Peace, Peru, Political Tensions

Why can't we all just get along?

Posted Sep 28, 2020

How many times have you heard this subtitle’s question? It is a common American thing to ask: “Why don’t we tolerate each other? Why don’t we accept the differences that exist between people?”

These questions, however, miss notions of power, privilege, and oppression — and discussing peace.

Why must we fight and use violence against each other? Sure, disagreements exist and continue to exist. Christians know that Jesus said, “love one another” — he never said, “like one another.” People view things in life from their own personal perspectives, and that is ok even if it fuels contentions. I wish I could absolutely answer these questions, but the best I offer are insights from my own experiences.

I am blessed to travel to global places providing me perspectives on people and cultures. For instance, in 1977 when I was a college junior, an older brother of mine studied for the priesthood through Maryknoll, a Catholic US missionary religious order. He lived in Bolivia and Peru for 18 months to learn Spanish and understand the Latin culture; today, we call it “an immersion experience.” At the end of his stay, he would return to the USA and be ordained. As a junior in college, I visited him staying at Maryknoll homes, and we traveled the altiplano for three weeks. 

I recall clearly evening conversations at several different Maryknoll Houses in Peru and Bolivia when I asked missionaries: "Why do you do what you do?" One evening, a priest said, “Our charge is to raise social consciousness.”

I did not understand what he meant and asked for an explanation. He continued, "We inform the people that for their day’s work they were paid only US$2 but provide a service of US$200, and they are being underpaid for their day’s work."

In my youthful outrage, I said, "How can the people tolerate this “slavery? Why do we let it happen? How do social justice “protestors” like Maryknollers survive when really trying to cause a citizen revolt?" 

The priest smiled and replied, "We are not causing a government revolution — instead, a revolution of the heart. We are here to show people that they must not tolerate injustice but learn to change the 'system.' Change not by violence, but by peaceful means."

Thirty years later, I returned to Lima, Peru, for an invited address at a university. Delighted, I brought my family — our oldest child was a college junior, the same age when I first visited. We traveled the dry coastal deserts, the wet rainforest, and the high mountain altiplano area. Poverty continued, and so did the joy in the faces of the people.

I did not meet any Maryknollers this time, but I sensed hope and optimism in the hearts of the people. Peace comes when people get along and pull us all together toward a common social justice goal.

My experiences with social consciousness-raising did not begin in South America, but in Brooklyn, when I was a child.

When my brother was in college seminary, Maryknollers came to dinner at our home. These men lived/ministered overseas, and now back in “the States,” visited men interested in joining their order. My parents prepared a meal and we talked at the dining room table about their experiences. I believe it was there that my love for social justice, for ministry of service, for community engagement began.

I recall a priest who returned from Tanzania, Africa, and he told me that in the past year that the people of the village where he lived grew an overabundance of tomatoes. They were excited to be able to sell their tomatoes in the open market and make a substantial amount of money, but there was a problem. They had one truck, and that one truck needed repair. You see, the people had the means to move their produce to market and realize a profit but they could not act.

Why didn’t their government help them? Because of tribal warfare, a lack of peace among neighboring tribes. The tribes were blocking supplies that the people needed to repair their truck, preventing them from shipping/selling their tomatoes. Tomatoes rotted on the vine and in stockpiles. Preventable poverty continued because there was a lack of local peace.

Speaking of peace, Peru, and politics — consider how the Incas of South America handled warfare. Centuries ago, they were a very advanced civilization and when Inca tribes fought the "winner" would not devastate the "loser." The winning tribe of a war would only take enough resources (water, food, land, supplies, etc.) that they would need from the losing tribe. But, after five years, the losing tribe would be “free” — they would get back their land, their water rights, and their farmlands.

Winning a tribal war did not mean the victor ruined the other tribe forever or totally. Instead, it was for a limited time and only for what one needed. True, even though this outcome is different than others in history (because the tribe got their means back after a few years), it is still oppression. Finding varied ways to handle tribal/cultural/international disagreements must lead to equitable ways for all to live in peace.

As human beings, we must do better. Don’t think the US is immune to the oppression of other countries, even its native/indigenous people. The US has a history of colonization; we are the result of many colonizing cultures. Current racial injustice awareness, the BLM movement, and widespread conversations about systems of oppression finally are being raised and (I hope) addressed.

We are not here to hurt each other but to help each other; not to focus on how to “get along” but on how to “get it done" on social injustice. Tensions/disagreements between peoples occur, and some say it is “natural.” I say peace is natural. We are here to help each other — living in "common unity" (community). Without sharing, no one wins; everyone suffers, especially in the long run.

Live a life of peace.