Monday, August 18, 2008

How Does the Peace Movement Respond to the Russian Invasion?

This is one of those entries where I wish I had something profound and insightful to say. Unfortunately, all I have are questions.

Last week, while we were all watching the opening ceremonies the Olympics (or for those who despise the sports mania, you were doing something to distract yourselves from said event), the Russians were invading the Republic of Georgia. To many, especially people in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe who were once part of the “Soviet bloc,” this event seemed hauntingly reminiscent of Russia’s 1953 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Poland and Ukraine have made it clear that they fear they may be next on Russia’s list of projected targets. The world stood shocked at Russia’s bold move caught flat footed by their act of aggression.

To hear the Russians talk, it sounds like they are only seeking to “liberate” the oppressed people of South Ossetia. To hear the Georgian leaders speak, it sounds like a brazen move of aggression. Where does the truth lie? Of course it depends on who you listen to.

As a person committed to peaceful, non-violent means of conflict resolution, I was speechless and felt inadequate when I read about these events. The U.S. government’s response was to make strong statements of support for Georgia and to deploy “humanitarian aid” delivered by members of the U.S. Navy and Air Force. NATO seemed paralyzed. President Sarkozy of France brokered a peace agreement, which the Russians seem to be saying they would agree to while continuing to advance deeper into Georgia. However, the peace community was silent.

At times like this, I wish we peaceniks of the world were better organized. I wish we had a contingent of people whose mission it was to enter such situations to stand between the warring factions and advocate for reconciliation. During the 1980’s when the U.S. carried on its covert war in El Salvador and Nicaragua, Witness for Peace made such forays. At the beginning of the current Iraq war, Christians Peacemaker teams drove to Baghdad even as the bombs were falling. Numerous groups have sought to serve as “human shields” between the Israelis and Palestinians. However, usually such groups are small and take months to organize because they are not “at the ready” when such conflicts arise. In fact the Christian Peacemaker website asks the question: "What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?"

Part of the problem lies with the kind of people peace folks tend to be. We peace folks tend to be a bit anti-authoritarian and don’t like too many rules. We balk at too much organization (that’s why there are so many anti-Iraq war groups all bickering with each other). This divisive attitude hampers us when we need to act quickly and the people in need are halfway around the globe. We become strangely silent when there an act of naked aggression by an perpetrator who could care less about Gandhi’s concept of satygraha (truth-force) or Martin Luther King’s notion of redemptive suffering or the South African concept of ubuntu.

I have to believe that in Russia and in Georgia there are people who are committed to the ways of peaceful conflict resolution and non-violent direct action. I have to believe that there are people whatever their spiritual heritage who have found a deeper truth and personal inspiration in teachings such as Jesus’ directives on non-violence and redemptive suffering in the Sermon on the Mount. Somehow we must find ways to connect with such folks, support them and if need be stand up with them to counter the impulse to military violence that snags our leaders anytime actions like this occur. If we believe, as I do, that the way of non-violence is the way human beings are created and wired to live, then we have to find ways to creatively respond.

In the buildup to World War II the great Christian leader and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr renounced his youthful pacifism as being impractical in a world threatened by Nazism. When events such as the Russian invasion of Georgia occur many would-be pacifists silently thank their lucky stars we’ve got some big guns trained on the “enemy.” The hawks in our country, such as John McCain, feel emboldened to threaten military force on our supposed adversaries. But we peace folks, where are we?

I, for one, don’t want to go down the military road, but at this point, I have far more questions than constructive responses. Any ideas out there?

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Tigger With A Cause

For the past several months the media has been highlighting “The Last Lecture, ” an actual lecture delivered by Dr. Randy Pausch on September 18, 2007 at Carnegie Mellon University. Dr. Pausch was a computer science professor at CMU who was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. At the time he delivered the lecture he was only expected to live for another 2-3 months, which is normal for pancreatic cancer. However, he beat the odds, and just recently passed away on July 25, 2008.

If you have 75 minutes to spare, “The Last Lecture” is worth listening to. Dr. Pausch shares a number stories about how he had been able to fulfill his personal dreams, how as a professor he encouraged the dreams of others, and then the life lessons he learned along the way. What makes the lecture so compelling is the context of his impending death and the sincere gratitude he has for the people in his life: mentors, colleagues, students, friends and family. The lessons and insights themselves are not particularly profound; what makes them so compelling is that the man sharing them lived them and did not just speak them. So now there are Last Lecture CD’s, podcasts, and books, and as American consumer culture is prone to do, we have made "The Last Lecture" into a commodity to be purchased on the self-help shelf at you local bookstore. Even so, cynicism aside, "The Last Lecture" is worth your time.

I finally took the time a few nights ago to view/listen to "The Last Lecture", and was particularly struck by one of his life lessons. He said all of us can choose in life to either be a Tigger or an Eeyore. For those not familiar with the Winnie the Pooh stories, Tigger is a bouncy, fun-loving tiger who never stops moving and finds joy in everything. Eeyore, on the other hand, is a morose, self-pitying donkey for whom life is a constant struggle and disappointment. Pausch’s point was this: we have a choice as to how we will engage the world, either as an exciting fun-filled adventurer or as a self-pitying pessimist. Randy Pausch chose to be a Tigger, and demonstrated that by causing an auditorium of people to laugh to the point of tears while talking about his impending death.

Depression is a terrible disability, and I realize that often there are chemical imbalances involved, but nonetheless I think Pausch has an excellent point. While not all of us have the “luxury” of knowing when and how our lives will end, all of us have the choice as to how we will live until our lives do end. When I was a pastor ministering to dying people, I came to realize that the so-called “deathbed conversion” was a false myth. People died in the same way they lived. If they were cynical or morose or self-centered in life, they were the same way in death; likewise if they were compassionate, positive and other-centered in life, they died that way too.

While I can have my “pity party” moments, I choose to embrace life with a Tigger mentality. However, Tigger is probably not the image I would have chosen because the issues confronting us today are too severe to just “bounce” through life. Nearly every day I interact with people who face issues of poverty, illness, family breakdown, racism and the like. On a national and global scale we are at dangerous place in history in large part due to the misplaced policies of our own government. So the Tigger image alone does not do it for me; Tigger often did not really interact with people and the world in a meaningful way. Yet, I like Tigger’s attitude, his spunk, his endless energy and his desire to see an adventure in every event.

Recently, I came across a line written by Reinhold Niebuhr in The Irony of American History:

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope.”

I couple that with the saying attributed to Gandhi:

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

These words capture what drives me these days. They capture who at my best I hope to be. I want to work for positive changes in the world that will outlive me. So I couple Niebuhr's and Gandhi's words with Pausch’s image of Tigger, and say I want to be a Tigger with a cause. I want to be engaged in lifting up the lives of others as I am compelled and inspired by hope.

I don’t think Randy Pausch was a particularly religious man; he makes no mention of faith in his last lecture. Nonetheless, there is clear spiritual import in what he says: we have a choice as to how we will live life. Moses (Deuteronomy 30.15, 19b) put it this way: “I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction … Now choose life so that you and your children may live.” Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” (which he reveals at the end is really a message for his three young children) is a call to choose life, to be a Tigger with a Cause for as many days as we have left in this life... and beyond.