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Burying Guns; Planting Peace In Afghanistan

Editor’s Note: This article, written by Dr. Hakim, was submitted by contributing author Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

10 year old Sakina, an Afghan street kid, had this to say, “I don’t like to be in a world of war. I like to be in a world of peace.”

On 27th August 2015, Sakina and Inam, with fellow Afghan street kids and the Afghan Peace Volunteers, held a mock funeral for weapons and celebrated the establishment of a green space in Kabul.

Dressed in long black coats, they broke and buried toy guns in a small spot where, over the past two years, they have been planting trees.

Inam, a bright-eyed ten year old, caught the group’s energetic desire to build a world without war. “I kept toy guns till about three years ago,” he acknowledged with a smile.

On the same day, Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez, ex-President of Costa Rica, was in Mexico for the Arms Trade Treaty’s First Conference of States Parties.

In his statement at the Conference, he told the story of an indigenous Guatemalan woman who thanked him for negotiating a peace accord 28 years ago. The mother had said, “Thank you, Mr. President, for my child who is in the mountains fighting, and for the child I carry in my womb.”

No mother, Guatemalan or Afghan, wants her children to be killed in war.

Oscar Arias Sanchez wrote: “I never met them, but those children of conflict are never far from my thoughts. They were its (the peace treaty’s) true authors, its reason for being.”

I’m confident that the children of Afghanistan were also in his thoughts, especially since he had a brief personal connection with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in 2014, having been part of a Peace Jam video message of solidarity to the Volunteers, wearing their Borderfree Blue Scarves which symbolize that ‘all human beings live under the same blue sky’.

I thank Mr Oscar Arias Sanchez for his important work on the Arms Trade Treaty, though I sense that an arms trade treaty isn’t going to be enough.

Afghan children are dying from the use of weapons.

To survive, they need a ban against weapons. Regulations about buying and selling weapons perpetuate a trade that is killing them.

I saw Inam and other child laborers who work in Kabul’s streets decisively swing hammers down on the plastic toy guns, breaking off triggers, scattering nozzles into useless pieces and symbolically breaking our adult addiction to weapons.

Children shouldn’t have to pay the price for our usual business, especially business from the U.S., the largest arms seller in the world. U.S. children suffer too, with more U.S. people having died as a result of gun violence since 1968 than have died in all U.S. wars combined. U.S. weapon sellers are killing their own people; by exporting their state-of-the-art weapons, they facilitate the killing of many others around the world.

After burying the toy guns, surrounded by the evergreen and poplar trees which they had planted, the youth shed their black coats and donned sky-blue scarves.

Another world was appearing as Sakina and Inam watched young friends plant one more evergreen sapling.

Inam watches an evergreen tree being planted.

Inam watches an evergreen tree being planted.

Inam knew that it hasn’t been easy to create this green space in heavily fortified Kabul.

The City Municipality said they couldn’t water the trees (though it is just 200 metres away from their office). The Greenery Department weren’t helpful. Finally, the security guards of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission just across from the garden, offered to help, after the Volunteers had provided them with a 100-metre water hose.

Rohullah, who coordinates the environment team at the Borderfree Nonviolence Community Centre, expressed his frustration. “Once, we had to hire a private water delivery service to water the tree saplings so they wouldn’t shrivel up. None of the government departments could assist.”

Sighing, he added ironically, “We can’t use the Kabul River tributary running just next to the Garden, as the trash-laden trickle of black, bracken water is smelly and filthy.”

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, according to figures from the National Priorities Project, a non-profit, non-partisan U.S. federal budget research group, the ongoing Afghan War is costing American taxpayers US $4 million an hour.

It is the youth and children who are making sense today, like when Nobel Laureate Malalai Yousafzai said recently that if the whole world stopped spending money on the military for just 8 days, we could provide 12 years of free, quality education for every child on the planet.

“I don’t like to work in the streets, but my family needs bread. Usually, I feel sad,” Inam said, looking away, “because I feel a sort of helplessness.”

Oscar Arias Sanchez said at the Arms Trade Treaty’s First Conference, “And we must speak, today – in favour of this crucial treaty, and its swift and effective implementation. If we do, then when today’s children of conflict look to us for guidance and leadership, we will no longer look away in shame. We will be able to tell them, at long last, that we are standing watch for them. We are on guard. Someone is finally ready to take action.”

Sakina tells the world

Sakina tells the world.

That morning, I heard the voices of Sakina, Inam and the Afghan youth ring through the street, “#Enough of war!”

It wasn’t a protest. It was the hands-on building of a green spot without weapons, and an encouraging call for others to do so everywhere.

Through their dramatic colours and clear action, they were inviting all of us, “Bury your weapons. Build your gardens.”

“We will stand watch for you!”

 

Hakim, ( Dr. Teck Young, Wee ) is a medical doctor from Singapore who has done humanitarian and social enterprise work in Afghanistan for the past 10 years, including being a mentor to the Afghan Peace Volunteers, an inter-ethnic group of young Afghans dedicated to building non-violent alternatives to war. He is the 2012 recipient of the International Pfeffer Peace Prize.

Top Image:  “Sakina breaks a toy gun.” All images submitted with original article.

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Rewriting The Human Story

Oh sacred planet.

The terror of climate crisis is a long time in the making. As I read about the mass mobilization forming around the upcoming U.N. climate change convention, which is likely to accomplish far too little — because what’s needed is change at the roots of civilization — I feel a desperate impatience, a tearing at my soul. What can I do that’s bigger than anger, bigger than a demand for governmental and corporate entities to make changes they are essentially incapable of making?

Maybe I can help rewrite the story of civilization, which means unwriting the present story. From the Dark Mountain Manifesto, for instance, here are two of the “eight principles of uncivilization”:

“We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature.’ These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.

“We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.”

