Monday, May 03, 2010

Celebrating the Havdallah in Vukovar

From our interfaith journey to Macedonia and Croatia.

On Saturday evening we stood together in a circle holding candles flickering in the wind under a starry sky on a weathered wooden pier on the Danube River in the town of Vukovar as Rabbi Steve led us in the Havadallah, the traditional ritual to close of the Sabbath. Together we sang the traditional chorus. Then, holding high a glass of red wine, Steve spoke, in Hebrew and in English, the words of blessing of the wine, invoking the sweetness of the Sabbath.

Then we sang the same chorus with increasing confidence and he spoke the blessing of the spices as he lifted a bowl of spice high. Then we passed the cinnamon from hand to hand, its aroma reminding us again of the goodness of a Sabbath spent with God and loved ones. My heart was warmed by the growing bond with my fellow pilgrims on this journey – Muslim, Christian and Jew.

As Steve blessed the flame, reminding us of the illumination available to us on the Sabbath, I reflected that we were standing literally over the Danube, a mighty timeless river that has witnessed so many joys and sorrows, victories and defeats, triumphs and tragedies all occurring on this same site. I was also touched to be participating in a stream of tradition that flowed back through the centuries for probably 4000 years. I felt for a few moments an intense sense of connection to Jewish families closing the Sabbath by celebrating the Havdallah.

But it was as Steve began to sing the traditional song calling for Elijah to come to usher in the Messianic age of peace and the candles were snuffed out in the glass of wine that a wave of emotion swept over me. I recalled that earlier that day we had learned that there had once been Jews living in Vukovar but after World War II not a single Jew resided there. All were displaced or killed in the Holocaust. Then it hit me, this night, for perhaps the first time in 65 years, the Havdallah was being sung in Vukovar.

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Saturday, May 01, 2010

Finding Hope in Vukovar

This has been a day of emotional extremes. This afternoon we visited the memorial to the deaths of 261 wounded men, physicians and hospital staff who were removed from the hospital, after the fall of Vukovar in 1991, taken to a hangar in the country outside of town and systematically tortured and beaten before being executed and pushed into a mass grave.
The hangar where they were tortured and where four of the men were beaten to death has been transformed into a memorial. Photos of each of the men line the walls. They are illumined a few at a time in a seemingly random way and as they go dark others are illumined, reminding us all of how their lives were snuffed out prematurely by their captors. I thought of their pain and the pain of grandparents who would never see their grandsons in this world again, of parents still grieving six years later as the bodies of their sons were exhumed and finally laid to rest, of wives bereft of husbands, of sons and daughters who would never feel the strong arms of their fathers. I left the memorial almost overwhelmed with sadness at the senselessness of such suffering.

And then I thought, will it never end? There have been so many mass graves, so many atrocities, and so much brutality. But I did not contemplate the savagery of human beings as if I could hold myself aloof from such misshapen individuals and peer down at them from a position of superiority.

I know the violence of my own heart too well. The line between good and evil runs not along the boundaries between nations or tribes but down the middle of every human heart. An exaggeration, you say? Well then at least down the middle of this human heart.
I crossed the street from the memorial with arms crossed, head bowed, and eyes fixed firmly on the ground. All I could feel were a deep sadness and sense of near hopelessness. As I stepped onto the sidewalk across the street, I glanced up to look for our bus and saw instead that a field of dirt stretched away for hundreds of meters. I could not help but think “how appropriate” - a barren field across the street from the site of atrocities.

But then as I continued to stare woodenly at the field, I realized that I could see lively green shoots timidly poking up out of that dirt that my own mood had painted as barren. Those signs of life and hope brought to mind the hope filled stories of the morning – stories collected by Srdjan Antic of neighbor helping neighbor survive the war here without regard to their ethnicity.

Srdjan had also shared with us the work that he has done to bring about reconciliation between the rival factions in his society. He told of how his own transformation occurred almost eleven years ago at the ROM Leadership Development and Peace Gathering.

