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M.J. Watts: Reflections on the World Summit on Peace

Recently, I had the privilege of attending the World Summit on Peace and International Leadership Conference in New York sponsored by the Universal Peace Federation. Over 300 distinguished delegates from around the world gathered, including current and former heads of state and government, women leaders and current and former first ladies, parliamentarians, and religious leaders. In addition to these primary groups, other delegates were in attendance, representing civil society, academia, the private sector, media, and the arts. The theme of the summit was “Building a World of Peace and Global Solidarity.”

The program featured several summit sessions on topics related to the general theme as well as presentations on the universal values and best practices that are necessary to create a world in which the people of every region, race, nationality, culture, and religion live together in peace. The summit explored the root causes of conflict and the ways we can move together beyond conflict, inequality, and division toward reconciliation and prosperity as one family under God.

Though I don’t agree with all of the philosophy values espoused by the convening organization or the presenters, I did find the presentations intellectually stimulating, thought-provoking, and worthy of consideration. Two presentations that particularly stood out were those by Rev. Ruth Wenger, Moderator of the New York City Council of Mennonite Churches, who spoke on the “Impact That Trauma Has on People” and the presentation by Honorable J. Alex Tyler, Speaker of the House of Representatives from Liberia. Speaker Tyler spoke on the “Critical Issues in Africa.” Both presentations contained practical applications for Charleston, West Virginia, as well as any other city in America.

In her presentation, Rev. Wenger stated that our religious convictions and belief systems can either exacerbate or ameliorate conflict during times of trauma and stress. If one believes that their religion grants them religious superiority or divine favor, then in times of conflict one can justify escalating the conflict to accomplish one’s goals.  Whereas, if one embraces religious views that emphasizes the equality of individuals and the value of life, then one will seek to deescalate conflict whenever possible.

Rev. Wenger also said that trauma creates a ripple effect that results in change; however, trauma itself doesn’t determine the direction of the change but rather how we view the trauma. She stated that if we view trauma as a threat to our security, then we are more likely to retaliate. If we view trauma as loss, we’ll be more likely to respond with grief, loneliness, and withdrawal. If we view trauma as a challenge to be reckoned with, it can lead to growth and development. A most profound statement she made was that unaddressed, unhealed trauma can lead to a cycle of violence, especially if the trauma is viewed as having been intentionally inflicted.

A second insightful presentation was made by Speaker Tyler. He shared that Liberia is considered to be Africa’s oldest independent country. It is also one of the poorest with a total GNP of only US$190 million and with a per capita income of a meager US$102. Speaker Tyler went on to discuss the major contributors to Liberia’s dilemma, namely, massive poverty, family breakdown, corruption, inter-tribal conflict, and the breakdown of the rule of law. As he spoke it sounded like he was referring to just about any urban area in America.

In his comments on Liberia’s education system, Speaker Tyler stated that the education system left in Africa by the colonial masters did not leave the African government with the infrastructure to self govern. In his comments regarding the Liberian economy, he stated that the colonial masters maintained market control of resources and of goods manufactured in Africa long after their departure. His comments regarding Liberia’s post colonial educational system sounded like a quote from Carter G. Woodson’s book The Miseducation of the Negro (In America), and his statement regarding the post-colonial Liberian economy is an apt description of the post-slavery Jim Crow sharecropping system in the U.S. South.

When questioned as to why he would dwell on Liberia’s painful past, Speaker Tyler responded that we should not apologize for stating that we have been hurt in the past, for we cannot understand our present and chart our future without an accurate understanding of the past.

I had the privilege of briefly speaking with Speaker Tyler at the conference. I shared with him that his presentation sounded like a commentary on African-American cities in the United States. His response was arresting. He said, "You have President Obama, now tell your youth that they must work harder."

The hope and optimism embedded in Speaker Tyler’s comments were echoed by most of the world leaders attending the conference. The leaders from the African countries beamed with pride when speaking about President Obama.  One African leader speaking from the podium stated that an African country, Kenya, had given America her first African-American President. He went on to share with pride that President Obama celebrated his inauguration by drinking wine that was produced in South Africa.

My roommate during the conference was Professor Dr. Longin Pastusiak from Warsaw, Poland. Professor Longin currently teaches international politics and U.S. history in Warsaw.  He studied at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and served as Speaker of the Poland Senate before retiring from politics. Professor Longin says he and other Polish citizens danced in the streets at the news of Obama’s victory. He said the same happened in France, Germany, and other European countries. When I asked him why was there such European support for Barack Obama, he replied because America is the last best hope for world peace through diplomacy, and President Obama may be diplomacy’s best spokesperson.

I have always been thankful that I was an American citizen, but I never felt more proud of my country, after attending the World Summit on Peace.


Note: Click to read texts of presentations by Rev. Ruth Wenger and Hon. J. Alex Tyler.