2014 - Thomas Peace Talk - Hamilton, Canada

 

In November 2014 I returned from my African home to speak at the Hamilton Convention Centre on the theme of The Nature of Peace. This was on the invitation of the YMCA of Hamilton-Burlington-Brantford, which holds an annual Peace Medal Breakfast to honour the people of Hamilton region who work towards peace. Following is the complete address.

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Well, thank you for the privilege of being here today. We love Hamilton. It’s a great city. And I think I’ve set some kind of record for being the Hamiltonian who has travelled the furthest to speak in Hamilton – I’ve travelled 11,757.6 km to be here today.

I hope you get your money’s worth.

So congratulations on this entire event. It’s a unique gathering with unique people. I know some of you have been up very early this morning. That includes some family with me here who have come from St. Catharines, sitting nearby here. Please say hello to them later.

I should tell you that I’ve been a long-time member of the Y, for about 25 years. And I’d like to say also that I have a Mennonite heritage, in case you’re wondering about my name – Froese. Mennonites are a peace-loving people. And as a Mennonite, I’m reminded that 2,000 years ago Jesus Christ said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

So I think this is a blessed event. And what greater title can anyone ever hope to have than to be called a Child of God? Congratulations again to all involved and I hope this event continues for many years to come.

As I was preparing for today, I came across this, the YMCA’s Peace Motto, which reads as follows: “Peace has many dimensions. It’s not only a state of relationship among nations. We cannot expect to live in a world of peace if we are unable to live in peace with those close to us – even those who differ from us. The responsibility for peace begins with each person, in relationship with family and friends, and extends to community life and national activities.”

I think this says it all. In don’t think I can improve much on this. In fact, I think I can go home now.

But I guess I’d like to unpack this a bit more and I’d like to do this by sharing some stories from overseas, from Uganda where we’ve lived for the past nine years, and from Yemen, where we lived for four years before that. They’re good news / bad news stories. And I know everyone always wants the bad news first, so I’ll start with that. But I want you to know that just because I’m Mennonite and just because I’ve spent some time overseas, I’m no expert on any of this. Most days I can’t even keep peace with the kids.

Before I go on, I’d like to show you a picture of the kids. There they are, left to right, Liz, who’s 11 now, Jean, Jonathan, 9, Hannah, 8. And Hannah’s middle name is Mirembe, which in Lugandan means “Peace.”

Jean and I left the kids in the good care of our dog, Zak. You can see here that Zak is a good Mennonite dog, wearing black for the family photo. But Zak has a claim to fame and that is that he’s born on Jean’s and my wedding anniversary. So I have an old wedding photo here too.  You can see we married a little young. But it’s been a wonderful journey.

The title of my talk this morning is The Nature of Peace, but it could be The Nature of War and Peace and Something in Between. And within this frame, I’d like to make three points. One is that war is easy. Two is that peace is hard. And the third is that peace is possible.

So this gives you an idea of where I’m going. Christopher Cutler has told me that I have two hours for this, and I promise you I will do my absolute best to stay within this time.

Before I start with the nature of war, though, very quickly I’d like to play a word game. I will give you three words, and you’re going to remember the first thing that comes to mind. Here are the three words. 1. Terror. 2. War Memorial 3. Yemen. So remember the first thing that comes to mind, and we’ll return to that later.

So here’s a story on the nature of war. It’s not from overseas but from my grade school, Maple Crest, where fighting was a community event. And it was always the same two guys. One guy was Enzo Coplin, a tough Italian kid who was built like a steel tank. He was the declared champ and only a fool would take Enzo on. And that fool’s name was Robin Michod, Robin, yes, Robin, like a bird.

And the way we kids did it in those days, we’d form a circle and the two combatants would fight inside. And we’d cheer. And Enzo would pound Robin bloody, every single time. And we screamed in delight! We just loved it!

Now I’m not a fighter. I’m Mennonite. You know, we’re pacifists. But one day the three of us – me and two friends, Paul Blakely and Drew Humber – we wanted to beat up this kid named John House. And it’s all I wanted. My whole life would be complete if I could just beat the crap out of John House. We ran to his house and there was a crowd and I led everyone. And then his mother came outside to protect her son and I remember I called his mother a name, something that I would never repeat here, something I’m ashamed of to this day.

But in all truth, for a moment, it … felt …good!

And maybe that feeling wasn’t much different than with that first family, when Cain killed his brother Abel with a rock, or club, or whatever he had. And he stood over his brother. And then that voice asked “Cain, what have you done to your brother?”

