BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA – She hadn’t aimed for fame. All she wanted was peace for her homeland.
Liberia had been in a state of war for over 20 years with no end in sight, so Lehmah Gbowee and two friends organized a women’s protest movement and, against all kinds of resistance, that movement finally won over the general population and forced the hand of the regime to enter into peace talks. Net result: the war came to an end. One of the friends was elected president of the country. And all three were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
Gbowee addressed the Thursday morning plenary gathering of the World Council of Churches that was built around the theme of peace-making.
She remembers well the life there prior to the war. “I grew up in a community where everyone cared for everyone’s child. It was a typical African community. We shared a common oneness.”
But when she was 17, war broke out. She became a deeply angry woman, she says – angry at the warlords who were inciting the violence for their own selfish purposes, angry at the boy soldiers, most of whom had been kidnapped into service before reaching even their teen years, angry at all of the men who were brutalizing women.
She found something rising in her that was countering the rage. She wanted to do something positive to respond to that conflict. She determined to be one of the people who were going to “ensure that children are not being given drugs at [age] nine and guns at 8,” to see to it that women are not brutalized.
In the process, she discovered that apologies and forgiveness live in a circle. If you have been victimized, you can wait for the perpetrator to apologize so that you can then forgive, or you can reverse the process, forgiving the victimizer so that person can be freed to apologize. “We don’t need to wait for the person to apologize. We need to take the initiative to offer them forgiveness,” she told the audience.
She credits her church upbringing for introducing her to the reconciling power of God’s forgiveness and the need for justice. In a later press conference she also said that her pastor and church were very helpful in launching the women’s peace movement in Liberia and that the first big contribution – a gift of $5,000 – came from the Church of Denmark.
However, she also said that churches’ track records have not been consistently helpful. To those “church leaders who see injustice do nothing,” she cautioned, “you might as well join those people who shoot people because you are part of the problem.”
Peace did come to Liberia, thanks to the peace talks that were initiated, and the Nobel Peace Prize brought worldwide attention not only to the challenges facing Liberia – such as continuing troubles still being fueled by the boy soldiers themselves – but also to the power of women uniting together to institute lasting changes in societies.
The women’s movement there in Liberia is determined to continue to be a force for change. If Lehmah Gbowee’s address to the delegates and participants of the WCC is any indicator, one can expect to see much more leadership rising there and elsewhere in years to come.