In Afghanistan, Colombia and everywhere, we must all become artisans of peace

A banner at the June 2010 protests against the fenced-off meetings of the G8/G20 in downtown Toronto. Photo: Jim Hodgson

While I was working to improve my French in Ottawa decades ago, I occasionally attended Mass in francophone parishes. One Sunday, this line got my attention: « Heureux les artisans de la paix… » (Mt 5:9, Jérusalem). Instead of “blessed are the peace-makers,” the text said “artisans of peace.” I love that. It implies arduous, loving work that will produce something both beautiful and useful.

As Taliban fighters move on to Kabul, and the rights of women and girls are again threatened, I feel anguish for all who have died, those who will die, and for all the lives ruined in this ill-conceived war. 

And I have to say: the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks should and could have been managed differently.

In 2001, Sept. 11 was a Tuesday. On Friday that week, I had lunch in a Toronto restaurant with Central American friends who had worked their whole lives for justice and peace and lost family members in the struggle. TV screens were showing the interfaith service underway at U.S. National Cathedral in Washington.

Led by President George W. Bush and evangelist Billy Graham, the service left me scandalized—discourse about enemies, not a word about love or peace—and feeling helpless and hopeless in the face of the war that everyone knew would follow. U.S. Navy Chanters at beginning and end. The closing hymn was The Battle Hymn of the Republic—“Glory, glory, hallelujah… His truth is marching on… terrible swift sword”—giving Christian blessing to the war. Then a benediction, that we might bear the days to come with strength. The recessional included the tolling of a bell and the colours of the various military services being removed. The political and military establishment returned to work, to duty. 

And so began the War on Terror, what Bush kept calling a Crusade.

A week later, the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) sent letters to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and to members of churches in Canada proposing a different approach.

The dogs of war were howling loudly, so the letters were scarcely noticed at the time. But today, as Taliban troops move closer to Kabul, they are prophetic voices crying in the wilderness (John 1:23). Their relevance today is in their warning against imperialist adventures and articulation of alternative approaches. These are lessons the world still needs to learn.

First, the letters insisted that perpetrators of terrorist crimes must be brought to justice, and that due legal processes must be followed. To the Prime Minister, the CCC said: “We acknowledge that in international relations due process is not always clear, but we remind you that the United Nations and its Security Council are the essential custodians of international due process.” 

The letters acknowledged global interdependence. The letter to church members said: “Whatever action is taken must fully acknowledge that we live in an interdependent world. It is no longer possible to believe that we can live in an island of fortified safety in an otherwise unsafe world.” It added:

“Co-operative international efforts to prevent terrorism must be supplemented by co- operation in developing a broad range of agreements that provide for the security of all. International agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, legal limits on small arms possession and transfers, and other international mechanisms are vital building blocks for a world community that cares for the security and safety of all of its citizens.”

The letters deplored the targeting of people of other faiths. “We therefore encourage Christians throughout Canada to join together with people of other faiths to offer solidarity and courage. Above all let us find a common voice in calling for security and safety for all the world’s people.”

The letters encouraged attention to root causes and a “justice and peace” perspective in the face of terrorist actions:

“It is not morally or spiritually acceptable to speak lightly of war. A campaign against terrorism is necessary, but only in the context of a broader commitment to justice. In the past, a single-minded campaign against communism in Afghanistan helped create conditions of terror in Afghanistan, including support to the now accused Osama bin Laden; it spawned the Taliban; and it contributed to enormous instability in Pakistan. So also an unthinking military campaign against terrorism could have immense unforeseen consequences if not guided by due processes of law, appropriate limits to force, and pursuit of justice for all.”

The letter to the Prime Minister was signed by: Janet Somerville, the CCC general secretary (and one of my former editors at Catholic New Times); Ernie Regher, the director of Project Ploughshares; David Pfrimmer, chair of the CCC’s justice and peace commission; and Bishop André Vallée, CCC president.

Instead of complex, long-term strategies of peace-making, a war strategy was followed: defeat the Taliban and the al-Qaeda network militarily and rebuild core institutions of the Afghan state. But the United States and its NATO allies failed to destroy either group, or to secure and stabilize Afghanistan. 

In April 2002, President Bush announced a version of the post-World-War-II “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan, promising substantial financial aid. But development efforts were under-funded and U.S. attention shifted to that other perceived enemy: Iraq. 

What was needed in Afghanistan was not war, but a long, slow process of engagement, dialogue, community development, facilitation of victim-offender reconciliation: solidarity instead of imperial interference. You don’t have to like the Taliban to begin a conversation—but that might not have been the starting point anyway. It’s pretty clear that people in Saudi Arabia—a key U.S. ally and supplier of oil—bankroll the Taliban, al-Quaida and factions in Pakistan, promoting a fundamentalist version of Islam that is not shared by the vast majority of Muslims. 

Inter-religious dialogue has a role here too. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia supports the G20 Interfaith Forum, an event usually held just ahead of G20 meetings to look at issues of religion and sustainable development. It may be uncomfortable for their representatives to listen to people like me talking about LGBTI rights in a conversation about religious freedom, but from such encounters over time, change happens. And the United States needs to develop more honest relationships with its “allies” like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, engaging them on human rights, knowing that change won’t happen immediately but over time. Looking the other way doesn’t help Afghans or anyone else.

This week, I have been reading Khaled Hosseini’s novel, And the Mountains Echoed. Like his earlier novel, The Kite Runner, he sweeps across Afghan history and geography. On page 127, he writes of war, wars, “many wars, both big and small, just and unjust, wars with shifting casts of supposed heroes and villains, each new hero making one increasingly nostalgic for the old villain.”

We must all become artisans of peace.