Another world is possible

Introduction to "We Are the Socks," Dan Buttry's new book

by Ken Sehested

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood
and assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them
to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery

            What Dan Buttry does in We Are the Socks is what he does better than anyone I know: Write vivid, easy-to-read narratives that are hopeful but not sentimental, honest but not cynical, revealing without being voyeuristic, personal without being self-serving, sometimes humorous but never silly. And the people he writes about, in these few selected episodes out of literally dozens of others from his global work, are not drawn from self-selected elites—the morally heroic or intelligent or ingenious. Mostly they are commonplace folk, drawn from every sort of circumstance, typical admixtures of hope and doubt, compassion and malice, vision and blind sightedness. Not your stereotypical candidates for sainthood. In other words, folk like us, like the ones in our churches and neighborhoods and families.

            What distinguishes the characters in this book is, first, they have experienced the blunt force of repression of one sort or another; and, second, they hold out hope for miracles, for the things that make for peace.

            Not miracles in the manner of Cecil B. DeMille movie-marvels or Stephen Spielberg special effects. And not miracles in the sense of abrogating the laws of nature. Miracles in the sense of utter surprise, of the completely unexpected, the hardly imaginable, coming to pass—joyously so, for those of low estate; horrifyingly so, for the high riders. The awe required for miracle-minders is the expectation that one day, in one form or another, the sum of our work will be greater than the parts. It will arrive, seemingly, out of nowhere. As the Prophets often noted, a way will emerge from no-way.

            “Peacemaking is not a matter of social engineering,” Dan writes, nor is it “ a technique to be practiced,” but is “an art in which turning points come through some action and words spoken that are completely unplanned.”

            This reminds me of an experience my wife had in her work as a maximum-security prison chaplain. One of her weekly duties was to accompany the Native American group outside for their prayer circle and passing the sacred pipe. (In a tobacco-free institution, this particular religious affiliation had become a popular choice.) On one occasion two of the men had sat outside the circle, talking, as the ceremony progressed. Afterward, Nancy pulled them aside as the group returned to their cell blocks, quietly reminding them that, first, their behavior was disrespectful and, two, that it was against prison policy (aimed at reducing coordinated gang activity).

            Juan went off, enraged, yelling and threatening. Some of the inmates heard and came back, making counter threats. The escalating rage stopped just short of a riot. (It doesn’t take much to reach a boiling point in prison, full as it is of daily humiliations that accumulate like metal shavings to a magnet.)

            Afterward, Nancy called Juan to her office. He arrived face still flushed with vindictiveness, ready for a confrontation. Without pause, Nancy asked him, “Juan, what is your favorite song?”

            “Huh?” he asked, not from lack of hearing but from surprise. So Nancy simply repeated the question. “What’s your favorite song?”

            The look on his face was incredulous, but he managed to say, “’Imagine” by John Lennon.”

            Now it was Nancy’s turn to be surprised, but that didn’t slow her. She immediately got on her computer and called up a YouTube recording of the song and hit “play.”

            What happened next was a 3-minute transformation of biblical proportions, all because of the improvisational skills of a conflict transformer (of diminutive size) who took a surprising initiative to counter “the realism of resignation to violence” (as Dan describes the work of one of his co-trainers, Boaz Keibarak, during a workshop in a conflicted area of Kenya).

            “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived,” the poet Maya Angelou wrote, “but if faced with courage [and imagination!], need not be lived again.”

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            In my decades of work starting and sustaining faith-based peace and justice organizations I was occasionally approached by students wanting advice on how to take on this sort of career. I learned over the years to be blunt, saying that three-fourths of the work I did was not unlike what any small nonprofit administrator has to do: manage volunteers, craft and implement appropriate financial development strategies and project planning, maintain accountability structures, sustain communication tools.

