Christian Peacemaker Teams’ mission is “Building partnerships to transform violence and oppression.” It seems to me Jesus did that by nonviolently walking all the way to the cross in solidarity with the human race, the very same folks that would kill him and, in doing so, we in a strange way unleashed restorative justice and love. What is more important words or actions? Jesus’ speaking the Beatitudes to us, or Jesus’ passion acted out on the cross? One of my favorite people, Cornel West, says, “Love in private is tenderness; love in public is social justice.” One of my favorite Texans, Molly Ivins, the great political activist and journalist who died 2007, once said, “Folks often ask me, Molly, most of your causes are losing battles, so why fight them?” And her response was, “You may be right, but fighting them with all your heart may be the only truly good fun you ever have.” I say our words must inspire our actions, and both must be a kind of poem to our Loving Creator. In doing this peace and cooperation can break out when you least expect it.
We do win our battles, every time I learn how to be more human, more loving, by developing relationships, friendships, with those such as the Palestinian people in the town of Old Hebron, whom the western powers that be are oppressing, keeping under boot heal, and yet, these people extended to me hospitality and hope, a thirst for reconciliation, friendship, and nonviolent partnership for peaceful transformation, a kind not found in my home city of Houston, Texas, or most other places I visit in the west. It’s no secret that we have become an “I” society, and the truth is, the Palestinians are much more of a “we” community. So, my solidarity with the Palestinians of Old Hebron feeds me, I believe, transforms me into more of a man of action, action that creates peace. By me taking action, ironically, they give me the gift. And by taking it with CPT’s team in Old Hebron, which has developed a decade and a half of relationship building and peacemaking together with our Palestinian partners, I get to stand on the shoulders of all that trust. The Palestinian people great you with warm smiles and big hellos as you walk the streets with your red CPT hat on.
On our delegation we met with many Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers, and there is one particular story I’d like to share with you. CPT’s presence in the village of A’twani, for several years CPT assisted the community until it got a point in which the people of A’twani felt CPT’s ongoing presence there was no longer needed, although CPT and the people there still share a close, communicative, and supportive relationship, with CPT helping out on specific matters. Together, the people of A’twani and CPTers worked CPT out of a job. Among other things CPT would escort Palestinian children back and forth to school who had to pass right by illegal Israeli settlements, from which settlers would come out and harass and at times attack the children. The Israeli army was supposed to oversee the children’s safe passage, but that was spotty at best. Over time the residents of A’twani formed community patrols that achieve safe passage for the children, and the patrols document any abuses to bring attention to bear if necessary. Also, CPT and the women of A’twani developed crafts and textile making to bring economy to the village that it didn’t have before. The women carry this on with pride today. At first, the men of the village were a bit skeptical of their wives’ work outside homemaking, but as funds started coming in from sales of the goods the women made, things got happier all around, indeed.
Our delegation met in one of these family’s homes, and the family was also host to a young man who is ex-Israeli military and has become a leader in a group of ex-Israeli military called Breaking The Silence. Breaking The Silence produces video’s of ex-Israeli military speaking of abuses and atrocities systematically perpetrated on Palestinians. This young man educated us on “Straw Widow House Raids”. A straw widow, he explained, is a woman of the house whose husband is off to war and missing in action, she doesn’t know whether he’s alive or dead. Thus, the Israeli military’s twisted name for these raids on Palestinians. For the military does practice raids, in which they break doors down, barge in and ransack a Palestinian home, in the process taking the male head of the household off, shackled and hooded. Again, according to this young ex-Israeli-military man, this is done systematically for practice with no evidence whatsoever of wrongdoing by any of those in the home. I personally have witnessed assault rifles at checkpoints leveled on children going to school, seven, eight, and nine year olds. As the young man with Breaking The Silence completed his comments, the woman of the house became impassioned, tears filling her eyes, and she confronted him with the fact that these raids rip Palestinian families open, keep them in a perpetual state of fear, and that he, himself, had been part of it. And it will not stop. What did he have to say about that? In a very tender moment, the young ex-soldier, looked her in the eyes and said, “I know, you are right, I cannot stop it, but this is what I know how to do, bring it out into the open, get as many of my fellow Israeli soldiers to come forward in documenting abuses and atrocities as I can. I will keep doing it. I’m sorry, and I know that isn’t good enough.” The next thing that happened is that the woman of the house told him that he was welcome in her home anytime, and then they hugged. Later, her husband shook the young man’s hand. Now that is peacemaking with words and actions.
At that time, Breaking The Silence had produced over 800 videos.
I believe perhaps our best shot at not blowing one another up in some WMD fest is to deepen each of our faiths and practices in our own religion of choice and, while doing that to not simply tolerate others, but learn from others’ religions, respect them, love with others, in short, risk being wrong about faith choices, even entirely wrong. Now, I know this may seem like an oxymoron of sorts, but not really. I’ve experienced it in this work with CPT and our partnering communities. Here’s an example: Each morning when in Palestine, our delegation along with the CPT permanent team in Old Hebron would worship together. The facilitation for this was passed around. One morning Fataha, a Muslim CPT team member gave the homily. She started out by saying that she always believed our two religions had more in common than they had in differences. She then proceeded to recite Quranic and Christian scriptures that supported peacemaking and community building, with those of other faiths, especially with them. We didn’t tolerate others religions that morning, or merely learn from them, we were transformed in faith by them, all the while deepening our religion of choice, making it better the next time around by being in it with this transformation in us.
