Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, but I have to confess I was blown away when a few days into my first session at SPI in Lisa Schirch’s Strategic Media and Arts-Based Peacebuilding class, as we gathered in groups to think about some stories we might tell each other, I found myself with a gentle, soft-spoken Iranian colleague by the name of Fatemeh who told me she was thinking to talk about the Inquisitions and the Crusades, what they did to her people, and what it meant for her to be here. As I looked at her in disbelief, I felt heartbroken to think that this was what came to her mind - horrible stories of cruelty and violence by Christians - centuries-old - stories I thought were buried and forgotten in history books a long time ago. In her one sentence, in that moment, as I looked into the quiet sincerity and vulnerability in her eyes, I came to realize that there is a world of unhealed and unspoken trauma that is still very much alive and raw and troubling in the interconnected worlds we grew up in. And it hit me that we both were very much a part of this story - and that this story was just one piece of the larger despairingly complex tragedy of Israel and Palestine and the Middle East. It struck me too that somehow we had come from nearly opposite worlds, looking for answers in the same place – in the arts of peacebuilding - whatever they were.
I want to offer you several more windows to the world that shaped my life and brought me here; reflect a bit on my journey to art, and to peacebuilding, and to the connection between them, as well as talk a bit about how that intersection has expressed itself in my work.
Three interwoven stories
When I was thirteen I had a friend called Chesi Stang who told me his parents had come from Germany and that most of his relatives had ended up in Auschwitz, Stutthof, and Buchenwald. At the time, these names meant little to me. It wasn’t till later at the Holocaust Museum of Yad VeShem that his words came back and I began to understand what had happened to his family and those of most everyone around me - in the concentration and death camps of Nazi Europe. Six million Jews and other ‘undesirables’ - were systematically hunted down and hauled away in box cars, shaved bald and marched naked into barracks of block and straw, tortured, experimented on, worked to exhaustion and shot, gassed, and shoveled into pits or crematoriums to be obliterated in smoke and dust like vermin. This was the end of the line for Jews at Auschwitz,
and this is Stutthof, and all that was left of those who entered here.. a mountain of shoes.
And this one too is Stutthoff. Look at what stands at the center of this image… beside the crematorium and in view of the gallows… a cross! I realized that my people, at least people who too called themselves Christian, had as much and more to do with the events of history that gave rise to Israel-Palestine as anyone. I realized that I too represented part of this story, and I’ve come to understand something of the force that moved my Mennonite parents, who had found friendship with Jews in their youth, to come to this place, to try to reach out across the gulf of horror and pain, to engage the twisted perceptions of the God they knew, and to somehow seek reconciliation and healing.
In 1967 things began to intensify in the international chemistry around us, as incidents along Israel’s borders took more adversarial turns. As Egyptian and Syrian artillery and tanks appeared in alarming numbers the first week of June along the Suez Canal and in the Golan Heights and all indications pointed toward war, the call went out to all residents of Israel to dig bomb shelters in our yards and black out our windows and street lights and car lights in the event of an attack by night. I remember the roar of jets flying low, air raid sirens and sonic booms, and the whistle of missiles overhead, and running for shelter, my heart pounding, wondering where they were aimed, and where they would fall, and what was happening just beyond the horizons all around us. I learned several weeks later that Chesi, then 17, had been called to the front lines to fight for what they thought was their survival.
We all know the outcome of the Six Day War - for Israelis a ‘deliverance’ of seemingly miraculous proportions - for Egypt, Syria and Jordan a humiliating defeat - and to Palestinians, a Second Catastrophic Nekba that has come to mean stifling and at times brutal occupation, curfews, checkpoints, humiliating restrictions, fences and walls, home demolitions, land confiscations, summary detainments, searches and seizures of their property, economic strangulation and siege…for nearly 44 years now with no real signs of hope for change.
In the months after the war we began meeting people from the West Bank and Gaza, including the Nicholas family who too had lived in the Gaza Strip since 1956. In the course of our growing friendships I heard the stories of the Palestinians they lived with, many of them refugees since 1948, living in camps and in poverty in what is the most densely populated place on earth. Nearly half of these 1.5 million people I learned were no older than us. Through Mary Ann and Ed especially I came to feel their family’s love for the people of Gaza, and to know their warmth and beauty, and I felt a growing sadness over this conflict, which in time was to hit yet closer to home.
