Sunday, 22 May 2011

Silence or applause - really in so many ways it is about how we put our hands together

Our very good friend Paul Oestreicher has travelled from New Zealand together with his wife and fellow peace activist Barbara Einhorn to be here at Kingston. In the 1980s, back in the days when Dr B was the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmamment's international officer the three of them worked closely together, particularly on the German-German working group of END, European Nuclear Disarmament. The peace movement was important and faced political difficulties in both parts of the then still divided Germany. As I look back now I can see that the pain of that division on German soil gave birth to a very engaged peace movement, of course the experience of the war also drove the 1980s peace movement and pacifism in Germany forwards. Paul's personal story is similar to that of my father's - both fled Hitler's Germany in the late 1930s.
In the heat of the Jamaican sun Paul cuts a very elegant figure around the campus here in Jamaica in his light long white clothes. At the opening plenary he gave an inspiring, heartfelt and challenging speech "A New World is Possible - a cry for the end of war".
Here are some extracts:

Wherever you come from, whatever your church tradition, you may be Orthodox or Catholic, Protestant or Charismatic, Evangelical or Liberal, Conservative or Radical, all of us have come here because we wish to be friends of Jesus, rabbi, prophet and more than a prophet. To each one of us he says: You are my friends, if you do what I command you ... This I command you, to love one another as I have loved you. Is anyone, anywhere, excluded from that love? Here is the answer that Jesus gave to his friends: It is said: ‘you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’; but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Jesus was not an idealistic dreamer. He was and remains the ultimate realist. The survival of our planet demands nothing less than the abolition of war. Albert Einstein, the great physicist and humanist, recognised that early in the last century. He repeated it often with a clarity and credibility that few Christian pacifists have matched.

What I have put before you in stark simplicity, is nevertheless deeply complex. Having spent my life studying politics, I do not believe that there is any room for pacifist self-righteousness. I have not come to Kingston to demonise those who choose the military option. They are part of us, they are the many and we are the few. We must find ways of co-opting them into the peaceful struggle. The critics of principled non-violence are neither knaves nor fools. We must answer them wisely and patiently. They will rightly ask pacifists like me many serious questions: how, for example, is law and order to be maintained globally without heavily armed nations? On this point there is already good news. In the light of the last century’s history of unparalleled violence, international law is paving the way for genuine alternatives.
The other interesting dynamic to Paul's speech was that when the WCC's general secretary introduced him we were requested to follow the Quaker custom of not applauding either at the beginning, during or at the end of the speech. In the context of our meeting here in Kingston this didn't quite work, applause at large events like this is often the only way that "ordinary" people can participate. I can see why Paul requested that - Quaker meetings take place in silence unless one is moved by the Spirit to speak - Paul is both a Quaker and an Anglican priest. Part of me wishes that we could have simply greeted his words with silence. That silence might somehow have "decanted" the truth and the message in the words. It is easy for speakers to play the crowd for applause and sometimes it can change the tenor of a speech, feeding of the rapture of the crowd. Silence doesn't always mean disapproval, it can also lead to a deeper consideration of what has been said.
In the end we were not able to resist responding to Paul's speech with applause, it was a very measured performance but a bravura one nevertheless.
Now we need to decide how we will put our hands together to respond in practical ways to work for the abolition of war. Our hands must not then remain silent.

Photo copyright (c) EKD/epd