Christian Peace Witness raises more questions than I had before

Yes, I call myself a pacifist. And yes, I went with a group from my area as a reporter on the Christian Peace Witness. If alarm bells are ringing in your head about my capacity to be objective, you’re not the only one.

Here’s why I thought I could do it: While overall I oppose war and violence, I have a lot of questions and issues with the war in Iraq. The CPW was a response to that war specifically, not a call to disband the U.S. military or whatever. The more I learn about Iraq, the more I realize it’s an intensely complex situation that has no easy answers. I don’t pretend to know what should be done there. Not to mention I didn’t seek out the CPW–it came to me when the local trip coordinator contacted my editor to see if we’d do a story. I looked at the info and realized it would be a much better story if I went with them. My editors know our readers eat it up when local people do interesting things, so I ended up doing a front-page package deal of three stories and lots of photos for Sunday’s paper.

It was with that questioning mindset that I went into the CPW trip. I didn’t know ahead of time and couldn’t have known that all but two of the 32 people on the charter bus would self-identify as Mennonites. I figured it would be a bit more mixed, like the rest of the CPW. I didn’t wear the green “Mennonite” armband the leader passed around. I could have, but that would have taken away from my credibility as a reporter.

I talked with every single person on that bus on the way to D.C. I highly recommend it, too! When I would go on trips in high school and college, I’d talk to people next to me on the bus, but I never made a point to talk to everyone.

A steno pad of notes and three stories later, I’m ready to pursue my questions. (It’s only a conflict of interest if I make up my mind before the story is done. After that, I can do what I want.)

What should happen in Iraq? Is pulling out now and possibly leaving helter-skelter the best way to insure stability in Iraq?

How can Christians in the U.S. encourage Muslims in Iraq to get over their differences and stop killing each other? I asked this of a pastor on the bus, and he said it’s a tough issue, but winning them over for Christ would be most effective. Then he said the Christian Peacemaker Teams have been sent out of Iraq, and they cannot possibly have an impact if they aren’t allowed in. He said the teams set up crisis mediation centers where Muslims can come to work out their issues without fighting. So do we have to convert these people before they will listen to us? Do we honestly have nothing practical to give them other than coming in on an evangelical mission that will supposedly give them the tools to be peaceful? This is the post-modern in me coming out, but I’m uncomfortable with overtly evangelical efforts because they have the potential to view a person only as a soul and not as a mind, spirit and body with real needs. I know many service workers who try to meet people’s needs in the hopes the needy people will see Christ in it. Going the opposite way doesn’t really work for me.

And then there’s my skepticism that Muslims will be interested in coming to Christian mediation centers to work out their differences. I know if I were having a problem with another Christian, I wouldn’t be interested in going to a non-Christian mediator. I need to research that, obviously, because for all I know it could be wildly popular in Iraq.

Do we actually think President Bush and legislators will listen to us? A religion teacher on the bus referred to Christians as “legal aliens” in their countries of residence because our first allegience is in God’s Kingdom. I asked him why a country’s leaders should listen to legal aliens. It’s because we choose to be here willingly and are working to improve the country, he said. Patriotism does not consist of rubber-stamping every decision the country’s leaders make. (I’m in full agreement on the patriotism part.) Considering that we’d be legal aliens wherever we went, by his rationale, I have to wonder how willingly we’re here. It’s not like we can just go be part of only God’s Kingdom right now. What’s the alternative–suicide?

Does diplomacy always work if you do it long enough? What other means are available to people who oppose war and violence? If people aren’t being honest and humble in their diplomacy, how do we encourage them to become better at open communication?

What point is there in civil disobedience and getting arrested, like some 220 people did at the White House on Friday night? Yeah, it gets media attention, but is that a good enough reason to break civil laws that don’t conflict with God’s laws? I know of nothing in the Bible that says “If there’s a police line, you should cross it and pray at the fence in front of the White House.” That’s different than civil disobedience that protests an unjust law, like Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus. Unfortunately, some local readers who commented on the arrest story went too far on the other end and said the Bible compels Christians to obey ALL laws in their countries of residence. That’s not my understanding. Obey the laws except when necessary to follow God, and be willing to accept the civil consequences for the laws you break: That’s the way I read it.

