Sunday, October 13, 2013

Anti-Slavery campaign Interview Series. Carl Stauffer (Part 1)

Deconstructing and Processing Systemic Violence

Part One: The Struggle of Embodying the Ideal
Link to Part Two: The Seven Roles of a Peacebuilder >> 
Link to Part Three: Imagining New Narratives out of Healing >> 

Carl Stauffer was born and raised amidst the war in Vietnam. After completing his university education in 1985, Stauffer worked in the Criminal Justice and Substance Abuse fields. In 1988, he was ordained to the ministry and joined an urban, inter-racial church plant and community development project in the inner-city of Richmond, Virginia. In 1991, Stauffer became the first Executive Director of the Capital Area Victim-Offender Mediation Program in Richmond. In 1994, Stauffer and his family moved to South Africa under the auspices of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a faith-based international relief and development agency. In South Africa, Stauffer worked with various transitional processes such as the Peace Accords, Community-Police Forums, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Local Community Development structures. From 2000 to 2009, Stauffer was appointed as the MCC Regional Peace Adviser for the Southern Africa region. His work has taken him to twenty African countries and ten other countries in the Caribbean, Middle East, Europe, and the Balkans. Stauffer’s academic interests focus on narratology, transitional justice, and post-war reconstruction and reconciliation. His research concentrates on the critique of transitional justice from a restorative frame, and the application of hybrid, parallel indigenous justice systems.

Yago: Carl, you are very much welcome to this blog called “Breathing Forgiveness. Embracing the giant wound in the naked now.”  In this interview I would like to explore a critical step in conflict transformation: deconstruction and processing systemic violence before we embrace and breathe forgiveness on it. You have accumulated an amazing experience on the field through many years of commitment at the grassroots level. First of all I would like to know about your origins. For many of us, our childhood has determined our vocation in life. Could you share with us about your upbringing in Vietnam under conditions of war? How has it affected you?

Carl: Thank you, I’m looking forward to this conversation. From my childhood, I think I would start with a photograph that my father took. My parents went to Vietnam in 1957 under the Mennonite church. At that time, the French colonizers had pulled out in 1954 and Vietnam quickly fell prey to the polarizing dynamics of the Cold War dividing itself between the North (under communist rule of Ho Chi Minh, the independence leader against the French) and the South, which refused communist rule and allied itself to the so-called “free world”. My parents relocated in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam and were not expecting that they were going to a war zone, but within two years, by 1959, the U.S. sent in its military “advisors,” as they were referred to, and that was the beginning of the Vietnam War, which we all know well. My parents ended up staying for 18 years, until 1975. Actually, 3 weeks before Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh city) was taken over.

Back to the photograph, my father took some photos after the notorious Tet Offensive (Tet refers to the Lunar New Year celebrations in Vietnam), which was when the North Vietnamese came into the city, and in solidarity with the Vietnamese people my parents refused to be evacuated by the US government. The fighting actually came quite close to our home, about a half-mile away. My father went out after the fighting subsided, and took some pictures and I remember one particularly poignant photo of a dead North Vietnamese soldier, dressed in all black, and with his feet tied together. His body was being drug by a military vehicle through the city streets, and people were lined up on both sides of the roads cheering, sneering and throwing things at the body; representing the hatred and hostility directed at the Communist regime in the North. I just remember that picture as a child, first of all because of the trauma of the dead person, and then as I grew older, I realized it was much deeper than that. The deep impression was not only because of the pain of war or the trauma of extreme violence, but in a much more symbolic way, the realization that we as a people, a society, as human creation could come to the place that we could celebrate, if you will, on the desecration of the enemy’s dead.

Where have we gone wrong when we can find our identity, find our respect in dancing on the bodies of the dead? I’m being figurative here, but literally this idea that we have come to the place where we have debased our human dignity to the point where our victory satisfaction comes when we are able to decimate the dead bodies of the ‘Other’. We know this has been historically how the victor has always responded, in a base and gruesome way, and yet, this was extremely personal to me and it gave me the gut-wrenching sense of the depravity of violence and war, which I have always kept in my psyche.

I say to many people, my growing up in Vietnam, and being raised in the war, has had a subconscious effect on my personhood and the vocation I have chosen. A strong spiritual, psychological, and emotional effect – more than I could articulate for you at this time. I have a clear sense that there was a path, and that there was a purpose being forged for me even in this experience as a child.

Yago: Thanks for your sharing Carl. Let us move now to your time in the University. It was at that time that you took a clear stance on nonviolence? Could you share with us your convictions and systemic challenges imposed on you during that time?

Carl: During my college years, I was attending Eastern Mennonite University, and one of the things that Anabaptists/Mennonites are of course known for are their history and theology of peace that we have maintained since the Reformation periods (1500-1600s) in various forms, at least in the official teachings of the church. So, in all of the struggles that have been part of our history, from the beginning, there has been this thread of the refusal to participate in war or violence. And so, in this country, the U.S., we had to spend a lot of time advocating before the government to get the conscientious objectors status as a legal status. In fact, that wasn’t granted in this country until World War II, officially. That was in relation to being drafted and going into military service. In the early 1980s when I was in university, we weren’t being drafted, but many of us were asking a deeper, more philosophical question of the structures of violence in our own nation – the paramount structure in this regard being the military. Just the amount of national budget alone illustrates the priority we as a country have given to the Military-Industrial-Complex. And so there were a number of us young men within the stream of the peace church tradition who questioned whether we should formally register with the U.S. government when we turn 18. It was our conviction that this would be tantamount to an act of compliance with a system of violence. 

