Division, terrible suffering, and learnings about peacebuilding

Jan 21, 2024
Adult and child hands holding white dove bird on blue background.

Amplified by the terrible sufferings in many places, and by the divided voices, especially as regards Israel/Gaza, we have some learnings about peacebuilding that it might be timely to reflect on. ‘Cease-fire,’ of course, is just a less vivid way of saying ‘we will stop killing people we don’t know.’

We continue to pray that governments and nations will work together for peace.

Our prayer’s necessity is amplified by the terrible sufferings in many places, and by the divided voices, especially as regards Israel/Gaza.

We have some learnings about peacebuilding that it might be timely to reflect on.

Focusing on Israel/Gaza, history shows us that, sooner or later, the firing does cease, and the question starts to be asked: ‘so, where to from here?’

‘Cease-fire,’ of course, is just a less vivid way of saying ‘we will stop killing people we don’t know.’

Humanity, as the poets say, ‘is a family that has barely met.’

Veiled by the misery of current conflicts, that is still the journey we are all on – to get to know each other, and enjoy this short time together called ‘life on earth,’ poised as we are between the two great mysteries of birth and death.

It is the journey we see in many of the happier places of our January – families and friends on beach holidays and at the Australian Open, easily around all kinds of other people in benign fashion.

More poignantly, as regards Peacebuilding, over the years, as I am aware, many dear souls have initiated ‘friendship and reconciliation’ with folk on what is perceived to be ‘the other side.’

Friendship is the key, as I know from friends made in the Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia.

Likewise, through climate change advocacy, I have friends through the network of the Interfaith Liaison Committee to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

We were together in Dubai at UNCOP28, focusing on our responsibility, even whilst war raged nearby.

Likewise for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, which is dedicated to friendship being shaped across cultural and religious boundaries.

I listened to another such group at the August 2023 Parliament of World Religions, about whom it is timely to mention.

‘Roots, the Palestinian Israeli Grassroots Initiative for Understanding, Nonviolence and Transformation.’

The speakers shared, there and then, what they had learned from really, really listening to one another!

Particularly, their learning about how deep is the belonging both Israelis and Palestinians feel to the same land. The corollary for the leaders of the thus named ‘Roots,’ is to learn together about how to live well with one another; how to help each other flourish, and be peaceful.

Well that was August, and this is January, after more than 100 days of brutality.

‘Roots’ are now having to do their ‘Peacemaking at a time of war.’

As the attached conveys, their initiatives are very practical.

These brave, beautiful souls are doing all they practically and relationally can to show their hope for a better way.

As they say, they are trying to ‘keep lines of communication open between Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers, while tribal loyalties threaten to destroy partnerships built up over years of painstaking effort.’

Many of us can empathise with how this now feels.

Maintaining friendships is hard, even here, so far from the conflict.

One indicator is the reaction to our Foreign Minister’s itinerary.

The divisive voices are so demanding, and so insistent, about their narrative being the only narrative.

So, in this context, what are key learnings about peacebuilding we have acquired over the years that might help us retain perspective, so we help shape better days?

  1. The process of Peacebuilding is always complex, but we have to take what initiative we can.

A meditating friend happened to be leading a Retreat in Jerusalem on October 7. He reflected later that there was no peace process in place, facilitated by the current regimes. In this absence, the door was open, he said, for this reciprocal brutality.

Not long after, I found some notes from a talk in 2012. These began with reference to a week of violence in Israel/Gaza.

Given the history, complex as it is, and appreciative of folk like ‘Roots,’ we might ask, how could there have been a complete absence of a political peace process in 2023?

A process, that is, by which people listened carefully to one another; imagined together a better future; agreed on those first little steps that would gradually reduce tensions.

The form of leadership that has filled this vacuum is now obvious to us…

People who do not seem to even blink when their leadership leads to the deaths of innocent children … in large numbers…(one imagines, sympathetically, that they must, as parents and grandparents themselves, somehow feel this sorrow).

One story should be enough, you would think. One about a youngster enjoying life at that Music Festival, one about a little child’s body in the rubble of Gaza. If we look at all this through the eyes of children, none of it would be happening.

None of it!

Was it Gandhi who said that this is exactly how all policy should be shaped… through the eyes of children, and what is best for them?

For the sake of the children, though it is complex, we must take every possible initiative in peacebuilding.

          2. History, of course, shapes perceptions of what is possible.

It must be taken seriously if there is to be healing. That is the learning of folk like Roots. Our friend, Fr. Michael Lapsley, offers his learnings through the Healing of Memories Institute .

           3. Peacebuilding often faces resistance.

Whenever people are habituated to an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ self-identity, there will be resistance.

The whole narrative of a life may have to be reimagined.

The groups with whom one has one’s belonging may push back against any reimagining, perhaps threatening exclusion.

Those who have an interest in maintaining the division will make their negative responses.

Getting beyond this is hard work, as we know, and as the Roots example makes plain.

Additionally, we all make mistakes, even when well-intending. The mistakes of well-intending people are also part of a complex history.

And then there is the huge matter of ‘forgiveness.’

The importance of practicing forgiveness may be understood, but there can be a lot of resistance.

Nelson Mandela is remembered as saying that ‘hating someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.’

The self care aspect of forgiveness may be understood in terms of avoiding self-poisoning, but there can be much inner and outer resistance to
practicing this truth.

Resentment is spoken of as the emotion of injustice. We feel justified in holding on to our resentment of those who have caused our suffering.

With a sympathetic imagination, we can understand this when people, as now, are full of grief.

People find their dignity, for however long it takes, in refusing to forgive.

Even if they recognise the consequences of this choice can be a ‘life sentence of bitterness.’

As Richard Holloway says, ‘we only add to the trauma if we try to urge or hurry people into a forgiveness they are humanly incapable of offering…we have to go further and acknowledge the appropriate moral force of the refusal to forgive and the sense of revulsion that the very thought of forgiveness induces in the victim’ (Richard Holloway ‘On Forgiveness,’ Canongate Books 2015, p53).

And yet… sooner or later, as we have seen repeatedly, people find it in themselves to begin again.

At the end of their beautiful book, Desmond and Mpho Tutu say, ‘ultimately no one can tell you to forgive. We can ask you to do so. We can in- vite you on the journey. We can show you what has worked for others… but we must walk our own paths at our own pace. All of us write our own books of forgiving every single day’ (Desmond M. Tutu and Mpho A. Tutu, ‘The Book of Forgiving,’ William Collins 2015, p.222-223).

Forgiving ourselves and others helps us become free of the past.

As the Tutu’s say from deep experience, this is how we heal and grow. It is how we make meaning out of our suffering, restore our self-esteem, and tell a new story of who we are.

Is this not our shared journey? Humanity, the family that has barely met…

     4. Peacebuilding can feel, because of factors mentioned above, quite fragile.

Like the Roots people and others are doing now, we just have to take every opportunity to deepen relationships, and create real friendships. There is a freedom, and an integrity, in doing this. Come what may.

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