Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series. David Kreider

Arts’ Strategic Place in Conflict Transformation

David Kreider grew up in Israel-Palestine, that seemingly incessant cauldron of conflict, a place that has nurtured his faith and interests in interfaith engagement, conflict transformation, and peacebuilding. His educational and vocational journeys have been as eclectic across the disciplines of biology, sociology, religion, construction, auto mechanics, and the fine arts. David holds Master of Arts degrees in both Religion (EMS, 1978) and Conflict Transformation, Peacebuilding, and Development (CJP, 2009). In addition to his current work as Artist/Director of Kreider Art Pyrographics and Community Restorative Arts over the last 30 years, he has devoted time to serving on Harrisonburg International Festival Planning Committee, the Board of Directors of the Fairfield Center, the Leadership Team of the JMU-EMU Scriptural Reasoning Group, and more recently Restorative Arts International, a social justice and intercultural diplomacy initiative for conflict transformation and peacebuilding through the arts. David has also served as a member of the pastoral team at Community Mennonite Church, as a founding member of the board of directors of the Community Mediation Center, the advisory board of the Center for Interfaith Engagement, and as a volunteer mediator.

Yago: David, welcome to this blog where we are celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Anti-Slavery Campaign of Charles Lavigerie, founder of the Society of Missionaries of Africa. In this interview I look forward very much to hear you share about the world that has shaped your life, your journey to art, and to peacebuilding, and to the connection between them, as well as to share how that intersection expresses itself in your very unusual art.

David: It is my honor, Yago, thank you.

Yago: As you know, the goal of this blog is to contribute in dismantling today’s ongoing structures of enslavement that perpetuate unnecessary suffering on humanity. To identify and challenge these structures and loci of enslavement is not an easy task, especially when we are so interconnected and interdependent as a human family. Somehow there is a common pain deep within us, painful because it is woven through all of us, that we are called to deconstruct. I would like to begin by getting a bit more acquainted with your background.

David, you spent all your childhood and adolescence in Israel as a son of Mennonite parents who were drawn to build bridges of healing between Christians and Jews after the holocaust. And you grew up in the challenging years of conflict that divided the people of Israel and Palestine. What do you remember from those times that have shaped your life? How were you moulded by this conflict? How has your experience been formative for your faith and journey to peacebuilding?

Walls of Jerusalem
David: Growing up in Israel-Palestine had a profound impact on my life and the evolution of my passion for social justice and peace. The first five years of my life we lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem, a stone’s throw from “no man’s land” between what was Israel and Jordan. Somehow I have come to think of that as symbolic of my sense of identity and my sense of what that place should be. This “Holy Land” should be “No Man’s Land.” I have always felt myself a child of no particular government because I have not felt a real allegiance or pride in any one.

Our Global Community
And I have come to feel that is as it should be if we are one human family. We should not be subject to governments that demand we fight in their name against our brothers and sisters. As I began giving thought to my own beliefs as a young adult, living as I did in a sea of interreligious contention in what was sacred space to every one of them, as I considered what it meant to become a follower of Jesus, I found myself both proud to be identified with a faith tradition of peace, and yet increasingly embarrassed by what my country whose passport I carried was doing in the world to the people I loved. To this day I am repulsed by nationalistic rhetoric and am drawn to the diverse cultures and ethnicities and stories of all peoples and faiths. It is incredulous to me how much conflict is rooted in this small part of the world, dynamics that have poisoned the relationships of our entire human family.  My whole life it seems has been about trying to fit these pieces together into some kind of harmony.

Yago: In the beginning of your presentation at SPI’s Frontiers in Peacebuilding Luncheon you shared about your encounter in class with an Iranian colleague, Fatemeh. After talking with her about her story you said you came to realize that “there is a world of unhealed and unspoken trauma that is still very much alive and raw and troubling in the interconnected worlds we grew up in.” Could you say a bit more about this experience and how this relates to your understanding of the historical traumas in the on-going tragedy of Israel and Palestine and the wider Middle East?

David: This was one of my first classes at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Strategic Media and Arts-Based Peacebuilding with Lisa Schirch, one which had a powerful resonance for me in my journey as an artist to find my voice as a peacebuilder. Lisa is a gifted teacher, an incredible mind, and a mentor to me. Among the many things that hit home for me in this class was the power of our stories, the remarkable capacity of images and metaphors to convey meaning, and the power of concisely crafted words to drive a point home. In the course of our class we were asked to think about a personal experience we had had with conflict and we were asked to get together in pairs to test our thoughts for a 3-4 minute story we would share with each other. In one of those pairings I found myself with an elegant but shy Fatemeh Darabi, who I was comforted to find was struggling as well with what she would say.

When I asked her what she was thinking she told me somewhat hesitantly that she was thinking to talk about the Inquisitions and the Crusades and what it meant for her to be here. As I looked at her in that long moment of wordless shock, I felt suddenly heartbroken that this was what came to her mind sitting there across from me - horrible stories of atrocities and violence by Christians, stories I thought were forgotten in history books centuries ago, stories I certainly did not expect anyone to be thinking about here and now at CJP.