In essence, that registration for the draft which was legally required of everyone in the country was symbolic of saying, “Here I am, a young man, 18, strong, energetic, and I’m available to be used by the military machinery and its strategies.” In some ways, it was like a co-option into a state-sanctioned violence system. So for a small minority of us young men, we decided to take a stand at that level and refused to register for the draft. This was an illegal action: there was a maximum penalty of a fine of $10,000 and/or a potential two-year prison sentence. Not many people got that, some were fined, and others did end up going to court and were given two-years of voluntary service in place of a prison sentence. I never ended up going to court, not everyone did. 

After one year of protest and 3 letters of threat from the US government, I decided to register, but only after documenting my Conscientious Objector status very clearly. But that was one of the first times that I began to understand what it meant for me as an individual, to take a personal stand on a set of ethical convictions against the violence structures – or what Theologian Walter Wink calls the “powers that be”. The U.S. was deeply involved in institutional structures that perpetuated violence all over the world, and specifically at that time in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the wars in the Central American region.

So that was the beginning of the life-journey for me learning to ask, “What does it mean to live in the midst of, in the shadow of the military-industrial complex and the violence that is so prevalent around us?” I would say it was the starting point of discovering what it means to be faithful to a public, prophetic stance on nonviolence. This also led me into exploring the process of advocacy as a form of preventative or shall I say proactive peacebuilding – seeking an alternative way to act, be and see the world. So for me, even back in university, and I credit my professors who were highly instrumental in helping me think through this direction in my life - that this was not just about not wanting to go to war, or about being afraid to go to battle, but it was also about the idea that we need to imagine or envision another world and walk into that vision to make it a public reality. Whether it’s courses I teach in restorative justice or nonviolent strategic action, I continually try to challenge myself as well as my students to question the status quo and to seek the ideal. The ideal is not a fantasy; we must walk into it, we must carry it, we must embody it, if we want to be faithful. If you want to frame these notions in Biblical terms, we as followers of Jesus Christ are instructed to ask for the “Kingdom of God” to come and be present here on earth as it is in heaven, and we not only ask for it, we are called to embody it and live it in the now. This is our place as witnesses to a better way in the public domain.

Yago: After that you moved to the inner city of Richmond where you had your first contact with Restorative Justice. How was it?

Carl: My family and I spent 6 years in the city of Richmond, the capital of the state of Virginia. Richmond is historically quite significant for race relationships in this country; partly because Richmond was referred to as the “Heart of the Confederacy” during the Civil War. When Richmond fell, the war was over. It was the “gateway to the South” because it was on the Dixie Line (the border between the North and the South). 

Moving into Richmond had an important impact on us as a family - we began to explore race relations, in this country. By “we” I mean my wife and I. We were married right after University. We both were trained social workers. I was feeling the call to church ministry and to pastor (I was ordained in Richmond in 1988). We moved into the inner city, a 92% African American community called Church Hill. Church Hill was traditionally considered a marginalized community, and Richmond was riddled with all of the social concerns that come with the urban experience – multiple poverties in the family, school, and community. High levels of substance abuse and unemployment left the people broken, shattered, and economically “redlined” - where African-Americans living in high rates of urban poverty and crime, were refused financial loans by the banks in the area. The probability of an African-American male between the ages of 18 and 25 ever getting a loan from a local bank was almost nonexistent. They did not even have the possibility of buying a home. These kinds of injustices were sharply clear to us. Moving into an inner city and into this community we really saw our ministry as trying to be church in a different kind of way. So we met in community building in the middle of a public park on Sunday afternoons and it was informal and we tried to take away the props of traditional church and live in another way as a community across racial and economic lines. It was a powerful and formative season for us, but also very difficult. It proved to challenge all that we understood about reconciliation and about tearing down the barriers that divide, whether that is race, economics or faith. 

It was over this time that I first entered the field of restorative justice. In 1991, I was appointed the first executive director for the Capital Area Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program (CAVORP), which brought the victims and offenders of criminal cases together, face to face, to have an interaction in order to identify and deal with the relational and material issues of crime (harms, needs, and obligations) and to “make things right” through restitution and reparations. This position was my first official step into the peacebuilding field. All of this was occurring within a rich tapestry of structural racism, systemic violence and the many gripping issues that I’ve mentioned. Our Richmond experience was a transformative crucible, and what we didn’t know at that time, provided us with the necessary preparation for our upcoming move to South Africa. 

Yago: Then, it was time to shift to a new stage in your life: South Africa.  There you witnessed and got engaged in the process of liberation during the Apartheid era. Could you share with us your experience during that challenging time?

