief in a second baptism. And even as they were burning at the stake, those same Anabaptist martyrs forgave their persecutors, just as Jesus did to his persecutors during his crucifixion 2,000 years before.
The Amish practice of humility, submission and patience “provides them with an enormous capacity to absorb adversity, forgo revenge and carry on-gracefully,” say the authors of Amish Grace, a book about the Nickel Mines community’s response to this terrible tragedy. It was forgiveness that opened everyone to grace and everyone and everything was suddenly changed.
April 27, 1994, marked the day apartheid ended and all of South Africa voted. Nelson Mandela, who had been released from prison after 27 years with 18 in solitary confinement, was elected South Africa’s first black president.
Mandela’s victory became even more incredible when he called on the post-apartheid government’s efforts to create peace and equality among the races. He did this by getting the new government to pass a general amnesty toward those who were guilty of the crimes and atrocities of apartheid as long as they made a full disclosure of all the facts of their activities.
The victims of apartheid would likewise waive their right to sue for compensation and instead accept reparations. Reparations, then, became a symbolic gesture of the nation that bore the victims’ pain and trauma. Mandela’s underlying assumption was that peace in South Africa could only be won when the people admitted that evil was present in everyone.