“The peace movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not yet able to write a love letter.” Thich Nhat Hanh – Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, scholar and human rights activist
The recent story of Dr Lisa Augustine took me back to 2007. I remember it clearly; wandering round an old Natal Midlands farmstead with Cathy, chatting to the farmer’s wife about their business; a weaving operation. The subject turned to safety in the area and we were regaled with one of the most astonishing tales of humanity that I have ever heard.
Dr Augustine of Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital is also a weaver of sorts. That day she left the orthopaedic ward late. She was on her way home when she was set upon by attackers.
The weavers were weaving peacefully when a gang of hopped-up young men entered their workshop yelling, brandishing all manner of weaponry and demanding “all the money”. The weavers were simple folk but the young men would not listen to this and attacked the husband with an axe. He was wounded but not fatally. Again, the wife explained that there was no money but that they had some food and she would be glad to prepare them something if they were hungry. This disarmed the young men somewhat. Suddenly – with this offer of kindness in the form of food – there appeared to be more than one possible ending to this encounter.
The doctor’s attackers threatened to shoot her if she did not hand over her cell phone. In her exhausted state she did something that she later felt may have been unwise; she looked one of them in the eye and explained that she had been working hard all day at the hospital helping his community. It was probably her tone more than anything she said, but the man immediately changed his tune: “And suddenly the hostility vanished. He seemed to soften and his body language changed from being very aggressive. He apologised,” explained Dr Augustine who then gave him R40. The attackers left without hurting her.
The weavers and the Doctor said similar things about their attacks; that their attackers were probably just desperate. The question is, desperate for what? If we could answer this, then we would be a huge step closer to establishing a peaceful society. And we need to move beyond money, food, greed etc. These are only partial answers that trap us at the level of the material. We must be willing to venture into the darker spaces of human suffering. Until we go there, non-violence can only ever be a pipe-dream.
In 1967, Dr Martin Luther King Jr nominated the above quoted monk for the Nobel Peace Prize. The reason for this – as I see his work – is that he seems to provide us with the beginnings of an answer to this question – what are people so desperate for? He tells us that peace begins with each of us “being peace” as he calls it. We cannot fight for peace; we cannot create peace; we can only learn to “be peace.” How does this answer the question of what people are desperate for? Quite simply because hurt people hurt people. The only way to end the cycle of desperation that leads inevitably to violence is to be peace to people and we only do that by living lives that are – in themselves – a love letter to humanity and to the world at large; a constant cycle of healing and being healed. You see, people – all people whether poor or rich – are desperate for connection; for love and belonging.
After several hours of food and conversation, the weavers helped the young men to load their possessions into the family car. They were to lose a great deal but their lives would not be taken. However, just as things seemed to be working out for the best, it became evident that none of the youngsters could drive a car. This caused tempers to once again flare. The weavers then did the only logical thing they could think of under the circumstances; they taught one of the boys to drive. Like parents, they patiently explained the workings of the clutch and gears and it was not long before they stood atop their driveway and watched as their assailants drove their car and possessions off into the distance.
The boys were caught before they left the midlands. The weavers continue to weave and Doctor Augustine continues to help people get well The world continues, but with a little less blood spilt. This is simply because the weavers and Dr Augustine decided to be peace.
“The way you speak, the kind of understanding, the kind of language you use…. without being peace, we cannot do anything for peace. If we cannot smile, we cannot help other people to smile. If we are not peaceful, then we cannot contribute to the peace movement,” Thich Nhat Hanh.
Although this is radically counter-cultural – especially in western civilization – it will resonate deeply with us if we allow it. And the world will be a better place.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.