Israel-Palestine conflict and my personal challenge

This one is hard. Not because I have nothing to say or because it is too complicated. No, it is because I am a Western Christian and also student of theology/religion. And there is no other international geopolitical issue which can divide Christians as sharply as the Israel-Palestine past, present and future. No matter how gentle or blunt, informed or ignorant, rational or naive, well intentioned or foolish I try to express myself.

This is such a controversial conversation about a long standing conflict, historical justice, human rights and relationships, identity, understanding of the Scriptures and the importance of the land and so on. It is also very emotional because it touches people’s religious feelings in three major world faiths and makes an honest and open dialogue hard to achieve. But dialogue we must. Especially those of us who don’t live in Israel-Palestine but still have some impact through our personal connections, churches, religious organizations and also our governments which represent us as citizens. For example, if Latvia had decided to move its embassy to Jerusalem to follow the USA example (which it hasn’t) , I would form an opinion as a Latvian.

Few days ago in downtown Rīga I was approached by a reporter and her camera person. I had to think fast about the question, “What is your opinion about Crimea?” What is she trying to ask between the lines? I assumed she was asking me about the latest news and how I felt about the newly built bridge between Russia and Crimea which is supposed to cement the Russian claim on this peninsula. How do I feel about it? Quite simple! That Russia is in the wrong and that Crimea was illegally annexed and there is historic injustice happening right before my eyes. And that most people around the world don’t really care because “out of sight, out of mind”. Plus, how are we going to make Russia give it back to Ukraine?

It made me think if I would ever be asked by reporters in Latvia what I think about Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is never “out of sight, out of mind”. That small corner of the world regularly makes  the world headlines, mostly with stories of division, violence and suffering. And that is one of the big problems –  the stories we hear are often superficial and tailored to ‘our’ ears. Or it’s very one-sided depending on our preferred news source and our own political and religious views.

Here I come to the Christian part. I cannot count how many times I have heard other Western Christians say, “I had no idea there are Palestinian Christians. I assumed that all Palestinians are Muslim”. It is amazing how for some of us things change when we start thinking about Palestinians not only as fellow human beings but also as brothers and sisters in Christ. And how ‘inconvenient’ it becomes. When we find out that there are actually churches in Gaza and that when people suffer hardships in this overcrowded and besieged strip of land, everyone is suffering together – Muslims, Christians, others…

Before someone jumps in, “here we go… talk about objectivity… she is so one-sided”, I strive to be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. I don’t know many things, I am no expert and I have never been to Israel or Palestinian territories in West Bank and Gaza, but I have met and learned from many people in that land. I have met musicians from both backgrounds who formed a band called “My Favorite Enemy”and wrote songs in Arabic, Hebrew and English, expressing common pain, fears and hopes. Here is a link to one of their songs called Stones written from a perspective of a stone being thrown…

I have met, listened and read theologians from both backgrounds. One of the books on my shelf is “Through My Enemy’s Eyes: Envisioning Reconciliation in Israel-Palestine” written by Salim J. Munayer ( a Palestinian Christian and faculty member at Bethlehem Bible College) and Lisa Loden (an Israeli Messianic Jew and faculty member of Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary). I have met them in person and listened to their amazing, challenging and deeply moving journey as friends.

The point I want to make is that if we really care, we need to seek out these local voices. People who actually live there and deal with this conflict on day to day basis as they have a much closer view on what is helpful or unhelpful to the peace process and reconciliation efforts. On things that our governments do or don’t do. On views that our churches support or don’t support. On what is loving and what is not. On what is just and what is not.

Here is another book I recommend. “Light Force: A Stirring Account of the Church Caught in the Middle East Crossfire” by Brother Andrew, the passionate old Dutch minister.  Who was very popular in the West when he wrote “God’s Smuggler” about taking Bibles behind the Iron Curtain and sharing his faith with the communists. But not so many Western Christians were interested when he started ministering in the Middle East, even meeting with leaders of PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah and other such groups. Brother Andrew is very open about his own preconceived ideas and Western Christian approach as an outsider trying to fix the problems in the Middle East. But nobody can criticize him for living out his passion for the good news of God’s love.

It has to be good. It has to be news. And it has to be love for all people. Brother Andrew often asks what kind of people does the Book produce? Speaking of the Bible.

Finally… some Christians (or non-Christians) may say that we should not get political. Only focus on the spiritual. When it is us, Westerners, speaking while enjoying the freedoms and peace which did not come without political will, I find it ironic. When Latvian Christians supported the independence of Latvia from Russian and German empires and later from the USSR, was it political or spiritual? Was Martin Luther King and non-violent civil rights movement in the USA political or spiritual? I could give many more examples like South Africa, Northern Ireland, anti-slavery, anti-human trafficking but then I would be getting really really political 🙂

We may have many strong opinions on who is to blame for failing peace efforts in Israel – Palestine and we may have strong beliefs about the eschatological future of this region, but we should never forget that this is not some theory for the people there. If I had been born in Gaza instead of Rīga, I would want the world to think of me as someone who matters. I certainly would not want to live in Gaza, a virtual prison controlled by air, land and sea. If I was a member of Gaza Baptist Church, I would want the brothers and sisters around the world to think of me and pray for our little, struggling fellowship who are caught in the crossfire.

We have to make much more room in our hearts… this is what the Book says and does.

Why bother crossing this particular bridge on May 9

The usual parade of special dates. May 1, May 4, May 8, May 9…  The weather exceptionally beautiful and ‘woe is me’ for having to study and sit in lectures. Not that I care much about official events but glad to participate in smaller grassroots initiatives to give these days a personal meaning.

Every year in May I write about reconciliation and bridging of collective memories in Latvia. May 8 is the day to celebrate the end of war in Europe and May 9 is the day to  celebrate the start of peace through European unity. It is known as Europe Day even if many Europeans have no idea what it is and what it represents.

