Colombians ask: “Peace? What peace?”

Lilia Solano, a human rights defender who was one of the organisers of Peace, What Peace?

In recent days, I participated in a zoom-based conference with the Peace Commission of Colombia’s Senate. Since a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the largest guerrilla army, the FARC, was signed in 2016, implementation has not gone well.

By the end of 2020, at least 238 former fighters had been murdered—victims of targeted assassinations.

Meanwhile, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented more than 400 slayings of human rights defenders since 2016, of which 108 happened in 2019 and 53 in 2020. Human rights defenders include community, small-farmer, women, LGBTI, Indigenous, and Afro-Colombian leaders as well as activists for the rights of victims and their families.

My own presentation followed those of some of my friends and heroes: 

  • Former Senator Piedad Córdoba, who led efforts to free people who had been captured by the FARC in years before the peace accords
  • The Portuguese activist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, who said that “what has prevailed until now is neoliberal peace” that only opens space for transnational corporations. What has to change are the conditions that led young people to join the guerrillas.
  • From ecumenical colleagues came the reminder that the struggle for peace with justice must be global. Rudelmar Bueno de Faria of the ACT Alliance noted the role of religion in the conflict in Colombia, warning that history will not forgive those who have “played with the peace processes.”

In my remarks, I went a bit further regarding the questionable role of religious organizations in the search for peace.

I was at the marvellous ecumenical seminary in Matanzas, Cuba, in October 2016, when news came that a referendum to approve Colombia’s peace agreement had failed. It was quickly understood that fundamentalist Christians had intervened in the public debate, and rallied their bases to vote no by arguing that the peace agreement promoted “gender ideology” and would destroy the family. In reality, the FARC rebel army had acknowledged its crimes against women and LGBTI people, and apologized. Both sides pledged to do better on gender justice and the rights of LGBTI people.

For me, having worked with faith-based organisations in Colombia and their allies abroad since 1993, the vote result and the reality that some Christians worked against peace, was a disappointment. I had seen people like Lilia Solano (pictured above), a Mennonite who works among human rights NGOs and in Colombia’s legislative branch, and Fr. Javier Giraldo, the Jesuit human rights defender and founder of the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace, risk their lives for peace. I thought of friends who are leaders of the Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and Mennonite Churches and Roman Catholic religious communities who would share my disappointment, together with people in organisations like the DiPaz inter-church peace coalition, the Mesa Ecuménica por la Paz, and the popular educators and trainers of community journalists at CEPALC.

Their persistent witness guided me when I spoke the next morning to people who were gathered at the seminary to celebrate its 70th anniversary and to consider the future of ecumenical theological education in Latin America and the Caribbean, I said it seemed to me that the voices of moderate or progressive Christians were marginalised or discounted in a climate of fear generated by the shrill voices of the Christian right and their political backers. That day in Cuba, I said:

“A good theological education, offers ways to read the bible, to interpret scripture, to understand the limits church authority in civil society. In a good theological school, one learns to use the Bible to interpret the Bible, to use the texts that we have of the teachings of Jesus about the love of God and of neighbour so as to understand other parts of the bible. Without good theological education—and, by extension, good Christian education within the churches—the public square is surrendered to the most retrograde and hate-filled voices of Christian fundamentalism, empty of love and forgiveness.”

My remarks Thursday, March 18, to the Colombian Senate’s peace conference took up similar themes.

“This increase of inequality and violence contrasts with the experience of churches and social movements that uphold fullness of life and defend the dignity of women and LGBTI people. They create spaces for mutual listening, weaving networks and planting seeds of peace and justice as they raise their voices for a world of greater solidarity.

“Those of us who are too often the objects—and victims—of hate speech need your voices, you artisans of peace, and of religious leaders who promote an understanding of Christianity that is inclusive and respectful of diversity, who promote contextual and liberation theologies, who can join dialogue over differences and are reflections of the reality in which we live: who speak, in the end, of the love that should exist among all of us

“In place of fear and prejudice, let us build alliances of solidarity across all borders.”

In Haiti, once again: something must change

My first visit to Haiti was in March 1984 when Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was still in power. Less than two years later, in the face of widespread demonstrations, he fled. Six years of jostling for influence and power followed, and the voice of a young priest in the impoverished neighbourhoods around Port-au-Prince was heard. A movement, Lavalas, a flood propelled Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide into the presidency. These are some of my photos of the celebration.

A podcast that explores Christianity and the political left provoked me to think again about Haiti this week. On March 9, I was interviewed about events in Haiti for The Magnificast, a podcast produced by my friends Dean Detloff in Toronto and Matt Bernico in St. Louis. 

Right now, tens of thousands of people are marching in the streets of Port-au-Prince and other cities. They want to bring down the president, bring about a new interim government that would lead a process of constitutional reform, and organize new elections.

This time, however, they’re backed by a range of people and organizations that have not stood together since 1990 (Haiti’s first free election): churches, trade unions, community groups, students and teachers, the political left and centre.

