National flags representing nations of Global Baptist Peace Conference attendees  are painted on stones which encircle a tree of peace planted on the Unibautista Institución Universitaria campus where the conference took place July 15-20, 2019.

Photograph by Susan Gottshall

All I am saying is give peace a chance

Susan Gottshall

August 12, 2019

It’s been a half century since John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” was first recorded in June 1969. Today the song’s “official video” on YouTube shows close to three million views and serves as a cyber gathering space, if you will, for those who struggle with the brokenness of our times. Consider these postings:

6/11/2016: Fifty dead in Orlando, Florida. I come here for solace. Thank you, John.

 

16th March 2019. Over 40 killed in a mass shooting while attending friday prayers in New Zealand. Came to soothe my heart. Thank you John and Yoko.

This posting— “The world has forgotten this song”— from four years ago particularly struck me, for I, too, had forgotten the song. My participation in the Global Baptist Peace Conference refreshed my memory.

Held in the midst of the teeming South American city of Cali, Colombia, the conference gathered close to 400 people from six continents and 30 countries at Unibautista Institución Universitaria, July 15-20, to consider “Peace in our Land: Toward a World without Violence.”

Early in the week, we were tasked in small groups with answering the question— “What does peace mean to you?” A no-brainer, I thought at first. Peace is the absence of war. Simple. End of story.

Upon more reflection, however, I realized I had never considered the question. Surprising, since I’m a Baby Boomer who came of age during the “Make love, not war” 1960s. Peace was part of the generational vocabulary then.

But decades passed as they always do, life set in, and the idea of changing the world got lost in changing diapers. What’s more, I had come to a subconscious conclusion that world peace was an illusion. The laundry list of conflict in families, churches and workplaces I witnessed since the Flower Power days suggested harmony across vast barriers of geography and differences in language, culture, socioeconomics and religion was simply unrealistic. After all, when there’s such challenge resolving issues with those we see every day, what are the chances of figuring out how to navigate differences related to how we see God or say hello?

Such was my frame of reference for the journey to South America.

Forgive them; they know not what they do

Colombia was deliberately chosen as the conference setting because of the “cutting edge” negotiations that led to its 2016 peace agreement. The agreement sought to end 60 years of internal violence stemming from conflict among guerrilla and paramilitary groups—which had emerged from peasant and communist revolts—and drug cartels and the government’s military.

The violence, at times brutal and butcherly, had spilled over into the general citizenry, and the stories of its barbarism were hard to hear: More than 300 people killed in one town over six years or so; a priest beheaded, castrated and thrown in the river. Achieving a peace agreement in this context was no small feat.

A panel discussion sharing the progress and challenges of implementing the agreement made that clear. The panel included Dr. Victoria Sandino, a leader of the rebel group, FARC, during the conflict, now a FARC representative in Colombia’s government, and Fabiola Perdomo, director of the Unit for Integral Attention to the Victims, whose husband, a politician, was abducted in 2002 by the FARC and killed in 2007.

Sandino apologized to Perdomo’s fatherless daughter, who was present that morning: “I always feel lots of pain and shame because of this. I am sorry,” she said. “I truly say it from the bottom of my heart.” Her heavy words dropped like hand weights into hushed silence.

When it was Perdomo’s turn, she talked about first meeting Sandino in 2016: “I thought I had healed, but when I met her, I felt rage and hate. Forgiveness is the only way to heal. …I tell my story whenever I can, so this does not happen anymore, and this pain stops. I do not want my grandchildren to live through what my daughter has lived through. …I am here because I forgave.”

There was such power—and hope—in this sacred exchange. I venture that during the course of any lifetime, there are moments when each of us needs to forgive as well as be forgiven. I also venture that, for most of us, the infraction involved does not approach the magnitude of forgiving someone for murdering a spouse after five years of captivity.

Pushing through despair

Speakers from Colombia and Nicaragua, Zimbabwe and Kenya, the Philippines and the border between the United States and Mexico told more tales of life and death, of injustice and oppression, of abuse and atrocity. These were not places served with declarations of war, but places where poverty, repressive politics and criminal activity have driven people to despair.

As hard as it is to embrace despair, said Mayra Picos-Lee, conference co-chairperson, knowing the stories of those living in the midst of conflict is important, because the stories “help us embrace [the] vulnerability and humanity of others. …We are constantly being invited to understand the stories of others.”

Ray Schellinger, American Baptist International Ministries’ global consultant for Immigrants and Refugees, invited us to understand Jonathan’s story. When Schellinger met the 16-year old Honduran at the U.S.-Mexico border, the boy’s first question of him was, “Do you think I am a criminal?” The rhetoric of the U.S. political discourse, you see, had reached the border, and Jonathan was confused: He left his home because he would have been killed if he didn’t join a gang, and if he joined, he would have to kill. “I will not do to others what they have done to us,” he told Schellinger, “I am here because I am not a criminal.” That Jonathan’s story ended with his disappearance in the desert moved me to tears.

His story, along with all the rest, also moved me to continue searching for a fuller understanding of peace upon my return from Colombia, and that search drove me to the papers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Surely this man who kept peace at the center of his life and his life’s work would teach me what peace means, and, sure enough, he did. In a 1956 sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Ken., I found what I had been searching for in the story of Autherine Lucy.

Not all peace is created equal

Lucy, the first black student admitted to the University of Alabama, had joined the campus community just weeks before King’s sermon, but her presence elicited violence: Crosses were burned; eggs and bricks were thrown at her; a mob jumped on top of a car she rode in. To preserve peace on campus, college trustees and the president asked her to leave.

This was peace of a sort—peace purchased at “the price of capitulating to the force of darkness,” King said. It was “obnoxious” peace. He went on: “If peace means accepting second-class citizenship, I don’t want it. If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.”

Finally, King concluded, “Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force—war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force—justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.”

Bingo.

This definition honors all I heard in Colombia. Peace is the positive force of the hard work of forgiveness, the courage of reconciliation, and the compassion of listening to people’s stories. “Every time we face human suffering …[and] honor the stories of others’ pain,” Lee said, “…the pain is transformed by the power of empathy. This is what the Bible calls love.” This is the positive force of the kingdom of God.

In our small groups at the conference, each of us painted our national flag on a rock used to encircle a tree of peace planted on the seminary campus. The worship liturgy at the planting reminded us that much is needed if we are to be the people God needs us to be in such a time as this, and that the journey begins with oneself, then grows outward to groups and communities.

I left the conference in Cali convinced, after all these years, that peace is not impossible. It’s just hard. And no doubt a long time coming.

At its essence, though, perhaps this hard-won wisdom from Sandino, the FARC representative, sums it up best: “Peace is a decision of love.” Emphasis on “decision.”

In Colombia, peace began with the forgiveness forged between her and Perdomo.

Now, let it begin with me. And you, too.

Susan Gottshall is director of communications at American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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