Reflections on the Nobel Peace Laureates Summit in Rome
Maybe it was because I was visiting Rome during the holiday season; or perhaps it was the ubiquitous paintings and statues of the Madonna and Child; maybe it was the marches and demonstrations and die-ins I left back in the United States (the ones protesting the brutality of young men shot to death while running toward police, or playing with toy guns, or while lying handcuffed face down on an urban train station platform); whatever the cause, I am sure that it was more than the statue that caused my eyes to well up with tears.
The statue was the Pietà. I felt privileged to visit the Vatican and see the original Michelangelo creation whose image of Mary cradling the body of a crucified Jesus had captured my imagination as a boy in a photograph. Seeing the real thing, I noticed that Mary’s face shows no sign of distress or grief or anger. It was much like the American mothers I had witnessed speaking at a rally at the nation’s capital, the women who called for peace in the name of their slaughtered sons. It was as if the literally petrified Mary had no choice but to offer up the lifeless man in her lap as a sacrificial gift.
It is hard to believe that the African American males who have been shot or lynched over hundreds of years by a U.S. brand of state-sanctioned violence were voluntary sacrifices for which we should somehow be grateful. It takes a powerful hope and radical imagination to see these tragic deaths as redemptive, even as they force us to take a second look at the kind of racist and militaristic society we support and condone every day. But it is possible, at least for me, to imagine how the metaphorical image of the nurturing mother (rather than the judgmental father) could improve our thinking about the world.
I was in Rome because I was attending the 2014 annual summit of Nobel Peace laureates, a gathering of 12 individuals and representatives of organizations that have won the prestigious prize over the years. I was there on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which in 1947 was a co-recipient of the award on behalf of Quakers everywhere. One-hundred-three individuals have been awarded the prize since it was first offered in 1901. Only 16 of those awardees have been women. Women continue to be the victims of ethnic cleansing or rape as a military tactic, but perhaps their more frequent task is to bring home the bodies of their sons and husbands. They are often the more natural peacemakers and the first to see the senselessness of the games and strategies of war. Women may be as ready as men to support wars, perhaps they just tire of them more quickly.
A week before my arrival, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion with five women Peace Prize recipients about gender-based violence. With little time to prepare, I asked AFSC staff to help me identify our relevant programs, and with their help I was prepared to say that gender-based violence fundamentally is not about sex: it is about power. It is the symptom of an unequal, militarized society in which violence is seen as a necessary tool of personal and collective acquisition and security. It will be around as long as men can act with impunity and women do not have safe public spaces; as long as the issue is swept under the rug by the media and the police hesitate to arrest; and as long as we all are so isolated and depersonalized that we look the other way when suspected violence is taking place.
Any action or system change that recognizes and promotes the power of women addresses these symptoms, which is why many of the peacebuilding and development programs of AFSC are focused on gender-based violence. Our micro-lending work in Burundi helps women start businesses and improve their living conditions. Our domestic violence program helps immigrant women seeking naturalization in Newark, New Jersey. We work with partners in Syria to get women peacemakers at the negotiation table so that successful long-term peacebuilding is more likely to happen.
I did not get to say any of these things in the panel discussion.
The morning of the event, as the panelists were being called up to the stage, the moderator pulled me aside and told me that instead of an open discussion, he planned to pose several questions to the panelists: my question would be what it means in our time for so many violent conflicts to be fought in the name of religion.
Dr. Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel laureate from Iran, spoke before me. She apologized for her people who, in the name of Shi’a religion, had caused tragedy for the Sunnis in Pakistan. While doing so, she walked over to Twawkkol Karman, the young Pakistani Peace laureate who had spoken earlier. They embraced each other for a tender moment before facing the audience and raising their joined hands above their heads in a symbolic act of oneness and victory. I wondered whether I, as a man, would be as capable of such a spontaneous gesture of reconciliation.
When I spoke, I shared that the most fundamental understanding of Quaker belief is that there is that of God in everyone and that each person has a spark of the Divine that deserves to be respected, nourished, and protected. This is true regardless of what religion people have or if they have no religion at all. It is for this reason Quakers struggle to recognize the equality of all persons and reject killing and war.
I added that I do not believe that there is any major religion that does not seek peace. The vast majority of the people of the world, regardless of their faith, want peace. We want to live together in trust and in harmony, without fighting or institutional violence, respecting each other’s human rights. And yet there have always been those who say we must go to war in the name of religion. In my opinion, they are often motivated by something other than religion alone. They believe that they must and should use violence to force people to do what they want them to do. Those of us who know better should stand up for peace, not in spite of our religious differences but in the name of whatever our faith happens to be.
Some of the individual Nobel laureates who had planned to be at the summit were unable to attend. The Dalai Lama was there. At the final press conference of the summit, he laughed gently as he said that it is time for men to step back and let women run things for a while. Women, he argued pointing to his chest, are not just psychologically but also physically better equipped for empathy, given their natural capacity to feed their newborn child in their arms. Empathy, he said, is what the world most needs now.
As an African American male, I left with a greater sense of the importance of being an ally in this struggle. Any of us who are oppressed in one context may find ourselves privileged in another. I want to understand how I can be the kind of ally who does not resent being seen as part of the problem. I want to be an ally who does not try to manipulate others or dictate the course of a particular struggle for liberation, but one who seeks to learn from the experience of the oppressed and share the Light of their divine witness with others.
I even began to wonder whether the frequent standoffs between the police and young men in communities of color around the world are not only racial but an alpha male extension of the gender-based violence we see so often in other contexts.
I left the summit feeling honored to have been among so many people who might, as George Fox said, “live in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.” I also left feeling reminded and deeply touched by the pain of the countless mothers who have lost their children to the madness of militaristic violence all around the world. I wondered what it would take for us—the world—to share collectively that profound and universal instinct: the desire to nurture and to protect our children. It is a desire that we have not yet learned to share without reservations based on class, gender, and race. I do not think I will ever view the painted or sculpted image of the Madonna and Child again without being reminded of this responsibility.