Saturday, December 21, 2019

Ruth Krall, "Bearing Witness: The First Step in Reconciliation" (2)

Vincent van Gogh, "The Good Samaritan," original in the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for online sharing.

The essay below is the second half of Ruth Krall's essay "Bearing Witness: The First Step in Reconciliation." The first half of this essay is here. This essay is one in a series of essays by Ruth Krall entitled "Compassionate Peacemaking: Healing the World's Wounds One at a Time." Part one of the series, which has the series title "Bearing Witness," consists of four essays. When I introduced you to this series of essays (see the preceding link), I noted that they seem to me very important statements for those who observe the Christian liturgical season of Advent.

In this essay, Ruth writes, "To accept the mission of reconciliation as our vocation means stepping into the politicized position of the margins rather than the more imposing and secure position inside the centers of power." And what does this statement mean, if it does not sum up the logic of God's choice to take flesh in Jesus: what Ruth says about the mission of reconciliation is in key respects a summary of the gospel stories about the birth of Christ. Ruth's essay follows:

Compassionate Peacemaking: Healing the World's Wounds One at a Time

Part One: Bearing Witness

"Bearing Witness: The First Step in Reconciliation" (2)

Ruth Elizabeth Krall, MSN, PhD

What Then Are the Issues?

Tom Clancy's most recent novel, The Bear and the Dragon, (xvii) has a recurring theme: Nations do not have friends. They have interests. In Clancy's novel the way to peace is for the dominant good guys— in this case the United States— to wage a quick, technological war in which human beings are expendable collateral damage. The overwhelming quick strike with superior fire power is the way to obtain and maintain peace in the institutionalized and mythologized world of nation states. The goal of such strikes is to lay waste to the hated or mistrusted other while sustaining few losses of either equipment or manpower. The ultimate goal is unconditional surrender.

As I read about an imagined world war in the future, I pondered the question — Can any institution have friends...or are institutions only capable of having interests? Can an institution, qua institution, have a reconciling mission if it is mostly driven by interests rather than by a vulnerable relationality?Can institutions thrive — indeed, can they live within an active withholding of first-strike mentality and/or action?

Clancy's book provides a strong, partisan apology for the need for violence at the hands of the strong in order to maintain the peace of the world. In this worldview, coercion, force, and violence are the peacekeepers.

I returned to my internal mutterings:

Can any institution, which must by its very nature deal with repeated exercises of power (for example, power held, power lost, power sought, power bartered, power denied) rely upon or embody the gospel of surrender, yielding, suffering, loss, or crucifixion?

Is it remotely possible for institutions, qua institutions, to remain faithful to a self-declared mission of reconciliation?

Even inside the litany of the overwhelming, yes, of course, yes, I kept being driven back in my thoughts to the sense that the work of authentic reconciliation is a personal and relational activity — done one by one within the communal ethos. And it seemed to me, in these dense ruminations, as if a basic and underlying skill or spiritual practice was the calling or vocation to first of all bear witness.

On Bearing Witness

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
Who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate
And I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

Thich Nhat Hanh (xviii)

Jean Shinoda Bolen, a Japanese-American psychiatrist and Jungian analyst, has written a very persuasive set of paragraphs that it is the calling or vocation of therapists and healers to bear witness to the sufferings of others. She writes:

I am convinced of the importance of having a significant person bear witness to our lives.  I often think this is what I do as a psychiatrist. I witness my patients' lives and thus know what it is like in their particular circumstances and what it means to be them. They share with me those moments and relationships that truly matter. I know of the courage and sacrifices, of the guilt and shame that couldn't be forgiven or faced until whatever it was could be told... 
It is no small matter to be a witness to another person's life story. By listening with compassion, we validate each other's lives, make suffering meaningful, and help the process of forgiving and healing to take place. And our acceptance may make it possible for a person who feels outside the human community to gain a sense of surviving once more...Survivors of childhood abuse...feel ashamed, defective, or different...because of what they have experienced. They, too, needto tell what happened to them, to have someone bear witness to their lives in order to feel that they belong. 
 ...I am convinced that any human being who can serve as witness for another at a soul level heals the separateness and isolation that we might otherwise feel. Witnessing is not a one-way experience; the witness is also affected by the encounter. To comprehend the truth of another's experience, we must truly take it in and be affected. (xix)

Many years ago, I heard Shoah survivor Elie Wiesel speak at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. He was the first person to draw my attention to the elegant powers of bearing witness as a necessary political act of working for justice within a situation of powerlessness in order to confront the ongoing violation of human dignity and human rights. He talked with his Earlham audience about psychological factors experienced by the Jewish inhabitants of Dachau, Auschwitz, etc. They felt abandoned by the human community, for it appeared as if these concentration camps were not visible in the world — that no one other than their sadistic perpetrators and fellow victims witnessed their suffering.