Okay, so how does a guy get from his conservative Garland, Texas upbringing to become a CPT Corp member reservist with a three year commitment to be on the Old Hebron team for one to three months a year?
Corporatized, State-co-opted, Constantine-ized, Bible belt-ized one size fits all theology, maybe with a little spandex in the waistband, but that’s about it and not too much, thank you, Are you saved? You’ve got God on your side in every war exceptional America participates in, so thank you’re lucky stars you’re, of course, Texan first and then American; well, all that and more just didn’t ever smell quite right to me. Yet, for all of it, a need for a real spiritual life wouldn’t go away.
One day at lunch at a Chili’s restaurant in Houston’s Galleria Mall, I came across an article by the founder of Sojourner’s, Jim Wallis, that laid out a great case for the religious right not having a lock on morality and, in fact, a very narrow, misguided, view of morality at times. Progressives, yes, even radicals, were needed in the body of Christ. Now, for a hale and hearty juvenile delinquent all dressed up in a business suit with a respectable job, that article was music to my ears. (FYI, I long ago became a guy who writes novels and poems. I didn’t say I was an author or a poet, that’s for others to decide, or quite honestly, not give a hoot about.)
Okay, fast forward to the US’s war with Iraq. My son was eighteen then, and he and his buddies were aching to be brave, exert their Texas testosterone by defending America in war. And I could see not only the bloodlust of youthful egomania in their eyes, I could also see an equal amount of fear. After the bluster, they’d more quietly discuss whether the war effort would end up with a draft. In a talk with my son, just he and I, I told him about something called conscientious objector status to opt out of military service. I went on to say that each individual had to make his or her own decision about this and no one could make it for them. What I wanted him to understand was that if he ever made a choice to elect conscientious objector status that it would be a courageous choice for sure. Well, after that big heart to heart with my son, I found myself having another heart to heart with yours truly. If that’s what I believed, that violence only creates more violence, then what was I going to do about it. That’s when articles I’d read in Jim Wallis’s Sojourners magazine about CPT’s work in war torn and violent areas of the world became very important to me.
In Texas we have a phrase, “Fixin’ to”. It doesn’t mean you’re about to do something. Have made the decision to do something. No, it’s kind of a thing were you’re about to about to do. I went into a ten year “fixin’ to” period with regard to joining CPT. I did begin to think of what it would be like getting on the front lines, reaching out to some of the most difficult relationships in the world and try to bring some peace between oppressed and oppressor, perhaps be transformed from my own oppressive tendencies and white privilege in the process. Once you start asking those questions in earnest, beware, you’ll move right on out of the “fixin’ to” phase.
I went one and a half years ago to the Wild Goose Festival, a great gathering of progressive and radical followers of Jesus and others who want to see what’s up and enjoy some great art, theater, and music along with thought provoking conversation and presentations by leaders in the movement of remaking the Church. Tim Nafziger, outreach coordinator at the time for CPT, Peter Harsnip and other CPTers were at the festival manning a booth. I went over and visited, bought several books on CPT, and six months later went on a two week delegation to Palestine/Isreal, and a year later I participated in the rigorous and life changing month long non-violent peacemaking training at CPT headquarters in Chicago, Illinois. Fortunately, I somehow graduated and became a member of the Hebron Team. One of the proudest days of my life. And now, the work begins.
I want to end with a poem by Wendell Berry, my favorite poet of whom I read one of his poems at the start of most every day. Its called The Contrariness Of The Mad Farmer (I’ve taken the literary liberty of making God gender neutral in it):
I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed
my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom
had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not
be resurrected by a piece of cake. “Dance,” they told me,
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.
“Pray,” they said, and I laughed, covering myself
in the earth’s brightness, and then stole off gray
into the midst of revel, and prayed like an orphan.
When they said, “I know that my Redeemer liveth,”
I told them, “God’s dead.” And when they told me,
“God is dead,” I answered, “He and she goes fishing every day in the Kentucky River. I see God often.”
When they asked me would I like to contribute
I said no, and when they had collected
more than they needed, I gave them as much as I had.
When they asked me to join them I wouldn’t,
and then went off by myself and did more
than they would have asked. “Well, then,” they said,
“go and organize the International Order
of Contraries,” and I said, “Did you finish killing
everybody who was against peace?” So be it.
Going against men and women, I have heard at times
a deep harmony
thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what
I say I don’t know. It is not the only or the easiest
way to come to the truth. It is one way.
Now, I’m here in the Bay Area to help CPT raise funds for its Plowing and Planting Campaign, an old contrarian working for a beautifully contrarian organization. We’re working to Plow under the debt on our headquarters and training center in Chicago to ensure a physical place to transform people into active peacemakers, and also to Plant more extensive counseling services by trained counselors to help CPTers in the field and on their transitions back home. PTSD can be a very real thing for military soldiers and CPTers alike. In my training, it was very comforting to meet the counselor I could call and Skype with from Old Hebron if things needed working through some, and/or could also go to a CPT retreat with upon return home. I want to do my part in helping make sure more and more CPTers get this kind of support.
So, with all this being said, Jesus help us pray like orphans for help, so we may walk just even a little better in your shoes to not live and die by the sword, but instead be transformed by your words and our words and our actions and by the words and actions of others of our faith, or of their faith, or of no particular faith, all of us trying to break lose of the bonds of the oppressor and the oppressed alike, resurrected over and over again. Whatever you do, don’t leave me “fixin’ to” for nearly so long again on spreading your courageous, non-violent love in places it is sorely needed.
Amen, and amen.