But my post today is about the other May 9. The one I choose not to celebrate. The one that most Latvians choose not to celebrate. The one that stirs much controversy and discussion ever year. The one celebrated on the other side of the river Daugava which divides our beautiful capital. The one where thousands of people gather at the Victory Monument built in Soviet era and during celebration proudly display the Soviet red star and old Soviet slogans. The one where you get a very strong “us” and “them” vibe.

The bridge I am standing on leads directly to this Victory monument and many many Latvians who don’t live on that side simply choose not cross it on May 9. During the day you will hear, “Stay away from there! Do not cross the river! Avoid it! Ignore it! Go around if you can! It is madness.” And so we continue every year. One group streams toward it and the other group keeps their distance as far as possible.

But I chose to go across this year. As I did last year. Why? It is hard to explain. Maybe I am simply that kind of person who likes to do the opposite of what I am told. The opposite of mainstream if you will. You may think it is idealistic but I know that I have to do something about it. That I have to get in the midst of it. That I have to try to understand how and why. Someone has said that “Holiness is walking toward the darkness”. I don’t mean to use religious or spiritual language to say that I am on the side of ‘light’ and the others are on the side ‘darkness’. I just know that for me personally this represents one of the most challenging things to experience without passing strong judgment.

I go and watch older people get emotional and carry photos of loved ones they lost in WWII. I can understand the pride about the sacrifice of forefather’s who fought against the Nazi regime and in the end prevailed. I can understand the younger generations listening to these family stories and feeling the same pride about their ancestors. I can understand the traditions and the importance of remembering.

But I cannot support the Soviet nostalgia, the glorification of those tragic WWII days as some kind of ‘holy days’ and some kind of ‘holy war’. I cannot accept the concept that this is main and only event for the majority of Russian community in Latvia to be united around. I can be inclusive of people’s memories but I cannot embrace the political overtones and agendas. There is an invisible line which I refuse to cross because of my values, beliefs and understanding of history.

Foreign friends visiting Rīga have asked me, “What is this? Why does Latvian government allow it? Why do you guys allow it?” Once I walked through these May 9 celebrations with an American friend and she actually got afraid and kept asking me how I felt about it.

How do I feel about it? I feel this bridge building will take a little longer (and, of course, it is directly connected to who and what and how long governs in Russia). I also feel hopeful because most of Latvian society lives and dreams and works and loves and makes friends outside these ‘Latvians’ and ‘Russians’ boxes…   but until we get rid of these divisions completely, we must keep crossing back and forth.

Borders check more than our passports: Story about fault lines

On May 1, I woke up and felt like going to the cinema. Latvian cinema. This year we have many new movies – fiction, documentary, animation, TV, etc. – since 2018 celebrates 100 years of national statehood. Since these movies are also a gift to me as a Latvian citizen, I better go and support and enjoy.

I have seen a few but the documentary film D is for Division” (Wall) by director Dāvis Sīmanis impacted the most. The story of physical and mental boundaries or fault lines between present day Latvia, its Soviet past and its neighbor Russia as in ‘Putin’s Russia’. It hit emotionally, mentally and even spiritually. Because this story focuses on ‘today’. We cannot live in the past or the future. I have only the ‘now’ and what impact is my life having on the present and how does the present impact my future.

The film was very open and honest. The director talking about personal fears, anxieties, questions, observations, hopes… about personal and collective memories that divide… about injustices in the past and the present… about us.

In teaching and studies I often use the same symbols because they are so clear and visual – wall, bridge, wall, bridge. What are we building? What do we need most? What are we becoming? Walls separate into ‘us’ and ‘them’, divide, protect and exclude. Bridges connect two sides, provide meeting place, cross over and include. The documentary portrayed many walls and some bridges. Visible and invisible walls between Latvia and Russia, between ‘Homo soveticus’ and people who have shed the Soviet mindset and past (or at least try to shed it), between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, between different ways of practicing faith.

Even tough the film in Latvian is called the “Wall”, I see it as a bridge. For sure an attempt to build a bridge from ignorance to awareness, from indifference to responsibility and involvement.

Just a few observations about the different levels of fault lines. First, Latvia (as independent nation, as a member of European Union and NATO) and Russia (Putin’s version of it). The ‘wall’ has gone up high and it keeps going. Latvia would say that we have withdrawn our bridges for the time being. The movie also has great reflections about the life of ordinary people on both sides of the border.

The divisions between those who have moved on from our Soviet past and those who still live in it, miss it and maybe even dream about the return to ‘those glorious days’. There is one guy in the story, Beness Aijo, who dreams of Latvia becoming communist republic again and now fights in eastern Ukraine to see this ‘Soviet’ dream fulfilled there. Obviously these two groups live in different past, present and future. Both have their sacred memories as bonfires to gather around, to tell stories and to feel united. The clear message to the other side  – Do not dare to touch our bonfire!

Today on May 4, people in Latvia are gathering to celebrate our independence from the USSR/Soviet Union. Others, not as many but still a large group, will gather on May 9 to celebrate the victory in WWII but also to celebrate the former Soviet Union. Our collective memories clash and our visions of the present and the future diverge. The film obviously raises the questions and seeks the answers of how to live side by side and how to remember in a way that unites, not divides.

Last but not least. There are scenes from a Russian Orthodox monastery inside Russia where the paintings on the wall depict soldiers as heroes of the past and the present. During the film you see Jesus face on military flags. It is our Christian never ending story and shame that we ‘recruit’ God to be on our side  or that we ‘elect’ Jesus as our leader into the battle. I am glad nobody was sitting next to me as I was fidgeting in my seat and silently praying, “Jesus, forgive us! Forgives us all for we don’t know what we are doing.”

Go and see this film if they show it anywhere near you (with English subtitles, of course) and if you are interested in questions that are relevant not just to Eastern Europeans.

