×

The Butterfly Project

2 years ago

North East India has been disrupted by civil war for decades; more than 600,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. The Washington Post named it one of the six most under-reported zones of conflict in 2014. The seven states of the tiny northeast region are, unusual for India, mostly Christian and tribals. They consider themselves ‘Mongolian’ and racially distinct from the largely Caucasian Indian mainland.

The decades of violence in the North East was preceded by and, in some ways, rooted in the Partition of 1947-48, which exploded into a ‘mutual genocide’ amongst Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. The carnage was intense, characterised by massacres, arson, kidnappings and ‘savage sexual violence’[i] with 15 million uprooted and between one and two million killed. Having re-categorised Indians over their 300-year occupation into boxes that broke down centuries of shared traditions and co-existence across religions,[ii] the British Raj was succeeded by a newly independent government too preoccupied to fulfill earlier promises of autonomy in the North East. To years of agitation, the government responded by sending in heavily-armed troops. Insurgency movements formed and then, so often the story, they fragmented into factions, turning their weapons on one another, distracting them from the real cause of their suffering: Delhi’s policies of nepotism, neglect and militarisation of the region.

woman crying in front of fire

So how is it that the most Christian part of India is also the most violent? For some, the answer to that question is all too obvious in a world in which many see religion as the root cause of all evils. As Christians, to what extent does that identity inform the others – as mother, teacher, partner…? Or do our ‘tribal’ identities hold sway, our Christian identity brushed off for holy occasions only, a ‘Jesus veneer on what we were going to do anyways’? To what extent do we take seriously that saying that is arguably the most important and unusual thing that Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies.’ Do we allow those words to hang as interpretive plumbline for every other phrase, story, exhortation, rule or rhyme the Bible contains?

women in camp making meal

Turning the Bible into a tool in our peacemaking toolbox is not easy; some say, not worth the trouble. The Hebrew Testament, in particular, depicts many stories of inter-tribal one-upmanship that seem right at home in North East India: My god is better than your god; my tribe better than your tribe, my clan, my story better than your story; my rights trump your rights. The result of the use of scripture as a recruitment tool for violence, invasion, mass atrocities, apartheid or civil war is underdevelopment, destruction, refugee flows, deaths in the hundreds of thousands or more. It matters.

Miriam comes from a small village outside of Dimapur in Nagaland. She is here as part of a group of 107 women who are gathering in Guwahati from all over the North East. They are women’s department employees from each of the seven conventions and 100 local Associations. They’ve come for training in three things: women’s human rights, conflict transformation and biblical peacemaking; all to be accomplished in three days – an impossible task.

Miriam’s was an arranged marriage; ‘not a love marriage,’ she told me when we met at the compound canteen the day before the training was to begin. ‘It still isn’t.’ She has two children and lives with her father-in-law. She has the typical Asiatic epicanthic fold of the eyes, testimony to ancient migrations from the east and north; her skin is pale, her hair tinged with something ruddy, added or natural, I’m not sure. Her husband works in Arunachal Pradesh, helping to build a dam. She doesn’t see him much which is OK with her; he’s better off there than in his village.

We are interrupted by the entrance of a young teenager whom Esther introduces as her nephew, Kesonyu; in his arms is ten month-old Zelian. She accepts the baby into her arms and smoothly manoeuvres him onto her breast. Kesonyu dashes out, grateful for the reprieve. ‘Because of him,’ she says, I can be here. ‘My sister’s son.’ She smiles.

‘I love my work with the Association. I wasn’t paid last year; not yet this year. But that’s OK. We do what women are supposed to do, support one another, prepare programmes that bring women together so that we can talk and share our needs and then we figure out how to meet those needs. Sometimes the most important thing we do it talk!’ She laughs, sweet memories flashing across her face.

She becomes thoughtful, lowering her voice. ‘We’re tired,’ she says. ‘We’re so tired; tired of war, of all the violence and death. It makes no sense.’ She turns to face me. ‘Men make war, we clean up the mess.’

‘We have no say at panchayat (village council),’ she says. Unless we are summoned – usually for punishment – we don’t count. And the church is no different.’ She turns away and says into the distance as little Zelian begins to gurgle with satisfaction, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to learn here. But we want to show them that we are ready, trained! to bring peace.