With this in mind, I think about my family’s trip to Yellowstone National Park when I was a teenager (sometime in the previous century) and the tourist awe I felt as I gaped at Old Faithful and the gurgling springs and the incredible vistas of the Yellowstone River. America, America, God shed His grace on thee . . . know what I’m saying?

We’ve been preserving slices of scenic “wilderness” — keeping them out of our own exploitative reach — for 150 years now. What could possibly be wrong with that?

The problem, it turns out, is that the national park system is full of the bloodstains of American history. Manifest destiny meant the conquest of nature as well as the conquest of the continent’s indigenous inhabitants. It was all part of the same militarized arrogance.

“The modern conservation movement began at dawn on December 8, 1850, above the north fork of California’s San Joaquin River,” Eric Michael Johnson wrote a year ago in Scientific American, describing a vicious U.S. military attack on the Ahwahneechee tribe, whose forebears had lived in — and been deeply part of — the Yosemite Valley (as we renamed it) for thousands of years. Before we created the national park system, we drove out the people who lived there and, ironically, functioned as stewards of the land. They had kept it in eco-balance with a remarkably complex understanding of nature. Too bad. Now the land “belonged” to the newcomers, who had long, long ago dismissed the value of such understanding.

Turns out eco-stewardship doesn’t mean simply putting “nature” behind a glass case. Human beings have an active role to play in sustaining, as opposed to merely exploiting, the Earth’s ecosystems. After a century of U.S. occupation and the disappearance of controlled undergrowth burning, Johnson noted, “the Yosemite Valley biodiversity had actually declined, trees were now 20 percent smaller, and the forest was more vulnerable to catastrophic fires than it had been before the U.S. Army and armed vigilantes expelled the native population.”

And we didn’t simply expel the native population. We did our best to drive it — both the people and their cultural wisdom — into nonexistence. What we couldn’t kill we humiliated.

“Native Americans were evicted from almost all the American parks, but a few Ahwahneechee people were tolerated inside Yosemite for a few more decades,” Stephen Corry, director of Survivor International, wrote recently at Truthout. “They were forced to serve tourists and act out humiliating ‘Indian days’ for the visitors. The latter wanted the Indians they saw in the movies, so the Ahwahneechee had to dress and dance as if they were from the Great Plains. If they didn’t serve the park, they were out — and they all did finally die or leave, with their last dwellings deliberately and ignominiously burned down in a fire drill in 1969.”

The American conservation movement, Corry maintains, was just another aspect of colonialism. This was Western civilization in high gear, busy dominating tribal cultures and nature itself, proceeding with utter certainty, both moral and scientific, that it had no need to be part of the circle of life.

Only now, with Western moral rectitude in an advanced stage of collapse — and environmental catastrophe looming — are people in large numbers coming to realize how deeply, profoundly problematic our domination-based worldview really is.

“Even without considering questions of human rights and the intrinsic value of cultures,” environmentalist Alan Durning told Worldwatch Institute, “indigenous survival is a matter of crucial importance. We in the world’s dominant cultures simply cannot sustain the earth’s ecological health without the help of the world’s endangered cultures.”

And so the new story begins here, as we grope wondrously for the wisdom we’ve forgotten. How do we heal — and atone for — the damage we’ve done? How do we reclaim a sacred connection with our planet? How do we stop killing ourselves?

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

Image: Mariposa Indian Encampment, Yosemite Valley, California, 1872 by Albert Bierstadt. Public Domain.

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Hold On Until Love Wins

I was working on another article, but I can’t concentrate on it now. It’s hard to concentrate in a world with so much hatred, so much distrust, so much fear, and so much senseless murder.

I wonder how many people worldwide are shocked out of their daily routine by a tragedy. I wonder how many people must plow through their daily routines that tragedy is a part of.

The news is still coming in about a shooting in my home state of Virginia. A reporter and cameraman were shot on air not far from where I went to college. The families of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward are in mourning. And now perhaps the family of Vester Flanagan, the shooter who shot himself as police caught up to him and died after being taken to the hospital, is in mourning as well. My anxieties about a shooter loose in my home state have been quelled, but the overwhelming sorrow is just beginning to overflow.

I am in mourning for our broken world, ready to despair of hope that it can be repaired. And I recognize that even that despair, and the temporary paralysis that comes with it, is a luxury, because all over the world there are those who live in constant states of degradation, oppression and terror, who must somehow go about their lives anyway. Those living in the midst of war must somehow try to make a living despite the destruction and loss that has become a normal part of life, whatever the hell normal might mean. Babies and grandparents are struck with drones. Limbs are blown apart. People are slowly rotting away from malnutrition or dying from exposure because we can’t find the money to feed them or repair their destroyed homes, even as we spend more money to kill them. Throughout the world, weapons made right here are killing people on all sides of all conflicts, and in some parts of the world we are taking a more direct role in the destruction. The Global War on Terror rages on. And all over the world, the pain and horror and grief that has struck my heart so deeply today strikes so many hearts that must beat on in the midst of this churning machine of violence that we have turned the world into.

We do all of this in the name of national security, of course.

But we are a frightened, insecure nation.

We have nurtured an enemy mentality that pits us against the world (even as we justify our violence by claiming to be a force for protection in the world.) And the violence we export abroad is taking its toll on us. It’s been taking its toll on us for a long, long time, eroding our souls with every weapon made, let alone used, to destroy another child of God, either half a world away or right next door. How could a nation that spends more money than any other in the world, more than most of the world combined, on the military, not be infected by a culture of violence? How can we spend billions on bombs and guns and drones and missiles while neglecting the necessary funds for education and housing and healthcare, and claim to respect life? How can our leaders instruct us to kill abroad and be surprised when we find no other way to handle our problems here at home? How can we demand respect for human dignity while we continually glorify violence that tears human beings apart? How can we respect life while waging death?

