World & More
History as Viewed Through Personal Experience
A Review of Once Upon a Country, of Rabble Rouser for Peace, and of War, Peace and Social Conscience
Once Upon a Country, by Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David. 542 pp., no index. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
Rabble Rouser for Peace, by John Allen, 481 pp., Free Press, 2006.
War, Peace and Social Conscience, by Theron Schlabach, 721 pp., Herald Press, 2009.
read biography? For those of us who have an interest in history,
biography focuses a section of history through an individual’s
experience. If it is not the big picture, it provides a focused view of
the person’s time, organized around a series of personal events. At
times this may add more personal details than we want if we are only
concerned about the big picture.
These three books provide three
different approaches: autobiography, authorized biography while the
subject still lives, and a scholarly review after the subject’s death.
I have been somewhat familiar with each of these three situations. So
what I gained from these presentations was not so much new information
but rather better overall understanding regarding details of the
Sari Nusseibeh would have us
understand that his family has been known in Palestine for 13 centuries
and he suggests that they will not be going away despite oppression by
the Israelis. This perspective on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict
supports what we have learned from other sources: since 1948 the record
has been one of Israeli chicanery on one side and Arabic
disorganization on the other. “The Jewish leadership . . . knew
precisely what they wanted. They had a plan and the discipline to carry
it out.” In contrast, the Arabs did not realize “what they were up
against” (46-47). This pattern is repeated throughout the book.
Yet Nusseibeh is among the Arabs
who have been able to survive and prosper in a measure. He could study
in England where he met and courted Lucy, an English girl. He had been
in England during the 1967 war and was shocked by the changes brought
about by the Jewish victory. Sari’s father was a lawyer and recommended
that at that time the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) should
negotiate with the Israelis for a solution involving separate states
for the Israelis and the Palestinians. “The PLO ignored his advice.
‘Your father,’ Yasser Ameri explained, ‘had a far longer range of view
than we did. Given the nationalistic mood back then, there was no way
we could have listened to him’’’ (103).
Sari would take Lucy back to his
home, where she became a Muslim and they married. After marriage he
took a job with an oil company in Abu Dhabi, but he found he was not
cut out for business. He would eventually obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard
University. His career in Palestine/Israel became a mixture of teaching
and political activity. The latter, he writes, he did unwillingly but
it was pressed upon him. He describes experience after experience in
which the Israelis got the upper hand despite worldwide efforts to give
the Palestinians a break.
Along the way Sari and Lucy
managed to raise a family and in 1995 he became president of Al-Quds
University, a Palestinian school which when he was appointed “existed
more in name than in reality” (386). He gave attention to building up
the school. In the meantime, “The most significant development I
observed from my perch on the hill was the strangulation of Jerusalem”
Since the university board and
students both represented conflicting perspectives among the
Palestinians, Sari had to spend considerable raw effort fighting
internal “fires.” Also, when the university began to grow, the Israeli
government began legal harassment. At the same time Israeli settlements
continued to grow as did oppression of Palestinians. “The PA’s weakness
can be traced back to all the familiar home-grown problems of
corruption, bad management, and so long. . . .” But “The biggest
problem . . . was still the occupation” (421).
Yet Nusseibeh came out against
violence. In a speech at Hebrew University he stated that “‘Israelis
and Palestinians,’ I told them, ‘are not enemies at all.’ A
disbelieving hush spread over my listeners. ‘If anything we are
strategic allies’’’ (450).
His moderate viewpoint made him
an enemy of the Israeli government and they began to harass him. He
responded with basic nonviolent tactics. When they tried to shut down
the university, his university “team . . . went to work calling
journalists, public figures, lawyers and politicians. Appeals went out
for public support from Israelis as well as from leaders all over the
world, including the White House” (491).
I realize that as an
autobiography, this presents the Palestinian story without a
corresponding Jewish account. I’m quite aware of the Israeli story, how
numbers of Jews were desperate for a place to go to get away from
oppression. The Arab nations opposed them violently and ineffectively.
