Peaceable Communities in a Time of Conflict

Between 1993 and 1996 I lived in Jerusalem, where I did peace work for the Mennonite Central Committee. Recent events caused me to reflect upon the words of an Israeli poet the day after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. The poet wrote, "I woke up this morning in my own bed, but I was in a different country." If you grew up reading "Superman" comics as I did, you may remember "Bizarro World," the parallel universe where everything was upside down and backwards. These days, it seems to me we are living in "Peace and Justice Bizarro World." We’re engaged in a war that isn’t really a war, against a shadowy enemy, with no clearly defined policy goals, and no end in sight. We have prisoners of war who we refuse to acknowledge as prisoners of war. We have hundreds of detainees in our jails whose names we don’t even know, most of whom have been charged with no crime and are likely guilty of nothing other than being young, male, and Arab. Although many of us came of age during the Vietnam War, we have watched our nation once again drop thousands of tons of bombs, yet pretend that few civilians were killed (according to Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire, that number was 3,767 as of December 2001). We are assaulted with displays of unbridled nationalism—flags flying on cars, trucks, T-shirts, billboards, plastic bags, and even on the carton of milk I bought this week! Yet many of us appear to have developed amnesia about what the flag stands for, democratic basics such as the right of presumed innocence, attorney-client privilege, and the importance of due legal process. For people who care deeply about peace, justice, and the fate of the Earth, these are discouraging times indeed.

Nevertheless, I believe that the current situation presents us with rich opportunities to explore crucial issues within our schools and our communities. I’d like to examine several of these.

Quaker Peace Testimony

Above all, those of us in Friends schools have the best opportunity in a generation to teach about the Quaker Peace Testimony. Now is the time to remind our colleagues and students of what the Peace Testimony is—a radical expression of compassion, love, and forgiveness rooted in the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, along with our religious conviction that all life is sacred and interrelated. We are also reminded of what it’s not—a "societal niceness" during a time of peace and prosperity, which we ought to turn our backs on at the first sign of adversity. Now is the time to remind ourselves of our magnificent spiritual heritage as Friends—of the faith of George Fox and Margaret Fell, of Lucretia Mott and John Woolman, of Bayard Rustin and Lady Borton. Our faith in the power of love to overcome evil stretches from 2002 back to 1652, and even to the apostolic faith of the early church, where for the first 300 years after the time of Jesus, Christians were willing to die rather than to use violence against others. Suddenly, we have a renewed and vital obligation to teach our young people about our peaceable history, about conscientious objection to war, and to support those among us who feel led by conscience to oppose this conflict.

Examine Root Causes

As is true in any conflict, it is imperative for us to examine root causes—especially from our adversary’s point of view. Let us challenge our students to think about where the events of September 11 began. As Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote recently, "It’s too easy to simply talk of ‘deranged minds.’ We need to ask ourselves, ‘What is it in the way that we are living, organizing our societies, and treating each other that makes violence seem plausible to so many people?’ And why is it that our immediate response to violence is to use violence ourselves—thus reinforcing the cycle of violence in the world? . . . It seems baffling to imagine that somehow we are part of a world system which is slowly destroying the life support systems of the planet, and quickly transferring the wealth of the world into our own pockets."

Our adversaries have told us why they’re unhappy with us. Why are we so uninterested in listening? They want our troops out of Saudi Arabia. They want U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq—which are killing thousands of Iraqi citizens (including children) every month—to end; and they want the United States to end its support for Israel’s continuing military occupation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Why are we so willing to launch a global, unending war against a shadowy enemy—yet so unwilling to examine the issues beneath the conflict more deeply?

Increase Tolerance

The world after 9/11 also offers many opportunities to increase our understanding and tolerance—of the issues mentioned above, of the Arab world, and of Islam. Do our students know that there are five times as many Muslims in the world—1.2 billion—as there are Arabs? Or that there are now more Muslims in the United States than Episcopalians? We need to listen deeply to the experiences and perspectives of the Arabs and Muslims in our communities, to take our students to visit them in their mosques, to try to glimpse the world through their eyes. We have the chance to ask them directly—what do Muslims really mean by jihad? What does Islam really teach about violence and nonviolence? What do Muslims really believe about the treatment of women in modern societies?