One evening in January 1972, Mary Ann, her sisters and father along with a nurse were driving out of the Strip when gunmen mistook their microbus for an Israeli military vehicle and opened fire, sending hundreds of bullets over and through its front and center seats. The nurse was hit in the head, Mary Ann’s father in the hip and leg, and her older sister in the foot. Despite the pain, her father was able to drive them out of range and her sister ran to a nearby house to call for help. An Israeli ambulance arrived and though they worked to save her, the nurse died on the operating table in Beersheba that night.
As the Palestinian community visited them to offer their condolences, apologies, and remorse, I came to marvel at the power of their grace and faith that enabled their feelings of endearment to deepen for the Palestinian people they loved. They sang a hymn at the funeral service several days later that spoke of a different world and a different politics. The words they sang were these: “Lead on O King eternal, till death’s fierce wars shall cease, and holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace. For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums; with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.” In their vulnerability, over those days, sympathies deepened, and a new sense of identification and respect grew between them and the people of Gaza.
As a child of what is now for me Israel-Palestine, this was my world and my home, and these are my people. I have felt a part of them, and their pain and their interwoven traumas are my pain and my traumas. What is different for me is that I have found friendship across the lines and I have felt torn and sad and angry and sympathetic, all at the same time…
Journey to art and peacebuilding
I left Israel after high school in 1971 hoping someday, somehow, to do something to heal the world I knew... I came back in the fall of 1973 to work at a hospital in Nazareth and the following summer Mary Ann and I got married in Gaza and left what was home to us for college here at EMU. In 1983 we took a trip back, to see our parents and revisit the places of our childhood. It was in Gaza that we met a Palestinian artist, a woodburner and watercolorist, whose work has changed the course of my life. Somehow in his medium and in the beauty of the people and places of Palestine he portrayed, I found inspiration to pick up a tool I hadn’t touched since I was a child. As I experimented with the art of woodburning and ventured my work in some festivals and shows back here in Virginia, I felt a growing sense of affirmation, and gratification, with something meaningful, and beautiful, and strong - encouragement that has sustained me in this work for 27 years.
Eighteen years in however, things took a different turn… as this country took to a global war that grew like a cancer from Ground Zero in New York, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to scare-mongering about an “Axis of Evil” in the Middle East and Korea, to adversarial bravado and rogue disregard for national and international protest, I found myself increasingly unable to ‘do my art’ as I had. Somehow it felt irrelevant, impotent, and irresponsible in the face of what loomed for me like Armageddon. I finally submitted an application to CJP in the winter of 2007.
To make a long and beautiful story woefully short, I’ve found my spirits rejuvenated by the sense of solidarity with so many passionate, dedicated and gifted people, coming together from all over the world, to work together for peace. Despite being pulled in every direction I thought relevant to Israel-Palestine, I felt a growing sense of connection between my search for answers in peacebuilding and my journey into the arts. In the course of my reading, two writers became instrumental in connecting the dots between these two trajectories, trajectories which for me have become as closely intertwined as air is with breathing.
The Bridge from Trauma to the Arts of Transformation
Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and therapist, who’s research grew out of his work with holocaust survivors, has summed up the seminal premise of his work with what I believe to be the most insightful statement about the human spirit ever articulated. It is this, that: "the primary motivational force in humankind is the pursuit of meaning." Meaning for Frankl is everything we hold dear – those we love and that which gives us life and joy. It is everything that is beautiful for us - it is our art, and our capacities to create, and do something good with our talents. It is our work. It is our worldview - that which ties it all together, and gives us a sense of place and purpose in the scheme of things. It is our dignity, and our capacity to choose, even our attitude in the face of suffering and death. (Frankl 106-107). If this is the fundamental need we feel - that which sustains us, and that which we live for - it is here, it seems to me, that the keys to resilience, and to transcendence, and to the transformation of trauma and the cycles of conflict lie.
