Embodying Peace, Transforming Violence: An Interview with Sarah Thompson
In this issue of The Other Journal, we have used the lens of Marxism to illumine the consequences of economic exploitation and the ways we as Christians might work against such exploitation. Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) is an international nonprofit organization that aims to perform that same work, addressing racism, sexism, heterosexism, nationalism, and economic exploitation in all its forms all around the globe. CPT partners with marginalized communities in situations of lethal conflict where CPT is invited to participate, places like Hebron/Al-Khalil Palestine, Iraqi-Kurdistan, Colombia, and the First Nations in the Canadian provinces. These invitations come from the local leaders of movements for nonviolent social change. In this interview with Sarah Thompson, CPT Outreach Coordinator, discusses the origins of CPT and what it means to wrestle with imperialism in peacemaking.
The Other Journal (TOJ): How did you first get connected to CPT and what compels you to work with the organization?
Sarah Thompson (ST): I first got connected with CPT through the Peace Club at Bethany Christian High School, a Mennonite school in Goshen, Indiana. One of CPT’s project support coordinators spoke in a chapel service about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and about the importance of joining together peacemakers from different walks of life in that region. The speaker also noted similarities between Israel’s settlement of Palestine and the settlement of the Midwest by European pioneers. He told us about the Potowatomi, who lived on the land before our school was built and who still live and exist in the area today.
I had understood the Potowatomi people as part of history, not the present. This helped me to see connections between various struggles for justice and between people, well-being, and land. Most importantly, the presentation opened my eyes to recognize my own complicity and privilege as I engaged in struggles for justice and acts of solidarity globally. I realized that as a US-born upper-middle-class woman of color, the particular way oppression acts in my life gives me particular vantage points and blind spots when I approach global issues of lethal conflict.
This open-eyed way that members of CPT attempt to address the multi-faceted and multi-layered issues of oppression keeps me in the organization and excited to work for them. CPT is an organization where no questions are off the table. It is an organization where people can bring their full selves and where they are committed to nonviolence as a way of life, as spiritual practice, and as political engagement.
In my job as an outreach coordinator in southern California, many people look incredulously at me when I say the name Christian Peacemaker Teams. Most of these people have had poor experiences with Christians, and they certainly have not seen them put peacemaking at the center of the faith. I explain that although CPT staff and team members may include individuals from every spiritual walk, we keep “Christian” in our name as a reminder to the church and Christians that the center of our faith is not crusading and converting but bold action of healing, sharing, and love. Often, people take a deep breath, sigh, and say, “Good luck! I wish more Christians were like you.” Then I ask for money. Or I ask them if they’d like to share some of their life energy with us so we can do that work. Many have responded positively.
I see my work, which involves fund-raising and friend-raising, as inviting people to help CPT identify and loosen resources that are stuck in over-prosperous places so that they might flow to areas where there is a lack of monetary resources. CPT uses these resources to do experiments in resisting corporate domination, military occupation, and loss of land and identity. We invite people to share their life energy as we build partnerships that transform violence and oppression and economic exploitation.
TOJ: CPT began as a joint effort among the historic peace churches to make an organized nonviolent response to oppression, particularly in areas where the US government was siding with the elites and oppressors—are those church groups still the basis for your work? And how are spirituality and worship a part of CPT’s mission?
ST: CPT was initially sponsored by the two largest North American Mennonite denominations, the Mennonite Church and the Church of the Brethren, but these days other faith groups also sponsor us, including Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilians), Friends United Meeting, On Earth Peace, and the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, as well as a number of Catholic Workers groups and Muslim communities who are involved in various ways with CPT. Together, our mission is to build partnerships and to transform violence and oppression, and for most of us at CPT, this mission cannot be completed by human effort alone. The type of work we do demands a reliance on spiritual energy, or what I call God. Our work requires provisions of power, wisdom, strength, flexibility, and love.
Personally, I can only continue to do this work because of a sense of cosmic accompaniment, a sense that we are not alone in our truth experiments, as Gandhi would say. Divine energy helps to connect and correct our work. But this sentiment is not necessarily shared by everyone at CPT: our environment honors and, more or less, reflects the faith and spirituality of the communities we come from and the communities we partner with—we do not proselytize.
