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Women’s Ways of Building Communities of Peace for All

Sharon Rose Joy Ruiz-Duremdes1

Introduction

We have a six-year old son who is in first grade. At night before we go to bed, he has two requirements: first, that we watch together his favorite TV show, Mulawin; and second, to read him a story or sing songs with him. One of his favorite action songs is “Five Little Birds”. I wish to share Luke’s favorite song with you:

Five little birds without any home,
Five little trees in a row:
“Come build your nests in the branches tall,
We’ll rock you to and fro.”

After the song or story, Luke embraces me and says, “Good night, Mama!” For me, “good night, Mama” is not just a habitual expression. For me, “good night, Mama” is Luke’s question about whether this will be a good night for him. Will he be able to sleep soundly and peacefully tonight? Will he be able to wake up to a new and peaceful day? Will there be many more peaceful nights and days for him as he continues to live out his life? I know why Luke likes the song, “Five Little Birds”. It is because it is a song of security, concern, care, love, peace for the five little homeless birds.

Transition

I want to invite you to share in the making of this keynote address. I want to invite you to huddle in small groups and reflect on the question: Where do I find homelessness today? And let us broaden our concept of homelessness. Let us not limit the idea to merely having a roof over our heads. Let us perceive homelessness as an environment where the values of security, concern, care, love, peace are absent especially for the women. [Time is given for the buzz groups to share…]

I have a flower stem here. The rose is my favorite flower because it is a paradigm of opposites. The rose: a symbol of beauty. Its thorns: a symbol of painful ugliness. And they are all there in one flower stem. Joy and sorrow – day and night – sunshine and rain. Inseparable elements of life.

We cannot talk about communities of peace for all unless we talk about the thorns in peace way. After all, it takes both sunshine and rain to make a rainbow. As you talked/conversed in your reflection groups, what thorns to peace for women were raised? May I ask you to write down those barriers on the stem here representing the “thorns”? [Answers were pasted to the stem…]

Main Theses

First, we are challenged by our theme to build communities of peace for all. I believe that it is a challenge that is long over due. For us, women, it is an urgent challenge. It is a non-negotiable imperative. If we do not immediately pick it up, we will be swallowed by processes that are fast closing in on us. The name of the game today is HOMOGENIZATION and HEGEMONY which are all about control… restriction…incarceration.

Homogenization allows people, nations, groups to re-create others in their own image. They want everyone else to be like them. The George Bush rhetoric is the epitome of homogenization. When he said, “If you are not with us, you are against us”, what he meant was, “if you don’t think and act like me, you cannot be my friend”. Dominant figures in our society define the parameters of our thought and actions. They pronounce the final word for other people. For example, I have been expected to act like the past General Secretaries of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines. The missionary enterprise in our countries aimed to homogenize us. Parents want their children to tread the path the former desire. Our churches want us to practice Christianity in a particular way. And isn’t society’s definition of ‘strong woman’ one who acts like a man?

I feel that homogenization issues in a condition of unpeace because it is about disallowing a person (or a nation) to be what he/she/it is not. It is preventing him/her from becoming what God created him/her to be. Worse yet, it negates a very important quality of God. Our God is a God of diversity. Diversity is a sign of God’s extravagance. The fact that God did not create only a tree but went on to create shrubs, ferns, creeping plants, grass shows the generosity of God. Without diversity, human beings are not fully free to be creative because they do not have sufficient options from which to choose. To impose unnecessary limits on people is to reject the Creator’s generosity.

Second, when we refuse to be imprisoned by the process of homogenization, we, in the first instance, begin to build communities of peace. How do we do these? In these communities, I see people in dialogue. And I do not mean a mere exchange of thoughts, important though this may be. A dialogue is like the seven seas. The Atlantic Ocean’s waters flow into the Pacific Ocean. The Arctic Ocean’s waters pour into the Indian Ocean’s territory. And when this happens, a body of water is never its same self for it has been changed by the water it has received from another body of water.

The dialogue makes me a different person… hopefully, a better person. And for us, women, dialogue is natural. Have you noticed that we call our sessions, ‘sharing’, not ‘discussion’? When we share, we allow people to enrich us but we also open ourselves up to vulnerability for we allow others to have a “ring side” view of ourselves, including our weaknesses. But I believe that this is one of our strengths as women. We are not afraid to show people that we are weak. In that way, we are honest and true to ourselves. And that gives us inner peace.

