Christian Peacemaker Teams: Necrophiliacs or Prophets of Imagination?

This week I got an email from Cliff Kindy saying that he’s returning to Iraq for four months as part of a CPT Team. Cliff’s work as a Christian Peacemaker has been mentioned a few times before on YAR.

In his letter announcing his return to Iraq he said:

A friend asked why I go to Iraq at a time when the situation is deteriorating even further. I go in expectation, trusting that the Jesus way of nonviolence always brings more creativity and positive change to situations of injustice and violence than the tools of war. The resurrection for me is a sign that life trumps death. Yes, it is a high risk project, but a project that participates already in the future for which we pray and yearn!

The vision Cliff articulates is at the core of what has drawn me to be involved with CPT over the past 10 years (and 4 years as a reservist). Put simply it is a willingness to risk death based in a deep hope for creative transformation in situations of conflict. In some ways this is a paradoxical concept holding together two very different ideas.

This weekend a friend told me that poet Julia Kasdorf described CPT’s vision as necrophilia, or an obsession with death. This came as part of a presentation last week at Valparaiso University.

I don’t have a transcript of Julia’s presentation or anything more to go on then my friends report, so I feel some obligation to explain her critique a bit more as it was told to me, but I apologize in advance for my ignorance. As I understand it, she is looking at passages like this one from the speech by Ron Sider that inspired CPT:

“Unless we . . . are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic vigorous new exploits for peace and justice, we should sadly confess that we never really meant what we said, and we dare never whisper another word about pacifism to our sisters and brothers in those desperate lands filled with injustice. Unless we are ready to die developing new nonviolent attempts to reduce conflict, we should confess that we never really meant that the cross was an alternative to the sword . . .

I gather that Julia sees this vision as a continuation of the Martyr’s Mirror story in which Anabaptists willingly went to their deaths. In her presentation she compared this willingness to risk Martyrdom to the hijackers on 9/11. For her, the willingness to risk martyrdom devalues the sacredness of human life. She proposes to replace this “necrophiliac” orientation with a birth centered paradigm [based on the work of Grace M. Jantzen 10/4/07 Update].

I’ve been pondering this dramatic critique quite a lot over the last few days. I grew up reading poems from Sleeping Preacher and the images and themes from that book have influenced the way I think and live. So all this is to say that I take Julia’s assertion very seriously. But I disagree.

Julia’s critique is focused on the founding vision of CPT. But founding visions have their limitations. They inspire people to start a project, but 23 years on, CPT’s work has grown and evolved and its day to day work looks quite different from Ron Sider’s speech.

In the three months I spent in Colombia with the CPT in 2005, I did very little throwing myself in front of violence. In fact I only once encountered an armed actor. The vast majority of my time was spent listening to people, visiting with them, hearing their stories and building relationships. When we did take nonviolent action to challenge violence they were necessarily focused on nurturing a culture of life in the face of the fear that grips so many in Barrancabermeja and the surrounding countryside.

During my time there I took this photo (right) at a witness the team helped plan alongside the Women’s Popular Organization (OFP) in Barrancabermeja and for me it offers a glimpse of a vision of birthing, not death:

More recently, In July, CPT accompanied a series of youth in peace vigils organized by the Barrancabermeja Youth Collective. The vigils were a response to a new death list published by the paramilitary groups in the city. This excerpt from the CPTnet story provides a flavor of the evenings:

Barrios echoing with drumbeats of resistance invited hundreds of men, women and children to come out and dance in contemporary hip-hop or a traditional cumbia, mapale or chirimía and to keep up hope when threats are terrorizing everyone. All waved ribbons or pinned paper butterflies and colorful flowers to their clothes as symbols of persistence and resistance.

You can see photos of the events in the CPT gallery. This is a wonderful example of creative and imagination subverting a culture of fear.

Julia Kasdorf is right that we cannot build a culture of peace simply by being willing to sacrifice our lives. But the fear of death is the most powerful tool of the armed groups of this world. To challenge this culture of fear we must ground ourselves in the hope of the resurrection in which life trumps death and the fear of death. This freedom is what enables us to build a culture birth and new life.

So if necrophilia runs counter to the grain of Christian Peacemaking, what alternative image can I offer? In a post Jarrod McKenna wrote this week wrote this week as part of a series on Ghandi:

I believe the Holy Spirit empowers us all to become prophets of imagination. Prophets of Jesus’ creative way out of the cycles of violence and retaliation. Then we’ll be able to resist the temptations to have our understandings of ‘nonviolence’ (or love, or justice) be made sanitised, safe, nice and all a bit Fat-Cat-Humphy-Bear-Barney’s-Worldish.

Godspeed, Cliff. May you be a prophet of the imagination.

Comment (1)

  1. ST

    These people are some of the bravest, kindest people that I know. I feel that many of them are very consistent in their theology and practice…whether in Iraq or in North Manchester, Columbia or Canada.

    These are the people who inspired me to be an activist (someone who takes action for love and justice and also takes time to reflect and think critically) and also the people who taught me the song, “God Bless the Grass”

    God bless the grass
    that grows through the crack
    they roll the concrete over it
    to try to hold it back.
    The concrete gets tired
    of what it has to do
    so it breaks and it buckles a
    and the grass comes through, so
    God bless the grass

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