Thank you, Dāvis Sīmanis and the crew, for building this bridge through the camera lens!

Latvian:

Brīvdienā pamodos noskaņojumā, ka gribas aiziet uz kino. Uz latviešu kino. Galu galā jānovērtē tās Latvijas simtgades radošās dāvanas, kas domātas arī man. Un tā diena iesākās ar režisores Ināras Kolmanes “Billi” un beidzās ar Dāvja Sīmaņa dokumentālo stāstu “Mūris.

Un šoreiz mērķī trāpīja Mūris. Trāpīja emocijās, domās, aktualitātē un vispār. Daudzu iemeslu dēļ, bet viens no galvenajiem, ka filma stāsta par šodienu, par mums, par mani. “Latvija 100” ietvaros liels uzsvars likts uz notikumiem pagātnē, kad manis vēl nebija (protams, protams, ka tas ir svarīgi, un no pagātnes mēs gan iedvesmojamies, gan mācāmies). Nākotne man vēl nepieder, taču tagadne ir tepat, un tā ir manējā. Tikpat daudz cik tavējā, jūsējā, mūsējā.

Patika, ka stāsts ir atklāts un personīgs. Par to, ko redz neapbruņota acs, par bailēm, par neziņu, par satraukumu, par bezspēcības sajūtu, par sarežģītiem jautājumiem, par spriedzi un aizspriedumiem, par vientulību, par netaisnīgumu, par pagātnes un šodienas plaisām.

Darbā un studijās man tuva ir izlīguma un kolektīvo atmiņu tēma. Lasot lekcijas ir tik viegli un uzskatāmi izmantot šos simbolus – mūris, tilts, mūris, tilts. Ko mēs ceļam? Kas mums šobrīd vajadzīgs? Kas mēs esam? Mūris, kas atdala ‘savējos’ un ‘svešos’, norobežo, nelaiž iekšā, pasargā no reālām vai iedomātām briesmām, vai tilts, kas savieno divas puses, iekļauj, ļauj satikties, iet vienam pie otra, pat pāriet ‘otrā pusē’. Mūris var būt arī plaisa jeb dziļa aiza, ko nevar tik vienkārši pārlēkt, kā stāstā par Ronju, laupītāja meitu.

Filmā ir gan mūri un plaisas, gan tilti. Mentāli atķeksēju dažus redzamos un jūtamos ‘mūrus’ – starp Latviju un Putina Krieviju, starp Rīgu un pierobežu, starp Ansi Ataolu Bērziņu un Latvijas sabiedrību, starp Benesu Aijo un Latvijas valsti, starp kolektīvām atmiņām, starp ‘Homo soveticus’ un ‘ne-padomju’ cilvēkiem, starp manu kristietības izpratni un filmā dzirdēto un redzēto. Arī tilti tur bija vairāki. Pati filma, lai gan saucas “Mūris”, manuprāt, ir izcils tilts. Kaut vai no nezināšanas uz zināšanu, no vienaldzības uz iedziļināšanos.

Īsumā par dažiem attiecību līmeņiem.

Latvija un Krievija. Ko tur vēl teikt?! ‘Neredzamais’, bet draudīgais mūris ir izaudzis pamatīgs. Kā zinām, Latvijā teiktu, ka tas uzcelts vienpusīgi no Krievijas puses, un mēs tikai pacēlām jeb atvilkām savus tiltus uz doto brīdi. Un tagad esam spiesti celt nostiprinājumus savā mūra pusē.

Rīga un pierobeža. Varētu teikt arī Rīga un lauki. Latvija ir tik maza, bet tik viegli dzīvot savā ‘burbulī’ un nezināt, kas notiek citur. Kā tur izskatās, ko tur dara, ko tur jūt, kā tur vispār dzīvo. Es tagad rādu ar pirkstu pati uz sevi. Latgalē neesmu bijusi daudzus gadus (labi, man ir neliels attaisnojums, ka pēdējos 10 gadus dzīvoju ārpus Latvijas). Uz Krievijas vai Baltkrievijas robežas neesmu bijusi nekad. Jo parasti lidoju pāri robežām, nevis šķērsoju pa zemes ceļiem.

Filmas epizodes par Draudzības Kurgānu uz triju valstu robežas (Latvija, Krievija, Baltkrievija), un tur rīkotajām 4. maija un 9. maijā svinībām, bija izglītojošas. Cik tur daudz simbolikas! Abpus robežai tiek dejots un dziedāts, karogi vicināti, foto uzņemti, bet svētku saturs tik strīdīgs. Katrai pusei ir savs ‘svētais atmiņu ugunskurs’, ap kuru pulcēties, un viens otram atgādina – Pat nedomā aiztikt vai jaukt manu ugunskuru!

To pašu var attiecināt uz 9. maija svinībām Daugavpilī. Ja godīgi, bija grūti skatīties. Pamatīgi dīdījos krēslā. Visa tā nostalģija pēc ‘padomju’ laikiem, slavas dziesmas un  mazie bērni padomju karavīru formas tērpos. Cik tas viss ir pazīstams no bērnības, un cik ļoti gribas to visu aizmirst! Atceros, ka mans brālis arī saņēma dāvanā padomju jūrnieka formas tērpu, un cik viņš bija lepns. It sevišķi par savu plastmasas duncīti pie sāniem!

