WISDOM ANNUAL MEETING
Keynote Address by the Rev. Dan Buttry
May 9, 2013
It is a delight and an honor to be here. It’s particularly an honor as a man to be invited to address such a great gathering of women. I don’t take that privilege lightly-thank you. As I discussed what I should speak on with the folks who made the invitation, I was asked to speak out of my global perspective as a religious peacemaker who is at times involved in interfaith issues. But given who you are as WISDOM, I want to speak particularly aboutwomen as peacemakers and the challenges that many of your sisters pose to you and to us all.
In war as it is experienced today, women are among those who suffer the most.
In almost every way soldiers and armed combatants make up a very small percentage of the casualties. The vast majority of those killed and maimed are civilians, women, children,the elderly, unarmed men.-whether thought of as “collateral damage” or intentional targets to create an atmosphere of terror toadvance some political agenda. Women are over-represented among the victims, while men are over-represented among those who make the decisions to engage in warand among those who use the weapons of war.
Into this context come the peacemakers-those who refuse to be victims, and those who refuse to be by-standers, and those who refuse to let their leaders wage war in their name. Among the peacemakers we men often get the prominent positions, most attention, but in the movements for justice, freedom, human rights, and peace women have so often been the ones who lead the way.
I’ve seen it again and again around the world. So often women start the ball of peacemaking rolling. Women, even traumatized women, have stood up and spoken up. Just think about the founding of WISDOM. We had an excellent interfaith group going-Interfaith Partners. Some of you were part of that group and are still active in the InterFaith Leadership Council that grew out of it.
But when the war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 the Muslim and Jewish men in Interfaith Partners stopped talking to eachother, or if they did talk were throwing angry verbal salvos at each other, usually indirectly in the media. And we Christian men were standing by feeling helpless. Meanwhile a circle of Muslim, Jewish and Christian women kept talking with each other, and not only talking but working, and also expanding to include Hindus, Baha’is, Jains, and Sikhs. This circle had starting connecting earlier during the Reuniting the Children of Abraham project, and they had started to pull women together to talk visit houses of worship, and to do service projects. So in the summer of 2006 while the men weren’t speaking to each other the women of WISDOM carried out their first service initiative working side-by-side on a Habitat for Humanity home building project. You were determined not to let the violent conflicts that touched our community shatter your relationships and your efforts to build understanding and friendship. As Gail Katz put it in the opening section of your wonderful book Friendship & Faith: “Our goal is not to solve the Middle East problem or to get involved with worldwide political differences. We are trying to break down barriers, to increase respect and understanding, and to dispel myths and stereotypes here, locally, in our communities. We have learned that we can change lives, strengthen our communities and be a model for others, if we don’t lose sight of the fact that this process begins by forming relationships-one friend at a time!”
So the persistent intimate peacemaking of the women of WISDOM enabled us men to find the way back together in the larger interfaith journey of our community. Truth be told we may not have survived that crisis if it hadn’t been for you. Such relationship-centered peacemaking by courageous women has been happening around the world, sometimes recognized, sometimes not.
First let me tell you about the Liberian women. I’ve been working in Liberia since 1997 teaching nonviolence, and I played asmall, tangential role in some of these events. There was a terrible civil war in Liberia that just seemed to cycle around again and again. Around 100,000 people were killed, and a third of the population displaced in the war. A Lutheran woman named Leymah Gbowee felt called by God to pray for peace not in church but down at the Fish Market where the President’s car passed everyday as he drove to his office. She was quickly joined by Christian women. But she was delightfully surprised when Asatu Bah Kenneth, a Muslim woman wanted to organize Muslim women to join in the prayers. Both Christians and Muslims wondered if they could pray with women from the other religion, but finally they realized the bullet doesn’t discriminate, so they shouldn’t either. Together they all joined at the Fish Market in singing and praying forpeace. But the President ignored them.
He was content to continue his vicious and violent ways. But the women were determined to stop the horrors around them. So they marched to the Presidential office building, demanding peace negotiations. Then they travelled to neighboring countries where the rebel leaders were staying, demanding peace negotiations. The women mobilized Christian pastors and Muslim imams to join them in their call for peace talks. And the talks were finally convened in Accra, Ghana. The talks went on and on with no progress in sight. The rebels who had been staying in the bush were enjoying the fancy hotel for the talks.