As long as we live in fear and glorify violence, we can’t be surprised that efforts for gun control go nowhere. Of course we need gun control, but we also need to control our addiction to the myth that peace can be waged through violence. I can’t think of any myth that has so thoroughly duped humanity as the satanic lie that peace can be bought from sacrifice – from murder and war. The notion of a war to end all wars, a permanent peace arising from the rubble of destruction and death, is so demonstrably false. The house divided against itself is our own world, and we cannot stand like this. Will we keep hurtling ourselves headfirst toward our own destruction, putting our faith in instruments of death?

We live in a deadly world and we keep making it deadlier. So we are afraid, and we cling to our guns, and when someone poisoned by the idolatry of violence fires one of those guns, fearful people cling ever more tightly to their guns. When our own government clings to its nuclear arsenal in the name of “deterrence,” how can we expect anything less of citizens?

So I am weighed down by sorrow as today’s shooting mercilessly steals lives and accelerates the whirlwind forces of this cycle of violence spinning out of control. But I can’t wallow. Because my toddler is awake, and I have picked up my first-grader from school. How truly, truly blessed I am to be able to hold my children close, to know my husband will be returning from work, to still have the peace of mind to be reasonably sure that my loved ones will make it through another day safe and sound.

Too many people around the world live without the luxury of knowing their loved ones will return safely to them at the end of the day. Too many people in our own nation live without that luxury, as African Americans find it necessary to complete the sentence “If I die in police custody…” And increasingly, we are living in a nation where all of our security is disintegrating into a hollow illusion. We cannot be secure when we put our trust in violence.

But if today you have the blessed opportunity to hold your loved ones in your arms, do not let them go. In a hopeless world, find hope in the faces of those who love you, and radiate it back to them. The only way we are going to bring peace to this battered, shattered world is to make those human connections, and nurture the ones that we already have. If you believe in God, that’s where you find God, and if you don’t, well, that’s OK, as long as you believe in Love, because it’s the same thing. Hold on to your loved ones, dear friends. Hold them and see in their eyes the joy of a future filled with the love they bring to the world. Hold them until you can’t imagine a world in which anyone has to go without holding their own loved ones. Then go out and shout, strive, struggle to create that world, and when despair inevitably rears its ugly head, go back to their arms to revive your hope. Be those arms for someone who has lost a loved one to violence. Be love, and hold on in love to those who need love. Hold on until love wins.

Featured Image: Screenshot of “Reporter and Cameraman Gunned Down During Live TV In Virginia Shooting” AJ+ via Youtube.

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Let It Shine

This little light of mine, I’m gonna’ let it shine! Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Imagine children lustily singing the above lines which eventually became a civil rights anthem. Their innocence and happy resolve enlightens us. Yes! In the face of wars, refugee crises, weapon proliferation and unaddressed climate change impacts, let us echo the common sense of children. Let goodness shine. Or, as our young friends in Afghanistan have put it, #Enough! They write the word, in Dari, on the palms of their hands and show it to cameras, wanting to shout out their desire to abolish all wars.

Let It Shine image twoThis past summer, collaborating with Wisconsin activists, we decided to feature this refrain on signs and announcements for a 90-mile walk campaigning to end targeted drone assassinations abroad, and the similarly racist impunity granted to an increasingly militarized police force when they kill brown and black people within the U.S.

Walking through small cities and towns in Wisconsin, participants distributed leaflets and held teach-ins encouraging people to demand accountability from local police, and an end to the “Shadow Drone” program operated by the U.S. Air National Guard out of Wisconsin’s own Volk Field. Our friend Maya Evans traveled the furthest to join the walk: she coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence in the UK. Alice Gerard, from Grand Isle, NY, is our most consistent long-distance traveler, on her sixth antiwar walk with VCNV.

Brian Terrell noted what mothers speaking to Code Pink, as part of the Mothers Against Police Brutality campaign, had also noted: that surprisingly many of the officers charged with killing their children were veterans of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He recalled past national events, such as the NATO summit in Chicago, in 2012, whose organizers tried to recruit temporary security officers from amongst U.S. veterans. Former soldiers, already traumatized by war, need support, healthcare and vocational training but instead are offered temp jobs to aim weapons at other people in predictably tense settings.

The walk was instructive. Salek Khalid, a friend of Voices, shared “Creating a Hell on Earth: U.S. Drone Strikes Abroad,” his own in-depth presentation about the development of drone warfare. Tyler Sheafer, joining us from the Progressive Alliance near Independence, MO, stressed the independence of living simply, off the grid and consuming crops grown only within a 150 mile radius of one’s home, while hosts in Mauston, WI welcomed Joe Kruse to talk about fracking and our collective need to change patterns of energy consumption. The ability to withhold our money and our labor is an important way to compel governments to restrain their violent domestic and international power.

We weren’t alone. We walked in solidarity with villagers in Gangjeong, South Korea, who’d welcomed many of us to join in their campaign to stop militarization of their beautiful Jeju Island. Seeking inter-island solidarity and recognizing how closely they share the plight of Afghans burdened by the U.S. “Asia Pivot,” our friends in Okinawa, Japan will host a walk from the north to the south of the island, protesting construction of a new U.S. military base in Henoko. Rather than provoke a new cold war, we want to shine light on our common cares and concerns, finding security in extended hands of friendship.

On August 26th, some of the walkers will commit nonviolent civil resistance at Volk Field, carrying the messages about drone warfare and racial profiling into courts of law and public opinion. 

Too often we imagine that a life swaddled in everyday comforts and routines is the only life possible, while half a world away, to provide those comforts to us, helpless others are made to shiver with inescapable cold or fear. It’s been instructive on these walks to uncoddle ourselves a little, and see how our light shines, unhidden, on the road through neighboring towns, singing words we’ve heard from children learning to be as adult as they can be; attempting to learn that same lesson. The lyric goes “I’m not going to make it shine: I’m just going to _let_ it shine. We hope that by releasing the truth that’s already in us we can encourage others to live theirs, shining a more humane light on the violent abuses, both at home and abroad, of dark systems that perpetuate violence. On walks like this we’ve been fortunate to imagine a better life, sharing moments of purpose and sanity with the many we’ve met along the road.

