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Chipping Away at Walls of Injustice

December 9, 2010

Peacemaking has become a trendy word these days.  NGOs are making sure their three-year projects have a “peacemaking” component and universities in the “developed world” offer peacemaking degrees with attractive scholarships providing international students an opportunity to learn the latest theories and practice the newest models.  Time will tell if this approach to “peacemaking” will bear fruit. 

 However, after some years of experience working at peace and justice issues, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the term “peacemaking”.  It gives the impression that our task is to build peace when, in fact, peace is a gift given to us by the Creator.  Violence occurs when walls of injustice are built that prevent the gift of peace from being experienced freely by all.  A more appropriate term, I believe, is “transforming injustice” or the chipping away at walls of injustice so that in time they crumble and peace can freely flow throughout our communities.  Some may argue that this is simply a matter of semantics, but I contend that the term we use directly and significantly affects the way we approach local, national and global issues of conflict.

 Tourism is a good example.  Visits between people of different nationalities, ethnicities, languages, faiths and cultures are a growing reality in our globalized world.  Such visits can be very positive as they provide an opportunity for exchanges, sharing of information, learning about differences and growing awareness about the “other”.  But tourism with the goal of “peacemaking” may not go far enough.  It is not enough for Americans to visit Viet Nam, see how friendly the people are, have a few significant exposures and exchanges and then conclude that “we are all good friends now.”  In the same way, Israelis visiting Palestinians to enjoy a cup of Arabic coffee, share a few stories and laughs, or even help to harvest olives does not mean that the injustices existing within these relationships have been identified, challenged and confronted.

 Tourism that focuses on “transforming injustice” must have as its priority the exposure of injustice whether covert or overt.  Americans visiting Asia or Africa must become more deeply aware of how US economic and military policies are destroying the health and economic well-being of the citizens there.  Christians visiting Muslim communities in Mindanao, Philippines or Lebanon need to understand why Christianity is often misunderstood, fear or even hated.  These are learning experiences that, if taken seriously, can lead to empathy with the “other” and that feeling of empathy is necessary to move people to action – the action of going back home and chipping away at the walls of economic, political, social and military injustice rooted in their own communities.  

 On a recent visit to Zimbabwe, I was shocked to see the desperate struggle to survive of the people of this country.  There are many reasons for the economic poverty they are experiencing including poor national leadership, lack of good economic planning and virtually no participation of the people in decision-making to name a few.  But I was also dismayed to learn that often food imported from the United States is sold in the markets at a price cheaper than locally produced agriculture products.  US government subsidies to wealthy American corporate farms have brought down the price of local food commodities to a level that local farmers finally have to move off the land and seek work in the urban areas.   This has destroyed the ability of a large portion of the population to make a decent living at their traditional occupation of tilling the land.  They can no longer support their families and a sense of desperation and depression can soon set in.

 Visits by people from small American farms to the poverty-stricken farmers of Zimbabwe would be a form of transforming injustice tourism if those visits provided an opportunity for both farming communities to learn more about the realities of present-day global economic processes and then seek mutually beneficial strategies to begin chipping away at these walls of injustice.  Even though these two communities may not be physically or verbally abusing each other, peace can not exist as long as the injustice of this economic system remains intact causing some to suffer.  These walls of injustice must be torn down so that peace can flow freely between the two communities and human dignity can flourish.

 Transforming injustice tourism is not easy to develop.  Probably a vast majority of tourists have little interest in learning the realities of global injustice, preferring rather to have a few days at the beach, some good cheap shopping and the luxury of being served hand and foot.  But for those few tourists who wish to learn and then to act for the sake of global justice, it is certainly worth the effort to develop tours that will bring people together for mutual learning experiences and transformative actions. 

 Peace is not something we build out of scratch.  It indeed is a gift we have been given to enjoy freely.  Our task of ridding our world of the walls of injustice that prevent peace to flourish remains and we can begin to address that task through appropriate models of tourism and travel.

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