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Saturday, March 06, 2010

Going 'round in circles

Of all those who have immigrated from Africa to the New York Metropolitan Area, I probably know those from Liberia best, followed by people from Ghana, then Nigeria.

That is, perhaps, due to lots of reasons, none the least of which is the long standing history between The Episcopal Church USA and The Episcopal Church of Liberia.

We tend to run in similar circles.

Liberia, of course, is the West African nation settled in 1847 to settle freed American slaves. They and their descendants, having learned well from their former masters, eventually became the 'elite' class in Liberia, repressing and suppressing the Krahn, part of a rural tribe in inland Liberia.

How does one break the circle of violence, prejudice and oppression?

The stories I have heard from my Liberian friends who survived the bloody civil wars under the presidencies of Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor, are every bit as horrifying as the stories we hear today from Congo, Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire.

I'm no historian of Africa, but my African friends remind me all the time that Africa is not a nation but a continent of nations made up of many tribes.

Ghana (formerly 'Gold Coast'), from the lens of this one woman who has spent some time there, is one of the most stable nations in Africa. In fact, it ranked 7th out of 48 sub-Saharan African countries in the 2008in the Ibrahim Index of African Governance.

The nations of Botswana (which ranks 4th in the IIAG) and South Africa (which ranks 5th) clearly lead the way behind the island nations of Mauritius, Cape Verde and Seychelles .

Liberia, under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is also making great strides toward a stable government.

President Sirleaf is, of course, the the first modern, and currently the only elected female head of state in Africa. Her election is accredited to the advocacy of a peace movement known as 'Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace'.

So, it should come as no surprise that one of the first things she did was to address the issue of sexual assault and rape in her country.

Besides spearheading the move to curb the mismanagement of government finances for generations, she also issued an Executive Order making education free and compulsory for all elementary school aged children.

Along with my Liberian friends, I have closely followed Mrs. Sirleaf's presidency, marveling at her ability to lead, even as her political foes remain in power.

Former President Charles Taylor followers remain in large numbers in Liberia's government. Taylor's estranged wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, is in the Senate. So is Prince Johnson, whose gruesome torture and murder of President Samuel Doe in 1990 was captured on a widely-distributed videotape.

Mrs. Sirleaf, a mother of four and grandmother of eight, is slowly but surely turning her country around and restoring peace and stability to her country, making it a better place for women and children, as well as their husbands and fathers.

She is simultaneously breaking circles of oppression while expanding circles of power. Her nickname is “Iron Lady" - not for nothing, I'm sure.

Liberia has also reportedly become something of a modern laboratory for the rise of women making peace. In addition to having a woman serve as president, women are marching in foot patrols, and the head of the U.N. mission, Ellen Margrethe Loj of Denmark, is a woman.

My Liberian friends who have gone home for a visit report the presence of a special female United Nations police unit from India who stomp out crime on the city streets of Monrovia by day as well as stand guard under the hot, steamy sun outside the Monrovia headquarters of the president.

When they are off-duty, 'home' for these women is a military barracks where they tell bedtime stories to their toddlers via video conference calls.

Together they form what has come to be known as "the thin pink line" of a U.N. recruitment campaign for the 21st century.

As it marks the 100th International Women’s Day on March 8, the United Nations is intensifying efforts to recruit women for peacekeeping missions that seek to mend what war has wrought.

The theory is that women employ distinctive social skills in a rugged macho domain. They are being counted on to bring calm to the streets and the barracks, acting as public servants instead of invaders.

“When female soldiers are present, the situation is closer to real life, and as a result the men tend to behave,” said Gerard J. DeGroot, a history professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who has written books about women in the military. “Any conflict where you have an all-male army, it’s like a holiday from reality. If you inject women into that situation, they do have a civilizing effect.”

Here's a video clip of the efforts, in which you can hear Mrs. Sirleaf being particularly blunt about the role of women in the recovery of her fragile country, which was battered by 14 years of civil war that left about 200,000 people dead and survivors haunted by torture, systematic rapes and the exploitation of drug-addicted boy soldiers.
"What a woman brings to the task is extra sensitivity, more caring,” Mrs. Sirleaf said in an interview. “I think that these are the characteristics that come from being a mother, taking care of a family, being concerned about children, managing the home.”
According to this article in the NY Times:
The softer approach is critical in Liberia. In 2004, a U.N. report criticized peacekeepers in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Haiti for the sexual abuse of young women by trading food and money for sex. In 2005, 47 peacekeepers were accused of sexual abuse in Liberia, compared with 18 peacekeepers who were accused last year, according to the U.N. mission.

Top U.N. officials credit the arrival of women for helping improve behavior. Yet within Liberia, national peacekeeping units from different countries are still debating the best approach, tinkering with ways to best deploy female peacekeepers — or “blue helmettes” in U.N. lingo.
Is this a good thing? For women? At what individual cost to the "female peacekeepers"? I ask these questions especially in light of what we know goes on in our own military (see "Perturbing The Forces" from a few days ago).

I've been 'going 'round in circles' lately, considering all types of circles. There are surely circles of violence and oppression and abuse that need to be broken. There are circles of influence and authority and power that need to be expanded.

I've been thinking a great deal about this, especially after I've considered the Episcopal Women's Caucus three year experiment in "Circle of Leadership". (See ENS story here.)

Ann Smith, the former head of the National Episcopal Church Office on Women in Ministry, developed a version of this circular model of leadership at 815. She instituted the 'Women of Vision Program' back in the late 1980s, a leadership training program for women based on the "the millionth circle" which energized women's organizations, clergy and lay leaders as well as seminarians. (I still treasure my copies of the Circle Calendar produced by Ann, Sr. Helena Marie and Ginny Doctor.)