This article first appeared on ZMag

Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org)

Photo Credits: Maya Evans

Screenshot from Youtube

Dr. Seuss and the Gospel Part 5: Yertle the Turtle and the “Wrath of God”

Dr. Seuss’ book Yertle the Turtle is about a King who rules through violence, oppression, and scapegoating. But the more he builds his kingdom on the backs of his subjects, the more likely his kingdom will come tumbling down into the mud. [Video Below]

What does Yertle the Turtle have to do with the Gospel? In his book, Must There Be Scapegoats, Raymund Schwager discusses St. Paul’s statement about that the “Wrath of God” in Romans 1. The “Wrath of God” isn’t something inherent to God. In fact, wrath is a purely human phenomenon. But God’s “wrath” for Paul has nothing to do with violence. Rather,

According to Paul, God’s anger consists only in the deliverance of humankind to themselves, their desires, passions, and perverse thinking. No external violence plays any further role. God’s wrath is identical with the granting of full respect for the human action that turns against God and leads to complete perversion of personal relationships.

We see the “complete perversion of personal relationships” as Yertle builds him empire on oppression, but his kingdom soon falls. The biblical prophets gave the same message to the ancient kings – if continue to scapegoat the poor, weak, and marginalized, your kingdom will fall. The alternative is to care for those who are marginalized.

Jesus picked up that strand within the prophets and showed that the kingdom of God was based not on oppression and scapegoating, but on caring for the marginalized. Schwager states that this is the new order of human relationships. “Whereas the old social order was founded on the scapegoat mechanism, the new people distinguished themselves by the fact that they no longer needed to compete with one another for supremacy.” This new way of life frees us to live into God’s realm of love and compassion for all people, including our scapegoats.

“The uncovering of the underlying process of violence through the message of boundless love must lead inevitably to a fundamental change in power structures,” writes Schwager. Those in power may experience that change in power structure as the “Wrath of God.” But it isn’t wrath. Rather, it’s God’s loving justice that seeks to heal our relationships with “boundless love.”


For more in the Dr. Seuss and the Gospel Series, see:

Part 1: On Beyond Zebra and the Restoration of all Things

Part 2: The Lorax, the Prophets, and the iPad

Part 3: The Cat in the Hat, Jesus, and Chaos

Part 4: How the Grinch Stole Christmas

 

 

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The Imitation Game: US-Iran Relations

We now have an agreement with Iran to restrain their pursuit of nuclear weapons, but just how good a deal is it? President Obama, congress, presidential contenders, and political commentators are debating that right now. Sojourners offers clear-eyed support for the deal as “better than the alternatives” and clearly better than military strikes which “would be, at best, premature, as well as highly unpredictable and morally irresponsible in creating yet another U.S. war with a Muslim country.”

Even so, Sojourner’s President Jim Wallis has written that he has no doubt that Iran is “an enemy of America, an enemy of Israel, and an enemy of peace.” But as a Christian, he also believes that “you need to find ways to make peace with your enemies.” This deal, for Jim Wallis anyway, seems to be a way to do that. But how do you make peace with a nation that is not just our enemy, but an enemy of peace itself?

Just what is an enemy? We don’t often ask that question because we think the answer is obvious: enemies are bad guys who hate us for no good reason. An enemy is so unlike us that we compare ourselves to them in terms of opposites: rational/ irrational, nonviolent/ violent, law abiding/ criminal, and just/ unjust. We believe that we and our enemy have absolutely nothing in common except perhaps a shared desire to defeat the other.

The Terrible Twos: A Parable

But I think that way of thinking about enemies is just plain wrong. The cause of the mistake is a basic misunderstanding of human psychology, specifically the psychology of desire. Our enemies are not our opposites; they are the mirror image of our desires. In this way, “an enemy” is not someone separate and distinct from us, rather they are a product of our relationship with them. The best way I know of illustrating this is with a story about desire in my 2-year-old granddaughter, Grace.

Grace is at that “terrible” age when her desires often seem at odds with the adults around her. But mostly she’s not as terrible as just annoying. Like when she won’t eat her own food but devours what’s on her mom’s plate or when she wants to “help” fold the clothes. Like all terrible twos, Grace is an imitator on steroids. Whatever we do, that’s what she wants to do, too. Which is how she learns to do things, of course. Grace is learning how to be a grown-up by imitating grown-ups. Which is natural and good, not terrible at all.

The terrible kicks in when Grace seems to be determined to do the opposite of what we want. For example, when we try to do something we think she needs help with, like pour her milk, she screams, which is her wordless version of, “You’re not the boss of me!” If we insist on pouring the milk for her, it leads to the dreaded power struggle. Hey, what parent hasn’t gotten into a tug of war over pouring milk or bedtime or what to wear to school, and lost?! Our kids seem determined to defy us just for the sport of it and it’s hard not to feel that our sweet two-year-old has turned into a demon child.

But here’s the catch: Grace’s defiance is also an act of imitation except that she’s imitating something we want to keep sole possession of: the power to decide things for ourselves. Get it? When mom displays her own ability to make decisions and impose her will on Grace, Grace will have none of it. She wants to be just like mommy in everything, including being the boss of herself! In fact, the more we refuse to share the privilege of being her boss, the more desirable it becomes to her. We would never call Grace our enemy, but boy oh boy, it sure does feel like it sometimes!

The Psychology of Desire

This is just basic desire psychology. The thing we won’t share is the thing we most value and that will provoke desire in others. So what does this have to do with Iran, the so-called enemy of the U.S.? Iran may be our enemy, but her desire for nuclear weapons is, in fact, a perfect imitation of our own. I am not discounting the dangers to U.S. security if nuclear weapons get into the wrong hands. No hands could be more wrong than those of an enemy, especially one that is also an “enemy of peace”. But the U.S. may risk becoming an enemy of peace as well when it blames others for desires they learned from us.

