Category Archives: The Peace & Justice Files

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: LOVE WILL DO THAT

I was 40000 or so feet above the North Atlantic a few days ago, on my way back to the States after nearly a year away. I was speaking with my seatmate, a young German grad student in economics, who was traveling to Canada to visit his Colombian girlfriend, who’s at university near Toronto. Having met at a hostel in Thailand a year and a half ago, they’ve been maintaining a trans-Atlantic relationship ever since – but now he’s planning a move to Canada. “It’s been difficult, of course – and expensive,” he was saying. “But we know it’ll be worth it.”

I am thinking of the hostel where I stayed for a few days before leaving Belgrade – where one of the Serbian managers was having a tempestuous relationship with one of the guests, a refugee from Iran I believe. I couldn’t help but overhear as they had long and intense conversations out on the balcony of the large shared room where I slept. (English was their meeting ground!) Bit by bit, step by faltering step, they tried to negotiate the tricky, perilous spaces that culture and conditioning had set up between them, trying to reconcile what their hearts were telling them with the harsh realities of the world outside.  And I prayed for them, that they would find a way to build the bridges that would help them share their lives, and I thought of the song by Bruce Cockburn:

When you’re lovers in a dangerous time,
Sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime.
Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight
You gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight

This is more than wistful romanticism, though.

Think of cultures as tectonic plates – slowly drifting, colliding, sometimes scraping against each other. The interesting stuff happens in the places where they touch, where boundaries start to break, where new possibilities can emerge. In the middle, far away from these edges, the integrity of the whole is not usually threatened… if these collisions happen in the right way. If there is resistance, though… if unresolved tensions are allowed to build up along fault lines… if there is only pushing, and no yielding… if there is nothing to ameliorate the friction… that’s when earthquakes happen.   

Sometimes that amelioration is driven by commerce, sometimes by expedience. Sometimes it is driven by love.

We can’t merge, after all, without melting a little.

This was one of the things that I saw during my trip that gave me great hope for the future – to see young people from all over the world meeting and interacting with each other, finding common ground and common humanity, exploring how to transcend the limitations of nationalism and isolationism, laying the groundwork for entirely new ways of not only coexisting but flourishing together.

Because of course love will do that.

That’s what love does.

I’ll tell you more next month.

 

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PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: MAKE A JOYFUL NOISE

(“Peace and Justice Files” columnist Skip Mendler is wrapping up a year of travel in Europe, and is returning to the States in January.)

Survival is not enough. – Emily St. John Mandel, STATION ELEVEN

Let me share three data points:

  1. I met a Syrian visual artist not long ago. His life’s works had all been destroyed by Islamic State personnel, who controlled his city for a while. He fled towards Europe. Now, after years of displacement and uncertainty, he has found his way to safety, and hopefully to a new life… but he has not yet been able to create new work. His creative spirit, unsurprisingly, is still recovering from the trauma he experienced.
  2. On my way back from Serbia to Germany, I spent a few days in the city of Tuzla, in Bosnia. I happened to be there during their International Film Festival, and before one of the public screening sessions I met a young Bosnian-American filmmaker and choreographer. He talked about how difficult he had found it to get his fellow Bosnians interested in the arts again, following the tragedies of the Balkan Wars of the 1990’s. He was guardedly optimistic, though. He felt that the tide was just now starting to turn – that more than twenty years since the Dayton Accords ended the conflict, some kind of cultural thaw might finally be underway.
  3. Last month I had the privilege of attending the Köln premiere of one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen: the documentary HUMAN FLOW, directed by Chinese conceptual artist Ai Wei Wei. In this immensely powerful and deeply compassionate work, Ai takes us along with him as he journeys with a group of refugees through Northern Greece, and visits camps and war zones throughout the Middle East, including Gaza. He also unflinchingly shows us the scope of the refugee crisis around the world – from the plight of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, to the Sudan, to the US-Mexico border. This relentless survey of suffering is punctuated with interviews with humanitarian workers and international experts, who point out that the impact of the present situation will be felt for decades if not generations to come, and that countries who try to “protect” themselves by reinforcing their borders and brutally repelling migrants are in fact making their futures less secure. Furthermore, it is vitally important that the psychological and, yes, spiritual needs of displaced populations be met, not just the physical ones.

The arts – and artists – are crucial to our retaining our humanness in the face of increasingly dire circumstances, and equally crucial to recovering that humanness in their aftermath. But war, displacement, deprivation, and repression do not only wound, cripple, and kill bodies, but spirits as well. Even the brightest lights may be dimmed, if not extinguished altogether, if not given what they need to heal. And they must heal if they are to help their societies to heal.

