In March of 2011 I walked up a rocky hillside near the Palestinian Christian village of Aboud. I had an olive tree seedling in a plastic bucket hoisted on my shoulder. With a chain link fence topped by razor wire as a backdrop, I scooped earth with my hands and planted the hearty little seedling. My American and Palestinian friends planted a dozen or so olive trees that day while Israeli soldiers watched from a distance. A week later, long after we Americans were gone, the Palestinian villages planted more seedlings, but the Israeli soldiers uprooted the trees and sent the villagers home.
The seedlings were planted to replace the ancient olive trees plowed down by Israeli bulldozers. Though the hillside was owned by the Palestinian villagers and the olive trees provided their livelihood, the land was cleared for the sake of Israeli security. But many people--including Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans--believe the destruction of the olive trees is unnecessary and unjust. So they replant the trees as an act of protest. If, as sometimes happens, the seedling are allowed to grow, so much the better; but if not, at least the empty holes dug by human hands will shout a simple message: This is wrong.
It will also say: Though I believe your actions are unjust, and I need to stand against them, I will not take up weapons against you. I will resist you, but I will not turn to violence. This form of nonviolent resistance, grounded in the teachings and example of Gandhi and MLK, is judged by detractors as weak or ineffectual. But nonviolent revolutions overthrew the British in India and the violent defenders of apartheid in South Africa. It shaped the Civil Rights movement in the US. Of the thirteen nonviolent revolutions in communist nations that occurred in 1989-90 only one failed--in China. We've recently seen the tragedy of brutal violence in parts of the Middle East, but also the impact of "people power" grounded in nonviolent resistance.
My personal introduction to nonviolence was through Christian Palestinian Sami Awad, director of the Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust. Committed to developing young community leaders and to nonviolently resisting the military occupation of the Palestinian Territory, Sami finds his ultimate inspiration in Jesus's command to "love your enemies." You can't love your enemy, says Sami, unless you know your enemy. So Sami traveled repeatedly to Auschwitz with a group of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. These trips helped him understand how every act of violence by a Palestinian perpetuates the Holocaust fear of destruction of the Jews. While Sami longs for freedom and justice for Palestinians, he also longs for Israelis to be healed of their fear. Only a steady and patient commitment to nonviolence can lead--however slowly--to that outcome.
Love of enemies, says author Walter Wink, "is the recognition that the enemy, too, is a child of God." It is also a lived-out trust in the redeeming and reconciling power of God--both in the enemy and in ourselves. I say "in ourselves" because this is where the radical transformation that can lead to true reconciliation and peace must begin.
When I began traveling to the Middle East in 2008 I had no idea that this--a radical internal transformation--would be my greatest challenge. I had no idea that my visits to a region known for conflict and violence would force me to face my own propensity for violence--not physical violence, perhaps, but the spiritual violence of judging a entire people group by the actions of a few, or of failing to acknowledge the good within "the other," or of yielding to an attitude of self-righteousness. Even as I write these words, I am forced to acknowledge how little progress I have made. I continue to be humbled and challenged by the examples of Christians, Muslims and Jews who are committed to nonviolence and loving their enemies, and thereby constructing a foundation for peace.
Today, September 21, is the United Nations International Day of Peace. It's also the kickoff day for an initiative called Global Voices of Nonviolence. The catalyst for Global Voices of Nonviolence is the extraordinary film, Little Town of Bethlehem, which powerfully documents the true stories of three Middle Eastern peacemakers committed to nonviolence: an Israeli Jew, a Palestinian Muslim, and a Palestinian Christian--Sami Awad.
To launch Global Voices of Nonviolence, the film will be screened this evening at 7pm ET at The Catholic University of American in Washington, DC. Immediately after the film, a distinguished panel will discuss how nonviolence can become a path to peace and a greater humanity in the Middle East and around the world.
What will make this event truly extraordinary is that it is available to a global audience. By live online streaming of the film and the panel discussion on Beliefnet.com on September 21, audience members anywhere in the world can join in the conversation and become part of an innovative "screening without borders."
This live launch of Global Voices of Peace in Washington DC will be followed by 12 days of Little Town of Bethlehem screenings throughout the world on college campuses, houses of worship and online. Never before has the message of nonviolence been given such a powerful and expansive platform.
A year ago, my husband and I had the opportunity to screen Little Town of Bethlehem in our home. We moved the furniture out of our living room, brought in folding chairs to create a private theater and showed the DVD on our television screen. Afterwards we facilitated a lively discussion in support of peacemaking and nonviolence. It was a simple, but powerful event that helped galvanize an active group of Christians committed to the ongoing work of nonviolence.
While violent clashes often make headlines, Global Voices of Nonviolence will focus attention on the important stories seldom heard and engender a new kind of global conversation.
You can listen in on this conversation by registering to be part of tonight's live online launch of Global Voices of Nonviolence. Or you can attend a live screening of Little Town of Bethlehem in your area. This link will tell you where and when screenings will be held during the next two weeks. Or better yet, you can plan your own screening event. Here is an excellent article on nonviolence written by Palestinian Christian, Sami Awad, one of the peacemakers featured in Little Town of Bethlehem.