Par diviem filmas varoņiem Ansi Ataolu Bērziņu un Benesu Aijo (nē, es šeit nelieku vienlīdzības zīmi) es nevaru komentēt. Abi ir aktīvisti un patrioti, bet absolūti pretēji mērķi un līdzekļi. Atzīstos, neesmu padziļināti sekojusi viņu stāstiem, tikai no mediju virsrakstiem. Arī 2009. gada notikumu laikā biju tālu tālu prom no Latvijas. Galvenā sajūta, klausoties un skatoties viņu pieredzi un pārdomas, bija dziļas skumjas. Gan par vienu, gan par otru. Tāda vientulība. Pirms 10-15 gadiem mēs staigātu pa vienām un tām pašām ielām, varbūt sēdētu vienās kafejnīcās…

Šķiet, ka filmas viszīmīgākā epizode ir Adwards apbalvošanas ceremonija “Splendid Palace” zālē. Tie kadri vispār likās kā no citas realitātes. Mēģināju saprast, ko tas atgādina, un vienīgais, kas nāca prātā, bija filma “Bada spēles”. Par sabiedrības eliti, kas izklaidējas ar līdzpilsoņu ciešanām. Zāle pilna ar jauniem, enerģiskiem, radošiem, izglītotiem cilvēkiem, kuri bauda sava smagā darba augļus ar vīna glāzi rokās. Varētu teikt, te sēž Latvijas nākotne. Un uz skatuves tiek būvēts virtuālais tilts ar A.A.Bērziņu ar tehnoloģiju palīdzību, bet paliek sajūta, ka starp abām pusēm ir augsts mūris. Gan Ansis, gan Rīgas publika joko un smaida, bet kas notiek patiesībā? Kadra tuvplānā ieraudzīju kādu paziņu, un tagad gribas uzrakstīt un pajautāt, vai viņa atceras to momentu un savas izjūtas un domas. Izskatījās tāda apjukusi.

Tālāk… Ukrainā filmētos kadrus skatīties vienmēr ir grūti. Tās šāviņu un ložu rētas logos, ēkās, rotaļu laukumos. It kā viss jau reportāžās neskaitāmas reizes redzēts, bet šoreiz sāpināja vairāk. Un separātistu štābiņi viesnīcās, kurās vajadzētu gulēt tūristiem, nevis kaujiniekiem. Arī te vairs nav ko piebilst. Smagi.

Un vēl komentārs par reliģiju. Kristietībai pēc manas sapratnes un pārliecības vajadzētu būt visstiprākajam un drosmīgākajam tiltam, bet realitātē tas var būt vislielākais mūris. Kurā pusē ir Dievs? Uz kura karoga ir Jēzus? Ir viegli reaģēt uz sienas zīmējumiem krievu pareizticīgo klosterī Krievijā, kur attēloti pagātnes un mūsdienu karavīri gluži kā svētie mocekļi, kuriem Dievs dāvā īpašu aizsardzību un labvēlību. Var sašutumā grozīt galvu, ko es arī darīju (un atkal pamatīgi dīdījos). Klusībā teicu: “Jēzu, piedod! Piedod mums visiem! Mēs nezinām, ko mēs darām.” Jo mēs visi spējam tikpat pārliecināti likt Dievu savos kara karogos, kara saucienos. Saviem karavīriem ‘piezīmējam’ eņģeļu sargājošos spārnus.

Skatoties filmu, varētu domāt, ka folkloristi ir vislabākie tiltu būvētāji. Tur bija vērtīga un, manuprāt, patiesa doma, ka tikai pazīstot un cienot savu kultūru, mēs varam cienīt citas kultūras.

‘Soveticus’ nostalģijā dzīvojošie arī nejuta nekādas robežas starp valstīm. Viņi īpaši uzsvēra to, ka ir vienoti savā identitātē, ka ir internacionālisti. Tur bija tā simboliska tikšanās uz robežtiltiņa Draudzības Kurgānā. Ļoti gribējās ielīst Latvijas robežsargu ādā un uzzināt, ko viņi tajā brīdī jūt un domā?!

Un visam pa vidu vēl apcietinātie patvēruma meklētāji, no kuriem daudzi Latvijas valsts un sabiedrības acīs ir “nelegālie imigranti”, un bilde top jau pavisam skumīga.

Kā jau minēju, šī filma man liekas spēcīga ar savu aktualitāti. Par tagadni, kuru joprojām ietekmē pagātne, un kura veido mūsu nākotni. Kādu mēs vēlamies šo nākotni? Latvijā un Eiropā! Kā zemi ar dziļām plaisām pēc zemestrīces? Kā mazas feodālas karaļvalstis ar bieziem aizsargmūriem un paceļamiem tiltiem?

Ja pareizi sapratu filmas veidotājus, viņi izvēlas būt tiltu būvētāji. Ar kameru plecā un mikrofonu rokā. Bet, galvenais, ar acīm un ausīm vaļā. Gan fiziski šķērsojot robežas starp valstīm un cilvēkiem, gan savelkot kopā dažādus skatupunktus. Izklausās tik klišejiski, bet nekā gudrāka un vienkāršāka jau nav. Ja gribi saprast, ej, skaties un klausies! Ja negribi dzīvot mūros, ej, meklē patiesību, ceļu uz piedošanu un izlīgumu!

Paldies Dāvim Sīmanim un visai komandai par ieguldīto darbu, laiku un mums visiem uzdotajiem jautājumiem caur kameras aci! Atbildes jāmeklē kopīgi…

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Thursday, November 30, in Riga was cold, wet and windy. In the evening my friend Bella and I went to the Freedom Monument to help light the candles and prepare the space for a special Holocaust memorial. The official start was to be an hour later and the volunteers were busy getting things organized. I said a quick ‘hello and thank you’ to Lolita Tomsone, one of the main organizers and the director of Žanis Lipke Memorial.

Later a group of us came back to light more candles and to support the message that this beautiful alley of small lights stood for. What did it stand for? That “we remember” and that “we mourn”. On November 30 and December 8, 1941, the people of Latvia experienced the biggest mass killings in our country’s history. 25,000 Jewish men, women and children from Riga ghetto were forced to walk miles to Rumbula forest just outside the city limits where they were brutally shot and buried in large pits, dug by Soviet prisoners-of-war. Another thousand of German Jews were sent to these graves straight from their train.