In her one stumbling sentence, in that moment, as our eyes met and I saw the sincerity and vulnerability in her gaze, I came to realize that there was a chasm of unresolved trauma and pain that stood between us, a chasm that was still deeply troubling to her and to her people, people for whom she was an emissary seeking understanding and healing, and some kind of peace. And I was struck too that we were both, here and now, very much a part of this long and horrible history and this quest - and that her story and mine were just two pieces of the despairingly complex human tragedy of Israel and Palestine and the wider Middle East, and the broken relationships between our faiths and cultures of Christianity and Islam. Somehow we had come from our opposite worlds, looking for answers in the same place, in the “arts of peacebuilding” - whatever those were.  I don’t remember what I said to her but I know somehow my shock and pain came through. She and I were the last to tell our stories on the final day of class. I was grateful to find that hers had changed, and that we had both found some kind of peace for having gotten past them.
That noon I found her alone at a table in the cafeteria and sat with her. She told me she was returning to Iran the next day and she asked me if I would pray with her that she would be able to come back, that she had decided she wanted to take the MA Program in Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation at CJP that fall. With a full heart, incredulous at what she had just done, I told her I would. I can’t tell you what it felt like to see her again that August. There was a connection and a mutual passion for interfaith engagement that stayed with us through our time at CJP. 

Interfaith Engagement Series EMU
She was a devoted advocate for Scriptural Reasoning and for the formation of the Center for Studies in the Abrahamic Traditions, later to become the Center for Interfaith Engagement at EMU from the inception of the idea. Two years later she spoke to our graduating class at Commencement. I was struck by her words as she talked about what it had meant to her to have been here and of her newfound sense of identity as a ‘Mennonite Muslim.’ As I said at the SPI Frontiers in Peacebuilding Luncheon the following summer, “I don’t know what that means, or by what force of art or nature or providence that happened, but I know something changed, and that it was beautiful."

Yago: You beautifully say that as a child of what is now for you Israel-Palestine, this was your world and your home, and these are your people. You have felt a part of them, and their pain and their interwoven traumas are your pain and your traumas. What is different for you is that you have found friendship across the lines and you have felt torn and sad, angry and sympathetic, all at the same time… David, this is quite a challenging feeling. How are you dealing with this complexity? In which way are you trying to bridge these worlds?

David: When the people you have known all your life are so traumatized because of unspeakable stories of pain, humiliation, and loss they can think of little else beyond their own personal security, and when you see how their insecurities and paranoia blind them to the humanity of others, you begin to realize the profound social and psychological wounding trauma causes, and when you find that you and your people are intricately bound up in this tragedy you feel an existential need for healing on a scale beyond your capacity to grasp. The Six Day War in 1967 illustrates this clash of interconnected worlds for me. When I was thirteen I had a friend called Chesi who told me his parents had come from Germany and that most of his relatives had ended up in Auschwitz, Stutthof, and Buchenwald. At the time, these names meant little to me. But later at the Holocaust Museum of Yad VeShem I began to understand what had happened to his family and those of most everyone around me - in the concentration and death camps of Nazi Europe.

In time I was struck by a picture I saw of Stutthoff where at the center beside the crematorium and in full view of the gallows was a white cross, and I realized that my people, at least people who too called themselves Christian, had as much and more to do with the events of history that gave rise to Israel-Palestine as anyone. In 1967, in Israel things began to intensify in the chemistry as incidents along her borders took more adversarial turns. In the wake of a series of skirmishes, Egyptian and Syrian artillery and tanks appeared in alarming numbers along the Suez Canal and in the Golan Heights and the call went out to dig bomb shelters in our yards and black out our windows and car lights in the event of an attack. In the following days I remember the roar of jets flying low, air raid sirens and sonic booms, the whistle of missiles overhead, and running for cover, heart pounding, wondering where they were aimed, and where they would fall, and what was happening just beyond the horizons around us. I learned several weeks later that Chesi, then 17, had been called to fight for what they thought was their survival. We all know the outcome of that war.

In the months following we began meeting people from the West Bank and Gaza, including the Nicholas family who had lived in the Gaza Strip since 1956. In the course of our growing friendships I heard the stories of the Palestinians they lived with, many of them refugees since 1948, living in camps and in poverty in what is the most densely populated place on earth. Nearly half of these 1.5 million people I learned were under the age of 15, our age at the time. Through Mary Ann and Ed, her older brother especially I came to feel their family’s love for the people of Gaza, and to know their warmth and beauty, and I felt a growing sadness over this conflict, which in time was to hit yet closer to home. One evening in January 1972, Mary Ann, her sisters and father along with a nurse were driving out of the Strip when gunmen mistook their VW microbus for an Israeli military vehicle and opened fire, sending hundreds of bullets over and through its front and center seats. The nurse was hit in the head, Mary Ann’s father in the hip and leg, and her older sister in the foot. Despite the pain, her father was able to drive them out of range and her sister ran to a nearby farm house to call for help. It was an Israeli ambulance that arrived and though they worked to save her, the nurse died on the operating table in Beersheba that night. As the Palestinian community visited them to offer their condolences, apologies, and remorse, I came to marvel at the power of this family’s grace and faith that enabled their feelings of endearment to deepen for the Palestinian community they loved. They sang a hymn at the funeral service that captures their spirit: “Lead on O King eternal, till death’s fierce wars shall cease, and holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace. For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums; with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.” In their vulnerability, in the course of those days, sympathies deepened, and a new sense of identification and respect grew between them and the people of Gaza, and healing happened from this tragedy.

"Son of Jerusalem"
(Artist: David Kreider)
For many years I was unable to find words to express the tension I felt between my own identifications across these lines and the profound need for healing I felt. It was through art, as I was able to portray the people and the places I loved, that the bridges began to come together. Years later however, as 9/11 led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and tensions in the wider Middle East intensified with talk yet of Axes of Evil I felt a growing sense of despair and impotence in what I was doing, and an urgency that turned me ultimately to CJP. It was there, along with my brother-in-law Ed that I met incredible people from around the world and all faith traditions who too were seeking peace, artists and advocates and activists among whom I found a kindred spirit and connection I had craved for all my life.