The second writer is neither a peacebuilder, nor a therapist, but an insightful social thinker whose thesis connects us not only to meaning, but to the capacities in our human spirit to engage it, and to the world of the arts as well. Daniel Pink in a book he entitled A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers will Rule the Future argues in a nutshell that we are undergoing a “seismic social developmental shift” - from an Information Age that relies primarily on our faculties of logic, analysis, and knowledge, to a Conceptual Age built around empathy, joyfulness, design, and meaning. The skills demanded of our children in this changing world, says Pink, are six aptitudes we engage in our right brain - design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning.
As he nuanced these words and as I’ve reflected on the meaning of the arts as imaginative principles, faculties, and skills used for a creative purpose, I was struck that these were the arts of peacebuilding. Interestingly, they line up almost chapter by chapter with Marc Gopin’s “crucial steps to making peace” in his Healing the Heart of Conflict. They resonate too as hallmarks in the teaching, practice, doctoral work, and theories of change of our professors here. And I was impressed to hear many of these words this past Monday as we talked about what we bring to SPI. For Pink and the scientists he cites, this domain of the right brain is the part of us, which is part of ALL of us - and I want to underscore that - that perceives the patterns and the bigger picture - in the threads of logic that wind through the matrices of information we engage. This is the part of us that gets the meaning in our stories, that reads “between the lines,” and interprets the nonverbal cues in our faces and bodies, and enables us to step into each other’s shoes to feel with each other. This is the part of us that can imagine and create new ways of relating that transcend our differences and combine our unique gifts into new symphonies of coexistence. And this is the part of us, interestingly, that cognitive scientists and linguists tell us, communicates in a whole other language – of images and symbols and metaphors – in poetries and stories and music - which capture our emotions and our aspirations in ways that words often cannot articulate.
Coming from where I have, this convergence hit me with a great deal of force. One of the lessons I had taken from my experience growing up in a society so divided that the words, experiences, and logic of one people were incomprehensible to the other, and in which the traumas of each were so all-consuming they could not see the other’s, is that we must find a common language to hear each others’ stories. What struck me is that these aptitudes and arts are the primary media we use to give voice to them. And what gives me hope is Frankl’s premise: that our profound human need for this engagement with meaning, is what will drive us together. Eric Whitacre, a conductor who orchestrated a 2000 voice choir comprised of total strangers from around the world via Facebook and YouTube, marveled: that “human beings will go to any lengths necessary to find and connect with each other.” Maya Angelou, talks about this universal drive for connection this way: “Love is a condition so powerful it may be that which holds the stars in the firmament, that which urges and pushes the blood in our veins… You have to have courage to love somebody,” she says, “because you risk everything…!” Love is that powerful yet vulnerable art that ties every drive, need, and aptitude for human connection and peacemaking together, by linking them to the essential meaning and beauty of our humanity.
Let me leave you with those thoughts and move to talk a bit about my art. I want to do this, not so much as an attempt to hold up my work as any kind of model, or to tell you what you should see in it, as to illustrate this connection of art with meaning, of voice with the resonance it evokes in others, and art with peacebuilding - and to invite you to become a part of that encounter. That, for me, is the beauty and power of art – that it engages us.
To start, I’d like to talk about two images, worlds apart in tone - one of light and beauty, easy to enjoy, the other a darker and more difficult picture. This "Family of Women," is one of a series that portrays the beauty of our human family across the lines of conflict, politics, culture, and age: Jews and Palestinians, Blacks and Whites, Pakistanis, Indians, Vietnamese and Russians, Native Americans, Hispanics, Afghanis, Jordanians, Nepalis and Sudanis, ...and even Catholics trying on Mennonite trappings (Jayne Dougherty, where are you - you're in this one), playing and simply being the family we are together.
