Every month, join us on a learning journey where Anna Vogt will share what she is learning about topics related to peacebuilding from MCC staff and partners. Anna is the Co-Director of MCC Canada’s Peace & Justice Office. Through her work, she has witnessed ordinary people from all over the world build peace rooted in faith, fail at building peace, start again, learn from and laugh with one another. We can do this too, right here at home, starting slow and small.
Each reflection will include reflection questions for group discussion and some simple action steps.
Blog feature: Anna Asks
March 2023: Peace is more than a wish when women talk
Almost the whole movie Women Talking takes place in a barn. Sitting on hay bales, women talk about how to respond to terrible violence.
When I enthusiastically describe the film’s premise to my friends, they roll their eyes. Director Sarah Polley calls Women Talking a “fable” or an imaginary response to real incidents of sexual violence in Low German Mennonite colonies in Bolivia. Why would we want to watch something that seems to be equal parts boring and horrific?
When I saw the film, I didn’t see a fable. To me, it was far from imaginary. Rather, I saw the story of countless communities and groups I have been honoured to know, coming together to decide how to respond after unimaginable violence—not only imagined but real and enacted. I walked out of the theatre mulling about themes of forgiveness, faith and nonviolence, and how those themes show up in my own life. My mind wandered back to the years I spent in Colombia.
On occasional lazy days in Mampuján, Colombia, when it was too hot to do anything but chat, I would sit under a shade tree with my neighbours and community leaders, talking about life. Most of the time, it was about the ordinary stuff that consumed our days: how the crops were doing, the latest church gossip, a funny anecdote about someone’s kid.
Every so often people would talk about the past: the horrors of la violencia and the agonizing choice about whether or not they would forgive the men who had ordered their displacement. Many of those conversations happened as the women of the community gathered to talk and share their stories.
“As Afro-Colombian pueblos, we share the tradition of oral history,” community leader Juana Alicia Ruiz told me. As community members dug deeper into that history, they discovered something that surprised them. “We learned that violence is cyclical. So, we started to tell the entire story. Because, by telling it, we could work to stop the cycle of violence.”
The desire to break the cycle of violence moved the conversation away from what had happened toward what the community most deeply desired: peace. And not simply an absence of violence, but a life of flourishing and dignity where everyone had enough for themselves and enough to share with others.
For those who chose to forgive (not everyone did), the decision was closely tied to a desire to create something new. My friends described forgiveness as a gift they gave themselves, emerging from their faith, rather than something they were offering to those who had harmed them. By forgiving, they were able to see themselves as people with the agency to make choices and create new futures.
“You have to be willing to forgive and to work hard to achieve real healing, independent of state justice toward victimizers. Although, of course, it helps if there is justice,” Juana said. “In Colombia, we need reconciliation and the willingness to forgive, to move forward.”
One of the central tenets of the Christian faith is to love both our neighbour and our enemy. But how? That is the question the characters in Women Talking wrestle with. It is also the question I face. How do we love ourselves, our neighbours and God, even in the face of incredible harm? What does that challenge mean for our lives, here and now?
While forgiveness isn’t the only element necessary for change, talking about it can help create a space where something new is possible. In both Women Talking and Mampuján, talking about forgiveness meant making hard decisions about how to move forward so that violence was no longer allowed to happen. In the case of Mampuján, forgiveness involved direct advocacy to the Colombian government, calling for reparations and truth-telling, even in the face of death threats.
Forgiveness, when it is a choice made freely, can be an opening for agency. And for more than just agency, for love.
Because we love ourselves, we forgive. Because we love our community, we forgive. Because we need our country to be founded on something other than hate, we forgive. Because we have the power to break a cycle of violence, we forgive. Because our faith in God demands it of us, we forgive. Because we have dignity in the face of violence, we forgive.
After watching Women Talking, I left the theatre missing those moments of sitting under a tree in Colombia, together. Life in Canada often feels less inspiring and much more challenging, trying to live well in the relationships I currently hold. Yet real life is not a fable. It’s not about creating imaginary responses to things that happen to us. It takes real action. And hard work. And authentic conversations. Come, pull up a chair next to me. Let’s talk.
If you have seen the film, what was your reaction? What issues did it bring up for you in relation to your experiences of harm? What did you find empowering?
How can we see different kinds of violence and recognize this as “our issue” in “our communities,” not just “their problem in those colonies or in other countries”?
Where are spaces in your life to talk together about what it could mean to move forward after violence or conflict? What does it mean to support each other after harm?
In Mampuján, community leaders talk about forgiveness as a gift they give themselves. How is that understanding of forgiveness different or similar to your current understanding of forgiveness?
Missed a month and want to read more? Check out the back issues of Anna's blog on our website.
Question Box: Ask Anna
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Ordinary People of the Month
Meet some ordinary people just like you working for peace in their communities.
Alexander Villarreal Pulido was 22 years old when he was displaced along with the rest of the community in Mampuján. He shares his experience participating in a judicial hearing in late April and early May 2010 in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital. Eight people from Mampuján and nine people from Las Brisas, a community on the outskirts of town, came face-to-face with paramilitary leaders responsible for forcing more than 1,400 people from the two communities from their homes and killing 12 people in Las Brisas in March 2000.
Read about Alexander's experience of peace.
Want to dive deeper into peace skills with your community? Download MCC’s adult Sunday school curriculum, Peaceful Practices: A guide to healthy communication in conflict. It invites churchgoers to follow Jesus’ call to peacemaking through dialogue with each other.