Friday, December 9, 2011

Agricultural Development: Bustan Qaraaqa

Bustan Qaraaqa (Arabic for the Tortoise Garden; is a community permaculture farm located in the village of Beit Sahour, on the eastern edge of Bethlehem, Palestine. Established in 2008 by British ecologists and activists and local Palestinian partners, Bustan Qaraaqa is based in a one-hundred-year old stone house on fourteen dunums of land situated in Wadi Hanna Saad. The purpose of the farm is to catalyze a grassroots agroecological movement in the occupied Palestinian territories that responds to severe problems of food insecurity and ecosystem degradation. Such problems stem from humanitarian and environmental crises that are often instigated and exacerbated by the ongoing Israeli military occupation. Palestinians have endured extreme loss of land and lack of water access because of settlement construction and the establishment of the separation wall, which strengthens Israel’s monopolization of natural resources. Furthermore, the occupation has intensified soil and water pollution, habitat destruction, territorial fragmentation, movement restriction, and economic isolation. These effects aggravate population growth, species decline, desertification, and climate change.

In close collaboration with local neighbors, Bustan Qaraaqa serves as a model farm for experimentation and demonstration of permaculture designs and techniques for communal living through simple and inexpensive projects. The farm is also an education center that trains and assists local farmers throughout the region, as well as facilitating ecosystem restoration, species rehabilitation and conservation, food production for people in the midst of economic crises, and cultivating communal interdependence and pride as a form of resistance to military occupation. Ecological, economic, and social aspects are clearly embodied.

Permaculture is an important asset-based community and agricultural development strategy, because its methods “focus on the opportunities rather than the obstacles” (Holmgren, 2004, p. 4). Rooted in “ecological science and systems theory” (ibid, p. 4) as well as community research, religious traditions, and native cultures of place (ibid, p. 6), permaculture stems from three interrelated ethical maxims: “Care for the earth (husband soil, forests and water)”; “Care for people (look after self, kin and community)”; and “Fair share (set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus)” (ibid, p. 6). Furthermore, the word permaculture not only means permanent and sustainable agriculture but also permanent and sustainable culture (ibid, p. 1).

Bustan Qaraaqa’s permaculture projects reverse deforestation, enliven degraded soils, nurture biodiversity, collect and reuse water, and minimize negative consequences of human footprints on the earth by composting waste, recycling old material, and efficient design. The farm’s current projects include a tree nursery, water conservation and reuse, green building, and fish farming.

The free tree nursery harbors native and adapted plants in order to ameliorate environmental degradation through re-habitation and reforestation. Making adapted and native trees, some of which had gone extinct in the region, available to local communities is a vital step to reforesting the region into an edible landscape. The nursery contains over fifty species that provide food, fuel, building materials, soil restoration and remediation, landscaping, ecosystems restoration, and resistance to land confiscation. Bustan Qaraaqa’s workers have widespread experience in agroforestry projects.

Water conservation and reuse is another major project. Water shortage and lack of access is a rampant problem in the Palestinian territories. Israeli settlements consume twice the amount of water that Palestinian communities consume (Palestine monitor, 2009, p. 46); the World Health Organization states that a decent standard of living implies 100 liters per person each day, while the average West Bank Palestinian barely drinks 70. Israel also controls 80% of the West Bank’s depleting groundwater sources and the Jordan River, which is channeled to taps in Tel Aviv and farms in the Negev; such diversion has severely diminished the ancient waterway and has made essential aquifers extremely vulnerable to salinization and raw sewage (Faris, 2011). Over 200,000 people in rural villages are disconnected from the water network, and those who are connected rarely receive an uninterrupted supply due to military stoppages and rerouted pipes. The situation may worsen in light of climate change and population growth. Bustan Qaraaqa develops rainwater harvesting systems for rooftop and road runoff, which is stored in cisterns and tanks for household and irrigation use. Additionally, the farm utilizes swales (ditches dug along the contour of a slope) to retain water, build up soil, and prevent erosion. Bustan Qaraaqa also practices and demonstrates water conservation and recycling with a humanure toilet (which is also a form of waste management) and an elaborate graywater reuse system.

The farm’s green building program includes rainwater catchment, humanure toilet, showers, kitchen, and a greenhouse. The greenhouse embodies four design principles, each achieved through a variety of methods: reduced material consumption (multifunctional architecture, using salvaged materials, and using local materials for eco-construction); water conservation (rainwater harvesting and storage, water recycling, and graywater biofiltration); climate improvement (carbon-neutral winter heating, solar passive winter warming, and efficient design for summer cooling); and food production (winter fruits and vegetables, summer fruits and vegetables such as tropical crops, and an aquaponics system).

The aquaponics system, which is the first one in the West Bank, is also part of Bustan Qaraaqa’s fish farming project. The project was pioneered by the BySpokes crew ( and has been replicated in numerous urban and rural sites in Beit Sahour and the Jordan River Valley. The aquaponics system uses cheap and locally-available (mostly reclaimed) material and effectively works with the high alkalinity of the West Bank’s groundwater. This system grows plants that require copious amounts of water even during the long dry season, and is capable of growing locally-adapted and exotic plants.

Permaculture projects like Bustan Qaraaqa are extremely transferable. Even though permaculture, as a form of agroecology, is highly contextual, the principles and design methods are applicable in any setting. Permaculture’s co-originator David Holmgren’s twelve principles testifies are: observe and interact; catch and use energy; self-regulate and accept feedback; use and value renewable resources and services; produce no waste; design from patterns to details; integrate rather than segregate; use small and slow solutions; use and value diversity; use edges and value the marginal; and creatively use and respond to change (2004, p. 7-18). Permaculture started in Australia and has been used in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. With Bustan Qaraaqa as an example, permaculture design and development simultaneously addresses scientific, economic, and social factors.


Faris, S. (2011). Holy water: A precious commodity in a region of conflict. Retrieved October 29, 2011, from Orion Magazine.

Holmgren, D. (2004). Essence of permaculture. Retrieved June 30, 2011, from Holmgren
Design Services Website.

Palestine monitor 2009 factbook. (2009). Ramallah: Palestine Monitor & HDIP.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Intervention Reflection

Interventions, whether developmental or medical, are often presented in militaristic language, in which a foreign third-party forcefully enters the scene to right a wrong. Even when the intentions are supposedly peaceful, this framework only exacerbates the pre-existing conflict. However, some version of intervention is sometimes necessary, and is much more effective when conducted by those familiar with the context of conflict, which necessitates time and proximity. Professionalizing intervention would seem to foster neither, because it more rigidly establishes the role of the intervener as an outsider, and usually a transient one at that. Certainly outsiders can and do play a vital role, but outsiders must be intimate with a place in order to intervene respectfully and appropriately, and foreign specialization does not often encourage either one.

A classmate and I had a fascinating conversation regarding John Paul Lederach’s intervention in the Oka crisis. This case study provided fertile space in which to discuss and wrestle with the ethics of intervention. My friend wondered if Lederach’s decision to refuse participation in strategies of violence was an ethical decision, because he believes Lederach is not a stakeholder in this situation and, as a privileged outsider, should present a diversity of tactics to his clients. My friend is wary of solely ideological assumptions of violence and peace which do not attempt to understand their contextual emergence. I am sympathetic to this suspicion, and I agree that Lederach is definitely not a major stakeholder like the First Nation groups are: Lederach’s life is not woven into the texture of those events and thus has the ability to leave at any moment. However, I also think that once Lederach ruptures the sphere of influence by arriving in that place, he cannot now pretend like he is disinterested. His introduction into the ecosystem of conflict not only changes his organismal interactions within it, but his introduction also transforms the ecosystem itself; in this way, he has a stake simply because he is now present. Once we know and have witnessed we are called by the event to respond, whether in action or feigned ignorance.

I understand the point my friend made about presenting a diversity of tactics. However, I think Lederach did allow this to happen in a way. He did not encourage the First Nation groups to give up violent resistance, instead simply opting not to assist in strategizing. This is a valid decision considering his skillset, which does not include strategic planning for violent revolution. Furthermore, polite silence is not the same thing as solidarity; I’m not convinced by imperialistic intervention or by sterile objectivity. Allies should be able to offer insights, advice, and experience, which are all embedded in valuations of the world. Ultimately, the intervener should leave the final decision to the people whose lives are irrevocably intertwined in the context, even if the intervener disagrees with the ultimate decision. But the intervener, as an ally, also has the responsibility to voice concern and to make suggestions. Could Lederach have participated in strategizing for violent resistance by assuming an advocacy role for nonviolent direct action? My friend’s important concern is that renouncing violent revolution often leads to denouncing any form of revolution, effectively shutting the door on both. In the Oka crisis, the First Nation groups’ desire was reclamation of ancestral land, while the government’s only purpose was to dissolve tension. In a way, by not strategizing perhaps Lederach subsidized the government’s aims by ending the confrontation: the government’s goals were met while the First Nation groups were silenced. At this point, he could have played the role of both activist and translator-guide (process design and facilitation).