Let me be clear: Iran is no more a child than we are. We are equals, mirror images of each other’s desires for nuclear weapons and global respect. I’m no expert in diplomacy or nuclear policy, but I do know that conflict begins with shared desires. Ironically, so does friendship. The difference between enemies and friends is that friends enjoying sharing desires and enemies deny it’s happening. Remember, if Iran refuses to relinquish their desire for nuclear weapons, it’s not defiance; it’s imitation. And yet it may be easier than we think to follow Jim Wallis’ advice to find a way to make peace with this particular enemy. The path is obvious and available to us: we can renounce our desire for a nuclear arsenal. That’s a desire worth sharing and enjoying with friends.

 

Image: Copyright: David Carillet via 123rf.com

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From Japan To Ferguson: Sacrificing Our Justifications For Violence

It has been a year since the death of Michael Brown, and seventy years since the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I am in mourning. I am in rage. I am struggling to plow through with hope and faith in the God of Love who can redeem all of this suffering and senseless murder. I am struggling to live into that hope by learning and shouting the truth and acting upon it.

Michael Brown and the people of Nagasaki are connected by more than just their dates of death. They were murdered by authorities charged to serve and protect. They were sacrificed to a myth of American exceptionalism mingled with a false ideology of white supremacy. Fears were projected onto them. They were dehumanized. Their killings are justified by people who insist that they had to die for others to live.

It is our national faith in sacrifice, in the righteousness of violence, in self-justification and its mirror twin – other-demonization – that most fills me with despair, but also with determination to keep up the struggle to drown out the violence and oppression of the world with rivers of compassion and justice.

Moving forward sometimes feels like swimming through mud, a slow and arduous process, because we are steeped so deeply in a culture, a religion, of violence, overt and insidious. This past year has been a wake-up call to the systemic racial violence on our very own soil, which must be confronted concurrently with the racist, Islamophobic, greed-and-power-driven violence exported overseas. Recognizing the interconnection of these violences, their common roots and the way they feed each other, is essential to the work of rebuilding a new social order on the foundation of love and compassion.

The murders of Michael Brown and the people of Japan were hundreds, even thousands, of years in the making. A single finger pulled a trigger, a single finger pressed a button, but the blood is on an entire world order structured on a profound, but deadly misguided, belief in the salvific power of violence. René Girard teaches us how civilization was founded in murder, as people purged their rivalries over mutual desires by coming together against a scapegoat or enemy, the communal killing of whom produced the cooperation and emotional bonding necessary to form a society. Our own nation was certainly born in the blood of others, as settlers slaughtered Natives and lashes drew the blood of slaves who cultivated the land and became a backbone of the economy. Today, our military and police forces are portrayed by the predominant culture as critical to our safety and survival. Wars and police shootings are deemed necessary, even noble, by the powers that be. Those who “put their lives on the line” to serve and protect are honored and glorified by our culture. Yet the blood of the victims of our state and our military, washing over all of us, does not redeem; it convicts.

Ultimately, these murders can be traced in large part to racism and self-justification, both intimately tied to the scapegoating mechanism. Racism is a type of scapegoating that is deeply embedded in the social structure of the United States. Distinctively American racism can be traced back to the early days of settlement before independence. As Matthew Cooke tells us in this video, natural alliances between African slaves and white indentured servants threatened the elite, who restructured laws to give poor whites slightly more rights and thereby redrew alliances along racial lines. Order was thus enforced not by distributing justice, but by redirecting hostility to a new enemy – the black race – in such a way that preserved slavery, kept wealth in the hands of the few, and placated the poor whites with token privileges. The myth of white supremacy was reinforced by segregation, and it influenced theological interpretation, social science, and even the understanding of biology. Everything about white American culture was set up to portray blacks as inferior, and this myth was believed and passed along as truth. The entrenched racism integral to the foundation of the United States has not been fully uprooted to this day.

The moral pseudo-superiority inherent in racism is a hallmark of scapegoating violence. Righteous self-justification has evolved since the days of slavery and lynchings, but it is still not only a persistent human trait but also very much a part of the American cultural psyche. Overt racism was once considered by some a moral position, to the point where preachers could draw on stereotypes of hypersexualized, bestial black men to incite mobs to murder “righteously” in broad daylight. Now that racism has been exposed as immoral, denial of racial prejudice is necessary to maintain a sense of morality. But the tendency to define one’s self over and against others persists. De facto segregation, a large wealth gap favoring whites, a mass incarceration system disproportionately targeting African Americans, and more, divide the experience of life in America along racial lines, keeping prejudices alive but insidious. Moral superiority felt against those imprisoned, impoverished, or negatively portrayed in the media, often (not always) falls along racial lines.

The concept of superiority encompasses but also transcends race in American culture. “American exceptionalism” is drilled into our cultural consciousness from an early age. Our desire to see ourselves as noble and heroic is nurtured by an understanding of history that portrays the mistakes of the past as long gone, lessons learned. We are a people ever perfecting our union, with liberty and justice for all, we are told. Our self-glorifying culture resists reflection on the systems that enforce order and the order they enforce, at home and abroad. The violence of our military, with bases in over 70 countries, conducting operations both covert and open, is portrayed as a tool for establishing freedom and a “global force for good.”

Photo by Jamelle Bouie. Available through Wikimedia via Creative Commons license.

