I was invited to share with Langley Mennonite Fellowship for Peace Sunday. Here are some of my thoughts.
Forgiveness and kindness are political acts of peace, which I have had the privilege to witness in Colombia over the past two years.
For many, especially in Colombia, the Montes de Maria region of the Caribbean coast evokes shudders and concerns about security and safety. The memories of massacres and displacements hang heavy. Like the Wild West in our national mythology, the Montes de Maria still seem to be a lawless and dangerous place in Colombian memory, a continuous battle ground between guerilla and paramilitary forces that displaced thousands, even though the zone has officially been declared pacified by the Colombian government.
However, for those like myself, who have had the privilege to live within communities in the region, our memories and images are very different. When I look back, the first thing that comes to mind is beauty, not only of rolling lush green hills, but of the real people that have lived here for generations. These are people who have been hit hard with the violence sweeping over the region. Today, the majority live in impoverished conditions, yet somehow they still manage to live life with dignity and with kindness and are proud to be campesinos.
For me, this dignity is exemplified in the important ritual of greeting each other. My name rang out throughout the community as I walked down the streets. I responded by gifting those around me with their own name in return. This tradition is for me a recognition of the humanity and worthiness that each person holds, no matter what has happened in their past. This is an everyday form of kindness and of dignity, a way of ensuring, that despite everything that has happened, we are all still people and worthy of respect.
Today’s Scripture passages (2 Corinthians 5:17-20 and Luke 6:27-35) are a call to reconciliation and to kindness, especially to the imitation of the kindness of the God, a God who is kind to those whom it is hardest to love: the wicked and the ungrateful. Kindness and forgiveness starts with oneself, but then spiral outward. In Colombia, loving your enemies is hard, but must start with loving yourself and accepting that you deserve to live a dignified life. Then, it moves outwards, not to the acceptance of evil, but towards desire to change things for the better, and to give all the opportunity to live a better life. For this to happen, the status quo of revenge must be broken and reconciliation must take place.
I was able to participate in this desire for reconciliation with the communities of the high mountain zone in the Montes de Maria. These are communities that where hit especially hard because of violence. This violence took a unique form, as armed groups claimed territories for themselves and pitted communities against each other through the late 1990s and early 2000s. Leadership was destroyed and trust was broken.
Despite the lack of overt violence over the last 5 years, structural violence continued. The staple crop in the region, the avocado is dying of a mysterious root fungus. People fear another displacement, this time economic. Lack of roads and social services, such as health and education, hinders development with the region.
It was about a year ago that changes started to take place. A new law had been created, guarantying rights of reparation and land for conflict victims. Leaders who had not trusted each other for years realized that the needs of their communities were greater than their mistrust of each other. They started to meet together, to see how they could create positive change and encourage their government to fulfill their commitments.
In the end, in April of 2013, over 32 different communities participated in a nonviolent march to demand government attention, as victims and as citizens. This is also a form of kindness and reconciliation: challenging the status quo by not using the violence that has saturated this country. Nonviolence is a courageous turning of the other cheek, but it is not weakness.
In the history of Colombia’s conflict, those who speak historically face enormous challenges as they challenge the power in place. And consequences did happen. The community leaders, including Mennonite leader Ricardo Esquivia have been accused of being guerilla leaders and have been threatened with death and arrest, for disturbing the status quo. Jorge Montes, one of the main leaders, has been in jail for over two months.
This is where forgiveness comes in. From his maximum security prison, where he spent the first month sleeping on the cement floor, community leader Jorge Montes writes, “I only ask God that he keep bitterness and revenge far from my heart and that he fill me with the wisdom to confront and endure this nameless torture. God will help me forgive those who have made me suffer… Only he who is strong enough to forgive an offense knows how to love.”
Forgiveness is a political act of peace. It says that we will no longer allow a perpetrator’s action to be the determining factor in our actions. Forgiveness is a releasing of yourself from someone else’s power. It is a choice to remove the a burden of only being a victim and a new way of seeing yourself as someone with freedom to act and to live, even as the consequences of other’s actions continue to be felt. Forgiveness breaks the cycle of violence and enables new ways of being and acting with nonviolence to come forward.
Community leaders continue to move forward, more convinced than ever of the need for nonviolence and a new way of understanding relationships, with government and within their communities, including relationships of forgiveness and reconciliation. From a simple greeting to a nonviolent movement, reconciliation goes on in the Montes de Maria.