It was at ROM that he met people who did not even ask if he was Serb or Croat. Instead they greeted him with obvious acceptance without regard for his ethnicity. He told of how he went up to his room and turned to his friend and asked, “What is wrong with these people?” As the days passed he realized that they were just fine and it was he that was abnormal. He left ROM three weeks later determined to see others as fellow human beings, deserving of respect. He also began immediately to plan the first projects to bring that renewed mind to others.
Seeing those green shoots reminded me that in the midst of all the misery and pain, there will be hope as long as we commit like Srdjan to not accept the brutality of the status quo but to work to transform cultures of violence into cultures of peace.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Give the Mediators a Break - Call in the Transformers

I just read Tom Friedman's op-ed in yesterday's NY Times about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (go to I have to agree that Pres. Obama should give all sides his phone number and tell them to call when they are ready to seriously address the material issues standing in the way. Peacemaking research supports the concept of "ripeness" for conflict resolution.

Mediation seldom works unless the parties are ready for the hard work of finding a mutually acceptable solution. Or to put it another way, in this particular instance when enough mothers love their children more than they hate the enemy, peace making mediation efforts have a chance. When that happens, astute leaders of all sides involved will sense the sea change of public opinion and act.

At the same time we must not confuse mediation and dispute resolution with the kind of conflict transformation offered by The Institute for Sustainable Peace.
Conflict resolution is about addressing the immediate concerns or issues of the parties. As John Paul Lederach reminds us in “The Little Book of Conflict Transformation,” conflict transformation efforts go beyond resolving current disputes and I would say often precede those efforts. Conflict transformation, undertaken with small groups representative of all factions, can build over time to help create a critical mass of individuals ready for substantive peacemaking among their respective groups or tribes.

Conflict transformation begins with bringing people together to build bridges of understanding and trust. In the process, participants address issues of identity - particularly identity defined in terms of whom we name as our enemies. Dehumanizing stereotypes are transformed and people are able to see each other as human beings with common needs, common sufferings, and common dreams.

Tom, thank you for the good word. President Obama, give them your phone number and let them know that you are ready when they are. And in the meantime, the ISP’s peace rangers and other similar groups will do the long quiet cultivation work of conflict transformation.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

09 Nobel Peace Prize

A good friend recently shared his thoughts on the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama. He wrote:
“One of the 'issues' that I have wrestled with throughout my life has been the issue of Being and Doing. Our society, in fact most societies, judge or measure people based on what they do... That is how we measure the physical, material, side of our existence. Our society, particularly American society, does not put much weight on our 'Being'.”

“Most religions and many philosophies consider that a person's real value, the person's real measure, is not in the physical or material accomplishments they achieve, but rather in their Being...”

He went on to write that “…Pres. Obama was appropriately awarded the Nobel Peace Prize based on his Being, which was recognized as a fundamental contribution to World Peace at a time when the nature of so many leaders, particularly those who had gone before him, is too materially focused, and when measured in spiritual or non material terms, were negative to the point of being evil. Or they were simply nothing (Vapid) and had no impact one way or another......”

I confess that when I heard the news, I had not thought about it that way. My immediate response was "he hasn't done enough to merit the Prize yet. Not that he won't, it just hasn't happened yet." My next thought was that the committee is putting pressure on him - giving him something to live up to as President. And recognizing his potential. His potential for “doing.”

My friend is right that we in the rationalist, utilitarian West, and particularly in America, place way too much emphasis on doing. Our sense of individual self-worth is a function of how much we possess or control, how much we accomplish, and our perception of how others value us. And how others value us is dependent on their perception of our “doing” more so than our “being”.

Last night I watched the movie, “Frost/Nixon,” on the long flight to Dubai. In it, as you will recall if you have seen it, former President Nixon calls David Frost one night after over indulging his favorite alcoholic beverage and reveals the essential motivation of his life: to prove to the "Eastern snobs" that he is worthy to be in their company. Nixon tells Frost that they are alike - both from very humble, middle class beginnings, both struggling all their lives to prove their worth, and both fighting to get back into the light. Nixon was desperate for the public to judge him not by Watergate but by his prior accomplishments. What a poignant example of putting all the emphasis on doing and missing the importance of being - what many would call character. And as with Nixon, all too often failures of character or being undermine our doing.