I empathize with some violent liberation movements, including the second Palestinian intifada. First World activists and peacebuilders run the risk of looking down our condescending noses at the actions of the oppressed without ethnographic studies of what caused such actions. However, phenomenologically, militarized strategies of liberation almost always reproduce the cycle which they sought to overthrow, because they are dependent on the same worldviewing and the same resources (eg. international arms trade) in order to resist empire. The result is more deaths and another repressive regime. As black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde said, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine transformation” (Lorde & Clarke, 2007, p. 112-3). For instance, the first Palestinian intifada was predominantly a concerted and mobilized nonviolent revolution, and it paved the way for the Oslo Peace Accords. However, in the aftermath of Oslo’s failure, the second violent intifada began in which suicide bombings drastically increased. Now, the situation on the ground is far worse than it was ten years ago with a massive concrete wall, intensified movement restrictions, and accelerated settlement construction. Because of this, I think the ends and the means must be as commensurate as possible.

Speakin of which, are the roles of activist and carrier-catalyst incommensurate? For instance, could Lederach have negotiated with the government while also siding himself with the First Nation groups? As an intervener, I should not allocate legitimacy completely to one side. I do allocate legitimacy in some instances more to one side than the other, but sole legitimacy would blind me to the suffering and experience of the other, thus reproducing a cycle of violence. By taking sides without allocating sole legitimacy, Lederach could have still functioned as a carrier-catalyst (negotiation) and a bridge builder (trust building) in order to understand what the government was and was not willing to concede to the First Nation groups. As a conduit (active listening and deep communication), Lederach would also have filled the role of the seer (conflict analysis and diagnosis) for the First Nation groups by explaining how far the government would go. The resistance groups could then have made their decision how to respond. If the government’s main aim was to dissolve tension with no intention of compromising, such information would be vital to the strategies of the First Nation groups. As a carrier-catalyst and conduit, Lederach could have then communicated clearly to the government how far the First Nation groups were willing to go in response. As an outsider with such potential connections, Lederach could have enacted multiple parts. The insights gained from these connections could be relayed to the side which the intervener has taken, thus strengthening their position and possible responses.

In such a situation, however, peacebuilders must guard against thinking they can become completely one with the oppressed. There may be some exceptions to this rule, because conversion can happen even while we recognize irreducible differences. In my experience, I have seen “the oppressed” welcome the outsider into their own midst as one of them, as an “other” who is now part of them. Lederach did not have enough time to do so in this situation, which could be part of the problem. As the situation stood, Lederach seemed to have two choices: either represent the First Nations or access them to government. I think some situations could arise in which the first choice is the more appropriate, but in this particular situation Lederach’s mission might have been more successful if he more proactively attempted to connect the First Nation groups to the powers that be so that their legitimate demands could be heard. The government’s willingness (or lack thereof) to cooperate could have been articulated to the First Nation groups; as a conduit and a carrier-catalyst, Lederach could have filled this vital niche. As a seer, I think it would have been appropriate for him to predict what might occur if the current violent resistance escalated, especially considering the superior force and resources of the government.

If presented with a similar scenario, I don’t know what decisions I would have made. My experiences in nonviolent intervention were ad hoc, rooted in the crisis of the moment and the obligation to respond. We had no time to plan or to train, and the important roles of conflict intervention were messily inhabited as we broke bread around a table under the specter of military night raids. At times, this is the only possible response: the willingness to place our political bodies in the midst of the body politic.


Lorde, A. & Clarke, C (ed.). (2007). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Berkeley: Crossing Press.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Mediation Reflection

The practice of mediation is considered one of the central tools for peacebuilders. Mediation, along with negotiation and facilitation, form the backbone of CJP’s conflict transformation ethos, due in part to the plethora of faculty members who have been involved with the Mennonite Central Committee. But mediation, like negotiation, is also a common skill, albeit an unrefined one; as James Joyce would have it, mediation is a chaosmos, an order which is unsettled by the disorder it seeks to direct. We often facilitate conflict between family members or friends, acting as middlemen (or women) relaying messages and summarizing underlying needs. The trick is to unearth this unrecognized daily practice and recognize its distinctive methods. Mediation is the structured emergence of difference that creates space for potential convergence.

Unfortunately, I have been somewhat skeptical of mediation. I never doubted the vital importance of it in certain circumstances but I wondered how applicable it was in many situations, especially when it became extremely specialized and professionalized. In my limited view, mediators whitewashed severe inequities and power imbalances by claiming neutrality, leading some to boast they could mediate anything, presumably even racial or economic conflicts. Major nations send mediators like George Mitchell to facilitate the (laughably named) Middle East peace process, who inevitably fail because they enter assuming, or pretending, that two equal parties sit at the table. And when Palestinians refuse to concede on certain issues, the mediators complain that they aren’t giving up enough ground. But how do you give ground when you don’t have much to give? How do you give ground when you believe that most of your ground was taken by the party with whom you’re supposed to be negotiating?

I worked with a reconciliation group based in Jerusalem. Musalaha does important work, including mediation work. In the vein of narrative mediation, Musalaha recognizes the vitality of storytelling in which an encounter with the other is unavoidable. That important work, however, is endlessly challenging and frustrating because they are handcuffed by a desire to appease exceedingly conflicting groups. In the midst of my frustration I recognized that Musalaha attempts to walk a string-thin line. They are in an extremely volatile situation as a non-profit organization funded mostly by Evangelical Christians, many of whom still ardently sympathize with Israel but also want to help “Arab Christians.” The director, an Israeli Palestinian, says he has “an itch for justice” and is ready for Musalaha to speak more boldly. But if Palestinian participants cry justice for their beloved country too loudly, most Israelis won’t come. However, if Musalaha continues a more neutral stance on political issues, Palestinians will consider that stance as normalizing the occupation and they may not come much longer either. In this case, the process of mediation transforms some individual lives, which cannot be underestimated, but those individual lives return to extreme societal and structural disparities separated by a dividing wall of hostility and concrete.

During this time, once or twice a week several friends of mine and I slept in the home of a nonviolent protest leader outside of Bethlehem because of the regular occurrence of IDF night raids. Apparently, they came to the village regularly, and came while we slept there but never came to the house. Not until we missed a night. Our friend was later taken into a back room at a checkpoint crossing and was beaten for ten or fifteen minutes before being released. Israeli soldiers had the protest leader’s cellphone number, calling him regularly to request visits in his front yard to work things out over tea. The protest leader said that by inviting them for tea he would be accepting the present power inequality in which they could come at will and armed to his home. When the wall fell and the occupation ended, then he would invite them.

Coworkers in the reconciliation group were skeptical of my involvement with nonviolent intervention, direct action, and journalistic advocacy. An activist friend angrily reprimanded me for working with a reconciliation group, all of which she claimed hide behind neutrality and historical amnesia; this friend reprimanded me for this as we drove out to the village to sleep in the protest leader’s home. These experiences, as well as daily crossing through the checkpoints in the separation wall, convinced me that direct action and mediation are both needed. But they manifest themselves in different contexts in which one practice may be inappropriate. Activists sometimes forget that conversation is a desired result of direct action; the table is made more accessible for all. Mediators sometimes forget that makers of peace must often be disturbers of peace. Governments idolize King and Gandhi now that they are dead, but they were vilified as troublemakers and verbally and physically attacked when alive. Mediation has an important place, but cannot be the only core of peacebuilding. It is a backup when negotiation fails because of entrenched ideologies, and nonviolent direct action replaces failed mediation processes. Both channel energy and turn up unheard voices. As Ched Myers and Elaine Enns have said, the two are estranged relatives.

I took my role as a mediator seriously during role-playing sessions and I tried to practice the discussed skills. I have acted as a sort of mediator for friends in dispute, but surveying the field provided a more stable framework in which to work. Part of the beauty of mediation is the interpretability of methods that allows for diverse engagement with the process, whether that is traditional, transformative, narrative, victim-offender, or community mediation. The word chaosmos came to mind several times during the process of mediating and being mediated: a mediator must extensively plan and organize, but must also be open to the unpredictability of human encounter. The mediation process may shed light on unexpected emotions and details that could never have been predicted, even in a role-play situation. This highlighted the fact that mediators do not control the process but instead facilitate it, direct it. In a way, mediators conduct the flux toward an acceptable rhythm. One observer commented that mediators play the role of encourager by soliciting generative ideas from participants. The ownership belongs to the participants and the mediator, in a way, plays stupid so that participants are forced to constantly reshape and reform experiences and emotions. Instead of being the all-knowing third party, the mediator elicits different aspects of repeated stories by assuming ignorance. This forces the participants to continually clarify desires and perspectives. And, unlike negotiation, a third party is able to rephrase previously entrenched views that might make listening and understanding more possible.

My valuation of mediation rose during the class role-playing sessions. I hope to complete the required hours at the Fairfield Center and explore community and narrative mediation in more depth. Conflict will inevitably arise and the skill to stimulate discussion, facilitate listening, and to construct more collaborative environments is critical. And to do all of this without controlling and manipulating the process or the people involved. Mediation is the art of asking the right questions and the art of shared storytelling. In many ways, these are lost arts that must be restored.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Cosmopolitanism and Bioregionalism: Reflection on Contemporary Conflict Resolution

Hugh Miall, Oliver Ramsbotham, and Tom Woodhouse have produced a remarkable and thorough resource for reflective practitioners. Contemporary Conflict Resolution is an ambitious attempt to explore the history, practices, and critiques of the field. I felt compelled to read beyond the assigned chapters because of the multiplicity of important topics. Indeed, the volume is so broad and expansive that the task of reflecting on it is extremely daunting. Too many possible trails diverge in this dense wood.

