As Leymah Gbowee stood in front of a crowd of women at her church in Monrovia, praying for an end to the civil war that was raging in Liberia, she had no idea of the consequences that were about to unfold.
A specialist in healing from trauma, Gbowee and her allies had spent months visiting mosques, markets and churches in order to mobilize a nascent peace movement. By the late summer of 2002, she had become recognized as the leader of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which held daily non-violent demonstrations and sit-ins in defiance of orders from Charles Taylor, the Liberian President at the time.
Eighteen months later, in August 2003, the war was brought to an end. Gbowee’s efforts, along with those of newly-elected President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, were recognized by the award of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. I heard Gbowee speak at an interfaith conference in North Carolina in 2012, where she emphasized that the main challenge she had faced was not apathy. Liberians were already angry.
The real issue was how to keep well-intentioned people from exacerbating an already-cruel situation with more violence. Why? Because the more violence there is, the more abuses there will be against women and other people. Anger is reasonable and justified in the face of abuse and exploitation, but what really matters is what we do with it. According to Gbowee, anger is neutral. We can choose to use it as a fuel for violence or nonviolence. Liberian women chose the latter, and transformed a civil war into a lasting peace.