Peacemaking is a passive activity, right? Or at least it's an absence of war. Yes?After spending 18 months of observing and talking with local peace activists since the start of this war with Iraq, I learned that peacemaking is really an action-oriented endeavor that takes much time, integrity, ingenuity, commitment, determination, discipline, restraint and sacrifice.
First of all, to adopt a vision of peace and enact it in one's daily life requires an intense and unwavering conviction that you can make a difference in the world, or as Gandhi reportedly put it: "Be the change you wish to see." Such peaceful, nonviolent aspirations are radical departures from war and violence, which assume that forcefulness can effectively control people or situations-and should.
What I also discovered about peace activists is that while people may want to be peacemakers, they may find it difficult to pursue this noble cause in isolation. They must be part of a group that consistently challenges its members to be true to the virtues of peacemaking. For example, while demonstrating for peace on the street, it is easy to get caught up in a moment of passion when war supporters in passing cars shout nasty remarks or make obscene gestures. Activists need each other to remind them of their purpose.
"If someone makes a bad remark, avoid arguing or fighting back," advised Tom Small, a Quaker and one of the founders of the Kalamazoo Nonviolent Opponents of War (KNOW) who organized weekly peace demonstrations in my town nearly five years ago. "As people for peace, we have to be peaceful. Just smile or wave or give a peace sign, but don't respond with hostilities." Interesting enough, the demonstrations became a place of refuge, mutual support and friendship. This was especially important when the peace activists were called "traitors" by those who backed Bush.
The peace demonstrations in my town also became a place for people to express their deep feelings of sorrow and distress over this war. On the evening of Thursday, March 20, twenty-four hours after the war had started, the peace activists held a silent candlelight vigil. Seven hundred people lined both sides of the downtown's main street on that cold, misty night! During the early months of the war 400 to 500 people came out to stand for peace at the weekly vigils. Today 30 to 40 people still come each Sunday at noon to stand for peace for an hour. These kinds of actions by peace activists are taking place all over the country!
Of course, the peace demonstrations became the place for citizens to declare their opposition to the war and their anger at the Bush administration in a public way. Unfortunately, we Americans don't value the public realm as much as we used to do. "The street" has negative connotations. There is a pervading fear that violence will erupt when groups with political agendas gather to demonstrate. However, by reducing the public realm people not only sequester themselves from those unlike themselves (like immigrants, poor people, African Americans, workers, women, etc.), they cut themselves off from some important realities about the injustices of their society, like opposition to this illegal, immoral, unnecessary war.
Actually, the whole idea of demonstrating in public is essential to peacemaking because it provokes a response. Onlookers see overt activity. They see protest. They see that something is amiss. They wonder what is happening. To find out, citizens have typically depended on the media for information, however, as we all know, the mainstream media shamefully dropped the ball before the war began and yielded to the White House. The New York Times admitted as much. Books like Eric Boehlert's Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush illustrate how the media were more concerned about pleasing their advertisers and protecting their access to the administration than they were about reporting the dissent over the war-or the truth about why Bush wanted to wage it. Books like Joshua Rushing's Mission Al Jezeera show how the administration's tight control over the media prevented essential information from coming out, not only to the detriment of American citizens' view of the war but in our relationships with the Arab peoples and their perceptions of our country.
Demonstrating in public is indispensable to democracy. It is a "right of the people peaceably to assemble", according to the First Amendment. Such demonstrations point to some injustice being committed and it is the duty of citizens to "petition the government for a redress of grievances." Public demonstrations are about putting yourself on the line as to where you stand on an important issue. It is one of the most patriotic things a citizen can do! However, when government curtails peaceful protest, as the Bush administration has consistently done, or if the media fail to report what is happening in the country, then citizens cannot obtain a clear or accurate view in which to judge the situation rationally.
Peacemaking is a coalition-building process that attempts to make a point using the apparatus of the system. Of late, peace groups all over the country have been lobbying their representatives in Congress to vote against continued funding for the Iraq war. The 2006 elections brought out people to support candidates who vowed to bring an end to the war. While we have yet to see the results of these efforts, polls show that 70 percent of Americans do want the war to end and Congress is now under tremendous pressure to deliver.
Finally, peace activists represent the hope and resolve that a world without war IS possible because they understand that it is no longer possible to settle our international differences by fighting costly and genocidal wars. For all of these reasons, peace activists deserve to be recognized as heroes of a different stripe.
Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.