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Overcoming Violence to Build Communities of Peace

Tale Hungnes1

Dear sisters, dear friends. I will bring you a story from the United States. The US was the geographical focus for the Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV) last year, and when I visited the US, I met Anne who told me the following story. One day about a year ago, Anne and a friend were out for dinner together. This friend had played golf at Manhattan on September 11 2001, so she witnessed the tragedy. She saw the hijacked planes come and crash into the Twin Towers. She saw the killing fire and the destruction of the World Trade Center. She saw people jumping to death from the buildings. She saw the crying wives arriving to the place, desperately looking for their loved ones. This was of course a very traumatic experience. But during their dinner, the friend suddenly said to Anne: ”I´m so glad we’re in Iraq.”

Surprised, Anne replied, “Iraq? You must mean Afghanistan, where there may be might be a connection to Al Qaeda and what you experienced on September 11?”

“No”, said the other. “I mean Iraq.”

“But why? There are no links between Saddam Hussein and the tragedy on September 11?”

The friend looked at Anne and said: ”I don’t care”.

“But why? There are innocent people being killed, families destroyed, human lives ruined just as you witnessed at Manhattan. We repeat the tragedy once again when attacking an innocent people!”

But she repeated: ”I don’t care”.

“I don’t care”. What kind of voice is that? That is a voice that neglects the very base of Christian humanity. It neglects the starting point of all our activism and theology for freedom, justice and peace. That is neglection of human dignity. The ground we stand on, our fundamental belief is that we all are created in the image of God, and that we are therefore equal. “I don’t care” is a message that contradicts this and says that some people are more valuable than others.

This process of neglection of our neighbour’s human dignity is the process of dehumanization. All violence and all violent systems depend on such a dehumanization. Dehumanization ensures the justification of violence. It moves the responsibility from the attacker to the victim. Violence becomes something the victim deserves because he or she is not really human. To break this dangerous psychology is essential in the struggle to overcome violence. Violence cannot sustain within the fulfillment of human dignity and human rights.

The “Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010): Churches seeking reconciliation and peace” calls churches, ecumenical organizations and all people of good will to work together at all levels (local, regional, global) with communities, secular movements, people of all living faiths for peace, justice and reconciliation. We want to address different natures of violence, both physical, psychological, sexual and deprivation. Work against violence is nothing new for the churches; neither is it for the WCC. With the DOV we continue and strengthen a long tradition of church-based peace work and hope to inspire some new initiatives and projects.

WCC lifts up the work against violence in a time when it’s urgent. It’s urgent because the processes in today’s global economy and politics point in another direction than peace and justice. We are living in a global situation where the dehumanization, the “I don’t care” attitude, is being institutionalized into new ways of organizing the global society. This process of dehumanization follows at least three lines: a military line, an economical line, and a mental line. And what’s characteristic for all of them is that the power and the resources are centralized and shared more exclusively by fewer hands.

The military line. The threat of international terrorism and the American-declared war on terror weaken the UN system and all attempts to peaceful conflict resolution. The US strategy of pre-emptive strike, where the world’s only super power has declared its right to attack wherever and whenever they want, is a strategy that makes the world far more dangerous. It is a strategy that pushes human rights away and establishes the right of the strongest as a legitimate principle in international relations.

As women we know that a system based on physical or military strength will exclude us and our children from decision making and participation. International terrorism and the war on terror stamp on our human dignity and the human dignity of thousands of others.

The economical line. Through the globalized ”free trade” system the richest countries in the world can benefit from an economical race to the bottom in the global South. In the so-called “free” market, poor countries find themselves in a competition of poverty. The one that offers the lowest salaries, the slightest tax system, the worst working conditions and the fewest unions are winning the contracts with foreign capital investors. This is a strategy to make the world more unfair.

As women, we know what this means, because the cheap labour of the South very often have the face of our sisters. It’s women who work day long in factories, sewing shoes and clothing for big brands with so low salary that they can barely feed their families. The race to the bottom marginalizes our sisters and violates their human dignity.

The mental line. To oppress someone it is necessary to get others to believe that what you’re doing is right. Either you have to point out the enemy and mobilise against him. The building of enemy images has become an urgent exercise for the powerful in the age of international terrorism. Both the terrorist networks and the war on terror neglect human dignity by building enemy images that confirm each other as evil. Expressions like the ”Axis of evil” is one example.

Or, one has to make the victim believe that the oppression is right. The idea of the invisible hand of the market that ensures the efficiency and that secures that everyone gets what he or she deserves, implies an individualisation of the responsibility for poverty. You have to be a self-made person; your living condition is a task for you alone.

As women we know the situation. We know what shame, shyness and lack of belief (or confidence) in our own insights are. And we also know that we sometimes hold the false enemy images. We must admit that sometimes we fall in the trap and say, “I don’t care”.