In these communities, I see people celebrating. Again, for women, celebrating comes natural. We remember the special times and seasons of life: birthdays, anniversaries, a child’s graduation, a family member’s return, a home-going. And we are the ones who get pre-occupied with marking these special events. To remember these nodal points is to unearth the sanctity of life and by holding life sacred, we ensure that those we love and care for live lives worthy of human dignity. But to ensure that our loved ones experience dignity causes us to mourn circumstances which indignify them. Celebrating a life of peace is possible only when we have mourned and, consequently, removed the obstacles to peace. We can only bask in the sunshine of a new day when we have sat through the long dark stretch of the night. At this juncture, is there a moment that we need to mourn or celebrate? [Time was given for participants to share…]

In these communities, I see people speaking their word about themselves… taking action on behalf of themselves instead of being pawns in the chessboard of life. I see them asking the question ‘WHY?’ when they are told what to do. I see them asking the question, ‘WHY NOT?’ when they are prevented from doing what they believe they must do. Oppressed peoples call this self-determination…self-definition…self-ascription.
My mind is brought back to a group of urban poor women in northern Philippines who saved their community from being demolished by government forces. They lined up themselves in front of their houses, linked arms, and when the bulldozers moved up to them, they took off their blouses and bared their breasts, taking the government authorities by surprise. So shocked were the men on bulldozers that they turned around and left. When their husbands asked why they did such an indecent and shameful act, the women asked: “Why not? Don’t we have the right to do what we believe is necessary to save our families and lives?” Simple women – articulating an alternative way of thinking, feeling and acting – a new way of being in the world - of being together…for peace. For communities of peace to be established, we are challenged to transform the institutions that we find ourselves in. We are pushed to go beyond the established boundaries set for us. (And if I may be quite personal, allow me to say that the Christian Conference of Asia needs more women General Secretaries of the member councils! It is quite lonely being the only one.)

It may well be appropriate for us to reflect on the description of community or culture of peace by Elise Boulding in her book, Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History. She says that “such a culture includes lifeways, patterns of belief, values, behavior and accompanying institutional arrangements that promote mutual caring and well-being as well as an equality that includes appreciation of difference, stewardship and equitable sharing of the earth’s resources among its members and with all living beings. It offers mutual security for humankind…through a profound sense of identity as well as kinship…” Therefore, we need to be involved in constantly shaping and re-shaping our reality in order to attain and sustain the well being of all. That, to me, is the essence of self-determination.

Third, and finally, a brief word about the process of building these communities of peace. I need not remind us that building communities of peace is a long, tedious and comprehensive struggle. Comprehensive, because it requires a total overhaul of our thought forms, our habits, our language, political structures, religious systems. And so the challenge for us, women in the churches, is what I call, COLLECTIVE TRANSGRESSION. We will be unable to build our community of peace if we do not transgress. And that involves a great amount of risk that is buoyed by a great amount of trust in ourselves and in one another. Collective, because only women’s synergy can confront the deeply rooted and powerful patriarchal monolith that insists that the male experience is and must be the norm for all of life. Synergy demands that we look upon one another as allies – not rivals. We cannot afford to compete with each other. The space for women is already too small to accommodate strife and conflicts between and among us. And time is running out on us. When I look at our six-year-old son who is growing up fast, I fear that he and all the children of the world will live in a world no better than mine. And guilt permeates my whole being. I owe it to him and all the children of the world to work for communities of peace where they can live, move, and have their being.

Transgression, because we cannot remain locked in the structures and systems which contain us now. That will be suicide. Transgression, because we have to push horizons, move out into the deep, climb every mountain, ford every stream. But fences and walls have been built all around us. And the signs on the fences say: “KEEP OUT! THERE IS NO WAY OUT!” It is precisely these established boundaries that we must transgress so we can cross over to our promised land of peace, justice and freedom. Collective transgression will require of us solidarity and resistance. True, the journey is long. It is going to be a protracted struggle but, as the song goes…

We are God’s empowered people;
We are few but we are strong;
We will work for peace and justice,
Our God will lead us on.

NOTES :

1 Ms. Sharon Rose Joy Ruiz-Duremdes is General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines. She gave this keynote address at the Women’s Forum in Chiang Mai, Thailand.


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