It never fails. I watch a great political movie like Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, starring Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl (or Blood Diamond with Leo DiCaprio, or Syriana with Matt Damon and George Clooney), and I’m immediately inspired to do something. The courage and grace of French/Cuban journalist Mariane Pearl (as seen in this Oprah interview), during and in the aftermath of her American journalist husband Daniel Pearl’s murder in 2002 Pakistan, demands nothing less than some kind of concrete nonviolent action. I can’t watch these compelling stories strictly as passive entertainment. “I have to do something!”, I always end up saying.
And then it hits: the feelings of powerlessness, the frustration, even self-loathing; the sense that I’m a little dustmite, an annoying mosquito in the drawers of the powers that be. What can I, of all people, do?
Furthermore, what makes me think I have anything to say that anyone could want to hear, or any skills that are of use in the struggle against such powerful and entrenched warmongers? I’m just a pathetic little schoolteacher. I’m a blogger with a readership of about 12, most of whom probably feel as powerless as I feel, otherwise why would they be mucking about here on the internet instead of out in the streets actually doing something. (Yeah, why ARE you here, by the way? I never had the guts to ask before…)
But those feelings of powerlessness are exactly what the enemies of peace and justice want us to feel. That, and fear, are what keep the downtrodden down, and what keep the genuinely powerful but woefully misled majority silent. Therefore, refusing to give in to those feelings of apathy and fear is the first and most essential step in taking victory away from the perpetrators of violence, in dulling the power of the sword (and the bulldozer, in the violence they would do to our planet). This step does not bring me much closer to knowing what I can do to help, but it at least gets me out of that comfy little foxhole/prison they would have me fall asleep in.
Besides, where are the streets anymore? Does protest actually matter? Are these the streets, these electronic alleyways lined with dirty windows, through which we see silly dressed-up kittens, old instructional video footage of James Brown teaching us to dance the boogaloo and funky chicken, and dumpster upon dumpster filled with porn?
In a media-saturated society, it’s easy to shut down, to screen out, to remove ourselves from all this trivia and complicated mess that surrounds us. Yet we can do something else, from right where we are. We do it through real relationships, with real people, out living real life. The “streets that have no name” lead to our churches, our neighborhoods, our schools, our families. We can talk straight, do what we can to educate those whom we see every day, and hope that some of it sticks.
And yes, the Internet is The Street also. Furthermore, it’s as powerful a tool for doing good as it is for spreading, um, …fertilizer. We can use it to stay informed, or to publicize important information so that others are better equipped. We can donate money to some inspired project, like musician Peter Gabriel’s work with WITNESS providing hundreds of video cameras all over Europe, Africa and Asia, to document human rights abuses and bring to light what most abusers would prefer remain in darkness.
And last but not least, we can cry out ourselves –here in our little cul-de-sac blogs and boutiques of opinion– believing that if even one more person is saved (in body or spirit) by our dozens of attempts, by our refusal to stop caring, then we’ve done what we could, and it was good enough.
Or, …we can choose to go where the action is. For example, today I went to Jesus Manifesto and found out that its founder/editor Mark VanSteenwyck is joining with Christian Peacemaker Teams. Which means he’ll soon be putting his own ass on the line to keep local journalists, lawyers, human rights workers and labor organizers safe, in one of the dozens of war zones throughout the world. Mark is a young man with a new baby… a baby he cares enough about to try remaking the world into a safer place for him to grow up in. Furthermore, Mark trusts Jesus with his life, and that of his family.
In Colombia, Palestine, Congo, Iraq, and other conflict zones, hundreds of regular Joes and Janes on Christian Peacemaker Teams act not as soldiers, uninvolved journalists or security contractors but as friends, layman ambassadors, and prayer warriors. They accompany the powerless. They teach conflict resolution. They are patriotic but peace-loving, believing it is just as important to change the hearts and minds of combatants on both sides as it is to preserve the lives of the oppressed, those caught in the middle of it all. As Westerners (mostly American and Canadian Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers, with a few Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians and “Other” thrown in for balance) these teams really do show a Power to the People kind of courage and hope. They walk in the Spirit. They keep the conversation going, with the local Joachims and Juanas, while huge nation-states and mindless terrorist organizations prove every day that the way of the gun only results in more confusion and violence.
In Iraq Tom Fox, a CPT human rights worker, lost his life in the midst of that confusion and senseless violence. Tom was one of four CPT members kidnapped in March 2006. Though his colleagues were rescued, Tom was not so fortunate. But the witness that he presented to the world had an impact, and the CPT work in Iraq continues even now.
Last year, I met somebody here in Chicago who knew Tom Fox, who told me about something else Tom had done. There was a working collective of painters and artists in Baghdad that Tom had contacts with, and he acted as a go-between, helping set up channels for some of their remarkable and accomplished paintings to get out of Iraq. Those paintings are still coming over, to the Iraqi Art Gallery here in Chicago, in the Rogers Park neighborhood. This is not far from Living Water Community Church, where my own church (Reba Place) did a church plant in the early 1990s. The nonprofit’s director and curator, Chuck Trimbach (a former colleague of filmmaker Harold Ramis), is still plugging along after three years. But in the present political and economic climate he’s got to be scraping the bottom of the barrel by now. And it’s a shame, because the paintings are both excellent and affordable. More importantly, the artists who get the lion’s share of the profits need help, now more than ever.
Meanwhile in Iran, Mennonite delegations are practically the only Westerners that their president and more moderate religious leaders are willing to talk to or trust. And in a context of trust, even a controversial message (like “stop denying that the Holocaust occurred”) can be delivered face-to-face, which is precisely what those delegations have done. (“Speak the truth in love,” Jesus said. Right?) I know some folks, including my friend Dr. Tom Finger, who participated in these talks.
So I may never get to the front lines. But this is 2008. This is the internet. This is the worldwide church, established and empowered by Christ, which knows no national boundaries, and continues to dismantle the artificial boundaries of denominational division. This is the small world that they kept telling us was on its way. The battle lines keep moving, and they get more blurry every day. The battle to uncover and stand upon the truth is one we are all called to. So come on out of that foxhole now. We’re gonna need some help. Besides, you won’t be alone.