When fear drives out love…

Sometimes I look like this. At least mentally and emotionally. Like the little frightened and confused Gollum with voices in my head. One voice that talks about love, trust, forgiveness, reconciliation, hope and the other voice – full of fear, mistrust, hopelessness, bitterness, unforgiveness…

I talked about being a good listener but there are times when it is good to shut your ears . We are surrounded by narratives – our own or others. The other narratives come from media, family members, friends, schools, political and religious leaders and so on. When we want to build bridges, we discover that not everyone wants it. Some even try to prevent others from walking on this bridge.

Musalaha, an organization that promotes reconciliation, posted a good reflection on the so called ‘Gatekeepers’: “Gatekeepers” are described as a type of thought police. They often perceive themselves as key people who control the conversation by countering any new information or blocking it altogether. This is because any challenging information threatens their group identity and therefore questions their leadership, which is based on a certain power structure. But they are only as powerful as perceived by the group. (…) The language used is often dramatic and deals in absolutes: Light vs Dark, Good vs Evil, Outsiders vs Us, Enlightened vs Blind”

 

I remember those gatekeepers from my childhood and teenage years growing up in the former Soviet Union. It was very clear message (propaganda) of who the Good and the Evil were. We did not have just thought police; we had actual gates to keep the Evil out and keep us in.

If Gatekeepers are powerful, there is another group that enters the battle over our minds and hearts, especially on the internet and social media – the ‘Trolls’. The invisible groups of mostly anonymous writers and bloggers and commentators who want to start a fight or provoke. Does that sound like the Lord of the Rings now? Gatekeepers, trolls…

For example, when I read an article about the conflict and war in Ukraine, I see the ‘trolls’ are already in the conversation. Most of their posts look copy-pasted and a favorite opening line is “Are you really an idiot or just pretending?” And what they achieve… Well, they make lots of noise, confusion, bitterness, frustration, get some fights and basically they shut down a discussion. Anyone who truly wants to become a good listener leaves the conversation. As they say, “Do not feed the trolls!”

Wisdom of Solomon is an amazing book about speaking and listening. Here is a relevant proverb, “Do not set foot on the path of the wicked… Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way.” It also says that “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.”

Have you encountered these ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘trolls’ in your community? How do you recognize them? If we truly want to become good listeners, we cannot hang out in their company. And we also cannot let them silence us!

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The threat of listening

Are you a good listener? Have you ever felt threatened by listening to someone’s story? I have a good friend from Siberia, Russia and she helps me to be a better listener. Here is how…

First a little side note: Have you ever been to Siberia? I have and I loved it! Some years ago together with a small group of friends I traveled to Krasnoyarsk region. Mind you it was in the winter! We took the train from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk… leaving on December 31 and arriving on January 1. One of the most memorable New Years – celebrating 6 times over 6 time zones. The whole train was one big party. Hopefully there was someone at its controls…

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The famed Russian hospitality was as real as described. Especially in the small Siberian villages all doors were open to us – the strangers from Latvia. The tea was set… Also, being able to speak and read Russian opens a big world of great literature and art; rich history; beautiful country and people…

My friend and I did not meet in Siberia but in Thailand of all places. We were introduced by a mutual friend who knew that I can speak Russian. How fun! We were both excited until one simple question, „Where are you from?”

„I am from Latvia”, I answered and her face fell. I was shocked and puzzled. What did I say? What did I do? It was an awkward silence and then she explained, „Oh, I am sorry. I know that in Latvia you don’t like Russians.” My immediate thought was, „Have you ever been to Latvia?” but what I said was, „Who told you that?” The answer, „We hear it on TV in Russia.”

Most people in the world don’t even know where Latvia is. Usually I am the first Latvian they met. Better make a good first impression, right? What impression could I make on my new acquaintance? What to do about this „invisible” wall that had come up before we even knew each other?

The small but strong voice in my head said – get to know each other! Find out where these feelings and perceptions come from. Above everything – listen! Listen carefully.

I believe we became friends because we took the time to listen to each other. There were many moments in our conversations when I felt myself getting emotional and wanting to interrupt. It is much easier to listen while thinking of my reply than to listen for understanding. Also, there was a lot of shocking revelations. When I asked about the mood of people she knew, my friend said that people were expecting a war. War? With whom? She said that people were afraid of Russia being attacked by NATO. This was in 2009…

What is one of the basic first steps in overcoming our fears and perceptions? Encounter the ‘other’. Listen to the opposite narrative! Even if you strongly disagree, you have to encounter the story of your ‘enemy’. We have to learn to listen carefully and without a sense of danger and threat. Many people in a conflict situation have very little opportunity to hear the others side.

