Season of Advent reminds us why universal declaration of human rights still matters

Universal declaration of human rights? United nations? International cooperation? International order? Preventing wars? Striving for peace? Respecting human dignity? It is almost 70 years since this declaration was proclaimed and yet it is hard to shake the impression that many people/nations/leaders could care less…

I look up at the calendar on my kitchen wall and there it is – December 10 as Human Rights Day. I go to Facebook and there it is again – you can click ‘Like’ or share it on your wall. (I did not share it since I did not like the design. Or maybe I am just tired of online activism where we post slogans, memes, famous quotes, provocative statements and anything else to “make this world a better place”. But here I am writing this blog. I guess at the end of the day it is still better to add my voice to issues I deeply care about.)

This Sunday is also a religious celebration of Second Advent. In the Christian tradition and calendar it is a time of waiting and preparation. Waiting for the Hope and Light of the world to be born in a seemingly hopeless and dark place and welcoming this coming with open heart and mind. We sing “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel” and we do it every year. Why keep saying it if we believe He has come already?  There are many theological reasons but one simple reason I can give is we need to remind ourselves what this life and this world is like without Him.

It is amazing how quickly we get used to the good news, things and good times and take it for granted. It is also amazing how quickly we can descend into hopelessness and darkness again.

For very long time now, we take Jesus of Nazareth and the way he transforms our human existence for granted. Nowadays we also take the Universal declaration of human rights for granted. We cannot imagine a world without these commonly accepted principles because most of us did not live before 1948 and during Second World War. We, at least the Westerners, are so used to speaking about our human rights that we think nothing of it.

But here I read the lines from the declaration’s preamble: “The advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

(…) Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations.

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”

Have we achieved and experienced the advent of this kind of world yet? Are all people free to speak their mind, practice their religion, free from fear and want? Are we, the peoples of United Nations, keeping our pledge? Do we even believe in this larger freedom? Do we still have common understanding and emphasize the word “common”? Or are we putting our trust in the world of “mine”? My country. My people. My rights.

The answer is obvious. Thus we are still waiting, still striving and longing…

“O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel”

 

 

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.

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Dear Latvia, I love you

This is my dear grandmother Margaret who is only 5 years younger than the Republic of Latvia. Born in 1923, she has seen and experienced many things, lost much but also gained much. She teaches me how not to take things for granted. She also teaches me about courage, sacrifice, creativity, gratitude and hope.

Today on Latvia’s Independence Day we will walk around Riga and celebrate together with the crowds of people. My grandmother loves people, but she can get lost in the crowd. She is so small and frail and half-deaf. I will take her to see the Freedom Monument which is a very special place for her and for many people. In the days and months and years when Latvia was re-gaining its independence, I knew that I could find her there, standing proudly with placards and posters. Demanding justice and freedom.

We are very close but we also have our differences. She has annoyed, upset and patronized me, but I have always felt that she has my back, that she is on my side. Even if she disagrees with me, she wants the best for me and she will give everything for it. She wants me to flourish and have a good life. Now I want to be on her side and by her side.

I am also on Latvia’s side and I believe it is on mine. Do we have our differences? For sure. Has my country annoyed and upset and patronized me? For sure. Have I rebelled and criticized and said that “I will never become like you”? For sure. Still, I love Latvia and I believe that Latvia loves me. Very imperfectly but nonetheless.

When I think about the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself”, I try to apply it on a national and international level as well. It is hard to love your (national and international) neighbors if you don’t love yourself. It is hard to respect your (national and international) neighbors if you don’t respect yourself. It is hard to cheer for your (national and international) neighbors if you don’t cheer for yourself. 

Also, I know that these are challenging days. There are trends in the world that question the idea of self-sacrifice, self-control, common good, justice, rule of law, vision beyond ourselves and truth. And more than ever we are reminded that we cannot take these values and understanding of good life for granted. Peace and justice and freedom is not something that just happens. It is very hard work and it takes long time but it can be destroyed and lost if we don’t cultivate and nourish  and guard it with all our will.

