Monday, December 17, 2012

Building peace at the kitchen table

When Hillary Clinton visited Northern Ireland recently she told her hosts: “You are the ones who reminded the world that while a peace deal may be signed at a negotiating table, peace itself takes life at the kitchen table. It must be nurtured in the hearts of people, in the way they live their daily lives and treat their fellow citizens, in the lessons they teach their children.”

My father-in-law, the playwright Alan Thornhill, chose to begin each scene of his industrial drama, The Forgotten Factor, at the breakfast table. A bitter management-labor dispute is resolved as honest conversation takes place within and between the families.

Most of the violence today is perpetrated by young men. Women, who often hold families together, are in a key position either to reinforce grievances, fears, or stereotypes by the stories they tell their children or to instill values of compassion, selflessness, and forgiveness in the next generation. That is why projects like the Creators of Peace movement, which is catching on in many parts of the world, are so important. 

When our three sons were growing up, my wife insisted on a home cooked meal every night and everyone was expected to sit at the table. I can’t say that we always had profound discussions but perhaps the daily ritual had some civilizing influence. At any rate, Susan is gratified that all three sons have become keenly interested in cooking!

It’s no accident that the kitchen is often the gathering point in a home, the place where people feel most comfortable talking. And sharing a meal is often the first step to a new relationship. Our early race relations work in Richmond involved pot-luck dinners as people opened their homes to people of different races.

For many people who visit the Initiatives of Change conference center in Caux, Switzerland, the most memorable moments are not the speeches on the platform but the conversations in the kitchen where delegates prepare meals for 300 or more with people they have never met before. Alan Thornhill, an Englishman, found himself chopping vegetables with an Argentinean at a time when their two countries were at war in the Falklands. They had no common language but a friendship was formed. 

I vividly remember sitting at dinner in Caux with Les Denison, a former communist, and the exiled King and Queen of Romania. We were served coffee by Archie Mackenzie, a former British ambassador, and Cardinal K├Âning of Vienna. Les laughed and said, “If I told my friends about this they would never believe me!”

Peace conferences, diplomacy and conflict resolution play important roles. But real peace is born and nurtured in our homes, around the kitchen table.   

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The need to be acknowledged, accepted, and respected

Steven Spielberg’s masterful film, Lincoln, comes at a timely moment for America. Daniel Day Lewis’ powerful and nuanced portrayal of the president’s combination of courage, compassion, realism, humor and faith is a challenge to Washington today.

The narrative focuses on the struggle to pass the 13th amendment that ended slavery. Spielberg skillfully avoids stereotyping. He respects and challenges his audience by avoiding simplistic or stereotypical narrative and tells history in all its complexity and ambiguity.

From the opening scene of an “honest dialogue” between the president and two black soldiers, the film affirms the agency of African Americans in fighting for their liberty and their rightful place as full citizens. We also are reminded that racist thinking was deeply ingrained throughout the country. Many Democrats in northern states voted against the amendment.  

A fascinating aspect of the story was the arm twisting and patronage needed to assure passage of the amendment. Lincoln was not above getting his hands dirty for a great cause.

I found it impossible not to think about the deep divisions in America’s political life today. In the aftermath of Obama’s electoral victory, much has been made of the overwhelming dominance of Republicans in former Confederate states. But as many white males in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania voted for Romney as did in the South.

Contrary to common media assumptions, the South includes large numbers of liberals as well as conservatives. Not all conservative Republicans are racist and not all liberal Democrats are as enlightened as they like to think.

While some state governments may pursue regressive policies, the day-to-day reality at the community level is often quite different. Many observers have noted that race relations have progressed further in southern states than in the rest of the country. A recent story in the New York Times about three small towns in the Mississippi Delta provides a good illustration.

The three communities in question lie at the heart of a region known for racist brutality and civil rights struggles. Yet, “…beneath the easy assumptions about racial animosity in the South, a different ethos prevails. The races interact daily in these small towns. Despite the oppressive Jim Crow system of the past, people know one another intimately. Trust, it turns out, trumps race. That doesn’t mean racial tension doesn’t exist. But there’s a capacity to look beyond it, born of lifelong intimate contact, that’s rarely found in larger cities.”

Lincoln understood the basic need in every human being to be acknowledged, accepted and respected. When these needs are met, other things may become possible – whether in Mississippi or in Washington, DC. As the writer notes, “personal relationships can supersede race in a highly partisan time, when black and white too often become proxies for left and right.”