John Paul Lederach
Yago: John Paul Lederach shared in his talk “compassionate presence,” and in his interview in this blog, that he has more questions now than when he first started the work of conflict transformation. In reference to faith he is less certain of the certainties he once had. Though he also says that living in the face of violence, alongside people of extraordinary courage, has deepened his faith. For him faith is not about quantity and certainty, it is about essence. David, how does Lederach’s experience resonate with yours? How would you say your faith has evolved through your life? What kind of faith questions and answers have you dealt with in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

David: That is a good question. Both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole and what drew my parents to come there were deeply rooted in religion and faith, religion gone wrong, and I think faith as it can be very right. I realized as I reflected on where I came from that I was immersed in centuries-old inter-religious tensions and that our primary purpose in life was to seek to heal this brokenness, alienation and pain. I grew up feeling a profound respect for my parents’ desire to be bridge-builders across this gulf of tension and to seek understanding of our common roots and values through interfaith studies which my father did through Rabbinic and Judaic studies at Bar Ilan University and by participating in an Interfaith Rainbow Coalition lecture series between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars. As a young person trying to find my way in this world of competing streams, like John Paul, I too came away with a world of questions, though I have also felt a sense of growing clarity on several premises as well that have been both revolutionary and transformative. One of those has to do with the nature and scope of Jesus’ teaching and the way he saw beyond the parameters of his own cultural identity of origin and religious frame of reference.

Sea of Galilee
Jesus grew up in the Galilee which was a Gentile region, a crossroads of the Roman Empire where merchants from the far east crossed paths with the spectrum of cultures native to the region from Assyria to Judeo-Samaria, to Idumaea and Ituraea, and various other Canaanite tribes, encounters which were formative for his life and shaped his engagement with these audiences. It is evident in his use of parables as metaphorical and narrative bridges that made his message comprehensible. He was obviously not speaking only to those in his own tradition or he would have stuck to the language and texts of the Jewish Torah and the prophets. It is evident from the players that feature in the Gospels that his affirmations of Roman centurions’ of whom he said, “I have not seen faith like this in all Judea,” that he did not see authentic spirituality only in Jewish terms. It is evident in the story of the woman at the well in Samaria, whom he engaged in a way that drew their worldviews together and brought her family and community into a transformative encounter. It is evident in his story of the Good Samaritan as he asks “who is neighbour to the man who fell among thieves, the priest, the Levite, or the ‘pariah’  Samaritan.” It is evident with yet more intensity and indignation with the Jewish sacrifice sellers who had taken over the Gentile courtyard of the Temple when the words of the prophet Isaiah burned in his mind, “Let no outsider joined to the Lord say ‘the Lord will surely exclude me from his people’ for this is what the Lord says… my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” It is evident too in Jesus’ words to the felon at his side on the cross when he said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” simply for his rebuke to his fellow on the other side for his mockery. I believe Jesus has a far more inclusive vision for the spirit and faith that are welcome in “God’s Kingdom” than most of us do.

Yago: This blog contains a very insightful interview about the Israel-Palestine conflict, an interview which Richard Forer has called ground-breaking because “it is the first that explains the roots of the Israel-Palestine problem in terms of an understanding that does not see Israel as the innocent victim of an irrational Arab world… in an Illusion of Identity. Peace is not possible until that illusion is shattered” Forer says. What is your perspective on Richard Forer’s insightful reflection? How do you feel we can become liberated from our Illusions of Identity and our false selves?

David: Richard Forer captures the powerful identity narrative he and most Jews feel in this short paragraph: “The belief that Jews are more humane than other people, that Jewish people would never wilfully harm other people became the limit of my ability to see clearly…This was also a boundary on my ability to feel. The fear and horror I felt when I read about non-Jewish victims of atrocities could not compare to the fear and horror I felt when I read about Jewish victims. I was so identified with being a Jew, that I couldn’t really put myself in the shoes of non-Jews. This selective sympathy had become so habitual that it seemed perfectly natural and justified.  I am convinced that the great majority of those who defend Israel are in the same position I was in. When they learn that hundreds of Gazan children are being killed by Israeli bombs, their reaction is nowhere near as agitated as when they learn that even a single Jew was killed by a Hamas bomb.”

The tragedy is that this kind of thinking is true across the lines. Each group’s identity narrative of victimization is so powerful few people can see beyond their own to recognize, let alone empathize with, the other’s. Trauma is a dehumanization of the victimizer and very often of the victim as well, when it diminishes the capacities of both to trust and to feel compassion for others, capacities fundamental to human relationship. When this translates from generation to generation these attitudes and deep-seated feelings of insecurity, anxiety, distrust, and fear become part of a culture of pervasive social alienation.

How can we become liberated from such false identities? I know of no other solution but to listen to each other’s stories and to give expression to our own. Thich Nhat Hanh says it beautifully in his “Creating True Peace”:

"Deep compassionate listening is essential to the creation of peace--personal, interpersonal, community, national, and international peace. In this practice, you listen with all your mindfulness and concentration in order to give someone who is suffering a chance to speak out. Even if his speech is full of condemnation, bitterness, and blame, you still listen, because you know that to listen like this is to give him a chance to move in the direction of peace. If you interrupt, deny, or correct everything he says, he will have no chance to make peace. Deep listening allows the other person to speak, even if what he says contains wrong perceptions, bitterness and injustice. The intention of listening is to restore communication, because once communication is restored, everything is possible."

