Gold for Humanity

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

When exactly did it happen — that “blinding flash of the obvious”?

It may have been during lunch — outside, in a park in the nation’s capital on a beautiful, cherry-blossom afternoon — as public health theorist Ari Cowan held forth about working with maximum security prisoners in Washington state. Having described a program that treats “violent” as a temporary condition, like “has a headache,” Cowan said he tells these guys, as they start to grasp the idea that they aren’t scumbags and monsters, “You’re the ones who will save humanity.”

There were more than 400 people at the biennial Peace Alliance conference — from 40 states, 10 countries — to celebrate a piece of legislation: H.R. 808, a bill Dennis Kucinich originally introduced in 2001, and then in every session of Congress thereafter, to establish a cabinet-level Department of Peace. But this is a movement that transcends politics and, in a sense, language itself, in that the words we use to describe “peace” embody the defeat and hopelessness of the past and thus evoke instant cynicism and dismissal.

So bear with me, please, as I try to work around such limitations. We may not know it, imprisoned as we are within our words, our politics and our media, but we already live in a world that is permeated with peace. It’s not a static state: It is growing — sometimes in the darkest corners of human despair. And that’s the message the conference unleashed, over and over again.

“He died at the age of 20 over a lousy pizza.”

Consider, for instance, the peace activism of Azim Khamisa, the former investment banker whose son was murdered in 1995. Remarkably, his is not a story of anger or outrage, but rather a bottomless well of forgiveness that has led to his establishment of a foundation named after his son, the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, and a brand new life devoted to bringing awareness to young people that violence is a dead-end street.

At first, Khamisa wanted only to be able to get out of bed in the morning. His son, a student at San Diego State University who delivered pizza on the weekends, was shot by a 14-year-old gang recruit — 14, my God! — while making a delivery. This is, of course, the sort of insanity that shatters lives and wrecks families on a daily basis all over the world, and often (usually?) leads to more violence. But Khamisa saw, at the pit of his grief, that something else could come from this unspeakable tragedy . . . if he forgave the child who killed his son.

What he came to understand, as he investigated the phenomenon of gang culture, is that there were “victims at both ends of the gun.” Ultimately he met with the killer, who was tried as an adult and sentenced to a long prison term, and, he said, “I didn’t see the murderer in him. I saw another soul.”

This begins to get at it — what “peace” can mean and why it’s our future, if we are to have a future. It’s not the naïve, wishful thinking of the inexperienced, as it’s so often portrayed; nor is it a tense and temporary armed standoff between adversaries; nor is it a wall, a barbed-wire fence, that keeps “them” out.

Rather, peace is a primal cry of the soul, a naked groping for commonality. It is eye contact with “the enemy” and, when necessary, the acceptance of a greater burden of responsibility than anyone could reasonably be expected to bear. And this finally was the message, for me, of these compressed four days in Washington, D.C.: Many people are accepting this responsibility.

One of the speakers at the conference, Ocean Robbins, put it this way, describing the remarkable journey of Liberian peace activist Kimmie Weeks, who nearly died of starvation during his country’s civil war, who was buried alive and rescued by his mother from a mass grave: “He is trying to find a way to take the pain and suffering he’s endured and turn it into gold for humanity.”

Yes, this begins to get at it.

Peace flows from the deepest courage, the grittiest honesty. Yvonne St. John-Dutra talked to us about growing up as a “fat girl” and the daily humiliation she endured in junior high school. She and her husband, Rich, after the birth of their four daughters, founded an organization, Challenge Day, that works directly in the schools to address the sort of everyday cruelties our current system takes for granted. The root causes of the hellish behavior that is commonplace in the schools — fighting, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, even suicide — are isolation and loneliness, she said.

To reach people in their isolation, to celebrate them, to love them, whether they are high school students or prisoners in maximum security, is the first priority of peace. And when we finally see, it is so obvious. Peace begins as alchemy, as our pain turns to gold for humanity.