Last but not least: Is democracy the best governmental structure for Iraq? Is democracy the “most Christian” of all existing forms of government?

Gee, did I pose enough questions to respond to, or what?

Comments (11)

  1. dkz

    I recognize that you are asking questions and I applaud that. I would caution that before making any assumptions about the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), do some research on the website about the Iraq project.

    For two years, ending in November 2006, I worked full time for CPT. Although I was primarily in Palestine and have not set foot in Iraq, close friends of mine have worked there. I am not aware of CPT running mediation centers for Muslims to work on their problems. Also CPT is not about converting people to Christianity but looking for ways to reduce violence in violent situations.

    CPT did help with the development of a Muslim Peacemaker Team (MPT) which may run mediation centers. I am not aware of the extent of MPT’s activities.

    When I speak to groups about my experiences with CPT, I am always a bit surprised and often amused at what people think CPT does. So I am not at all surprised that someone relayed these “facts” to you but I am pretty sure they do not represent the work of the CPT team in Iraq.

  2. Skylark

    Hi DZK, I’m glad to hear from you. The person who told me that info about the CPT in Iraq said he had talked with several people who had just come back from there. I certainly have no intentions of spreading rumors about CPT when the only info I have is third-hand and possibly wrong.

    I’d love to hear more about what you did, especially as it relates to the questions I asked. How did you handle the worldview difference? What sorts of things do you do to reduce violence? How do you establish credibility as an outsider? How long does a person have to be there before they are taken seriously by the locals? I’ve heard that in general in ministry-type settings, the people being ministered-to have to know their minister for at least two years before they’re willing to honestly talk about their issues. The person who told me that was talking about high school youth groups in churches in the U.S., so it may be quite different elsewhere. My guess is it could take longer than two years, but that’s a fairly uneducated guess.

  3. jdaniel

    Considering that we’d be legal aliens wherever we went, by his rationale, I have to wonder how willingly we’re here. It’s not like we can just go be part of only God’s Kingdom right now. What’s the alternative–suicide?

    I personally would consider Canada to be a viable alternative to suicide in this case.

  4. Lora

    The historian in me cringed when I read your words about the pastor who thought that winning Iraqis over to Christ would be the most effective way to bring peace. I’m pretty sure Christians don’t have a better record than any other religion at keeping the peace and not killing each other. Sadly. Conversion implies a sort of forcefulness in itself, and anyway, I’m mostly of the opinion that the value of any religion is demonstrated in how it affects those who do not adhere to its precepts.

    Do I think President Bush will listen to us? No, not really. Do I think legislators listen? Somewhat. Does diplomacy always work? Not always, no; as a man by the name of John Fisher once said, “All nations want peace, but they want a peace that suits them.” North Korea, for example, has repeatedly offered to end its nuclear program if the United States will do the same, and I believe the phrase best suited to end this sentence would be “a cold day in hell.”

    The bigger question I hear you asking (and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) is what our responsibility as Christians is, especially as Christians living in the belly of the beast. When I was living and working in Washington, D.C., I was often reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s comment that anything worth doing takes more than a lifetime, and so we live by faith. Politicians might not be listening, but perhaps their staffers (most of whom will remain on Capitol Hill longer than the legislators themselves) are–and it’s impossible for us to know where we are planting seeds. Many Pentagon and military officials are quite interested in conflict resolution. I’ve heard that John Howard Yoder taught just war theory to ROTC students for decades because he knew that it would be nearly impossible to justify any modern-day war by such standards.

    And as far as democracy and governance, I’m thinking benevolent dictatorships are the way to go… In all seriousness, though, if we in the United States are truly about democracy building, then we have to be prepared to accept what the people choose. We’ve backed up (and are currently supporting) dictators in more countries than I can name because the form of government they’d likely vote in would not be most beneficial (economically, politically, etc.) to the United States. I’ve heard Iraqis say that Iraq might just really need a strong-armed leader, and not so much the form of democracy the U.S. government is trying to impose, which is rather ironic. Iraq is incredibly, incredibly complicated, for so many reasons.