CPT has taken seriously the challenge to be open to those who do not identify as Christian but who want to be a part of the organization. We are working to determine what this means for our worship and life together. We are committed to challenging oppression in all forms, and we recognize that expressions of imperial Christianity have created damaging patterns and ways of relating in the world between Christians and the majority of the world’s population. This means that we need to carefully examine which Christian practices, worldview concepts, and biblical interpretations are hegemonic, which patterns reinforce dominant oppressive paradigms.
CPT is one rebuttal to the Marxist claim that “religion is the opium of the people.”1 Religion brings comfort and an emotional outlet, but it does not make us docile! Jesus’s example of challenging systems of domination has inspired CPT team members to be brave and to sustain actions of solidarity. And there have always been strains of religious practitioners—in every faith tradition—who have allied strongly with the most marginalized in society and worked in broad coalitions with others to challenge exploitative economic systems and racial or ethnic prejudice. There have always been religious practitioners who refuse to let powerful societal leaders co-opt faith and use it to pacify people, declare wars, and destroy the land. CPT humbly stands in that tradition of resistance.
Through the many prophets and through the life and teachings of Jesus, there is a clear biblical mandate for nonviolence as a central Christian practice. Worship is the distinct time and space when those seeking inspiration, nurture, and challenge for Christian life gather together. Worship is what happens when our orientations move from ourselves to the collective, when our consciousness of being a part of something more or other or bigger than ourselves helps us to transcend the tunnel vision of the mundane and to glimpse the beauty and magnificence of the whole. We honor the faith and spiritual tradition of each person and each CPT partner. A space of worship and acknowledgement is part of our team life together on project sites, but worship varies from team to team. CPT does not have an exclusively Christian worship practice as much as it used to. Our increasing personnel diversity demands that we find ways to worship more inclusively or that we remove this component of team life altogether. This has been an intense and creative challenge. But we welcome it because it challenges us to figure out how to be faithful and how to honor Christian worship while also decentering that tradition and making real room for other religious expressions.
Historically, most of the workers at CPT came from Christian communities, particularly from North American Mennonite congregations, and then returned to those communities and told their stories and challenged their congregations and parishes and communities to not sit idly by while state-sponsored violence occurred in their name. Although members of the CPT corps don’t necessarily return to specific, cohesive communities these days, many still seek to tell these stories elsewhere and inspire Christians all over the world to lay aside the weapons of destruction and power.
TOJ: Where are CPT projects currently located and why were those locations chosen?
ST: The most important criterion in choosing a project location is that CPT receive an invitation from a local community that wishes to partner with us to nonviolently and directly resist the injustice they face. And given that throughout our history most CPT workers were from the United States, we generally choose locations where the United States was involved in imperial and violently destructive ways. We currently work in northern Iraq (Kurdistan) in rural areas with civilians who have been victimized by cross-border bombings from Turkey and Iran. In these places, we lead nonviolence trainings. Our project moved there in 2006 after four years in Baghdad.
We have worked in Colombia since 2001, where the United States has sent over 5 billion dollars in military aid since that time. The military aid fuels the civil war there and continues to produce the highest number of internally displaced persons on the planet. This has had drastic and deadly consequences, especially for small-scale farming communities in the interior of the country. We accompany leaders of those communities who refuse to be displaced and who want to create zones of peace and safety, zones that are safe from all of the armed actors there.
In the occupied Palestinian territory, we accompany schoolchildren who, on their way to and from class, must pass through Israeli military checkpoints or by illegal (under international law) Israeli settlements. We count the children and also note how many of their bags are searched. We count how many teachers’ IDs are checked and note whether they or any of the children are harassed as they pass. We also have a rapid response team that coordinates with other human rights groups to travel quickly to dangerous situations. CPT has had a presence in the occupied Palestinian territory since 1995, when we were one of the first groups to bring a team of internationals to live in the area, build relationships with the community, and announce to the international community the dynamics of suffering in Hebron/Al-Khalil.
Yet our work in the global South would not have authenticity if we were not also paying attention to what was happening in the global North. Since the late 1990s, we have challenged colonialism and supported indigenous communities who seek justice and to defend their lands against corporate and government exploitation without community consent; we have done this work through the Aboriginal Justice Project. In Ontario this work includes human rights monitoring and reporting, nonviolence training, presence and accompaniment, court witnessing, education and advocacy through presentations to schools and churches, articles and media releases, organizing fact-finding and learning delegations to areas of conflict or oppression, and participating in or offering logistical support for public actions and speaking tours.
TOJ: Sometimes activists can be seen as against something rather than for something. How does CPT fall into or between those categories?