He spoke of a later time — years after the ending of World War Two — when he stood on the boundary of another prison camp —from the vantage point of a second nation — and with microphones, spoke across the political nation-state boundary, the cement and wire walls —We know you are there. We witness your suffering. We know you are there. We stand here and bear witness to your incarceration and suffering. We are powerless to end your suffering but we are here and we watch. We will not abandon our watch over you. (xx)

This is very similar to the witness of the women at the foot of the cross. (xxi) They would not abandon him whom they loved, even as it meant they came to witness and to understand the meaning of Rome's power (alongside of the power of their religious community) to ostracize, exclude, and murder. Powerless to affect the outcome of the crucifixion, nevertheless they waited and watched, i.e., they bore witness to the suffering of their beloved son and teacher as he died in front of their eyes.

In his book, Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf writes of the absence of innocence. (xxii) I think that he is correct: a loss of innocence is involved for both the perpetrator and the recipient of violence and violation. However, Volf does not address the loss of innocence which seizes the inner life of the healer, of the victim advocate; of the would-be peacemaker; of the one who hopes to initiate and to facilitate transformation, reconciliation, and healing.

Once one has been a witness to the victim's suffering and shattered consciousness, to her fragmented memory, to his loss of identity, to their sense that not even in one's body is one safe, the sense that there is no safety in the communal body, the nearly total absence of trust: in short, when one is a committed and faithful witness to another's suffering, there is then no more innocence to be found anywhere. Witnessing the devastation of a life broken by betrayal and violence, the healer becomes as broken in the face of overwhelming violence as its intended victim, but that brokenness is at a different level of consciousness.

The work of facilitating healing — or, perhaps, reconciliation — is difficult work and it challenges the spirituality of the healer and peacemaker in ways which are very difficult to encode in language. Healers, at times, become overwhelmed by their client’s life history. They become highly sensitized to violence. They may become intensely paranoid about their own safety. At times healers may become physically, spiritually, or emotionally ill. They may become addicted to any one of a multitude of addictions. They may lose sight of their own identity. They may become cynical about the humanity of victimizers. They may even become overtly or covertly harmful to their clients, family members, friends, others in the commons, or themselves.

I can only conclude from what I know personally about this as well as what I know from the past five years of conversations with peace workers, healers, and religious alike, that if the central act of reconciliation work as a vocation is bearing witness, then we must pay very close attention to the issues raised in the literature of the wounded healer. (xiii) We must learn how to be compassionate witnesses even in the midst of great wounds.

Eventually, it seems to me, we must recognize (1) the wounds of the bandits who rob and seek to kill; (2) the wounds of the bandits’ victims; (3) the wounds of the Good Samaritan (which Jesus did not address); (4) the wounds of the surrounding cultures. In time we also learn that we must learn how to bear witness to these wounds even as we seek to be healers and reconcilers. Of necessity, therefore, we will be driven to examine and address our own wounds. Roman Catholic author and priest Henri Nouwen cautions us that even as we address the woundedness of others, we must also address our own. (xxiv)

Volf's concerns about everyone's loss of innocence becomes, as my generation speaks it, Right on. In the words of Jewish philosopher Phillip Hallie, We not only imitate our loves; we imitate our hates. If we are not paying attention, it is quite likely that we will become part of the cycle of violence rather than part of the healing, restoring, transforming, and perhaps reconciling process.

It is not that we should retreat into purity — the purity of non-engagement. To me, this is a morally reprehensible stance.

It is rather that we must begin a spiritual journey that will take us to the place where we recognize our own selves in the face of the victim and in the face of the victimizer. I know of no one who speaks this truth more eloquently than does the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh in his poem, Please Call Me by My Own True Names. (xxv)

The background to the poem is Nhat Hanh's attempt to rescue boat people in the Gulf of Siam. The particular motivation for the poem was a letter to Nhat Hanh in which he was told about the rape of a twelve-year-old girl by a Thai sea pirate. The girl immediately jumped into the sea and drowned. He writes about the origins of the poem in a deeply centered process of spiritual meditation:

When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the part of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, that is easy. You only have to get a gun and shoot the pirate.

But we cannot do that. In my meditation, I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, there is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will be sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we may become sea pirates in twenty-five years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, you shoot all of us, because all of us are to some extent responsible for the state of affairs. After a long meditation, I wrote this poem. In it, there are three people: the twelve-year old girl, the pirate, and me. Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other? The title of the poem: Please Call Me by My True Names. When I hear one of these names, I have to say, "Yes." (xxvi)

In Conclusion

Our primary mission is pedagogy. We are teachers of the young. We are guides to a future we will not live to see. We are shapers of that which will remain when we are no longer here. We must consider what Native Americans call the seventh-generation effect of all that we do, for we are shapers of that future time in the present moment. This alone is a daunting awareness.

In the process of muttering all summer long, and in the process of trying to write a paper that had no thesis and now has no conclusions, I find myself still left with the question: Can a mission statement create us as an institutional people who facilitate reconciliation? And I remain unclear.