Cosmopolitan conflict resolution is the central theme of the massive book (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 265), the deepest level of which is conflict transformation (ibid, pp. 31-32). This well-articulated approach is based on cooperation (ibid, p. 20). However, the current global economic and political structures engender extreme competition, centralization, and stratification. Interestingly, the authors adamantly praise the United Nations as the pinnacle of cosmopolitan conflict resolution (ibid, pp. 273-4), which depends on the aforementioned structures (ibid, p. 272). The authors defend the United Nations from detractors throughout the book (ibid, p. 291), which is indeed admirable and appropriate at times. But they do so by propagating global citizenship in a world community (ibid, p. 396). This appears reasonable, but becomes problematic when cosmopolitanism remains comfortable with mere reform of the state system (ibid, p. 399).

Reform is certainly not a four-letter word, and is absolutely necessary at times, but many historians claim that state-making has served, not to protect people from violence as Hobbes would contend (ibid, pp. 95-96), but to organize for the purpose of war (Alexis-Baker, 2011). Rather than paving the way for the world community, nation-states disintegrated communities (ibid). Indeed, European peasants staged major rebellions, causing some of the most tumultuous periods in European history (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 275), during the infancy of the nation-state when leaders introduced uniform language and currency over huge territories (Alexis-Baker, 2011).

The Occupy Wall Street movement is resisting similar trends within liberal democracy, in effect agreeing with the authors’ critique of the internal democratic peace theory (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 280). Liberal democracies bifurcated the political and economic systems, in which the supposed equality of the former actually supports structural inequality in the latter (Myers, 1994, p. 294). Many Americans, even poor Americans, seem to have accepted this division and forfeited economic or political transformation because Horatio Algers’ bootstrap tales are still so prevalent.

The authors of this textbook have internalized another tale which believes that international law and human rights can be normalized in a convergence of state interests that will ultimately transform the current systems (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 280). This strikes me as “an admittedly overoptimistic ‘long history of the state’ in terms of the development of international norms” (ibid, p. 275) and an extremely positivist view of historical progress (ibid, p. 267, 269), a view which has caused inestimable violence to the indigenous people of the West, to non-Westerners, and to women of all races (Caputo, 2006, p. 38). The UN did not prevent the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor have they ever effectively constrained Israel, who easily ignores UN resolutions without any fear of repercussion. Israel is an example of a rejection of the liberal cosmopolitan values and principles which the authors religiously endorse (ibid, p. 411), but the authors main example of rejection is Wahhabist Muslims who cannot accept liberal democracy because majority opinion might outvote the will of Allah (ibid, p. 411). The authors fear this rejection of cosmopolitanism, but is it fundamentally different from Israel’s stance or even from American conscientious objectors? Even if the majority votes for war, which they do through tax dollars and presidential votes, conscientious objectors reject majority opinion within a liberal democracy. The authors’ viewpoint thus orients them back to military force in order to impose liberal democratic cosmopolitan values (ibid, p. 327), even though just war criteria have never prevented any war. Is the role of the peacebuilder ultimately to control the flow of history? Could there be a difference between controlling and leavening?

Liberal human rights and international law are incredibly important references and tools, but they often seem shallow when compared to deep cultural reservoirs of human folly and wisdom (discussed in chapter fifteen). Certainly these reservoirs can be dangerous because of their endless interpretability. However, this is no less the case for the text of human rights, whose staunchest advocates think such rights are universal. But nothing cultural is really universal, which is why people spend so much time arguing for human rights, or rather evangelizing for them. I am not necessarily against ‘evangelism’ for justice and peacemaking, but I tend to think that interpretability is what gives texts their life, and I tend to think that universality emerges from the plurality of particularity, not from an indistinct uniformity. Part of the irony is that many peacebuilders insist on abstract formulations like “the family of nations” or “the world community” (ibid, p. 266, 396) and then also posit human rights as the basis for all relationships. But healthy families and communities are not centered on rights; they are centered on responsibility to other members. In a way, solely rights-based approaches can devalue communal interdependence by operating on individualistic assumptions: instead of active and responsible participation, we get de-personalized laws of non-infringement. Some have argued that such laws were actually designed to dismantle social groups into more manageable individuals (Alexis-Baker, 2011). Again, I am certainly not rejecting the significant tool of human rights, and they may be transitionally necessary in a world of global economics and nation-states. But I am suggesting that they may not be all-sufficient. In the end, stories are all we have.

No system will ever be perfect, but are we able to even imagine alternatives such as bioregionalism? Bioregionalism is a political, economic, and cultural way of life defined by ecological boundaries such as watersheds and soil types, rather than arbitrary state lines. We are members of specific communities within specific ecosystems, not of some amorphous world community. However, these specific communities are irrevocably connected to other specific communities and require participation and cooperation and therefore preventing devolution into tiny isolate enclaves. Bioregionalism thus takes very seriously “post-structural concerns for local participation and human diversity” (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 267).

What might a cosmopolitan bioregionalism look like? The textbook authors are rightly committed to pluralism (ibid, p. 396-399), but for some reason think that global governance can deliver locally defined welfare for the most marginalized (ibid, p. 397). While perhaps possible, the authors don’t adequately explain how global governance, presumably under UN administration, would prevent homogenization and “top-down forces of militarist, market-driven, materialist globalization” (ibid, p. 398). The earth itself is capable of cultivating pluralism, witnessed in natural biodiversity, but it is also able to limit and ground it (Myers, 1994, p. 364). Theoretically, placing economics under the control of bioregional knowledge would foster cooperation because everyone would be dependent on resource stewardship of that place; however, abolishing centralized authority (whether the nation-state government or the UN), does not automatically instigate inter-regional warfare over territory. The textbook authors note that real commons did not predominantly end in tragedy because people mostly cooperated by regulating competition and restricting freedom (Ramsbotham, 2011, pp. 294-295). Bioregional governance requires a networked confederation of local groups to plan, cooperate, trade, mediate, and share knowledge (Myers, 1994, p. 366).

Bioregionalism is one imaginable alternative that can even be planted within the shell of existing structures. The chapter on environmental conflict resolution (Ramsbotham, 2011, pp. 293-304) introduces extremely important issues such as climate change, peak oil, resource competition, and the survival of the marginalized (ibid, p. 293). The authors relate important examples such as a Californian water conflict (ibid, p. 295), but they would have benefited significantly from discussing the potential of permaculture as a form of peacebuilding. Rooted in ecological science and systems theory (Holmgren, 2004, p. 4) as well as community research, religious traditions, and native cultures of place (ibid, p. 6), permaculture is a form of land and cultural design and management that stems from three interrelated ethical maxims: “Care for the earth (husband soil, forests and water)”; “Care for people (look after self, kin and community)”; and “Fair share (set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus)” (ibid, p. 6). Furthermore, the word permaculture not only means permanent and sustainable agriculture but also permanent and sustainable culture (ibid, p. 1). A brief example is Bustan Qaraaqa, a community permaculture farm located in Beit Sahour, a village close to Bethlehem, Palestine. The farm addresses food insecurity and environmental degradation that result from infrastructural instability and a military occupation. Through education and demonstration, the farm models cheap and easy ways to live sustainably and produce food such as water conservation, aquaponics systems, tree planting, and will soon include waste management and fish farming.

On a final note, the authors could have strengthened their helpful survey (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 294) by mentioning Cuba. The Caribbean country plummeted into economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union (Rosset & Bourque, 2005, p. 363). Fossil fuel availability drastically decreased, as well as food imports which dropped by more than fifty percent; Cuban agriculture lost seventy percent of available fertilizers and pesticides (ibid, p. 364). Daily caloric intake in the early 1990s dropped by thirty percent from the 1980s (ibid, p. 364). Remarkably, Cuba survived and thrived in the aftermath of their initial catastrophe by employing alternative technologies, returning to animal instead of mechanical traction, remembering older techniques (such as intercropping, crop rotations, and composting), and supplementing limited synthetic fertilizers with agroecological practices such as biopesticides and biofertilizers, natural enemies, earthworms, green manures and cover crops, and integration of grazing animals (ibid, p. 364).

The government simultaneously converted almost all state farms into worker-owned cooperatives, acknowledging that farm managers’ must be “intimately familiar with the ecological heterogeneity” of the land (ibid, p. 365). Individual farms (ibid, p. 364) and these worker-owned cooperatives represent a fascinating synthesis of capitalism and socialism. Urban farming played a central role in overcoming food insecurity (ibid, pp. 365-366), flipping conventional wisdom on its back by proving that small countries can feed themselves, even without copious synthetic fertilizers and corporate-scale farms (ibid, p. 366). Cuban practices such as agroecology, fair prices, land redistribution, local production, and urban farming are very applicable elsewhere (ibid, p. 367). Cuba emerges as a key example of an alternative paradigm that addresses extreme environmental and social challenges (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 293) and is a paradigm, along with bioregionalism, that has definite resonances with the important insights of cosmopolitan conflict resolution (ibid, p. 32).