Let’s take the first step…

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Tale of two cities

What does Coventry, England and Dresden, Germany have in common? Beauty, life and forgiveness out of ashes and destruction!

I like history. Blame it on my dad who should be a history teacher. I just wish I had my dad’s memory for facts and dates and names and places. You know how they say that “one thing we can learn from history is that we never learn from history”. I guess I am not the only one with memory problems…

During my studies in the UK, we discussed a lot of history. Events and actions that become a part of our story. And I learned about some of these moments that have shaped the story of England. Here is one beautiful story.

Coventry was once described as the most well preserved medieval city in Europe, but it was all but destroyed during the German bombing in November 1940. One of the many buildings hit was the 14th century cathedral. Few months before the end of the war in February of 1945 Allied forces decided to replicate the Coventry Blitz. The bomb attacks were planned by looking at how Coventry was destroyed and trying to repeat it in Dresden, Eastern Germany, a city almost untouched by the war until that point. Well, the Allies succeeded in their mission… an eye for an eye… a city for a city…

Coventry

But this is not all that these two once beautiful but horribly scarred cities have in common. Following the destruction of Coventry Cathedral, its Provost Dick Howard made a commitment not to revenge, but to forgiveness and reconciliation. From the Cathedral ruins on Christmas Day 1940 he declared that when the war was over they should work with those who had been enemies ‘to build a kinder, more Christ-like world.’

The words ‘Father Forgive’ were inscribed on the wall of the ruined church. Not ‘Father, forgive them’ but simply forgive. Forgive us all.  Two charred beams which had fallen in the shape of a cross were bound and three medieval nails were formed into a cross and the Cross of Nails became a sign of friendship and hope in the post war years, especially in new relationships with Germany. Few years later Coventry became a twin-town with Dresden in Germany.

I visited Coventry and I was struck by how special this place is. Especially the Cathedral. May I say that these are the most beautiful ruins I have ever seen? These walls tell a story that I cannot forget or ignore…

The million dollar question – can we learn to learn from history? An eye for an eye… a city for a city … or ‘Father, forgive’

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Where to begin?

If you wanted to study about reconciliation, where would you start? Well, I started with Google search… It can be quite overwhelming to dig through all the resources and information available but eventually I found what I was looking for – School of Reconciliation and Justice (SORJ) in Harpenden, England.

I read the introductory statement of SORJ: „Our aim is to train individuals or teams to work in many different areas of society that need God’s work of reconciliation and restoration. If You want to be involved in peace building in an area of conflict; or if You want to be an advocate for the voiceless; or if You want to develop a restorative justice team in an inner-city; or to work in the political arena; this school will help you in developing your plans and your heart to serve God in these areas. During this three month school, we will be training with international practitioners, researching current issues of conflict or injustice issues, and taking time to seek God’s heart for reconciliation and justice around the world.”

When I told my husband about this course, he was very supportive until he found out that it was in England. Why? England seemed far far away from Burma border. Weren’t there similar study courses in Southeast Asia? Most likely there were, but there was something special that drew me to this particular school. This training was born out of a movement called Reconciliation Walk.

To quote  Reconciliation Walk website: „This movement was born in response to the 900th anniversary of the Crusades, an epoch that represents the failure of the Church to embody Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. Through an apology and thousands of face-to-face meetings between Western Christians and Muslims, Jews and Eastern Christians, we sought to erode the bitter legacy and mythologies of enmity that originated with the Crusades.”

Middle East road

The Reconciliation Walk was a real peace-road; a literal walk across the path of the first crusade.The participants were bringing the message of peace, forgiveness, and hope across the nations of Europe and Middle East. I wish I would have been able to participate in something like this but I also know that there is a unique journey for every one of us. I cannot walk in someone else’s shoes or actual footsteps, but I will have my own path to make and my own footprints to leave.

I was looking for not only theory, but the practice of reconciliation. With such topics as Character Development of the Peacemaker; Foundations of Reconciliation and Justice; Principles of Forgiveness; Origins of Conflict; Faith, Geopolitics, Nationalism and Tribalism in today’s Conflicts; Effective Peace building models for transforming communities; Conflict Mediation; Restorative Justice and Advocacy, this seemed like a great place to start.

So, in 2010 I boarded a plane from Bangkok, Thailand to London, England. Little did I know that this school would be much more than I expected or bargained for.

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