But I have read enough critiques of Israel by Jews themselves to
believe that this autobiography is an authentic story.
In the end Nusseibeh insists
that Israelis and Palestinians will have to live together. “The only
hope comes when we listen to the wisdom of tradition, and acknowledge
that Jerusalem cannot be won through violence. It is the city of three
faiths and it is open to the world” (534). Once Upon a Country ends
with issues unresolved but with the author’s intention to persevere. He
implies that his family line will continue in the region whatever
government is in charge. Palestinians have long memories.
In contrast to this unfinished story, Rabble Rouser for Peace
shows one whose efforts would lead to a kind of success. One might ask
why blacks in South Africa were able to defeat apartheid when
Palestinians in Israel have not succeeded. No doubt in part the
difference is that described by Nusseibeh: the hardheaded strategy of
the Israelis confronting less-than-focused Palestinian leadership. And
as the biography of Desmond Tutu will show, South Africans were
eventually to receive worldwide attention, probably more, and more
specific, than the Paslestinians have.
In certain respects, Tutu’s
career was similar to Nusseibeh’s. A man of intelligence and personal
discipline, he was able to work his way up through an oppressive system
by making use of the opportunities. He would study outside the country
and become a recognized theologian. He would respond to one invitation
after the other for increased responsibility in the Anglican
As he became aware of racial and
political tensions throughout the African continent, he began to
articulate a “black” theology and “within a few years he became
simultaneously a defiantly outspoken advocate for black South Africans
and an emotional exponent of reconciliation with whites” (137).
In 1974 Tutu was elected dean of
St. Mary’s Cathedral, “the first black dean of a South African
Cathedral” (145). On this page the author observes that now Tutu
“stepped onto the public stage.” He writes that “He was a
cross-cultural communicator with an ebullient personality, as much at
ease in Western as in African settings. He had experienced the issues
of working in an institution that tried at the same time both to
repudiate and to survive in a police state.”
In 1978 Tutu became executive of
the South African Council of Churches. One of the issues he faced as
head of the SACC was the question of violence. “Tutu’s attitude toward
violence was in line with the SACC’s policy, which combined an
understanding of the reasons for taking up arms with a blanket
condemnation of all violence, from whatever side it came, and an appeal
to young white men facing military conscription to consider becoming
conscientious objectors” (172-173). His “instrument of choice in the
peaceful struggle against apartheid became economic pressure in the
form of divestment and sanctions” (175).
As SACC executive Tutu became
involved in the issues of apartheid in a manner he had never before
faced. Now came the worldwide attention. “Internationally the
government gave Tutu an audience the like of which he had never had
before” (182). In 1984 Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize while on
sabbatical in the U.S. The prize gave him increased international
attention. The call for sanctions was taken more seriously. Although
Thatcher and Reagan were cool toward him, the U.S. Congress overrode a
Reagan veto of a Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (261-262).
Next came his election as
Anglican bishop of Johannesburg and then South African archbishop, a
post he was to hold until his retirement. In his address after
enthronement Tutu said, “Whether I like it or not, and whether he likes
it or not, [then-President] P. W. Botha is my brother and I must desire
and pray the best toward him” (266-267). Such theological
interpretation of political issues was to be a regular part of his
campaign against apartheid.
Following the 1989 election of
F. W. de Klerk as president of South Africa in place of the ailing
Botha, Tutu joined a protest march of 30,000 people having refused to
seek permission. “After Cape Town had cracked the government’s ban on
peaceful protest, an unstoppable flood of marches swept the country”
(311). In February 1990, de Klerk released Nelson Mandela from prison
and Tutu provided overnight lodging for Nelson and Winnie Mandela
But the problems were not over.
“Some 14,000 South Africans died in political violence during the four
years between Mandela’s release and the first democratic elections in
1994” (324). Finally on May 9, 1994, Mandela was elected president.
