Flipping the Calendar: Anger, Fear, Resistance

Jan 21, 2017

ANGER and FEAR at Christmas

I wrote a paper once on anger. I had already been working in zones of conflict for a number of years and I was well acquainted with the warrior within and her capacity to interrupt the work of the peacemaker. Actually, that’s not quite accurate.  She would unfurl like a cobra, reminding me of my humanity, ready to rage, blessing one, cursing another. Rather like Psalm 137 – ‘what a great day that will be when I get to bash your babies’ heads against the stones as you did ours!’ rephrased by Bruce Cockburn as – ‘If I had a rocket launcher...’ And not so much interrupting the peacemaker as animating the peacemaker.

Not long after returning from El Salvador in 1989, I went to hear Karen Ridd speak about her experience there.  One man stood up in the Q&A to castigate her:  her: ‘You are so angry! People will not want to hear your anger!’

Covering the bodies of the two women killed along with the six Jesuit priests
Covering the bodies of the two women killed along with the six Jesuit priests

During those November weeks of daily bombardment, tanks and machine guns in the streets, helicopter gunships at night, Karen and I met for the first time, two of the handful of Canadians caught in the crossfire between the FMLN insurgents and the US state department-funded Salvadoran military.

Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador

The out-sourced violence of the death squads was displayed most horribly in the brutal assassinations of six Jesuit priests and their two housekeepers: the priests’ faces torn off, their brains pulled out, a message to those who dare to think and speak out.  I remember the mutiny of my body, my descent a few days later into a fear and a helplessness that was immobilising; one telexed message and one telephone call (the latter from my mother) that somehow made it through the country-wide communication lockdown.

Drawing from the chapel of the Catholic University of Central America

We were each there doing what’s called third-party non-violent intervention in the form of protective accompaniment – shadowing people who are doing the dangerous work of the dissident.  Though the theory is that the foreigner gives government forces pause, while their own people are dispensable, fair play in a savage game of heretic-slaughter, -torture and -disappearance, the time came in those dark weeks of November 1989 when the presence of foreigners began to draw, rather than deflect, fire.

Drawings from the chapel at the Catholic University of Central America (UCA)
In the chapel at the Catholic University of Central America (UCA) where the priests and their housekeepers were killed, hang 13 images, the stations of the cross, often offending the visitor: IF NOT HERE, WHERE?

I have a friend whose wide embrace of people of all views and opinions I admire deeply.  I’m not there.  In those 1980s Central America, the US State Department was pursuing an ill-advised domino-theory strategy that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.  Hundreds.  Of thousands.  Of People, children, women, men.  Dead, gone.  I have no room in me for such politics; they are not harmless. At the brutal end of those politics are dead bodies, destruction and a scorched and heaving earth. In the chapel at the Catholic University of Central America (UCA) where the priests and their housekeepers were killed, hang 13 images, the stations of the cross, often offending the visitor: IF NOT HERE, WHERE?

I started writing this at Christmas time, distracted by both illness and the horror of what my US neighbours had done. To imagine that a man now elected to one of the most powerful posts on this planet, holding such views, proposing such actions – to the roaring approval of millions – is to imagine our end.  And Reagan somehow feels benign by comparison.

I complete this piece of writing sitting at a desk in Colombia, in Cali, on the 20th of January.  The front pages of El País have little else to contemplate this day than the events in Washington.  Facebook explodes with commentary about the preacher’s prayer.  “The US will triumph as never before”

El Pais cover issue of the inauguration of Donald Trump
“The US will triumph as never before”

Some Canadians are being denied entry at the border when they honestly state their destination and intentions.  Others complain that the queue for entry into the plaza is blocked, limited to 750,000.  Another comments: The fact that the first black President has to shake hands and welcome to the White House a white supremacist endorsed by the KKK makes me mentally and physically sick.

And so, anger, dread, fear.  I still recall what Karen said that night in Waterloo.  ‘You are right; I am angry.  But sometimes anger is exactly the correct response.  If one can look at these horrors and not feel anger, one has lost her or his humanity.  Without doubt, the challenge is to channel that anger in ways that can be heard – and then acted upon by people of compassion.’

It is a challenge for the warrior within when I imagine a conversation with one of those women who wore t-shirts inviting Trump to grab their, well you know, anytime.  I want to bind and gag them and drag them off to the Lincoln memorial tomorrow.  (And that written just after having delivered a playful discourse to a group of profs here on ‘Love your Enemies’.)  Anger, yes, but how to express it and all of its children – despair, fear, grief, anguish, desolation, isolation – without betraying my commitment to nonviolence of all sorts?

I am grateful to see alongside the FB expletives a growing offering of hope:  an article from the Guardian about ‘Activism in the Age of Trump’, and another posted on the website, Waging Nonviolence, ‘When Women Revolted’ – a compilation of reminders of feminine nonviolent moments of insurgency.  Another offers a quote from Howard Zinn: ‘To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something, if we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction’ – taken from his book, about how You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train.

Right here, I am working with people who have been intimately involved in the negotiation and now implementation of the peace accords between the government of Colombia and the world’s oldest insurgency, FARC. There’s a long way to go – these very days marred with news of assassinations of indigenous activists in Buenaventura – but there is a palpable hope emerging from emotional tables and circles of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation. And, of course, the hundreds of thousands of women gathering in Washington (and in cities around the world, including Toronto) right now sporting t-shirts and holding placards of hope, resistance and love.  Go, sisters!  It seems that some of us are determined to channel a well-justified anger into the creativity of love-fuelled action.  I’m there.


Muslim-Christian Trainings
Mindanao / Philippines Conflict Transformation
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Sudan third party non-violence intervention