In the Israeli-Palestinian context this has happened in several remarkable communities: the Bereaved Families Forum, the Sulha Peace Project, the Inter-Religious Coordinating Council, Musalaha, The Daam Workers Party, Jerusalem Peacemakers, Betselem, Gush Shalom, Women in Black, Coalition of Women for Peace, Rabbis for Human Rights, Tikkun Olam, and a host of individual and collective encounters that have translated into activism for justice and peace. As they have heard each others’ stories of grief and personal loss they have come to see that their pain is profoundly interconnected and that it does no good to strike out in retaliation. They begin to see their common humanity and their identity groups converge to include the other as they find common cause in their mutual healing, reconciliation, and work for restorative justice and peace.

Yago: Recently I was reading a very interesting book called “Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religions Traditions” I was touched by the words of the editor Smith-Christopher when saying that “The ‘inward jihad’ (the struggle with evil within ourselves) reminds Christians of Paul’s warning that we do not fight enemies of flesh and blood, but spirits of evil in the world.” (Ephesians 6:12) In another letter Paul warns us saying that “Satan can appear as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). You talk about the cross in Stutthoff concentration camp placed close to the crematorium in full view from the gallows where Jews were murdered. You realized that people who called themselves Christian, had as much and more to do with the events of history that gave rise to Israel-Palestine as anyone. Could you share with us how that experience can be extrapolated to today’s world and how indeed we are called to interrogate what is presented as light and not merely question the darkness?

David: What that image of Stutthoff said to me was that we as Christians are not an outside innocent party in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The overt role of Christians in many of the world’s most horrific atrocities from the Inquisitions to the Crusades, to the holocaust, to the Ku Klux Klan, to the Salem Witch Trials, to slavery in America, to the former Yugoslavia, etc, etc are huge blots on our tradition, and evidence of a pervasive sickness that must be set right. I think we are deluding ourselves if we conceive of this as merely “Satan appearing as an angel of light” as if these evils have been falsely “pinned on Christians” by Satan posing as Christians. Our capacities for justifying violence of this magnitude are a far more insidious problem than that. We must own that when we argue for violence, murder, and war as justifiable methodologies in the cause of justice, we become capable of such acts, and culpable in their commission even by others. We call ourselves Christian but I am convinced we have fundamentally misunderstood and made a sham of everything Jesus taught and stood for in that regard. Whether in our commission of violence or by our failure to intervene against those of others, we are as guilty of the atrocities of history that still play out in the Middle East. If there is any truth in our faith traditions, whatever they are, it is this that we should act with compassion and justice, kindness and mercy toward each other.

Yago: In the introduction of “Subverting Hatred”, Smith-Christopher shares about the challenging comment of an American journalist who said after the 9/11 attacks, “Everything is different now.” Smith-Christopher points out that in fact this expression shows the disconnection of the American people from the suffering in history and the current suffering of millions of people in today’s world. Behind the comment of “everything is different now” is the worldview of “we and them.” It is the presumption that we, Americans, are different, that we are not united with the rest of the world. That in fact, Americans are victims of a terrible and unjust event that comes to us out of the blue. This general belief expresses how Americans have been indoctrinated to be blind towards what is going on in the rest of the world, and how their life standard has been built on the suffering of millions of people throughout history. There is disconnection from history, ignorance of the radical interconnectedness of humanity within history. The expression “everything is different now” suggests that we are special, and that we have the excuse to retaliate. Behind the words “everything is different now” hides an excuse for revenge and an increasingly complex strategic planning for violent responses rooted in self-righteous indignation.

You made the statement in one of your talks that the United States “took to a global war that grew like a cancer from Ground Zero in New York, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to scare-mongering about an “Axis of Evil” in the Middle East and North Korea.” What is your perspective on America’s role in today’s global community? How much is America aware of the pain and suffering of millions of people living under circumstances of poverty and injustice? What policies are necessary to make America a more communal and emphatic country with the rest of the world?

David: That is a huge question that I will simply answer in as broad strokes to say two basic things; firstly, that in my opinion America should play a far more reserved and respectful role as a partner, citizen, and peer in the community of nations and as an advocate for justice and peace rather than a policeman. Far too often our position as a superpower has led us to act as judge, jury, and executioner in matters of international justice. And too often we have acted in our own self-interests. Growing up in Israel-Palestine, I have become convinced that self-interest is the defining psychology of traumatized societies. 9/11 is a prime example of how Americans missed a golden opportunity to transform what was a national tragedy into something beautiful and better. Immediately following the tragedy of September 11, 2001 the United States had the sympathy of the world and the collective resolve to condemn the perpetrators of this terrible act and to bring them to justice. We could have done that judiciously and effectively through the concerted efforts of the international community through the established channels of international law and the coordinated efforts of the international intelligence community. We lost that sympathy and legitimacy when we moved from a position of vulnerability as victims and became like our attackers, violent retributive self-righteous aggressors unwilling to acknowledge that we too have contributed to injustice in this world and have turned it a blind eye and deaf ears.

The second direction I would point us to is captured in the logic of Lisa Schirch’s 3D Security Initiative in which she outlines a fundamental interrelationship for human security in terms of development, diplomacy, and defense.  It is, in my opinion, one of the most insightful and transformative conceptual security and foreign policy paradigms I have seen. In a nutshell, it rests on the very simple premise that conflict is generally the result of frustrated human needs and the absence of constructive mechanisms to redress those needs, and that security is achieved when the threat of, or perceived need for, violence to redress grievances are eliminated. As such human security is established most fundamentally under circumstances of social and economic justice, equal opportunity to prosper, and social structures to address grievances through respectful discourse and due judicial process of law. These are captured conceptually in the terms “development” and “diplomacy.” Resorts to coercive force (“defense”) are only used as a last resort when “development” and “diplomacy” fail. Having grown up where I have, the conceptual logic of this could not be more relevant or insightful. Israel has lived precisely by the reverse logic. Her national security strategy is based fundamentally on military strength and military currencies to engage the grievances, protests, and at times acts of desperation and violence of Palestinians. Israel has responded with force and with equal and often disproportionately-increased violence as a strategy for “deterrence” and intimidation, economic siege and strategies of “de-development” to fundamentally weaken Palestinian society, creating Apartheid-like infrastructures of separation and dislocation to break up Palestinian social cohesion fundamental to familial and communal wellbeing—all stresses that whether intentionally, by gross negligence, or sheer stupidity, could not be better-designed to make life intolerable for Palestinians. Instead of proactively addressing Palestinians’ grievances and providing meaningful channels of communication and judicial process to redress them, Israel’s military tactics are generating the conditions that make confrontation and conflict more likely, and ironically her own national security more dysfunctional.