“The inauguration in Pretoria the next day was said to be the largest
gathering of heads of state since John F. Kennedy’s funeral.” Tutu led
the closing prayer (339).
One more major task fell to
Tutu, to serve as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Tutu held that “if South Africans were to overcome the damage
[apartheid] had caused, they had to face up to and work through its
consequences” (342). Tutu’s concern was “‘restorative justice’ which he
described as characteristic of traditional African jurisprudence. . . .
This kind of justice seeks to rehabilitate both the victim and the
perpetrator, who should be given the opportunity to be integrated into
the community he or she has injured by his or her offense” (347).
Numbers of people from both
sides appeared before the commission, but Botha refused to appear and
de Klerk “failed to make full disclosure” (364). Richard Goldstone
wrote of the TRC that without it there would “have been roughly
speaking two major histories . . . a black history . . . and a white
history which would have been based on fabricated denials. . . . The
TRC has put an end to those denials” (370).
In an Epilogue Allen observed
that “As Desmond Tutu approached his seventy-fifth birthday he felt
both vindicated and blessed” (391). Yet not all was what he would have
hoped. “Much has been done,” he said in 2004. “People have clean water
and electricity who never had these before but we are sitting on a
powder keg because the gap between the rich and the poor is widening
and some of the very rich are now black” (392).
An unauthorized biography might
have been more objective and more widely researched. Yet I find this a
useful review of South African history through the experience of Tutu,
a remarkable man who worked against great obstacles and accomplished
what a lesser man could not have done.
Sari Nusseibeh of whom I had never heard before and Desmond Tutu, whom
I had seen on television, I turn to Guy F. Hershberger, whom I
personally worked with from time to time. Hershberger did not encounter
the sort of violence faced by Nusseibeh and Tutu. He never had a
bodyguard and would have refused it as a personal conviction. He
functioned during a period of relative peace for North American
Yet he is interesting from the
standpoint that he also had a vision which he pursued with some
success. His vision was an attempt to clarify the ethical position of
the Mennonite tradition and to advocate for its practice.
He came into teaching and
denominational leadership from a farm in Iowa. He was teaching and
doing graduate work while he and his wife Clara were raising a family
during the Great Depression when his college at Goshen, Indiana, could
scarcely pay faculty salaries. Schlabach observes, “While Guy studied
at the State University of Iowa from 1932 to 1935, he and Clara lived
partly by managing a lodging house. Apparently they also borrowed some
money. Beyond that, just how they lived and supported his study remains
a mystery” (81).
Hershberger would write two seminal volumes treating Mennonite ethics: War, Peace and Nonresistance (Herald Press, 1944; revised in 1953 and 1969) and The Way of the Cross in Human Relations
(Herald Press, 1958). The former came out when I was of draft age. I am
confident that I read it and found it convincing. I was already a CO
deferred to work on my father’s farm, but to have a theological
interpretation of our peace position was reassuring.
Schlabach writes “The great
achievement of War, Peace and Nonresistance was to offer a platform of
biblical pacifism from which, sooner or later, Mennonites and others
could move out to broader
social and political witness” (118).
The second volume appeared during the era of the Mennonite Community
Movement. This was an effort supported by Hershberger to bring together
Mennonite farmers, small-business people, and workers to seek to
clarify what it would mean to follow Christ in their economic
For six years, beginning in 1947, the Mennonite Community Association would have its own magazine, The Mennonite Community.
It was a well-illustrated feature magazine which for a time had its own
staff photographer. The magazine never gained enough circulation to
cover its costs and in 1954 was merged with Christian Monitor to become Christian Living: A Magazine for Home and Community.
two decades Hershberger’s name would appear on the masthead of the
magazine as a consulting editor and until 1964 the staff would include
a community life editor. Then a constricted editorial budget called for
elimination of this position. I write here from my own experience
since, beginning in 1952, I was office editor of The Mennonite Community magazine, then assistant editor of Christian Living until 1960 and editor of that magazine through 1973. I find Schlabach’s review an adequate record of these developments.