Alexis-Baker, A. (2011). The myth of state as savior and elections as a confession of faith. Retrieved November 9, 2011, from Jesus Radicals.

Caputo, J. (2006). Philosophy and theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Holmgren, D. (2004). Essence of permaculture. Retrieved June 30, 2011, from Holmgren
Design Services Website:

Myers. C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world christians. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T., and Miall, H. (2011). Contemporary conflict resolution (3rd ed.). Malden: Polity Press.

Rosset, P, & Bourque, M. (2005). Lessons of Cuban resistance. In J. Pretty (ed.), The Earthscan reader in sustainable agriculture (pp. 362-367). Sterling: Earthscan.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Nature of Science in Sustainable Agriculture

Science inhabits an important niche in sustainable agriculture. This niche functions in several related ways.

Firstly, science produces measurements and provides demonstration. We may observe that carrots and tomatoes, squash and corn, lettuce and walnut husks, grow better together, or that polyculture is more productive than monoculture, but a scientific approach quantifies the increase in yield and the benefit to the system as a whole. In this way, science conducts tests in the particularity of each agroecosystem.

Secondly, science can offer credibility and argumentation. Many in Western societies, from skeptics to the disinterested, will more likely believe statistical analysis of a formal experiment than cultural tradition or experiential observation. By offering tested data, science serves to convince a public predisposed to quantification by illuminating the credibility of sustainable agriculture. Furthermore, accepted mainstream science has endorsed the agricultural status quo, so one role of science in sustainable agriculture is argumentation in the arena of hypotheses. Also, case studies from other countries in which sustainable practices have been employed for centuries are given credibility by measurements and demonstrations.

Thirdly, science deepens understandings and of ecological rhythms which sustainable agriculture strives to imitate. In this way, different fields of science establish a mosaic of knowledge which undergirds sustainable agricultural practices. Rather than preoccupation with universality, this deepened understanding focuses on the local context, therefore encouraging participation in bioregional processes. Science therefore enables the farmer to partner with the natural processes of a certain place in order to maximize yield and to preserve the place’s health into the foreseeable future.

As such, sustainable farmers practice numerous kinds of science, including (among many others) ecology, agronomy, biology, climatology, physiology, hydrology, and even nutrition. Extensive training in all these fields is not required for a farmer to be sustainable, but aspects and insights from each will be present in the work itself. Also, sustainable farmers will literally be involved in field work as opposed to laboratories and test-tube experiments: their work will be exposed to and incorporate natural disturbances. Because of this, sustainable farmers will not employ some universal step-by-step scientific method because each agroecosystem is distinct and requires intentional and contextual interaction that cannot be achieved through prepackaged methodologies. However, farmers will utilize different scientific methods depending on their context, even depending on different locations within their farms. An assortment of methods will emerge based on the needs and the gifts of the particular place. Observation and context are pivotal in scientific methods.

These methods of science in sustainable agriculture will be the same as the nature of science. Agricultural science will be empirical, based on observations of and experiences in the ecosystems on the farm and the ecosystems in which the farm is located. It will be inferential, which means it will make claims about those observations. For instance, a farmer may observe that certain crops are no longer wilted and may then infer that this is due to efficient distribution of rainwater collection or to the addition of mulching that retains moisture content in the topsoil. Agricultural science will also be theory-laden; nothing occurs in a vacuum and so farmers will be biased by values and training. A farmer with an agronomic background may posit everything as a soil management problem, while a farmer with education in physiology may first look to the individual plant as the most important factor. Because this is inevitable (and not altogether bad), diversifying the disciplines by recognizing their interdependence becomes vital. Additionally, agricultural will be socially and culturally conditioned. All scientists are partially determined by the values, practices, and perceptions of their own culture. Agricultural scientists will grow certain types of crops, employ certain types of technology, conduct certain types of experiments, and respond with certain types of native techniques depending on their culture’s standards and ethics. In another way, sustainable agricultural science will be socially bound by recognizing its connection to other social practices such as economics, politics, and religion. Agricultural science will also be socially and culturally conditioned because it will take seriously the health of human and nonhuman communities in that place, as well as learning from the folly and wisdom embedded in cultural traditions.

And agricultural science will be tentative and therefore subject to evolution. Ecosystems exhibit a dynamic equilibrium and so agricultural science must embrace and adapt to that dynamism. Agricultural science will also be tentative because it will be open to knowledge from the plurality of other places in the world.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Body Politic: Gilligan's Preventing Violence

Most of my classmates cannot stop singing praises about James Gilligan’s Preventing Violence. To a large extent, I can relate. Gilligan’s exposition on the multi-determined nature of violence (Gilligan, 2001, p. 67) is captivating and compelling. Many of his conclusions in some way support my convictions of community, nonviolence, the convergence of interpersonal and structural transformation, and the inherent structural problems of our collective house. He puts the future as starkly as did MLK: either we learn to live, and want to live, together or we die (p. 9). I also related to Gilligan’s doubt: he makes clear that he is not at all optimistic that the United States will heed his theory and generate the political and economic will to restructure our lives (p. 26); charting out a course to prevent violence does not mean we will set sail. I do not feel much optimism or idealism at all anymore, but I cannot shake deep convictions and, in some ways, a sense of obligation. Now that I have seen and encountered, I cannot ignore.

Gilligan’s public health approach (p. 12) is tremendously helpful, attempting to explicate causes and responses from a phenomenological perspective rather than a strictly a priori theoretical basis. Because he recognizes the biological, psychological, and social determinants of violence, he also acknowledges different levels of prevention (p. 20), which correspond with John Paul Lederach’s levels of intervention in Building Peace. Both Lederach and Gilligan accept the necessity of a diversity of gifts and a multiplicity of engagement aimed at diving as deep as possible. Like Hercules fighting the Hydra monster, we can chop down destructive systems forever, but they will continually grow back like biting heads unless we tend to the root. In this etymological sense, Gilligan’s diagnosis and prognosis is subversively radical. Furthermore, he won me over with his strong references to literature, such as Woolf, Shakespeare, and Genesis (p. 57, 8). More peacebuilders must begin to take these deep reservoirs of human folly and wisdom much more seriously. Such cultural traditions, like the social sciences, are extremely important disciplines that we cannot ignore.

Upon critical reflection, I have my share of questions with some of Gilligan’s points and assumptions. Gilligan’s impressive theory is that violence revolves around shame (p. 29) and that the purpose of violence is to coerce respect from others (p. 35). I put on Gilligan’s glasses and was amazed to see how many acts of violence could indeed be traced to shame and the desire for respect. Even playful insults often result in a jocular retaliatory punch in order to save face. While extraordinarily insightful, Gilligan’s theory stems from studies limited to U.S. prisons, which are situated in a Western society. I wonder if his theory can be translated into every culture and every violent situation. For instance, I see a strong correlation between this theory and Israel/Palestine and the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but how does shame-based violence relate to U.S. incursions into Latin America, or funding rebel groups in Mozambique, or the first Gulf War? The danger of a fantastic theory is that it can become just another universal language, another meta-narrative. Interestingly, Gilligan critiques just such a tendency in the medieval concept of evil, which people viewed as an objective reality with an existence independent of subjective experience (p. 14). I think Gilligan has almost replaced “evil” with “shame.” He does not apply shame in the same way he claims medievalists did evil, but he seems to view it as the objective reality which lurks beneath every act of violence. I am hesitant to make such a statement, as possible as it may be.

Gilligan’s phrase “traditional moral and legal approach” (p. 7) is misleading. His prevailing argument is against the contemporary industrial criminal justice system, an argument with which I agree. But that system is not traditional. If, by traditional, he means “what we’ve had for awhile,” such explicitness would be understood and welcome, because equating this present system with the past four thousand years seems untenable. Indeed, he actually notes restorative justice as an alternative (p. 8), which is often inspired by ancient traditional practices, whether from Native Americans, Maoris, or Palestinian Jews.

While I also have problems with moralistic language, Gilligan’s definition of morality is overly negative (p. 18). He seems to think that empiricism is the right framework (p. 12) because it is somehow objective, which means divorced from morality. But observation does not occur without some value-claims. The binary opposition between morality and empiricism is somewhat unhelpful, and it is not necessarily true: our values shape our perceptions and perceptions shape our values. This is an inevitable cycle of mutualism that seems better to embrace than ignore, especially since Gilligan’s training as a psychiatrist illuminates his predisposition to a public health approach (p. 12). As I suggested earlier, his phenomenological lens, which utilizes the social sciences and recognizes “real consequences for real people” (p. 13), is important and resonates very deeply with me, but this is not a separate endeavor from philosophizing. Social sciences can be just as abstract as some philosophy; they contribute an essential voice, but if we take seriously our personal and societal biases we will not claim that they unveil the real perspective. Pitting empiricism against morality implicitly states that we can completely free ourselves from interpretive lenses and see things as they really are. While we cannot and should not reject phenomenology (something which I hold dear), we can and should accept our contingencies and the values that leaven our observations.

