This is a Peace Testimony that I wrote for the George Fox Center for Peace and Justice:
Jesus says, “Blessed are the peace-makers.” Sadly, my first reaction to conflict, division and injustice is not usually peace but anger. Thankfully, my community helps me allay my anger and to cultivate actions rooted in love.
My wife Lenutsa and I participate in an organization called Word Made Flesh. Although peace, justice, and reconciliation are part of our ethos, they are not explicitly named as elements of our core values. What we do name as one of our defining marks is “community,” which implies peace, justice, and reconciliation.
In Galati, an industrial city in eastern Romania, our community is postured as a sign of peace in the midst of Orthodox Christian and Neo-Protestant tensions, Romanian and Roma violence, and wealthy and poor divisions. We are situated in a historically impoverished neighborhood in which we have made friendships across religious, ethnic, and economic lines. Here we attempt to respond on a daily basis to the wounds of broken and disenfranchised children and families. By addressing violence and injustices and by building healthy relationships, we pray that the seeds of peace are sown and nourished.
But when faced with conflict, my anger often gets the better of me. I am angry at the mutual exclusion of the different Christian traditions. I am angry at the entrenched racism and the self-victimization. I am angry at the patterns of abuse, neglect, and disempowerment. Of course, I can justify my anger as being “righteous,” but if I am honest, I realize that the anger feels good and gives me an illusion of control.
While anger seems like a knee-jerk reflex to conflict around me, the spiritual practices of my community prepare me and enable me to respond in love. Each morning we sit together in worship, prayer, silence, and Scripture reading. By focusing on the God who is love and who makes peace without violence, my vision, attitude, and actions are disciplined and directed towards love and peace. Although the cultivation of peace in my life is a long and continuous process and fraught with many failings, I have seen how our commitment to cultivate a community that is rooted in God’s life and presence leads to gestures of peace-making. Let me offer one example.
A few years back on a cool October day, I was watching the sun go down on our soccer game as I returned from the open market with two sacks full of groceries. I heard screaming and saw commotion, but I did not know what was causing the upheaval. I set the dinner food down and ran to the crowd of children who live on the streets. I found Ionuts cornered to the fence by a gang of teenagers who were beating him up. The reason for their aggression was simply that Ionuts was a “street child”, someone they considered lesser than themselves and easy prey for what they thought was a good time. The rest of the children from the streets and the volunteer workers did not know how to intervene except by shouting their protest. Without thinking, I walked into the middle of the gang and shielded Ionuts with my body. With my back to the belligerent teens, I looked Ionuts in the eye and tried to calm him as he screamed worthless threats at his attackers. Fortunately, the boys departed as quickly as they had jumped him. Unfortunately, Ionuts was bleeding through his cut eye, mouth and nose. He grabbed his glue bag and cried justice through the soothing intoxication.
While I was overwhelmed by my powerlessness to help Ionuts’ immediate pain, I was presently surprised that I didn’t respond to aggression with aggression. Certainly this small act of peace-making spoke love to Ionuts as well as to his attackers and the bystanders. Although violence seems to evoke my own violence from within, at least in this instance I could see how our community’s spiritual practices shape and enable actions that are non-violent in the face of violence. And as we see God work in us and change us, our daily prayer is not only to become signs of peace; we also pray that victims of violence like Ionuts experience God’s healing, justice, and reconciliation.