Theme Area 5: Democratic world order, combating miltarization and promoting peace (Beth Murphy, OP)

23-28 January 2003
Porto Alegre, RS, Brazil

Panel 5: Democratic strategies for solving international conflicts:

  • How can the necessary conditions and possible strategies for peaceful solutions to international conflicts be created?
  • How can we build pro-peace movements to oppose solution of conflicts by force?
  • Michel Warchawsky, AIC, Israel (Facilitator)
  • Pedro Ibarra, the Basque Countries
  • Guillermo Kerber, World Council of Churches, Tanzania
  • Magdala Velasques, Red de Mulheres del Sur Ocidente, Colombia
  • Chris Nineham, Globalize Resistance, England
  • Sr. Beth Murphy, OP, Dominican Sisters, USA

In fifteen minutes, I will try to share with you my limited understanding about “strategies” and “necessary conditions” for peacemaking using the only experience of peacemaking on which I have to draw. There are hundreds of Dominicans in the United States and around the world who have spent many more years peacemaking than I have, and who have greater insight into what it takes to create “strategies” and “necessary conditions” for peaceful, democratic resolutions to conflict. My only sustained and relatively organized involvement in any effort for peacemaking has been my experience with the U.S. Dominican efforts in Iraq. By the looks of things, my Dominican friends and I are, in the eyes of the world at least, very near to failure.

And yet, on many other levels – personal, communal, spiritual – I will never consider my part in this historic moment a failure. If I do not fail here, today, I will manage to share with you my brief peacemaking experience, and the conditions I see that are necessary for peace to prevail. They are these:

  1. Imagination
  2. Relationship
  3. Resistance
  4. Love
I find that the first necessary condition for peacemaking is the ability to imagine a different, more peaceful world.

In 1998 a small group of Dominican sisters were seized by and inspiration after having read a letter the Master of the Order of Preachers wrote after his visit to Iraq that year. It was an inspiration that wouldn’t let go until they had done something that was –and for many people still is – unimaginable. They went to Iraq. In 1999 they snuck out of the United States quietly, a bit fearful about publicly breaking the U.S.-led, UN imposed 7-year-old embargo on Iraq. But their courageous hearts did not give in to fear. On the journey they discovered our Dominican sisters and brothers, and rushed home to tell us the story. What they shared liberated the imaginations of many Dominicans throughout the United States and has brought us to the point that now Dominicans throughout the world are preaching for all the world to hear: “We have family in Iraq: cease this senseless march to war.”

Much has happened for U.S. Dominicans since that first “Voices for Veritas” delegation:

  • Two additional delegations have visited Iraq in violation of UN sanctions law and at risk of fines and imprisonment;
  • Two Iraqi Dominican sisters have made their own courageous journey and are living among us in the United States;
  • Four Dominicans fasted and prayed for peace in a public square in New York City for the month of September. They sparked the imaginations of Dominicans all over the world, who have agreed to continue fasting and praying. At a dozen or so public sites and in countless private convents and homes, Dominicans and their friends are fasting and praying for peace each Friday.
  • I pray each Friday, in front of the old Illinois State Capitol, just yards away from the very room where Abraham Lincoln made his historic call for an end to slavery. Each Friday a man named Brian, very probably a descendent of slaves, joins us on his way to work. He doesn’t stay long, but he encourages us by relieving each of us of the burden of our signs for a few minutes. While we warm our fingers, he warms our hearts with his appreciation for our fidelity to the effort. I’m sure similar stories can be found in abundance at prayer sites around the country.
  • Some Dominicans also engage in acts of civil disobedience in order to speak out against further U.S. aggression against the Iraqi people. Dominican Sister Arlene Flaherty is among those whose trial is this week for an action taken in December in New York City.
  • Thousands of people in the United States and around the world have been touched by the “I have family in Iraq” button & bumper sticker campaign. Just wearing the buttons can be an important witness. One of our sisters had her luggage thoroughly searched – even her shampoo bottle was sniffed – when an “I Have Family in Iraq” button was found on a jacket in her suitcase.
See what imagination can do!

All of this started because small groups of friends had the courage to imagine a different world, and to begin to build relationships across the boundaries of miles, cultures, ideologies, and fear.

It is a bit embarrassing to admit that, prior to that letter from the master of the order in 1998, many Dominicans in the U.S. were unaware that there were Christians in Iraq, never mind, Dominicans! And it could also be difficult to admit that it took this – the presence of Christians within a mostly Muslim country – to awaken the hearts of many of us to the suffering of 26 million Iraqis.

Yet, this is the grace: imagination created the conditions necessary for relationships to blossom. For the 30 or so Dominicans who have traveled to Iraq, it is no longer a faraway land full of unknown and un-named human beings, but a place filled with people whose names and stories we now know, our sisters and our brothers, Christian and Muslim: Nazdar, Houda, Abudullah, Saif, Achmed, Jasim, Ali, Najim, Christine, Maria, Matilda, Mannes, Kamaran, Thamer, Adnan, Bushra, Makboula, Satar, Imad, Peter, Zhahida…

Without the personal relationships that we’ve forged, our hearts may never have been awakened to the plight of the Iraqi people. And we may never have come to the point of resistance.

I was led to understand the value of my anger and my desire to speak out, through these words from Mary Catherine Hilkert, a Dominican theologian. She wrote in Speaking with Authority: Catherine of Siena and the Voices of Women Today:

“Sometimes the words of protest are the only words we can speak clearly in the face of complex forces of evil woven into the fabric of our lives and world. We cannot always see or name the way forward. Further, no liberation front or political or social program can be identified with the reign of God. But even the cry of protest is a word of grace that moves us to resistance and to searching for another way. The beginning of finding a new path is speaking the truth of what clearly is not God’s will for human life ….”

