‘I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.’ (Malala Yousafzai)
I once had a secret meeting with the political wing of a revolutionary group from Central America, in a dark basement flat in London. But my story doesn’t start there. This was my moment. As I flicked through the pages of a UK newspaper, an article leapt out at me about the brutal civil war in El Salvador. I don’t think I’d heard of El Salvador before yet it reminded me of accounts I had read of horrific atrocities committed by the Nazis in WW2. I couldn’t change that terrible history but I could do something now.
I quickly did some research then set to work straight away, creating flyers and posters and circulating and sticking them up anywhere I could think of, hoping to raise awareness and to spur others into action too. I talked incessantly to family, friends and colleagues about what was happening in El Salvador. Most responded with a bemused look: ‘Why get so wound up about a situation on the opposite side of the world and over which we have no control anyway?’ That didn’t deter me. It was my time to speak.
I heard of a demonstration for El Salvador in London so I went there with a friend, both wearing our anti-war combat jackets. On arrival, we were approached by the organisers and invited to carry a banner. To our surprise, they asked us to march at the very front, directly behind a row of children who were carrying a banner too. Some 20,000 people assembled behind us. We raised our voices in safety – while human rights activists in El Salvador were having their throats cut and their bodies dumped onto the streets.
Driven increasingly by vicarious trauma, I joined the El Salvador Committee for Human Rights, a team of 3 activists based in a small room, armed only with a manual typewriter. I had the privilege of volunteering alongside a humble legend, Mike Gatehouse, who had previously been captured and held by the military in Chile during the violent coup that had overthrown its democratically-elected government. My role now was to hitch-hike around the UK, encouraging and resourcing local activist groups to amplify their voice.
As I look back, I realise that I didn’t have sufficient personal resilience to handle the stress, and I came close to burnout. My efforts were driven more by pain, empathy and instinct than by strategy and I’ve learned, since, the critical value of supervision. Yet Greenpeace’s profound slogan expressed our motivations too: ‘The optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought.’ There are situations in which we have to act, not because we have any guarantee of success, but because somebody has to speak.
[See also: Revolution; Protest; Words; Smoke; Nika; I did try]
'Machine Gun Preacher', powerful film. The cinema was almost empty but the drama that unfolded on screen immediately filled the room. I felt traumatised, moved, challenged, inspired. The emotional turmoil was provoked by the images, voices, stories played out in the film. It challenged my comfortable existence, my fluctuating passion, my feint-hearted commitment. It confronted me with a raw Christianity based on instinctive action, not theological beliefs or stances. It disputed reliance on peaceful means to overcome systematic, brutal violence.
It rekindled a flame I felt as a new Christian. The desire to scream, punch, kick against violence and injustice in the world. I was involved in human rights work, facing and feeling the trauma, the unending pain, of people suffering abuse and oppression in Central America. I became ‘moderate’ in order to cope. The passion, anger and despair became all consuming. It exhausted and damaged me. My friends found me obsessed by the cause. I lost touch with those around me. Our normal, everyday lives felt pallid, collusive, meaningless, unreal.
I burned with ferocious passion, stoked the flames higher and higher, but eventually burned out. It was a crash and burn of a painful kind. I started to experience physical shakes, couldn’t think straight, felt continual trauma as if bleeding inside. It was a very dark and sobering period. I cut off, switched off. I worked at a safe distance, didn’t think too hard. I forgot how it is to feel, to really feel, to feel so strongly and passionately that it drives me to determined action, to radical action, to give my life to bring about change. I felt safer, calmer, self-protected.
And herein lies the challenge that Machine Gun Preacher speaks to so powerfully. How to face injustice squarely, stand alongside those in pain, feel empathy that spurs into action, maintain perspective, accept realistic limits yet value our own distinctive contribution. It’s something about hearing God’s call: what he is calling us to and what he isn’t. It’s about staring hard in the face of overwhelming injustice and yet knowing our own boundaries, his boundaries, in order to focus well on what he has called us to do, and to trust the rest to him.
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