When we look for someone to blame

Last week there were international headlines from Durban and other cities in South Africa. Any story about Durban catches my attention since I have been to this beautiful city on the Indian Ocean. South Africa is a country with amazing people. I remember sitting on the airplane watching a sunrise over the green rolling hills around Durban. Where are the lions, right?

Unfortunately last week’s headlines were sad and described tragic events. There were violent attacks against foreign immigrants. This is not the first such outburst of hatred, but the most recent one. The stories spoke of rising xenophobia in South Africa. The definition of xenophobia is „unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of their politics or culture”. As we know, it is not a South African problem; it is universal. Let’s think of our own countries…

After spending time in South Africa, I know it is very complicated and there are many challenges in this ‘rainbow nation’. Lots of bad governance, homicide, unemployment, poverty, growing in-equality between those who have and those who have not… From the news, the attacks are mainly in the poor townships and directed towards people from other African nations (with some exceptions of Asians)… That raises many questions.

Whatever the possible answers, it is clear that this anger and frustration is directed at the wrong people. Also, there are powers who can manipulate these feelings. It is easy for those who have power to start pointing fingers. The leaders can blame the media, the media can blame the leaders or the poor. Meanwhile many poor blame the immigrants… and so on. Lots of scapegoating. But the most important question becomes, „Who is my neighbor?”

I was so encouraged to read in international news about our friends in Chatsworth. Many churches, including Good News Center (a mixed Zulu and Indian fellowship), are responding to this difficult situation. Bringing food and aid to thousands of people who are sheltering in makeshift camps in one of the football fields in Chatsworth. Dennis John is a local pastor and a man of peace whom we enjoyed partnering with. He told the journalists that those behind the attacks were becoming more meticulous, driving away South Africans in relationships with foreigners.

There are peace marches and other statements of solidarity. There are many religious and civil society groups and NGO’s who are showing compassion and neighborly love. I don’t need the journalists to tell me; I know it because I have been to South Africa. I know the people there and I know that there is lots of light in the darkness.

I can only try to imagine the hardship and suffering of the people who are now afraid and so uncertain for their future. Coming from poor or conflict ravaged countries and hoping for a new and better life. I hope that the friendship of their true South African neighbors will bring them the assurance that they are ‘welcome’.

Xenophobia

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!

metal gate

 

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…

krasnoyarsk

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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