Even so, for a moment, I wonder if it … felt … good!

And maybe that wasn’t much different than that one day in Yemen, when a Muslim extremist came into a hospital – a hospital where Yemenis were being cared for. And he had a blanket and got through security by saying a baby was underneath, before he walked in the building and then pulled out a gun and shot three Americans, our friends, killing them in cold blood.

And, at least for a moment, it must have … felt … good!

The point is that we tend to see war as somewhere out there. But the nature of war is here. It’s in our humanity. It’s in this room. It’s on this stage. The nature of war is in the very DNA of our hearts. It’s something we’re born with, the dark side of our heritage as human beings. And it’s as real and present as today’s sunrise.

It’s like the game Sorry, where you move your men around the board and knock others off, then say “ah sorry!” when you’re not sorry at all. Now, if you want peace in your home, don’t play Sorry. We play a lot of Sorry in our home.

And one day when playing, Hannah was in tears. And she cried “It’s Jon. He’s just in it for himself!” And I said, “Hannah. “We’re all just in it for ourselves. That’s how the game is played.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it this way. He said, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were only necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

So we have wars. And rumours of wars. And history of wars. In recent times, we have Iraq: 500,000 dead. Syria: 100,000 dead. The 20th century was the bloodiest century ever, with more than 200 million human beings killed. That’s more than all the other previous centuries combined.

We now have over 20,000 nuclear warheads to destroy ourselves umpteen times. I shared this figure with a journalist colleague recently and he said, “Yeah, well, half don’t work. They’re too old.” He’s an American. But that still leaves 10,000. And why do we need so many?

So this is the bad news. We may be children created in God’s image, but … well, you get the idea.

Now there’s good news too and I want to get to the good news. But first, let me ask you a question. Generally speaking, very broadly now, in 2014 is the world a safe place? I’d like to see a show of hands. Who thinks we live in a safe world? And who thinks it’s not safe?

I ask because whenever I’m in Canada and I tell people I live in Africa, this is what I’m asked. “You live where? Is it safe?” And sometimes I say, “No, it’s not safe. Life is not safe. It’s not meant to be.”

But I want to make this point, that in general, very broadly speaking, the world is safer than we think. That’s part of the good news. Relatively speaking, we’re living in unique times in terms of safety, lifespan, comfort, ease of travel. Keep in mind for thousands of years, life on earth was rather brutish and short. If you got to be my age, then you were doing rather well.

You just don’t feel very safe. And neither do I. Because we live in an age of information. And misinformation. And disinformation, that is information that makes it seem like you’re gaining something when you’re losing it. And this all distorts the big picture. We have a lot coming at us.

It’s like Coleridge said, “There is water, water everywhere with nothing to drink.” And it will only get worse. We live in a strange time when you can carry the sum total of the world’s information in your back pocket and still not know how to really live.

So we need to filter information with wisdom. That’s each of our responsibility. (But keep getting your Spectator.)

Now, why is this important? Because the greatest hindrance to peace is fear. It’s not that bad things don’t happen. They do. Every day. I could get hit by a milk truck on the road outside when I leave here, but the truth of the matter is that, statistically speaking, you have a greater chance of dying by falling off a ladder than by a terror attack.

So don’t let your inner peace be stolen.

If you want more on this, on how information works, you can read the old classic “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” by Neil Postman. And if you want more on how safe our world is, read Steven Pinker, from Harvard University, his book called “The Better Angels of our Nature.” So that’ your homework.

This leads to the real good news, which is you. You’re the good news. You’re the nature of peace, created in God’s image, just a lower than the angels. You’re doing all sorts of things to promote and cultivate peace. You’re working against this natural tendency for war. Congratulations again, nominees and winners.

And how are you doing this? Are you just gathering together to hold hands and sing Kumbaya? No, you’re imagining a better world. You’re picturing it. Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

So you’re taking action. You’re showing courage. You’re looking to something larger than yourself.  You’re not just saying “sorry.”

This reminds me of a story of when I first arrived in Uganda some years ago. I was only there one week when I came out of a store to find that my vehicle had been smashed and robbed. The thieves took the electronic door panels along with my good camera.

So I called over security, a couple of boy-men who had uniforms that were way too big, drooping off of them, and old guns in-hand that looked like they were from the 16th century, and they came over and looked at the smashed glass all over the asphalt and said, “Oh. Sorry.”