The United States has been living by the same logic, and to make matters worse is promoting it around the world, selling weapons and weapons systems across the lines of conflict, creating heightened threats and insecurities that generate arms races in the name of “national security” and “self-defense” everywhere. Our leaders and politicians have been mongering fear across the lines from Israel to Iran to the halls of Congress in this country, and their fears have become paranoias that have led us to rhetoric of pre-emptive wars that would threaten millions of innocent people with nuclear holocaust and toxic fallout the implications of which for future generations we cannot even imagine. It doesn’t take a genius to see the insanity we have generated and the direction we must go to extricate ourselves from this hell.

The heart-breaking humanitarian disaster in Syria illustrates the dilemma we now live with. The Arab Springs, the Human Springs, of the world that aspire to liberate themselves from dictators and the oppressive structures of violence, people who aspire to democracy and the rights to live with dignity, equal justice and peace now face tyrants armed to the teeth with weapons that can destroy everything their societies have worked for for centuries; their culture, art, homes and families and livelihoods. It brings me to tears to think about the tragedy taking place before our eyes in Syria. Thank God the military in Egypt had the compassion to refuse to back Mubarak against the nonviolent demonstrators in Tahrir Square. How many other Syrias and Libyas will there be? What will it take in Iran and Israel to shake off the oppression they live with? I hope to God it can happen through nonviolence and from an enlightened movement of compassionate activists working from across the lines with an inclusive vision for equal justice and true democracy for all.

Yago: Reflecting on the interview with Diarmuid O’Murchu you noted the interesting connection between slavery and our anthropocentric tendencies to treat nature as an object over which we are to have dominion. You also said that you have not generally thought of “slavery” as the defining framework/metaphor for the human condition. Can you say more about that and about your perspective on the human predicament and perhaps how that may relate to enslavement as we have been reflecting on it in this series?

David: I like Diarmuid O’Murchu’s perspective when he says, “Everything in creation, from the cosmic to the subatomic, is programmed for relationship, for a mode of interacting and interconnecting that is not oppositional or adversarial, but rather one that seeks out connection for richer interaction.” I agree with him that the cosmos is held together by forces of connection that seem to defy the laws of physics and thermodynamics that point the opposite direction. For me, this fundamental contradiction propels me toward the quest for the meaning and source of our existence.

Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl, the eminent Jewish psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, in his seminal work entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning,” identifies this quest as the primary motivational force in humankind. Our fundamental need for love, our human drives for achievement and dignity, our sense of identity and purpose in the world, our desires for meaningful work, intimacy, fulfilment, respect, and honor; all these things drive us forward and towards each other as spiritual and social beings. This pursuit of meaning, for me, is the defining metaphor for the human condition. As far as we know we are the only species on this planet that has the capacity to seek to understand our place in the scheme of things in these terms.That we are also endowed with a sense of self, with personal aspirations and desires, interests and needs, unique to ourselves and which may be differentiated from those of others makes it possible for us to see ourselves both in relationship with and in competition with each other.

That, for me is the more fundamental dynamic that defines our relationships.  If we allow our egocentric impulses to dominate over our more compassionate and altruistic sensibilities, then domination, injustice, oppression, abuse, exploitation, and enslavement become the defining marks of our interactions.

Yago: In this line of thought you talk about the ‘enslaving of God’ by our anthropomorphic impulses. How can we not only enslave ourselves but also God? As Richard Rohr says in his last book “Immortal Diamond. The Search for our True Self,” “metaphor is the only possible language available to religion because it alone is honest about mystery.” How does metaphor open up yet limit our understanding of mystery, and how can we be honest about mystery?

Art by Cubo Verde, Belgrade Serbia
David: It is obviously beyond our capacities to engage the tools of science to comprehend whatever transcendent organizing force has led to our world as we know it. The mystery is that the laws of physics tell us we should expect a regression towards chaos from whatever big bang set these particles in motion, not the other way around. What conceivable principles infuse and empower this matrix with the capacities for intelligent thought, moral sensibility, self-awareness, personality, meaning, purpose, will, and the capacities for love, culture, art, creativity, ingenuity, governance, politics, social justice, evolutionary processes within the boundaries of species but not beyond…; all characteristics beyond the empirical capacities of the physical sciences to engage or explain. As a result, our minds go to metaphors, to comparisons with the familiar, to try to conceptualize and communicate meaningfully about this. We infer that this ordering force is at least characterized by the qualities we consider most wondrous in the world we know, so we impute spirituality,  love, creativity, purpose, and meaning to “It.” Yet obviously that is inadequate, as are our feeble anthropomorphic pronouns and metaphors. Those of us who use the metaphor of “Father” to speak of God, limit the conceptualization to our personal experience. Is God harsh and punitive, demanding, domineering, adversarial, combative, vengeful, angry; or kind, gentle, compassionate, merciful, nurturing, self-sacrificing, forgiving, nonviolent, collaborative, and just? If God is a God of judgment who metes out punishment on evildoers and if we are called to serve such a God we become God’s agents of judgment and punishment in the world. If, on the other hand, our God is One of compassion and mercy, forgiving and gentle, who honours kindness and self-giving love, then our service will liberate the enslaved, intervene for poor and violated, humiliated and oppressed even at the cost of our own life. If we see ourselves as embodiments of that Spirit in this world, the beauty of the Mystery is that it drives us together to comprehend it, which liberates us from our solipsistic inclinations to “enslave” others to our narrow absolutist constructs and worldviews. 

