When I was a student in high school, our science teacher once posed an interesting question to us. If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, is there any sound? We students discussed this long and hard and finally came to the conclusion that there would be no sound. Why? Sound, we decided, is made up of vibrations in the air which create a sound only when they reach something, such as our eardrums that can convert those vibrations into sound. So, if a tree falls in the forest and there is nothing there to hear the sound, there is only silent vibrations.
I have thought about that question off and on since my high school days, but in a rather different context. When a mother in Afghanistan cries out in desperation as she watches her small child die from hunger and disease, is there any sound if no one is listening? When a family in Burma flees in terror from persecution, does only silence come from their tortured lips if there is no one who is sensitive to their cries? When a Palestinian man shouts out in anger and agony as he holds his dying son who has just been shot, does only silence come from his throat if none of us care enough to listen?
Yes, we hear. We have our radios and televisions on, so we can hear if we want. But, like the Simon and Garfunkle song says, perhaps we only hear without listening.
What does it take for us to truly listen and know what these members of our global society are saying?
Sometime back I was at a friends house to celebrate the birth of their new baby. While the baby slept in another room, we all were deeply engrossed in our various conversations. Suddenly the mother of the baby stood up. What’s wrong, we all asked in concern. Nothing, she responded. I just heard the baby cry and so I want to go pick her up.
None of us had heard the baby cry even though we were in the same room with the mother. We were too interested in our conversations to really be listening for the cry of the child. But the mother was very sensitive. She not only was listening to our conversations, but she was also listening for the sound of her child.
That is the kind of sensitivity we all need to develop. We can remain deeply involved in our work and our community lives, but we must also be ready to listen to the cries of the less fortunate in our world. When a mother from Afghanistan cries out in desperation, we not only hear, but we also listen to what she needs so that her child will not only survive, but will be able to grow up in a world which protects her dignity and humanity. When a family in Burma flees persecution, we listen to the meaning of their cries, and we respond as though they were members of our own family. When a Palestinian man shouts in anger and agony, we step in to bring the fighting to an end so that he can take his son to a secure and peaceful home.
When we truly listen to the cries for attention from those who suffer the brunt of this world’s violence, we can respond in positive and peaceful ways that will benefit us all. In doing so, we also respond to Christ, for Christ once said that what we do for the least important people in this world, we also do for him.
Many of us do not really understand the life of a refugee. We see pictures in the newspaper or watch footage on our televisions and we are left feeling only sympathy. To our eyes and minds, the refugees are victims, and we react to them as victims.
Along the Thai/Burma border, young Karen people living in the refugee camps refuse to think of themselves as “victims”. They have lost their homes, their land and often their future, but they continue to struggle for justice and peace. They say, “Victims are powerless, but we are not powerless! So, don’t give us your sympathy! We need your empathy to stand with us as we continue our nonviolent struggle to change the course of history in our country.”
One of the important activities these young people are involved in is the creation of radio staltions in five refugee camps through which they can encourage people, share information and raise awareness. A short documentary, produced by the young people themselves, explains how these radio stations function. Please watch the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9HAjeMO2ms and then consider how you can stand with these young people in empathy rather than sympathy.
My book “Differences” is now available as an ebook. You can purchase it at http://www.bangkokbooks.com/index.php.
Differences is a collection of short stories, most of which are based on the lives of real people in Thailand and Burma. The story called Differences, from which the title of the book is taken, details one event through the eyes of three different people – a prostitute, a ghost guide and a little flower girl. The story takes place on Pat Pong Street, one of the most famous red light districts in Bangkok. It is a story of pain, anger, suffering and struggle.
Don’t Make Me a Human is the story of a woman and her dogs struggling to survive in a slum community along one of Bangkok’s many canals. A forced eviction separates the woman from her beloved dogs and she is left alone to gather up the strength needed to start life over again.
Other stories include The Good Son about a young man, his mother and two sisters who have had to flee from their home in Burma to seek safety in a refugee camp inside Thailand. Unfortunately, life in the refugee camp is also not so secure.
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.