They said I could get help at the local police precinct, so I walked up there and came back in an old beater taxi-van with two officers and we walked up to the robbed vehicle in the store parking lot and they looked down at the smashed glass all over the asphalt and said, “Oh. Sorry.”

Now, some of you may think, “Wow. Look at Froese, Look at Chamberlain. They’re in the Middle East. They’re in Africa. They’re getting robbed. Why can’t I be robbed? I wish I could be robbed.” But we’re all doing the same thing. We’re all serving. And, quite frankly, I don’t see a difference between what you’re doing and what we’re doing. I don’t see any difference where it’s done.

Because for you, the world has come to Hamilton. Right here in Hamilton you’re going to people who have different life experiences, from different cultures, and different ways of looking at the world. Right here in Hamilton, you’re crossing borders and leaving your comfort zones.

And no matter where we are, we can encourage each other in this spirit of service.

Last week I was at a pool in Uganda doing my lanes. And most of the time when I swim in Uganda this particular pool is empty because Ugandans don’t swim. But this day there was a little girl there – she looked about 10 years old – and she was trying to learn to swim and she came up to me in the water and said, “Okay. I’ll climb on your back and you’ll swim and carry me and I’ll kick.”

I thought, “Are you crazy? This pool is 20 metres! It has a deep end!” But then I looked at the side and thought, “Okay, if I stay close to the edge, it will be fine.” So I did, and everything was fine. That girl trusted me more than I trusted myself.

Some years ago, Jean was almost killed in Yemen. That story of the murders in the hospital in Yemen that I shared at the beginning of this talk? – Jean was supposed to be there. That’s how close we’ve experienced danger in our overseas work. The Spectator reported that. And, after that, we stayed in Yemen for three more years, eventually moving to Uganda for other reasons.

So is making peace a risk? Of course. So is getting up every morning a risk.

Once I accidentally got between two Ugandans who were fighting. It’s like I got between Enzo and Robin from those old school fights. We had helped one and the other got jealous. We had actually helped both over the years. So, one day I got this message:

I u trying to support that killer? Last night we so that traitor richard coming there, u gave him some thing. If we happen to see him oh his relative with them u will arrested oh burnt 2 death with ur family. Stupid Canada, stop mistrearting people instead of blessing u will reap ceases ….

As they say, with friends like that, who needs enemies? But we make peace with our enemies, not our friends, right? Yes, we make peace with our enemies, not our friends. And with wisdom we learn the difference between real threats and threats that are just perceived.

If nothing else, when we cross borders we’ll be misunderstood. I remember once we had some Canadian visitors in Uganda and they needed a ride to the airport to fly back to Canada. The driver was late so I asked Jean for his number – his name was Henry – and I called and said “Henry, the Canadians are waiting.” And he said, “Yes, I’m on my way.”

Some time later Henry still hadn’t arrived and I phoned again and he said again, “Yes, I’m on the way. I’m nearby in Seeta,” about 10 minutes away.

Finally, after some time he still hadn’t arrived and I phoned again and said “Henry, where are you?! The Canadians are going to miss their plane!”

He said, “Oh, I’m in Miremebe Hall. I’m lecturing.”

I said, “What? What are you doing lecturing?! You’re supposed be driving the Canadians!”

Well, as it turned out, Jean had accidentally given me the number of the wrong Henry. All this time, I had been talking to Henry a professor, not Henry the driver, who eventually came late because of mechanical trouble, and got the Canadians to the airport.

Now you’d think Henry the professor at some point would ask me, “Why are you calling me about driving the Canadians to the airport?” But no, this is not how it works in Uganda where in order to preserve the relationship and ensure everyone can save face and all that, you don’t want to embarrass the other person.

So Henry was speaking a different cultural language. When you’re a peacemaker, you learn these things. You learn that are there linguistic languages and cultural languages that you have to learn.

Now in Yemen, I wasn’t very good a learning Arabic. Jean was much better at this than I was. Arabic is one of the world’s harder languages. They says Arabic is “God’s language.” I think we’re in a lot of trouble. But I tried. I really, really tried. I think I have a photo here of me studying Arabic. … So this would be an example of learning a cultural language.

By the way, when I said the word “Yemen” before, what did you think of? Just go ahead and yell it out. Well, one thing I think is when I’d walk the streets of Sana’a I’d often hear some Yemeni yell “Welcome!” And you know what? That one word would likely be the only word of English they knew.

And I’d say “Asalum walay come, Achri,” which means “Peace be upon you, brother.”

