Holding the center

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It had come to that part of the trial where, in Massachusetts, after a conviction, family members get their say.

An elderly black woman faced the condemned murderer. He was a teenager, the same age and race as her grandson, the boy he had killed. Her words were filled with much hurt but more love.

She told him that when she first saw him in court, saw how young he was, she knew she couldn't hate him. She told him she would write to him in prison, maybe even visit if he wanted her to. And she told him she would pray for him.

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The young man broke down, a stone-cold killer in tears, overwhelmed by a grandmother's words.

In Georgia earlier this month, a vice principal walked, arms open, toward a boy who had a gun, a teenager on his way to being another statistic in the tragic spree of public school shootings. The boy had already fired at other students. But with the approach of his vice principal, the boy released the gun and broke into tears just as he was embraced and cradled to the older man's bosom.

These two represent the role individuals play in trying to end violence and seek reconciliation. For the next three weeks, and then in an ongoing occasional series, Jane Lampman looks at a variation on this theme: what it takes to bring about reconciliation or build a sustainable peace when societies have been torn by ethnic or sectarian conflict. It's the peacemaker role individuals play at all levels that helps heal the deep-seated animosities in their divided communities.

Ms. Lampman begins by reporting on the efforts in Belfast, Northern Ireland (see article this page), to end "The Troubles" that have tormented Protestant and Catholic alike for decades.

William Butler Yeats in his prophetic poem "The Second Coming," written in the early part of this century, foreshadowed the dissolution of civilization in two great world wars and the Russian revolution. He wrote: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,... and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;..."

One need only glance at the headlines to sense that Yeats's insight at the dawn of this century is relevant at its sunset as well. "Ethnic cleansing" occurs throughout the former Yugoslavia. Bombs drop on Kosovo and Belgrade. Armed conflict erupts again in the high mountainous border between India and Pakistan. And though the decades-old conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East experience tenuous cease-fires, the possible renewal of terrorist bombings and armed conflict hangs like the sword of Damocles.

Yeats ends his poem: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" The words ring an alarm at the dawn of a new century. Human nature, he muses, is fated to repeat its history of war, conflict, its cycles of hatred and revenge.

But this rough beast, the anti-Christ, can be defeated. It has been by a grandmother and an educator who conquered hate and fear in their own hearts. What impelled them, and the many millions like them, is the innate desire to seek peace in the heart of friend and foe alike.

One of the lessons learned from the peace process in Northern Ireland, Lampman reports, is that individuals realize "it's not enough just to hope for peace." Mari Fitzduff, a peacebuilder there told her: "You have to be very strategic - as strategic about peace as the warmakers are about war."

Then the center will hold.

*Comments? E-mail Ideas@csps.com

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