The old man who is still looking for peace

You never know who you may meet while traveling. Last week I spent some long hours on the plane from Riga – Moscow – Bangkok. Sometimes you have an encounter and think, “Interesting timing! Why am I meeting this person here and now?”

When boarding the plane in Moscow, I noticed that I would sit next to an old man. I thought to myself, “He will probably sleep most of the way, so not much talking here.” I don’t mind to talk to strangers; I like to meet new people but sometimes it is nice to put the headphones on and just watch movies. The old man had an English newspaper and I asked if I could borrow it after he finished reading.

He answered in English with an American accent and asked where I was from. “Latvia”, I answered and heard the common reply, “I have never met anyone from Latvia.” As I had guessed, he was an American but living in Thailand. And we started to talk… and continued for many hours.

Read on and you will understand why he is still on my mind. He was traveling back from Russia where he had attended the Victory Parade on May 9 in Moscow. Then he had traveled to Crimea, the peninsula of Ukraine that was annexed by Russia last year. Why so interested in Russia? All four of his grandparents had lived in parts of Russian Empire before the communist revolution of 1917 and had emigrated to the USA because of pogroms and persecution. So, I discovered he was Jewish…

Why live in Thailand? Well, he was trying to be a Buddhist and wanted to spend more of his life in meditation. As we talked though I discovered that he was still very far from finding that inner peace. He was a very angry and frustrated man. Mad at so many things – mad at his own country which he considered the most evil nation messing up the world, mad at his family which he blamed for being pro-Zionist and conservative, mad at his friends in Thailand who wanted live a relaxing life without worries… basically he was mad at the whole world.

Except Russia. He respected Russia and felt like this nation is totally misunderstood. He went to the Victory Parade out of gratefulness that Russian people had sacrificed so much to defeat the Nazis. Then he went to Crimea to see it for himself and to hear the stories. He came away convinced that Russia today again was protecting people against the great evil of ‘Fascism”.

My mind was racing… If you read my reflections from two weeks ago, you will understand why. What to say? We had to travel together for many hours and I could tell that he would get very angry if I disagreed with him. I told him that he was obviously a seeker. Seeking peace and truth… Well, I am a seeker of peace and truth also. I told him that actually I teach about peace building and reconciliation. He was very attentive now. I said that I cannot speak for Russia or Ukraine but I can speak for Latvia. I shared my family’s story and he admitted that he had never heard this side of the story. Story of the small nations that were caught in the middle of power struggle between two totalitarian regimes and two totalitarian leaders – Stalin and Hitler and how people in Latvia suffered under both.

I talked about ‘Shalom’ – peace with God, with yourself, with others and with creation. He asked, “Are you Jewish? How do you know about Shalom?” I said that I am a Christian, that I read the Bible and that I believe in the vision of this universal, cosmic peace. Then he started talking how Jesus was a ‘communist’ since he gave food and healthcare for free, stood against the establishment and rich classes and then was killed for it.

During our conversation I realized that he was very leftist in his thinking and had a positive view of former Soviet Union. Now you know what I mean… what a mix of ideas. An American Jewish guy who thinks like a communist but tries to be Buddhist. No wonder his inner person was in such a turmoil. As we left the plane, he looked so lost and lonely… still not finding what he is looking for. I wish him to find ‘Shalom’ that is so incredibly close to us that we too often miss it.

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The suffering of ‘unwanted’ people

This week I returned to my current home in Thailand and to the news headlines about the human tragedy in the Andaman Sea. This tragedy has been going on for many years since I have lived here. The story of suffering starts in Burma (official name – Myanmar) and it affects the whole region of Southeast Asia.

If you watch the news or read the headlines, you will see the boats crowded with starving, desperate people who nobody wants. Nations send their navy ships to pull them back out to sea. Thailand does not want them, Malaysia does not want them, Indonesia does not want them… but the source of tragedy is that their home does not want them. The Rohingya people are a large ethnic group, living in the western state of Rakhine. Most of them live in Burma and their religion is Islam.

International human rights groups describe them as one of the most persecuted people in the world. Since 1982 they are denied citizenship in Burma and the current government continues denying them citizen’s rights. They are not allowed to travel without a permission. There were even previous restrictions on marriage and children – allowed to have only two children, even though not strictly enforced. There has been communal violence in previous years, based on ethnicity and religion and a widespread sentiment in Burma, fueled by a few very nationalistic Buddhist monks, that these people do not belong there.

Thousands of them are forced to live in camps in terrible conditions they are not allowed to leave. In their own country! So, in desperation they attempt to make the dangerous journey across the sea. This becomes another huge tragedy of human trafficking, abuse, corruption and suffering. I will not go into all the details as you can read about it in any major international news source.

The challenges in Burma are complicated but one issue is very simple and clear. As I see the photos of these beautiful people… yes, poor… yes, uneducated… yes, Muslim and not Buddhist or Christian… yes, dark skinned… Rohingya are our neighbors. Human beings created in God’s image with exactly the same value as a Latvian, a German, a Thai, a Karen, a Chinese, a Barman, an Australian, etc.

