Thursday, January 7, 2010
Peacemaking & El Salvador
I will be traveling to El Salvador in one week for a class on the Church from a Latin American perspective. I am really excited and I decided to write this pre-travel reflection.
I would never attempt to write a book about Russia. This is because I know virtually nothing about the country save for the fact that it is supposedly cold. Similarly, it strikes me as somewhat fraudulent for someone of my background to spout off about peacemaking and justice. Because I grew up in a small town of WASPs and middle-class comfort, I often feel like a phony when I attempt to preach about peace and justice. What do I know? I have never once encountered a violent situation let alone anything life-threatening. Nor have I ever asked the question, "I wonder if I'll eat today?" The reality is that I have been blessed with a fairly charmed life thus far. And so I find myself often frustrated by the fact that I have read a lot about peacemaking, and yet haven't truly experienced exactly how the Gospel of Peace is lived out in a world of conflict.
But perhaps the first step to peacemaking for someone like me is self-awareness. That is, the ability to recognize my life experience in contrast to others. And, perhaps to realize the great responsibility that comes with the blessings of particular life experiences (e.g. education, economic opportunity, etc.). In this sense, it proves beneficial to consider one's background more closely.
My family has always lived the middle-class, white American life (though my father was fairly poor growing up). Both of my parents, however, come from generations of typical Christian thinking and lifestyle: my mother from a Bible-belt culture in Kentucky, and my father from a Pentecostal culture in Southern Arizona. Thus, it is no big surprise that I too grew up in a small, predominately Christian town, attended the local Wesleyan church and received a Christian-based education. Throughout my upbringing I never had to consider (let alone encounter) the horrors of violence or injustice. Those tragic realities were more like concepts that we would toss around in Sunday school or Bible study; similar to school subjects that were interesting to learn about but not exactly "real."
The sad truth is that I was living amongst social injustice but never knew it. The county where I grew up, for example, is the poorest county in NY State. I now realize that so many of the people who lived around me as a kid suffered from our country's own social injustices (health care or education, for examples). Though I never realized this as a kid, I have begun to learn the ability to see injustice. The ability to recognize injustices, I believe, requires both education and maturity.
Perhaps in addition to education and maturity, realizing the presence of injustice involves interpersonal relationships. My father, who grew up in Tucson, AZ, became acutely aware of the disparity between Northern and Latin Americas as a kid. He witnessed his father adopt a young Mexican man - an illegal migrant - sometime during the 70's (and he is now currently a member of our family, along with is two brothers!). From this my father gained awareness of disparate life experiences and passed on that awareness to me so that I too might be aware of the realities of the social stratification in our world. But as I mentioned above, knowledge about injustice and peacemaking is one thing; true experience of it is a wholly other.
I believe that peacemaking has to combine these two elements: knowledge about and experience of. This is why I am so eager to visit El Salvador. I don't believe for one minute that I can authentically experience what the Salvadoran people experience. But from relating with them and learning from them I will gain perspective that is nearly impossible for me to gain sitting at a desk in Philadelphia. I am hopeful that through this experience I might better understand the injustices that are caused by my own society and that I might learn of the ways that I can become involved in resolving them here in the U.S.
The relational aspect to a trip such as this is, in my opinion, the crux of the Gospel. I dare not presume that I have the capability to change the lives of any Salvadoran person or provide the help that is needed in their situation. But I do, however, have the capability to be a brother to everyone I meet and affirm their value as a child of God. This, I believe, is a critical element to the Gospel of Peace: to hear the stories of other people, to listen to their plight, and offer my "yes" to their existence.
I also believe that peace is not simply the absence of conflict but the presence of justice. Peace is often watered down into some idealistic, metaphysical fluff. It cannot be! Like most theological doctrines (in my opinion), it must be grounded in human experience. Justice, for me, means that human beings are offered the opportunity for well-being, to thrive instead of merely survive. And thus this idea of peacemaking must be holistic and cooperative. It must include elements of economics, education, local government policies, federal government policies, and more. The fact is that these elements from various disciplines or departments are all run by and for people. Thus, it is grounded in human experience.
As a result of this approach to peacemaking dialogue is very necessary. In the past three years I have begun to involve myself in various inter-denominational and inter-religious dialogue. It is there that I see the most hope for our hurting world. In no other setting do I see more potential for peacemaking and justice. I think this is because it involves increased perspectives and is therefore able to reach increased demographics. The other benefit to this approach is that it is founded upon common reaction to the unjust human experiences that it aims to relieve. Once again peacemaking is rooted in human experience (it has little to do with metaphysical religious jargon and everything to do with starving, oppressed peoples).
Though I have been to the Dominican Republic and have seen the experience of some of Latin America, I believe the I am in for further revelation by visiting El Salvador. That is, I am at least preparing myself to be utterly humbled and most likely shaken by what I will see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Living in West Philadelphia I often feel like I am "rich" when I consider my surroundings. However, I have the feeling that visiting El Salvador is going to have a heavy impact on me. This, I believe, will be the hardest aspect to our trip.
In addition, I think that the language barrier will be both a curse and a blessing. My inability to speak Spanish will no doubt inhibit me from connecting with people, but perhaps it will allow me to engage my other senses in fresh ways. I hope that it will enable me to take in my experience from a unique perspective and notice things that may otherwise be overlooked.
Because a 1-week trip is so brief, I don't want to have unrealistic expectations. Therefore, my hope is to simply make one tangible connection between what is happening in El Salvador and what I am doing here in Philadelphia so that when I return home I will be able to be a part of what God is doing with my sisters and brothers in El Salvador. This could be a personal relationship with someone (or a community); or it could be the involvement with an organization that fights agricultural injustice, etc. I don't know what it will be. But this is my goal. I want to maintain a personal connection with people in El Salvador that will enable the process of peace work. May God show me what that connection may be.