Yago: In your journey from art to peacebuilding you talk about the connections you came to see between art and meaning, of voice with the resonance it evokes in others,  and of art with building peace.  In your talk at Summer Peacebuilding Institute you invited us to become part of this encounter. I would like to respond to your invitation during this second half of the interview. You said that “despite being pulled in many different directions, you felt a growing sense of connection between your search for answers in peacebuilding and your journey into the arts.” How did this happen for you?

David: There is a quote I like from John Paul Lederach’s “The Moral Imagination” when he says,

"The artistic process rises to its highest level when it ...breaks beyond what can be rationally understood to build a bridge between the heart and the mind. Art is a form of love. It is finding beauty and connection in what we do. I am not sure I can answer the questions about the relationship between art and political change in the world. I do know this: Art and finding our way back to our humanity are connected.”

The dots began to connect for me as I came across several articles online that talked about the right and left brain, and I came to realize that a great many of my seemingly divergent and eclectic passions in life all seemed to be connecting in the right brain. The work of two writers in particular brought home for me the link between our fundamental human need for meaning and the importance of finding a language for communication for conveying complex thought and experiences. I have already mentioned Viktor Frankl. I realized in reading him that our capacities to engage our relational and collective pursuits of meaning were integral to peacebuilding, both to build bridges of understanding across the lines of our faiths and worldviews which were so often in conflict, and to rebuild them for those whose worlds were shattered by trauma; that giving voice to the unspeakable and incomprehensible in order to understand them and find empathy in their shared meaning was integral to healing and conflict transformation.

The second writer was Daniel Pink who in his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers will Rule the Future argues in a nutshell that we are undergoing a “seismic social developmental shift” - from an Information Age that relies primarily on our faculties of logic, analysis, and knowledge, to a Conceptual Age built around empathy, joyfulness, design, and meaning. The skills demanded of our children in this changing world, he says, are six aptitudes we engage in our right brain - design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning. As I read what he meant by these I was struck that these were the arts of peacebuilding. For Pink and the scientists he cites, this domain of the right brain is the part of us that perceives the patterns and the bigger picture and that gets the meaning in our stories, that reads “between the lines,” that understands and interprets the nonverbal cues in our faces and bodies, and enables us to empathize with each other. This is the part of us that can imagine new futures that transcend our differences, which can find harmonies and recompose them into new symphonies of coexistence. 

And this is the part of us I was fascinated to learn that cognitive scientists and linguists tell us, communicates in a whole other form of language – in images, symbols and metaphors, poetries, stories, and music - which capture our emotions and aspirations in ways that words often just cannot convey. One of the lessons I had taken from my experience growing up in a society so divided that the words, experiences, and logic of one people were incomprehensible to the other, and in which the traumas of each were so all-consuming they could not see the other’s, is that we must find a common language to hear each others’ stories. What struck me was that these aptitudes and arts were the media we use to give voice to them. And given our profound human need for this engagement with meaning, here were the collective means, the arts of peacebuilding that could bring us together.

What has been as fascinating to me is the realization that art is the point of connection at the heart of our humanity where our cultural identities and self-expression merge with our creative energies and our engagement with the meaning of our existence. As such, it is a universal language that resonates and communicates powerfully across the limitations and barriers of spoken languages through the metaphors of images and stories, melodies, harmonies,  and poetries that capture meaning and complexities impossible to articulate or verbalize in rational form. The beauty of sharing ourselves through the language of art is that this language intrinsically engages us at the level of our heart and soul and imagination, with the impulses of our creative talents and energy, and in nonviolent forms of expression that inspire our reverence and empathic identifications with each other.

Fine art by Aram Chaled Res, Syrian exile in Turkey.
I have been in awe since I began putting my art out onto the virtual walls and galleries of social media, to find thousands of other artists from every corner of the world, across all the lines of our cultures and faiths and conflicts, hungry to connect and find friendship. As I have gathered collections of their work into my own “galleries” on Facebook to share their talents and poetries and words, I have been amazed by our common appreciations for beauty, altruism, compassion, and respect that connect us as a human family. It has not been three years since I was introduced to Facebook and I am already at the limit of Facebook’s “quota of allowable friends”. As I’ve thought about the magic of our drive for connection as a human family I have been struck by the truth in Emerson, Robinson Jeffers, and Rumi’s words:

"The whole human family is bathed with love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see, or sit with, whom though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eyes, which our hearts know... the emotions of benevolence, felt towards others are likened to the effects of fire...From the highest degree of passionate love, to the lowest degree of good will, they make the sweetness of life."  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Painting shared by Fatima Z Malik, Islamabad, Pakistan

"Human beings are connections; a flowing that moves through us whether we say anything or not. Everything that happens is filled with pleasure and warmth because of the delight that's always expressing itself..."  Rumi

Love used to hide..
No more!
The orchard hangs out her lanterns,
and the nightingale sings..
Nothing is bound or imprisoned,
like poems' singing
to the music we are.."

