Let peace begin with me

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01/04/2011

By Kristin Berkey-Abbott

On Sunday, Dec., 26, I read an article in The Washington Post by Sheila Byrd about a film that explores the Freedom Riders, who worked for civil rights in the South in the early 1960s. I was struck by this quote from James M. Lawson Jr., a pastor: "Nobody else will ever be a Martin Luther King Jr. What 'Freedom Riders' said is that you don't have to be."

I thought of what those Freedom Riders endured, and I thought, I don’t even have what it takes to be one of those folks, much less someone huge, like King or Mother Theresa.

But I take comfort in knowing that even if I can’t upend my life, there are ways that peace can begin with me. I can take less extreme steps. I can make a New Year’s resolution to do more than I’ve been doing.

In the spirit of New Year’s goals, here are five exercises to get our flabby peacemaking muscles back into shape:

1. Be kind to the people around us, the inhabitants of our daily lives. Peace begins at home, after all. We can’t expect to change the world for the better if we can’t even treat our coworkers, our friends and family decently.

Imagine what would happen if we treated everyone with the same kind of care and compassion that we would offer to a friend or colleague who was undergoing a great crisis. The world would be a much more humane place.

2. We can give away more of our money. The ethicist Peter Singer reminds us of how far our money will go, especially if we give to the developing world. So this year, instead of buying more consumables from big corporations, why not give the money to a worthy organization like ELCA World Hunger or Lutheran World Relief. Just 1 percent of our income would make a huge difference to people in the developing world -- and we likely won’t even miss it.

3. Keep in touch with our lawmakers. Some days, it makes a difference. There are plenty of social justice groups that will alert us when important legislation is up for a vote, and we can call or e-mail our lawmakers. It takes very little time or money, and it keeps us connected to the larger world and the issues that matter.

4. Dream. What would a more just world look like? We sometimes forget to devote ourselves to dreaming impossible dreams, especially as we grow older.

I've always told my students that they should plan what they would do in leadership positions, because they may very well find themselves there some day, and it might be sooner than they think. I tell them about Nelson Mandela, and that the reason that he was prepared to be president of South Africa was that he spent all that time in jail (more years than most of my students have been alive) planning for what he would do if he took over the country. He didn't nurse anger or bitterness. No, he planned, along with his compatriots, who were imprisoned too.

The world of peacemakers has always begun with individuals who say, "Why is the world this way? Here’s how it would be better!”

They’re often dismissed as silly dreamers, but later, the rest of us get to enjoy the fruits of their imagination: a nation where African Americans don’t sit at the back of the bus, a world where a dissident writer can be elected as president of Czechoslovakia, a planet where the arc of history continues to bend toward justice (to borrow the wonderful words of Martin Luther King Jr.).

5. Pray. We sometimes forget it's the most important thing we can do. Throughout history, humans have prayed for social justice, even when they couldn’t imagine how it would be delivered. We can join that elegant tradition.

In his book, "Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination," Walter Wink reminds us that even if we believe in free will, this belief doesn't mean that God can't act in the world. But God won't act if we don't ask or demand it:

"This is a God who works with us and for us, to make and keep human life humane. And what God does depends on the intercessions of those who care enough to try to shape a future more humane than the present," Wink writes.

Five simple exercises -- but how they can change a trajectory, both our own personal trajectories and the trajectory of society.


Kristin Berkey-Abbott is a lifelong Lutheran, a college teacher and department head. She has taught a variety of English and creative writing classes for the last 20 years.

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