ST: We are against violence in all forms, and we envision a world of communities that together embrace the diversity of the human family and live justly and peaceably with all creation. CPT is one of many experiments in nonviolent direct action to respond to situations of injustice. We are against just talking about alternatives, and we are for trying alternatives and reflecting about our actions, and more particularly, we are for trying those alternatives in contexts of lethal conflict, not far away from the situations we are speaking about.
To this end, what we are for and what we are against can be found in the same place. Many people have died for causes they believe in, killed by those who perceived they were against them. In a 1984 speech at the Mennonite World Conference in Strasbourg, France, Ron Sider (the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action) challenged the crowd of pacifists, saying that many people assume “that for the sake of peace it is moral and just for soldiers to get killed by the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Do we not have as much courage and faith as soldiers? What would happen if we in the Christian church developed a new nonviolent peacekeeping force ready to move into violent conflicts and stand peacefully between warring parties?”2 This speech became the rallying call for the formation of Christian Peacemaker Teams.
TOJ: Since its beginnings as a US/Canada collaborative how has CPT wrestled with the realities of imperialism?
ST: By 1992, CPT had put together a series of delegations to Haiti, Iraq, and the West Bank, but members of the organization still felt the need for a trained full-time corps of people to work in crisis regions. The steering committee thus set a goal to develop a Christian Peacemaker Corps of twelve full-time persons who would receive stipends comparable to those provided by other voluntary service organizations and to supplement these full-time workers with a much larger number of reservists who would donate their time and resources. By the end of 1998, when CPT finally reached its goal of a twelve-person Christian Peacemaker Corps, we had set up and staffed violence-reduction projects in Haiti; Washington, DC; Richmond, Virginia; Hebron, West Bank; Bosnia; and Chiapas, Mexico.
We wrestle with the reality of imperialism by going places that the empire—which we have considered Europe, the United States, and, in an increasing way, Canada—has made people’s lives difficult. We go there to bear the brunt of some of these effects of empire so that its ghastly weight may fall less on others. Through our process, we have become aware of the ways we also carry the empire inside (and on the outside) of our bodies and inside of our efforts as CPT.
Through slow processes and guidance from our partners, CPT is reshaping itself with a focus on undoing oppressions and a constant reevaluation. Our nonlinear critical thinking and organizational reflective process are not direct action against imperialism, but they are certainly one aspect of us living in alternative ways.
Overall, we resist imperialism by resting in the confidence of God’s faithfulness and in the power of the communities we accompany rather than in guns! We know that the communities we participate alongside were transforming oppression before CPT arrived on the scene and that they will continue to do so after we leave. Yet time and time again we hear that CPT’s work matters. We are extra shoulders to bear the burdens of trauma, extra ears to hear the stories of joy and struggle, and extra hearts to burn with a passion for justice, both locally and internationally.
TOJ: What kind of training do team members receive as they prepare to face inequality and oppression, both within themselves and in the world?
ST: The first step in CPT is to go on a delegation. These delegations are two-week learning tours where anyone who comes has a chance to experience part of the life of the CPT team and to participate in team life. Each delegation includes an opportunity for nonviolent direct action, advocacy training, and education.
If someone wants more of CPT, they are invited to apply to be a part of the CPT Peacemaker Corps. This involves attending a month-long peacemaker training (usually, but not exclusively, held in Chicago, Illinois) where we train people in the skills of documentation, observation, nonviolent intervention, and various ministries of presence. The ministries of presence are deeply enhanced by discussions of theology and ethics and by an awareness of group dynamics, one’s own personality characteristics in times of calm and stress, and intragroup conflict resolution skills. The idea is to prepare people to make a significant positive difference in explosive situations, anytime and anyplace. If a person successfully completes training, they can choose to work full time, part time, or as a reservist. Full-timers serve nine to eleven months of the year on a team at a project site and the remaining time at another location of their choice, resting and doing advocacy work; part-timers spend four to six months on a team; and reservists spend two weeks to three months on a team or doing outreach tasks. Full- and part-timers have the option to receive a stipend; reservists are volunteers.
TOJ: What role do bodies play in peacekeeping and reconciliation work?
ST: Peacemaking, in the way CPT does it, is incarnational. It is not just talking about ideas of peace; it is experimenting with them in an embodied way. We go where we are invited and stand alongside those who are waging nonviolent struggle for positive social change. For those who believe in the incarnation of God in Jesus, the idea that the Word was made flesh to show us the Way to walk with the Spirit is a very powerful way of thinking of CPT’s ministry of presence.
