'Aggressive pacifists' put their faith on the firing line
Christian Peacemaker Teams strain to shield Palestinians and cool Israeli tempers
HEBRON, WEST BANK
How do you walk into a war zone and try to make peace? Not in the political, signing-of-treaties sense, but on a human level, day by day?Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
For some Christian activists from the US and Canada, peacemaking means standing at a checkpoint amid thrown stones and tear gas, trying to prick a soldier's conscience. It means doing simple things at moments of high drama, such as staying at a family's house to allay fears of demolition or walking kids to school during an edgy curfew. It means comforting a terrified woman.
These activists, members of a Chicago-based group called Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), choose to live in a strange universe known as H2, the Israeli-controlled enclave of the West Bank city of Hebron.
Here roughly 30,000 Palestinians endure curfews and other Israeli military restrictions intended to protect around 450 Jewish settlers. The settlers exist in a sort of perpetual Alamo, the Palestinians in an almost ceaseless lockdown. Violence is frequent.
The CPTers, as they call themselves, aren't in it for an easy time. They must constantly balance their commitment to be "aggressive pacifists" against the danger such a life entails.
Apart from unsuccessful efforts to establish a dialogue with the settlers and a week of riding an Israeli bus line that had been struck twice by suicide bombers, the CPT's work focuses on one side. "We're protecting the Palestinians," says CPTer Anne Montgomery, a wrinkled, wiry Catholic nun who has been getting arrested for pacifist causes since the early 1960s.
The activists say they are not against Israel, the settlers in the West Bank, or the Israeli security forces. What they oppose is the occupation of the Palestinian lands Israel seized in the 1967 Arab- Israeli War and the violence that accompanies it.
So when CPTer Pierre Shantz, a young, fiery Canadian who once worked in an auto parts factory, strides out to a Hebron roadblock to watch Israeli soldiers confront a group of stonethrowing Palestinian youths, he cuts right to the occupation.
Standing behind a barrier to avoid the stones but close enough to the soldiers to have a conversation, Mr. Shantz says to them: "It doesn't take a genius to understand that an illegal occupation is wrong."
Other soldiers are firing tear gas canisters at the boys, some of them clearly in the single-digit age-range. They have the smiling insouciance of kids who know the routine.
Shantz, watching the gas drift toward Palestinian homes, says: "Do you know what tear gas does to pregnant women? Do you know it kills the baby?"
The Israelis stand impassively. They wear flak jackets and helmets and carry M-16s. The rocks mainly pose a nuisance.
Shantz prods on, asking the Israelis how they will answer the questions of their children and grandchildren. "What will you say? 'Just following orders?' " There is probably not a single Israeli adult who does not know that countless Nazis excused their role in the Holocaust of World War II by saying that they had to obey their superiors. One of the soldiers starts to bridle. "Don't respond to him," warns his colleague.
Robert Holmes, a CPTer who is also a Catholic priest, explains the idea behind the Shantz treatment: "You're not trying to alienate the soldier. You're trying to alienate the soldier from what he's doing."
In 1984 an American theologian and social activist named Ronald Sider sought to spur Christians to a more aggressive pacifism. "Unless we ... are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic, vigorous new exploits for peace and justice ... we dare never whisper another word about pacifism to our sisters and brothers in those desperate lands filled with injustice," Dr. Sider told a conference of Mennonites. CPT is the response of the Church of the Brethren, the Friends United Meeting, and Mennonite congregations in Canada and the US to his call.
The group began by dispatching delegations to war-torn areas in the early 1990s; today it sends trained volunteers and members of its full-time Christian Peacemaker Corps to live in zones of conflict.