I stood at the Freedom Monument, reading its famous inscription “For fatherland and freedom”. These people who were murdered in 1941 had helped to build this monument. This was also the land of their fathers and this was also their freedom  but denied and destroyed. I tried to imagine that dreary day 76 years ago. November usually has the most miserable weather  and it makes life feel harsh and depressing. What would it feel like to walk those miles down the familiar and beloved streets? Through the city which is your home… watched by other people who are your neighbors and compatriots. Do you make eye-contact with them or not?

You may read my reflections and think, “Why is it so important to you, Latvians, now? This happened 76 years ago when most of you were not even born. Isn’t there already so much of Holocaust remembrance around the world?” See, the thing is that we have our own reckoning with the past. To many ‘outsiders’ or newcomers we may seem like a nation with more memorial days than celebration ones but we are still learning to grieve together.

What do I mean by grieving together? I mean the solidarity in grief that the loss of freedom and statehood of Latvia in 1940 (occupied by the USSR) and then in 1941 (occupied by Nazi Germany) destroyed our community and changed it completely. The solidarity in grief that all suffering counts the same. People sent to Siberian labor camps by the Soviets and people sent to their graves in Rumbula by the Nazis did not deserve any of it.

But there is another crucial element to this history lesson. Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a German Lutheran pastor wrote a famous poem. It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

There is an unforgettable conversation from the Hebrew Bible. In the book of Genesis, God talks to Cain after Cain has killed his brother Abel and hidden the fact. When God asked where Abel was, Cain answered: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” He did admit that Abel was his brother, though.

I think one of the most painful things in our histories are not the murders themselves but the denial of brotherhood. Who is my brother? Who is my neighbor? Who is my fellow citizen who has the same rights and dignity?

We know that these age old questions are still being asked today. Are the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean our brothers? Are the immigrants our brothers? Are the people with opposing political views our brothers? Are the people with different skin colour our brothers? Are the sexually abused women and girls our sisters? Are the people sold in slave markets our brothers and sisters? If we are Christians, are the Muslims who are fleeing from war and violence our brothers? If we are Muslims, are the Christians persecuted and killed by extremist groups our brothers? If we are Bamar Buddhists, are the Rohingyas in Myanmar our brothers?

We need to get this right. So that future generations don’t need to light thousands and thousands of candles…

Latvian:

Vai es esmu sava brāļa sargs?

30. novembris Rīgā bija auksts, slapjš un vējains. Vārdu sakot, draņķīgs laiks. Vakarā mēs ar draudzeni Bellu devāmies pie Brīvības pieminekļa, lai palīdzētu aizdedzināt sveces un sagatavot vietu Rumbulas akciju piemiņas vakaram. Līdz oficiālajam sākumam bija atlikusi stunda, un brīvprātīgie palīgi bija aizņemti ar kārtošanu. Īsi sasveicinājos ar Lolitu Tomsoni, Žaņa Lipkes memoriāla direktori un vienu no pasākuma galvenajām organizētājām, un ķēros pie šķiltavām un svecēm.

Vēlāk mēs ar citu draugu kompāniju atgriezāmies, jo arī viņi vēlējās gan iededzināt sveces, gan atbalstīt šī piemiņas vakara vēstījumu. Kāds tas ir? Ka “mēs atceramies” un “mums sāp”! Vai tas ir vajadzīgs? Pietiks ar Marģera Vestermaņa atbildi:

“Mīļie,

Esmu piedzīvojis Rumbulas un Biķernieku šausmas, kur gāja bojā visi mani mīļie, visa mana ebreju pasaule. 75 gadus esmu gaidījis, lai Latvijas sabiedrība teiktu, tie arī ir mūsējie. Esmu laimīgs, ka gara mūža galā esmu šo brīņišķīgo brīdi sagaidījis.

Paldies Jums visiem labiem cilvēkiem. Cik labi apzināties, ka esam visi kopā.

Dr.hist.Marģers Vestermanis, viens no nedaudzajiem holokaustā izdzīvojušiem.”

Stāvēju pie pieminekļa un skatījos uz vārdiem “Tēvzemei un brīvībai”. Latvija taču bija šo ebreju ģimeņu tēvzeme, un šeit bija viņu brīvība, līdz tas viss tika atņemts un iznīcināts. Tad es pakustināju savus nosalušos pirkstus ar domu, ka jau drīz būšu siltumā. Kāds laiks bija tajā drausmīgajā dienā 1941. gadā? Drošvien arī draņķīgs. Novembris taču vienmēr ir visnožēlojamākais, viss tik tukšs un pelēks.  Kā būtu iet tajā garajā nāves gājienā pa sev tik pazīstamajām un mīļajām Rīgas ielām? Cauri Rīgai, savai pilsētai? Un, ko darīt, ieraugot pazīstamas sejas? Vai viņi uzsmaida, vai novērš acis, vai raud?

Nesaprotu, kā vēl var rasties jautājumi vai iebildumi, vai ebreju piemiņas vakarus jārīko pie Brīvības pieminekļa. Vai tad šis piemineklis nav visas Latvijas un tās vēstures simbols? Ja jau Māte Latvija, tad māte visiem saviem bērniem. Bet mēs vēl mācāmies sērot kopā, nesalīdzinot un nešķirojot ciešanas. Par Sibīriju, par Rumbulu

Nāk prātā vēsturiskā patiesība, ko tik spēcīgi atgādināja vācu luterāņu mācītājs Martins Nīmellers (1892-1984), kritizējot vācu intelektuāļu/luterāņu gļēvumu Hitlera varas laikā:

Vispirms viņi atnāca pēc komunistiem, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju komunists. Tad viņi atnāca pēc arodbiedrībām, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju arodbiedrībā. Tad viņi atnāca pēc ebrejiem, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju ebrejs. Tad viņi atnāca pēc manis, bet tikmēr vairs nebija palicis neviens, kas kaut ko teiktu.