            In other words, much peacemaking work is thoroughly unglamorous. And measureable success is hard to come by. The successes are often fragile and subject to cracks, even collapse. For instance, the mediation work among the Nagas of Northeast India, which Dan mentions in this work, is in its 20th year and still far short of the hoped-for transformation. Luckily, in that region are people who practice what German theologian Dorothee Sölle called “revolutionary patience,” a kind of patience that is not passive, that remains expectant amid the lulls of productive activity, that knows the engines of change can also run in reverse, that is not overly wrought when hopeful breakthroughs stall not far out of the gate, that is not so distracted by the lack of progress that they keep their eyes and ears alert to some moment of leverage easily overlooked amid the routine headlines and day-to-day tedium.

            Or, to switch metaphors, what is needed to sustain effective social change is what the Brazilian theological movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, in the context of a brutal military dictatorship, articulated as permanente firmeza, roughly translated as “relentless firmness (or resolve).” Whether referencing an explicit religious orientation or not, this characteristic can only be sustained by a vision of the future that does not sit waiting for us to arrive but is actively pushing its way through the crowded onslaught of history in our direction. Only those touched by this beatific vision know the truth of what Walter Brueggemann notes: “The empire always wants to limit what is possible to what is available.” Peacemakers are those forged in the fiery vision that “what is promised is more than what is possessed” (Brueggemann).

            Effective peacemakers are by necessity a durable lot, with scars—emotional and sometimes physical—as verifiable evidence of having counted the cost. Those on the Way of Jesus know the secret of success pulses in this line from the writer of Hebrews who wrote that Jesus, “for the sake of the joy that was set before him, endured the cross” (12:2). There is a saying in the Philippines, “Those who would give light must endure burning.” Being soaked in this joy is the only way to endure the flames of defeat, desertion, betrayal, and despair.

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            To create an effective movement for redemptive engagement, reflective work must be integrated with affective learning in the context of a community of conviction. Mind and imagination must be addressed, and these must be tethered to disciplines of concrete and communal commitments.

            But, of course, the peace that must be made is not always way over yonder. (Dan deals with this in the “Where’s Our Chicken?” chapter.) The bloodless violence we commit in much more pedestrian and familiar relations is different in scale but not in substance from the enmity that sparks war. My vote for the most blistering text in the Newer Testament comes from James:

            “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed, but no once can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (vv. 5b-8).

            The most intimidating piece of peacemaking work I’ve undertaken wasn’t in a war zone. It was in my own home.

            It was late. I was tired. I’d not come near finishing urgent work prior to leaving town. I didn’t start packing a suitcase until midnight preparing for a pre-dawn flight. Nancy was up late, too, and similarly preoccupied and stressed. Something came up. I honestly don’t remember what. In a few short words we found ourselves pinching each other’s emotional sciatic nerves. We went to bed with our backs to each other.

            A few hours later I was in a state of deep unrest sitting in the airport waiting to board—knowing what I needed to do but dreading it more than a root canal. But finally I did. I went to a nearby pay phone [see Wikipedia for definition], dropped in a quarter, dialed our number and heard Nancy’s voice.

            “I’m sorry for last night,” I said.

            “Me, too,” came the response.

            We didn’t talk long. We didn’t analyze the conflict. We just raised affection-laced truce flags, implicitly admitting that the channel connecting our lives needed dredging. Acknowledging the murky water was the key to repairing the flow.

            I’m not suggesting that strategies for maintaining a good marriage are similar to negotiating a nuclear arms treaty with Iran. And there are a host of conflicts between these spectral poles needing attention, all of them requiring customized analyses and creative engagements.

            What each shares with the others is the requirement of risk, a risk powered by a realism admitting the possibility of miracle, plus the kind of fidelity that sustains patience in the face of seemingly impossible odds. John Paul Lederach, considered the pioneer of conflict transformation theory and practice, urges us to mobilize “moral imagination as the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist.”

            The future is not fated. Another world is possible.

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Reprinted with permission of ReadTheSpirit, publisher of Dan Buttry's new book.
©Ken Sehested @