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Celebrating Gandhi's Birthday by Imagining Nonviolence in the Middle East

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As the bombs fell in Baghdad at the very beginning of the Iraq war, an Iraqi doctor held a young girl whose body was bloody from missile fragments. He turned to an American Christian peacekeeper named Shane Claiborne and asked: "This violence is for a world that has lost its imagination. Has your country lost its imagination?"

On October 2, the United Nations observes the International Day of NonViolence on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. The anniversary gives the world a chance to use our imagination and consider the power and promise of non-violent means to resolving conflicts in the world today -- especially in the Middle East.

The history of India's non-violent liberation from British colonial rule is one of the most important and improbable events of the 20th century. Yet as the memory of Gandhi recedes into history, so does the understanding of the extraordinary nature of his non-violent philosophy and movement. Likewise, as the civil rights movement moves out of living memory for many Americans, the non-violent activism of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin and others is lauded once a year without giving any serious consideration to the effectiveness of the deeply spiritual non-violent movement they led.

Only dimly can we imagine Gandhi insisting on the spiritual principle of Ahimsa, or do no harm, in the face of the disdainful and vicious British occupiers. Only faintly can we imagine the religious conviction it took for King to obey Jesus' mandate of love as he faced the dogs, guns and lynching of his white oppressors. While we may pay lip service to these great men, we take too little time reflecting upon the nonviolence philosophy and spiritual discipline that sustained them.

The good news is that Gandhi and King are finding eager students and worthy successors in the most unlikely place -- the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Recently I moderated a panel on nonviolence in the Middle East. We watched a movie about an Israeli Jew, a Palestinian Muslim and a Palestinian Christian who are currently resisting the temptation of violence. And it is a temptation. If a member of my family were killed by terrorism; or an occupying soldier killed a beloved friend, I cannot be certain that I would not turn towards violence. It seems like the most natural thing in the world to me.

Yet these three men, and many, many more are resisting the temptation of violent revenge and instead are actively pursuing non-violent, peaceful solutions. We heard one story of an Israeli whose sister was killed by a suicide bomber and yet refused to take revenge. He asked what could ever replace his sister, recognizing that killing would not bring his sister back. There were similar stories from Palestinian Muslims and Christians. The testimonies of these non-violent men and women sounded strange to me, but I could feel my soul being stretched just by hearing their stories and truly began to imagine what nonviolence might accomplish in the Middle East.

Nonviolence requires the discipline to transcend the immediate satisfaction of justice provided by revenge; and instead project and expand one's mind and spirit into a time when the pain, loss and inequity will be redeemed through an ongoing process that involves confrontation, truth, repentance, reconciliation, mercy and justice.

Nonviolence in the Middle East sounds idealistic to be sure; and to some, dangerously naive. Yet it has a track of successes including India, the Civi Rights movement and South Africa. It also provides an alternative to the ongoing circle of hatred, suspicion, revenge and violence. Sami Awad, who is a Palestinian Christian and one of those whose life is dedicated to nonviolence, told me: "Nonviolence is not a solution to the conflict, it is the only solution."

Let's celebrate Gandhi's birthday by imagining nonviolence in the Middle East and everywhere where violence is the first, second and third response; and where militarism and nihilism compete to be the most deadly killers of the dreams of peaceful people. Celebrating Gandhi's life, let us be the peace we have been waiting for in our neighborhoods, in our families and in our own hearts, so that we can fulfill the promise of Isaiah 2, which reads: They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore.

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