Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Dilemma of Bradley Manning

Bradley Manning is the Army Private accused of releasing classified documents to Wikileaks that created a global scene in the past few months. He has been kept in a military prison for over 215 days. No doubt, we should speak out that he be treated humanely and not be subject to any cruel and unusual punishment. We should also be vocal in our support that he be given a fair trial, and not be a scapegoat for something much bigger. But at the same time, I think it is important that we, as Friends, not blindly join in calling Manning a hero for being a whistle-blower in the name of justice. There is much more to the story of Manning himself and to the consequences of the information he has released that should concern us.

The first wave of information that Manning supplied to Wikileaks was about questionable military tactics in Iraq that resulted in civilian casualties. From the "whistle-blower" world, the military is denounced for violating the rules of engagement that call on the military to only attack opposing forces in uniform. Unfortunately, the opposition in both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not playing by these rules but are, instead, specifically hiding among civilians. I abhor war as much as the next person, but given the current state of affairs in this region of the world, it's actually surprising that there are not more civilian casualties.

It is because of my abhorrence of war that I am most concerned about the efforts to put Manning on a hero's pedestal. Other than the leaked video, the rest of the Wikileaks have not been in the "whistle-blowing" category. They have not exposed anything subversive or shocking. They have been full of, basically, gossip in the form of private communications among diplomats. The information itself is, for the most part, nothing new or shocking, but rather personal opinions among diplomats to help prepare for meetings and further diplomacy. It's the kind of stuff we all do - paint broad characterizations of people to help others prepare for interactions. Some of it is really no news at all - such as news that Berlusconi of Italy is a womanizer. Much of this has been amusing stuff from the outside; from the inside, the damage is not to the military but to the world of diplomacy and it is in the diplomatic world that we have our best hopes to avoid military conflict.

I would love to know what motivated Manning to release documents that are not at all related to "whistle-blowing" but only serve to hamper diplomacy. According to this Washington Post piece, there is a biographical narrative that seems to indicate he was driven not by moral outrage at his government, but something more personal.

I have seen flyers at a few Quaker Meetings and among writings of Friends calling for the unconditional release of Bradley Manning. I think it is easy for us to jump on this bandwagon because of our dislike of military action and this can be an outlet of moral outrage. But it seems to me that Pvt. Manning was not motivated by the same outrage. The State Department leaks are not of that nature. In these leaks, it seems to me that Pvt. Manning violated confidentiality by confiscating information that had nothing to do with government wrong-doing, and the result is embarrassing at a minimum and, more troubling, harmful to diplomacy. I think we have a responsibility, as Friends, to look more deeply at the issue rather than risk being over-reactive anti-military but uninformed or inconsistent with our values. Our integrity calls on us to ask for humane treatment and a fair trial, but also that we understand the difference between whistle-blowing of blatant wrong-doing and violating confidentiality for less clear reasons.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Friends and Patience: Rushing Transformation

(Written December 12, 2010)

As I sit on an incredible spot in the world - a home about an hour west of San Jose, Costa Rica, looking out over the mountains to the distant bay and sea - listening to the breeze and the birds, knowing that 17 dogs are all quiet, I am slowing down from the pace of life that we have set for ourselves in the US, in particular in the northeast. There are many ex-pats living down here; the majority of these folks are retired, and many that I have spoken with say they have retired here because they cannot afford to live in the US where they spent their careers. (The irony of this is that, as more folks from the States come here to retire, the cost of living goes up here, but that’s for another day.)

I have asked folks how they like living down here. To a person, so far, everyone has stated they love it. Sure, there are issues they face (bad roads in some areas, for example, crime in cities – especially pick-pockets, and a somewhat chaotic government system), but one thing many say they appreciate is the simplicity of life. One person commented to me that many of the houses owned by “Tikos” (native Costa Ricans) are small, but this is not necessarily a reflection of wealth as it is priorities. He said that the culture here is much more about living simply. As I have experienced in just about every place I have been outside the US, I see much the same thing. People live at a more casual pace, seeming a bit more content with what they have rather than constantly pursuing what they don’t have.

As I was leaving for vacation, the idea of patience and taking time was very much on my mind. In the month prior to leaving, I had had a few experiences of Friends expressing an interest and desire in exploring peacemaking, social justice and hospitality in what seems to be an increasingly divided and hostile world, and what we as Friends can and should do to bring about change. In both cases in which I facilitated either a workshop or presentation, there was limited time, and in both cases, after the workshop/presentation, it was clear that not having enough time was a problem. Then, just before leaving for vacation, we had a board retreat at William Penn House that was all-about story-telling. We spent the day telling stories – individual as well as collective, as we learned the art of storytelling. We were gently guided through an awakening process – external as well as internal. It was a great day, and something we want to continue. In some ways, it was a transformational experience in terms of self-awareness and in knowing about others. I also know that there are folks within Baltimore Yearly Meeting who want to explore singing and story-telling as part of our spiritual and community development. So I floated this idea to folks, with the proposal of a two-day workshop. Time was quickly raised as a barrier. People want to engage in, experience and learn tools for transformation, but don’t want to take the time.