Resisting – saying no – can be a difficult and lonely act. But when one finds the courage to speak, one also finds kindred souls. Dominicans have been a part of the growing resistance in the U.S.:

  • Many congregational leaders and the national Dominican leadership have written statements calling for and end to sanctions and in favor of a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
  • Individual Dominicans write letters to speak out and educate newspaper readers and elected officials.
  • We’ve participated in peace rallies and lobbied our Senators and Representatives in Washington.
  • We’ve traveled to Iraq in violation of sanctions law and committed acts of civil disobedience -- all in an effort to say “Not in our name will you wage a continuing war on the Iraqi people.”
So have many other Americans done these things. One senator from my home state of Illinois was among the few who voted against President Bush’s war resolution last fall, just weeks before his successful re-election. He said that there have been few votes in his career as a public servant that he will remember with as great a pride as that one. Record numbers of constituents called his office to register their opinion on his vote. Calls ran nine to one in favor of his decision – an unheard of margin.

Americans – including Dominican Americans – are standing up to the tyranny of this war in numbers unseen since Vietnam –all before the aggression starts.

Imagination, relationship, resistance – love. Finally it comes to this. It is love that moves the imagination, give impetus to relationships, gives meaning to resistance. In the end, I believe, it is the force of love that is THE necessary condition for peacemaking.

Now that we know the faces and names of our Iraqi sisters and brothers, now that we have seen the people our sanctions and bombs objectify as “collateral damage,” now that we love people in Iraq: we are compelled to put all our resources of imagination and relationship and resistance a the service of love.

It was love that moved my fellow travelers and I to read a message to the people of the United States from the sanctuary of a Chaldean Church in Baghdad this past December. We cried:

We implore you, our fellow citizens of the United States, to look into the eyes of the people in Iraq. See the Jesuit-trained doctor who can barely contain his despair and the Muslim mother who grieves for her dying son. Listen to the taxicab driver who fears for the safety of his family, the Catholic sister who cares for pregnant mothers, and the orphaned children who sleep fitfully at night waiting for the sound of bombs. These are the people of Iraq—people who share our hopes and dreams for a peaceful world.

I have had the privilege of being befriended by two of my Iraqi Dominican sisters, They were sent last spring to the United States by their community in Iraq for the purpose of participating with us in our mission to preach the Gospel. The original plan included an arrival date of September 2001. After that September’s tragedy, no one thought it possible that the sisters would be allowed to come. But it happened. The following April the two young women arrived in the U.S. It is largely because of them that my most recent trip to Iraq last month, even more than my previous one, worked a transformation in me. I dare say their presence has touched the lives of many U.S. Dominicans.

One of them said to me one day, “I don’t care as much about peace between our governments, but between our people and your people.” My wise sister understands the reality of a force more powerful than violence. That is the level at which change happens. So, during this trip,

  • It was love’s anger I felt, listening to the doctor at a Basrah hospital explain that studies project three quarter of a million cancer deaths in Basrah province alone, caused by the toxic radiation bath in which residents have lived since the U.S. shot off 300 tons of radioactive anti-tank ordinance 1991.
  • It was love’s pain I felt when one of my sisters, the director of a Baghdad hospital, confided that the emotional and psychological health of the people was severely tried by the crescendo of war rhetoric coming from Washington. I found it difficult to look her in the eye when she asked, “When will it end? Isn’t this enough?”
  • It was love’s pride I felt listening to one of the friars talk about his efforts to keep open the dialog between Christians and Muslims even amidst the growing tensions created by U.S. insensitivity to the impact of its rhetoric on the Christian population of Iraq.
  • It was love’s joy I felt when the father of one of the Iraqi sisters living with us in the United States told me “now when my daughter looks in your eyes, she will see us.”
  • It was love’s fear I felt when one of my friends offered a long hug good-bye and whispered in my ear a final-sounding “I will miss you, my sister.”
I return to the words of Kathy Hilkert. She concludes that paragraph about the value of resistance by saying:

“But for experiences of negativity to be ones of contrast, rather than mere confirmation of life’s absurdity and harshness, one must have had at least fragmentary moments of meaning, love, and joy. It is precisely the life of love we have known, the compassion of God we have tasted, that prompts us to say that life could be different, that peace is possible, that relationships can be mended.

Likewise, it is the experience and promise of a welcoming community, a shared table, and the unconditional forgiveness of God, that sustains our commitment to become more fully the body of Christ and to call the body as a whole to be more of a sacrament of salvation in our world. Our hopes are shaped by the stories and ritual that form the horizons of our imaginations.”

Imagination, relationship, resistance, love. I don’t know whether this orderly 4-point plan for peacemaking would be successful outside the bigger context, which I’ve been privileged to hear and learn about during my days here in this startling, beautiful country. But this I do know: nothing we do here can succeed without it. I’d like you to see Iraq – to begin to imagine Iraq so that you, too, are moved by love to relationship and resistance. I leave you with this brief look at the people of Iraq, whom I’ve come to know and love. The voices providing the music are those of the young Dominican women of Iraq, for whom, more than anyone else, I’ve embarked on this incredible journey of imagination, relationship, resistance, and transformative love.

(Hilkert, Mary Catherine. Speaking with Authority: Catherine of Siena and the Voices of Women Today. Paulist Press. 2001.)

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