Citās versijās Nīmellers min arī katoļus, Jefovas lieciniekus, utt.

Ebreju Bībelē pašā cilvēces stāsta sākumā ir viena neaizmirstama saruna. Kains ir nositis savu brāli Ābelu, un Dievs viņam jautā, kur ir tavs brālis. Kains atbild: “Es nezinu! Vai es sava brāļa sargs?”

Vismaz Kains nenoliedz, ka Ābels bija viņa brālis. Man liekas, ka vislielākās ciešanas mūsu vēsturēs izraisa nevis pašas slepkavības, bet tas, ka mēs noliedzam vai aizliedzam brālību. Kurš ir mans brālis? Mana māsa? Kurš ir mans kaimiņš? Kurš ir mans tuvākais? Kurš ir mans līdzpilsonis ar tādām pašām tiesībām?

Šis mūžsenais jautājums paceļas atkal un atkal. Vai bēgļi, kuri slīkst Vidusjūrā, ir mūsu brāļi un māsas? Imigranti? Citas rases cilvēki? Politiskie pretinieki? Vai seksuālu vardarbību cietušas sievietes un meitenes ir mūsu māsas? Vai cilvēki, kurus pārdod mūsdienu vergu tirgos, ir mūsu brāļi? Ja tu esi kristietis, vai musulmaņi, kurš bēg no kara un vardarbības savā zemē, ir tavi brāļi? Ja tu esi musulmanis, vai kristieši, kurus vajā un nogalina radikāli ekstrēmisti, ir tavi brāļi? Ja tu esi birmietis un budists Mjanmā, vai Rohindžas ir tavi brāļi?

Mums ir jāatbild šis jautājums. Lai nākamajām paaudzēm nevajadzētu dedzināt tūkstošiem sveču…

What is it to be?

99 years… old or young? There is a popular Latvian song about Latvia being too big to hug or cover with your blanket as you would for a loved one but it is too small to go alone in the big wide world. Similar metaphor can be used for these 99 years we celebrated yesterday (November 18, 1918 was the proclamation day for independent state of Latvia). It is not a very long time in history or for a country and we still have the generation that was born around the time of first independence (my grandmother is only 5 years younger than our country).

The celebrations have been many, the speeches were long, the anthem has been sung countless times, the flags were everywhere and the fireworks great as ususal. And for the first time I put a tiny flag on my coat. I have often had reservations about this little gesture because I am against the arrogant kind of nationalism and I don’t support the idea that patriotism or the love for your country and your people is best expressed through symbols like flag, anthem, costumes, etc. I don’t want to look at people and think, “Look, he or she is wearing it. So, we are on the same team.”

I want to see how people think, talk, act and live every day and then hopefully we are on the same team. For the same reason, as a Christian,  I have chosen not wear a cross around my neck even though I don’t mind when other people wear it. I hope to be identified as a follower of Jesus not for the symbols and crosses and doctrines, but for trying to walk the talk which is always counter intuitive and deeply challenging to my ways.

The idea of Latvia and the real Latvia does not always match and sometimes it contradicts itself. And while our country is preparing to celebrate the big 100 next year, we are at some kind of crossroads again. There are many things happening locally and globally and some trends are simply dangerous. Again and again the big nations want to settle their differences and satisfy their interests at the expense of small ones. Again and again the powerful and wealthy are getting more power and wealth. Again and again the ordinary people fall for empty populist promises and go in circles.  Again we ‘fortify’ our ethnic or national or religious identities to exclude those whom we don’t understand, like or are afraid of and so easily move away from universal human values and actually our religious ones (which is the greatest tragedy).

Latvia is watching and Latvia is learning (I hope we are!!!). More than ever we need to reflect deeply but act fast. On one hand we are still deciding on the future story since we had a long and painful interruption that lasted 50 years and changed us profoundly. And we cannot turn back in time and find the perfect moment or the magic key because it simply does not exist. On the other hand we can be very grateful and proud of what we have achieved and how blessed we are with what we have. It is not because we are better or deserve more than people in Yemen or Somalia or Myanmar or Venezuela or North Korea. There are many reasons why we have what we have and some of them we had no control over but we should not take anything for granted.

Yesterday I was watching on TV the ecumenical church service which takes place every Independence Day.  There was obviously an older crowd and at first I thought, “why are there so many old people? is it because we, the younger ones, did not want to get up early on Saturday morning? or we find these kind of services too formal and boring?” But then I saw the tears when one old man was singing the song “Bless this land, Father” and this prayer suddenly hit me. The older generation knows the difference. They know what it is like to “live on your knees” and to be able “stand up” again and help others to stand up. They know what it is like to hide your national flag or other symbols in the attic or hide the Bible and other books which are simply too dangerous for totalitarian systems.

Yes, Latvia is a very small place in the big wide world and many things we cannot control ourselves but we do have control of what kind of story we would like.  What is it to be? I want it to be a story that will never make me ashamed to put the tiny flag on my coat.

Latvian:

99 gadi… veca vai jauna? Gluži kā U. Stabulnieka/M. Zālītes dziesmā, kas mums tik tuva, mīļa un saprotama. Latvija ir par lielu, lai paņemtu klēpī un apmīļotu, bet par mazu, lai laistu vienu pasaules plašajos ceļos. Tāpat Latvija ir par vecu, lai teiktu, ka tā vēl neko nezin, nav piedzīvojusi, sasniegusi, sapratusi un vēl jāpadzīvo, lai kļūtu gudrāka un labāka. Bet par jaunu, lai teiktu, kā tā ir savu ideju piepildījusi. 99 gadi nav nekas cilvēces vēsturē, arī valsts pastāvēšanā. Mēs esam salīdzinoši ‘jauna’ valsts (ja atskaita tos 50 padomju gadus, tad vispār), un mūsu vidū vēl ir ap Latvijas valsts izveidošanas laiku dzimušie. Arī mana vecmamma ir tikai 5 gadus jaunāka par Latvijas valsti.