I think of my friends from Syria (who want peace in Syria) living in Latvia now. I think of my friends from China (who want democracy and freedom of religion in China) living in Latvia now. Or friends from Ukraine (who want justice and rule of law in Ukraine) living in Latvia now. If I start whining about Latvia too much, I think of them and most complaints stop. My mom used to tell me her life was not so bad and difficult as millions of people around the world who would love to trade places in a second (yes, my mom was amazing).

Latvia is not perfect but it is my country. Every person who lives here is not perfect but every one is my people. So, I will continue to learn what it means to love them in words and actions.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (Paul the Apostle)

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Someone in Latvia loves you very much (photos from personal archive)

Latvian:

Te es esmu kopā ar savu mīļo vecmammu Margietu, kura ir tikai 5 gadus jaunāka par Latvijas Republiku. Dzimusi 1923. gadā, viņa ir redzējusi un piedzīvojusi daudz, zaudējusi un arī ieguvusi daudz. No vecmammas es varu mācīties, ka neko nevar pieņemt kā pašsaprotamu. Mācos arī drosmi, radošumu, pateicību un cerību.

Šodien mēs iesim pastaigāties pa Rīgu un svinēsim Latvijas valsts 98. gadadienu kopā ar tūkstošiem cilvēku. Mana vecmamma ir ļoti sabiedriska, bet pēdējā laikā viņai ir grūti atrasties pūlī. Viņa ir tik maza, trausla un puskurla. Mēs aiziesim līdz Brīvības piemineklim, kas ir ļoti īpaša vieta. Dienās, mēnešos un gados, kad Latvija atguva savu neatkarību, zināju, ka varu atrast vecmammu pie Brīvības pieminekļa. Stāvam ar plakātiem un zīmējumiem.

Mēs esam ļoti tuvas, bet mums ir bijušas arī daudzas domstarpības. Viņa ir reizēm mani aizkaitinājusi, apbēdinājusi un centusies mācīt “kā dzīvot pareizāk”, bet es vienmēr esmu zinājusi, ka vecmamma ir manā pusē, ka viņa vēl man to labāko, un gatava upurēties savu bērnu un mazbērnu dēļ. Tagad es vēlos būt viņas pusē un viņai blakus.

Es esmu arī Latvijas pusē. Vai mums ir bijušas domstarpības? Protams. Vai Latvija ir mani aizkaitinājusi, apbēdinājusi un centusies mācīt “kā dzīvot pareizāk”? Protams. Vai es esmu dumpojusies un kritizējusi un teikusi, ka “iešu savu ceļu”? Protams. Taču es mīlu Latviju, un ticu ka Latvijā mīl mani. Nepilnīgi, bet tomēr.

Domājot par bausli “Mīli savu tuvāko kā sevi paši”, es cenšos to piemērot gan nacionālā, gan starptautiskā līmenī. Ir grūti mīlēt savus tuvākos un tālākos (gan nacionāli, gan starptautiski), ja tu nemīli pats sevi. Ir grūti  cienīt savus tuvākos un tālākos (gan nacionāli, gan starptautiski), ja tu necieni pats sevi. Ir grūti atbalstīt citus un priecāties par viņu panākumiem, ja tu nepriecājies par savējiem. Un otrādāk.

Skaidrs, ka ir ļoti daudz izaicinājumu. Šobrīd pasaulē ir spēcīgas tendencies, kas apšauba tādas lietas kā pašuzpurēšanās, paškontrole, kopīgais labums, taisnīgums, likumība, vīzija lielāka par tevi vai tavu valsti, cieņa pret visiem cilvēkiem un patiesība. Un mums tieši acīs tiek atgādināts, ka šīs vērtības un labas dzīves izpratne nav pašsaprotami. Miers, taisnīgums un brīvība neiekrīt klēpī paši no sevis. Tas ir grūts un apzināts darbs, un tas prasa ilgu laiku. Taču to var ātri iznīcināt un pazaudēt, ja mēs to nekopjam un nekultivējam, vai vairs negribam no visas sirds.

