(A personal reflection by Carolyn Merry)
Since reading of the horrific act of terrorism in Christchurch last Friday, I have struggled to find any words that I felt were worth sharing or helpful in the public space. At such times, I generally prefer to listen to others far more directly impacted than I. That said, I share the following personal reflections on violence and peace from my own experiences in situations of mass violence because they have helped shape and sustain me as a peacemaker. They are thoughts that I usually prefer to share in a face-to-face conversation when mutual exchange can occur. I hope that in some small way they may resonate and help as we all try to address the violence in our society and build a more peaceful world.
Like most of you, I was sickened by this act of terrorism. Not surprised (sadly). But sickened.
All violence sickens me – whether mass physical violence as we heard reported on Friday, individual physical, emotional and sexual violence that mostly happens behind closed doors, or widespread cultural and structural violence that insidiously dehumanises and demeans the inherent value and dignity of any individual or groups of individuals. For me, violence is simply anything that demeans or damages another being, or ourselves. Anything, that tries to make them less than the whole that God created them to be. And so not being violent means sometimes looking beyond how someone or some being is at any given moment and treating them with the respect and love required for their precious, God-created selves, however hidden that may be.
As I read the posts and articles on social and traditional media over the past few days, it was good to see not only innumerable messages of solidarity and support for the survivors and families of those killed in Christchurch but also suggestions of how to respond with love in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, especially with our Muslim friends and others that we don’t know around the world, many of whom experience the threat of Islamophobic violence every day, but even more acutely on days like Friday.
And in the face of such dark deeds, it was great to see tangible gestures of solidarity that have shown care, protection, comfort, regret and bridge building. Most heartening was the much-needed challenging of the underlying racist and islamophobic attitudes, political rhetoric, policies, media biases, social systems and far-right extremism that have helped give rise to such an act of terrorism. I come from Australia, that like many colonies was based on a racist underpinning and indeed the legal premise for sovereignty of “Terra Nullius”, meaning a land that belonged to nobody that has had such awful consequences for the indigenous peoples of Australia (that continue to this day). So it has been particularly shameful to see our recent politicians and much of mainstream media follow the global trend and further embed and encourage racism against a new generation of non-white immigrants, and the detestable system of off-shore detention for asylum seekers. I love Australia for many reasons, but the many manifestations of its white Australia privilege and superiority is something that continues to cause anger and constantly needs challenging.
I have had the privilege and heartbreak of spending a significant portion of my adult life living and working in multiple war zones and/or places of extreme violence and poverty, and have seen a great deal of mass violence and death up close. Those experiences and the lessons I learned from them changed my life and continue to do so. Some of those lessons I reflect on most days when I read of violence both near and far. They remind me afresh of the impact of the daily choices I make and how they can either contribute to greater peace or greater violence in the world.
The perspective I gained through having lived and worked in so many different contexts and being witness to all manner of people being discriminated against, violated, and killed, was seeing again and again that any difference, whether it be faith, colour of skin, ethnicity, gender, political affiliation, class, profession, sexual orientation, disability, age and historical animosity to name just a few, could be used as excuses to justify hatred and violence and indeed they are daily. Some are more common and widespread than others, especially colour of skin, gender, faith, sexual orientation and disability. But the core of all violence is the insidious and abhorrent idea that some people have less value than others and when this was coupled with power of any sort and fuelled by a world view based on fear instead of love, then the most horrendous acts could be perpetrated by quite ordinary people. It was this understanding that violence was not something just done ‘out there’ or by ‘others’ that led me to studying and trying to embed the practice of non-violence more and more in my own life. Non-violence as a term can be viewed as somewhat passive or negative but in essence it is far more than just not being violent but rather is a proactive way of bringing compassion and love and justice and grace into all our relationships and social constructs to help create a more peaceful world in which everyone and everything can flourish. And if I don’t want to contribute to violence existing in the world. then I must try to live like this every day and not just on the days that I am more starkly reminded of the awful consequences of violence and indifference to violence.