We can also practice tolerance within our own school communities, to encourage truth-telling from diverse perspectives. At George School, shortly after September 11, our community was rapidly splintering into "patriots" and "pacifists"—a frequent pattern for Friends schools during times of conflict. We called an all-school assembly in which we invited any member of the community who felt led to speak her or his truth regarding the world after 9/11. Two faculty members and four students spoke for five to seven minutes each. Their perspectives ranged from a young man who, in heartfelt anger, said, "I hate the people who did this to our country," to my daughter Hannah—raised on Palestinian hospitality—who reminded us that the extremist acts of the few were hardly representative of the abundant warmth we had experienced in Jerusalem. It was a real experience of truth seeking, which reminded us that no one has all of the answers; and that all of us were wrestling to come to terms with our terrible grief at the mass murder of 9/11. It also caused many in the community who had felt isolated to realize that they, too, had a voice in the community dialogue.

Evaluate Language and Symbols

It’s also important to encourage our students to look critically at the meaning of the language and symbols being used to interpret current events. For example, what is terrorism? Why is the adversary in this conflict so loosely defined? (Some have argued that the lack of a clearly defined enemy leaves the United States almost limitless possibilities for response.) After spending three years in Jerusalem, I question why we call it terrorism when a Palestinian suicide bomber blows up a bus, but not when an Israeli helicopter fires rockets into a refugee camp. Why is it terrorism when fanatics fly an airplane into a building, but not when a B-52 drops 50,000 pounds of bombs on "suspected terrorist camps" in areas where Afghan civilians are living?

Can the actions of nations be terrorist, too? The Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva asks us to consider "economic policies which push people into poverty and starvation as a form of terrorism." The Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, in Rethinking Schools: War, Terrorism, and America’s Classrooms, offers a Third World perspective:

The International Coalition Against Terror is largely a cabal of all of the richest countries in the world. Between them, they manufacture and sell almost all of the world’s weapons, and they possess the largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological, and nuclear. They have fought the most wars, account for most of the genocide, subjection, ethnic cleansing, and human rights violations in modern history, and have sponsored, armed, and financed untold numbers of dictators and despots. Between them they have worshiped, almost deified, the cult of violence and war. For all its appalling sins, the Taliban just isn’t in the same league.

The Taliban was compounded in the crumbling crucible of rubble, heroin, and land mines in the backwash of the Cold War.

Its oldest leaders are in their early 40s. Many of them are disfigured and handicapped, missing an eye, an arm, or a leg. They grew up in a society scarred and devastated by war. Between the Soviet Union and America, over 20 years, about $40 billion worth of arms and ammunition was poured into Afghanistan. . . .

More than a million Afghan people lost their lives in the 20 years of conflict that preceded this new war. Afghanistan was reduced to rubble, and now, the rubble is being pounded into finer dust.

Jesus might say, "Let whoever among us who is without terrorism cast the first stone."

Other questions also worth examining are: What is freedom, and how do our actions around the globe either support or deny it? What does the United States flag really symbolize? What is patriotism, and what does it mean to uphold democracy and our nation at this time in our history? When we say, "united we stand," does it imply that a diversity of opinions on a complex geopolitical issue is somehow unpatriotic? And when we say, "God bless America," does it imply that there is no difference between the national will and divine will?

Politics of Energy and the Earth

Another dimension worth investigating is the politics of oil, energy, sustain-ability, and the environment. We need to challenge students (and parents!) to look deeply at our relationship with the Earth, our massive consumption of resources, and the connection between the two. With 3 percent of the world’s known oil reserves and 5 percent of its population, the United States consumes 25 percent of the world’s oil and produces 50 percent of the world’s non-organic waste. Decades after President Jimmy Carter encouraged the nation to become energy independent, this year’s automobile fleet is the least fuel-efficient in 20 years.