So this holiday season, I would call on us to make an especially joyful noise… to actively reaffirm the power of imagination and festivity, to insist on the possibility of transcendent beauty, to seek out the flowers hidden in the ruins… because, as the quote at the top of the column says, survival is not enough.

(PS: One project I’d like to take on when I get back is arranging a showing of HUMAN FLOW in our area. Let me know if you’d like to help.)

(PPS: Dear Reader, I’ve left you a Christmas present… on my YouTube account. It’s a song called “Let It Be a Quiet Christmas.” It’s not exactly joyful, but I hope you enjoy it.)

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: WAITING FOR THE NEXT SHOE

(“Peace and Justice Files” columnist Skip Mendler fled the United States on January 19, and has spent the last couple of months volunteering with a small refugee assistance group in Serbia.)

My time in Serbia is just about up – by the time you read these words I will be in Tuzla, Bosnia, getting ready to go back to Germany and resume some creative projects I was working on there. My experience here has been wonderful, traumatic, eye-opening, and heartbreaking. I hope I get a chance to return, or maybe even proceed further “upriver,” tracing the refugees’ path farther back, into Greece, Romania or maybe even Turkey.

But in the meantime… can I get something off my chest?

Remember Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR? You may recall how the omnipresent “telescreens” would periodically blare out news of some victory or other, followed by a breathless pronouncement along the lines of, “This brings the war within measurable distance of its end!”

(If you haven’t read NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR yet, please stop what you are doing now and go read it. You will understand what is happening now much better. Trust me on this.)

Well, all these little leaks and suggestions and rumors and possibilities that keep showing up in my newsfeeds these days are starting to sound very much like Orwell’s tantalizing telescreen, except now the message is more like “The end of the Trump Nightmare is in sight!” Indictments and impeachment resolutions are just around the corner! Mueller is about to make an earth-shattering announcement!

It’s driving me nuts, I tell you.

It’s not surprising, of course. There is probably nothing, not even the final season of GAME OF THRONES, that engenders greater feelings of anticipation than the idea of Trump and his crew being cast out of power. And so of course anything that suggests the coming breaking of dawn will garner retweets and sharings.

But this anticipation is itself dangerous. It can distract us from continuing to apply the necessary daily pressure on our elected officials. It can give us a sense of false hope that, when let down often enough, exhausts us and leads to frustration and despair.  And it can be used as bait.

At the same time, we are held in thrall by similarly phrased intimations of Apocalypse from a dozen different directions. When will the other shoe drop, and where? North Korea? Iran? Venezuela? All three at once?

So I am trying my best to ignore the “Sources say…” and “According to some…” stories. I am trying to focus on the immediate tragedies and successes in whose reality I can have some confidence.

Until I see the full-page photo of Donald Trump being led out of the White House in handcuffs.

Then I might start thinking more seriously about return tickets.

 

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: BEOGRAD BLUES

(“Peace and Justice Files” columnist Skip Mendler left the USA on January 19, and is now in Belgrade, Serbia, helping with refugee assistance.)

First off, I’d like to thank the folks who responded to last month’s survey request, regarding how well we as a nation are fulfilling the goals set forth by the Founders in the Preamble to the Constitution. I could use a few more responses, though. Please stop by https://www.surveymonkey.de/r/MCKVFVM and let me know what you think. (So far, the results are not exactly encouraging…)

Now then:

Through a very useful website called www.greecevol.info, I found out about a fairly new NGO called BelgrAID, based in the Serbian capital city of Belgrade (also called Beograd, depending on your language). These folks cook nutritious daily meals for a group of refugees from various countries, about 800-1000 young men who are housed in a former Yugoslav army base in the nearby city of Obrenovac. They also provide help to other vulnerable communities here in Belgrade, and transport personal care supplies to various camps across Serbia.

They. Are. Amazing.

I find myself among an ever-changing gaggle of a couple of dozen competent, energetic, idealistic, practical, and motivated young people, from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, America, and other countries. (A group of awesome Portuguese Girl Scouts came through recently from Lisbon.) German, Spanish, English, Italian, and other tongues fill the air. There are also a handful of neighborhood dogs that we have adopted – or rather who have adopted us – and who provide amusement and comfort that more than makes up for the times they eat our socks.

Some of these folks are long-term, dedicated volunteers. Others are students or workers taking some time during their summer holidays to be of service. Others are travelers and adventurers, combining their wanderlusts with a desire to make a difference.

Why are they here?

I spent an afternoon talking to a young woman named Carolina, from the Bay Area of California.  She had been on vacation in Greece, and fell into a conversation with an older woman who had been spending time in the Greek Islands dealing with the huge influx of refugees last fall.

“Oh,” she remembered thinking: “I have to do that.”

Clear. Obvious. No-brainer.