Well, I’d like to finish with three photos – two are from Yemen, one is from Africa – to help understand the nature of peace.

The first here, you can see, is of some Yemeni feet that are looking rather beat-up. And, to me, this is what the nature of peace is like. It’s a long, hard journey. Peace is a marathon. It’s not a sprint. You need to have a thick skin. You might get roughed up. You might get beat up. You might even get killed. But then, we all have to die sometime. Sorry to break that news to you.

And when you get roughed up, what do you do? Well, you deal with it. You keep going. You keep walking. And somehow you live deeper. You find yourself more alive. You find joy on your journey. I understand there will be a book signing after my presentation, and if you want a book signed, that’s what I will sign: “Joy on your journey.” Because that’s what I always sign.

The next photo is also from Yemen, and it was actually a gift to me from Jean early in our relationship. You can see it’s a rather striking and beautiful photo of a Yemeni shepherd girl. But imagine a lion coming into this picture. What will happen? Well, that lion will rip apart that lamb and that girl.

One day the lion will down with the lamb. I believe that with all my heart. I would not be standing here if I didn’t believe that. But that’s not the world we live in. We’re not in utopia yet. We’re not in eternity. We’re living in that in-between place, and that means a world of pain and loss.

We all have stories of this. There are 500 stories here. And you all know your own story. But even in loss, you can find peace. And this leads me to my last photo.

It’s from Congo, and you can see it’s of a surgery. It’s actually of Dr. Philip Wood, a Hamilton doctor. And to me, this surgery shows that at its deepest level, peace involves a breaking open, a cutting open. That’s how peace is cultivated. It’s like a garden.

I have to tell you that when I talk about gardening, I know what I’m talking about. When I was a kid, in our family business we had a huge vegetable garden. Now there’s at least, I think, four houses on the land that used to be our garden. Of course, at the time I thought I should have been out doing other things like chasing girls or whatever. But I was stuck in that garden. Now we have a garden, a smaller one, in Uganda, and my son Jon is our family gardener.

I happen to have a bean in my pocket here. And if I brought this bean back to Jon, he’d plant it. And we’d find that there are two things that are true about gardening. One is that hard work pays off. The other is you get what you plant. Sorry if this is stating the obvious, but if Jon and I plant this bean we’re going to get a bean, not a tomato or carrot or whatever.

But here’s the thing. Before this bean grows, first it has to break open. It has to lose itself. It has to die. Nobody really has any idea how this works. It’s a mystery. But just because we don’t understand this, it doesn’t make it any less true. It’s a universal law.

And it seems to me that this is how peace works. Peace comes from people who are willing to be broken open. These are the people who change the world. You want to know the best definition I’ve heard of a peacemaker? A peacemaker is someone who’s willing to take on more suffering than they dish out to others. And there’s a reward in that. You get a richer, more enjoyable life.

It’s like Churchill said. “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.”

It’s tempting to think that peace can come in other ways, that peace comes through, for example, tolerance. Tolerance is seen as our highest good. But let me ask you something. Do we say? …. “If I could just tolerate my spouse.” Or, “If I could just tolerate my children.” Or, “If could just tolerate my community.”

Well, hurray for tolerance. No tolerance is not the highest good. Love is.

I’d like to conclude by congratulating you all again for this event, this unique and blessed event. And I believe Hamilton is a blessed community. You may think I’m saying this just to sound nice, but I believe it’s true. Because this community has suffered some losses, some of which have attracted attention from far away.

Most recently you’ve had the death of Nathan Cirillo, who was killed because he stood in a place that was a symbol of peace. That’s the only reason he was killed, because he stood as a symbol of the values that Canadians hold dear. And, to me, Nathan’s death shows the paradox of peace, that sometimes the greater the loss, the greater the peace.

Just like with that garden, we don’t understand how that works. But we can still see it and observe it and feel it. It’s not like the purpose of losing a life is to remember it, but remembering that life is an outcome of losing it. And even in the pain there’s this strange beauty where people are drawn together and unexpected things grow.

Well, that’s all I wanted to say. Thank you again for this opportunity to share. I understand there’s a book-signing now that some of you may want to stay for. Others of you have to go. But if you want to keep in touch with Jean and our work, I invite you to see Jean and grab a business card. Or you can leave your own card and we can sign you up to our newsletter. And you can keep in touch through my blog, the Daily Dad, at the information posted onscreen.

Thanks again. And peace be on you.

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