Monday, April 23, 2012

Blessed are the Peacemakers: Book review and commentary on Daniel Buttry’s tribute to interfaith peacemakers past and present

I just read another “spiritual road map” book published by Read the Spirit books, by a local author who has been around the world doing the work of an interfaith and intercultural peacemaker.

Reverend Daniel L. Buttry, a Baptist minister from Hamtramck, Michigan, compiled stories of 58 peacemakers from around the world who lived and worked within the last one hundred years, as well as a couple from the 1800s who had a strong influence on contemporary peacemakers. He created a few-page composite biography of each by reading about them and their peace and justice movements, interviewing them when possible, and in some cases, working alongside them.

Blessed are thePeacemakers is not just another collection of bios about inspiring people. One thing that makes it different is many of the people featured are not household names. Buttry said at the
June 2011 meeting of the Michigan Professional Communicators that this is one of the reasons he decided to write this book: to finally give a voice to the hard-working advocates, activists, organizers, educators, mediators, artists, and martyrs who’ve been eclipsed by the more-famous people involved in their causes (and in some cases have historically been given credit for their work), as well as those who have simply been ignored by the mainstream media.

Buttry points out that peacemakers by their very nature are not nearly as interested in making headlines or getting credit as they are in the success of their efforts—helping political leaders from warring nations form sustainable peace treaties, mobilizing persecuted local citizens to demand and receive their civil rights, taking down oppressive military-based governments without killing anyone, and in general promoting interest in peaceful conflict resolution instead of justifying violence by calling anyone who doesn’t see things their way “enemies.”

Buttry does an excellent job of describing what a peacemaker is, and what a peacemaker is not. One way he does this is by making clear the differences between peacemakers and peacekeepers, and between these two and pacifists. Another way is by dividing his profiles into several different categories, and starting each with a helpful few-page description of how that type of peacemaking is done.

He then gives a fairly-balanced sampling of peacemakers from around the world, in countries as varied as South Africa, Japan, Germany, Chile, Colombia, Poland, Thailand, and the U.S. They represent the faiths of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, several different denominations of Christianity and Islam, as well as more secular approaches.

Buttry also includes details about their cultural and religious traditions, personality quirks, and limitations that make them unique, which helps readers see them as real human beings rather than saints or people who have never failed. One quote that will always stick with me is by World War II-era journalist Dorothy Day, who responded to admiration she received by saying “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

These peacemakers have tackled everything from religious freedoms, demilitarization, labor rights, ethnic and racial minority rights, to women’s rights, the overthrow of violent dictatorships, and seminar-type training in specific skills that peacemakers in any of these categories will need. Many of these peacemakers have worked for two or more of these causes, and it’s amazing how many of their stories overlap. American society is so fractured, we’re used to regarding things we think of as rare as isolated occurrences. Buttry shows that the highly-organized peacemaking initiatives that have been done and are being done in the U.S. and other countries are anything but random or isolated.

Buttry’s peacemakers are priests, homemakers, migrant workers, teachers, musicians, politicians, and average citizens who would have remained invisible in society’s masses had they not founded or joined a silent vigil, a peace march, a civil rights campaign, a reconciliation- rather than retaliation-based program for processing war criminals, or a movement to overthrow a dictatorial government. Their results include Masahisa Goi’s Peace Poles (now numbering over 200,000 around the world) bearing the slogan “May Peace Prevail on Earth”, Dorothy Day’s and Jim Wallis’s magazine Sojourners, Stephen Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement in SouthAfrica, Helen Caldicott’s Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament (now called Women’s Action for New Directions), Shirin Ebadi’s Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran, and Leymah Gbowee’s Christian Women’s Peace Initiative (which also includes Muslim members) in Liberia, to name a few.

Some of the profiles are about groups, rather than particular individuals, such as the Women in Black, a silent protest movement started in Israel by Jewish women protesting the abuses by the Israeli military against Palestinians.

Peacemakers aren’t just those who actually participate in or organize protests, political activism, and other direct forms of peaceful resistance. Sometimes peacemaking takes the form of just giving voice to or honoring those who have suffered unspeakable violence. One such commemoration was by concert cellist Vedran Smajlovic in Sarajevo, who in 1992 took his cello to a spot 22 days in a row where 22 people had been killed by a mortar shell while waiting in a line for wartime rations. When people thought he was nuts for going and sitting outside to play his cello in the middle of a war zone, Smajlovic pointed out that bombing a city and killing innocent people was far more insane than his solo musical vigils.

I call BlessedAre the Peacemakers a “spiritual road map” because, like
WISDOM’s Friendship &Faith, it introduced me to organizations, establishments, and publications dedicated to peacemaking and fostering power balance within society, that I never would have heard about if I relied on the news as my primary outlet for what’s going on in the world. I was fascinated to read there’s an organization called Men Against Patriarchy, co-founded by George Lakey, a teacher Buttry profiles in his “Trainers and Teachers” section. I was amazed to learn there are grass-roots training institutes—referred to as “folk schools”—around the U.S. which have trained a few generations of peacemakers to participate in nonviolent protests, create sustainable peace initiatives, and cope with the obstacles peacemakers face.

Another thing that makes this book a valuable asset to peace studies is the appendices Buttry included. He lists all of his print and online resources in the back of the book, including the Web site links to the organizations these peacemakers founded or got involved with. Another appendix is titled “Take Action!,” in which Buttry lists “Ideas for Peacemakers,” practical suggestions for realistic small and large steps ordinary people can do to contribute to local, national, or international peacemaking efforts, if his book has inspired them to get more directly involved than by praying or contributing funds.

Buttry’s writing is refreshingly un-sugar-coated, both compassionate and blunt at the same time. The lives of peacemakers are typically touched by horrific violence, and Buttry’s narrative style gives a weird sort of dignity to their suffering—and, perhaps more importantly, puts it in context. Most of what we hear about violence around the world is just the details of the violence itself, the hideous images of people mutilating and massacring other people, without any explanation of why, such as various historical factors that form the catalyst for such explosions of the very worst in human nature.

This has led to the widespread fallacy of “senseless” violence, and each of Buttry’s stories dismantles this fallacy by showing that large-scale violence is almost never senseless: it is structured, backed by solid intent, and, more often than not, institutionalized in some form or another.

Reading books like Blessed Are the Peacemakers instead of just watching and listening to the news can go a long way toward helping people really understand all the shocking and gory stories that make the headlines, and balance them with the sides of those stories they’re not hearing in those shocking headlines. This book can inspire people to develop more media literacy, by helping them filter what they’re seeing and reading in the news into coherent narratives, and recognizing patterns, such as the role patriotism’s strong connection to ethnocentrism always plays in such bloody conflicts, even in nations that consider themselves world role models of democracy and governmental transparency.

I was surprised how many nonviolent resistance movements there have been of people doing very similar things in parallel with each other around the world, many of which directly cite the methods of Martin Luther King, Jr. and / or Mahatma Gandhi as their model for how to carry out their causes.

Lastly, this book is a great tool for interfaith relations, showing that people of dozens of different faiths and cultures can be inspired by the same basic peace philosophies, and adapt them appropriately and effectively to their own cultural and religious contexts.

Illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2004; marker, colored pencil, watercolor, metallic gel pen, flower petal

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