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Active Nonviolence: Heroes for an Unheroic Time

A nonviolent army stands fast, watching over human rights in the midst of conflict, a model of courageous peace.

the world is watching
protestors
International activists protest at the construction site of Israel's apartheid barrier near al-Khali.  Photo by Nayef Hashlamoun

A not-so funny thing happened  on the way to the 21st century. We got scared. We Americans used to believe we were a brave, big-hearted people committed to freedom and justice for all.

When did we lose our nerve?

When did we start believing that the world is one big war zone peopled by terrorists, gang bangers and drive-by shooters, serial killers, sociopaths, sexual predators, and people who hate freedom? At what point did we settle for living as though we were under siege, locked in gated communities, holed up in front of the television? When did America stop saying to the world, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free" and start drawing up blueprints for a 2000-mile-long wall between us and Mexico?

"These are unheroic times," writes John Graham of the Giraffe Project in his book Stick Your Neck Out. "After more than two centuries of being free, this nation is far from brave."

And that is a big problem, not just for Americans, but for the world. Because scared people are dangerous people. So Graham's goal, and that of his organization, is to help our nation get its nerve back. He trains people to stick their necks out for what they believe in.

Fortunately, he's not alone.

He's working alongside the thousands of ordinary people across the nation and around the world who have stopped waiting for their political leaders to lead and taken the initiative themselves. These people are finding new ways to work with enemies and listen with compassion to the people they fear, to create peace in conflict zones. They are inventing methods to interrupt the cycle of fear and punishment that has left 2 million people imprisoned in the United States. And they are teaching others how to do the same.

In small, individual acts of bravery these regular folks have left the safety of the flickering, corporate-sponsored window on the world to see for themselves what it's like to be "Them."

A Brave New World?

Bravery is about overcoming fear. And you will be scared when you venture out unarmed into the "Mean Streets"—into tent cities, homeless shelters, prisons; to places where people are fighting or starving; to places where you know you don't belong. In fact, you will be scared out of all proportion to the dangers you face, because you have been pre-scared, courtesy of both the media and Mother Nature.

If you grew up in a home where you watched several hours of TV each day, you have probably been infected with what social scientists call "Mean World Syndrome"—the more television you watch, the more likely you are to believe that the world is a mean and dangerous place and that you will become a victim of violence. If you watch a lot more TV than your neighbor, you are more likely to have bought a gun and a guard dog to protect yourself and installed new locks on your door, and you are more afraid to walk in your own neighborhood.

We are particularly receptive to these messages about a dangerous world because Mother Nature has provided us with an information-processing system that magnifies our fears. Social psychologists call it social categorization. It is a survival mechanism—a sort of mental filing system designed to help us quickly sort through the flood of information about other people that pours into our consciousness and file it into usable categories.

The trouble is, we seem to have been issued a mental filing cabinet with only two drawers—a tidy, attractive drawer with just a few files in it labeled "Us," and an overstuffed, nasty-looking drawer labeled "Them." So we categorize people as "those who are like us" and "those who are not," particularly when our vital interests are involved.

The social categorization process runs on fear. Like a home security system it bleats, "Don't open that door! Those people can't be trusted! They hate us. They want to hurt us. Stay here, where it's safe!"

Those who decide to ignore the alarm and open the door to the world are not only flying in the face of their culture's teachings about danger, they're bucking evolution's dire warnings about "Bad Them." So theirs is an act of bravery and imagination that can change the world. And there have been many thousand such acts during the last decade.

When Gandhi wrote that nonviolent resistance must be "no less brave, no less glorious than violent resistance," he reminded us of an unpleasant fact: peace work is not for cowards.

Rachel Corrie
Rachel Corrie was trying to prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes by the Israeli military when she was crushed by a bulldozer.  Photo courtesy of the Corrie family

During the last decade, many people have risen to the challenge. Working through peacekeeping organizations such as International Fellowship of Reconciliation, Nonviolence International, Women Making Peace, and the Michigan Peace Teams, thousands of ordinary folks accompany activists in conflict zones, monitor elections, and stand by the oppressed. Their bravery is usually unheralded; there are no magnetic yellow ribbons for people like 23-year-old Rachel Corrie, killed in the southern Gaza city of Rafa when she tried to prevent the demolition of a friend's home by the Israeli army, or for the four Christian peacemakers kidnapped in Iraq.

Thousands of people have been trained in conflict resolution and entered zones of conflict. In Angola alone, Search for Common Ground trained 10,000 internally displaced persons in conflict resolution, and the learning ripples out as those people establish new organizations and use the techniques they've learned. The Compassionate Listening Project has taken more than 400 volunteers into the midst of bitter conflict—Israelis and Palestinians, Germans and Jews—and taught them how to listen to each others' stories with compassion and to imagine walking in each other's shoes.

Another group of regular folks has become incensed at the fact that, in the "Land of the Free," we imprison a far higher percentage of our population than any other country in the world. They've worked to find alternatives. One of the most exciting and successful of these is restorative justice. Instead of guilt and punishment, it focuses on the healing of all parties to the conflict. Victims, offenders, and the many others who are affected by a conflict meet and talk with each other. Together they arrive at a solution that addresses everyone's need to be heard and to be restored. According to Prison Fellowship International, the outcomes of these meetings often include victim-offender mediation, victim assistance, ex-offender assistance, restitution, and community service.

On the international level, the last decade saw the culmination of 50 years of work by 100 nongovernmental organizations and nations to establish the International Criminal Court. The court is flawed, a product of compromise. But its opening in 2003 declared, for the first time in history, that human rights trump national sovereignty.

Considering the power and dominance of the United States, perhaps the most encouraging development is the grassroots efforts under way to create a cabinet-level Department of Peace. Its function would be researching, articulating, and facilitating nonviolent solutions to domestic and international conflict. The idea's supporters—and there are many, including 60 co-sponsors of a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives and activist organizations in 48 states and 285 congressional districts?—want the United States to be more effective in addressing sources of violence.

A Dream Renewed

Through imagination, bravery, and hard work, these ordinary folks are renewing the dream of peace in a world where war is the norm. It's difficult work—complicated, messy, and sometimes dangerous. But the hard part—and the best part—is that it can't be done from a distance. You can't do it from behind a computer or by reading about the problem. You have to go to "Their" world. Meet. Sit together. Listen. Talk.

You'll probably find that even with all its trouble and sorrow, the world is a friendlier place than you thought. That "They" are not so bad—and we're not so good. Soon you'll want to start moving big armloads of files from the "Them" drawer into the "Us" drawer. And that, Dear Reader, is the foundation of whatever good we will be able to build together.


Carol EstesCarol Estes wrote this article for 10 Most Hopeful Trends, the Spring 2006 issue of YES! Magazine. Carol is a YES! contributing editor.

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