Photo by Jamelle Bouie. Available through Wikimedia via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Racism and pseudo-righteousness cloak murder in the mantle of morality. Centuries of demonization of black males ultimately guided Darren Wilson’s finger on the trigger as he shot Michael Brown multiple times. His irrational fear, that a man already injured was a threat to his life, was deeply conditioned. While he should have been held accountable for his actions, his actions must also be examined in a larger context of the racism that makes the devaluation of black lives a fact of American life. Justification for Darren Wilson’s actions, however, is not just a product of unrecognized racism. It is also the product of faith in the goodness of the system of American law enforcement and American order in general. Officers who enforce order in a nation of liberty and justice for all are good guys; those they kill are bad guys. Thankfully this narrative is being challenged now, but for far too long it went largely unquestioned. The system of policing and law enforcement, while accomplishing good, is designed to uphold an order that is far more corrupt and inherently unjust than we have been conditioned to believe. This order protects the wealthy and hurts the poor and racial minorities in particular. The system can be redesigned, the noble desires to serve and protect can be exercised, but not without extracting the poisons of racism, greed, and resistance to self-reflection.

Atomic explosions over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right). Left image by "Necessary Evil" (plane commissioned to film the bombing. Right Image by Charles Levy. Available through Wikimedia via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

Atomic explosions over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right). Left image by “Necessary Evil” (plane commissioned to film the bombing). Right Image by Charles Levy. Available through Wikimedia via Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Faith in the military as a force for good also goes largely unquestioned. The myth of white supremacy is intermingled within foreign policies that seek to manipulate and exploit nations with darker-skinned people and lucrative resources. The myth of heroic violence, reinforced by conditioned belief in American exceptionalism, serves to mask racism, greed, and evil justification of brutality. The comingling of racism with unquestioned self-righteousness manifested itself egregiously in the release of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Would this murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians have been justified in the minds of so many without the demonization of the Japanese, who of all the Axis powers were portrayed as the most ruthless and animal-like of enemies? Seventy years later, the lie that such an action was necessary to end the war persists despite evidence that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender before the bombs were dropped. Our reluctance to deal honestly with our historical atrocities enables those atrocities to continue. Death tolls of the war on terror are estimated in the millions. The threat of nuclear annihilation hangs over our heads while we ignore our commitment to disarm and make war all over the world under the pretense of protection, even as military experts (among others) have conceded that our wars have created new enemies, like ISIS, and ultimately make us and those we claim to protect less safe.

Our national order, our world order, is built on the sacrifice of devalued lives. At Raven, we preach mercy, not sacrifice. But in order to have mercy on the victims of our violence at home and abroad, it’s time to make some sacrifices that will alter our self-perception. We must sacrifice the myth of our unshakeable goodness. We must sacrifice our self-justifications. For white Americans particularly, we must sacrifice the denial of our racial prejudices and examine the ways laws and attitudes have continually marginalized black and brown people. The devaluation of black lives has proven deadly and rendered African Americans unsafe in their own nation. For all of us, we must sacrifice our complacency and our distraction that keeps us from seeing the devastation continually being waged in our name. We must sacrifice the myth of righteous violence and truly see the horror of families burying their dead, or fleeing with no time for burials, maimed bodies, birth defects, shattered cities, forfeited futures.

It is terrifying to renounce self-justification and let the truth of our scapegoating violence in all of its forms permeate our consciousness. It is terrifying to allow the notion that evil is not the exclusive property of the “other,” that it resides within our own hearts. But here is the Good News: we are already, infinitely and unconditionally, loved and cherished. We don’t need to define our worth against anyone else. We don’t need to redeem ourselves by finding someone “worse,” perpetuating cycles of violence. Instead, we need to look to the one who became our victim to expose our needless sacrifice of other victims. We need to live into the Love of our Heavenly Father who also loves our victims and our enemies.

What will the world look like when it is structured on all-embracing love rather than the over-and-against violence we see today? It will look like, and be, the Kingdom of God.

 

Top Image: Stock Photo by Charles Wollertz from 123rf.com.

Castle_Bravo_Blast

A Wedge For Nuclear Disarmament

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith . . .”

What if words like this actually meant something?

This is Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which the United States signed in 1970. It continues: “. . . on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Please read it again, slowly, understanding that 190 nations have signed onto these words: “a treaty on general and complete (nuclear) disarmament.” Here’s a wild thought. What if they were recited aloud every Sunday in churches and other public spaces across the nation, the way congregants at my parents’ church recited the Apostle’s Creed when I was a boy? Each word, slowly uttered, welled up from the soul. The words were sacred. Isn’t a world free of nuclear weapons — and beyond that, free of war itself — worth believing in?

The treaty’s preamble also calls for “the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the liquidation of all their existing stockpiles, and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery . . .”

What if these words could stand up to the geopolitics of cynicism and military-industrial profit? What if the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons — the NPT — weren’t simply a verbal coffin in which hope for humanity’s future lay interred? What if it could come to life and help reorganize global culture?

I ask such questions only because I suddenly believe it’s possible, thanks to an unlikely player in the geopolitical realm: a nation with a population of about 70,000 people. Last week I wrote about the fact that the Republic of the Marshall Islands has filed suit in both the International Court of Justice in the Hague and U.S. federal court against the five NPT signatories — the United States, the U.K., China, Russia and France — that possess nuclear weapons, demanding that they comply with the treaty they signed. For good measure, the lawsuit demands compliance from the other four nuclear nations as well — Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea — on the grounds of international law and, well, sanity.

Here’s the thing. This audacious lawsuit is a disarmament wedge. Since I wrote last week’s column, I’ve been in touch with Laurie Ashton, the lead attorney for the case in U.S. federal court, and have read the brief appealing the suit’s dismissal, which was filed last month. To get this close to the case — to its language, to its soul — is to feel possibility begin pulsing in a unique way.

As Ashton put it, “The NGOs and protesters are just talk, talk, talk. When you sue them, then they listen.”

Attesting to the seriousness of this suit, she noted: “The Marshall Islands are on record. They have a mission to make sure this never happens to another people again.”

