Peacemaker Teams Get in the Way

For two unarmed peacemakers walking in Colombia’s Magdalena River Valley, there is only one thing to do. When an eight-year-old girl screams that troops are about to kill her father, they run toward the guns.

“Kill us first!” plead Scott Albrecht and Sandra RincÛn as they move in front of the troops, arms outstretched. Had the Canadian and the Colombian not stepped in front of the girl’s father, say witnesses, the nine-man paramilitary force was “preparing to kill him.”

Half a world away, at the entrance to the main market place in the Palestinian city of Hebron, ten men are blindfolded, handcuffed, and kneeling. Israeli soldiers tell peacemakers to move on or face arrest. Instead, the peacemakers wait for more international observers to arrive, and the prisoners are released on the spot.

During February in Iraq a newly formed group of Shi’a peacemakers in Karbala talk about going into the heart of Sunni territory to help with the recovery of Falluja. There are several reasons why they think the trip will be difficult. Isn’t there conflict between Shi’a and Sunni? Aren’t the Sunni resentful of newfound Shi’a control? Yet by early May, a delegation of Shi’a peacemakers from Karbala and Najaf are at work in Sunni Falluja, helping city officials to clear the rubble.

These are some of the stories archived at the website of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). In the wake of a harsh report by Amnesty International on the status of human rights in the world, CPT archives remind us that the world doesn’t have to wait on the USA or UN to deliver peace. So long as people of the world want peace, there are ways to get it. Helpless we are not.

In the past 18 years CPT has sent delegations to Iraq (prior to both Bush wars), Palestine, Haiti, Chiapas, Chechnya, Vieques Island, Pine Ridge, Colombia, and Grassy Narrows. Today several of those delegations are permanent. In Iraq, CPT is one of the few NGOs to still work outside the heavily occupied Green Zone. And this year in Iraq CPT helped to organize the first Muslim Peacemaker Team (MPT).

It was 1984 (of all years) at a Mennonite world conference in Strasbourg when the idea of creating a global team of peacemakers was sparked by Philadelphia scholar Ronald J. Sider. For two years, the idea was discussed among Mennonite congregations. In 1987 Gene Stoltzfus was hired as the first coordinator of CPT, a position he held until 2004.

“You can’t run away,” says Stoltzfus speaking to university students on a recent tour of Texas, his twinkling Santa Claus eyes and his full North Pole beard contributing to his charm. “Because if you set up a system where you run away, you can’t push back the violence.”

“Pushing back the violence” is a phrase that Stoltzfus has adopted over the past few years to describe peacemaking. The phrase comes from his gut, he explains. Pushing back the violence creates a new space or “sacred space” where transformation can occur. He envisions a day when a Peace Army will be trained and ready to go into high violence areas “to stand up for peace” around the world.

At the University of Texas class on “Religion, Violence, and Nonviolence” one student wants to know how the Christian label plays in Iraq. “It has helped us!” answers Stoltzfus. “It helps to be Christian in the Muslim world, because Jesus appears in the Koran and the Koran teaches respect for Christians.” In fact, the idea that there might be Christian Peacemakers often helps to start long conversations. In Mexico and South America also, the Christian label is helpful. The only place CPT tends to encounter resistance as a Christian group, says Stoltzfus with dramatic pause, is within the USA.

“The ministry of Jesus was a public ministry,” says Stoltfus. Biblical scenes of major transformation tend to take place in humble, ordinary settings. When violence is pushed back anywhere by ordinary people, space is made available for something new ñ something as simple or as revolutionary as a conversation.

“When you talk with your adversary,” says Stoltzfus, “you are establishing the possibility for change. You’re not just confronting them to say they are bad; you’re establishing a relationship for the future.” From the beginning, CPT recognized the need to talk with all sides in conflict situations. In Colombia, peacemakers get cell phone numbers from military, paramilitary and guerilla groups. “We tell them we are here and we are watching,” says Stoltzfus. “You know who we are, and we know who you are. We are not apologetic in the least.”

Sitting later at a small table in an Austin bakery, Stoltzfus recalls what it was like to be born into a “peace church family.” When he was 6 years old (the youngest child in a large Mennonite family in Aurora, Ohio) schoolmates pushed his head into a toilet. Returning home from school he asked his parents: “Why don’t they like us?” And his parents answered, “Because we don’t go to war.” Stoltzfus remembers thinking that was a pretty dumb reason not to like someone. Even among USA schoolchildren, there was something unsettling about a peacemaker in the neighborhood.

At the age of 23, Stoltzfus affirmed his peacemaking commitment by registering as a conscientious objector and performing five years of alternative social service in Vietnam, where he worked among civilians and soldiers alike. He credits the experience with developing his interest in peace teams: “That was the most important influence on my life.”

In Vietnam, Stoltzfus learned there can be “nonviolent imperialism” that imposes problem-solving strategies without first engaging local activists. “If we push back violence in the wrong direction, that can be a problem, too,” he explains. “In Palestine, CPT definitely didn’t work enough with Palestinians at first,” admits Stoltzfus. Today, teams ideally include local and international membership. In Colombia, CPT teams now conduct their business in Spanish, a good sign of local voice.