Carl: Let me give you the biographical “thumbnail” sketch: My family and I moved to South Africa under the auspices of the Mennonite Central Committee, the Relief and Development arm of the Mennonite Church. We made an initial commitment of three years, and we moved in January of 1994. What we didn’t realize was how much Africa was going to stamp its imprint our hearts and our minds. We ended up staying 16 years! That’s a story on it’s own. Making a decision to go to South Africa in 1993 was both an historic privilege and a difficult challenge. 

We were extremely tired from our time in Richmond. In Richmond, we were young, zealous, and we were on call 24/7. We had people knocking on our door day and night maybe our neighbor’s mother was drunk or someone’s husband was threatening violence, or a vehicle had broken down, or the police were called… it could have been anything. And so, our life was full and we were giving out without knowing how to care for ourselves; something we as people often do when we are young, energetic and think we are invincible. So, when we considered going to South Africa, many people were saying, “you’re tired now, is it a good idea to go to South Africa?” By then, the release of Mandela, the transitional violence and the rapid political changes occurring in South Africa were making the newspapers almost on a daily basis, even in a relatively small, conservative city like Richmond. Again, it’s only now that I’m looking back that I see the tremendous connection between our experience in Richmond and preparation for South Africa. For instance consider the linkages between the USA and the African continent through the worldwide slave trade. Aside from New Orleans, Richmond city was the second busiest seaport for the buying and selling of enslaved African peoples. The mouth of the James River opens up in the Chesapeake Bay and winds its way from the Atlantic ocean all the way inland to the ports of Richmond. The Slave boats would come the entire way in, and they literally have slave blocks on the river where African human beings – men, women and children who had survived the horrific terror of the middle passage were auctioned off as property. 
And now, thankfully, Richmond’s city government, nonprofits, churches and other concerned individuals are naming this wicked past, identifying its legacies and aftermaths and starting a journey of reconciliation and healing - of transforming these painful historical harms. Richmond now has a 17-marker historical slave trail and reconciliation monument so that city visitors can explore a simulated experience of what it might have been like to be enslaved, how it would be to come off the boat and be sold, and the markers give a history of that dark period of history in the Richmond region and beyond. This has all happened within the last decade that ‘Richmonders’ (both black and white) have begun to unearth and deal with this terrible part of their past. 

So, going to South Africa in January of 1994 was an extremely historic time. There was a lot of violence in 1993. There was a lot of political violence. There was almost civil war when Chris Hani, the head of the South African Communist Party was assassinated in his driveway in April of that year. There was an American volunteer, Amy Biehl who was killed just for being white in the Black townships – wrong place at the wrong time. So we were reading this in Richmond Times Dispatch and saying, “God, is that really you telling us to go? Deep in our spirits we felt it was. We had an inordinate peace, my wife and I, for whatever reason. Now, as we look back we know, but at the time it didn’t make sense. But I think that’s all part of the spiritual journey. In Spirit work we do a lot of things that don’t make sense. 

Desmond Tutu at the TRC
For the first 6 years in Johannesburg then, I worked closely with the political violence and the transition occurring in the new South Africa. Over this time, I was privileged to work directly with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And then in 1999/2000, I was asked to turn my attention beyond South Africa to become a regional peace networker (advisor) for MCC in the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa. In this position I was afforded the incredible opportunity to travel and work in 20 African countries (in all regions) for a decade, mostly looking at post-war reconstruction, healing and reconciliation, ex-combatant/abductee reintegration and national memorialization processes. So, that’s what brought us to December 2009, when we actually came back here to the USA to teach in the university.

Yago: During your time in South Africa you took the opportunity to attend the Summer Peacebuilding Institute (CJP) for several years, so as to obtain your Masters Degree in Conflict Transformation. I believe you found the right environment to keep processing many of your experiences on the field. Could you share with us how you benefitted from that time? How important is the exercise of processing for the peacebuilder?

Carl: People learn in different ways, I learn most effectively through experience and the engagement of my full senses. If you want to look at neuroscience, I’m right brain dominant. I love art – ideas, imagery, music and dance. I think laterally, in systems and networked mind-maps. The strictly logical, linear detailed side of my brain is not always my strongest side. I gravitate toward the symbolic and the narrative and metaphorical ways of explaining what we understand as reality. And so, I learn best when I’m in the field working, at the same time studying. 

Completing my master’s degree through the Summer Peacebuilding Institutes at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding was ideal for me. I took in the classroom experience in an environment that was peaceful and quiet, with a diverse international flavor, and then I went back into the field in South Africa, or the rest of Africa and read, researched and wrote my course assignments as I went along the way. Probably everything I wrote and reflected on was somehow connected to what I was actually doing, which was critically important in order for me to integrate what I was learning in the academy and what I was doing on the ground. Later, I chose to do my doctoral work in South Africa at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. I focused on a narrative study of the system of violence in Zimbabwe. That too was a vitally important choice, because by then we had become accustomed to calling Africa our home, it was our context. It made sense to study in that context. I would never change that. For me it was essential to have my academic studies climax in the very context that I had come to so deeply love.

Link to Part Two (The Seven Roles of a Peacebuilder) >>