From different throats intone one language. So I believe if we were strong enough to listen without divisions of desire and terror to the storms of sick nations, and the rage of hunger smitten cities, those voices also would be found clean as a child's; or like some girl's breathing who dances alone by the ocean-shore, dreaming of lovers." - Robinson Jeffers

David Kreider
Yago: You express very clearly your profound relationship with nature through your pyrographic art. Somehow I see symbolized in your words a homecoming journey to our origin of being in communion and harmony with creation. How does art help you to reach that harmony?

David: Yes, it’s very true. I feel a sense of connection, of engaging in a creative symphony with creation, with nature and with our Creator on several levels through my art. Wood has a fascinating aesthetic to it; each piece its unique personality, rhythm, and flow; each its own power to tease the imagination with its imagery and parallels elsewhere in nature and to engage different onlookers in different ways. I love that about it, the playfulness of it, the mystery of it, the way it invites conversation and interest. For me, as I consider the origin of the wood itself, the visual textures and intricate design it embodies, and reflect then on what I am doing as an artist to add my own rendering over and into and in harmony with it, I have a sense that there is a greater Artist at work in my own impulses to create, and that somehow we are in a dance of co-creation together. For me it is a connection to this Source of our life as I realize that if my crude renderings on a piece of wood and my signature implies I was there, how much more do we, incomprehensible works of art that we are, flung wide across the landscape of this planet which is also a speck in the vast expanse of space, imply some creative genius in its matrix that weaves “her” beauty and mind and love through us.

Yago: You say that love is that powerful yet vulnerable art that ties every drive, need, and aptitude for human connection and peacemaking together, by linking them to the essential meaning and beauty of our humanity. People from different cultures are very present in your art. How do you envision yourself bridging cultures and ages through your art?

"Night Song of Eagle Heart" (Artist: David Kreider)
David: Anyone who has experienced a deep love for someone and a deepening of that love into an intimate relationship knows its power to engulf and enthral and bind the hearts of its adherents together. And that person will know intuitively what it means when I say that real love is its own justification because it is the measure of everything good and holy in us, because it is a force that elevates our behaviours and relationships from the level of self-interest to ones of altruism and indeed towards self-sacrifice for the other. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said “Greater love has no one than this that one will lay down one’s life for one’s beloved.” It is our capacities for this kind of love that make us truly human in the fullest sense of the word. It does not matter what our worldviews, this capacity transcends them all. Maya Angelou says it beautifully: "Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope."  Ralph Waldo Emerson says it this way: "Ever the instinct of affection revives the hope of union…and ever the returning sense of insulation recalls us…Thus everyone passes their life in the search after friendship. There can never be deep peace between two spirits, never mutual respect, until in their dialogue, each stands for the whole world…True love transcends instantly…and dwells and broods on the eternal…The essence of friendship is.. a total magnanimity and trust…[that] treats its object as a god, that it may deify both.”
Dalai Lama
And the Dalai Lama says this: "Whether one is rich or poor, educated or illiterate, religious or non-believing, man or woman, black, white, or brown, we are all the same. Physically, emotionally, and mentally, we are all equal. We all share basic needs for food, shelter, safety, and love. We all aspire to happiness and we all shun suffering. Each of us has hopes, worries, fears, and dreams. Each of us wants the best for our family and loved ones. We all experience pain when we suffer loss and joy when we achieve what we seek. On this fundamental level, religion, ethnicity, culture, and language make no difference… Love and kindness are always right. Whether we believe or not in rebirth, we still need love in this life. If we love, there is hope for us as a human family, for peace... authentic peace… This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness." This to me is also the simple heart of Jesus’ teaching. “This is my commandment that you love one another… By your love will they know you are my disciples.” To the extent that our lives embody love we will be bridge-builders for justice and peace in the world and this is the essential heart of all our moral and spiritual traditions.

Yago: David, I’m wondering if you would comment on a few of your beautiful paintings that connect these themes we have been talking about of art, the language of meaning, and of peacebuilding. I’m interested particularly in your pieces entitled “Family of Women,” “Loss of Innocence,” and “Windows to the Sacred Common.” Can you talk about what inspired these and what these evoke for you as an artist and peacebuilder, and perhaps comment as well about how these fit in the scope of the rest of your work?

"Family of Women" (Artist: David Kreider)

David: Certainly. Let me begin with "Family of Women," a work I did that is part of a series that portrays the beauty of our human family across the lines of conflict, politics, culture, and years. At the center is a Jewish holocaust survivor and a Palestinian woman leaning in towards each other in deep empathy, commiseration and love; a vision for me of hope that one day this will be the image we see between their people. There are also African Americans and Caucasians reaching out to each other, children embracing in friendship as equals oblivious to the difference in the color of their skin; Pakistanis and Indians, Vietnamese and Russians, Native Americans, Hispanics, Afghanis, Jordanians, Nepalis and Sudanis, even a beautiful child who has lost a hand, reaching out with what she has; a Catholic child trying on the bonnet of a Mennonite in front, playfully putting herself in the other’s shoes, being the family we are. This, for me is the hope, an image of humanity at its best.