Gilligan offers a valid observation of militarism by sardonically suggesting that one murder leads to prison while thousands of murders earn the office of president or the emperor’s crown (p. 59); the highest honor given in the United States is the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is awarded to men for doing violence, for turning themselves and other men into objects of each other’s violence (p. 59). Gilligan in effect blunts this incisive critique by reframing military violence as necessary sacrifice for the sake of comrades and for the sake of all of us (p. 59). Gilligan therefore ends up supporting what he just exposed. Gilligan is very critical about the structural violence of American society, but he retreats from fully applying that critique to a major manifestation of socially-accepted, and socially-endorsed, violence. I am not at all interested in demonization, but if preventing violence is a prerequisite for human survival (p. 26), then militarism cannot be easily excused from the table. Intellectual honesty might require that people’s toes get stepped on at times.

I respectfully step on Gilligan’s toes when he addresses technology and economics. He actually makes an anarcho-primitivist critique when he claims that our hierarchical division of society did not exist before the dawn of the civilization (p. 104) in hunter-gatherer societies (p. 89). Indeed, one could argue that communities like the Hutterites (p. 86) and the kibbutzim (p. 87), examples of ways to create less violent societies, attempt to re-imagine a Paleolithic ethos in the modern world. Gilligan believes, however, that civilization no longer requires stratifications, such as slavery, because of progress (p. 104). Apparently, Gilligan thinks progress replaces human manual labor with robots so that we are free to engage in more productive endeavors (p. 105). I do think appropriate technologies have an important role, and I absolutely agree that we do not need economic stratifications, but I question that this will be achieved by producing more technology that eradicates human engagement. Gilligan’s faith in technological progression seems intimately tied to forms of violence: utter reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuels and the violence to the earth and its human and nonhuman communities.

Perhaps this exposes another component of violence: the devaluation of the body and the alienation of work. I don’t think Europeans enslaved Africans because they were black; they enslaved Africans because Africans were economically expedient and militarily unimposing. They could be forced to do the work that Europeans did not want to do and racism justified everything. Replacing slaves with technology will not guarantee the end of resource wars, much less the end of violence. I don’t know exactly in what direction we should move, but I think ancient cultural wisdom might at least provide one interpretation of ways forward. The early monastic communities believed, as Gilligan seems to note, that the project of civilization is constructed on the centralization of exploitation and wealth; if that is the case, then communities should become as self-sufficient as possible (Myers, 1994, p. 182). Furthermore, they claimed that exploitation and wealth stratification stem from the alienation of human labor, which I think relate to a devaluation of the body; in order to restore dignity and respect (as opposed to humiliation and shame), they centered their communal lives around shared manual, and therefore unalienated, work (p. 182). Critical questions can be asked here, but I wonder if the dualism between body and soul plays a larger role in violence than is often credited. If it does, reclaiming the tangibility and localness of the body, and therefore the body’s interdependence with other bodies, is a way of preventing violence in an increasingly virtual age. Nonviolence is a part of this reclamation, because engaged nonviolence affirms the actual embodiment of humanity, recognizing the strategic and subversive placement of the political body within the body politic. The two are inextricably linked.


Gilligan, J. (2001). Preventing violence. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Myers, C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world Christians. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Agricultural Sustainability

Sustainability is an extremely elusive concept: the more one tries to define it the more it slips through one’s fingers. The word seems, as a rule, more general than specific. But it is largely abstract because definitions are often place-less. Definitions have no particular place in mind in which sustainability can put roots down and stick around for awhile. Certainly some generality is necessary, but without particularity holding this generality down it will float away. Applicability is key.

The original Brundtland definition was too abstract and overly anthropocentric. To be fair, anthropocentrism is not necessarily bad: a jellyfish would be medusacentric. And Brundtland’s and Robert Solow’s neoliberal economics are not the only manifestation of anthropocentrism. Wendell Berry could be considered anthropocentric because he is endlessly passionate about the life and health of human communities. But he is also deeply biocentric because he realizes that human life and health cannot come at the expense of what sustains it and because it cannot come at the expense of the life and health of our home and our nonhuman neighbors, who surely have just as much, if not more, of a right to live on this planet as we do. This synthesis is fertile ground for defining sustainability

A good definition of agricultural sustainability will be so burdened with adjectives that any speaker will trip over it. Ecology, the study of the household, is vital in this discussion, because it connotes the complex relationships of mutuality between various parts to create the whole. Health does not exist in isolation, but in beneficial membership to the entire household. Any definition that is worth its salt will recognize the complex relatedness between social, political, economic, ecological, and cultural issues. If the house is divided against itself it will not stand.

Agricultural sustainability imitates the diverse patterns and relationships of local ecosystems in order to sustain human and nonhuman communities in a particular place for as long as possible. Imitation is an important distinction: agricultural sustainability does not necessarily seek to recreate local ecosystems, but instead seeks to emulate local ecosystems. As such, it makes ends and means as commensurate as possible: it will not impede the land’s inherent ability for renewal and it will reduce (and ultimately eliminate) dependence on non-renewable energy except as a rare supplement. Agricultural sustainability contextually emerges from the study and practice of the whole household, characterized by self-renewal and restoration, stability and mutability, rootedness and longevity. It conserves and preserves biodiversity, soil fertility, watershed integrity, and sociocultural equity while maintaining a sustaining yield. Agricultural sustainability is bioregional and organic, which means it fosters community and culture, respects the limitations and gifts of carrying capacity, and defects as much as possible from dependence on an exploitive economy. It necessitates revitalized communities to care for the land, which should be redistributed into more cooperative ownerships or so people have the opportunity to work productive land (which is not just a Jeffersonian vision, but also a biblical-prophetic one and a distributist-economic one). Urban farming and the gardening of cities must also play a key creative role. None of this will happen overnight with the flick of a magic wand. Agricultural sustainability is a dynamic conversion.

Agricultural sustainability requires storytelling, consciously and critically joining the wisdom of the past with concrete practices in the present to address the potential of the future. As such, it builds up local tradition and culture like topsoil that preserves wisdom but also invites, indeed requires, future inputs and improvements. Marginal places and people must be welcomed in reconstituted communities and restructured systems that also imitate ecosystems (balance, resilience, vitality, diversity, mutuality, etc.) and harmonize with local ecosystems. Neighborliness will be emphasized. Limits must be set on production and consumption, which means that the ratio of farmer to acreage must be decreased. Distribution of surplus will be important as well, because distribution of food poses a greater threat to sustainability than the production of food.

As humans, we must address our needs, but we must do so with the realization that we are not the only, or indeed the most important, species inhabiting this planet. Evolution (and some religious traditions) bears witness to our interconnectedness and interdependence with the earth and fellow creatures. This tension will be a tightrope that cannot be walked in the abstract but only in responsible concrete practices. Sustainable agriculture is the mediator between the health of human culture and the health of the earth because it depends on the permanent renewal of both.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Conflict Transformation Style Assessment

Personality profile tests are tricky for me. Not necessarily because they require limiting labels (as if human beings can, or should, escape limitations), but because they deal out de-contextualized situations and prefabricated options. The profile did prove useful, but as I took it I wanted to know what subject was being discussed in the group, who my fellow groups members were, where we were having the discussion, etc. The context would greatly determine my role within it and my response to it.

Even so, I find it interesting that my adjudicated style, Affiliating/Perfecting, is considered the activist style, something with which I resonate. I am committed to the grassroots and middle-range sectors of peacebuilding, to place and to people, and this style seems appropriate for these commitments. In our corner enclave of similarly-profiled classmates, we discussed common themes of our (past and future) work: strong values, willingness to question authority, cooperation, passion, engagement, loyalty, etc. Unfortunately, perverted manifestations of these convictions can breed elitism and even hatefulness, arrogantly dividing the world into good guys and bad guys with little room for nuance or critical questions. There is a fine line between confronting dehumanization and dehumanizing those you confront. That fine line, however, is a tightrope that must be walked: sides must be taken, because neutrality votes for the oppressor. But activists must stand firm on unsettled ground, because we can never be smugly certain, as if we are sole recipients of the Revelation of Absolute Truth. Ironically, this ambiguity embraces convicted action, but action seasoned with interrogatory ethics: asking questions of the systems and structures of the world while simultaneously asking the same questions of ourselves, exposing our own contingencies and construction. Such an ethics, so needed in every conflict transformation style, would be radical in the etymological sense of the word: routing out the roots of our socioeconomic and political injustices and retrieving the roots of our sustaining and subversive stories. In this radicalism, the synthesis of loving our neighbors and loving our enemies is vital.

As classmates in other groups shared their styles and experiences, distinctive lines blurred like a gradual shading of color into color, each style contributing to a mosaic of peacebuilders. Instead of differences dominated by hierarchy and distrust, a diversity of gifts emerged characterized by the collaboration of organizers, facilitators, analyzers, reconcilers, and activists. Indeed, I saw myself in several other styles, since my work has required harmonizing, directing, and certainly analyzing. But the energy for my commitment to marginalized and dispossessed people and places has come more from an “affiliating/perfecting” spirit, from an activist bent, which has grown from deep roots in my life.

