03 October 2009

In the presence of my 'enemies' on the International Day of Non-Violence

There are too many thoughts running through my head at the moment and I feel an intense need to get them out and organized in some semi-coherent way. My internal dialogue has been going at light speed for the past several days as I’ve been reflecting on the experiences that planted the seed of my current sojourn in Vietnam and thoughts relating to the occasion of Gandhi’s birthday and International Day of Non-Violence have joined in the cacophony in my head. I’m not sure that I can make any sense out of them, but what follow are my attempts to do just that.

It’s hard to believe that the first inklings that a trip to Vietnam might be in my future started over three years ago, and at that point, it was alongside a much more anticipated possible trip to Iran. What intrigued me was the way the trip was framed as an opportunity to relate with ‘enemies past and present’. At that point, the drums of war were beating once again as it seemed my country had already set its sights on war with Iran, just as it had done in Afghanistan and Iraq. The hate-speech and misinformation was rampant and as a student of history, I could see several parallels between that moment and what I’d learned about the build up to the war in Vietnam. The study tour to these two countries promised an opportunity, no matter how small, to sit at the table with those who had been or are currently enemies of the country I call home. As our preparations continued, I became more excited about the prospect of humanizing those who seemed so distant and foreign to my realm of experience.

Flash forward three years. I’ve been to and returned from both Iran and Vietnam. I sat around tables and experienced humbling hospitality at the tables of ‘my enemies’. I toured the War Remnants museum with a Vietnamese teacher who lost half of her family in the war waged by my country. I sat at a table with Muslim scholars who knew my own theology better than I do. I drank countless cups of tea and coffee and spent hours in conversation. Naively, I assumed that these experiences were behind me as I settled into the routine of real life after graduation. But, whether through divine providence, serendipity, or just plain coincidence, I’ve once again found myself living in the land of a former enemy.

Now, several weeks into my two year sojourn in a country that is beginning to feel more and more like home, I am again reminded of the dire importance of meeting and relating with those whom we are told are the ‘evil other’. While that language is no longer used to describe the Vietnamese, except by those who still consider socialism/communism to be the work of evil in the world, the voices of dehumanization and isolation continue to rage against Iran. I sit in my room at the international guest house and I watch the BBC and read the Washington Post. Living, as I am in the very best example of American foreign policy gone horribly wrong, I can only pray that reason will prevail and the examples of the past will inform our present choices. If only those who made the decisions that bring life or death, dialogue or isolation, a new way forward or the continuation of old hatreds could live with those who will feel the effects of those decisions. If they could walk the streets of Hanoi or Tehran, if they could share a bowl of pho or plate of kebab, perhaps then there would be less talk of us and them, and more of we. I know that I’m drastically oversimplifying and that my mind cannot grasp the elements of realpolitik involved… but perhaps we need to see things more simply and look at the shared humanity that binds us together, rather than the political, ideological and religious differences that divide us.

As if the cacophony of these voices running through my head were not enough, they have been joined over the past day with thoughts of the International Day of Nonviolence, to celebrate and remember the birthday of Gandhi on October 2. In addition to the drums of international war between the US and Iran, wars continue to rage around the world. The human family is torn apart by strife and competition for scarce resources. Differences in religion, race, gender, political persuasion, sexual orientation, and worldview fan the flames of overt violence and more hidden forms such as prejudice, exploitation, and discrimination. Instead of working, as Gandhi sought to do, for the non-harm of all and the conquering power of ‘truth force’ we seek to establish an advantage for our position at the expense of those not quite as powerful. Proponents of nonviolence in the international arena are mocked and derided as weak and out of touch with reality while the voices of violence and triumphalism are welcomed with open arms. While I’m realistic enough to know that creating a day to commemorate the life of a person who inspired so many of the non-violent struggles for independence and human rights will not create a substantial difference, it has certainly provided the motivation for some reflection. So, I guess this all comes down to just that, this is simply my reflection on what would happen if on this day, people set aside their differences and sat in conversation with those whom they generally view as ‘other’. Maybe nothing would change and my dreams are simply the longings of a soul that cannot fathom where humanity will be if we continue on our current path of dehumanization and an all out competition to make sure ‘we’ come out on top. But, just maybe small changes could begin to take shape; maybe just the seeds of changes could find fertile ground as people reflect on the humanity that connects us.

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