This tiny nation of coral reefs in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, once a U.S. trust territory, was the site of 67 above-ground nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958. These tests, so cynically perpetrated on an “expendable” people, turned much of the area into radioactive wasteland, wrecked a way of life and created terrible health problems for the residents, which they are still struggling with two generations later.

“No nation should ever suffer as we have,” said Tony de Brum, foreign minister of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Speaking of the appeal of the decision dismissing the U.S suit, he declared: “We are in this for the long haul. We remain steadfast in our belief that nuclear weapons benefit no one and that what is right for humankind will prevail.”

Only as I began to grasp the courage and determination behind the lawsuits did the words of the NPT start to come to life for me. In nearly half a century, no other nation or organization has sued for the enforcement of this treaty, which has been contemptuously ignored by the nations that possess and continue to upgrade their nuclear arsenals. The U.S. routinely invests tens (or hundreds) of billions of dollars annually into its nukes. The NPT, for all practical purposes, doesn’t exist — not for the haves.

But it does exist.

“At the time” — in the 1960s, as the NPT was being negotiated — “there was intent to negotiate nuclear disarmament,” Ashton said. “At the time, (the nuclear danger) was much more in the consciousness. It was a different era. The level of complacency we have now was not the case then.”

That intent was encased in legal language, then filed under the heading “irrelevant.” It disappeared for 45 years. But now it’s back.

In the case in U.S. federal court, which challenges only the U.S. arsenal, the Marshall Islands are claiming injury in two ways: 1. As a signatory of the treaty themselves, they are owed U.S. participation in disarmament negotiations, as per its agreement. 2. Without that participation, as the U.S. continues to upgrade and enhance its nuclear arsenal and maintain hundreds of weapons on hair-trigger alert, the Marshall Islands — and all the rest of the Planet Earth — are in “a measurable increased risk of grave danger” from nuclear weapons use, either intentional or accidental.

Oral arguments in the U.S. case are likely to begin sometime next year. There’s no telling what will happen, of course. But this is not mere powerless, symbolic protest of a great wrong. The Marshall Islands suits challenge the nuclear states at a level that could yield real, not symbolic, victory and change.

As the website Nuclear Zero puts it: “The Republic of the Marshall Islands acts for the seven billion of us who live on this planet to end the nuclear weapons threat hanging over all humanity. Everyone has a stake in this.”

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

Image: “Castle Bravo Blast” by United States Department of Energy. Largest nuclear test conducted by the United States, performed in the Marshall Islands. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Image from 123rf.com

Nuclear Disarmament: If Not Now, When?

Oh plaintive cry for justice, for change, for the world we must create, welling up from a tiny island nation in the Pacific Ocean. I can only pray: Let there be an authority large enough to hear it.

My first reaction, upon learning that the Republic of the Marshall Islands — former U.S. territory, still ravaged and radioactive, the site of 67 H-bomb tests between 1946 and 1958 — has filed lawsuits against the nine nations that possess nuclear weapons demanding that they eliminate their arsenals, as per the provisions of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, was cringing disbelief. Are they serious? I couldn’t imagine an action more futile.

But the disbelief was mixed with hope, and the hope remains vibrant as the world marks the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the launching of the geopolitics of M.A.D. Could hope possibly be more painful?

The anti-nuke lawsuits were filed in April 2014, in both U.S. Federal Court and the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Big surprise. The U.S. suit was dismissed some months ago as “speculative” and because the Marshall Islands “lacks standing” to bring the suit.

Yeah, upstart nation of no international significance. All it did is serve as an expendable swath of atolls in the middle of nowhere, a site ideal to absorb multiple megatons of nuclear testing over a dozen years. The islands’ inhabitants were, in the arrogant, racist parlance of the time, simple “savages” whose culture, whose very lives, had far less value than the technological advancements the testing yielded. Cancer, birth defects and other consequences of radiation are the lasting result, but who cares? Three decades ago, the U.S. settled its genocidal debt to the islanders with a payment of $150 million “for all claims, past, present and future.” This pittance — this nuisance settlement — is, of course, long gone. Too bad.

“What many Americans seem to want to forget,” wrote scholar Sandra Crismon, as quoted recently by Robert Alvarez in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “is that for the Marshallese, nuclear testing is not a historical event, as they continue to deal with the huge environmental and human health costs.”

But their lawsuits in the two courts, with a decision still pending from the ICJ, isn’t seeking additional compensation. The suits merely seek to hold the nuclear-armed nations accountable to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which calls for the dismantling of all nuclear weapons. How did that small provision get overlooked? Five of these nations — the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China — are signatories to the agreement. The other four — Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea — though they’ve snubbed the treaty, are nonetheless accountable to international law, the lawsuit maintains.

If nothing else, the tiny island nation is standing eyeball to eyeball with superpower arrogance and crippled morality.

As Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote last week in The Guardian: “One of the many ironies of history is that non-nuclear-weapon states, like Iran, have actually done far more for the cause of non-proliferation in practice than nuclear-weapon states have done on paper. Iran and other nuclear have-nots have genuinely ‘walked the walk’ in seeking to consolidate the non-proliferation regime. Meanwhile, states actually possessing these destructive weapons have hardly even ‘talked the talk,’ while completely brushing off their disarmament obligations under the non-proliferation treaty.”

History’s conquerors will not be the ones who free humanity from its suicidal vise. This is the paradox. The transition we have to make must emerge beyond the institutions that have trapped us.

Nuclear weaponry is the outcome of 10,000 years of human experimentation outside the circle of life. The institutions we’ve built, the logic we’ve adhered to, lead us nowhere, except to more of the same. Desperate as we are to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons, we devote billions of dollars annually to upgrading our own. There are still nearly 16,000 nuclear weapons on the planet, some 1,800 on Cold War-era hair-trigger alert. We’ve been on the brink of self-annihilation for 70 years. What sanity can we access to save ourselves?

