Back when I was in high school my dad would take us boys on occasion to watch Rutgers University soccer games. They were always fun—for soccer aficionados we even saw Alexi Lalas play—though I was often troubled by the degree to which fans in the stands would berate the referees. Perhaps back then I had a sensitive conscience, but there was always an air of tension surrounding the game. Rutgers was good back then—I have no idea if they are good now—but they often won and everyone went home happy.
One afternoon, however, they lost. Grumbling was expected and the referees were lambasted, but on our way back to the car in an open space of grass behind the playing field two people were yapping back and forth very vehemently. I can only imagine they were opposing fans, perhaps one a student at the rival college, but my memory is that they were both adults, however young. Their raised voices attracted a lot of attention, and the attendees paused in their descent to the parking lot and duly circled around them. There was no “fight, fight!” chanting like you might have with boys on a playground, but the yapping had escalated in the meanwhile and the two had come to blows. Like rubbernecking at an accident it is impossible to look away, but Dad quickly pushed us along and we went our way home.
Before leaving though my conscience had another message. I was struck not only by the wrongness of what was going on, but also by the feeling that something should be done about it. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” is fine to recite, but hard to act upon. Yet I had the urge that I should do something about it. Sometimes in such cases you can imagine yourself the hero; I had no such picture in my head. The only images that came were wandering, alone, into the scuffle, and getting caught in the crossfire, thrown to the ground, and doing no good whatsoever. Perhaps there was a scenario in which this broke the tunnel vision of their rage, but even so the price to pay was the chief element in my mind. I put up no resistance to Dad’s motioning.
That day within me something was either born or died. I’m not sure which. Since then I have been filled with the idealism that calls us to put our lives nonviolently in the line of fire for the sake of ending conflict, even if it is fruitless and painful. I watched with admiration as the people of Christian Peacemaker Teams went to Iraq and, as their motto states, looked to “get in the way.” There story is told here on Wikipedia.Yet the world soon cast their scorn as they were captured by the very Iraqis they went to protect, and then heroically, yet ironically, rescued by the American soldiers they were seeking to obstruct. It says much about our military, but what does it say about them?
Such a group is prepared to pay the same cost in nonviolence that a soldier is prepared to pay in violence. They believe peacemaking calls for sacrifice, commitment, and strategy. In their ordeal the American member of their team died. Another of their group was 74 years old. Yet what is remembered of them? That they put the lives of American soldiers in danger. That they put their noses where they did not belong. They played the part of the fool in the drama which justified the war. What good came from their idealism? Was there any impact in Iraq? Was there any impact anywhere?
Perhaps it could be said that these thoughts here represent growth from the birth of the original experience. Yet if instead the focus is on life, and not thought, it may better be described as death. I have never intervened to bring peace to a situation. I have often nodded in that direction, but never once have I risked suffering in order to reconcile others. I have stood with others around the incident, felt the ping of conscience, and moved on.
Coming home late one evening the other day I was riding the metro and the sensation returned. The car was not overly crowded though there was a small but sizeable group of youth—high school to college—joking around, jostling, drawing attention to themselves but not quite crossing the line in the manner of which their age is so adept. Someone, though, took offense. He was about the same age, but was standing in the corner with a young lady covered in a head scarf. I have no idea what came between them, but before too long one of the group in particular and he were locked in the level of raised voices that precedes a conflict. As per custom, and perhaps per wisdom, I slinked backwards a few steps.
The outcome itself is perhaps not surprising, though it is different. The two became more and more animated, displaying their bravado in closer and closer proximity. Immediately others stepped in. Older men sitting around them reached out to grab the near-combatants by the arm, speaking words of calm. The group of young men rallied around their member, but to pull him back. The yapping continued for a little while, but eventually dissipated as each side separated, and they young men exited at the next stop. Crisis averted.
Having lived in the Arab World for some time now, I knew exactly how this scenario would play out. In this respect my withdrawal was not from cowardice but simply from allowing those who knew how to diffuse tension to play their role. Yet I will not excuse myself from cowardice; I, after all, knew the playbook, and chose not to participate. Still the criticism is not quite fair; though I have seen and could plausibly imitate the role I had seen so many times before, no one else was playing a role.
No one thought, “I should get involved.” The older men did not think, “This word of caution would be appropriate.” They all simply acted, and they acted as one group with one mind. Whereas the mentality back at Rutgers was to circle around and let them fight, the mentality here was to intervene. Whereas the one with a sensitive conscience in America wonders what he might do to change a bad situation, the one here does not exist—the group conscience decidedly takes over.
What does it mean to be a peacemaker?
It is written about Arab culture that conflict is a normal and accepted fact of life, but that group mechanisms exist to keep conflict from spiraling out of control. The sense of being his brother’s keeper is ingrained in Arab thought, and there is no need to romanticize this. It is not driven by a profound sense of morality but rather a consciousness that protects the group in ever-larger concentric circles. There is an Arab proverb which states, “Me against my brother. My brother and I against my cousins. My cousins and I against the world.” Conflict is allowed and expected, but at a certain level it must cease.
The system, however, is moral. In the West our sense of personal responsibility will not permit the Arab individual any credit for automatic participation in group think, and we are blind to the structural morality that binds them together. Yet we then in opposite fashion suffer the intense burden of the individual peacemaker and are blind to our own structural immorality. Furthermore, since we know the individual can do no good on his own, we are left in despair, immobilized against undertaking any good.
When some, like the brave yet naïve (?) souls of Christian Peacemaker Teams can finally commit themselves to mobilization, everything is marshaled toward their failure. It is no conspiracy theory; it is a reflection of the fact that the world is organized around the principles of power. If power is threatened by power the rules are clear and the victor presides. Morality determines to what degree the labels of “good” or “evil” are applied, and a preference exists, of course, for good. If power, however, is threatened by nonviolence, it puts everyone ill at ease, for both good and evil in this system depend upon it.
This is the way the world works, and the Arabs are no better. They often receive the “evil” label in our classification scheme, but for us this is a label of convenience. We are the possessors of power in the world today, and like all in this position we are loathe to give it up. They from their group mentality at times will reach the end of their concentric circles, and lash out – we are quick to retaliate in kind. Yet it is the same game and the same struggle. Yet the Arab World is worthy of more praise than it receives, for their circles can expand to include humanity at large. For the past two hundred years they have been under the world order of the West, and they have largely played nicely. Even so, our thumb is strong.
What then can be the place of the individual with a sensitive conscience anywhere, but especially in the West? To what degree are we condemned to act alone? Culture cannot be easily changed, but can the principles of peacemaking become generalized? Can a group mentality emerge which curbs conflict before it escalates beyond repair? Can this be applied to our foreign policy? Can it be applied at a soccer game?
It is here where I run out of vision, though perhaps it is more correct that I am scared of the vision. Until now I have been reluctant to speak of Christianity, for these principles have been practiced, albeit rarely by anyone, by non-Christians around the world. We should learn their lessons and hear their rebuke. Yet our primary example, which we are called to imitate, is profoundly individual. Suffering a sensitive conscience aware of the deep division between man and God, Jesus gave up all power and preached a message of love. He gathered others around him, but in the end the powers that be chose him alone for execution. His mission, noble as it was, ended in failure. Looking to intercede between man and God, he was caught in the crossfire, and put to death by both. Yet he was no victim, for he chose his fate, drinking deeply from the cup he was given. Paradox of all paradoxes, it was from his failure that victory emerged. Salvation can be preached to the world, peace can be extended to all, because one man was trampled upon trying to make a difference.
Can we do any differently?