Friday, October 7, 2011

On the value of peacemakers

Though I'm not ethnically Mennonite, and though I'm lapsed, I was tribalistically pleased this morning to discover that one of this year's recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, Leymah Gbowee, is a grad of Eastern Mennonite University. And the announcement took me all the way back to August, when discussion heated up about another Mennonite college—Goshen—and its decision not to play the "Star Spangled Banner" before games, citing its warlike nature.

Reasonable people can disagree on that topic, I think, but all too often the negative reaction was simply smug:
NBC Sports' Rick Chandler weighed in, saying: "I suppose we could have followed the example of the Mennonites and simply fled, giving the nation back to the British. But then we’d all be playing cricket."
That quote has stuck in my craw for two months now. But what Chandler—what a lot of people—don't understand is that Mennonite pacifism isn't about "fleeing" conflict, necessarily, but bringing nonviolent tools to act of resolving injustice and conflict. It's a belief that you don't have to shoot your way out of every bad situation or bomb every evil person—that, in fact, doing so can make injustices and conflicts worse. I was once a pure pacifist; I'm not anymore, but I still think there's a great deal of wisdom to be found in that approach.

And Gbowee exemplifies that approach. Here's the relevant portion of her Wikipedia biography:
In 2002, Leymah Gbowee was a social worker who organized the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. The peace movement started with local women praying and singing in a fish market.[6] She organized the Christian and Muslim women of Monrovia, Liberia to pray for peace and to hold nonviolence protests.

Under Leymah Gbowee's leadership, the women managed to force a meeting with President Charles Taylor and extract a promise from him to attend peace talks in Ghana.[7] Gbowee then led a delegation of Liberian women to Ghana to continue to apply pressure on the warring factions during the peace process.[8] They staged a silent protest outside the Presidential Palace, Accra, bringing about an agreement during the stalled peace talks.

Leymah Gbowee and Comfort Freeman, presidents of two different Lutheran churches, organized the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), and issued a statement of intent to the President: "In the past we were silent, but after being killed, raped, dehumanized, and infected with diseases, and watching our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying NO to violence and YES to peace! We will not relent until peace prevails."[9]

Their movement brought an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003 and led to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia, the first African nation with a female president,
Lest I take too much Mennonite pride in this: All this occurred before Gbowee's time at EMU. But it's not an accident that a Mennonite university is where she decided to further her studies into the approach she was already taking.

And contra Rick Chandler and his ilk, it was Gbowee's nonviolent—but active—approach that helped end a civil war in Liberia. I don't know that pacifism is always the answer to the world's problems, but I do know that violence isn't—and that it's often used when a nonviolent approach might produce better results. Gbowee didn't flee: She confronted a problem. She just didn't use weapons to do it.

So, thank God for Leymah Gbowee. And thank God for the peacemakers. We could use a few more of them.

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