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Heart Burn: Words that Consume our Peace and Development Prospects, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 Apr

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I believe that we can, in a deliberate way, articulate the kind of people we want to become. Clayton Christensen

Words, like nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within. Alfred Lord Tennyson

Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all. Emily Dickinson

It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart. Mahatma Gandhi

In the Security Council this month, Dutch Ambassador Karel van Oosterom in his capacity as president of the Council, invoked Provisional Rule 507 on a daily basis, urging Council members and briefers to be succinct and relevant to both the topic under consideration and the flow of the discussion.

For this Council, indeed for almost any discussions held inside the UN, this “507” business is a high bar. Indeed, what Ambassador van Oosterom (and at points in March his Prime Minister and Foreign Minister) requested was merely a small portion of the recommendations that could speed up meetings, avoid redundancy, and most importantly help establish the conditions for actionable policy.  And, while we didn’t bring a stopwatch to Council meetings, there appeared to be no apparent impact on the length or content of statements.  With few exceptions –including some states at Wednesday’s open debate on peacekeeping and an excellent brief at that same meeting by Mali’s Fatimata Touré – states and briefers mostly did what they always do: write what they want and read what they wrote.  If any changes were evident, they were primarily regarding the speed at which prepared statements were read, a frustrating practice which caused more than one headache for our excellent interpreters.

But it is the redundancy of positions that both interests and alarms the interns and fellows who often accompany me in Council chambers, statements prepared in anticipation of briefings rather than in response to them; statements replete with tepid deference to protocol and with only fleeting references to positions taken by Council colleagues; statements that communicate little hope that the future for these (and other) young people will be much different than their current, unsettled prospects.

And what is communicated directly through such statements is only a portion of the full revelation.  While we as an office remain seized of any new ideas or turns-of-phrase that might help clarify a path to peace in places as far-flung as Myanmar, Yemen and Mali, my younger colleagues are even more inclined than I am to interpret the “culture” of Council meetings in a skeptical light– Ambassadors preaching Council unity while habitually branding agendas largely conceived in national capitals; states expressing “concerns” and issuing condemnations that mostly fall on deaf ears; resolutions and presidential statements adopted that have little teeth and that represent political compromise more than an honest and urgent response to conflict threats.

This is the future of my younger colleagues after all, and their level of skepticism can sometimes be alarming regarding the value and potential impact of Council “deliberations.” While they can recognize those times when Council discussions actually open space for peacemaking, they too often witness a hardening of positions and even a choking off of viable options for Council members sincerely seeking to “be deliberate” about the prevention and resolution of conflict or other threats to human well-being.

This weekend as most of you know marks the relative convergence of the Christian feast of Easter (this weekend for the west, next weekend for the east) and the Jewish feast of Passover.  The latter is tied to liberation – in this instance the liberation of Jews from their Egyptian bondage; the former to liberation of another sort – the hope for some kind of life beyond this one, some place of serenity beyond the pain of this world with which we at the UN are at least rhetorically familiar.

Both feasts are replete with powerful images communicated largely through the Easter Eucharist and the Seder.   But while our Easter churches are often full and there are generally few empty seats to be found around our Seder tables, there is something here that doesn’t seem quite right for me.  Simply put, we seem to be celebrating freedom from a bondage with which we have largely lost touch; the hope of some “heaven” that we have mostly not done nearly enough to replicate here on earth.

After all, this time of feasts is also a weekend in which the UN Secretary General complained openly about the slow pace of our collective response to climate change.  This is a weekend as well when bombs continued to fall on Syrian children despite a Council-mandated cease fire, when legitimate protesters along Gaza border regions were gunned down by Israeli troops, when the US decided to block any UN condemnation of such shootings (again assuming that any “condemnations” by this Council actually matter), and when fresh arms sales to erstwhile “allies” promise more violence,  suffering and trauma endured in large measure by “tomorrow’s adults.”

In recognition of the pain which punctuates this ostensibly “holy” weekend, I spent a good bit of this past week looking for inspiration that could properly bind the misery of Good Friday with the hope of Easter Sunday, linking real pain with the hope of deliverance. It was during this search that I came across once again Unapologetic, by Francis Spufford, one of the many books about religion that makes greater sense to those on the margins of faith than those who strive to maintain a more orthodox center.

Some of Spufford’s passages are frustrating; others almost tearfully moving.  His rendition of the Good Friday crucifixion is one of my favorites:

He cannot do anything deliberate now. The strain of his whole weight on his outstretched arms hurts too much. The pain fills him up, displaces thought, as much for him as it has for everyone else who has ever been stuck to one of these horrible contrivances, or for anyone else who dies in pain from any of the world’s grim arsenal of possibilities. And yet he goes on taking in. It is not what he does, it is what he is.

There will come a time when none of us will be able to do much of anything that is “deliberate.”  Our bodies will betray us.  Our minds will no longer be able to recall the small rituals that lie behind so many of our own utterances, let alone transform the half-heartedness of so many of our actions.  We will be eventually melded to our memories; the things we did that mattered, of course, but also the many things left undone, the opportunities to make change stifled by largely imaginary impediments. We will be left to remember actions that were hopeful and loving, but also the misery we failed to prevent, the damage we inflicted and then overlooked, the freedom we claimed for ourselves and denied to others, the matters we conspired to ignore so that we wouldn’t feel obligated to care, the words we employed to distract our audiences or “sell” them on our half-truths rather than inspire their own deliberate engagement with the world.

This sometimes uncomfortable time of memory may be our destiny but it is not yet our whole reality, not for Spufford nor for the rest of us who labor in places like the UN. For at the conclusion of his litany of human misery and disappointment soaked up by the one who cares so deeply but can no longer be deliberate about very much; and as the sun rises on Easter Sunday revealing confused specialists in stitching and cleaning beholding a seemingly empty tomb, we read the following:

Don’t be afraid, says Yeshua. Far more can be mended than you know.

Yes, far more can be mended than we know. Far more can be healed than we know. Far more can be resolved or prevented than we know.  In this season of holy possibility, let us commit to use this time and our often-formidable gifts to “take in” more of our human condition and then to be more deliberate about our “mending,” about the things we have the capacity and responsibility to fix before our time to fix comes to an end.

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