The persistent widows of Liberia

A story of persistent widows, and the challenge to a middle class congregation. (Listen.)

I want to tell you about some incredibly brave and inspiring women of faith … who threatened to take all their clothes off! The story goes like this. After many years of civil war, the women of Liberia had had enough. Their husbands were being killed or pressed into the army. Their sons were being abducted, turned into soldiers, drugged, and forced into killing members of their own families. Their daughters were being kidnapped and abused. Their own bodies were being used for violence and, through this, they were being infected with disease. Their crops were burned; their villages destroyed; their society torn apart. They had to walk miles to find food and clean water. They were sick, exhausted, grief-stricken, traumatised, and absolutely fed up.

A small group of women decided enough was enough. Their leader, Leymah Gbowee, declared, ‘In the past we were silent, but after being killed, raped, dehumanized, and infected with diseases, and watching our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying NO to violence, and YES to peace.’

Gbowee and Comfort Freeman, both women church leaders, formed a Christian women’s peacebuilding network; a Muslim women’s network soon followed; and in time the networks joined together. They met daily at the local fish markets, where they prayed and sang for peace; day by day God added to their number. As a sign of unity, the women wore only white; to minimise visible class and religious differences, they wore no jewellery or make up. These women of all ages were from diverse religious, ethnic and class backgrounds, but together they formed one body: the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace.

At that time, Liberian women had little formal power and were largely excluded from peacemaking efforts. But after prayer and reflection, they came up with an unusual action: the women of Liberia went on a sex strike. Seek peace and pursue it, they said to the men, or you will not get to sleep with your wives. The sex strike made some powerful men very frustrated; and other men, who were not fighters but who had not taken a stand against the violence, began to speak up. More importantly, however, the strike caught the attention of the media and the international community, and the movement grew.

Over time, thousands of women participated in pray-ins and nonviolent protests, demanding an end to war. The pressure eventually led President Charles Taylor to meet with them, and the women extracted a promise from him: that he would attend peace talks with the rebel leaders. They then turned to the rebel leaders, and finally persuaded them to attend peace talks, too. The talks would be held a thousand miles away, in Ghana.

Although they had no formal role in the talks, hundreds of women travelled to be there. They wore white, to symbolise peace, and they staged a prayerful sit in. They filled the corridors and talked peace to any negotiator who moved between rooms. They surrounded the building and blocked the doors and windows. When negotiators tried to leave – even by jumping out the windows – the women calmly threatened to strip. In many cultures, it’s not embarrassing to be naked: but it’s humiliating to see someone else naked. The women’s threat to take off their clothes was so shameful to the men that they stayed in the building until, at last, an agreement for peace was signed. And this agreement included women in the peacebuilding process.

The civil war had lasted for fourteen long and terrible years. Many people had been killed; a third of the population had been displaced. The women’s prayerful, persistent and creative actions brought it to a close. They showed that peace does not require more power, more violence, more domination, or bigger guns. It does not take an army, but a group of powerless people who are willing to pray and pray and pray.

Three things strike me about the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. First, the women did not wait to be healed before acting. Most if not all of them had been direct victims of terrible violence; most if not all of them had seen families torn apart and loved ones killed or destroyed; very many of them had been displaced from their homes. Yet even in their woundedness and brokenness, they gathered, they prayed, they sought peace, and they acted. Perhaps they remembered the words of the prophet Jeremiah: ‘Seek the peace of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its peace you will find your peace.’ (Jeremiah 29:7). And perhaps they remembered, too, that those who protect their own lives lose them; while those who give their lives away for the sake of Jesus Christ and the gospel receive life in abundance.

The second thing I want to note is that the peace they sought was not the world’s peace. It wasn’t violent; it wasn’t vengeful; it didn’t involve yet another army. Instead, it united women of various factions and faiths and ethnicities and classes; and it brought peace to everyone.

Third, this peace did not come about because God waved a magic wand. It came about because of the women. When they began praying for peace, I’m sure none of them thought they would go on a sex strike, or end up in another country staging a sit in and threatening to take off their clothes. Yet that is the strange power of persistent prayer; for when people pray for change together, God changes them. God makes them brave enough and determined enough and creative enough to dream up powerfully effective nonviolent acts; and God’s power flows through them and helps them endure. Those of us who pray for peace and justice had better be prepared, because God is likely to answer by setting our own hearts on fire, and placing our feet on a path which is long and difficult.

But do we pray for peace and justice? Do we really? For we are not Liberian women. We are not visibly oppressed; instead, we are born into a country and class which is more often the oppressor. Like it or not, we are invaders living in occupied territories. Like it or not, we are materially wealthy, not because of our own efforts but because of an economy built on dispossession, extractive industries, and the exploitation of labour. Like it or not, we face catastrophic climate collapse, but we are unlikely to bear the brunt of it; instead, the world’s poor will suffer even more.

So are we like the widow in tonight’s gospel story, nagging for justice? Or are we more like the judge, unmoved by the widow’s need? Do we align ourselves with the poor and marginalised, or do we ignore the niggles, and reach for the remote? ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,’ says Jesus, ‘than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God’: and even middle class wealth can be deadening.

Sanctuary began as a safe haven for wounded hurting people to rest and recover: and we have tried to be faithful to that vision. And that vision is important and good. But if we seek deep healing, deep peace, and full and flourishing life, these stories suggest that we must go further. We must prayerfully unite with the widows of this world, not just in our professional lives, not just in client relationships, but as brothers and sisters together; and we must hand ourselves over to the transforming power of the gospel.

But I wonder, is this what we really seek? Is there anything we care enough about that we would meet regularly and pray persistently and beg God for justice? Is there anything that matters so much to us that we would allow God to crack open our hearts, and change us, and lead us into action? Is there anything for which we would join forces with diverse people of all politics, all factions, all cultures, all ages, all classes, all faiths, all sexualities and all genders?

Or are we too self-protective, too busy, and too damn comfortable?

Jesus tells his disciples that God will quickly grant justice to those who cry to him day and night. ‘And yet,’ he asks, ‘when the Human One comes, will he find faith on earth?’

I wonder. Ω

A reflection on Luke 18:1-8 given to Sanctuary, 20 October 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. Image found here. You can read more about the women of Liberia here; or watch the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, here.

Hello, friend

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