Being and doing are inseparably joined. How can I, or a Nobel Prize committee, perceive the being or character of another apart from his/her doing? Maybe this is what Jesus had in mind when He said "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."

There are many, many people in the world who are letting their light shine in that manner. It is likely that President Obama was awarded the Nobel for peace because he is one of those or at least so far appears to be and he is the U.S. President. And as President his quality of being or character can make a huge difference in the world for good or for ill.
Would it be fair to say that your doing, however large or small your sphere of influence, is potentiated by the quality of your being (character)? Which brings me back to where I started when I first heard the news. President Obama was a good choice this year. I would only add to my friend’s analysis that Pres. Obama’s quality of being potentiates his quality of doing. Or to be more honest...I hope so.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Happy 4th of July

Another 4th of July has come and gone. Well almost. We are having a few friends over in about half an hour to finish out our rather low key celebration of the 4th of July weekend. I needed an excuse to stay out of the kitchen for a few minutes and posting a blog on celebrating the 4th is as good as any. My question is what are we celebrating on the 4th? The official holiday is to commemorate our founding father’s declaring independence from Britain. For sure it is a day for fireworks, speeches, celebration of patriotism, and freedom seems to be a common theme. This is usually the day that we hear and read a lot of people expressing their pride in America and being American.

Let’s explore that last thought a bit. Is pride in America like pride in the tribe or is it something else? A few years ago I had dinner, in Paris, in the home of Xavier Eiffel, great grandson of Gustav Eiffel. In the course of our conversation (all conducted in English, in which he is fluent) the talk turned to nationalism and pride. That conversation gave me yet another opportunity to express my pride in being American. Not that Xavier was being a rude host running down America. But that was the era of “freedom fries” in the Congressional cafeteria.
What I told Xavier and still believe is that America has been and continues to be great. But the greatness does not originate in our economic might. Nor does it find its genesis in our having the most powerful military in the world. Our greatness as a nation is found in universal ideals that were powerfully expressed in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I said to Xavier that I am proud to be part of a country that was not founded on tribalism, ethnicity, or uniformity of religion. The United States of America was founded on principles. Principles that we have not always followed. Equality of all men. Liberty – suspension of habeas corpus periodically when we get so scared that we forget who we are and what we say we stand for. But at least the founding fathers took the time to document principles of universal human rights and responsibilities that were being explored and articulated during the Enlightenment.

Belief in those principles led to the adoption of the Bill of Rights. Get this! The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, four years after the ratification of the Constitution. What governments in the history of the world have willingly, even pro-actively, limited their own power without a coup or the threat of one. Ours did when we adopted those amendments to our Constitution.
But how many of our citizens really understand the principles this country was founded on? The ones that I fear we least understand include: Separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The principle of religious liberty set out in the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The protection against unreasonable searches and seizures: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

I cringe when I hear some of my fellow citizens calling for English to be declared the national language or when my fellow Christians bemoan that we are have left our roots as a Christian nation. Anyone who knows me knows that I am an outspoken follower of Jesus, but I would fight and die for the right of my fellow citizens to have the freedom to choose their own religion and not have my religion forced on them through legislation or presumption. But that is the subject of another blog: practicing what we preach about the free market, including the free marketplace of ideas.

In conclusion, happy 4th of July and God bless America. God help us be even truer to our ideals and principles. Help us to be ever more cognizant that to whom much is given much is required. We have been in the past a shining city on a hill, a symbol of hope for liberty to the oppressed of the world. Let that light shine and remember its source. We hold these truths to be self-evident...

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Report: Agitate, Integrate, Co-create - Leadership Development Workshop - May 29-June 7

We spent the first six days of our recent Leadership Development Workshop, helping 26 leaders from all regions of Sudan “build a relational container strong enough to hold their differences.” Then we spent the better part of our seventh day together putting the strength of that container to the test as we talked directly about an issue that had been haunting the workshop almost from the outset.