Over the next three days, we sing and talk and tell stories and pray. We probe the Bible for things we didn’t even know were there. We lay the groundwork for skills in conflict transformation. We talk about how religious and cultural rights do not take priority over a woman’s rights to the integrity of her person, to freedom of movement, to marry freely, to inherit and own property, to the integrity of her person. We talk about Reservation 33%, a federal ruling mandating local governments to set aside 1/3 of the seats for women and, in Nagaland, in particular, the bloody protests by men who fear its implications for cultural practices protected in their autonomy agreement with Delhi. ‘In India,’ declared one interviewee in the Nagaland Morung Express News, ‘men are considered superior to women and that has to be taken very seriously.’

On the last day, we are doing two things. We spend the day doing ‘biblical peacemaking’ in which we poke into some of the strangest and darkest corners of our scriptures: the rapes of Tamar and of Dinah, the slaughter of the Amalekites, the rules of holy way and booty, the Levite’s concubine and Jephthah’s daughter. We also revisit familiar passages such as ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘go the extra mile’ and the Good Samaritan – plumbing them for new meaning.

In small groups, they read the text, cast and script the drama and then play it out for everyone. We ask questions like, Why did the Levite and the priest cross by on the other side? Wouldn’t just walking by be equally effective; why make such a point about it? There’s an answer to that question that lies in a theme that pervades the Bible, that of purity or holiness codes. The Hebrew people believed themselves to be different and separate, the one and only people of God with a lifelong mandate to act out their exceptionalism. Long lists of rules about behaviour and sacrifice and cultural norms, a total orientation of life, social, cultural, political and religious reminded them of their separateness. Purity codes were violated if their priests allowed even so much as their shadow to pass over a dead body. The clerics of this familiar story are demonstrating exactly the kind of rules that Jesus criticised and routinely broke: their compliance with purity regulations was more important than the life of the man left to die on the side of the road to Jericho.

women holding balloons

There’s another part of the story, as well, that we talk about, that is easy to miss. One sector of the human population for whom the Hebrew people reserved a particular hatred and, therefore, separateness, was the Samaritan. The Samaritans, in a time of place-based religion, decided at some point that God did not reside on Mount Zion in Jerusalem but on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. They packed up and left, traitors to the one true religion, the worst.

I don’t know how the man left to die could tell that the man who lifted his head to give him water, bathed his wounds with oil – was a Samaritan – no more than I know how someone in North East India can tell a Garo from a Karbi, a Rengma from a Kuki. But I imagine that he did. That he opened his eyes and, with a sharp intake of his breath, realised that he was being cared for by a Samaritan. The very last person in front of whom he would wish to be vulnerable or in need of care was giving him drink, treating his wounds and lifting him ever so gently onto his donkey. ‘Go and do likewise,’ Jesus tells the utterly horrified lawyer. Jesus is saying, as he so often does, that no one, no one at all is to be ‘othered’, fenced off as worthless, somehow less, someone we can insult, ignore, neglect, torture or kill. No one.

In my culture, I tell them, a ‘Good Samaritan’ is someone who stops to help me with my flat tire. To Jesus’ first century, Palestinian hearers, those words formed a provocative oxymoron, an outrage: there was no such thing as a GOOD Samaritan. We domesticate our scriptures to make them palatable, lowering the bar to behaviours we can manage or, as one writer put it, ‘putting a Jesus veneer on what we were going to do anyways’. We need to hear these passages with the ears of the original hearers, recapture the outrage.

The second thing we do on the last day of the training turns the room into a rambunctious, playful space. We’ve been spending each day thinking of ourselves as butterflies, day one, still cocooning, gestating who we are going to be. On the second day, the soft pupa is now cracking and drying, our wet wings unfolding through the cracks. On Day Three, the graduation ceremony is brilliant with butterflies they’ve created with coloured paper, symbolic of these Women Rising. They will take them home frame them and hang them on living room walls as a reminder to both themselves and all visitors: This Woman is an Agent of Peace!


i) William Dalrymple, ‘The Great Divide’, 29 June 2015, The New Yorker; writing on Nisid Hajari’s book, Midnight’s Furies (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).

ii) Alex Van Tunzelman, Indian Summer: The Secret History of The End of an Empire (Toronto: Pocket Books, 2007), p. 396.

Gallery