Interfaith convergence stokes energy for nonviolent change

Civil rights movement veteran Vincent Harding addressing the Ediger Memorial Interfaith Celebration of Nonviolence. (Flickr/Jim Haber)

Active nonviolence is popping up everywhere. This past Sunday it materialized at the Islamic Society of Nevada, where hundreds of people turned up to celebrate the power of nonviolent change — and to make some of their own. The fruit of years of relationship building and collaborative work in Las Vegas, the event drew members of diverse spiritual traditions — Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Native Americans — to reflect on the power of nonviolent options and to wrestle with how to activate this force in the midst of our suffering world.

At a time when attacks on Muslims — from the social media-propelled slander of hate-films to relentless U.S. wars and drone attacks in predominantly Muslim countries — are roiling the planet, this interfaith exchange on the principles and methods of nonviolent transformation was, as participant Friar Louie Vitale put it, “itself a form of active nonviolence.”

Presiding over the assembly was the spirit of Peter Ediger, a longtime peacemaker and staff member of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service who died this past February at the age of 85. Part of his job included working with the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada, which had hatched the idea of an annual conference on nonviolence. After Peter’s death, the inaugural event planned for September 23 was dubbed the Ediger Memorial Interfaith Celebration of Nonviolence. Nevada Desert Experience and Pace e Bene joined the council in helping to make this gathering a reality.

Back in February we had gathered to mark Peter’s life. Family and friends recounted countless stories of nonviolent witness from his long life, beginning with his stint as a conscientious objector during World War II until his last campaign, in which he visited 13 churches in the local area holding a sign simply asking, “Jesus says love your enemies – what does your church say?” I knew many of these stories, but there were several astounding ones I had never heard, even though I worked with him for 22 years. These included how he provided active support to soldiers who had gone AWOL and how, during an anti-nuclear weapons civil disobedience trial, he challenged a judge to remove his robes and come sit with the defendants to discuss the charges in a human way. Instead of threatening Peter with contempt, the judge became reflective and ruminated on how civil disobedience had helped make this country better. He said that his oath prevented him from doing what he had been asked to do, but that he would make sure that Peter and the others being tried would be able to present their full case (including personal motivation, information about nuclear arms and international law), something most judges in these kinds of cases rarely allow and that the prosecutor immediately and vigorously opposed.

One of the themes during this memorial service was how Peter’s own faith had compelled him to connect with and learn from other religious traditions. Now, half a year later, the interfaith community came together, in part, to honor his work. This time, though, the gathering was less focused on remembering the past than preparing to meet the challenges of the present and the future. How can we tap the power of nonviolent transformation that Peter and so many others have experimented with? How can we do this together, crossing religious and cultural boundaries designed to keep us apart?

Speakers gathered from across the U.S. to take part, including Peter’s friend of half a century, civil rights movement activist and historian Vincent Harding; Kathy Kelly, co-director of Voices for Creative Nonviolence; Ahmed Younis, author and Senior Analyst for the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies; and CodePink’s Rae Abileah, a founding member of Young, Jewish and Proud. Louie Vitale also spoke and Franciscan Sr. Mary Litell led the group in centering movement and anti-trauma techniques pioneered by Capacitar. Participants included Peter’s longtime partners for peace in Las Vegas, but also members of Occupy Las Vegas, families, and a sizable turnout from the mosque that is part of the Islamic Society of Nevada.

Many themes were touched on throughout the event, but none more than the difficult but critically important practice of loving our enemies — not as an edifying idealism but as a practical key to breaching the impasse of deeply intractable and cataclysmic conflicts. Kathy Kelly — who spent decades responding to U.S. invasion and sanctions in Iraq and has now made numerous trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past three years — evoked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to put aside the horrifying and ultimately self-defeating power of war and instead to risk putting the love of enemies into action. She underscored what Dr. King identified as two key dimensions of this stance: first, seeing ourselves as the opponent sees us and, second, seeing the humanity of the opponent.

Both of these approaches to the enemy will be necessary if this cycle is to end, Kelly held. In Afghanistan, she got a glimpse into this from someone who had every right to raise the barrier insurmountably. She met a man from a village whose members were mistaken to be Taliban fighters. The Taliban had come through the village, but were gone when U.S.-fired Hellfire missiles struck the village, killing the village elder and wounding others.

When she heard this story, she asked him, “Can you at all imagine the people in your village ever wanting to sit down with people from my country?” He looked at her like she was insane. “Oh, but of course,” he said. “Who would be so crazy as not to want the peace?” Then, he added, “But please, madame, you leave your weapons aside.”

This Afghan villager understood that one has to transform the deeply etched and deeply justifiable “us versus them” attitude to get to this peace. Kelly continued:

This love will be hard. It won’t be easy. It will take us to places that we’re not familiar with. But let’s presume that we’ve all got the same blood running through our veins – and the same desire to love the children and to bring about a better world.

Love does not condone violence. But at the same time it sees the power and potential of what is beyond violence, rooted in shared humanness. It is this love that empowers us to challenge and transform the power of fear, hate and greed in ourselves and others, and so open up options that were unimaginable before, as both Kathy Kelly and Vincent Harding suggest in this video clip from the conference.

The day was rich with presentations, panels and breakout sessions, but also song, prayer, art making and a meal provided for all by the members of the mosque. One of the highlights of the event was a five-minute online conversation with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV) in Afghanistan, with whom Kathy Kelly has been working for years. It was extremely moving for many participants to hear directly from the AYPV, who have launched a new campaign entitled Two Million Friends. In memory of the two million Afghan victims of war, they are seeking two million friends who will clamor for a ceasefire and just and lasting peace in their country. They urged the participants to spread the news about this initiative. (To become one of the two million friends, click here.)

Six weeks before he died, Peter Ediger wrote, “I’d like to cultivate a spirit of less cynicism and more faith, less despair and more hope, less hate and more love.” The conference he inspired in Las Vegas is an example of a step in this direction. No doubt he would be deeply pleased if such interreligious gatherings rooted in the spirit of nonviolent change were to take place everywhere.

Special thanks to Jim Haber and Louie Vitale for their help on this report.

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