Humanity in the Face of Inhumanity

By Sue Williams. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 451), 2018. 34 pages. $7/pamphlet.

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This refreshing little work introduces us to goodness, to acts by ordinary people of caring and kindness in contexts of violence, war, and breakdown of the systems of civilization: acts of humanity in inhumane contexts.

Sue Williams has observed the exemplary humanity of which she writes. She regrets, she says, that she did not begin to notice these acts and the people who do them earlier in her life. She writes of people who were background to the major events we read about in our newspapers and historical accounts, people who chose to act in a courageous and selfless manner when need arose.

Williams’s career was in political mediation, peacebuilding, transformation of conflict, and reconciliation. Her observations come from that context, but the stories she tells here are not the stories of the main players. They are stories of people who as “innocent bystanders” chose to act with kindness and generosity in stressful, and often dangerous, circumstances. They take place in a wide variety of settings: Uganda, Colombia, Afghanistan, North Carolina, Sierra Leone, Guatemala, and more.

There are stories that honor perseverance. We learn about postal workers in a war zone who continued to sort their community’s mail when the mail trucks stopped coming to take it to its destinations, and about a man who kept meteorological readings for 15 years after his salary stopped and after the scientists were no longer able to come and collect them. When she passed through their war-ravaged town, the postal workers filled her Jeep with the community’s efforts to be in touch with the outside world, and the keeper of weather readings gave her a shoebox full of data that was gratefully received by a meteorologist to whom she delivered it.

Other stories tell of great courage. When no air charter company would do so for any price, a pilot flew Williams (for only the cost of the fuel) into an embattled airport where she was to follow up on contacts with an army commander and a rebel group in the early stages of a peace process. An elderly woman volunteered as a prison visitor, and when her home was broken into, she resisted calling the police and instead talked with the intruder, because why wait until he was in prison to try to help him find ways to straighten out his life?

In a story about the very beginnings of Quaker work with prisoners in Northern Ireland, Williams describes faithful adherence to human values, though doing so risked tainting the political reputation of Quakerdom for neutrality between sides, as helpers served families of prisoners who were all on one side of the conflict.

Let us watch for such acts of humanity and honor them. Perhaps a revolution in our newsrooms would lead to an upsurge in interest in human acts of kindness, courage, and perseverance in the midst of what many of us experience as the crumbling of what we worked to build throughout our lives.

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