I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, one of the poorest areas of the United States, where my father was a family doctor working with a community healthcare center, clinic, and hospital dedicated to the uninsured. My family has also crafted a close connection to Israel and Palestine over the past forty years. Like many American Christians, my family championed Israel despite knowing little about the Palestinian perspective, even though we had Palestinian friends for as long as we had Israeli friends. Over the last ten years, however, my family’s perspective on the conflict has progressively shifted (perhaps due in part to an interrogatory ethic) from one of steadfast support of Israel to an intimate connection with the plight of the Palestinians. I have worked as a journalist in Ramallah with the Palestine Monitor, a web-based news source committed to “exposing life under occupation.” I traveled throughout the West Bank, writing several articles about the village of Ni’lin, whose olive groves and roads were (and are) fractured due to the construction of the separation wall. I witnessed and engaged with villagers, as well as Israeli and international activists, nonviolently protesting the confiscation and devastation of their land. And I watched and felt the effects as police and military repeatedly responded with teargas, rubber-coated bullets, and live fire. I served as a writer and editor with Musalaha (“reconciliation” in Arabic), which is committed to uniting Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians. I was given a list of Israelis and Palestinians to interview and then incarnate my skeletal notes as stories about encounters with the other and events of reconciliation, which was published as a book in December. I also worked with the Al-Basma Center, a creative and restorative place for people with developmental disabilities. Through activities like olivewood carving, recycled card-making, weaving, making fuel from sawdust, a greenhouse, drama, speech therapy, and hygiene classes, the students are taught practical and artistic skills and the belief that they are vital members and contributors to their community. The marginalized of the marginalized are welcomed as fully human.

These experiences, and my placement in the style assessment, highlight the necessity of praxis. Reflective practitioners understand the relatedness of conflict transformation styles, a relationship that advocates addressing root causes of violence, tending the connected branches of the peacemaking tree, and testing the soil of conflict and the inequitable distribution of power and privilege (Enns & Myers, 2009, p. 44). Unfortunately, activists sometimes lack the attentive patience and hospitable openness this requires. The subsequent danger of this style is burnout, the edge of which I have seen myself in only a short amount of time. This danger seems attributable to a wide variety of reasons, but I think certainly to a lack of familiarity with (or even respect for) the other branches of the tree, such as analyzing and preserving, accommodating and harmonizing. Also, in my experience activists often lack community. A group of individuals committed to the same goal or having the same conversation does not constitute community: they share nothing but ideas, which can be fleeting. Healthy activists and movements seem to be grounded in a sustaining community with shared space, time, resources, memories, values, and practices. Jean Vanier suggests that “To struggle for a cause it is best for people to be rooted in a community where they are learning reconciliation, acceptance of difference and of their own darkness, and how to celebrate . . . A community that does not celebrate is in danger of becoming just a group of people that get things done” (2010, p. 169, 97). Activists are so preoccupied with the future that they forget response-ability to the present moment. We need prophetic communities that microcosmically cultivate a restorative culture and imagine what the alternative future looks like right now.

Similarly, activists can also emphasize ends too much. I might very easily burn out if I thought results were the most important thing, that my work will definitely achieve all my goals, that I can ‘save the world’ and ‘feed the hungry’ and ‘create world peace.’ To think on that scale, I would be forced to conjure up grand abstract schemes that might look eerily similar to those with grand abstract schemes to ‘take over the world.’ Both operate by massive top-level implementation which ironically necessitates destructively reductionist thinking. Clearly, ends can never be ignored, especially for those in the belly of the beast. And the end goal of nonviolent direct action is negotiation and, if possible, reconciliation. Means and ends must be as commensurate as possible. But idealism about achieving those ends will only sow seeds for cynicism, a common trait amongst activists I know (myself included). Idealism leads to abstraction which leads to failure which leads to burnout. Activists may need deeper and more concrete reasons than absolute assurance and quick realization of ends, which may or may not come. In the end, there may be no such thing as peace. In the end, there is only peacemaking.


Enns, E. and Myers, C. (2009). Ambassadors of Reconciliation Volume II: Diverse Christian
Practices of Restorative Justice and Peacemaking. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Vanier, J., & Whitney-Brown, C. (ed.). (2010). Jean Vanier: Essential writings. Maryknoll:
Orbis Books.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A House Divided: Reflection on Lederach's Building Peace

I know someone who has hoped to make a career out of working in occupied Palestine. During a discussion about the imminent Palestinian bid for statehood, he quipped that, if the request succeeded, he might be out of a job before he even gets started. He probably meant it sardonically, but the implication seemed to be that a Palestinian state would solve everything, as if abject poverty, community disintegration, Muslim-Christian hostility, political infighting, ecological destruction, and IDF-mimicking police forces would just suddenly vanish in the wake of a salvific state. In the end, there may be no such thing as peace. In the end, there is only peacemaking.

John Paul Lederach knows that peacebuilding must delve much deeper than statist perspectives (1997, p. xvi). I appreciated his acknowledgment of the symptomatic residue of structural and systemic diseases (ibid, p. 57). While the actual surface of conflict must be addressed (and, at times, must be addressed in the very moment in which the encounter summons us to respond), the root causes that grew into what we see must also be tended to; further still, the soil around the roots might need a little testing as well. Deformed roots will continue to sprout if we ignore infected soil. Imbalances of power and privilege make for uneven ground.

I was treading on familiar ground when Lederach discussed reconciliation (ibid, p. 23-35). I served as a writer and editor with an organization called Musalaha, which means “reconciliation” in Arabic. Musalaha is committed to creating space for reconciliation (ibid, p. 29) between Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians, hoping to then build bridges to the distant shores of mainstream society. Even so, Musalaha struggles to fully test the soil of conflict. While they do occasionally discuss historical harms and trauma, mercy and forgiveness are given a much bigger plot of land than truth and justice. Musalaha attempts to walk a string-thin line. They are in an extremely volatile situation as an NGO predominantly funded by Evangelical Christians, many of whom still ardently support Israel. The director (a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship) says he has “an itch for justice” and is ready for Musalaha to speak more boldly. However, if they cry justice for their beloved country too loudly, many Israelis won’t come to conferences and retreats. But if Musalaha continues a more neutral stance on political issues, Palestinians will consider their silence as normalizing the occupation and they may not come much longer either. There will be no peace without reconciliation through justice, which, as Cornel West reminds us, “is what love looks like in public” (Dillon, 2008).

A friend of Lederach’s once exclaimed that truth, mercy, justice, and peace meet in a place called reconciliation (1997, p. 29). This spring, I worked with some of my closest friends in Mozambique at a resource center and organic farm called Malo Ga Kujilana (MGK), which in Chiyao means “place of reconciliation.” More literally, the name translates as “the place of coming together,” etymologically referring to the reparation of a marriage after separation. This actual place incarnates the reconciliation of people with their neighbors and of neighbors with the earth. MGK partners with local villages to nurture imagination and wholeness through sustainable agriculture, non-monetary micro-loans, nutrition programs, sanitation initiatives, storytelling, and living life well together. This concreteness seems absent in some peacebuilding discussions and programs. Lederach is right to emphasize partiality and advocacy (ibid, p. 50) because relationship is the alpha and omega of conflict and peace (ibid, p. 26) and must therefore have a specific locus (ibid, p. 29). In the effort to be socially relevant, peacebuilding may have lost some of that prophetic voice. Often, it seems, peacebuilders want to address root causes but don’t want to put down roots. I am not extremely sympathetic to conflict junkies: transience breeds abstraction, around which the danger of global thinking revolves. Those with grand abstract schemes to ‘save the world’ don’t always think that differently from those with grand abstract schemes to ‘take over the world.’ Both must operate on reductionist assumptions and the myth of the White Man’s Burden. Indeed, the most successful global thinkers have been imperial governments and multinational corporations (Berry, 1993, p. 19). This is in no way a call for withdrawal; on the contrary, isolation can be just as dangerous and justice necessitates imaginative conversation and respectful generosity for the plurality of the world’s local places (ibid, p. 50). No place is wholly free while another is enslaved, no place wholly healed while another is diseased. However, I do have questions as to whether massive ‘global solutions’ to ‘global problems’ will be any less destructive than the problems which they seek to solve. Contrary to popular belief, I think size does matter.

I am not haunted and convicted by the land between the river and the sea because of the “Israel-Palestine conflict,” which is such an overwhelmingly abstract concept. We certainly need our helpful heuristic devices, but they often morph into meta-narratives that gloss over, or erase, complexities and particularities. So I do not go because of “the Conflict.” I am convicted because of names, faces, stories, and places. And, increasingly, I am convicted of names, faces, stories, and places in my own homeland. Americans sometimes travel far away from home to realize that their neighbors are suffering too. I think it may be easier for Americans to romantically care about the effects of global inequity (starving kids on the other side of the world) than to care about the affects of that inequity (‘free’ economic forces and systems based on what Dr. King called the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism). Those questions are too hard to ask because the answers expose our complicity in those causes. We can’t just withdraw and pretend like systems and structures don’t need to be changed.

I think critiques of the withdrawal of the ‘quiet in the land’ have been valid, but I worry that for the sake of validity peacebuilders have sacrificed vitality. Lederach hints at the need for an image or vision of the future toward which we are building (ibid, p. 76-7), but in my mind this deserves much more attention. We need communities that microcosmically cultivate a restorative culture, prophetically imagining what the alternative future looks like right now. These visions must be practiced in a rooted community, like MGK, the Amish, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam, a Gandhian ashram, Buddhist sanghas, or Christian monastic movements (old and new). I think we should advocate for a kind of withdrawal: defection from oppressive systems and practices in order to inhabit something better. All addicts need rehabilitation, and rehabilitation requires limitations, accountability, and commitment. But I must constantly recognize that my ability to defect is in many ways due to my privilege within the very system from which I am withdrawing, which therefore means I must also work to carve out alternatives for others and help dismantle unjust structures.