Contrasted with that is a more difficult piece I’ve called "Loss of Innocence", an image that grew out of a trip back to Israel-Palestine in 2002. It was a trip made possible by the kindness of family and friends and an accompanying commission for a piece of my work by two generous friends. We went in the wake of several suicide bombings in Israel and a manhunt that ended in Bethlehem. We went hoping to offer a measure of support to the International Center there which was damaged when Israeli forces had come through the compound on their search. We learned as we walked through that they had shot up the place, confiscated hard drives, destroyed office equipment and painted slogans of mockery on the walls of their beautiful brand new multimedia arts center. This Center had been conceived as a haven of beauty and hope in this hope-forsaken place where people could come and draw and paint and sculpt; where children and youth could play music and dance and express themselves in theatre and poetry, and where their community could celebrate their cultures and find friendship.
It was a difficult ten days for me. Growing up with Israelis, I had identified with them as victims, and with the insecurity they felt, surrounded as they were, by countries and people who resented them. It was disillusioning to see this senseless violence directed everywhere and nowhere - to hurt, humiliate, and destroy.
The image here is of a refugee camp that is part of the town, and a collection of faces I photographed while we were there. It took me two years to complete this, one of the most difficult pieces I've ever done from an emotional standpoint. I had gone hoping to create something of beauty for the kindness of my friends, something that captured the spirit and the soul of the Palestinian community, but the images I had hoped to capture just weren't there. This is a picture of the dark side of Israel and Palestine, the burnt colorless landscape of misery and loss, grey shadows of death and instruments of destruction - in the background is a D9 caterpillar used for home demolitions - the stuff of nightmares, real and imagined, for Palestinians. In this picture, in this kind of violation, I believe, there is a loss of innocence - a departure from faith and trust in the goodness of ‘the other’ necessary for relationships. It is etched in the eyes of these women, in the grief cast heavenward, in the memory of a daughter and friend torn away, in a motherless baby in the arms of her sister, in the sadness of a girl holding up two fingers - twice refugees, twice bereft of dignity and loved ones, reduced to begging as she is now for two shekels.
For all I've said about the dark side, there is also beauty and hope for me in this picture. The differences in their garb are indications of the differences of their faiths. As I burned in these lines and shadows I thought also of the lines of nations and states, and the ethnic and religious identities that so often separate us, that are artificial distinctions in the context of our human family. As for the "departed spirit" of the little girl in front, for me she could be Jewish as easily as she could be Palestinian, identifying with these women’s grief and pain. The only color in this picture is a very pale dusty rose, symbol of the hope we cling to in this life. For me as a Christian it is symbolic also of the hope that came in the form of another Jewish child born in that town some two millennia ago. That child grew up to teach us to love our enemies, to forgive those who do us wrong, and to return good for evil. It is in his example of vulnerable love and forgiveness that I have come to feel hope for peace in this world.
As I’ve thought about the interaction of our faiths, so entwined and rooted together - in these stories and in the questions about their meaning, and so sadly set at odds by these conflicts - one of the things I have become most convinced of, is that our faiths also hold the keys to our healing and peace. Some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had during my time at CJP were spent with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian friends reflecting on the scriptures from our traditions in Scriptural Reasoning conversations and an Interfaith Search for Common Ground for Peace group we formed together. I have become convinced that it is in our meaning structures - where we have pegged our most sacred beliefs and values - that we realize the common ground we share, find mutual respect in the principles we live by, and discover the capacities to work together for peace.
In this image I’ve entitled “Windows to the Sacred Common” of a 2000 year-old olive tree rendered from several on the Mount of Olives’ just outside Jerusalem, are words from the Tanakh, the New Testament, and the Quran, laid out in the form of two windows or two arched tablets of stone:
From the Book of Deuteronomy in the Torah: “I call heaven and earth to witness before you this day that I have set before you life and death. Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live...” Deut 30:15-20
From Deuteronomy and Leviticus and the teachings of Jesus recorded in Luke and Mark: “Hear, O my people, the Lord our God is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength; this is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments rest all the law and the prophets.” Deut 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:17-18, Luke 10:27, Mark 12:29-30
From the prophet Isaiah, quoted by Jesus in Mark: “Let no outsider joined to the Lord say ‘the Lord will surely exclude me from his people’ for this is what the Lord says… my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah 56:3,4,6-8, quoted by Jesus in Mark 11:17
From the Jewish Gates of Prayer and the Quran: “God created us all through one human being to teach us that whoever would destroy a single human soul has destroyed an entire world and whoever has sustained a single human soul has sustained an entire world.” Gates of Prayer 689, Quran 5:32
And from Al Imran in the Quran: “Say, o people of the Book, let us come to a common word between us, that we may worship our God as one.” Quran, Al Imran 3:64
Here in interrelated texts, sacred to two-thirds of the world’s population, are statements of a common reverence for life, love for our neighbors, and inclusion to all who share a sense of connection with our Creator God. And there are more in this piece that call us to justice and to peace, and to compassion and mercy which I invite you to look at at your leisure.
