Sunday, April 27, 2008

What Can One Person Do?

In Prior Convictions: Did the Founders want us to be faithful to their faith?, an article in this week's New Yorker, Jill Lepore describes a debate between two characters in the 1797 novel The Algerine Captive by Royall Tyler. One character is a mullah and the other is Updike Underhill, a Calvinist surgeon captured by pirates and sold into slavery among Muslims. The following is an excerpt of her description of the debate, which lasted five days:

"But Christianity must be the one true religion, Underhill counters, else how had so much of the world been so persuaded by the teachings of a few fishermen, so quickly? 'If you argue from the astonishing spread of your faith,' the mullah answers, remember that 'Mahomet was an illiterate camel driver,' born nearly six centuries after Christ, and yet his faith had spread through Arabia, Asia, and Africa and a great part of Europe: 'In a word, view the world.' ”

Whatever one believes about faith and its meaning, or religion and its value or lack thereof, I think this exchange brings up a crucial idea that has been highlighted lately in the media.

The ideas and actions of individuals - courageous, creative, thoughtful individuals willing to put action into their ideas - can truly change the world.

I think Padraig O'Malley, the University of Massachusetts professor who was instrumental in getting opposing sides in South Africa and Ireland to come together and TALK to each other, should get the Nobel Peace Prize. Last August he flew 36 Iraqi leaders from enemy groups - Kurd, Sunni, Shia - to Helsinki to face each other and TALK - a remarkable accomplishment. O'Malley's approach is simple but revolutionary. He says in a Boston Globe article from last October,

"'Governments can't deal with divided societies, because they don't understand them...People from divided societies are in the best position to help others from divided societies.' The process can be slow and incremental, and by its nature is devoid of political sound bites. But if it works, it can pay off in a way that traditional diplomacy cannot: creating a lasting peace from within, rather than a truce imposed by larger powers from outside."

This same article from last October left me with an idea that has stayed with me:

"These negotiators have found that individuals, not governments, hold the key to resolving conflict."

This past week a second round of talks took place - Helsinki II. The Boston Globe article that describes these current efforts quotes Sherman Teichman, executive director of the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts, who noted that

"...while many have called for dialogue, few have stepped in to fill the need. 'One of the things that perplexes me is why we find ourselves filling this void,' Teichman said. 'I'm very proud that we've done it. It came down to the intellectual and moral courage of Padraig O'Malley who stands as an example of what one individual can do to work toward peace.' "

Another individual I heard about just today was Thomas Taha Rassam Culhane, an urban planner who is installing solar water heaters on rooftops in the slums of Cairo and promoting environmental awareness and activism in the city's most impoverished Coptic Christian and Muslim neighborhoods. Just one person, using his gifts, education, and hard work to teach others and change lives by transforming ideas and practices, can make such an enormous global difference.

As I think of shining individuals like these I can wish my Orthodox Christian friends a happy Easter with a truly hopeful spirit:

Χριστός aνέστη! Aληθwς aνέστη!

Христос воскресе! Воистину воскресе!

!المسيح قام! حقا قام

Si Cristo ay nabuhay! Siya nga ay nabuhay!


Photo credit: top image originally posted by to Flickr as Iraqi Children by JoAnn S. Makinano USAF, February 7, 2007 ; licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License

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