Because of this, I am admittedly biased toward the grassroots and middle-range sectors (Lederach, 1997, p. 39). I do think policies need to be changed, but I think most changes in policies have been the result of community organizing and movements by the most disenfranchised, whether it be civil rights, unemployment benefits, health and safety standards, food and drug regulations, fair housing statutes, etc (Myers, 1994, p. 218). Gandhi didn’t achieve relevancy by moving to the capitol and attempting to reform the Metonyms on their terms. He had an influential voice with the Powers that Be, but he also lived out his future vision in the present in the marginal places of the world. Proximity matters: where I live, who I live there with, and how I live there define my relationship to the world. Aside from water and shit, not much of anything ever trickles down (Lederach, 1997, p. 45), especially ‘reagonomically’: the pipes always seem to get clogged, or just re-routed. The top-level seems like a vacuum into which good-hearted people can get sucked because they believe they can change something that has such overpowering centripetal force. This is what empire does: colonize the good intentions of the noble who desire to force the flow in a centrifugal direction. I am honestly cynical that this works, because the top-level can colonize people who didn’t work in that sector (and therefore weren’t even on the payroll). Martin Luther King is a sentimental bobble-head on a broken record player: “I have a dream! I have a dream! I have a dream!” Thank goodness! We never have to hear what that dream actually entailed, especially the dreams he had and planned to proclaim right before he got shot in the head. Jesus of Nazareth is muzzled as the meek and mild Savior and the privatized poster child for the empire that executed him as a political dissident. We piously say that if we had lived in the time of our ancestors we would never have killed the prophets. Instead, we would just automate them by replaying decontextualized (and depoliticized) sound bites and giving them annual national holidays. Can David ever defeat Goliath on the giant’s terms?

Lederach relates the excellent societal metaphor of a House (ibid, pp. xv, 37). He notes opposing theories about how to approach this House (ibid, p. 37), but he seems to think that all levels and approaches have legitimacy (ibid, p. 60). Surely they are interrelated, but are they equally legitimate? This is an honest question, not a loaded one, one that constantly disturbs my settled answers. I am not suggesting that we can ignore the power of the top-level and how it relates to the middle-range and grassroots sectors. After all, the top-level can build a wall through my olive groves whether I acknowledge it or not. He may indeed be right, but I think there is a difference between acknowledging its existence and accepting it. The blueprints of our House called for liberty and justice for all, but the actual foundation was built on white supremacy, patriarchy, and oligarchy (Myers, 1994, p. 203). This House in which we live was built more by enslaved Africans than by free Europeans, and we evicted the previous inhabitants whose House (or should I say, Houses), while more structurally simple, was far more sound and secure (perhaps because it was simple). The opposing theories mentioned by Lederach seem to me to lie at the heart of the matter. One approach believes social injustices are a personal and policy problem: the House needs some slight adjustments and some redecorating, but it’s structurally fine. The other approach thinks that these injustices stem from the very history and formations of economic and political structures themselves: the House cannot simply be repainted, but might be in need of extensive renovation.

Because a House divided against itself cannot stand.


Berry, W. (1993). Sex, economy, freedom, and community: Eight essays. New York City:
Pantheon Books

Dillon, J. (Producer, Screenwriter/Director). (2008). Call+Response [Motion Picture]. United States: Fair Trade Pictures.

Lederach, J. (1997). Building peace: Sustainable reconciliation in divided societies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace

Myers. C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world christians. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Interrogation Part III

I slunk into the chair next to Patrick and Paul, who turned to me expectantly but without speaking.

“Well,” I started in answer to their gaze, “on the bright side, looks like we might go back to Porto Rafti today.”

I barely had time to explain before I was called back in again. The pregnant woman still sat with fingers interlaced, but standing beside her was the first official who questioned us. Her arms were crossed and she watched me until I sat down. Suddenly she flew forward and slammed the door.

“You lied to me!” she yelled as she returned to the other side of the table. “You are a liar!”

I immediately started sweating. This was now going much worse than I anticipated. I took a deep breath to regain my composure.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, but I didn’t lie.”

“You did not tell me you were volunteering,” she retorted.

I countered, “You didn’t ask me if I was volunteering.”

Her jaw tightened and she slammed her fist on the table.

“You are a liar!” she cried and pointed her finger at me. “If you lie, you think you can get in to Israel? I am the authority and I get to decide to let you back in or not! If you want to get in to Israel you need to tell the truth!”

I assured her that I meant to do so. So the interrogation began.

“You did not tell me you have been volunteering,” she repeated. “Where have you been working?”

I said I wrote and edited with an NGO in Jerusalem.

“Where else?”

Her tone seemed confident enough that I decided not to test her knowledge of my life.

“I have also worked with a center for youth and adults with developmental disabilities near Bethlehem.”

The woman from immigration now spoke: “You have to have a volunteer visa for this.”

This was news to me, and I told her so.

“You can’t do what you’re doing,” she persisted. “You can’t have a three-month visa and then leave and then come back and get another three-month visa.”

“Since when?” I answered with a furrowed brow. I was willing to concede that the policy may exist somewhere in fine print but it certainly wasn’t regularly enforced. “Everybody does this. When people leave to go to Jordan and come back, you just give them another three months. I’ve seen this.”

She seemed to ignore me.

“You’re only allowed one three-month visa per year.”

“Since when?” I said again. “I was here last March and then came back in September and then got another visa in November.”

“It’s always been this way.”

I pressed the issue and said, “Is there somewhere where I could read about this?”

She looked up in the air and shrugged.
“Uh, Ministry of Tourism, maybe.”

The first woman turned to face the wall behind her and continued her line of questioning.
“You did not tell me you have been to Hebron.”

“Well, I haven’t.”

She spun around with fierce alacrity.
“I’ve read your blog. You’ve been to Hebron.”

I remembered a story I wrote about an excursion to Hebron during the summer I worked as a journalist.

“But that was a year ago,” I objected. “You didn’t ask me where I went a year ago, you asked where I went on this trip.”

“That is a lie!” she maintained.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” I said, and I think I said it sincerely.

She placed both palms on the edge of the table and leaned forward until she was halfway across to me. I leaned back as much as I could.

“I have every reason now to deport you,” she said. “If I do, you will be banned from reentry for ten years.”

I looked from face to face and wondered why Patrick and Paul hadn’t been invited to share in this experience with me.

“Tell me why I should let you back in to Israel,” she said, pacing beside my chair.

My mouth hung open as I scrambled for compelling reasons. I said the first thing that came to mind.

“Well, we, we help the economy, I mean, we’re, we’re buying things here.”
I bit my tongue, surprised that I used capitalism as an excuse for a visa. She almost laughed.

“A lot of people help the economy. You’re not that special. Give me another reason!”

“Umm, my dad is coming to do medical lectures at Ben Gurion University in a week, and so we are hoping to meet up with him.”

She clicked her tongue against the back of her teeth, unimpressed.
“That’s not good enough, give me another reason.”

I thought for a moment and said, “It’s going to cost a lot of money for us to change our flights from April to now and we don’t have much money.”

“I don’t care how much money it costs you,” she shrugged. “These are not good reasons.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, raising my hands in exasperation, “but you asked me to give you reasons, and I’m just trying to give you the reasons that you asked for.”

“How long have we been holding you now?” she asked, standing behind the woman from immigration who still sat with her stocky arms on the table.

“Three-and-a-half hours?” I guessed.

She smirked. “Well, it’s been a lot longer than that, and I don’t mind keeping you all night until you start talking.”

“I’m trying to answer the questions that you’re asking me!” I exclaimed.

“If you had told me the truth three-and-a-half hours ago, you would have had no problems and gotten out.”

She tried to continue but I interrupted.

“Wait, wait a minute,” I said confused. “You’re saying that if I had told you we had volunteered with Palestinians in the West Bank, you would have let us through, immediately, without any questions?”

Both of them looked at me and said, “Yes, of course.”

I laughed and said “Really?” I wanted to say, “How come I can’t lie, but you can lie?” I resisted that temptation.

The official pointed at the door and ordered, “Get out. Go wait outside.”

Patrick said they could hear her yelling at me, catching words like liar, deportation, ten years. He also said he was glad it was me and not him. Then, for the last time, I was called back in to the office. Only the pregnant woman from immigration sat there. She sat very still and spoke calmly.

“Even though you lied to us, and even though you have not told us what we have asked for at every turn, we will give each of you a one-month visa.”

“Is there any way that we could get two months?” I requested slowly and softly for fear of treading on thin ice. “Our flight is April 23rd and that’s all we want.”

“No, I can’t! I should actually deport you now because you lied, and you’ll be banned for ten years.”

“Well,” I gulped, “I guess we’ll take the one month.”

