Friday, January 16, 2009

Peace ripples

This isn't a book you are going to find in most bookstores. But if you are curious about the kind of people who devote themselves to seeking peace through faithful nonviolent witness in the midst of armed conflicts, go find it.

These are people who believe they are called to "get in the way" wherever war and violence are the rule.

118 Days: Christian Peacemaker Teams Held Hostage in Iraq is the record of the time, now nearly forgotten, when four international witnesses were kidnapped in Baghdad in 2005-6. Or rather, as the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) website explains:

The kidnapping of these four peacemakers was like a rock thrown into a pond. This collection describes the ripples on the water, the impact and results of that rock, in stories characterized by hope, courage, friendship, and forgiveness. [The book] bears witness to vital peacemaking being done around the world in these times.

Canadian Jim Loney, New Zealander Harmeet Sooden, and Briton Norman Kember were eventually set free by a detachment of British soldiers. Their US comrade, Tom Fox, was taken away and murdered by someone two weeks before their release from captivity. Several essays draw a vivid picture of the man who did not come back alive.

Since this is an uneven collection essays, it has many facets. I want to take up only two, one in this post, another in a subsequent post.

First, there's the illuminating account by journalists from the Christian news service Ekklesia of the difficulties supporters of Norman Kember in the United Kingdom had in getting themselves organized and in dealing with the press. CPT has some permanent infrastructure in the US and Canada; there were offices for the media to call. But in the UK, Kember's supporters fund themselves dealing without much preparation with hungry reporters hot on the trail of a juicy human interest story. Simon Barrow describes the trajectory of press accounts:

For the western news media, North American and European hostages in the Middle East are big stories because they can personalize and dramatize what can otherwise seem like one endless series of faraway, nameless tragedies. They become in fact miniature soap operas with their own recognizable cast of heroes, villains, victims and clowns. Their stuff is the daily drama of hope and despair writ large. Their setting is an exotic but mostly unexamined stage.

So, at first, the press made their narrative of Norman Kember's captivity that of an amiable, elderly naïve, rather than of a brave man who acted out of informed conviction. The realities of Iraq were almost erased by this narrative, as was the support offered the CPT hostages by religious Muslims around the world. Those elements didn't fit the story line.

So attached did the media become to their own narrative that they treated the release of Kember and the others as a sort of betrayal. Suddenly persons who had acted the parts of helpless victims became ingrates who didn't appreciate the risks that British troops in Iraq must have taken to bust them out of captivity. Though both CPT and Norman Kember thanked the rescuers, the peace activists still insisted that military force was not the way to solve Iraq's problems. So the media portayed them as graceless, ignoring both what the released men actually said and a message of gratitude posted on the CPT website.

Barrow reports what he learned from the hostage story: matter how remorseless the media juggernaut -- efficient in rapidly disseminating information, but often at some considerable cost to accuracy and understanding -- it is always worth engaging. ...Again and again the dominant narratives of our time, most especially what theologian Walter Wink calls 'the myth of redemptive violence,' assert themselves in such a way as to write peace and peacemaking out of the script. This is only to be expected. The appropriate response is not despair or collusion, but the cultivation of what the late Archbishop Helder Camara once called 'small-scale experiments in hope.'

... To be effective, alternatives need to spread. To spread they must be heard. And to be heard, they must be reinserted into the script... This is the task to which [communicators] continue to be called.

Worth thinking about. Few of us activists have to deal with a hostage taking that could lead to the murder of our friends, but all of us have to deal with how the media constructs what we do.

Further discussion of this book in Part 2, "Gay ripples among the peacemakers


Nell said...

Thank you for this; I hadn't heard about the book and will seek it out.

The kidnaping of the CPT members in Iraq is what led me to begin blogging. Tom Fox was known to a number of area Friends, one of whom has since participated in a CPT delegation to Colombia.

This personal knowledge, and the leadership of Chuck Fager, of Quaker House in Fayetteville NC, were critical in dealing with the same phenomenon of prefab media narratives.

Gary Baumgarten said...

Chuck Fager will be my guest on News Talk Online on on Thursday February 12 at 5 PM New York time to talk about soldiers who go AWOL as Conscientious Objectors.

Please go to and click on the CHATROOM button to talk to Fager.



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