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Editorial Reflections

Simple acts of everyday people can break through hate that foments wars


Although lasting peace in the Middle East seems like a mirage, Sarah Ahmed seeks to chip away at divisions of religious and political communities that have vested interests in holding power by promoting ideology, fear, suspicion and hate.

Media doesn’t help, she told Gonzaga students and Spokane community members in a crowd gathered the end of January by Pax Christi Spokane.

As director of operations at the Foundation for Reconciliation and Relief in the Middle East one of her tasks is simple.  It’s to visit the United States and encourage people to write letters to people in Iraq.

Letters from people telling about their lives, values and hopes can help change minds and hearts of Iraqis, whose enemy images of Americans come from air strikes killing innocents and from media depictions of U.S. life and culture.

“I love peace,” she said, calling people to join in an effort to love their enemies, a concept in most faiths.

It seems impossible for average citizens to surmount entrenched hostilities and power plays of political and religious leaders.

While it’s may not be possible to sit down with ISIS, she sees Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious leaders sit and talk with each other, sharing common concerns and then telling followers about the need to accept their differences, but to love and respect each other, without agreeing.

Both the letter writing and face-to-face meetings are ways to dispel enemy images.

“Enemy images” is a term I know from a United Church of Christ visit with people in churches in what were then East and West Germany in 1985, a year of reconciliation 40 years after World War II. With the Berlin Wall inhibiting contact, people in East Germany held enemy images of Americans as selfish, wealthy people—like in the TV show “Dallas”—and as part of a nation that aimed weapons of mass destruction at them.

I believe letters to Iraqis can break down enemy images and have an impact on history. When I visited Germany that fall as part of a delegation, I was to give words of greeting.  In the first congregation, I told how my children were afraid about my flying there because of an airport bombing, an airplane crash and a hijacking the summer before.  I talked with them about my concerns about nuclear weapons and the need for peace.

The day I left, my daughters cried, afraid I might not come back.  After I hugged my son on his first day of school, he said, “If you can do something about the bombs, it’s okay for you to go.”  As I told that story, I heard the sound of people breathing in—awed—echo through the sanctuary.

I told that story at other churches and in small groups in East and West Germany.  I believe that story and those of many other visitors broke through enemy images, gave people hope, conveyed our solidarity and encouraged people to protest. 

Some credit former President Ronald Reagan telling former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down that wall” with the wall coming down in 1988.  I believe church people meeting face-to-face and continuing contact by letters broke through walls of propaganda and empowered people of faith to pray, then protest and then tear down the wall.

A poster of chipping away at the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate hangs in my upstairs hall as a reminder that simple interactions can change history.

People engaging in non-violent movements can and do eventually make a difference in history.  Each generation must learn to persist in breaking down walls of injustice, oppression, inequality, fear and distrust that benefit those holding power.

So Sarah Ahmed, who loves peace, started a letter-writing campaign. 

In her letter, one American woman wrote that she likes to sit in her garden, drink tea and listen to the birds.  Then she said, “I wish that you could hear the birds and not the bombs.”

Simple human connections and compassion are not signs of weakness but have a power beyond belief.

Mary Stamp - Editor

Copyright © February 2015 - The Fig Tree