After four-and-a-half-hours we walked outside to a cool night, one I barely noticed. I numbly climbed into a transport van just outside the terminal. All I wanted was to sit by a fire in the house on the hill. Thinking could wait until later. I let my head smack against the window. The sun had already gone down across the Mediterranean and we drove to Jerusalem in darkness.

Interrogation Part II

“Please wait here,” she said, pointing to a row of chairs in a secluded back-corner room. “I’ll call you individually.”

We slumped down in our chairs, bags smacking the floor, blank expressions staring across at a blank wall. All I could think to say was “Shit.”

“We’re gonna have to pay a bunch of money to change our flights and we won’t see our stuff again,” Paul mumbled. He leaned his head back and chuckled. “Maybe they’ll at least send us back to Greece.”

Patrick thrust his legs out in front of him and said, “Not gonna lie, but when I saw you come around the corner with a security guard I definitely thought about running. They already gave me my three-month visa!”

Over the next hour, we were each escorted into a small office where the security official sat behind a large desk. Patrick went first, then me, and Paul last. All of us heard similar questions: why we went to Greece, where we were from, what our parents’ birthdates are. The woman rarely looked at me, typing quickly and facing a wide computer monitor turned so far away from me that she almost had to lean to see it herself. Her ponytailed hair was curly like confetti and she wore an unmarked windbreaker. I glanced at several maps near my head as she drummed the keyboard. She was fairly friendly for the time being, laughing that I actually knew my parents’ birthdates (which made it seem stranger that she even asked) and commenting that I must like Israel a lot considering all the stamps in my passport. I smiled.

“So,” she said, still typing even though I hadn’t said anything in several minutes, “what have you done in Israel?”

While we sat dejected in the corner waiting area, the three of us reviewed our responses. We had discussed them before, most recently a week earlier as we prepared to fly to Greece, but we passed through security faster than I’ve ever seen. Palestinian and Israeli friends had cautioned me not to share too much of what I do in the West Bank. But I have no desire to lie because I have no desire to make things easier for myself by editing out the existence of my Palestinian friends. Instead, I try to answer questions honestly as they’re asked. If it wasn’t specifically asked, it doesn’t need to be specifically answered.

“Well, we’ve done some backpacking and tourism,” I responded, which was true. We backpacked around the Galilee and I to different cities for interviews and we frequented sites designated as tourist attractions. “I have family friends here and we’ve visited them as well.”

She asked Patrick a more pointed question: “Where have you been in the West Bank?”

He thought for a moment before saying, “Ah, we’ve been to Bethlehem, we hiked the Wadi Qelt so we ended up in Jericho, and we went to Ramallah for a day . . .”

She quickly interrupted.
“Where else? Have you been to Nablus? Have you been to Qalqiliya? Jenin? Tulkarem? Have you been to Hebron?”

Patrick narrowed his eyes and pensively sucked his teeth.
“Shepherd’s Field?” he ventured.

Singing angels, immaculate conceptions, and incense-flooded caves outside of Bethlehem didn’t seem to interest her so she sent him back outside to wait.

After the interviews, wait we did. I called my dad several times, discussing possible answers or contingency plans if things went sour. After nearly an hour-and-a-half, a very stern and very pregnant woman walked into the room. She held photocopies of our passports and looked at each one of us in turn.

“Please, come with me,” she said in abrupt syllabic punctuations.

She led us to the other side of the passport control area where we once again sat down in another enclave, partitioned into a waiting room and two adjacent offices. I was called into the office momentarily. I stood and took a deep breath, Patrick gave me a thumbs-up, and Paul stared at the ceiling. I sat down in the cold undecorated room across from the pregnant woman who embedded her thick elbows into the table’s surface. She flipped through stapled papers in front of her.

Then she set them aside and said, “I’m from immigration. We need to talk.”

She repeated many of the questions asked by the first lady, but very quickly her subtly faded away.

“Have you been volunteering?”

I faltered, caught off guard by her directness.
“Well, we’ve backpacked, we’ve been tourists.”

“Have you been volunteering?” she repeated with severe precision.

I cleared my throat and said, “Well, I’ve written some for an organization based in Jerusalem.”

“Who do you know here?”

I listed off a few names, Israeli names of family friends and coworkers. When I did the same at the Israel-Jordan border and mentioned that my grandfather had worked on excavation sites and taught in Jerusalem, we were quickly granted three-month visas and sent on our way. This woman from immigration took, at least in my experience, the road less traveled.

“Give me their phone numbers. I’m going to call them.”

The number I pressed dialed Musalaha’s administrator. She answered evasively, confirming that I had written some for them but appropriately fibbing that she didn’t know me well enough to answer more questions. The woman from immigration was unsatisfied. She slid the phone back across the table and wiped her forehead. The room was too quiet and too empty so the quietness filled it until it mutated into eeriness. Finally, she interlaced her thick fingers, her neck lowering beneath her broad shoulders, and she looked squarely at me again.

“We know what you are doing,” she declared dramatically. “We googled you.”

I googled myself later. The first hit was a link to articles I wrote about visiting Palestinian cities and the devastating effect of the occupation. The second hit was the blog I kept while living in Ramallah. The blog had links to stories I wrote for the Palestine Monitor.

“So we know. Wait outside.”

Interrogation Part I

Our plane touched down and skidded liked a skipped pebble across the runway at Ben Gurion Airport. The loquacious woman behind me attempted to instigate a round of applause; apparently not enough religious pilgrims were onboard and her plan awkwardly sputtered when no one accompanied her. The seat-belt sign chimed off and I retrieved my backpack from the overhead compartment.

Patrick, Paul, and I were returning from a week-long visa renewal trip to Greece. Our alma mater has numerous campus locations around the globe for study-abroad programs, including one in Porto Rafti on the east coast of Greece; both Paul and Patrick studied there in undergrad. During the semester, along with many excursions to Athens and the Peloponnese, the group travels to Turkey, Egypt, and Israel. A few weeks before our visas expired, we hosted the traveling school when they visited Bethlehem, a new addition to their schedule. For years, even for years after the second intifada, Harding claimed Bethlehem was too dangerous and would only point longingly to the city from the safety of the Mount of Olives. We introduced the group to the Al-Basma Center and presented a slideshow lecture in our living room on the Israeli occupation and resulting humanitarian crisis. The program director invited us to Greece whenever we felt the urge, and since our second visa was rapidly winding down, we felt the urge very soon.

My family and I lived in Greece for several months during a sabbatical in 2001. I was enchanted with Greece, the land and culture and myths. My younger brother and I roamed around ruins looking for fauns and naked goddesses, the former of which we never found; we frequently saw the naked part on beaches and at every magazine kiosk. I went back after my summer in Palestine in 2008; two friends and I backpacked from Turkey to northern Greece where we hiked and camped around the floating monasteries of Meteora before hopping on a train to Athens. The timing worked out well for this most recent excursion. The three of us were a little tired and I was certainly ready for a brief break from editing the Musalaha book. We climbed the coastal mountains around Porto Rafti, stayed up late talking with students, inhaled greasy gyros in the Plaka, crept through ancient temples like little kids, and even stripped and dipped into the icy Aegean, gasping and struggling to stay afloat like whimpering shaved dogs. I mourned the end of the week, but I was ready to get back to Beit Sahour, back to what I felt like I should be doing. Most of our friends behind the Concrete Curtain aren’t able to visit the sea and hiking trails are seized with settlement expansion. My sadness was another reminder of my enduring options.

Our flight touched down on February 23rd, two months to the day before our final departure. At least, we hoped we would have two more months. Passport control stood between us and our April exit. My fingers were crossed as we disembarked.

As soon as we exited the jet way, a security guard jumped out of nowhere and requested our passports. All three of us choked on our hearts that had suddenly catapulted into our throats. She only asked a few questions about where we had been and how long we were planning on staying before she waved us forward. We swallowed and high-fived as soon as we passed around the corner.

Only a few people filtered through the passport control booths, so the three of us approached separate windows. Patrick was through in barely a minute with a three-month visa stamped in the back of his blue passport. I stifled an ecstatic smile; this was going much better than I anticipated. But as soon as I slid my passport underneath the window’s edge, a security official appeared next to my right elbow. I was amazed by their ability to spontaneously materialize. She said nothing except a brief word to her coworker who slowly thumbed through my passport. She watched me intently as I occasionally peeked in paranoia out of the corner of my eye, trying to answer quick questions from the man behind the glass. Suddenly, she leaned forward and whispered something in Hebrew to her cloistered colleague. He looked up at me.

“Wait,” he said, interrupting something I hadn’t said, “when was the last time you were in Israel?”

“Oh, only a week ago,” I said with strained nonchalance. I motioned at Paul standing at the adjoining kiosk. “We just went to visit some friends in Greece. We have a flight out later.”

The woman slowly shifted until she faced me, her arm propped on the narrow lip of the counter. She spoke to me for the first time.

I stammered, “Oh, uh, in, uh, in two months. We fly out two months from today.”

“Two months?” she said forcefully though without much surprise. “This is a long time.” She paused for a moment and my mouth dried out.

“No,” she continued, “you need to come with me.”

She snapped her fingers for my passport and turned for Paul’s. Then she pivoted toward me again.

“Where is the third one?” she annunciated slowly.

I had said nothing to the man behind the glass about a third one.