The Mennonite Community movement
would eventually run down for lack of interest even though the
association still had some assets. In contrast to the magazine, which
could not cover its costs from 1950 to 1972, the association sponsored The Mennonite Community Cookbook,
which provided income to the association. By 1972 Mennonite Publishing
House was ready to publish a cookbook and the association transferred
the cookbook to MPH. In 1993 I was a member of the committee which
dispersed the association’s assets (212-215).
Schlabach observes, however,
that Hershberger’s thinking was not trapped in a dying movement. He
writes that “over his career [Hershberger] allowed his community ideas
to alter and adapt. As they did, they became less ruralist, less
ethnic, and more centered in church and theology” (216).
In a chapter on Hershberger’s
encounter with the thought of Reinhold Neihbuhr, Schlabach writes that
“instead of a strategy that began with Western civilization’s crises,
with political power, and with humans’ tragic ‘necessities,’
Hershberger insisted on beginning with the ethical teachings of Jesus
and the New Testament. From those premises he developed a strategy, not
of political power, but of a faithful church giving its corporate
Schlabach humanizes Hershberger
at various points throughout the book, particularly in a chapter on
“Tenacity to a Fault,” describing three situations in which Hershberger
came out “swinging” (367-393). Of particular interest to me are two of
these in which I was somewhat involved, in the first as an observer and
in the second as an administrator.
J. Lawrence Burkholder wrote a
dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary on “The Problem of
Social Responsibility from the Perspective of the Mennonite Church.”
Burkholder took a more “realist” approach to the interpretation of
Mennonite community ethics. Schlabach observes, “Whether or not he
intended it as such, a good bit of Burkholder’s dissertation amounted,
in context, to a frontal attack on huge chunks of what Hershberger had
been working for” (370-371).
Although Schlabach indicates
that in his responses “Hershberger stayed with the substance without
becoming personal,” an incident I witnessed appeared to go beyond
substance. It was a seminar for the staff of Christian Living magazine,
where both Hershberger and Burkholder read papers.
Hershberger appeared first on
the program. He had received an advance copy of Burkholder’s paper and
was able to use “about two-thirds of his own paper to apply the
surgeon’s scalpel to what Burkholder was about to deliver” (378-379).
Then, as I remember, he went around the table and retrieved the copies
of his paper.
Schlabach wishes it might have
been possible to devise a synthesis of the two positions. “The result
might have been a little less Babel in Mennonite ethics and some
greater clarity in the Mennonite witness.
“Whatever the complex causes, in the case of Burkholder, Hershberger’s tenacity did not serve him well” (385).
Another conflict, one in which I
got directly involved, was with J. Lorne Peachey, my successor as
editor of Christian Living magazine. Peachey had a degree in journalism
but no background in the Mennonite Community movement and may not have
met Hershberger before. For a twenty-fifth anniversary issue, he asked
Hershberger for a 1,000-word article on “the decline of the Mennonite
community vision.” Had he understood Hershberger’s academic style and
personal identification with the cause, he surely would not have given
him such an assignment.
Hershberger wrote a longer
article which was not found acceptable. We got them together for
attempted mediation. Schlabach writes, “The efforts at reconciliation
probably increased mutual understanding, but they did not fully
succeed. Hershberger’s manuscript never went to print” (386).
In an Afterword, Schlabach
reflects on Hershberger’s contribution. He lists nine points in a
summary of Hershberger’s convictions and then observes, “In his own
time, a host of ethically earnest people, Mennonites and others,
thought that what Hershberger said was worth their listening. Even
persons who differed with him were often in his debt. . . . Later
generations share that debt, and so also surely, will generations to
academics, who each, in his own way, has sought to make a difference.
For Tutu the differences have been most visible and dramatic. But
Nusseibeh insists that regardless of what the Israelis do, Palestinians
will remain. And, as Schlabach observes, Hershberger has spoken and we
do well to listen.
Pennsylvania, is an editor, writer, and chair of the elders, Scottdale