They are here because there is work to be done, and human needs to be filled. Pure and simple.

So I have met some of these men, these Farsi and Benghalis and Pashtuns, and shared some meals and conversations with them. They are tanners and aircraft mechanics, would-be accountants and experienced managers. They tear up when they hear emotional pop songs from their homelands. They meet, talk, and play soccer and basketball these young, free, strong Western women, but they always act as impeccable gentlemen towards them, even though you can see the longing and loneliness in their eyes.

In a few days, I’ll get to go meet some refugee kids in one of the other camps, perform for them, and maybe introduce some of them to the old-fashioned tin can stilts I’ve been making in my spare time. If you’d like to know more about supporting BelgrAID, or my work here in particular, drop me a note at skip.mendler@gmail.com.  Thanks.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: HOW ARE WE DOING?

(My column for July 2017…)

First, a quick update: my time in Germany has been fabulous, but is soon coming to an end, for now at least. My next column will be sent from Belgrade, in Serbia, where I will be spending at least the month of August volunteering with a refugee assistance agency called BelgrAid. Check my Facebook account for news as it happens.

Now then…

I hope everyone had a thoroughly enjoyable Independence Day. (I also hope we get to have another one!) The Fourth found me in a nice little Italian restaurant here in Krefeld, with a glass of pinot noir and a yummy plate of pasta with shrimp in cream sauce, thinking about where we are, where we’re going, and the importance of goals.

I got introduced to the concepts of “Total Quality Management” while I worked for a software company down in Stroudsburg back in the late nineties. Many of those concepts had to do with goal setting – everything from determining the overall purpose of a company down to identifying the acceptable error rate for widget production. I learned that goals, to be really useful, needed to be SMART: specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-oriented… at least, that was one interpretation of the acronym “SMART.” (There are others – see for instance https://www.projectsmart.co.uk/smart-goals.php.)

Maybe you’ve been in one of those annual performance reviews – where you and your manager sat down, looked at the goals you’d set last time, compared them to actual performance, and talked about what had worked well and where improvement was still possible. Properly handled, such talks can be immensely useful, both for employees and management.

Well, we have goals as a country, you know. They’re in the Preamble to the Constitution. (Test yourself! See how many you remember before reading the next paragraph!)

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Now, of course the Founders didn’t have TQM, or the idea of “SMART goals,” so perhaps they can be excused for setting some pretty fuzzy and difficult-to-measure goals. Just what did they mean by “a more perfect Union,” say, or “the Blessings of Liberty”? Heck, judging from the state of the healthcare debate, we can’t even seem to agree on what is meant by “the general Welfare.”

But here’s another important thing to remember about goals: they are not carved in stone. Situations change, and goals can change with them. Some might not prove to be realistic; some might not go far enough. The process of goal-setting can lead to some pretty serious self-examination, and also encourage some audacious visions.

So here’s your opportunity to engage in a little exercise – I’ve set up a survey called “Progress Towards America’s Goals” on the SurveyMonkey website. Go to https://www.surveymonkey.de/r/MCKVFVM, and have at it. It should take about ten to fifteen minutes to complete, maybe more if you want to get really thoughtful about it. In a couple of weeks, I hope to have enough responses to generate a kind of report card, which I can then share with you. Thanks in advance.

 

 

 

 

 

TRIBES (2009)

(My “Peace and Justice Files” column from June 2009.)

Whenever I see someone here in the North displaying a Confederate flag – whether it’s on a truck, a front porch, or a belt buckle – I find myself wondering just what, exactly, that flag means to that person, and what message that person intends to convey. Did they have ancestors, perhaps, who fought for the South in what some down there still refer to as “the recent unpleasantness,” and they’re just showing some pride in their heritage? Do they mean to demonstrate a hankerin’ for secession, or just a desire to be left alone? Are they making a nuanced political statement regarding states’ rights, encroaching Federal power, and the Tenth Amendment? Or are they simply letting it be known that their weekend schedule is likely to involve some combination of Toby Keith, Bud Light, and NASCAR?

There are all sorts of tribes – ideologies, heritages, lifestyles – and all sorts of ways to display your allegiance to the tribe (or tribes!) of your choice, from uniforms and flags to tattoos and license plate frames.

In some places, so I am told, displaying the wrong tribal symbols can get you killed – wearing the other gang’s colors, having the wrong kind of name, praying in this manner rather than that, sending your daughter to a school, that kind of thing. Sometimes the consequences are more subtle – a little delay in service, perhaps, or an extra-thorough examination at an airport gate, or maybe a bit of preventive detention.