Domāju par saviem draugiem no Sīrijas, kuri dzīvo Latvijā (un ilgojas pēc miera Sīrijā). Domāju par draugiem no Ķīnas, kuri dzīvo Latvijā (un ilgojas pēc demokrātijas un reliģijas brīvības Ķīnā). Vai arī par cilvēkiem no Ukrainas, kuri dzīvo Latvijā (un ilgojas pēc taisnīguma un likumības Ukrainā). Kad sāku pārāk sūdzēties par Latviju, iedomājos par viņiem, un vairs negribas sūdzēties. Mana mamma parasti teica, ka viņai nemaz neesot tik grūti, salīdzinot ar miljoniem cilvēku visa pasaulē, kuri būtu gatavi mainīties vietām nedomājot.

Latvija nav perfekta valsts, bet tā ir manējā. Cilvēki, kuri dzīvo Latvijā, nav perfekti, bet tie ir manējie. Un es neesmu perfekta, bet esmu savējā. Tāpēc turpināšu mācīties, kā mīlēt šo valsti un šos cilvēkus.

“Mīlestība ir lēnprātīga, mīlestība ir laipna, tā neskauž, mīlestība nelielās, tā nav uzpūtīga. Tā neizturas piedauzīgi, tā nemeklē savu labumu, tā neskaistas, tā nepiemin ļaunu. Tā nepriecājas par netaisnību, bet priecājas par patiesību. Tā apklāj visu, tā tic visu, tā cer visu, tā panes visu.” (Sv. Pāvils)

 

 


 

Genie out of the bottle…

The summer in Latvia is beautiful but it is difficult to take my mind off the UK news. On June 23 Latvians celebrated the most popular holiday called Ligo when people enjoy the shortest nights of the year. Being in the nature with lots of good food, singing, dancing but mostly good time with friends and family.

Then comes the morning after. This year it meant another sunny day and time to enjoy nice breakfast. (For many who had too much to drink, not so enjoyable though.) And then people checked the news and found out that while Latvians were partying and dancing and eating, the British people voted to ‘Leave’ the European Union. The breakfast conversations turned serious as people were trying to digest – What Just Happened?

One of the most controversial politicians in the UK, Nigel Farage from UKIP (UK Independence Party) was celebrating and pronounced that “Let June 23 go down in history as our Independence Day…. ” He also said that “The Euroskeptic genie is out of the bottle”.

I have no need to write about the reactions of people in the UK, other nations, governments, media and so on. There are so many well written articles online for those who are interested. What I want to talk about are these “genies out of the bottle”. First of all racism, bigotry and xenophobia!

One British friend of mine who is a peace builder in Luton, a very diverse English town, wrote on his FB page a few days before the vote: ” We’re in a referendum campaign which can only leave a legacy of anger and hatred, whichever way it goes. It goes way further than a choice to remain or leave, but has the potential to redefine what it means to be British. … A monster has been unleashed among us, and many are still not recognising it.”

After a series of racist incidents, I asked another friend of mine who lives and works in the UK whether this is just the media picking and choosing or does this really mean an increase. He believes that there is an increase because some people got the feeling that their feelings and views were “given a green light.”

After the recent racist graffiti incident at the Polish Social and Cultural Association in Hammersmith, London, Joanna Ciechanowska, director of POSK’s gallery said: “All of a sudden a small group of extremists feel empowered… they think they have the support of half of the nation. It’s sad because living here for so many years and being married to an Englishman, I have never actually encountered any racism in this country, and this is the first time it happened straight in my face. Whoever did this was an ugly person who saw a window of opportunity.”

Have we created a window of opportunity for this ‘genie’ of racism and bigotry? Was it let out of the bottle or was it always out of the bottle? And only feels more empowered now.

This is exactly the kind of thing that worries and upsets me. We, the people, who know the terrible consequences of these kind of spiritual powers on the loose… we can still be so apathetic. It is obvious that one of the big jobs on the “morning after” is to put this genie back in the bottle. It will not go back there willingly and politely. It will kick and scream.

“Keep Calm and Carry On” will not do. We will have to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Resist the evil”. (Read the rest of the story from the Polish Cultural Centre.)

I have more thoughts on this subject but will save them for the next blog.

