Letter from the Road #4

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


The Work of Making Miracles


I am in back in Baghdad after an absence of two weeks, here to bear witness to the reality of the Iraqi people, “standing in solidarity” with their suffering. But today it doesn’t seem like enough. I don’t want to simply bear witness, I want to walk on water for them, raise the dead, multiply the loaves and fishes. I want a miracle. I want the United States not to attack, not to fall back on the barbaric use of violence and war to achieve its ends. I want the American people to continue to rise up against this most dangerous undertaking. I want to see a thousand U.S. and British women and men walking the streets of Baghdad with white armbands, carrying placards protesting the imminent attack on Iraq. I want a miracle. Can we set aside our appointments, our jobs, our busy schedules for a short time to amass a visible presence here, showing our support for a nonviolent alternative? Former President Jimmy Carter said in his speech the other night accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, “sometimes war may be a necessary evil, but we must remember, it is always an evil.”

In this case it is an evil we can stop before it starts and becomes intractable. I am not naive. Like most of you I have spent months trying to fathom the real reason the Bush administration is so determined to wage war on Iraq. There are many theories: oil, terrorism, Israel’s security, weapons of mass destruction, a clash of civilizations, redrawing maps. All of these give way in the face of reasonable assessment: 1) We can negotiate to buy the oil we need; 2) Iraq has not convincingly been shown to be involved in terrorist actions; 3) Iraq will never be able to match U.S. power with its pathetic arsenal – if it still has one anyway – and there are better ways to contain, reduce, or eradicate any possible threat they hold; 4) Israel is the country in this part of the world with weapons of mass destruction; 5) The war isn’t about Islam – American policy claims not to care about religion – and in any case Iraq is (or was until we pushed so hard) the most secular state in the Arab world; 6) And it won’t be about maps either since the current fragmented state of the Arab world serves American interests just fine. Then what?

Add them all together and the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Imperialism is what we called it in school when talking about the great rapacious empires of Rome, the Ottomans, Portugal, Spain, or England. Could it be that an occupation of Iraq is the next step in the emergence of the greatest empire in history? Is this our country’s goal for the 21st century? Is it something we want to accept as long as the loot reaches our tables and our automobiles?

Clearly I must be overwrought and too emotional. But I grew up believing that my country was the great defender of freedom and democracy. I am dismayed at being so deceived.

Perhaps my feelings have been stimulated by Elias’s and my recent experiences at the Convening Conference of the global Nonviolent Peaceforce last week. We travelled from Baghdad to Delhi, India, to meet with 140 people from 47 nations to take the next steps in building the first large scale “force” committed to nonviolence since Gandhi’s inspiration for the creation of a “Peace Army”, or shanti sena as he called it.

The aim of the Nonviolent Peaceforce is simple: to bring an end to military violence by non-violent means, creating a diplomatic space for armed conflicts to be resolved without resorting to further violence. To this end the Peaceforce plans to create an unarmed standing peace brigade of (ultimately) 2,000 civilians from around the world trained in specific techniques to intervene nonviolently in international, interethnic, or inter-religious conflicts. A response network of over 5,000 people around the world will support those in conflict areas by communicating their progress through a worldwide network of monitoring systems comprised of video, phone, and Internet. Our current Peace Team in Iraq is a small-scale precursor of this type of “3rd Party Intervention” – along with other similar efforts such as Peace Brigades International, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and Witness for Peace.

The Peaceforce Convening Conference in Delhi was opened with men and women translating into their own languages the proverb, “The path is made by walking.” A great exercise in cultural understanding. My favorite was the Korean translation: “If we walk and walk and walk, people will call it a road.” And so we are walking.

The five-day conference was not easy. There was much suspicion about the Peaceforce’s origins as the brainchild of three North American men. Was this yet another form of Western imperialism? Here we have the U.S. causing so much conflict and suffering in the world and now in come “the U.S. heroes on white horses to try and fix it,” as one Asian delegate put it. This distrust was not just an undercurrent. It was upfront and genuinely felt. Those of us from the U.S., Canada, and Europe found ourselves in the position of trying to share the insights gained with the participation of dozens of co-workers from other countries during three years of research and development while constantly being asked to let go of what we think we know.

The plan for the Nonviolent Peaceforce had always been to come to this stage and turn it over to its “Member Organizations” from around the world. We all had to share the dream. After much struggle, the impossible happened. 140 people worked together without complete knowledge or mutual understanding and made the decisions necessary to make the Nonviolent Peaceforce truly a global reality, and responsible to grassroots organizations around the world. A colleague from Singapore said he had never seen a more diverse people’s peace gathering. In the end it was people’s good will that overcame their distrust. As a woman from Kenya said, “We agree to disagree and still keep walking the road to nonviolent resolution of conflicts – the need is too great not to.” Together we accepted the reality that we were certain to make mistakes and to mis-communicate, but our children and grandchildren’s lives demanded that we try. One of my personal practices during this conference was on being told I was wrong to continue to smile and to ask how it could be better, rather than using my wit to reply.

After this meeting I firmly believe that the dream we all hold for a different world is not impossible. I see this dream being worked on in thousands of ways at the local level and it gives me much hope. Now we must learn how to make it possible at a larger scale. The work of our politicians, businesspeople and diplomats is to ask how they can serve the peoples’ dream. Anything else has always failed – empires made of dust litter this Iraqi landscape: Mesopotamia, Assyria, Babylonia. One feels the fleeting nature of the will to dominance.

I believe the American people have a choice to make now. We can watch our environment and our civilizational structures crumble violently – the evidence is already visible on every continent and it will only speed up. Or we can become the transformative agent, mobilizing the good will of the world’s people to work together on our collective task of healing the world.

Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually
changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly
building new structures”
– John F. Kennedy

What is taking place in the U.S. build-up to war in Iraq flies in the face of this wisdom. There is no more urgent problem today than preventing this war. Here it all comes together: the geopolitical balance, our response to a declining environment, the possible triumph of fundamentalism over tolerance and diversity, a reasonable peace for Israel/Palestine, economic futures for billions of people, U.S. security at home and abroad.

What will we choose? I work – and pray – for a miracle. Please add your prayers and actions too, in whatever ways you can.

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