Kathleen Kern has worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams since 1993, with assignments in areas of conflict around the world. She has written several books including In Harm’s Way: A History of Christian Peacemaker Teams, and also writes a column in Mennonite Weekly Review. She responded to the interview questions below by e-mail.
Growing up, what factors or people most inspired you to pursue peace work?
My parents were active supporters of the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s, and I’m sure that had an effect. I think my love of folk music also played in, and the songs of the civil rights movement. I was also intensely interested in what Jesus said about how Christians should behave, and couldn’t see how you could love your neighbors or your enemies and kill them. That view was not encouraged in the church where I grew up.
You’ve been on numerous assignments with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Haiti, the West Bank, and Colombia among other places. How have your experiences with CPT changed your understanding of peace and conflict?
I think in some ways I’m less of an absolutist. I can actually see myself resorting to violence if I saw someone being attacked, although I’m hoping that my training and preparation would help to intervene nonviolently. I do separate what I (and others) might do in the heat of the moment from the systems that involved politicians, corporations, and military personnel deliberating on the most effective ways to kill, subdue or exploit people. I’ve pretty much come to peace with slapping someone’s hand if they’re groping me. I include that as nonviolent resistance, because the slap is not intended to injure.
You’ve also published a novel, Where Such Unmaking Reigns, based on your experiences in Hebron. Did fiction allow you to express a different aspect of your experiences? How?
Part of the book stemmed from my thinking about really clever responses to things soldiers and settlers said long after we had been in a conversation. Also, I realized at some point that it was the personal relationships involved with team life that caused me the most stress, rather than the actual work. Also, I don’t think people realize quite how bizarre things are in Israel/Palestine. I remember being very affected by John Steinbeck’s non-fiction interludes between chapters in Grapes of Wrath, and the book
gave me the opportunity to use nonfiction that was every bit as bizarre as the fiction I was writing.
How has your faith influenced your peace work, and vice versa?
I think my relationship with Jesus and my understanding of God compelled me to do something active. Even as a child, I remember wishing that I could take risks for justice and peace. As far as the other goes, I think I am more aware of the presence of evil in the world. Satan, heaven and hell were never key parts of my theology, but now I think there really is an evil intelligence in the world that inspires people to do despicable things. I think God is much stronger and will win out in the end, but a lot of suffering is going to happen before the Kingdom comes.
In a world where pacifism is often seen as unrealistic, how do you think pacifists can best put forward our perspectives?
It seems to me that many people view war as unfortunate but inevitable. What would your message be to someone who sees things that way?
I guess my response is, “So how’s this violence thing working out for you?” I think looking at history and at the present reality shows that nonviolence is a lot more cost effective. Both India and China overthrew colonial rule. In India, many fewer lives were lost, the British people, because of the Indian nonviolent witness were transformed somewhat into realizing what colonialism does, and India and Great Britain have maintained generally good relations since. More than 3 million Chinese died when they overthrew colonial rule.
Usually Hitler is the example that people use when they talk about the necessity of war, but as a pacifist I want to look at ways that Hitler could have been stopped long before he consolidated power, because I really think he could have, and ways we can be on the alert for other tyrants rising to power. But I also think Hitler gets trotted out when people in power are fighting wars to keep other countries colonized and oppressed.
What can ordinary people do to work for peace and justice?
Umm, join Christian Peacemaker Teams? There are a lot of other ways people can contribute, of course, but I want to note that the people in CPT are just as ordinary as they are.
Kathleen Kern’s most recent book is As Resident Aliens: Christian Peacemaker Teams in the West Bank, 1995-2005.