My work also challenged me on my responses to violence at both a personal and professional level and showed me that there is a time for all sorts of different responses. In many ways, the responses required to mass violence in the places I worked, were quite direct and practical in terms of providing medical care, mental health support, basic physical needs, safety … although they always felt inadequate at the time. But when all the survivors had received treatment, as much information and assistance as possible had been given to relatives and communities, and the remains of those killed having been given whatever dignity could be afforded – that was when for me, my most personal response could be given. The only response I have ever been able to give in the face of great tragedy and pain – silence. I know many others find they need to talk things through at such times, but for me it is in being silent when I am most able to pay respect to the profound loss and pain that has occurred; it is in being silent when I am able to fall to my knees before God and express my grief and anger at the pain that we human beings can bring upon one another; it is in being silent where I receive the strength from God to dust myself off and stand again in God’s Spirit with a recommitment to love despite the violence and fear; it is being silent that I can question myself as to whether I am living my life as non-violently as I am called to by my faith – with enough compassion, grace, and hope, as well as by the way I help facilitate reconciliation and challenge the status quo that allows violence to persist and flourish.
And most importantly for me, it has been in those moments of silence spent beside and listening to those most affected by mass violence, that I have often felt the deepest connections of life – as I have sat and wept together with village elders or government officials after a massacre, or mothers holding their dead children, or survivors of the sexual violence widely used as a weapon of war. Words were always inadequate in the face of such obscene violence and the enormity of the pain and fear felt at those times. Solidarity and common humanity were somehow expressed best and God’s presence felt most powerfully in those moments of silence.
And so I must confess that responding to such violence when it occurs at a distance, especially in this age of social media that demands immediate comment, feels very much outside of my comfort zone. Like many I would always prefer to do something practical face to face or simply sit with affected friends and communities in silent vigil as many of you have done this past weekend. How does one bring all the beauty and pain that is held in silence to the domain of social media?
When I chose to leave working in contexts of mass violence I did so because for me focussing only on violence seemed inadequate for achieving real change. To continue to follow God’s calling to be a peacemaker, I chose to no longer spend most of energies responding against the hydra of violence in all its forms, but rather towards building a different world, one in which fear is replaced by love, violence by compassion and dialogue, exclusion by inclusion, and hatred and intolerance (and even tolerance) replaced by embracing and celebrating diversity and the richness that differences bring to life. It may seem a subtle difference but it has been a life-giving one for me.
I was drawn to The Feast because it was like a wonderful breath of fresh air – a positive way of building a transformed world. Bringing together young people of all faiths and none to encounter difference, live well with it and build friendships across social divides. We do so not to tackle extremism, prevent knife crime, improve mental health, or address social action issues – although happily these are often the side benefits of what we do. Instead, The Feast simply asks young people to dare to imagine a transformed world in which all people are confident in their beliefs and identity, embrace diversity, and are able to flourish alongside one another in peaceful, loving and inclusive communities…and then we provide them the safe spaces and opportunities and skills to be build such lives and communities.
Violence needs to be addressed and challenged and stopped in all its forms. Some people do that at the point of the violence, others address the root causes, others support those affected by violence. All these responses are vitally needed in our world and we all must play our part in them at different times.
For me though, focussing on violence alone can never ever defeat it – and feels like we are only ever treating the symptoms of an underlying disease that is completely embedded and intertwined throughout society. It seems to me that a completely different approach is needed that instead builds a different foundation for society, built on love and equality and inclusion. So I am always thrilled when I come across different ways that people are doing that around the world (more than I ever imagined) and wish that those models of genuine community were more widely celebrated. I am incredibly grateful that I get to work for The Feast that allows me to daily focus on building a peace-filled world. To support young people to build such a transformed world where faith is a positive force and every human being is valued and respected equally, and so making violence obsolete. To celebrate differences while building bridges of friendships and community across divides. To provide safe spaces to discuss the difficult issues, with a view to not only discover common ground but to form relationships so generous that they can be enriched by difference and not divided by them.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr said that, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
“Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.” (Bell Hooks)
Friday’s act of terrorism, like every act of violence that occurs daily, only strengthens my resolve and commitment to being a peacemaker … in thought, word and deed. That commitment doesn’t resolve the many dilemmas of why some acts of violence are widely reported and others not, or what is the best response, or how best to balance challenging existing violence with a focus on building a better world, but it does require me to start where all peace begins – with myself and with my neighbour and to grapple together with the complexities from there.
“Love your neighbour as yourself” – It is as simple and difficult as that.
Peace and Blessings