Dear Poles

One of the many cards sent to the Polish Centre after the incident in Hammersmith (photo from the Internet)

Latvian:

Vienkārši gribas baudīt jauko vasaru Latvijā, bet prāts aizņemts ar ziņām no Britu salām. Jo izrādījās, kamēr mēs līgojām, dziedājām, dejojām un ēdām, briti nobalsoja par izstāšanos no Eiropas Savienības. Brokastis Jāņu rītā daudziem pārvērtās par nopietnām politiskām sarunām, kurās cilvēki centās sagremot jaunumus – Kas Tur Tikko Notika?

Viens no vispretrunīgākajiem britu politiķiem Naidžels Faražs, kurš pārstāv Apvienotās Karalistes Neatkarības partiju, priecīgi paziņoja, ka “23. jūnijs ieies vēsturē kā neatkarības diena”. Un, ka “no pudeles ir izlaists džins vārdā Eiroskepse”.

Es nevēlos rakstīt par cilvēku reakciju Apvienotajā Karalistē vai pie mums vai citur, un ko saka politiķi un mediji. Tie, kuri interesējas, var internetā atrast neskaitāmi daudzus labus rakstus. Es gribu parunāt par citiem “džiniem”, kas arī izlaisti no pudeles. Pirmkārt jau rasisms, aizspriedumi un ksenofobija jeb bailes no svešiniekiem!

Viens no maniem angļu draugiem strādā miera celšanas jomā Lutonā – pilsētā, kura ir piedzīvojusi dažādus konfliktus. Dažas dienas pirms referenduma viņš rakstīja savā Facebook lapā: “Mēs redzam referenduma kampaņu, kas atstās mantojumā dusmas un naidu jebkura balsojuma rezultātā. Runa iet par kaut ko vairāk nekā tikai izvēle starp palikšanu vai aiziešanu. Runa iet par mums kā britiem… Mūsu vidū ir palaists vaļā kaut kas briesmīgs, un daudzi joprojām to neaptver.”

Pēc nesenajām rasisma izpausmēm Apvienotajā Karalistē pajautāju draugam latvietim, kurš dzīvo un strādā Anglijā, vai tiešām šī naidīgā attieksme ir pieaugusi, vai arī tā ir kārtējā ziņu dienestu izvēle kaut ko ‘izmakšķerēt’. Pēc viņa domām incidentu skaits tiešām ir pieaudzis, jo dažiem “lika sajusties, ka nu tik būs zaļā gaisma.”

Pēc incidenta Poļu Biedrības un Kultūras Asociācijas namā Londonā, kur uz sienas bija parādījies naidīgs graffiti, biedrības pārstāve Joanna Cehanovska teica, ka “pēkšņi daļa ekstrēmistu sajutās varenāki… Viņi domā, ka viņus atbalsta puse tautas. Skumji, jo dzīvoju šeit jau daudzus gadus, turklāt mans vīrs ir anglis, un nekad neesmu saskārusies ar rasismu šajā valstī. Tā ir pirmā reize, kad to piedzīvoju. Tas, kurš to izdarīja, ir nejauks cilvēks, kurš gaidīja iespēju izpausties.”

Vai mēs esam radījuši iespēju izpausties šim rasisma un aizspriedumu ‘džinam’ jeb garam? Vai tas tika izlaists laukā no pudeles, vai arī tas vienmēr ir bijis brīvībā? Un tagad vienkārši jūtas varenāks.

Tieši tas mani arī visvairāk sadusmo un uztrauc. Mēs, cilvēki, kuri labi zinām, kādas briesmīgas sekas var atstāt šādi gari palaisti brīvībā… mēs joprojām varam būt tik apātiski. Viens ir skaidrs, ka tagad tas ‘džins’ ir jādabū atpakaļ pudelē. Tas neies tur atpakaļ labprātīgi un mierīgi. Tas pretosies, spārdīsies un kliegs.

Ar slaveno britu lozungu “Paliekat mierā un uz priekšu!” te nepietiks. Te būs vajadzīgs “Mīliet savu tuvāko kā sevi pašu” un “Stājieties pretī ļaunumam”. Ko arī darīja Poļu Biedrības kaimiņi.

Man vēl ir ko teikt par šo tēmu, bet tas lai paliek nākamajam blogam.