I’ve spent the past weeks sifting through the rhetoric that is being used to describe the Israel-Hamas conflict, and it’s been confusing, to say the least. At the time of this writing, officials say that more than 10,000 Gazans are dead.
As vested interests try to control the narrative, try to justify, try to capture global opinions and emotions, I’m further conflicted by various stories that rise up from my own past. These stories try to guide me to a personal response but mostly end up in a vat of confusion.
Is there any learning that I can tease from it all?
In 1993, I travelled with Community Peacemaker Teams (CPT) to Haiti. The country was engaged in a bitter and bloody upheaval, and CPT offered a nonviolent presence to harsh realities, while trying to raise global awareness of rampant injustice.
I was part of a small team assigned to a rural village with the mandate to see and to be seen. We spent time with the village priest, who was deemed at risk. We spent time in the village market, noting happenings there.
One day, we encountered a group of armed men in uniforms who were assaulting a captive. We approached. One of the aggressors turned to us, thrust his rifle into our faces, screamed and gestured for us to move on.
In the decades I’ve had to dissect those traumatic seconds, it seems clear that peacemaking that feels genuine must acknowledge the reality of the man with the rusty old gun, as well as the man receiving the brunt of the violence. Somehow, my energy and my compassion must be available to both.
A decade later, I found myself in Winnipeg, engaged in non-violence training organized by CPT. After several weeks of intense sessions, I learned that our final day was to be spent at the Manitoba legislature, protesting a hydro project in northern Manitoba which seemed at odds with the wishes of the communities that surrounded it.
Again, I was conflicted. My involvement felt artificial to me. I was from another jurisdiction and I was not a taxpayer in the province. I had done no independent research and had spent no time gazing into faces, building relationships and listening to different perspectives. To their credit, CPT handlers created a role that I could enter with integrity.
These days, I scroll through the contact list on my phone and note the names of released offenders that appear there. There are dozens. They are my friends. I’m reminded that in 35 years of walking in that community, the most effective way I’ve found to help in rebuilding lives—the most effective way of contributing to community safety—is simply to offer relationships.
When a broken person dares to engage the concept that they are worthy of relationship, they begin to live into that reality. The vulnerable can claim a larger slice of who they are called to be, and the world gets a little less violent.
Additionally, I get some really cool friends who have walked roads that I have not and who tell stories I wouldn’t otherwise hear.
These disjointed glimpses flicker through my mind like a century-old film clip. It seems that every situation of violence—whether overt or covert, whether physical or emotional—hides within untruth. I think of the Russia-Ukraine debacle, of warring factions in Africa, of violence that happens closer to home.
How have I prepared myself to walk past the headlines screaming for my outrage? How will I save some of that emotional energy for compassion, for looking into faces, for listening, for affirming? How can we, at whatever level is available, offer energy for healing?
These days challenge us to acknowledge our outrage and indignity, and then, hopefully, to step deliberately, creatively, toward love.
Ed Olfert lives in Laird, Saskatchewan, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.