"The millionth circle" refers to the circle whose formation tips the scales and shifts planetary consciousness. The phrase comes from Jean Shinoda Bolen's book The Millionth Circle: How to Change Ourselves and The World, which in turn was inspired by "the hundredth monkey," the story that sustained anti-nuclear activists in the 1970-1980s to continue on when conventional wisdom said that nothing (certainly not ordinary people) could deter the nuclear arms race between the superpowers.

Even before that, Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

There is an organization known as "The Millionth Circle," a grass-roots, international volunteer organization of women who believe that circles are the means through which world consciousness will change.

Indeed, they are part of the gathering of women at the U.N., March 2-13, promoting winning strategies to achieve gender equality.

I'm going to reproduce the "Circle Principles" of this organization here, because I think they stand in an interesting juxtaposition to the efforts of the U.N. to increase the presence of women in the Peacekeeping force.


The following are some suggested guidelines for a circle:

Create sacred space
. This includes physically preparing a space to accommodate the participants in a circle, usually with a centerpiece or altar.

Listen with compassion and for wisdom. This includes listening without an agenda, suspending judgment, being curious and finding the underlying meaning in others' statements. Also, it is listening for wisdom as it comes through each participant.

Speak from your heart and experience. Speak one at a time. This includes saying what is true for you and speaking to the center of the circle, not to another individual. We offer our experience and feelings to the circle, not our advice. Also, we speak one at a time and invoke a talking piece when needed, to ensure that all are heard.

Invite silence and reflection when needed, in you and in the circle. This includes listening to our own inner guidance before speaking. Also, we request silence and reflection in the circle when we feel it is needed.

Take responsibility for your experience and your impact on the circle. This includes demonstrating self-respect and self-restraint. We self-monitor to ensure that our needs and expectations are being met. We ensure our contribution adds to the positive experience of all in the circle.

Keep the confidence of the circle. This refers to our confidentiality agreements. What is spoken in the circle, stays in the circle to help ensure a safe environment for sharing our experiences and feelings.

Make decisions, when needed, by consensus. This refers to our decision making process. Should a circle need to make a decision, it is generally desirable tocome to a consensus.

The note at the end of the list says this: "These guidelines can be used as a starting point for group agreements in any circle, knowing that each group will add or delete as they see fit."

I'm thinking these principles, wonderful as they are, would not apply to those who are part of the 'blue helmettes' on the 'thin pink line' of U.N. peacekeeping.

As I reflect on this, I'm also haunted by the wisdom of two very different people. Abolitionist and worker for the suffrage of women, Frederick Douglass said,
"Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them."

He also said, ""Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
"Sister Outsider," Audre Lorde, in her famous address, said,
"The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."
She was arguing against internalizing a patriarchal fear of difference - in particular, sexism, racism and homophobia - in the women's movement, which in her view will never dismantle the "house" of oppression in which we women live.

Somewhere, in the midst of all of that great wisdom and true statements lies the truth of our liberation as women and men.

I'm sure I don't know the 'best way to deploy female peacekeepers'.

I don't mean to sound glib or simplistic, but I guess I want to employ female - and male - peacemakers.

I mean, Jesus did say, "Blessed are the peacemakers."

We may be able to 'keep' the peace with violence or the threat of violence, but we will only be able to 'make' peace with the human heart.

Given the human enterprise, it's bound to be an evolutionary process, I suppose - from peacekeeping to peacemaking.

Although, because we do not always learn from our history - much less our herstory - we are sometimes doomed to repeat it, going 'round and 'round in circles.

Because we have forgotten our his/herstory, evolution to a higher form of existence is only a deceptive illusion. It may well be that we have only come 'full circle'.

Even so, I find that the circle I want to create is one that is a circle of blessing.

I want to bless the women who form "the thin pink line' of U.N. Peacekeepers as well as all those who are Peacemakers, and ask you to join me in blessing them.

I want to bless the women of our Military Forces who work to keep the peace in this country and around the world, even as they suffer violence to their own bodies. I ask you to join me in blessing them.

I want to bless the women who have gathered from every corner of the earth to gather at the United Nations to work on improving the status of women, and I ask you to join me in blessing them.

I want to bless Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the important work she is doing in Liberia in creating and destroying circles, and ask you to join me in blessing her.

I want to bless Ann Smith and all the women of vision who learned from their mothers and grandmothers and taught our sisters and daughters so that we might continue to work for a vision of peace. I ask you to join me in blessing her.

I ask you to join me in a blessing upon all peacekeepers and peacemakers, for surely we will more clearly see the Realm of God and bring that vision here on earth as it is in heaven.

May that circle be unbroken.


Nigel said...

Elizabeth, I knew some of what you wrote, but most of the world knows little about Liberia, except about the fighting of recent decades.

Thanks for what you wrote.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Let's pray for this Hope to be fulfilled! said...

Elizabeth, thanks for your thoughtfulness on the intervention of the pink thin line - whilst completely supporting the idea of bringing womens to these dreadful places of confrontation, loss of life and brutalisation - I have to say that WHY oh WHY is it left to the sense of bringing women into these areas of pain and hopelessness of warfare the women who have been singularly excluded from the processes which triggered the events in the first place.

My thinking on this would be that the thin pink line be only deployed on the basis of a series of guarantees and changes in the political processes in place which brought about the cataclysm in the first place - and that would mean a whole range of educational, domestic/public cultural, and political empowerment transformations.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Anonymous. I think the cross is an important 'shape' but I think the circle is a sign of the resurrection and therefore a perfect shape for ministry.

I may be a "somewhat Christian minister" but your remarks were hardly worthy of Christ.

In the future, if you want me to post your comments or even respond to them, you're going to have to grow some ovaries and identify yourself.

In God's peace.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

That goes for you, too "Let It Be".