For those of us who seek to follow Christ into hell and who attempt with him to harrow it, it is clear that we will share in the brokenness of the world in ways we do not imagine, indeed, cannot imagine, ahead of time. For here, in the underworld of fragmentation, shattering and suffering, even as a deliberate witness, there often is no moment of transforming grace, no mercy, none of the gentler virtues, no obvious escape.

Traveling into hell, we embed ourselves within the web of violation and violence — when we could have avoided it like the priest and the Levite in Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. We could have averted our gaze and left the scene of violation. But when we choose to enter one of earth's hells, we enter in the outrageous belief that we, with God's help and with each other as co-traveling companions, an perhaps swing the balance beam towards healing. Perhaps we can help to shorten the long moral arc of history towards justice.

I have come to believe that to do this work, we must begin a sustaining spiritual practice — one that is as much about joy, wonder, gratitude, and awe as it is about anger, disgust, desires to punish, despair, and distrust.

Entering the dark night of the soul on behalf of the victimized and abandoned other is a journey to be undertaken only with adequate spiritual resources.

If we begin such a spiritual practice, we will find our self strongly anchored to earth in the place of knowing, as Volf's book points out, that we have no innocence. We will come, with Nhat Hanh, to the point of recognizing that reconciliation is not only the goal; it is the life journey itself. The place of healing or reconciliation becomes, turtle-like, our spiritual home, and it is not only a teleological journey with a desired end; it is not only our self-proclaimed mission: it is our spiritual home in the here and now.
We must carry it with us everywhere on our backs. And we must attentively and mindfully practice it in each step of our life, in every decision that we make.

To accept the mission of reconciliation as our vocation means stepping into the politicized position of the margins rather than the more imposing and secure position inside the centers of power. It means learning to be trustworthy as we bear witness to the sufferings of the other. It means authentic repentance when we are the source of the other's suffering. It means humility — the humility of knowing or recognizing our limitations. It means learning compassion. It means a deep recognition of all of our own names — including those we would rather avoid. It means going to the other not in the role of "doing" or "transforming" or "reconciling" or "healing" or "being expert," but rather that of taking the position of "being-along-side-of" and then following the lead and the needs of the violated one, the victimized one, the damaged one, the shattered one, the fragmented one, the marginalized one, the harmed one, the enraged one, the confused one, the estranged one. We begin, then, the journey of reconciliation with the act of paying attention, of bearing witness.

The first goal is re-establishment of safety, for without safety, there is no genuine possibility of reconciliation, no way to open the path to peace, joy, balance, harmony, abundant life, genuine shalom in our midst. We must become the guarantor of safety for the other. This is an almost mystical task. It means being honorable. It means growing in trustworthiness. It means seeking the path of a centered personal and communal integrity.

Activism is the second act in reconciliation work. The spiritual journey of coming to know all of our own true names is the first. In truth, they are, in human reality, often concurrent activities. Seeing the need for healing, or for reconciliation, we go inward towards the divine one and in search of the core truths about all of our identities, our many selves. Then and only then can we go outward into the world to help suffering people.

We come to know firsthand, that often the good which I should do, I do not do and the evil which I ought not to do, I do. Slowly we learn to let go of our pretense of purity, of innocence. Even more slowly we begin to learn how to be present and to bear witness. As we make this journey from denial and its passive enablement of evil and as we begin — deliberately— to pay attention, we learn that the life-journey demands for reconciliation begin with compassion for others and the inner decision to faithfully bear witness to their suffering.  

Parker Palmer quotes Vaclev Havel, Consciousness precedes Being and not the other way around.(xxvii) It has always been so. In the transformation and redemption of our consciousness, we become reconciled and, in becoming reconciled, we may (perhaps) become facilitators of reconciliation and restoration. (xxviii)

Endnotes (Note: Footnote numbers begin at xvii because they follow numbers in the first half of this essay.)

xvii. Clancy, T. (2001). The Bear and the Dragon. New York: Putnam.

xviii. Thich Nhat Hanh, (1991). Please Call Me by My True Names.

xix. Bolen, Jean Shinoda. Crossing to Avalon. San Francisco: Harper, 1994. Pp. 110-112.

xx. Wiesel, E. Paraphrased by Ruth Krall nearly twenty years later from a lecture given at Earlham College in Richmond, IN.

xxi. See Mark 15:40-41

xxii. Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: Identity: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.  Note: this book was the president's assigned required reading for all members of the teaching faculty.
xxiii. Nouwen, H. (1979). The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. New York: Doubleday.

xxiv. Ibid.

xxv. For a discussion of Thich Nhat Hanh's poem, Please Call Me by My True Names, reproducing the text of the poem, see Phil Bolsta's Triumph of the Spirit blog.

xxvi. Ibid.

xxvii. Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000. P. 75.

xxviii. Faculty Presentation: Goshen College Faculty Retreat (2001).

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