Will Ride for Peace
This peacemaking reflection is based on and inspired by the fascinating story involving a man named Dolkun Tunurganjan, a 31-year-old Uighur Muslim from Xinjiang, the semi-autonomous region in northwestern China. Dolkun is currently riding his motorcycle across numerous provinces and regions in China in the name of promoting greater ethnic harmony. (You can read more about his story here, in the Global Times.)
The largest geographical region in China, Xinjiang features gorgeous deserts and stunning mountains as well as ancient sites along the famous Silk Road. It also has become a volatile political landscape filled with entrenched ethnic strife and increasing outbursts of conflict between the now-majority Han Chinese and the indigenous Uighur Muslims, who, historically, maintain more cultural affinity with the peoples of Central Asia.
In Xinjiang, especially since 2009, Uighurs have experienced varied instances of discrimination, persecution and oppression. On the one hand, some say the strife and conflict are exacerbated by Chinese central government policies. On the other hand, some argue that the strife and conflict are inflamed by a growing Uighur separatist movement, which includes militant Islamist groups at the center of terrorist attacks in Kunming (in Yunnan province) in March and in Urumqi (the capital of Xinjiang) in April.
1. The ride for peace always begins with you—and within you.
In his book Living Buddha, Living Christ, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes, "Our capacity to make peace with another person and with the world depends very much on our capacity to make peace with ourselves."
Before Dolkun set out on his impassioned, improbable peacemaking mission, he spent seven years in prison for a drunken rape. He had to come to some very serious terms with himself, in a Chinese prison, before he could imagine what he might do to redeem himself when he got out.
Stanley Hauerwas says that to take the non-violent path essentially means to open ourselves to others in order to discover where the violence is in our own life. Dolkun would know, and his example reminds us.
Interestingly, while trekking China, he rides his motorcycle draped with a banner—proudly if not rather hopefully—proclaiming, "The Xinjiang people live in harmony with people of all ethnic groups." But, of course, to give that banner any true meaning at all, the one who pronounces such things must first embody such things.
So, inescapably, peace is always ever down to you and me. Indeed, the power of the individual—without sounding like a disciple of Oprah.
Dolkun's ride also provides another useful but challenging personal provocation for peacemakers: the work of reconciliation will only happen along a road marked by sacrifice, sometimes great sacrifice. For him, the journey began in May 2013, with his wife at home and pregnant. In June 2014 he is still at it, motorcycling here and there, having yet to see or hold his six-month-old son.
2. The ride for peace necessitates creativity (in the real world) by making new narratives.
Whether speaking specifically to Christian-Muslim relations or generally on interfaith engagement, Eboo Patel, the Muslim American activist who founded Interfaith Youth Core, highlights the peculiar role of creativity in his work on university campuses. Creativity contains the break-out potential to break into the normal course of human affairs—to reverse the nightly news, as Patel likes to say.
In November 2011, I was privileged to attend a lecture by Patel at the University of Richmond called "Interfaith Leadership in a Time of Global Religious Crisis." The occasion marked the 25th anniversary of The Weinstein-Rosenthal Forum on Faith, Ethics, and Global Society. That night, Patel called interfaith leaders to a type of creative act (creative action) that makes new narratives in the middle of old ones.
By every appearance, even a Western bystander thousands of miles away can see: the Uighur/Han minority/majority narrative playing out with such intensity and negativity in Xinjiang is quite stale—and getting more stale by the minute. What is clearly and desperately needed is not more of the same: social attitudes, central or local government policies, advocacy strategies, ideological narratives.
Dolkun rides, I believe, to inject a bit of creativity into the typical proceedings of ethnic hostilities in Xinjiang and across China. And he rides, however ironically, without a map and unable to read Chinese characters, which must offer a multifaceted meaning to the phrase "against the odds."
But surely his ride goes firmly against the ethnic odds—and across the cultural grain. The odds for peace are not with him, and he is not at all following the grain. No matter: he wants to make something new from the old that is.
For the Christian peacemaker, in particular, Dolkun's ride should conjure up shalom, a Hebrew concept richly infused with the complementary notes of human well-being and wholeness, harmony and flourishing. Peacemaking toward reconciliation works to bring into wholeness all the broken pieces of a fractured human story.
Not in that dreamy, utopian, generically otherworldly sense. Instead, in that otherworldly but real-world sense in which the kingdom of God is coming on earth as it is in heaven. As Walter Brueggemann says: "The Bible is not romantic about its vision. It never assumes shalom will come naturally or automatically." In other words, you have to put yourself on a motorcycle and ride for it—against the odds and across the grain.
3. If the ride for peace is a bridge, you will inevitably get stepped on from both directions.
If human history is any indication, events are more than capable of conspiring against the purest ideals and best intentions. That is simply what events do best: they conspire against us even when we're at our best.
Referring to the terrorist attacks in Kunming (Yunnan) and Urumqi (Xinjiang), Dolkin told the Global Times, "There wouldn’t have been so many difficulties [along the ride] if not for the incidents." By so many difficulties, he means: watching the Han and others blatantly ignore him when he asks for directions; not being served by stores or restaurants because he is from Xinjiang; one night, being rejected by 18 hotels and having to sleep outside by his motorcycle; being told to his face that his people are "no good"; and, to top it off, receiving phone calls from fellow Uighurs threatening to kill him, accusing him of collaborating with the Chinese central government and urging him to stop his ride.
Dolkun seems at least somewhat surprised by the nature and extent of his road-worthy difficulties. But peacemakers really shouldn't be. In fact, Richard Rohr has given us no false comfort and every bit true reality when he says: "When you're a bridge, you may be walked on from both sides."
If he didn't know it before, Dolkun knows it now, even as he rides.
And there, in a healthy way, grows the thick skin we all need—right alongside the transformed heart and creative mind.