Who is my neighbor? And do I love my neighbor as myself? Firstly, this is the difficult and important question for the communities in Burma. Secondly, this is a question for the neighboring nations and thirdly, this is a question for all of us. For me as a European, I think of our governments who are willing to ‘close their eyes’ and not bring up these questions in favor of economic trade since Burma is so rich with resources.

Many of my friends in Burma are wrestling with this most important question God asks of us. Also, to help Rohingya people can mean to become persecuted. Even big international NGO’s have been told by Burma government to stay away and not get involved.

This is time for serious and deep soul searching and time for brave and real neighborly love…

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Photo from news headlines

The weapons of peacemakers

This title may sound strange – does peace and weapons go together? Let me explain what weapons I have in mind…

Last week I participated in an international forum called “State of Europe” which focused on many of the issues and challenges facing Europe today. It took place in Riga, Latvia on May 9 which is celebrated as Europe Day (I talked about the roots of Europe Day in my last blog). Also many people in Latvia but mainly in Russia and a few other nations of former Soviet Union celebrate it as Victory Day. Victory in WWII over the power and aggression of National Socialism…

As I reflect on these two celebrations, I come to personal conclusion… Victory Day celebrates winning the war because people sacrificed and the Nazi Germany was overcome and ‘destroyed’ … Europe Day celebrates winning the peace because the foundations were forgiveness and reconciliation.

Tragically in Latvia the victory over Nazism did not bring peace because Latvia was then ruled and oppressed by another totalitarian regime and ideology – totalitarian communism. The ‘war’ was won but peace was not… In some ways we are still catching up.

Winning peace is much harder then winning a war. Because peace is a state of mind and heart. Peace is restored relationships. Peace is a strong will for common good. Peace is embrace and inclusion. Peace is repentance. Peace has no personal or national selfishness. Otherwise the hatred, bitterness and the old grievances are just buried and can be re-resurrected again and again. Sadly we can see this through the history of humankind.

The peace in Europe for so many decades is an amazing achievement and we should not take it for granted. But there is still some unfinished business and we talked about it during the forum in Riga.

One of the most significant historical persons whose lifestyle was a personification of winning peace was Jesus. Even people who do not believe in his divine claims or who do not follow his teachings know that he is famous as a peacemaker. We know that he talked a lot about inner and social peace. He also taught and showed people how to do it. How to be at peace with God, with ourselves, with others and with the created order…

And one of the important weapons in this process is acknowledging the truth. The truth that we are not at peace in many areas of our lives… The truth that our brother has something against us and it is our responsibility to go and reconcile… The truth that there is a much better way than becoming fearful, aggressive or pretending that there is nothing wrong…

But the strongest weapon is love. There is no fear in love. Love is sacrificial. Love loves enemies. Love binds everything in unity. Love is not self-seeking. Love fulfills the law.  Love rejoices with the truth. Love hates evil.

If we care about winning the peace, let us choose our weapons very carefully.

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Why should I care about Europe Day

I will be honest… Two years ago I would not be able to answer what is Europe Day and why is it celebrated on May 9. I guess I thought it is just another day in the calendar which sounds good but has no special meaning.

I was wrong . I think it has a very special and deep spiritual meaning. So, why should I or any European care about Europe Day? Because we should not take the peace and stability and good relations in Europe for granted. The European Union despite all its faults and challenges, especially current ones, was built around a very strong vision.

The man who is known as the father of this vision is Robert Schuman, a French politician and Minister of Foreign Affairs in post-war France. He and a few other like-minded politicians understood that France and Germany needed to reconcile and forgive each other. On May 9, 1950 he read what is now called ‘Schuman Declaration’ which proposed a kind of political and economic union between France and Germany, based on equality and solidarity.

This started a journey which eventually led to European Union with its current 28 member states. My country Latvia joined EU in 2004 but unfortunately many people do not know the original vision of this union. Many people think only of economic gains and often forget the deep spiritual roots of the ‘tree’ that we are part of now.

Robert Schuman was also a deeply devout Christian and so was Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor in post-war Germany. These two men did a lot of the hard work to build the bridge between the two nations which were considered hereditary enemies. Of course, there were many others behind the scenes but without real courage and willingness to examine your own heart, you cannot reach out in forgiveness and reconciliation.

R. Schuman wrote in his declaration, “It may be the leaven from which may grow a wider and deeper community between countries long opposed to one another by sanguinary divisions.”

What is this leaven? Where is the idea of solidarity, equality and being good neighbors coming from? There was a story where Jesus also used the image of yeast…

I am grateful to people like R.Schuman for doing the hard and so often unrecognized work of building bridges that others can walk on. Now 507 million people are walking on this bridge. Let us, Europeans, make this bridge stronger and always remember the vision of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Solidarity