Also, bodies are particular, not generic. At CPT we attempt to embrace these particularities rather than to be threatened by our bodily differences. We also recognize that societies tend to respond to different bodies in different ways. Years of European and North American imperialism have reified, nearly worldwide, a system that privileges some bodies over others, particularly privileging heterosexual, Christian, wealthy, white, able, adult, male bodies. CPT was formed by many people who might be characterized in these ways. There is nothing wrong with people who have these bodies, but they do have a unique social location and subjectivity, one that is not an objective or neutral place from which to interact with a world racked by war and imperial domination. Undoing oppressions helps everyone in a group to name their particular subjectivity and starting point, to examine how people on the aggregate in our social location have had to or chosen to interact with others, and to consider how patterns of inequality, prejudice, and exploitation have become entrenched today.
During the initial month-long CPT training and in our team life together at project sites, we examine what types of behaviors are best for identifying what has been negative, what has been healing, and what we need to live well as individuals and in community. This often includes performing acts of repentance and empowerment, deconstructing metanarratives, and learning about movements that address racism, classism, heterosexism, and sexism. By addressing these things and acknowledging the different oppressions and privileges ascribed to our different bodies, we hope to create a dynamic space where everyone can bring their full selves and thrive. We will be able to embody this culture of solidarity if we go through the process of learning how to be allies for one another.
TOJ: How do economic inequalities relate to the violence that CPT and partner organizations seek to undo?
ST: In every project where CPT works, economic inequality and exploitation either sits at the root of the conflict or greatly exacerbates the conflict. For example, the Kurds are mostly rural farmers who are generally more economically impoverished than people, both Kurds and Arab Iraqi, who live in the city. Colombian farmers are pushed off their land by rich landlords who can then hire security guards to protect their interests and the interests of the corporations, like Daabon, they allow to monocrop the land for palm oil. Roads that cross the main commercial center of Hebron, Shuhada street, are closed, making the Old City of Hebron/Al-Khalil less viable for Palestinian life and trade; settlements block other streets; and settlers with second-story houses throw eggs and flour and urine on Palestinians shopping and living below. And exploitation of natural resources on the lands of First Nations folks, which could arguably include all of North America/Turtle Island, relates directly to their decimation as a people, particularly their move from land-based economies, where they controlled the means of production, to urban destitution, where they are generally far from controlling the means of production.
TOJ: Does CPT as an organization identify capitalism as a root cause of injustice in the world today? If so, how is that articulated? And what other root causes would you name?
ST: CPT envisions a world of communities that together embrace the diversity of the human family and live justly and peaceably with all creation. In working toward this vision we are committed to work and relationships that honor and reflect the presence of faith and spirituality, strengthen grassroots initiatives, transform structures of domination and oppression, and embody creative nonviolence and liberating love. Some people at CPT identify exploitative economic systems as a root cause of injustice in the world today. Therefore, they struggle to transform this structure of domination and oppression. Even if we don’t all agree exactly on the degree to which we should undo capitalism, we all are trained to respond to the negative effects it has on us as people and on the land, and we search for more equitable ways to relate.
One example of this is that there are no salaried personnel at CPT. Everyone is given a stipend based on their need. The director of CPT, for example, does not make more money per month than a person working part time for CPT in the field. We discuss this topic a lot within CPT—in fact, there is some disagreement on whether this funding model could reinforce other types of oppression—as we seek to maintain organizational alignment with our values while also embracing an increasingly diverse staff, partner, and donor base.
Because things are very tricky in this late stage of capitalism, one way that CPT seeks to avoid traditional dependencies is that we do not do relief work and we do not give money to our partners. We offer embodied, incarnational solidarity. On one hand, our partners are sometimes grateful that we don’t give money; this frees them from feeling pressured to do something that we suggest simply because we are funding them. On the other hand, money and economic resources are sometimes exactly what people want. It is hard to negotiate this, but most development aid, some types of state welfare, and many post-war remittances are all part of a pattern of extraction and exploitation. We want to stay as far away from that as possible.
TOJ: Do we need better descriptions of violence to help clarify our role in creating a peaceful world?