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  6. ryanm

    I don’t have answers for you, but a plea: Please hold on to your skepticism and keep asking questions. I worked for a daily for five years, about half of that time on the religion beat. I think journalistic skepticism, and sometimes even cynicism, is useful for the church – including the activist portion of the church. It can be simple (note: I didn’t say “easy”) to protest because that’s the accepted form of what we do, in the same way that it can be simple to attend church and do “churchy” things because that’s the accepted form of what we do. In many ways, I miss my role as a journalistic outsider because of the freedom that role offers to poke, prod and press people – especially religious people – to clarify how they apply both Biblical and traditional church teachings to current situations.

    You’re in a rare position in society in that everyone expects you to ask difficult questions and, in fact, would be disappointed if you did not do so. You have the opportunity to challenge faithful people who hold a variety of viewpoints from your base as a neutral, objective (or, at least striving to be as objective as possible — whether anyone, anywhere is truly objective is another discussion) journalist. After reading your stories, I believe you succeeded in retaining your neutrality on these stories and it sounds like you asked some of your hard questions, even if you didn’t necessarily receive satisfactory answers from everyone involved.

    I would add your list of questions, though mine is perhaps not directly faith-based: Have we reached the point where large-scale, planned demonstrations have lost their effectiveness as institutions for change? While ecumenical movements, such as CPW, can serve as a demonstration for unity for or against something significant, do these types of movements still stir those who do not participate? Or have 40-plus years of regular marches on Washington dulled our senses to where we don’t even notice stories like this:

    Sure, it’s satire. But is the satire an indication that such marches have become cliche? Is there a third way to communicate with our leaders when we are opposed to their actions? Or has our talking head/Crossfire culture that rewards bombastic certainty eliminated our ability for honest dialogue? (That applies to the activists as well as the politicians, incidentally.)

    I also appreciate Lora’s comment about democracy:
    “…if we in the United States are truly about democracy building, then we have to be prepared to accept what the people choose.” Our nation’s posturing toward the elected leaders of Palestine and Venezuela, to name two, would indicate that the politics of leaders matter more than the way they gained power. But any reflection on power leads me to Romans 13 — if Paul is correct in that God sets down appointed leaders, then does than not apply to all leaders, and not just the ones we like? Regardless of the answer, how does that alter the way we as people of faith see our own government and how we interact with it?

  7. Skylark

    Lora, you are quite right when you said, “The bigger question I hear you asking (and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) is what our responsibility as Christians is, especially as Christians living in the belly of the beast.” This leads into my response to Ryan.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ryan, for your comments. I fully intend to hold onto my skepticism and asking questions. I guess my role after the event and coverage is a little different than it was before and during because now I feel freer to question the only-sort-of-related issues. If I want to, I can hold up my own opinions for public review. Before and during, it doesn’t matter what I think about what they did, only my ability to accurately describe it and convey their responses to the questions the readers have. I’ve still got another story to do about the impact of the trip on the local participants, and I don’t want to discredit myself to any of my newspaper readers.

    I appreciate your words especially, Ryan, because you’ve been in my position. Plus you read my stories. You hit the nail on the head when you said I can question faithful people about why they do what they do. It is my sincerest hope that the discussions in my community about the CPW and related issues do not end when the comments to the newspaper’s website die off. It should be a starting place. Without accurate information about the past, it’s rather hard for people to know where to start, and I’m blessed as a reporter to be able to share that. My calling as a Christian is quite similar to my calling as a reporter: Seek the truth. Observe the truth and tell it others.

    And I loved your “third way” comment. Yay for Anabaptist history… hehehe.

  8. dshank


    I’m Duane Shank in DC. Tim N invited me, as an “old Anabaptist radical” to participate here with the “young Anabaptist radicals.”

    So a quick response to ryanm’s question about civil disobedience. There are two reasons for this kind of action.