"Loss of Innocence" (Artist: David Kreider)

Contrasted with that is a more difficult piece, "Loss of Innocence", an image that grew out of a trip back to Israel-Palestine in 2002. It was a trip made possible by the kindness of family and friends and a commission for a piece of my work by two generous friends. We went in the wake of several suicide bombings in Israel and a manhunt that ended in Bethlehem. Our group went hoping to offer our assistance to the International Center there which was damaged when the Israeli Defense Forces had come through the compound on their search. They had shot up the place, confiscated hard drives, destroyed office equipment and painted slogans of mockery on the walls of their beautiful multimedia Arts Center. This Center we learned had been conceived as a Center for Palestinian Culture, for artists and dancers, musicians and actors to express themselves and share activities for connection across the lines of their faiths as Christians and Muslims, a sanctuary and showcase of art, culture, beauty, and hope in this hope-forsaken place where people could come and draw and paint and sculpt, where children and youth could play music and dance and express themselves in theatre and poetry; where their community could celebrate each other’s talents and spirit, and rediscover their own dignity, identity, heritage, and friendship.  It was a difficult ten days for me. Growing up with Israelis, I had identified with them as victims, and with the insecurity they felt, surrounded as they were by countries and people who resented them. It was disillusioning to see this senseless violence directed everywhere and nowhere - to hurt, humiliate, and destroy. The image here is of a refugee camp that is part of the town, and a collection of faces I photographed while we were there. It took me two years to complete this, one of the most difficult pieces I've ever done from an emotional standpoint. I had gone hoping to create something of beauty for the kindness of my friends, something that captured the spirit and the soul of the Palestinian community, but the images I had hoped to capture just weren't there. This is a picture of the dark side of Israel and Palestine, the burnt colorless landscape of misery and loss, grey shadows of death and instruments of destruction - in the background is a huge D9 caterpillar used for home demolitions - the stuff of nightmares, real and imagined, for Palestinians. In this picture, in this kind of violation, there is a loss of innocence - a violation and shattering of faith and trust in the goodness of ‘the other,’ a fundamental ingredient for positive relationships.  It is etched in the eyes of these women, in the grief cast heavenward, in the memory of a daughter and friend torn away, in the sadness of a girl holding up two fingers - twice refugees, twice bereft of loved ones, reduced to indignity, humiliation, and begging as she is now for two shekels.

For all I've said about the dark side, there is also beauty and hope for me in this picture. The differences in their garb are indications of the differences of their faiths. As I burned in these lines and shadows I thought also of the lines of nations and states, and the ethnic and religious identities that so often separate us; artificial distinctions in the context of our human family. As for the "departed spirit" in grey of the little girl in front, for me, she could be Jewish as easily as she could be Palestinian identifying with these women’s grief and pain. The only color in this picture is a very pale dusty rose, symbol of the hope we cling to in this life. For me as I reflected on the context of these images and the meaning of this place for us as Christians, it is symbolic also of the hope that came in the form of another Jewish child born in that town two millennia ago. That child grew up to teach us to love our enemies, to forgive those who do us wrong, and to return good for evil. It is in his example of vulnerability, nonviolence, love, and forgiveness that extended beyond his own life that I have come to find hope and a methodology for healing and peace in this world.

"Windows to the Sacred Common" (Artist: David Kreider)

As I’ve also thought about the interaction of our faiths that have become so alienated, traumatized, and conflicted in this part of the world and indeed all over the world, faiths which are also entwined and rooted together in these narratives, one of the things I have become most convinced of in the course of my time at CJP is that our faiths also hold the keys to our healing and peace. Some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had during my time at CJP were spent with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian friends in Scriptural Reasoning and an Interfaith Search for Common Ground group we formed together to talk about formative and inspirational texts from our traditions for compassion and peace. I have become convinced that it is in our meaning structures - where we have pegged our most sacred beliefs and values - that we realize the common ground we share and find understanding and respect in the principles we live by and discover the capacities to work together for peace. In this piece I’ve entitled “Windows to the Sacred Common” an image of an olive tree dating back millennia to the time of Christ and the prophets from the Mount of Olives’ just outside Jerusalem are words from the Tanakh, the New Testament, and the Quran, laid out in the form of two windows or two arched tablets of stone. Some of them read as follows:

“I call heaven and earth to witness before you this day that I have set before you life and death. Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live...” Deut 30:15-20

“Hear, O my people, the Lord our God is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength; this is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments rest all the law and the prophets.” Deut 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:17-18, Luke 10:27, Mark 12:29-30

“Let no outsider joined to the Lord say ‘the Lord will surely exclude me from his people’ for this is what the Lord says… my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah 56:3,4,6-8, quoted by Jesus in Mark 11:17

 “God created us all through one human being to teach us that whoever would destroy a single human soul has destroyed an entire world and whoever has sustained a single human soul has sustained an entire world.” Gates of Prayer 689, Quran 5:32

“Say, o people of the Book, let us come to a common word between us, that we may worship our God as one.” Quran, Al Imran 3:64

Here in interrelated texts, sacred to two-thirds of the world’s population, are statements of a common reverence for life, love for our neighbors, and inclusion to all who share a sense of connection with the God of Abraham. Those are just a few of them.

Dr. Amir Akrami
I have found it fascinating as I have been part of a class studying the Heritage and Contemporary Issues in Islam, taught by Dr Amir Akrami at the Center for Interfaith Engagement at EMU, to also reflect on the words of the Sufi poet Rumi who wrote with a similar sense of our common quest, “The lamps are different, but the Light is the same...” I believe there is a profound truth in these words, and a key to our peace in this world. We need to join with each other as did the proverbial blind men around the elephant, offering our unique perspectives with the sense that we are all in the same search for the Light and Truth and Meaning of our existence as a human family.

As for some of the other directions of my work, there are several. Some are explorations of the connection between arts as a universal language of the soul and its capacity to span the limits and inadequacies of words to give expression to pain and our devastating stories of trauma. Others are visions for healing and peace in metaphors and symbols; others memorials in remembrance and celebration of the beautiful things in this life, of the beauty of nature and of our human family.

Yago: David, thanks a lot for your wisdom and time granted to this interview! It has been wonderful to journey with you!

David: Thanks to you, Yago!