The Magnificast has been a great space for me to think with others about complex events in Venezuela,Bolivia and now Haiti. The title is adapted from Mary’s song of praise, The Magnificat::

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;

God has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

Luke 1:52

On March 8, a group of civil society organizations sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling for an end to Canada’s support for Haiti’s president, whose term of office has ended. Initiators of the letter were members of Concertation pour Haïti (CPH), a coalition of Quebec-based solidarity groups working in Haiti and individuals who support solidarity with Haiti. Members include The United Church of Canada (through its francophone ministries together with global partnership staff) and Development and Peace.

The letter calls on Canada, the United Nations and others to “consider transitional alternatives, without external interference, proposed by the various sectors of the opposition and civil society instead of blindly supporting the government of Jovenel Moïse.”

Over the past two years, Haitian organizations have proposed various ways forward. A transitional government should have taken office on Feb. 7, 2021, the date that the president’s term ended. The letter explains the next steps:

“A new government, accompanied by a transitional body, should hold office for at least two years. In addition, it would be established according to a specific institutional procedure, determined in a concerted manner within civil society and the opposition, which would ensure its limited term and its independence. The goal is to work toward the adoption of a new constitution in accordance with the wishes of the Haitian people, to prepare new elections, to adopt a plan to alleviate the population’s misery, to restore order in the public administration and to reinstate the judicial system.”

A day after the CPH letter, the Catholic religious communities that are part of the Haitian Religious Conference (CHR), used the occasion of the anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Haiti on March 9, 1983—three years before the end of the dictatorship of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier—to renew his call for change. “Il faut que quelque chose change ici,” the pope said, adding that impoverished people must recover hope. As he left, he encouraged unity: “Têt ansanm,” he said in Kreyol. All together.

“Thirty-eight long years after that visit by the pope,” states the CRH letter, “the seeds of death now seem to outgrow the seeds of life. The country is dying, insecurity is rampant, the poor cannot go on, the population is in a disarray that borders on despair, and the country is no longer ruled. We are both witnesses to and victims of too much crime, too much injustice, and too much inequality.”

So, what gives?

Some forces resist change. Haiti’s six richest families, together with a few thousand wealthy enablers, have shown through the past 40 years that they will resist any change whatsoever. And that class is well-connected to corporations and centres of power elsewhere. The United States, as elsewhere in Latin America, is arbiter of what can be done. It may have shifted from the Cold War-view that saw the Duvalier regime as a buttress against communism. The presidency of Bill Clinton in the 1990s imposed a developmentalist approach: Haiti would be a nation of cheap-labour assembly plants. 

Since 2011, in the presidencies of Michel Martelly and Jovenel Moïse, the United States and the local elites have finally had the presidents they wanted: men close to the business sector and close ties in the United States.

Photo: Le Safimag

But Haitians have other ideas. A few months after the 2010 earthquake, I was in Haiti with colleagues from The United Church of Canada. Among the people we met was Jesi Chancy-Manigat, a member of the coordinating committee of the National Feminist Platform. She was worried about the relief effort: “We are in danger of missing an opportunity.” It’s not enough, she added, just to consult with the president of Haiti. Civil society needed to be involved: citizens, organizations, women, workers, farmers, professionals.

Yes, the opportunity was missed, and Jesi, sadly, did not live long enough to attain the changes she wanted: she died from cancer in 2013 at the age of 57.

But she taught us a few things that those of us working for change now might keep in mind. First, listen to what Haitians say about themselves. Jesi introduced us to the work of the Kay Famn (House of Women) organization. In 2010, Kay Famn insisted that the country can be and must be rebuilt.

To rebuild the country is:

  • To divorce ourselves from the practices of theft, corruption, dirty politics, and irresponsibility—where an executive or a Parliament can assume the right to ignore laws and rules.
  • To have authentic dialogue with the people.
  • To end the immense disorder that surrounds us: political disorder that prevents us from building a real democracy; electoral disorder that shackles the enjoyment of the rights of citizens; disorder in public administration, management of territory, justice, economy, education and health; disorder with respect to fundamental human rights, especially the rights to food, health care and housing.
  • To re-deal the cards so that the state serves the common good, and so that people receive services and can produce and improve their well-being.
  • To construct a system of social protection that permits action for the most vulnerable sectors: families headed by single women, those living with handicaps, those with low incomes, orphaned children, the elderly who have no resources.
  • To commit ourselves to a path that moves us away from dependence on the exterior so that Haitians may take decisions according to national interest.

The demands today are not different from 38 years ago or 11 years ago. Yet, the people persist. And yes, we support their struggle.

More resources

An article in English by Marc-Arthur Fils-Aimé of the Karl Lévêque Cultural Institute (ICKL) and the Alternative Development Platform (PAPDA)

Position paper by the Jesuits of Haiti on the current crisis

“The Millionaires Of Haiti” Podcast

One boat, one storm? Some youthful inspirations for mutual support

News reports last week said that levels of hunger in Central America have almost quadrupled in the past four years, a consequence of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 and years of extreme climate events. 