Meanwhile in Liberia the war went on, with rebels coming into Monrovia and causing incredible suffering. Once again the Ms. Gbowee and the Christian and Muslim women acted in the strength and power of their faith. A few hundred women surrounded the conference room where the peace talks were being held and created a blockade with their bodies. They wouldn’t let anyone in or out.
They demanded that the representatives of the two sides now negotiate with them as the true representatives of the suffering people of Liberia.
They demanded serious peace negotiations, and they demanded to be treated with respect. Their nonviolent blockade of the peace talks conference room was the breakthrough that led to a peace agreement. It’s a long inspiring story that many of you saw in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell that WISDOM showed at one of your events. But these determined women, women of different faiths standing together, praying together, crying together, putting their bodies on the linetogether, pushed through the peace agreement that ended the Liberian civil war.
Then there are the Naga Mothers. The Naga people are a tribal people in northeast India. Since 1947 the Nagas have been struggling for independence from India, at times spiraling into a terrible war that has been cycling with various degrees of intensity since 1955. A failed peace process in 1975 led to splits among the Nagas so that now as many Nagas are killed by other Nagas as they are by theIndian Army. It’s a complex mess. Generations have grown up in Nagaland knowing nothing of peace. I have been working with Naga peace efforts since 1996, and in that process I quickly discovered the key roles played by the Naga Mothers. Naga Mothers Association was initially organized as a women’s social group, getting together for teas and other such events. Then they began going to the Indian army bases to collect the bodies of young Nagas slain by Indian troops. They would take the bodies and wrap them in a new woolen shawl orblanket for a traditional burial. But they had to keep going back to the army bases almost daily to get more bodies. Their grief and anger finally boiled over and the Naga Mothers became one of the leading groups working for an end to this long-standing conflict. Too many of their children were dying whether by the Indian Army or by rival Naga factions. They began traveling to jungle headquarters of Naga insurgent groups to call them to peace.
They have advocated with the Indian government and connected to Indian women’s and human rights groups to call for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
In 1999 and 2000 I worked with the Naga Mothers and other community leaders to develop the “Journey of Conscience,” a nonviolent campaignof Nagas, including these bold mothers, calling for a negotiated settlement to the war. These Naga Mothers are proud and determined and vocal. I’ve also seen these Naga women join with Hindu women human rights activists in the state of Manipur, just south of Nagaland, to seek an endto martial law as well as an end to the destabilizing violence betweenthe various ethnic groups and political factions.
The Peoples Dialog Initiative in is an interfaith and interethnic network with women playing some key leadership roles. The leading inspirational figure is a Hindu woman named Irom Sharmila who has been on a hunger strike for over 12 years, under arrest and being force fed through a tube. Her cause is to end martial law in Manipur and the violence against womenand civilians in which the army has engaged with impunity. I haven’t met Sharmila, but everyone I’ve worked with and trained, Hindu,Christian, Muslim, and traditional religionist, looks up to her as the voice for them all. To root these contemporary women peacemakers in deeper religious tradition I like to call them all “daughters of Rizpah.” Who was Rizpah? She was a woman who appears briefly in a terrible story in the Hebrew Scriptures in 2 Samuel during the time of the Jewish King David. The story begins with a famine plaguing Israel, and King David prays to ask God what the problem is. God tells David there is “bloodguilt” on the land. Terrible violence, had taken place and never been addressed. King Saul, David’s predecessor from another tribe, had massacred Gibeonites, engaged in what we would call today acts of genocide. The Gibeonites were an ethnic minority who had made a covenant of peace with Israel during the invasion of the Promised Land under Joshua. But Saul violated that covenant in an old-fashioned expression of ethnic cleansing. Gibeonites were massacred, and God became the only advocate for theseforgotten victims. God cursed the land which had committed this brutality, even though it was God’s special covenant people, a warning to all of us who presume upon the divine! So once David heard from God that this was a problem, he got together with the surviving Gibeonites to see what they could do to set things right. And David and the Gibeonites decided to deal with the old violence of thepast by committing new violence in the present. The Gibeonites wanted revenge: So David handed over to them seven of Saul’s sons and grandsons. These boys or young men were butchered in public, run through with huge stakes, impaled, and left out in public display.
