By Rebekah Sears
Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5:9
This scripture verse was constantly on my mind and in my heart during a recent MCC advocacy visit to Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and South Sudan. Despite intense challenges within each country context, our delegation was inspired by the courage and dedication of the many peacemakers we met along the way—people motivated by Christ’s calling for peace, justice and hope and those working to build bridges across religious and ethnic divides.
Canadians are regularly bombarded with images, articles and stories about the violence, despair and hopelessness in parts of Africa. In many ways, these stories are representative of a harsh and truthful reality, and we should not dismiss the pain of this reality. But they do not convey the complete picture. It is arguably even more important that we attend to the stories of those working for peace and justice, despite the obstacles and harsh realities.
As our small MCC delegation visited partners in Nigeria, DRC and South Sudan, I was reading The Road to Peace by Henri Nouwen. I want to highlight two chapters, “Resisting the Forces of Death” and “Celebrating Life.”
Nouwen opens his chapter on resisting death by recounting some of the great horrors of our recent history: the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War and poverty and injustice in Central America. For Nouwen, these examples of death and violence illustrate the profound necessity for peacemaking. “Peacemaking is not an option any longer. It is a holy obligation for all people whatever their professional or family situation. Peacemaking is a way of living that involves our whole being all the time.”
However, Nouwen says our call to peacemaking does not end there. He warns that a sole focus on the darkness has the danger of making us into hard, bitter people who will eventually lose sight of the peace and justice that inspired us in the first place. In this dark place, Nouwen argues, we risk becoming the very forces that we are fighting against. As someone working in advocacy to government, I personally struggle with feelings of darkness and despair.
Instead, Nouwen claims, “[T]he first and foremost task of the peacemaker is not to fight death but to call forth, affirm and nurture the signs of life wherever they become manifest.”
Nouwen describes a peacemaking founded in humility, in that we are all made in the image of God; therefore, the posture of peacemaking must be compassionate, walking and standing alongside those who are suffering, and must embody as a deep sense of joy only found through the celebration of light.
Our recent partner visits were enriching, challenging and inspiring as they focused on the desperate yet hopeful cry for peace to spread across all areas of conflict, where there is hurt, despair and violence.
In Jos, a region of Nigeria with a history of significant inter-religious tensions and violence, we saw Christian and Muslim peacemakers and organizations united together to talk about their hopes and dreams for the establishment of the Jos Peace Institute in the coming months. Together they hope this institute will be a light for the people of Jos and the world in the study and promotion of sustainable peace.
We saw light in the compassion of families and communities in the Eastern DRC who were hosting people internally displaced by ongoing conflict in their homes, even those of different ethnicities. We also saw the dedication and courage of organizations to address the root causes of conflict, leading them to teach the principles of peacemaking even to the various armed groups in the area.
Finally, in South Sudan, we were moved by the staff and volunteers of the Organization for Non Violence and Development (ONAD) and their commitment to carve out alternatives to violence and to always seek peace. ONAD was formed by the desire to go against the grain of violence; it works with countless organizations and projects to support peace, starting with the government right to the community level.
These are the stories and images that stay with me. Of course the contexts are incredibly hard, and at times the work may feel like a drop in the bucket. But the witness of African peacebuilders serves as an inspiration to our delegation as well as others in the region, offering light and hope in the persistent pursuit of peace. These beacons of light, though sometimes small, shine powerfully in the darkness.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5
By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office.