    First, there is an aspect of an “unjust law” in saying it is illegal to kneel and pray in front of the White House. No entrance was being blocked (as in some CD actions), just people who felt called to pray. Pray for an end to the war, pray for the President, pray for all of the lives being taken by the war. And a law that says one cannnot peacefully kneel and pray in front of the White House is arguably unjust.

    It is also, of course, an effort to gain attention in the media by showing how serious we are about ending the carnage in Iraq. That aspect of CD was developed in the civil rights movement. It wasn’t only Rosa Parks refusing to obey unjust segregated bus laws. It was also things like the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights that ended with the beatings on the Pettus bridge and other similar actions. The point was to attract media attention to the justness of the cause, not necessarily that the specific law that was allegedly broken was unjust.


  9. Susan Mark Landis

    I’m Susan Mark Landis and many of you have invited me to this discussion and I didn’t have time to figure out how to do so. I’m trying to learn, so let me know if I do it properly.

    Skylark has interviewed me twice for articles for our local newspaper and I’m so sad that I haven’t been able to answer all her questions! I type that with quite the grin–I have experienced much deeper sadness over the years and I certainly don’t expect to be able to answer all her questions. What would be the point of short circuiting her journey?

    But Sarah Skylark, if you promise to not write another article about me that gets people spitting angry at me, I’ll say a few more things.

    I’ve been exposed to civil disobedience for over 30 years and this is the first time I felt compelled to take part, compelled to the point that I would have felt I disappointed God and my church (in the denominational sense) if I did not.

    Thirty years is a very long journey with a great deal of thinking and downright arguing with myself and with God about the ‘sucessfulness’ of civil disobedience, about whether it does more harm than good in public opinion, about whether it mostly serves the person doing the CD as a rite of passage into the peace community.

    I’m still doing LOTS of thinking, and since I was immensely priviledged (does this thing have a spell check?) to be on the Steering Committee for the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, I have gifted friends willing to spend time trying to explain it all to me. So, here are the paragraphs I got today from Ken Butigan, one of the top nonviolence trainers around, from Pace Bene:

    “Nonviolent civil disobedience is a loving, determined challenge to injustice or violence that publicly withdraws consent and cooperation from it. Its power derives from dramatically and unmistakably removing personal support for such policies. It delivers this prayer for peace with nonviolent discipline “in person,” using the most powerful language we have at our disposal: our own vulnerable bodies.

    “Over the past 100 years, civil disobedience has gained a powerful resonance as a public ritual weighted with symbolic and concrete meaning of nonviolent defiance and social transformation. Beyond its immediate meaning in civil society, however, there is its deeper connection to the Christian tradition, beginning with Jesus’ embodied challenge to structural injustice and violence (healing on the Sabbath, transgressing social mores and taboos about consorting with women, Samaritans, lepers, disabled persons, tax collectors and Roman officials). This was civil disobedience, pure and simple. (Do you know Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of the Story of Mark? He is a scripture scholar who analyzes Jesus’ ministry as a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign. And then there’s John Dear’s The Sacrament of Civil Disobedience).”

    Susan again: I asked Ken–WHAT was acommplished by people being arrested that wouldn’t have happened if we just surrounded the White House with prayers and light? (and please note–I was not there to be successful, but to be faithful, but I’m trying to figure out how to talk about this to others whose gut isn’t doing what mine was as I decided).

    Ken’s answer:
    … But when we speak of “accomplishment,” I am of two minds. First, we will not know the political impact for some time, though we know from past experience that it often turns out to have had more impact than we imagine. (Both on its impact on the general public and on policy-holders.) Hard to say from this vantage point, but the action continues far beyond the actual moment (including stimulating lots of discussion, as you have discovered).

    “The most superficial — but still pertinent — accomplishment was that it made possible the telling of the CPWI story via widespread media coverage.

