Sunday, 13 November 2011

Remembrance Sunday: The things that make for peace

Remembrance Sunday 2011

You may not recognise either the name or the face of the woman I have put in the service sheet today, but it seemed to me that her story had much to say to us all on Remembrance Day.

She is one of this years' joint winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, and her name is Leymah Gbowee. She is from Liberia, on the West African coast. Liberia was formed in 1847 as a home for freed slaves returning from America. In recent decades though it’s suffered from a succession of civil wars, and for many years was under the dictatorship of Charles Taylor, who is now on trial at the Hague for war crimes. Leymah Gbowee has lived all her adult  life against a backdrop of the violence, unrest and oppression his rule brought. In the late 90’s she began doing community work with women who had been traumatised by the war, and with disabled child soldiers – young boys taken from their families and  forced to fight, who had been badly scarred, physically and emotionally by all they had seen and done. It was a tough task, but when civil war broke out yet again Leymah began to look at the wider picture. It was all very well to help the individuals damaged by war after the event, but what really needed to happen was for the war to stop.

Like many others she spent time during this period as a refugee with her own small children, seeking safety in camps with her own small children. They were exhausted, scared and hungry – food was very hard to come by. One day her three year old son said to her, “Mummy, I wish I had a small piece of doughnut.” Leymah replied, “I am sorry – I don’t have any doughnut to give you.” “No Mummy, I know,” said the little boy, “but I wish I had some anyway.” And somehow that said it all for her. Again and again she was confronted with the personal cost of the conflict, and she realised that she was absolutely bone-weary of all this fighting. She was furious that generation after generation were having their childhoods stolen from them, furious that the cycle of violence just kept rolling on. But what could she do? There seemed to be nothing. The United Nations had repeatedly tried to force Charles Taylor to enter negotiations with the rebels who were fighting against him, but he adamantly refused, so what hope was there that one ordinary woman could make a difference?

But Leymah is a woman of deep personal faith and one night in a dream she heard God’s voice telling her “gather the women together to pray.” So that’s what she did – gathered the women of her church together. She told them how tired she was of endless war, and she could see that she wasn’t on her own in this. In fact there were also Muslim women there, who felt the same.

The women – Christian and Muslim – decided to act together. They put on white t-shirts and hair ties, and they simply gathered in public, by the side of a road into the capital where they knew that Charles Taylor would pass by. They sang, they prayed, they just sat, day after day, demanding that Taylor took part in UN peace negotiations. Eventually he agreed to meet them, and in a public gathering, Leymah handed over their demands.

“We are tired of war” she said to him. ”We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, "Mama, what was your role during the crisis?"[44]

Amazingly, Taylor gave into their demands – they obviously weren’t going to go away unless he did - and he and the rebel leaders travelled to Accra, the capital of Ghana where the peace talks were to take place. But they didn’t go alone; Leymah and the other the women went too. They weren’t at all convinced that Taylor and the rebels were serious about wanting to negotiate.

The women were right to be sceptical. The peace talks dragged on and on until six long weeks had passed. Back in Liberia they knew that the fighting had escalated again. The women were hearing tales of bloodshed, fear and suffering from their families at home, but no one involved in the peace talks seemed to have any sense of urgency. The leaders were enjoying themselves. They could see that change was coming, but all they were interested in was jockeying for power in whatever government would eventually be formed and meanwhile they were living in the lap of luxury in Ghanaian hotels, drinking at the bars and sitting by the pool? They had no incentive to get on with the talks.

So once again the women decided to take action. One morning, when the talks were in session, they simply went into the building where the negotiations were happening, sat down across the doors in the lobby, linked arms and announced that no one was coming out until they had got that peace treaty signed. And if they didn’t think they were serious, Leymah told them, then she would call up the 10,000 Liberian refugees who lived in Accra to add to their numbers. I don’t know whether she really believed this would work, but the delegates evidently did! In that part of Africa great respect is shown to mothers, so perhaps these delegates felt as if they were hearing their own mothers’ voices! Anyway they could see that here were women not to be messed with. The mood of the negotiations changed, and it wasn’t very long before they were successfully concluded.

Of course it hasn’t been plain sailing after that for Liberia. It takes time, patience and persistence to heal the wounds of war and build a healthy society – Leymah Gbowee and her women’s movement have been very much in the forefront in doing that – but the signing of that peace treaty was the necessary first step, and it was only achieved because Leymah Gbowee and the women with her believed  that they could make a difference, even though they thought they were just ordinary women. Gbowee herself has said, “Don't wait for a Gandhi, don't wait for a [Martin Luther] King, don't wait for a Mandela. You are your own Mandela, you are your own Gandhi, you are your own King."[98]     Someone might one day want to add, “you are your own Leymah Gbowee, so don’t wait for her either.”

In today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel Jesus laments the fact that the people around him can’t see the importance of their own actions, either . He’s looking out over the city of Jerusalem. It was the focus for conflict then, just as it is now. Israel was occupied by Roman troops, under the thumb of Roman rulers, who were increasingly losing patience with its people. Trouble was brewing – the city was eventually destroyed a few decades afterwards - but the people seemed blind to what is coming, and blind to anything they could do to help or to protect themselves. Jesus weeps because he knows that it could be different. “If only you had recognized on this day the things that make for peace….”

It is as if the people are sleep-walking towards disaster. They have an opportunity to act, a chance to change, but they can’t seem to see it, and I think we often fail too as well. We just don’t recognise that the small things we do, the habits of our lives, the way we treat others, makes a difference in the long run. But those small acts add up – to good or to evil. In Jesus’ time, people looked for leaders to help them, heroes to deliver them, but they don’t see that each one of them could be a leader, an influence for good, and I don’t think we are any different. 

The prophet Isaiah said, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace”. Feet aren’t always what we consider to be our most beautiful feature, but Isaiah is right in this case. The messenger’s feet are what get the message to the people who need to hear it. There were no phones or email then; no instant easy solution. Getting that message through was a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again, across mountains and valleys till the job was done. If it wasn’t for the feet of the messenger, the message would get nowhere and be no use. Nothing would change, no one would hear the news they needed to hear – in this case, news that God was going to act and that his people needed to be ready.

As Leymah Gbowee reminds us, each one of us has a part to play where we are. It may not look like a significant or powerful part to us. It may be nothing dramatic, just a steady commitment to caring for those around us, a willingness to get involved in our neighbourhoods and to work for the common good, but what we do matters. It matters because that sort of commitment builds healthy communities, and healthy communities make healthy nations, and healthy nations make a healthy world, and a healthy world is one which doesn’t need to go to war.

Today we remember the dead and injured of two World Wars and many other conflicts since. We remember with gratitude those who stood up against evil, and paid the price for it. But we lament the fact that they needed to do so, and we pray that we will learn those “things that make for peace” and do them. This is not just a task for the great and the good, the heroes, the mighty leaders. It is a task we are all called to. We are called to it here, where we are, in the way we treat each other in our day to day lives. We are called to it now, today, with whatever challenges and opportunities today may bring.  If Leymah Gbowee, armed only with a white t-shirt and the courage of her convictions could make such a difference then why should we think we can’t?

Let us pray:

O God, who would fold both heaven and earth in a single peace:
Let the design of your great love
lighten upon the waste of our wraths and sorrows:
and give us the grace to build peace for your Church,
peace among nations,peace in our homes,and peace in our hearts:
through your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Watch the documentary about Leymah Gbowee and the  women of Liberia here
Leymah Gbowee's autobiography is called "Mighty be our powers" 
You can find more about her here :

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