That news set me to thinking about that comforting notion that the pandemic has somehow placed us all in the same boat—and then as well to the reactions to it: we may be in the same storm, but we’re in different boats. 

I first encountered the metaphor of a lifeboat to represent all of humanity when I was very young, perhaps 12 years old. My parents thought it was important that we hear a presentation by Dr. Robert McClure, the renowned medical missionary who was serving as Moderator of The United Church of Canada (1968-71). He was best known for his years of service in China in the decades before the triumph of the revolution in 1949, but he served after that in many parts of the world. 

The auditorium of Kelowna’s First United Church was full, and we sat near the back. My memory is that Dr. McClure used the technology of the time, an overhead projector, and that one of the images was a simple line drawing of people in a boat. Most of them were at one end of the boat, and the boat looked like it was about to capsize. On the other hand, it may be that his words enabled me to make in my mind a drawing of the boat that he described. His point was about global distribution of resources. Some of us have too much; others nothing at all. It is one boat one planet: your stuff won’t save you.

Not quite a decade later, I met Dr. McClure again. We were both at the United Church’s Naramata Centre at the end of April 1978. 

And, surprise, I found my notes of the event. He was in Naramata to speak at a United Church men’s conference; I was there with a very ecumenical group of about 40 youth that was attached to the Kamloops Okanagan Presbytery, and with which I stayed connected over several years during breaks from my studies in Ottawa. I had not remembered this, but my notes say that our resource person for the weekend was Gary Paterson, then the minister of the United Church congregation in Winfield, BC; decades later he too would be a Moderator. And it was Gary who introduced Dr. McClure to our group in a Saturday afternoon gathering in the upper room of a building called The Loft.

He began by “taking us” in a Concorde super-sonic jet, six-and-a-half-hours from London to Singapore. “Our world isn’t shrinking. It’s shrunk, and will continue to do so.” He spoke for about 35 minutes, and concluded: “Canada is your blessing. Now: what will you do with it?”

In between, he told us of his life in Toronto, where he lived on the 19th floor of an apartment building. He told us of the rules designed for safe living: you are not to talk to your neighbours; walk only in well-lit areas, etc. 

Then he spoke of the river people of Sarawak (a Malaysian state on north coast of northern Borneo). “They live in long houses, like an apartment building turned on its side.” The long houses were divided into small apartments, side-by-side, each family having a part that was its own. “They’ve been there for 3,000 years,” he said. “They adopted this system of mutual support.” The apartments were joined together by a long, covered verandah over the river. “Neighbours are close and friends are forever.”

He offered an example. “My hospital was near the river mouth. A woman came down—a week-long journey in each direction—for a hysterectomy. I asked her, ‘Where are your children? How could you leave your children?’ ‘Oh, but doctor,’ she said, ‘we’re long-house people. The neighbours will care for them while I’m gone. Next month when my neighbour comes down, I’ll care for her children. We’re long-house people.’”

That’s mutual support. “When you’re invited to a wedding in Borneo, it’s a commitment for you too. You pledge to see that Joe and Sally will stay together, and when problems arise, you go see Joe and tell him to get his act together, and you can bet Sally will be told something by the women. One marriage in a thousand breaks down. That’s mutual support.”

He talked about the role of youth in other countries that he had visited. Read 42 years later, some of his examples of youthful collaboration seem debateable—Singapore in the years when Lee Kuan Yew exercised firm control—but the point was that governments should trust youth with more responsibility for positive social change, and that youth should take advantage of the responsibility they have now.

Twice, then, I was inspired by McClure to think of issues in their global dimensions. In subsequent years, I learned more about him and about China and about the role of Canadian missionaries there. 

Dr. McClure is sometimes held in tension with the life and witness of Canadian supporters of the Chinese Revolution, including Rev. James Endicott, a United Church missionary, and Dr. Norman Bethune (son of a Presbyterian minister) who died in 1939 while serving as a battlefield surgeon with one of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary armies. 

While I tend to the Endicott and Bethune sides of those political and theological reflections, I also celebrate McClure’s choice to live most of his life among the impoverished and marginalized peoples of the Earth, and his challenge to the rest of us to use our blessings to care for each other and the planet.

As I was putting together these notes about my memories of Dr. McClure, I was invited by a friend to see actors in a Zoom reading of a new play, China 1938, by Diane Forrest held March 8. Forrest is a writer and editor long involved in Alumnae Theatre’s new play development group and is also co-author with McClure of a 1988 volume, Vintage McClure. The play tells the story of the single encounter between McClure and Bethune in China in 1938, and is told from the perspective of the one woman who knows what happened: McClure’s widow, Amy. This play is also an inspiration, and I hope that (after the pandemic), it gets a full stage treatment.