It was no accident that the September 11 attacks were directed against the greatest symbols of trade and military power in the United States. Beneath these horrors is a tragic, profound reminder of the link between realities including U.S. patterns of consumerism, the global domination of our military and economic power, the politically and economically dispossessed, and violence. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, calls it "interbeing." Truly, our lives—yours and mine—are interconnected, through these vastly powerful global systems, to those we call the terrorists, to the lives of the dispossessed, and to the delicate balance of the planet itself.

One constructive way we can respond to the events of 9/11 is to urge our schools to become models of energy frugality. Friends schools should build "green": use active and passive solar architecture, encourage carpooling, use compact fluorescent light bulbs, create model recycling programs, and teach our students that environmental stewardship is a justice issue as well as a religious and moral obligation.

Justice and Forgiveness

Finally, the events of 9/11 force us to ask profoundly difficult questions about justice and forgiveness. What is justice, and what does it mean for "justice to be done" in the wake of the evil of 9/11? Has history been just, for us and for others on the planet? The New Internationalisthas published a list of "enduring terrors," a helpful backdrop in thinking about global justice:

  • Number of people without access to safe drinking water: 1.1 billion
  • Number of people without access to adequate sanitation: 2.4 billion
  • Number of people living on less than one dollar a day: 1.2 billion
  • Annual average number of children killed in conflict, 1990-2000: 200,000
  • Annual average number of children made homeless by conflict, 1990-2000: 1.2 million

Is what we call the "war on terrorism" being used to enhance justice—or to detract from basic human and legal rights, both here and abroad? Who is benefiting from the profound changes that have transpired in our society since 9/11? Who has become more powerful? Who is suffering as a result?

There may be little we can do to help the many of God’s children who were murdered on 9/11. But, by using our power as citizens and our prophetic voices as advocates of global justice, we may be able to help future victims of violence.

I find it a great irony that in a predominantly Christian nation there has been so much focus on retaliation, yet so little talk about forgiveness. Perhaps it is still too early. But after 9/11, I felt as if our society became a desert of compassion for those outside our borders. Many of us seem to want easy answers and moral simplicity. We don’t want to grapple with complex ethical questions; we ignore "interbeing." And while we have demonstrated a remarkable capacity for national generosity since last September, we still appear to care little for suffering in the wider world. Above all, we appear terrified at the idea that those on the planet who hate us might actually have legitimate reasons for feeling the way they do. We would rather "shoot first and ask questions later"—or not at all.

To advocate forgiveness does not mean to relinquish the claims of justice. It means to choose to respond to injustice with a method other than revenge, in hopes of breaking the cycle of violence, which invariably escalates. The Quaker educator Howard Brinton reminds us that, "standards of behavior, according to the Quaker view, ought not to be derived from society as it is at the moment, but from society as it ought to be." And so we should act—and encourage our students to act—with forgiveness, courage, patience, truthfulness, and humility.

Our voice of dissent is precious because it questions the "official version" of events, and thus challenges us all to seek a deeper truth. As educator Alfie Kohn has noted,

Education must be about developing the skills and disposition to question the official story, to view with skepticism the stark us-against-them . . . portrait of the world and the accompanying dehumanization of others. . . . Students should also be able to recognize dark historical parallels in the President’s rhetoric, and to notice what is not being said or shown on the news.

One detail of the tragedy carries a striking pedagogical relevance. Official announcements in the south tower of the World Trade Center repeatedly instructed everyone in the building to stay put, which posed an agonizing choice: follow the official directive or disobey and evacuate.

Here we find a fresh reason to ask whether we are teaching students to think for themselves or simply to do what they’re told.

I hope that we will listen deeply to the wisdom of our peaceable tradition. Let us teach others by being teachable ourselves.

Chip Poston

Chip Poston, a member of Newtown (Pa.) Meeting, has been director of Religious Studies at George School in Newtown since 1985. From 1993 to 1996, while on sabbatical, he served as a peace development worker for the Mennonite Central Committee in Jerusalem. He led two George School workcamps to Palestine and Israel, in 1999 and 2000. These are his remarks at the Southern Friends School Day on March 1, 2002. The author is indebted to the publishers of Rethinking Schools: War, Terrorism, and America's Classrooms, from which many of the themes and quotations in this essay are taken.