Response to Panel: Blessed are the Peacemakers
Sunday March 7th
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Synod Hall
On hearing my sisters this afternoon, I am aware that the need for peacemaking is in some part due to my own country’s propensity to make war. So I speak aware of this and in great humility.
Telling the truth
The call to peacemaking for Christians lies at the heart of our commitment to respect the dignity of every human being. For my part today, I want to suggest three elements which I hope will assist in the bringing about of peace in the current context. They have to do with language/ words - how we speak to one another, who speaks and the very nature of speech itself.
First, tell the truth. Second, learn to speak what I call incarnational language in the public sphere. And third , as Margaret Wheatley has said, turn to one another in conversation.
I grew up in Carrollton Georgia, a small town in the rural South. The war still being metaphorically fought in the years of my childhood was, as we were told to call it, The War Between the States. The peace that needed making was one which required addressing historic wrongs of the racist past . So, my own experience of peacemaking comes out of the crucible of racial hatred which masqueraded for too long as a system which “cared for those least able to care for themselves”. The first step was naming racism, saying the word, exposing it, then defining it for the system of white male privilege it is. It is from that place of confession that we can begin the work of rebuilding and reconciliation. Telling the Truth in our country as a tool for peacemaking means having eyes and ears which uncover and expose the lies which fool us into thinking we have the world’s best interest at heart. New Testament Scholar Elizabeth Shussler Fiorenza, calls this a hermeneutic of suspicion. It requires that we name things for what they are. Missiles called peacemakers are weapons of war. A Department of Homeland Security more often means insecurity for those whose homeland of origin or citizenship is not American. We must tell the truth about the words we say.
Name what is wrong with what we see. Strive to tell the truth.
Learning to speak the “Mother Tongue” in Public
Some years ago, during the first Gulf War our daughter was 5 or 6. The invasion of Kuwait was a regular part of our dinner conversation as was the television news where we watched General Schwarzkopf demonstrate the use of “SMART” bombs. This day, Hannah was busy coloring on poster paper as she often was. I did not pay much attention. She asked for a stick so she could hang the poster somewhere and went out the front door. An hour later I left for an errand and there at the edge of the yard --like an election poster or a For Sale Sign in big brown crayola crayon on white poster board: PRESIDENT BUSH FORGOT NOT TO HIT. At 6 she had no problem making the connection between what she learned at home and what needed to be lived out in the world.
This language that all of us learn as children is what science fiction writer Ursula Leguin calls the Mother Tongue. It is the way we speak at home. “Inaccurate” she says, “unclear, course, earthbound, house bound, ordinary, like the work ordinary people do....” “Do you have your umbrella, did you forget your lunch, good morning, hello, tell me what they said, what you did. I hate you. I love you. I hate liver. Oh, how my feet do hurt. My heart is breaking. Touch me here. Don’t cry. Be careful.” ( from the commencement speech to Bryn Mawr, 1986) Don’t hit your brother. Don’t hit the wall. Don’t hit. Don’t hit.
This mother tongue that we all learn and too often forget is a language that should not be kept in the private sphere, however garbled and unclear it may seem. For it is incarnational language. It is talking to each other not just about lands and territory but about who and how we are today. The Mother tongue is the language of relation, the subjective language of bodies and hearts and minds and spirits, not the objective language of speech or sermon or lecture that we all learn in school. .
The language of peacemaking is mother tongue. We need to use it in public.
For the violence which we eschew in our families and with our children... “don’t hit your brother” is the same violence we perpetrate on other nations and within our own. The mother tongue makes the connection. Hitting one’s wife or child with hands or sticks and hitting a nation with guns and bombs is only a question of degree.
Using the language of relation we must learn again to talk to each other, with mutual exchange, risking even conversion in the process.
Some years ago I did a study of unpublished diaries of Southern plantation women written at the time of (what I will now call) the Civil war. In their reports of conversations among themselves and with others, they began to uncover the evil of slavery. In conversation they began to find courage to speak against a system of privilege in which the costs were outweighing the benefits.
Real, intimate, listening conversations have within them world changing power. Peacemaking power, healing power.
Margaret Wheatley has spoken about this in her book Turning to one Another: simple conversations to restore hope to the Future.
These are conversations where there is no guarantee that our own position will remain in tact . In fact the opposite will be true. Those with courage enough to engage in this conversation are likely to have to give up some strongly held convictions, shed assumptions, and claim relationships of solidarity with those we never imagined.
If we have the moral courage to do that, and I believe that is precisely what we are doing in this room and in our work together these two weeks, then radical change even if in small peacemaking steps is already in the making.
Tell the Truth. Speak the Mother Tongue in Public. Turn to One another in Conversation.