Human beings suffer
They torture one another
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
History says, Don’thope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
by Seamus Heaney
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about conflict and health. When one is aware of bombings, riots, stampedes, political and religious violence, and other forms of violence that are taking place around the world, it’s difficult to act as if those things don’t matter. But, how does one respond?
One of the foremost experts on issues of war and peace and health and rights is Barry S. Levy. In an article he wrote back in 2002, he stated,
"Without peace, there can be no health, basic human needs cannot be fully met, health care and public health services cannot be optimally provided, and healthy and safe physical and socio-cultural environments cannot exist. Therefore, peace, by definition, is part of public health.
Likewise, public health is part of peace. Without physical, mental, social, and spiritual health, there can be no peace. Without health, there can be no peace within an individual, within families, within communities or among nations."
Reading and hearing the experiences and thoughts of well-respected people and those much closer to these issues than I, several themes begin to emerge regarding violence and conflict in general, and one in particular resonates strongly within me. Vision. We must be people with a vision of what can be but is not yet. People who hope, not fleetingly but with certainty. These are what I read and see in Paul Farmer, Barry S. Levy, Joseph D’Souza, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, all people with a personal understanding of the impacts of violence on people’s lives and how to effectively respond.
Last week, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Paul Farmer speak. He is one of those people who, impressive as are his credentials and work, portrays himself humbly. He also is passionate about his work for the poor, for human rights and justice, and for health equity. Paul Farmer is familiar with conflict both from his decades of work in Haiti and with his more recent work in Rwanda. And, although the talk I heard was not specific to conflict, he said several things that are relevant here. First, that we in public health are too often the skeptics and nay-sayers, and that we instead need to be the ones open to new ideas and open to not always basing decisions on gold-plated science. He talked about the need to ask tough questions and that by asking those tough questions we can begin to change the status quo. That we need to ask the questions that others can’t or won’t ask because of political or other sensitivities.
Barry S. Levy made a similar point in an article he wrote when he quoted President John F. Kennedy who stated in an address to the Parliament of Ireland in 1963, “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” Levy continued by saying that public health leaders need to “call forth leadership in others,” people who will not simply continue doing what they’ve always done, but people who will do what is needed and what is right, regardless of whether it has ever been done before.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke of this in a speech he gave after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970. A man who spent many agonizing years in Russia’s state prison camps spoke of seeing “beauty” in the mundane. And, he spoke of the power of written truth in realizing visions and in changing the world for the better.
“In agonizing moments in camp, in columns of prisoners at night, in the freezing darkness through which the little chains of lanterns shone, there often rose in our throats something we wanted to shout out to the whole world, if only the world could have heard one of us.
We will be told: What can literature (words) do against the pitiless onslaught of naked violence? …The simple act of an ordinary courageous man is not to take part, not to support lies. Let that come into the world and even reign over it, but not through me. Writers and artists can do more: they can vanquish lies!"
Joseph D’Souza, a person well-familiar with violence, speaks too of hope and of not giving up. And, he too knows the power of the written word and of truth in dispelling lies and promoting justice and rights. He writes “Sometimes the task seems too formidable. Sometimes success seems like nothing more than a dream.” D’Souza quotes one of the Chinese leaders of the Tiananmen Square uprising from 1989, “I dream of a day in China when the ideas of freedom, democracy, human sympathy, tolerance and equality have pervaded people’s hearts and minds…”
Dreaming for justice and “seeing” what is yet unseen are deeply Biblical concepts. Those of us who claim a Biblical faith cannot simply see the world as it is and as it happens, but rather must view with a perspective and with questions that go beyond the boundaries of the obvious. There is an expectation about what will be but is not yet, and there is a realization that people are more than the flesh and bones we so easily mistake for the person.
Hopes, visions, expectations… these are the things I read and hear that we must hold to and work toward in spite of the nay-sayers and skeptics and keepers-of the-status-quo around us. It seems to me that these concepts are critical to health and justice in both war and peace.