ST: I define violence as seeking to eliminate another, as using lethal methods to enforce one’s perspective. Broader definitions might include verbal violence and nearly anything coercive or forceful, especially the use of force without love. The situations CPT encounters include lethal violence or the threat of such violence. Our role in these situations is to refuse to carry weapons—and thus to present no threat of lethal violence—and to insist that a nonlethal solution to the conflict can be found. We also stand on the side of those most negatively affected by the conflict.
Sometimes feigning neutrality is a form of violence. CPT is not a neutral organization. We are called into conflicts by communities who hear about us from other communities of resistance. They invite us to accompany them at moments of confrontation with very powerful actors who have previously used or threatened violence to protect their interests. We are one of the few peacemaking organizations that does its work in the confrontation part of the peace movement. We are present and vocal when latent conflict becomes overt and when the power situation that was once unequal and static begins to become more equal and dynamic.
TOJ: What are some examples of CPT and partner organizations creating or sustaining communities that are an alternative to capitalist exploitation?
ST: In every place where we work, survival is one of the main acts of resistance, because the proponents of exploitation seek to weaken or eliminate the communities CPT accompanies. In Hebron there are now numerous economic cooperatives that employ and empower expert artisans and apprentices in the production of materials for everyday life and art. In Colombia, the farming communities in Las Pavas successfully returned to their land, and they maintain small-scale diversified crop development in the face of the corporate invasion: companies and their private security forces who seek to displace the farming communities in order to monocrop. Another community in Colombia was lucky enough to receive some measure of justice through official channels that granted them land titles after a long pitched legal battle.
On Valentine’s Day this year, the CPT Aboriginal Justice Team worked together with local Canadian organizers of a group called No More Silence to make visible the ways that colonialism seeks to eliminate aboriginal cultures in order to make the land available for exploitation. Violence against the land is intertwined with violence against the bodies of women, and the Valentine’s Day vigil attempted to spread the word about both oppressions.3
TOJ: As you look toward the future, what questions are shaping the next steps for CPT?
ST: There are many. I offer some to share our process and also to challenge readers to think about their own responses. Due to the way that systemic oppression infuses our lives, we must always be willing to grow into new understandings and practices. It’s not possible to get there if we don’t ask the questions.
How do we do this work together as people from more than one faith background, which means undoing Christian hegemony? How do we do this work steadily and sustainably within our financial means, resisting the push of capitalist culture for constant growth and expansion? We are on the cutting edge in terms of fostering bioregionalism and creating and trying to maintain spaces for people to have relationship with specific parts of the land and ecosystem, so how do we work in ways that draw people from the environmental movement? And finally, how do we tell a compelling story about what CPT is? To this end, we have shifted from an older narrative that had people at CPT as the heroes toward a more complex narrative, one that shows our partners as the heroes and CPT staff as allies.
Editor’s note: To learn more about CPT and get involved with their work, visit www.cpt.org
1. Marx, “Toward a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, by Karl Marx and Lawrence Hugh Simon (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett,  1994), 28.
2. See Sider, “God’s People Reconciling,” in Proceedings: Mennonite World Conference, XI Assembly, Strasbourg, 1984 (Lombard, IL: Mennonite World Conference, 1984), 224–63.
3. See Peter Haresnape, “Aboriginal Justice: Who Is Missing on Valentine’s Day?,” Christian Peacemaker Teams, February 17, 2013, http://www.cpt.org/cptnet/2013/02/17/aboriginal-justice-who-missing-valentine%E2%80%99s-day.
Joanna Shenk is the editor of Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship (Herald Press), a collection of stories exploring the creative tension of movements and institutions within the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. She has an MA in theological studies and works as a communication coordinator and interchurch relations associate with the Mennonite Church USA, particularly on national initiatives committed to undoing racism and sexism in the church. Shenk is also a community arts organizer and a co-producer of The Iconocast, a podcast hosted at JesusRadicals.com that explores the anti-imperial implications of Jesus’s teachings within our modern imperial context. She currently lives in Elkhart, Indiana.
Sarah Thompson is a scholar and activist from Elkhart, Indiana, who serves as Outreach Coordinator for Christian Peacemaker Teams. She received an MDiv from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary immediately before departing for work with the Mennonite Central Committee at Sabeel Jerusalem. She has been formed by travels to five continents through volunteer work with Mennonite World Conference, feminist anti-war movements, women’s soccer teams, the Fulbright Scholarship, and Spelman College. She is currently interested in postcolonial theology, social movement building, embodied nonviolence, acupuncture, menstruation, and alternatives to robotic warfare and society.