    “It is a sad commentary, but quite likely that there would have been little or no secular, mainstream reporting of the CPWI event without 222 of us being arrested for praying for peace on the White House sidewalk. Having organized many public witnesses that did not feature civil disobedience, I can report from bitter experience that this would have likely been the case. This was also the feeling of Timi Gerson, the Fenton Communications staff-person who worked on this story. Many public witnesses take place weekly in Washington; typically, one the size of our gathering would draw little press notice. The fact that hundreds of religious clergy and laity felt so strongly about this war to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience was the media “hook” (as emphasized by the crush of TV cameras and print reporters that covered the first wave of arrestees).

    “I suspect that, unless we had many, many more people than we had encircling the White House with light and prayer, there would have been little or no coverage without civil disobedience.

    “By garnering press, these arrests were central to CPWI’s prophetic call to the nation and its leaders to end this war.

    “But this is no answer to those who object to it, especially if what we did is seen ONLY as a means to attract media attention. Many things can attract press — often with little or no integrity.”

    Susan again, with a huge sigh. I believe that SOMETHING mattered about me and hundreds of other church leaders risking arrest. Sometimes I’m too intuitive and have trouble finding words to explain. But as leaders of denominations and as people in the pew, we were trying to somehow bring attention to our plea with the United States to reclaim its morality and stop the war. We’ve tried so many avenues: We’ve signed petitions, we’ve had local witnesses and DC witnesses, we’ve written letters to legislators and visited with them in person. I even talked to President Clinton in person

    and sat in the West Wing on Sept 12, 2002, begging the man at the Iraq desk not to begin a war

    And we’re still at war and I’m still trying to think of other ways that might give people the opportunity to realize that war doesn’t solve problems and more troops is just like throwing kerosene on the fire because liquid puts out flames, right?

    I think I didn’t give you any more answers, but I hope you are open to learning why the people of God, beginning with the midwives who saved Moses, through Jesus–who COULD have waited and done his healing on days when it wasn’t illegal–through Martin Luther King Jr, the Berrigan brothers and many, many others have disobeyed the law of the land, claiming they were obeying the law of GOD.

    So, question, listen, be open, pray more than is humanly possible. This Jesus journey is amazing!

    Susan Mark Landis
    (opps–I probably don’t need to sign?!)

  10. Skylark

    Susan! You know, one of these days we’re going to meet in person, rather than communicating via telephone, email and now blog. Shouldn’t be too hard, since I live 15 minutes from you. I’m not planning any more stories about you.

    This comment’s going to be comparatively short because it’s 1:30 a.m. and I’ve really got to get some sleep soon.

    Yes, this Jesus journey is amazing. I learn so much and each day realize more fully how little I know. God opens my eyes to different aspects of stories I thought I knew well. I wrote the original post in this thread after our first phone conversation and before our second. In the second conversation, we talked a lot more about the media attention aspects of the arrest.

    I don’t know if you COULD short-circuit my journey by attempting to answer all my questions: I’d be thrilled you took the time to address them, and I’d gladly and carefully read over what you wrote, but ultimately I wouldn’t listen just to you. No one has all the answers. I enjoy “sitting at the feet of the masters” and listening to those with more experience than me… but I don’t hang all my hopes on any one person apart from God. Hopefully this doesn’t sound like a put-down, because that’s not my intent.

    Oh, by the way… I’d have still been at the CPWI, reporting, with or without the arrests. Though I’m a Mennonite, the newspaper I work for is secular. My one little paper doesn’t count for much compared to national networks, but it sure matters here in this community. You’ve definitely discovered that in the past three weeks. I only wish more readers had been respectful and restrained in their responses, rather than viscious and reactionary.

  11. Susan Mark Landis

    Since I think of little else but my community’s reaction to my arrest these days, I was wondering in bed last night–WHICH is the law I could have broken to say there should not be war? and how could it have been done by hundreds with thousands also involved?

    Part of the genius of warmaking in this country is how it is buried so deeply in our laws and our consciousness that we can’t easily rebel. If we don’t pay our war taxes, we don’t deal with the Pentegon, we deal with the IRS, who doesn’t decide how the money is spent. If I don’t volunteer to be in the military and then decide to try to get out, there aren’t many laws I can break.

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