I understand the pressures of time, and how full our calendars are. And yet, as Friends, if we are truly to be a part of a broader community in which we bring a greater sense of peace, and we want to see a transformation take place in our community, we are going to somehow have to learn to take time. That in itself is a part of the transformation. We need to take time to let things sink in, see what sticks, and come together after a good sleep and “non-task” time. But when we don’t allow for time, we do great disservice and perhaps even harm to the work. Things become hurried. Comments are made without the time for understanding and listening. Instead of healing, people can leave feeling unheard and perhaps discounted. It’s like making a cake. You can have all the ingredients, mix them together, put them in the pan and put the pan in the oven. You may then do other things, but your primary task is still tending to the cake. If you let it slip completely from your consciousness and drift too far either physically or, say, by falling asleep, the cake is ruined and all that work is for naught. This is why I am increasingly convinced that, if Friends are serious about wanting to make something beautiful with all the gifts of the people in our midst – including the transformational workshops – we are going to have to learn to attend to the importance of allowing time to do its transformational work.
We are going to have to engage in a practice of patience that we bring to the world, and not just practice when we remove ourselves. It can’t be rushed. Baking the cake at 500 degrees won’t make the cake better. It will only ruin it quicker.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Bridging the Generations

This past weekend was busy, but also provided an opportunity to reflect on the intersection of theology, culture and politics as they relate to William Penn House, our mission, Quakers/Quakerism, and multi-/inter-generational work in a pluralistic society.

A brief recap:
Saturday was the board retreat. For the retreat this year, we had a 27 year-old man named Mike lead us in a workshop on storytelling as a craft. I had been a part of a storytelling workshop this past summer at Philadelphia Young Friends Camp Onas, and was fascinated and inspired by the experience, so I thought it would be a great exercise for the board in helping to do storytelling about William Penn House. What I am learning about this art is that it is not just about telling a narrative, but it is about bringing one's own narrative to life - exposing oneself, speaking from the heart, and, in doing so, becoming more conscious of it. It is a way of bearing witness. But, just as important, in engaging people in storytelling, we also learn how to listen to their story. We learn to use questions to elicit a story. It has the potential, I think, for building community as we learn to listen more deeply. This can then help to bring reconciliation, healing and peace to the community. We also can attune ourselves to listen for the societal narratives, and look for ways we can bring our voice to that narrative. Storytelling becomes a way to hear for process, not content and it really is process that needs to change in our lives and world.

Sunday started with a "second hour" discussion at a DC-area Friends Meeting about the responsibilities of Quakers in these times of two costly and seemingly-endless wars. (While we have ended military involvement in Iraq, there is still a strong military presence and what we have left behind has stronger ties to Iran, so this story is hardly done). The pragmatic reality is that not much can really be accomplished in one hour when we are talking about wars and what pacifists can do. Essentially, I just wanted to introduce some of the program ideas we have been developing at William Penn House that help us deepen our understanding of the root causes of war and unnecessary violence (for example, when our passions can create divisions and recognizing that divisiveness is a main building block for physical, cultural and biological violence). We talked about core truths, the importance of reaching out (actually not reaching out, but going out into the world) - basically the work of Radical Hospitality. In one hour, I wonder if actually it is counter-productive. Here's why: there were three people who raised issues. One made the claim that, until there is a safe place to say that Muslims - even radical Muslims - are inherently good people, there can be no end to war. A second person presented a flyer from AFSC about where our tax dollars are going, and people need to know this. A third person made the comment that people just need to know that the war in Afghanistan is wrong, and we need to protest a la 1960's and '70's as that is what ended the Vietnam war. These people are all my age and older.

Sunday evening, then, we had a potluck at WPH. Bryan Montanio, a grad student in architecture, presented on the earth building movement. Bryan is in his mid-20's, and has a gentle passion for this movement not just as an industry but as a means of social justice. He recognizes the time and effort it will take for this movement to take root on a broad scale, but his presentation left us with the impression that it can be done. It was energizing and inspiring. It was also not well-attended.

Here's what I take from the weekend: Between Mike and Bryan, I saw two people in their mid-20's using their talents and interests to make a difference. They don't necessarily have the "key" solution, but they see options, and they have optimism - hope. In Bryan's case, it's a career pursuit. In Mike's case, he does other, less-satisfying work so he can let his life speak through his side-interests. They are engaged in creatively developing new ways to address age-old problems and, as they engage in the telling of the stories, we become more conscious of our roles, narratives and options. Contrast this with some of the comments of people my generation and older at the Sunday morning meeting: "people just need to see what I see, and take the action that I think they need to take, and speak what I think needs to be spoken, and the world will be ok". There was anger, despair, hopelessness.

So the challenge is, how do we bridge these generations? Among some of the "elders", there is certainly wisdom and experience. No doubt, the anti-war protests of the Vietnam era were a part of bringing an end to the war. But what we need to have is conversations, not lectures. Wars during times of draft during times of voluntary service are very different beasts. I think the challenge is we have to look to those who don't volunteer for the military because of pacifism and ask "so how can you/I/we serve?" In asking this question, my experience is to ask people to consider visioning solutions, not getting stuck on problems because that is then all one sees, and to be creative in developing action steps that start with "I/me", not "them". This is the heart of my experience over the weekend: Bryan and Mike are starting with "here's what I'm doing" and inviting others to find what is theirs to do. The push-back I got from some on Sunday morning was "people just need to see and do what tell them" with a mix of righteousness and despair based on real experiences. It is this dance of life and hope that we must constantly do if we are to really make a difference.