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.

Facebook and the conundrum of hate speech

“As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media”, said Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.

“I can’t live with or without you”, I considered such title but decided it would be too much. Facebook is a thing, not a person. Simply a social media platform and, most of the time, a useful one for certain interaction with friends, colleagues and work.

As we know, it easily connects people and just as easily breaks them apart. I usually ‘flee’ from the latest controversy, debate, back-and-forth comments because I 1) don’t think as fast as other respondents 2) think too much what words to choose and to use because words are important 3) would rather join face to face conversation 4) want to engage with friends and people I know because only they will value my opinion 5) don’t think I can actually change someone’s mind with few short comments 6) don’t want to get in ‘cross fire’ if the conversation is aggressive 7) and don’t want to spend time creating more and more ‘hot air’. If there is anything this world has more than enough, it is “hot air”.

But unfortunately and tragically this virtual ‘hot air’ can become real, violent and simply evil fire. Last week again there were two instances where Facebook as a community platform had to acknowledge it has been used effectively in stirring hate and prejudice. Facebook removed the pages of the anti-Islamic group ‘Britain First’ and its leaders because of repeated violations of FB community standards. I would say not just FB but most of the British society’s standards. I know friends in the UK who are working very hard to foster relationships and bring healing to hurting communities and they have criticized ‘Britain First’ for long time.

The other story was even more painful and more personal since it involved Myanmar/Burma. When I started ‘peaceroads’ blog three years ago, it was inspired by many years of working with refugees from Myanmar and living on Thailand – Myanmar border. And now U.N. human rights experts investigating abuses and violence against the Rohingya Muslim people in Myanmar say that Facebook has played a major role in spreading the hate messages and inciting the violence. I cannot read Burmese but I do know one racial slur which Facebook had already banned in 2017.

Fortunately I have not had to ‘censor’ any of my FB friends for hateful comments but many of us have expressed loads of stereotypes, fear of different groups and called for certain ‘exclusion’. There have been a few situations where I wrote my friends (in a personal message) and tried to explain why I thought their comments were not helpful, but harmful. And I have ‘unfollowed’ few people because their posts were too frequent and too zealous in their desire to prove their point. But I have never ‘unfriended’ anyone just because they have different opinion and views from mine. I don’t want to insulate myself with people who all think alike because that is exactly one of the big problems of our day. These group ‘bubbles’ we live in.

The people with ‘bad’ intentions do not hesitate to take advantage of social media while people ‘good’ intentions often wonder if it is worth it. It can also be very difficult and scary to express your opinion when you already know what possibly aggressive and angry reaction your posts will get. For example, if the Christians who are a religious minority in Myanmar were to stand up for the Muslims who are even smaller religious minority, they would be in a very difficult position. If the Karen or any other people who are an ethnic minority were to stand up for the Rohingya who are ethnic minority, they would be in a very difficult position.

In Myanmar, UK, Latvia, Russia, Nigeria, USA, (you name the country)… social media has been and will be used used to enforce prejudice, stereotypes and to incite discrimination against certain groups. Based on religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sex, social status, ideology and any other way we like to define the ‘other’.  As long as people (with growing robot enforcement) communicate, this issue of hate speech stays with us and we have to discern what contributes to it and what does not. And what to do about it.

My hope and desire is to use this blog as one of many tools to suck out some of this ‘hot air’ from our online interactions. What are your tools? Suggestions?

The danger of being a peacemaker

If you lived in unjust and oppressive circumstances, what would you do? If you were desperate to change the life around you, what kind of movement would you join? What kind of leader would you follow?

I think about the events that took place 2000 years ago but are as relevant today. During Easter we reflect on the story of Jesus death by public execution. The people of Israel were living under occupation, oppression, corrupt rulers and poverty. The land was occupied and ruled by the Roman Empire which had brought the so-called Roman Peace (Pax Romana). The occupied nations and people were pacified and controlled and kept ‘in order’. There were plenty of crucified bodies on a display as an ‘encouragement’…

One way I can relate is for those of us who grew up in the former USSR and in a occupied nation like Latvia. We were living in ‘peace’ in the most ‘peace loving Union’ of the world and the large Soviet military force that was stationed everywhere was a great reminder how this ‘peace’ was kept and enforced.

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I believe that life without communal and individual freedom, equality and justice and trust and good relations is no peace. And the land of Israel was no exception. There were always rebellions led by those who were not accepting this Roman version of Peace. Barabbas was one such rebel who took part in insurrection.

Jesus was also accused of being a revolutionary, of leading a movement that will upset this “peace”. Accused by whom? By the powers that be! His lifestyle, message and popularity were too threatening to them. Mostly the religious and political leaders who were trying to negotiate this difficult life under the Roman occupation and passionate about keeping ‘us’ and ‘them’ apart.

In fact Jesus was leading a ‘revolution’ but of a very different kind. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” He was turning the world upside down but without any weapons and violence. Even without wealth and political power. Remember what Jesus said when the soldiers came to arrest him, “Am I leading a rebellion that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?”

But in the end he was deemed more dangerous than Barabbas who actually killed some of his “enemies”. Pontius Pilate was confused. Not because he cared but because he did not see Jesus as a potential danger for the Romans. Even more – Jesus was telling people to love their enemies. Who would not want to keep him around, right?

(Have you ever wondered what happened to Barabbas? Did the Romans really let him go back to his freedom fight?)

So, why were the leaders more afraid of a peacemaker than freedom fighter? Why were they so against this non-violent transformation and healing of society? But then I have a personal choice, too. If I was standing in that crowd, looking at the hated Roman representative who has the power and is asking me to choose between Jesus or Barabbas, who would I choose?

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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.”

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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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