But if you’re connected to whatever tribe happens to be in power, well then! Life becomes much easier. After all, tribes exist (among other things) to provide mutual protection for their members, and to guard the tribe’s resources against attacks from outsiders. So maybe it’s not all that surprising that folks on President Obama’s economic team like Timothy Geitner and Larry Summers, whom we might well consider members in good standing of the “Wall Street Tribe,” have been acting first and foremost to further the interests of their fellows.

Such tribal thinking has its limitations, however, in an interconnected and interdependent world. More dominant “tribes,” whether on local or global levels, can no longer afford to be quite so callous about the effects of their dominance, or imagine themselves immune either from larger responsibilities or from the consequences of irresponsible actions. I am writing these words just a few hours after President Obama delivered his “New Beginning” speech in Cairo, calling on various “tribes” (our own included) to focus more on their connections than on their differences, and to think more about how to make this a better world for everyone. The world can no longer be seen as a “zero-sum” game, where my tribe can only win at the expense of yours – ways must be found for everyone to progress, or we shall all lose ground instead.

Identifying with our various tribes helps us form part of our identities. We don’t have to completely surrender our roots, or our passions, or our beliefs in order to coexist, but we must also remain mindful that, for this short time only, we are each members of the same tribe: the tribe of the living.

ATTACK MODE (2010)

(My Peace and Justice Files column from September, 2010)

attack

“Turn on the TV, we’re under attack.” As September began, James J. Lee attacked the headquarters of the Discovery Channel, taking hostages and issuing a list of demands, in which he attacked “Kate Plus Eight,” among other things. Apparently, he felt that Mother Earth herself was under attack, and he didn’t think that Discovery programming attacked global warming or overpopulation hard enough. So, police attacked in response, killing Lee. Al Sharpton attacked Glenn Beck for trying to co-opt Martin Luther King’s legacy, evangelical Christians attacked Beck for being a Mormon, and Beck attacked President Barack Obama’s faith as “a perversion of the gospel.”

The “Bleacher Report” says this year we should expect to see much more of an aerial attack from the Florida Gators than the past few years. Hamas attacked some Israelis, killing four, so you know the Israelis are going to attack someone in response, right? Nonetheless, Netanyahu and Abbas say they’re willing to attack some the thorniest problems surrounding the peace process. Turkey is still miffed at Israel for attacking that flotilla of humanitarian workers headed for Gaza, although other people defend the Israeli soldiers, whom they claim were attacked with clubs and iron bars by the people on the ships.

“Who’s behind these attacks, anyway?” Hurricane Earl is about to attack the coast of North Carolina. A Muslim imam has been under attack all summer for proposing to build a cultural center a few blocks from the site of the Ground Zero attacks in New York City. The people attacking the imam have been attacked as being Islamophobic racists, but they say they’re still outraged by the 9/11 attacks. A Muslim cab driver was attacked in his cab by a photographer who had just returned from filming attacks with the Marines in Afghanistan.

“We’re in full-attack mode now, by golly!” A mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee was the target of an arson attack. Some kids in Carlton, NY, are accused of a drive-by attack harassing a Sufi mosque. Sarah Palin maintains that the American way of life is under attack. I had a major panic attack myself in January of 2008. Newt Gingrich attacks Obama’s “secular-socialist machine,” and some of Obama’s critics have attacked the veracity of the President’s citizenship. US-led aerial attacks killed 16 civilians near Kandahar, some of whom were reportedly election campaign workers.

The schoolkids are back to attacking their books, and here in Honesdale it’s football season, and you know what that means – it’s time for the “Red and Black Attack!” Political campaigns are working on new series of attack ads, in preparation for the November elections. “The attack came before dawn, while the village was asleep.” Shark attacks against swimmers in coastal waters have grabbed headlines. Police are investigating a series of acid-throwing attacks in the Northwest. Bee colonies are under attack from a mysterious illness. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton thinks that Israel should already have attacked Iran’s nuclear program by now. An Iranian newspaper has attacked Carla Bruni, the wife of French President Sarkozy, as a “prostitute” for defending the rights of Iranian women from attack by conservative clerics.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) renewed calls for a missile defense system, saying “I think we are naked in terms of an attack on the East Coast.” Archaeologists have attacked BP’s plans to start exploratory oil drilling off the coast of Libya. Two people died in Port Huron, MI, as a result of one of a number of recent attacks around the country involving machetes. Some conservatives attacked Ann Coulter for speaking at an event for gay Republicans, and of course she attacked them right back. The Defense Department recently confirmed a major cyber-attack against US military computers. Wikileaks founder Julius Assange contends the rape charges against him are part of an attack campaign following Wikileaks’ release of a huge number of military attack reports from Iraq. A fungus has attacked the bat population in the Northeast, and is spreading.

So when Obama says that our days of attacking Iraq are over… somehow, for some reason, that gives me little comfort.