Peacemaking in the Caucasus?

Perhaps Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life poses a question to us about nonviolence from one direction. As John De Gruchy recently wrote in a review of a book on Bonhoeffer, “Should we not be engaged in peacemaking as our Christian vocation? Should not the church be a visible alternative to the world and its ways? On this we must surely agree. But there remains the nagging question that never seems to go away when you are faced, as Bonhoeffer was, with a tyrant in your own backyard (not thousands of miles away) intent on destroying the world and annihilating all those who stand in his way.” De Gruchy concludes about Bonhoeffer’s difficult participation in a plot to kill Hitler, “That is what peacemaking demanded of him at that time and place.”But we often give up on nonviolence too easily, almost automatically, congratulating ourselves for being tough and realistic as we do so. This article poses the question to us about nonviolence from the other direction. It is from today’s Guardian, and the author, John Coutts, is a member of the Salvation Army:

‘I tell you naught for your comfort,” wrote GK Chesterton in The Ballad of the White Horse. Trevor Huddelston took the grim warning for the title of his 1956 exposure of South African apartheid. There was, indeed, little comfort to be had at the time. The Sharpeville massacre – and much else – was still to come.

And nowadays things look just as grim in Chechnya as attitudes have hardened on both sides. So, where does that leave the would-be peacemaker?

Some years ago, after the first Chechen war, the clouds seemed to lift a little. I visited a friend in Moscow – a peace activist and expert on the tangled cultures of the Caucasus. He was trying to maintain contacts between Russians and Chechens of goodwill, but his mother regarded him as a misguided liberal. “Mark my words,” she told me, “some of those Chechens will blow up Moscow one day.” She proved to be right. Grozny has been wrecked by one side, and Moscow bombed by the other. Would-be mediators must work in a climate of risk and mutual suspicion. All of which, sadly, is nothing new.

Back in the 19th century, as the Russian empire advanced, Imam Shamil set up a theocratic state in the northern Caucasus, based on sharia law, and proclaiming holy war against infidels. Not all Muslims agreed with him. In the 1850s Sheikh Kunta-Hajji Kishiev declared that all war was displeasing to Allah. He called the Chechen faithful to a life of peaceful devotion, setting up Sufi brotherhoods and seeking God through prayer and sacred dance. “Your strength lies in wisdom, endurance and integrity,” he declared. To the hardliners of Shamil’s imamate, the Sheikh looked like a pro-Moscow “sell-out”. To the conquering Russians, his principled opposition was a threat. The “moderate Muslim” was sent into lifelong exile.

The renewed Russo-Chechen conflict has given us its own peacemakers. I first met Nina Davydovych in St Petersburg, where we worked on a Salvation Army feeding programme. While helping Chechens who had taken refuge in Ingushetia, she was kidnapped by gunmen and held for months in a cellar. Rescued at last, she returned, unembittered, to humanitarian work in the Caucasus.

Another little-sung hero was Viktor Popkov, a Russian Orthodox Old Believer, whose guiding principle was a saying of St Alexander Nevsky: “Not by force, O God, but in truth.” Popkov, who grew up in the Caucasus, worked tirelessly to conclude local ceasefires and arrange the exchange of prisoners – some of whom he put up in his tiny Moscow flat. He dreamt of a “torrent of peacemaking”. But in April 2001, while travelling through Chechnya in an ambulance, he was shot and fatally wounded by unknown gunmen. Naught for your comfort, indeed.

Yet small steps in confidence building are still possible. Why not, for example, offer a helping hand to the Chechen language, which, like many minority tongues, is under threat? The Power of Goodness is a trilingual collection of stories about strong, positive love recently published by Friends International Library. It seeks to show that Russians and Chechens have lived together in peace in the past and can again. “The chance to read in their own language,” writes the Chechen author Musa Akhmadov, “is a priceless gift offered to [our] children. [The book] reminds us that the Chechen people have not been left alone in their suffering.”

“Overcome evil with kindness and love,” declared Sheikh Kunta-Hajji. For comfort may come at last … Fifty years after Huddleston’s prophetic book, apartheid disappeared. Which shows peacemakers have to keep on trying.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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