“Everything turned red — the ocean, the fish, the sky and my grandfather’s net. And we were 200 miles away from ground zero. A memory that can never be erased.”

These are the words of Tony DeBrum, minister of foreign affairs for the Republic of the Marshall Islands, who, Alvarez tells us in his Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists essay, addressed the recent Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. DeBrum was 9 years old, out fishing with his grandfather, on March 1, 1954, when the Castle Bravo blast — all 15 megatons of it, the largest U.S. nuclear test ever — was detonated on Bikini Atoll. To its innocent witnesses, it must have foretold the end of the world.

The Marshall Islands lawsuits ask: If not us, who? If not now, when? These are the questions asked by those who have no choice. That means all of us should be asking them.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

Image Credit: Nuclear Explosion Stock Photo 123rf.com

peace in Afghanistan

No Warlords Need Apply: A Call For Credible Peacemaking In Afghanistan

Editor’s Note: This article was co-authored by Buddy Bell.

July 30, 2015

A second round of peace talks between Afghan government officials and Taliban representatives, expected to begin before the end of July, 2015, suggests that some parties to the fighting want to declare a cease fire. But even in the short time since the first round on July 7th, fighting has intensified. The Taliban, the Afghan government forces, various militias and the U.S. have ramped up attacks, across Afghanistan.

Some analysts say the Taliban may be trying to gain territory and clout to give them leverage in ‘peace talks.’ Taliban forces, apparently beginning to splinter since the supposed death of Mullah Omar, are now competing with a new Islamic State presence in Afghanistan as various armed groups try to recruit new fighters from among ultra-conservative sectors of the regional population. Spectacular and frightening suicide bombings, hostage taking and a demonstrated capacity to force Afghan government soldiers into retreat or surrender might bolster a group’s claim to be effectively ejecting foreigners from Afghanistan.

However, the U.S., with its history of waging aerial attacks, using helicopters and weaponized drones, and engaging in constant aerial surveillance, along with its continued night raids and detention of civilians, effectively carries itself as the most formidable warlord in the region.

Throughout June, according to the New York Times, “American drones and warplanes fired against militants in Afghanistan more than twice as much as they had in any previous month this year, according to military statistics.” On July 19th, 2015, U.S. helicopters even fired on an Afghan army facility in the Logar province, killing seven troops and wounding five others. The Afghan Ministry of Defense told CBS News that “coalition helicopters were flying through the area early Monday morning when they came under fire from insurgents. After the insurgents’ attack on the helicopters, the helicopters bombed the area, and as a result an Afghan army outpost was destroyed.”

Meanwhile, top U.S. military officials have met with president Ashraf Ghani to talk about extending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, beyond 2016, in light of a possible threat from Islamic State fighters. On July 19th, the Los Angeles Times reported that Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Following the meeting, General Dempsey said he agreed that the U.S. needed to have a transnational strategy against the Islamic State. He said he would raise Ghani’s idea that Afghanistan “could serve as a hub from which the U.S., its allies and Afghanistan itself could work to prevent Islamic State from gaining followers in South Asia the way it has in the Middle East.”

U.S. military officials diminish the credibility of any proposed cease fire when they suggest that the U.S. will, after all, consider maintaining bases and troops in Afghanistan far beyond the supposed 2016 evacuation of U.S. bases. Confidence in a cease fire is further undermined when parties to negotiations know that the U.S. could assassinate them if they appear on a list of U.S. targets.

The U.S. State Department published its Country Reports on Terrorism: 2014 on the 19th of June 2015, from which we can see that in 2002, at the start of the U.S.-led global war against terrorism, 725 people were killed worldwide. During President Barack Obama’s first full year in office, in 2010, the number rose to 13,186. In other words, terrorist-related deaths grew by more than 4,000 percent from 2002 to 2010.

This is borne out on the ground in Afghanistan where the United Nations has been reporting record increases in civilian casualties.

Stopping the failed, counter-productive war against terrorism in Afghanistan and removing drones from her skies during peace talks would inspire respect for the idea of peace processes. Rural populations — the “constituency” of the Taliban in Afghanistan– fear the drones and look for protection, making them vulnerable to recruitment by armed militias vowing to eject the foreign militaries.

The U.S. could  indicate that it doesn’t wish to keep military personnel in Afghanistan or maintain ongoing bases there.

Yet, even were the U.S. to take these steps, a declared ceasefire between warlords who have, in the past, neglected the needs of Afghanistan’s poorest communities, whose war making has exacerbated suffering and poverty, may not be very meaningful to ordinary people living in rural areas. Whose interests would the warlords aim to secure?

It seems that the most crucially needed ceasefire agreement, in Afghanistan, would be one that occurred among ordinary communities, agreeing to no longer cooperate with warring parties, to no longer allow warlords to use them as pawns. This kind of ceasefire might fill the need and longing for peace so often expressed by people who are weary of living through wave after wave of destruction. But ordinary Afghans living in rural areas need to feed their children, plant crops, restore irrigation systems, replenish their flocks and rehabilitate their agricultural infrastructure in order to survive. If they could have some realistic assurance of sustained resolve to help them reach these goals, they’d have good reason to link up and rise up in opposition to continued war.

What source of funding and skill could possibly offer the assistance required for this kind of rebuilding?

The U.S. military doesn’t hesitate to demand sums for continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan which could instead be dedicated to rebuilding the country. The U.S. should state that it wishes to pay reparations for suffering caused in the past. This could be done in the form of setting up an escrow account to be administered by an NGO or agency that has not been accused of succumbing to corruption in Afghanistan.

By doing so, the U.S. could credibly begin to withdraw from warlord status in Afghanistan, and apply itself to being part of reconstruction, setting a model desperately needed throughout the world.

Kathy Kelly (kathy@vcnv.org) and Buddy Bell co-coordinate Voices for Creative Nonviolence www.vcnv.org

Image Credit: Stock Photo by Serdar Bayraktar, 123rf.com