“The best team is one that includes good gender balance and a variety of ages and nationalities. We’ve got people aged 20 to 80 on our teams!” Stoltzfus says enthusiastically. “And in the Arab world, a range of ages is especially valued.” Once a team is on the ground, it begins looking for opportunities to take small actions on issues important to local communities.

Peace activists must overcome their fear of talking to soldiers, says Stoltzfus. In Iraq, CPT often serves as intermediary between USA military officials and Iraqis seeking information about loved ones in prison. Very early in the occupation, CPT documented patterns of abuse and torture of Iraqi detainees and met repeatedly with Coalition Provisional Authority officials to relate their findings. CPT members distributed flyers to soldiers detailing human rights provisions of the Geneva Conventions. When Abu Ghraib photos were exposed, background evidence compiled by CPT helped substantiate the story in media reports around the world.

One challenge to maintaining contact with military officials, observes Stoltzfus, is rapid turnover within the armed forces. That is a reason CPT remains committed for the duration, recognizing that nonviolence is a long-term process involving many small, important steps. “It takes years to see things nonviolently,” he explains. Both within ourselves and in the situations that surround us, there are nonviolent resources that we commonly overlook.

Jumping in front of a gun takes some know-how. “Being a peace person is no excuse for being dumb,” warns Stoltzfus. “You don’t just innocently say I love you. Where things are hot, a peacemaker thinks well.” Although CPT would view the term, “Christian Soldier” as oxymoronic, team discipline and training are crucial.

CPT is neither an Army of One nor simply a group of human shields. Their brand of discipline is rooted in the knowledge that, through good training and lots of practice, a diverse team of equals does the best job. Referring to the lack of training given USA soldiers sent to Iraq and to concerns during preliminary Mennonite discussions about “nonviolent armies,” Stoltzfus stresses, “It’s dangerous to send an undisciplined army to a dangerous place.”

Spiritual discipline is also integral to CPT’s program. Each day begins with a period of prayerful reflection. Team members don’t need much in material terms ñ a hat, pen, notebook, sturdy shoes, and nowadays a digital camera. Less tangible “weapons of the spirit” include wit, wisdom and a common faith in the transformative power of love. Among Colombians, CPT peacemakers are known as “the activists who pray.”

People who express interest in CPT are asked to participate first in a delegation. Delegations of 10 ñ12 people usually travel to areas where permanent teams are present. They join the team’s daily routine of facilitating meetings, dividing up group chores, working with the media, and engaging in nonviolent direct action. Those who apply to join a permanent team attend a month-long training session. At least half the training, says Stoltzfus, involves role-play. “You can’t convince people about nonviolence through paper. They have to learn through experience. They have to be Ö saved,” he says with that Santa Claus smile. It’s a concept he thinks people in the Bible Belt will understand.

“We have delegations out to all four of our current projects right now,” says Amy Knickrehm from the CPT headquarters in Chicago. “That’s rare, and coincidental, but we’ve got a total of about 35 folks out there for them.” Full time CPT members make 3-year commitments to Core Teams (rotating between 4-6 months on location and 2-3 months off). Many continue to serve with the Reserve Corps. In 2004, 48 team members served full-time along with 144 Reservists. Grassroots funding comes from individuals, a few grants, and 250 church congregations representing several denominations.

In Iraq, CPT has collaborated closely with other organizations that employ peace team and delegation formats such as Voices in the Wilderness, American Friends Service Committee, and Fellowship of Reconciliation. CPT also has been called upon to help train other intervention groups such as the International Solidarity Movement.

“Good nonviolence awakens energy,” says Stoltzfus, and his visit to Texas testifies to this. Wherever he speaks, young and old gather around him afterward, eager to learn more. Following a presentation to the Austin Veterans for Peace chapter, an Iraq War veteran requests a CPT application. Stoltzfus envisions continued growth and wider embrace of the concept of nonviolent peace teams, especially as the untenable nature of protracted war and occupation becomes more obvious every day.

Winding up his Texas tour, Stoltzfus climbs into his pickup, heading back toward his Ontario home, not quite to the North Pole. On the long ride northward he will continue speaking about CPT. In the back of the truck he carries an iron frying pan. He says it is a gift for his lodging, but it looks very much like a metaphor for his work. Always a frying pan handy for any fire. His stories and contagious excitement are gifts to be used.

The gifts of nonviolence offered by Gene Stoltzfus, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and the newly founded Muslim Peacemaker Teams give to ordinary persons the ability to push back seemingly insurmountable violence to create transformative, sacred spaces where change can take place. If people in conflict are ever going to cease reliance on armed force, the alternative must be visible. This bearded messenger of peace is real; his message is no myth.

Note: Thanks to UT-Austin Sociology Professor Lester Kurtz for permission to visit his class.

Greg Moses is editor of Peacefile and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence.

Susan Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth and Austin Conscientious Objectors to Military Taxation.

They can be reached at: gmosesx@prodigy.net


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