Finally, let me tell you a bit about these, which have involved several of us here in STAR workshops and Trauma Transformation classes at EMU, CJP, and SPI. Represented in these pieces of stained and broken glass, coffee beans, stones, beads, and gold and silver ink, are the journeys we took together to share, understand, and heal from our personal experiences with trauma. From what began with blue and green diamonds representing the rivers of our life, broken by our experiences into shards, and laid tenderly into a window, we let the pieces of our stories fill the empty spaces between us, and began to find and feel connections with each other. As we shared haikus, made music, flew kites, walked together in the woods and hills, played games, laughed together, and talked about the sources of our strength and hope, we began to find, and feel, and create something beautiful… In these memorials is a representation of what we shared, and in them our hopes too that our stories may offer hope and beauty to others. The second one now resides at a farm not far from here, at a retreat and recovery center for teen girls who too have lived with stories of brokenness and pain. They have found inspiration in this piece to similarly tell their stories, to sensitize others to the pain that so often goes unspoken among their peers.
If I were to summarize the balance of my work, I would say it is largely a celebration of the beauties of nature and our human family, and expressions in poetry of the meaning of life that binds us together. The resonance these images have evoked in the people who have said something to me of their thoughts, speaks to me of the hunger for beauty and light and connection we share as a human family. I believe these too play a role in building peace as reminders of the beauty we value and share on this good earth.
In conclusion, let me return to the story I began with, of Fatemeh, to tell you a bit more about how it played out. She struggled to tell her story that day in the minutes we had, but I know she felt a great deal of release to have let it out. I remember stopping by her table at lunch that last day and asking what was next for her. She told me she would need to return to Iran, but that she was hoping to come back to enroll as an MA student at CJP, and she asked me to pray with her that that could happen. God was kind and answered our prayers. In the course of her time here, she was deeply interested in interreligious engagement and peacebuilding and was a faithful participant in our Scriptural Reasoning group, and was passionate about citizen diplomacy. I was struck by her words to our graduating class at Commencement two years later, as she spoke of her gratitude and her newfound sense of identity as a ‘Mennonite Muslim.’ I don’t know what that means, or by what force of art or nature or providence that happened, but I know something changed, and that it was beautiful.
As we envision new futures for ourselves and the worlds we touch, I hope we can find ways to give voice to our stories, and to the powerful arts of transformation we embody in our capacities to love and share meaning and beauty and joy with each other. I hope too we can envision ways to orchestrate symphonies of these arts across the lines of the conflicts we deal with, that allow people to give expression to their unspoken stories and dreams for peace with both vulnerability and power. As nonthreatening forms of engagement, I am convinced these can provide strategic opportunities for peacebuilding where other avenues of intervention may be difficult.
Let me close with some lines from Gary Haugen, Ben Okri and Rumi who capture what I have been saying more artfully than I, and then I’d like very much to hear your thoughts, and answer any questions.
Gary Haugen says this: "We cannot long endure history's arc of justice without life-giving stores of beauty, laughter, love and light, without delicious sojourns in nature, and friends who make us flush and ache with laughter."
And Ben Okri: “Authentic strength lies in the capacities to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love, and to be greater than our suffering.”
And Rumi: “In your light I learn how to love. In your beauty, how to make poems. You dance inside my chest, where no one sees you, but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.”
Frontiers in Peacebuilding Luncheon Presentation to Summer Peacebuilding Institute, May 12, 2011