Every Fall for the past five years more than 300 people have convened here for the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference. This posting is a report on that conference. This year’s conference was focused on “Love in Action: The Transformative Power of Nonviolence.” Our gathering was highlighted by a number of powerful speakers. Bernard Lafayette, a leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, laid out his own pilgrimage to nonviolence from Philadelphia street gang, through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to leadership in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was the coordinator of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. Using documentary film from the early sit-ins he spoke dramatically about the self-discipline of drawing on empathic love within us to resist the natural inclination to fight aggression with violence.
The next morning I moderated an exceptional panel of people from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist traditions who spoke to the teachings and practices in their traditions that link nonviolence to peace. They included Rabbi Batsheva Meiri of Asheville and Ahmad Amara of Asheville, Carl Stauffer from Eastern Mennonite University, Michael Nagler, Director of the Metta Center on Nonviolence, and Sara Jenkins, a Buddhist author residing in Lake Junaluska. (Sara was also my editor for Red Clay, Blood River, so this was a distinct pleasure to hear yet another of her voices.) The panel spoke to the cultural and historical contexts out of which these traditions wrested their insights as well as practices into a way of peace that rests on empathy for the stranger, acknowledgment of our own inner will to violence, and the work of forgiveness. For Rabbi Meiri, this work begins with the Hebrew’s memory of their life in slavery and exile that calls them to empathy for the stranger and outcaste. Carl Stauffer directed our attention to the way Jesus’s admonitions to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile were ways of unmasking the face of injustice in order to bring about a change of heart as well as of power relations. Ahmad Amara lifted up the Prophet Muhammed’s patience, forgiveness and treaty-making in trying to bring peace to the warring tribes and religious communities of his time. Later he clarified, in response to a question, how “jihad” has traditionally meant the struggle with the self’s inner impulses to violence, disciplining them to God’s purposes of peace. Michael Nagler pointed out Hinduism’s emphasis on the oneness underlying all differences, creating an awareness of the way nonviolence is the supreme law of life. Sara Jenkins spoke of Buddhism’s emphasis on the self-understanding that arises in deep empathy with both victims and perpetrators of violence.
A buffet of workshops led us into many facets of peacebuilding and nonviolence, lifting up movements and perspectives that the news media rarely present, but which are leavening societies around the world. Hovering in the background of our work was the absence of Afra Jalabi, a member of the Syrian National Council, who had planned to present her work at the conference. A leading spokesperson for nonviolent strategies in the Syrian struggle, she was detained at a Council meeting in Doha while at the same time one of her uncles was shot and killed by a sniper in Syria. Her personal suffering and the suffering of the Syrian people reminded us of the importance of continuing the nonviolent struggle for human dignity and flourishing.
On Saturday we were visited by Leymah Gbowee,
who received the Nobel Peace Prize for her leadership of the women’s nonviolent campaign to bring an end to the horrific civil war in Liberia in 2003. Greeting her in special session were students involved in Peacejam, a movement of secondary school students begun by Nobel Peace Laureates to provide a way for students to begin learning about peacebuilding and working for peace in their own schools and communities. A group of Florida Peacejam students provided the stunning mural that backdropped our conference. You can read more about it at www.bethechangeflkeys.com. Her own talk, as well as the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” drew us into the vortex of the Liberian people’s suffering from 1989 to 2003 but also into the remarkable way that nonviolent resistance led to Charles Taylor’s ouster and the beginnings of new political, social, and economic life in Liberia.
We concluded our work with a time of worship and a prophetic message from Alan Storey, of South Africa, calling us to a way of nonviolence beyond the nationalism and militarism that so infects, blinds, and undermines American life. The songs of the Bennett College Choir, from Greensboro, North Carolina, nourished our spirits as we tried to absorb the experiences of the conference.
As you may detect, it was both an exhausting time of confronting the violence permeating our world as well as a time of inhaling new spirit, new breath, new relationships, and new understandings to sustain us on the path to the flourishing of human life within this creation’s bounds. Next year the Conference will focus on Faith, Health and Peace. You can stay tuned to this opportunity by visiting the Conference website.