The issue? Should southern Sudan, now a semi-autonomous region under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, separate from the rest of Sudan and function as an independent country? I say haunted the conversations because as soon as this question surfaced, the participants would quickly move to submerge it lest the conversations turned ugly.

After all this is a peace project! We have to be nice and polite to each other. It is as if an unwritten rule is passed that to preserve peace we cannot bring up an issue we know will be divisive. Instead of peacemaking, most groups only engage in peace faking. We could not have a serious dialogue about how to build a future of peace without confronting the issue of separation vs. unity head on.

On Friday we did just that but in the most constructive, respectful dialogue that I have ever been part of. Of course when I started the conversation I had no assurance of a good outcome. What we were doing was high risk, but then we knew that. Which is why I thought long and hard about how to make a positive beginning.

What we started with was celebrating the hard work we had already done to build the relational container. I gave the participants the opportunity to affirm their friendships by stating what they had come to appreciate about each other. And they did, in many instances with great specificity, thanking each other and complimenting each others’ strengths.
Next I asked them to name the strengths of the Sudanese people that could be utilized in building sustainable peace. They filled up two pages on the flip chart.

Then we turned to the ultimate question that occupied us for the next several hours. I asked them to talk about their visions for a future of peace for Sudan. That brought out the different positions on unification and separation.

Over a five hour time period, our friends from Sudan used all of the skills and practices introduced earlier in the week. They talked openly and directly about the relative merits of unification and separation and in the process engaged in a level of civil discourse almost unheard of in the world today. They listened so intently and respectfully to each others’ narratives – taking the time to understand the thinking that caused them to take their positions. And they were amazed by what they did.

As one of the SPLM leaders from Sudan put it: "I have never experienced anything like this. When Sudanese come together, these kinds of conversations last at most 30 minutes and end with shouting and even punches being thrown. This was amazing." Not only had they shared deeply about the big issue, they had found real common ground as they named the strengths of the Sudanese people and identified the elements essential to building sustainable peace. They had managed to speak to each other in a way that strengthened the fabric of their fellowship. They even discussed how peace might be built and sustained under either scenario of unification or separation.

Their dialogue opened the door on Saturday for co-visioning and co-creating new practical initiatives for building sustainable peace. One group planned how to get out the vote among the Sudanese Diaspora in the upcoming presidential elections in Sudan. Another group planned the creation of a new school in Ayala, Darfur. Another group, representing all regions of Sudan and including a high ranking SPLM official, planned the opening of a branch office of the Institute for Sustainable Peace in Sudan. They want to be trained to conduct similar workshops all over Sudan.

That night, gathered around a campfire under starry Colorado skies, one by one they stood to bear witness to changes within, real transformation of attitudes toward former enemies, and a commitment to work together across their regional, ethnic and religious differences for sustainable peace. The relational container was built…and when tested... it held.

(For more, see

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Leadership or Playing to the Mob?

What a crazy week this has been.

Concerning the House’s passage of a 90% tax on the bonuses of a limited number of people in the Financial Industry, this is a time for reasoned leadership, not playing to “the mob.” Students of Roman history need to be speaking up. Does this not remind you of the final days of the Roman republic when real public servants were so hard to find and the Roman elected officials played to the mob in the forum?

The way Edward Liddy was treated on Capitol Hill is shameful. This is a man called in to lead AIG by the government. He is taking a $1 a year salary. He has no stock options. He is a public servant in every sense of the word. I encourage you to read Mr. Liddy’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post for Wed. March 18. You can find it online by clicking on

Tax policy should never be used as a tool for punishment. As the President pointed out tonight on 60 Minutes, this tax bill would affect at most 10,000 people. Tax bills should reflect a reasoned approach to tax policy that focuses primarily on raising revenue for government operations in the fairest way possible. The internal revenue code should not be a system of rewards and punishments.

I have heard that we get the leaders we deserve. Maybe this is true in a democracy. If so, it is time that we modeled the behavior that we seek from our leaders. Maybe it will begin to resonate.