Peace in the time of yellow butterflies

Finding signs of joy and peace in seasons of conflict

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Photo: MCC

My newsfeed recently has been filled with images of mothers cradling babies while surrounded by rubble. Old men with tear-stained faces, looking incredulously at the destruction around them. Protests and endless op-eds and debates dominate conversations. But before I get to that… first a word about butterflies.

I was recently in a meeting with colleagues in Colombia. The conversation started to get tense as we talked about differences in approaches. Suddenly, one of the team members lifted her hands, crossed her arms, linked her thumbs together and gently and rhythmically tapped her palms to her chest. Staff shared that they had learned about the motion, called a butterfly hug, from a trauma training. The butterfly hug helped calm down a flight or fight response, and nonverbally signaled to others in the room that the conversation or topic was generating anxiety.

The whole thing felt very fitting, because it was in Colombia during the peace negotiations  between the Colombian government and the FARC, that I learned to look for butterflies. A quote that circulated everywhere during that time was from Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “Tell Mauricio Babilonia to let loose the yellow butterflies in Macondo; the war is over.”

The peace process wasn’t and still isn’t perfect. Armed conflict still exists in Colombia. Yet for me, those yellow butterflies became a call to “both/and.” To both work for the fullness of the arrival of the butterflies and to also celebrate, notice and honor the glimpses of peace that were already at play, even as conflict carried on. Searching for butterflies became a gesture of hope and action that provided space to continue the creative work of peace.

Once I started to look, I could see butterflies everywhere. While it was sometimes devastatingly hard, there was also joy: ultimate frisbee games played by young people coming together to learn dialogue skills with young people from other communities who had been labelled as “enemies” during the conflict; women engaging in trauma healing; prisoners set free; curiosity in polarized spaces; armed groups coming together to try a new way of solving conflict by using words, rather than weapons; people extending forgiveness and choosing to break the cycle of violence.

And sitting in that meeting room I was, once again, seeing those butterflies, just in a different way, as my colleague expressed her fears during a tense conversation with a simple hand gesture. As the news of Palestine and Israel fills my heart and my newsfeed, I wonder if the glimpse of that butterfly, an expression of our fears and anxieties and hopes and dreams, is where our call to be peacemakers is inviting us to show up.

In that meeting, the butterfly was a way to see beyond a disagreement and to notice and name the fear and anxiety, the humanness, in the underlying tension in the room. Being able to “see” the anxiety through the butterfly hand gestures completely changed the conversation. Instead of presenting ourselves as adversaries arguing facts about a situation, we became coworkers trying to hold multiple pieces of a conversation and work toward a shared goal. In fact, when I look back, it was exactly the moments of shared humanity that allowed me to notice the yellow butterflies of hope in Colombia.

The butterfly hug is a call to peacemaking, centered human dignity and individual peace. But finding that peace and dignity during trauma or conflict isn’t easy. But as I learned in Colombia, easy is not often synonymous with joy. Easy is not synonymous with lifegiving work. We believe and follow a God of restoration. An enemy-loving God who calls us to disarm our responses to one another and look for something more. It’s a call to look for the butterflies, where we find both hope and anxiety.

Here at MCC, we are actively advocating for an end to violence in Palestine and Israel and work toward a sustainable and just peace because we believe that every single life has value.

Yet, as we call for disarmament in the Middle East, I’m pondering how to disarm my response to neighbors who are also deeply impacted by what they are seeing on the news or, also like me, may know friends or family members in the midst of the conflict.

Despite the urgency to respond, to do something, anything, I am learning to pause and ask where fear and anxiety and uncertainty are present, in myself and others. I’m trying to ask questions about where people are hurting and where they see hope, rather than starting a conversation with my facts to convince people to agree with me.

Can we lament together over violence because of a shared belief that each life is precious and move forward from that space toward a call to end violence? Can we extend mercy because God first extended mercy to us? Can we remind ourselves that it is not about being pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli, but rather, pro-human?

As I witnessed in Colombia, starting from that place of human dignity is the only way we can move forward, together, in a way that breaks cycles of violence and allows something new to emerge. It is also exactly the space where you are the most likely to notice the butterflies.

Jesus’ call for us to love our enemies is a call against dehumanization. It’s also a call to flourishing. Seeing others as human, as reflections of the divine, and responding in kind, is an avenue to joy (but, of course, not easy). There is nothing more beautiful than encountering difference and finding God, right there, already at work and inviting us to join in.

Reflect:

  • When you feel your body get tense in the midst of a challenging situation, consider that tension as an invitation to look for butterflies. Does that change how you are able to engage in the conversation or challenge?
  • What does Jesus’ invitation to love our enemies look like for you in your family, church or neighborhood as you engage or are faced with tough political conversations?
  • Get together with a friend or family member and share moments of joy that have emerged in the midst of challenging situations. What were some of the elements present that allowed you to see God at work?

 

Anna Vogt is director of Advocacy and Public Policy at MCC Canada’s Peace and Justice Office

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