Svinības jau iet uz beigām, runas norunātas (gan vērtīgās, gan tukšās), himna nodziedāta pie katras izdevības, karogi visapkārt, un ugunis izšautas gaisā. Un šogad es pirmoreiz piespraudu mazo lentīti pie mēteļa. Mani vienmēr kaut kas bremzēja, jo tik ļoti nepatīk augstprātīgs nacionālisms (tāds, kurš cenšas sevi pacelt augstāk par citiem), un man nav pieņemama ideja, ka savu patriotismu, tātad mīlestību uz dzimteni un tās cilvēkiem, vislabāk izrādīt ar simboliem, karogiem, himnām, tautas tērpiem, utt. Es negribu piederēt kaut kādam “mēs – latvieši” klubam, kur viens otru atpazīst pēc ārējām piederības zīmēm… re, savējais no mūsu komandas!

Svarīgi, kā cilvēki domā, runā, rīkojas un dzīvo katru dienu, un tad es spriedīšu, vai esam vienā komandā. Gluži tāpat man kā kristietei nav gribējies kārt krustiņu kaklā, kaut gan nav pretenziju, ka citi to valkā. Dažiem tie krustiņi izskatās tik stilīgi, ka man arī uzreiz sagribas. Bet vissvarīgāk, vai mana dzīve vismaz mazliet atbilst tam, kā iedomājos Jēzus sekotājus. Mūs neatšķirs pēc krustiņiem, Bībelēm, zivtiņām uz auto, ticības mācības skolās, bet ievēros, ja cilvēks ņem nopietni iešanu pret ‘straumi’ un varas, vardarbības un mantkārības sistēmām.

Mana ideja par Latviju bieži neatbilst reālajai Latvijai (protams, ka ideālas valsts vispār nav), un šķiet, ne man vienīgajai ir sajūta, ka, gatavojoties simtgadei, mēs gan svinam svētkus, gan stāvam krustcelēs. Ko tālāk?  Šobrīd pasaulē tik daudz lokālu un globālu pārmaiņu. Turklāt tas notiek strauji, un tāda maza valsts kā Latvija maz spēj ietekmēt tendences vai risināt globālās krīzes, piemēram, vides piesārņotību un alkatīgo dzīšanos pēc dabas resursiem. Atkal un atkal lielās un spēcīgās valstis risina savas domstarpības un rūpējas par savām interesēm uz mazo valstu rēķina. Atkal un atkal varenie un bagātie sagrābj vēl vairāk varas un bagātības. Atkal un atkal ‘vienkāršie’ ļaudis balso par balamutēm populistiem un tukšiem solījumiem. Atkal mēs veidojam savus etniskos, nacionālos un reliģiskos cietokšņus, lai izslēgtu tos, kuri mums nepatīk vai no kuriem mums bail, un pārsteidzoši viegli atsakāmies no vispārpieņemtajām cilvēciskajām vērtībām un arī savām reliģiskajām vērtībām (kas ir pats traģiskākais).

Latvija vēro, un Latvija mācās (es ceru!!!). Cik ļoti mums nepieciešams pārdomāt dziļi, bet rīkoties ātri! Mēs nevaram atgriezties kaut kādā brīnīšķīgā pagātnē un atrast to īsto  laimes atslēdziņu, jo tāda neeksistē. Mēs varam būt pateicīgi un lepni par saviem sasniegumiem un svētībām, ko esam saņēmuši. Taču nedomāt, ka paši sevī esam labāki par tautām Jemenā, Somālijā, Mjanmā, Irākā, Venecuēlā vai Ziemeļkorejā, un ka mums tas viss vienkārši pienākas. Paši zinām garo stāstu, kāpēc mums tagad ir laba, mierīga, pārtikusi un droša dzīve, kaut daudzas lietas bijušas ārpus mūsu kontroles. Tas nav nekas pašsaprotams.

Svētku dienā es ieslēdzu TV, un redzēju pašas beigas ekumēniskajam dievkalpojumam Doma baznīcā. Pirmais, kas iekrita acīs, bija sirmās galvas, un vēl visi bija tik uzkrītoši nopietni. Mēs, latvieši, tiešām no malas izskatāmies drūmi, un nezinātājs varētu padomāt, ka tur bija sēru dievkalpojums. Bet ne par to šoreiz. Es sev jautāju, kāpēc uz tādiem oficiāliem pasākumiem iet veci cilvēki un tik maz jaunieši. Man pašai negribas celties brīvdienās tik agri, un varbūt tas viss liekas tik formāli un garlaicīgi. Bet tad ievēroju sirmo ļaužu sejas un asaras acīs, dziedot dziesmu “Svētī, Kungs, šo mūsu zemi”, un man bija kārtējais belziens pa pieri.

Viņi taču zin, kas mūsu Latvija nav pašsaprotama! Viņi zin, ko nozīmē dzīvot “nospiestam uz ceļiem” un atkal piecelties un palīdzēt piecelties citiem. Viņi zin, ko nozīmē slēpt šo karogu un totalitārai sistēmai bīstamās grāmatas kā Bībeli, u.c.,  mājas bēniņos vai zem grīdas.

Jā, Latvija ir maza, un globālā līmenī mums maza teikšana, bet savu stāstu gan veidojam paši. Kāds tas būs turpmāk? Es vēlos, lai tas ir tāds, kas man nekad neliks kaunēties par mazo karodziņu pie mēteļa.

 

Lustration and flushing out the Soviet poison for good

I belong to two generations. One is Gen X – Nirvana, grunge, MTV, alienated youth, indie, The Cure, flannel shirts, cynicism… I am also generation between two worlds, two truths, past disconnected from future. Born in the USSR but becoming an adult in free and independent Latvia.

