Power of nonviolence lies in action, speaker says

Photo of a man at a podium speaking into a microphone
Mubarak Awad, director of Nonviolence International and co-founder of the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence. Photo by Joseph Williams

SAN JOSE, June 25, 2008 — As the familiar strains of standard hymns drifted through the dividing walls at the Fairmont Hotel here, some 300 Presbyterians were called by Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian nonviolence expert, to take down the walls and fences built by human hands. Awad addressed the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF) Breakfast, replacing the originally scheduled speaker, Jonathan Kuttab, a lay preacher and human rights attorney, who was unable to attend. The breakfast was held in conjunction with the meeting of the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 

“We need to learn that we as human beings have to reach a level of understanding and sophistication that we can resolve every problem and every conflict by talking and dialoguing with others,”Awad said to applause. A co-founder in 1984 of the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence, Awad said that he attributes, in part, the changed minds and the current improved state of relations between Palestinians and Israelis to the concept of nonviolence.

Citing the critical work of Mary King in the practice of nonviolence, Awad described his own awakening to the realization that “nonviolence was so powerful and strong.” As a professor with knowledge and access to a host of books, articles and resources, Awad said that he initially thought that nonviolence was sitting down, talking and distributing printed material. It was not until an old man came to see him in his office in Jerusalem saying —“The Israeli settlers took my land and put a fence around it…You told us about this nonviolence and I want to work with you about this nonviolence to take my land back.”— that Awad fully understood its meaning. As he worked with the man and with others to successfully take down the fence and reclaim the land, the whole concept of nonviolence changed for him “from a book to an action.”

“I’m trying to push you hard over here as Presbyterians,” Awad declared. “We have many, many actions to support the Palestinians, many resolutions, many churches that support us, many people that support us, but supporting on paper doesn’t mean a thing. We need action. And action becomes important in the idea of the nonviolent struggle.”

In recounting a heartbreaking story of loss, Awad demonstrated that nonviolent action is even possible in the aftermath of personal tragedy. He told of a man who had given his son a toy machine gun. As the son took the toy out to the street “to start shooting Americans,” he was shot in the head and died. Awad gave the father $500 and charged him to work in his village to take away all of the toy guns and replace them with a soccer or a football. In meeting with success there, the man later went to other villages advocating that no toy guns be sold. “This is a small thing,” Awad said, “but people can do it.”

He further used the story to show that small actions can yield big results, especially for Americans who say they cannot “do a thing about Iraq.”

“I hold that if the U.S. people are willing to stop the war in Iraq, they can do it,” he said.

Awad impressed upon his audience that Christians are called to take a high moral ground in working for peace. “We beg you not to be on the side of Palestinians,” he said. “We want you to be on the side of peace and be with the Palestinians and the Israelis…Please pray for the Palestinians and the Israelis that we will have peace.”

The biennial breakfast was also an opportunity to recognize two years of peaceseekers with the presentation of the organization’s highest honor for 2007 and 2008. The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship 2007 Peaceseeker Award was presented to Anita David and Beth Pyles, Iraq accompaniers, who among other works of compassion, have helped captives and their families, exposed abuses and “helped to form Muslim peace teams true to their faith’s highest goals.”

Gary Cozette, a Latin America human rights advocate, came forward to accept the 2008 Peaceseeker Award. Cozette was praised as one “who exemplifies ecumenical Christian peaceseeking through solidarity with victims of armed conflict in Latin America.” Since conferring its first award in 1970 on then stated clerk, William P. Thompson, the annual Peaceseeker Award of the 64-year old organization has served to honor peacemaking activism.

Among several unexpected announcements and presentations at the breakfast was the awarding of a special Peaceseeker Award to long-time Peace Breakfast coordinator, the Rev. Margaret Howland. Howland, who had just charged the gathering “to work until it feels good and to give until it feels good,” appeared visibly surprised. “Peggy Howland was a trailblazer 50 years ago,” said PPF co-moderator Amy Yukena. “She continues to blaze trails today by enlarging our view of the peace of Christ. From Assembly to Assembly, she has evangelized tens of thousands of Presbyterians for peace action in the world.”

At the program’s conclusion, PPF unveiled the Legacy of Peace Quilt, created by Gail Brown, Endowment Campaign co-coordinator. Brown described the hand-sewn quilt as a “labor of love,” designed to double in size as PPF’s endowment grows. The Rev. Jan Orr-Harter of the Endowment Committee announced that the campaign, which was launched 25 months ago, has now exceeded its halfway point. Orr-Harter said that the PPF had received over $264,000 in pledges and gifts toward the organization’s $500,000 goal.

Additionally, she announced that 38 persons had made commitments to put PPF in their wills or make other planned gifts toward a goal of 64 such commitments for 2008, the PPF’s 64th year.

In closing, Rick Ufford-Chase, PPF executive director and moderator of the 216th General Assembly, offered the benediction, sending attendees forth with a charge and a challenge. “When Jesus said, ‘I give you my peace,’ it was not for the weak of heart,” Ufford-Chase said. “Go in peace, if you dare.”