Confronting dehumanization, overcoming violence

What do we do to confront the ongoing institutionalisation of dehumanization? The Decade to Overcome Violence is an opportunity to act. The church is the world’s largest grassroots movement, which can play an important role among civil societies all over the world. This is a big responsibility. The charity projects we do that take care of individuals hit by violence and injustice are necessary and very important. They must continue. But charity alone will not change the structures that produce injustice and systematically violates human dignity and human rights.

As a church, some of our main tasks to overcome violence are to empower the victims and work for justice and reconciliation. To me this points out a relatively clear direction, a direction that goes further on, beyond charity. If we want to build peaceful communities for all, we need to discuss who’s going to decide in those communities and how do we distribute the power and the resources?

To uphold human dignity, we need a system where everyone’s insights and ideas are valued and heard, where everyone can contribute with their creativity, proposals and solutions. We need a system where disagreements and conflicts can be carried out by peaceful means. This system of empowerment and reconciliation has a name: Democracy. We need to claim that it is we, all women and men, who are given the responsibility from God to take care of the carth and creation. This responsibility is not to be left to the strongest ones or to a market competition, or to wars or weapons.

To defend human dignity at a moral level implies defending and extending democracy at a political level. The rehumanization at a moral level needs a redemocratization at a political level. This does not mean that the church as a democratic actor has to support one specific political party or one specific political ideology or organization. It means that as a part of our work to overcome violence the churches have to act as promoters, developers and extenders of democracy. It means that we will have to develop strategies for change and means for participation. The suggestion of democracy is an attempt to get more concrete and to define the elements of peace as more than just rainbows and smiling people shaking hands.

As women we have a special competence as developers of democracy. We know from our own lives and our own experience how important and liberating it is to raise the voice that earlier was so shy. We know how important it is to be economically independent and have influence on the economic conditions of our lives. We know how necessary it is to live in a society where the security of our selves and our family is ensured by a body that does not act according to its own ideas, but according to democratic laws and regulations.

To be more concrete, I will share with you some examples from my own Norwegian context. My organization, Changemaker, Youth Movement of the Norwegian Church Aid, practices three tricks to make it easy and funny for young people to change the world. First, we have a clear focus on root causes. Violence and injustice is not something accidental, or a coincidence. It is a result of a will, of political and economic structures made by humans. These structures can also be changed, and that’s what we attempt to do. Second, we try to development of concrete tools for change and in this way provide young people with opportunities for participation in activism and advocacy for global justice. This can be through signing a petition, writing a post card to a decision-maker, etc. Third, we also seek to use creative communication, and try to communicate our message with humour and a positive twist. This is how we changed the Norwegian government’s opinion on pre-emptive strike. We challenged people and youth in the churches and on the streets to make a phone call and leave their message to the Defense Minister. “Listen to us, Defense Minister, not to Bush!” was the idea. We played the message for our defense minister; local groups all over Norway talked to politicians, made street theatre, did telephone concerts in the churches, did media work and in that way we pushed the issue into the parliament’s agenda. And after some pressure, the parliament decided that Norway shall make a clear protest against pre-emptive strike. For us this was a way to lift up human dignity and confront the military line that threatens it.

At the moment we have an ongoing campaign trying to raise the need for transparency in the international trade system on the agenda of the politicians. Now it’s too easy for the big companies to hide human rights violations in the production process. We want to know where and how our clothing is being made; we want a detailed ‘Made in… label’ on the tags. The tags are totally useless, so we ask people to cut off the tags of their clothes, put it in an envelope and send it to the Prime Minister with the question: Where and how is my jumper made? We haven’t yet reached our goal, but I’m sure our Prime Minister feels the pressure. For us this is a way to confront the economical line of dehumanization and try to change it.

Another Norwegian group, Church-based Cultural Workshop, works against enemy images. They did not want to accept the concept of an ‘Axis of evil’. They wanted to demonstrate that it is not terrible devils living in these countries, but humans. Humans with resources and hope for the future; humans with children. So they traveled around and collected lullabies from the so-called Axis of Evil. This is a way to challenge and change the mental dehumanization mechanisms.

If the friend of Anne had listened to the lullaby from Iraq, I think she might have understood that her Iraqi sisters also have babies they love and care for. The so-called “enemy” is also a human being. This is the challenge from Jesus Christ – for us to love our enemies. This is what the Decade to Overcome Violence confront us with. To love someone doesn’t mean to say ‘yes’ to everything and do whatever he or she demands. To love someone means negotiations, quarrels, compromises, gains and pains, within a relationship built on respect, equality and freedom. The DOV umbrella is big and has room for many different projects. I have given you my personal perspectives here. I am happy to be here and learn from what you are doing. Together we do more than saying that another world is possible. We build communities of peace for all.


1 Tale Hungnes is former president of Changemaker, Youth Movement of Norwegian Church Aid, and member of the international Reference Group on Decade to Overcome Violence of the World Council of Churches. She made this input at the Women’s Forum in Chiang Mai, Thailand.



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