The feature photo was taken at a former Soviet military facility in western Latvia which used to have many Soviet army bases. The small village of Irbene had one of the top secret facilities, used for listening in on military conversations and spying on NATO countries during the Cold War years. It had huge antennas. Now it is a tourist destination, offering tours in the underground tunnels (which are very long and eerie) and the abandoned laboratories.

A quote by a local astronomer, “It is possible to film a horror movie here called Frankenstein and the KGB, and nobody would need to spend anything on creating the movie set.” Precisely! I felt like I was in one of those movies, except the depressing feeling of familiarity. The faded Soviet star used to be bright red, the warning in Russian used to instill fear, the secret facilities and weapons were meant for the enemies which we were told hated us.

For Western tourists this can be an interesting discovery, for me it is a stark reminder. These secret facilities do not pose a threat anymore but what is the legacy left behind. We can re-paint and re-use but we cannot afford to whitewash.

When talking about our Soviet past, experience and system, people use words like ‘poison’ or ‘cancer’ that infiltrated the individual and collective psyche. Often the outsiders point out things which don’t take long to notice in Latvia. One of the symptoms of this lingering poison is inability or unwillingness to trust. The Soviet system like any other totalitarian regime was built on very twisted human relationships – where people spied on each other,  where friends betrayed friends, where colleagues reported things to authorities. Where you walked the party line to succeed. Where you silenced your conscience or starved your mind. Where you lived a double life – one in public and another at home.

Those who were born in already free Latvia carry very little of this residue but they still feel it. Feel it in their parents, grandparents, older teachers, government, society at large. And they question louder and  louder why are we they way we are? Why aren’t we more trusting, more open to new people, experiences and cultures? Why aren’t we more transparent, willing to take responsibility, ready to take make decisions? Why do we have historic  topics which we avoid or shut down? Something is still holding us back, something is still bending our necks, something is still casting its shadow.

I was a little child but even I remember the manipulation and hypocrisy and propaganda. I remember how it looks, how it sounds and how it feels. It acts arrogant, self-righteous, aggressive (very aggressive); it glorifies military might above everything else.  It always has “us vs them” world, it has many enemies, it punishes those who dare to disagree. It creates its own reality. And it never repents and never admits any guilt… never.

Latvia is not this world anymore but our healing is still in process. Restoring personal and national dignity, respect and justice takes time but time does not heal all the wounds. We don’t have the luxury to wait decades until “the old people from the old system” die and then all will be well. I don’t believe that. I believe that we have to be very intentional and active in exposing this ‘sickness’ and ‘shame’ that still infects us. We need deeper lustration and talk openly about the broken relationships.  Bravely and humbly condemn, repent for the things people did to each other because the whitewash never holds… and then our dignity and respect for ourselves and each other can be restored.

DSCN4485

“This Little Light Of Mine” in Charlottesville and elsewhere

I pondered this post for days. I was in the USA when the tragedy in Charlottesville took place. While many are discussing the statements and views of the current president, Donald Trump, and other political leaders, I have tried to find the ‘ordinary’ voices. The local people from this university town; the voices of faith communities; the family of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed.

People are shocked about the extent of incivility and division. Many have experienced real fear. I know the emotion of fear. While never facing a large crowd of young men shouting Nazi slogans, I have experienced groups who try to intimidate and bully. The tactics are always the same. Physical intimidation, verbal abuse and determination to make you go home and never bother.

More recent experiences were in Latvia when couple of years ago I participated in a very small rally to show support and solidarity with those who help refugees. The gathered group was young, quite reserved and calm until these buff men showed up and attempted to intimidate the small crowd. I would certainly label them as ‘white supremacists’ who clearly expressed racist views. All dressed in black, they tried to provoke a physical reaction like shouting, pushing, shoving or punching. They did not get the reaction they desired.

Another time in Riga I went to a lecture addressing Islamophobia. Again the audience was mostly young, curious minds who wanted to learn, to ask questions, to discuss and to express their opinions in a civilized way. Right away I spotted a group who scattered among the audience – some sitting in a front row, talking loudly, interrupting the lecture and some sitting in the back to shout over the crowd. One of the guys in the back  shouting things about Muslims and terrorists and immigrants had a very thundering voice and I was almost scared to turn around to see his face. I felt like he would punch me if I dared to stare at him. He did not punch anyone but did throw around some chairs before leaving the room and called the lecturer “damned idiot who will go to hell”.

After the lecture I turned around to greet my friends – two young girls – who looked absolutely horrified. They were shocked to experience this kind of behavior. It is one thing to see it on You Tube, right? Quite another to experience in a real life. This may seem trivial and naive when there is so much actual violence and wars around the world. Still we, Westerners, have grown so accustomed to peace and civility that we are shocked when we see such an erosion or absence of it. I know my American friends feel the same way – they are shocked at the current level of public incivility and disrespect.

What if Charlottesville was my home? (or Berlin where a small neo-Nazi rally took place today?) Knowing that these out-of-town people will come and turn my city in a spectacle of bigotry and division. Stay away? Stay in my church and pray? Or go to the Emancipation Park and lock arms with the clergy, people of faith and all those singing “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…

I recommend to watch the memorial service for Heather Heyer. Her father said with deep emotion: ” We need to stop all this stuff. We need to forgive each other. I think this is what the Lord would want us.”

Around the world we need to do many things and surely forgiveness is one of them. We are in a desperate need of humility, love in action, listening to each other, kindness and moral courage – in real life in real time. At the same time we need to have moral clarity about dangerous ideas. One friend posted on Facebook: “You don’t get to be both a Nazi and a proud American (added – or proud Latvian or proud German or proud Russian) We literally had a war about this.”

Rec Walk

Photos from personal archive