The Bible says they did this “before the Lord,” as a religious act. Violence in the name of God, in the name of religion.
I’ve seen such violence practiced in every major faith that has established social or political dominance somewhere. But an amazing twist then develops to this story: God is silent. God does not lift the curse upon the land.
Evidently what David and the Gibeonites did in murdering these children was not the way God saw bloodguilt being lifted/ You know, my Mother taught me two wrongs don’t make a right. Did your mother say that? Maybe David wasn’t listening to his Mom when she said that. How many innocent victims do we create in our efforts to balance the booksof terror? But in this story God is not pleased. The violence is not acceptable.
And so now a woman acts. One woman, Merab, who lost 5 sons that day, simply disappears from the story. Merab becomes that eternal grieving, silent mother who fades away in the overwhelming sorrow of her loss. There are so many mothers, and fathers, and sisters and brothers and daughters and sons like Merab-victims who are frozenforever in their grief and anguish. They can never move beyond the terrible loss they have suffered. But the other woman, also a mother, Rizpah, transforms the entire story. Her two sons were also executed. She feels the sorrow as did Merab. Perhaps besides sorrow she felt anger at the injustice of her loss. But unlike Merab, Rizpah does not fade away.
Rizpah instead comes out into the public space where the bodies of her sons are displayed. Rizpah with mother grief, with mother anger, with mother courage, begins apublic vigil over the bodies of her boys. She spreads a rough cloth on the ground and stays there, keeping the dogs away, shooing off the birds that circle round about. She keeps that vigil out in public, day after day, night after night. There is only one verse about her action. That verse says she began at the start of the barley harvest and continued till the rains fell. One commentary I read said the barley harvest began in late April/early May, and the rainy season started in late October/early November. One verse, but many months.
Imagine Rizpah there by the bodies of her sons-April, May, June. What is happening to those bodies? What do the women in the town do? “Rizpah, come home. You’ve grieved enough. It’s time to get on with your life. You can’t bring your children back to life by this wasting of your self. But Rizpah continues-July, August September. The bodies have disintegrated in the open air and are nearly bones now. The town’s people all think she is crazy, she’s a madwoman. But she continues-October, November. And finally King David hears about her vigil.
David hears and is moved in his heart by this mother. David comes. He comes publicly to the mother whose sons he ordered executed. He publicly gathers their bones. Then he gathers the bones of Saul and his other sons who had perished in the Battle of Gilboa, but never been properly buried. And David buries them all appropriately and with due respect in the land of their family.
Then God heals the land. God did not heal the land in response to David’s violence. God healed the land when David reversed his policy of violence and camepublicly to Rizpah. David came, I believe, in repentance and humility. David came to the sorrowing mother in her vigil, and he tenderly dealt with the bones of her children. The violence was over. The cycle of revenge and retribution was broken. Grief was given an expression that could bring healing at long last. It’s a strange story, and Rizpah’s action gets just one verse. But her action transforms the whole story. David changes, and from his change, inspired by Rizpah, the land is healed.
I could go on about some of the deeper social reconciliation that took place as a result of this action-healing between the houses of David and Saul, healing between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, healing that lasted generations. But it was all because of the action of a woman, a traumatized, grieving but courageous woman, a woman who refused to be a victim but nonviolentlythrew herself into the public sphere to expose the horrible cost of violence. And she moved the heart of the King and lifted the curse on the land.
There have been many daughters of Rizpah over the years, women who have turned their grief and anger into courageous public witness to end violence and healtheir lands.
The Christian and Muslim women of Liberia are daughters of Rizpah.
The Hindu and Christian women of northeast India are daughters of Rizpah.
The Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, Jain, Sikh, Hindu, and Christian women of WISDOM are daughters of Rizpah.
May God bless you all, and through you bless our city, our nation and our world.
Thank you for who you are and what you do.