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This Is the Way... The Wheat Doesn't Know Hate

by Robin Webber

"Winning the war, but losing the peace" is a well-known maxim in history. It is well known because it is repeated generation by generation, conflict by conflict, continent by continent. It brings to mind the daring dynamism that Jesus' beatitude forcefully stated in Matthew 5:9, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God." Peace, like war, must be waged with vision, imagination, self-sacrifice and a big dash of hope! One such peacemaker, U.S. Army Major Steve Russell, is currently "waging peace" or at least trying to in one of the globe's toughest neighborhoods-the Balkans. And yes, between you know who-the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo.

Valerie Reitman, a Los Angeles Times staff writer, describes Major Russell's vision, sacrifice and frustration in an article titled "Kosovo Harvest Yields Bounty of Ethnic Mistrust" (Los Angeles Times, August 22).

Let's read his story, which is a good illustration of the self-sacrificing and painstaking blow-by-blow steps real leaders of vision must employ to establish the peace. Not presidents, dignitaries or committees that come and go, sign treaties and go home to a distant land, but the real, on-the-scene person who strives to accomplish the "grunt work" of day-by-day, sometimes moment-by-moment hand-holding of people who only know how to hate one another. I think you will find his work informative, educational and very real-because even though "good guys don't always come in first," they are the first to keep on trying, because it's the right thing to do.

"Just Get Them Thinking"

Reitman begins the story of Major Russell by describing harvest time in Kosovo. "Two Apache gunships hover overhead, and a dozen armed soldiers stand poised by a remote wheat field. It's 7 a.m. and the moment of truth for 'Operation Harvest' is at hand. Major Russell hopes to entice the farmers to reap their fields together in return for free gas and heavy security. 'Even a baby step will be progress,' Russell insists. 'If we can just get them thinking about the small things like harvesting the wheat instead of looting and burning each others houses,' the Oklahoman says, 'it'll be a big start.'"

A silver-tongued idealist whose oratorical skills have earned him the nickname "Governor" in the Army combat unit known as the Big Red One, Russell, 36, is one of the senior operations people at the helm of the 5,000 man and woman peacekeeping force in Kosovo. He is the epitome of the New Age soldier's evolution from fighter to peacekeeper as ground wars become fewer and farther between. "This isn't attacking a hill," he says, "but it is about coming up with the same techniques to solve a problem."

Reporter Reitman relates how Russell recently returned a cow to its rightful owner, seeking to build trust in a Serbian community through a symbolic gesture. A Serbian farmer had complained that an ethnic Albanian in a nearby village had stolen his cow. Russell accompanied the Serbian farmer to retrieve the animal, which clearly recognized its owner. "Is that your cow?" Russell recalls asking an ethnic Albanian. "But what about my cows?" replied the Albanian, whose cows were stolen during the war. "We'll worry about your cows later," Russell said as the Serb walked off with cow in tow. The Serbian town is now less hostile towards the U.S. forces.

"You Don't Understand the History"

Reporter Reitman puts voice to the overwhelming task at hand by relating Russell's stonewall response against intolerance. "They tell me, 'You don't understand the history,' says the major who has a degree in military history. 'I tell them, we don't want to know anything about the history, anything about the hate. I have no desire to hear it and every desire to be impartial.'"

Russell's response reminds me of the story of the man who rushed into the marriage counselor's office and said, "You've got to help me! My wife is historical!" "You mean hysterical," replied the counselor. "No, I mean historical," replied the man. "She keeps bringing up the past." This proverbial dilemma between a married couple would confront Russell in an even more powerful way in a greater arena. Major Russell pursued solutions to replace the hysteria and history. The really big issue is not the past, but the present reality of getting wheat out of the fields and into the flour mills before the summer rains begin, so that there will be bread come winter.

The major gathered all of the local village mayors, both Serb and Albanian, and sat them down in a gymnasium heavily guarded by U.S. forces. He laid out a plan of how the towns would be divided into two co-ops. He delineated how Serbs and Albanians would be issued free fuel and supplied legitimate IDs to insure security during the harvest. The Times staff writer shares the moment of Russell's striving to unite both sides in a common cause.

"This plan is about sharing your assets, sharing your sweat and reaping the benefits." Russell uses his background as the son-in-law of a chicken farmer to try to create common bonds. He concludes with, "I take a risk for your peace every day, and I'm not even from your country. Why don't you take a risk for peace?"

"But the War Spoiled Everything"

Day in and day out, meeting after meeting, Russell looked for some ray of hope. Any breakthrough! Finally, the Serb mayors were willing to cooperate.

Traditionally, the three combines in the Serbian village of Pasjane would harvest the fields of the Albanian town of Lastetia, which doesn't have harvesting machines. Dobrivoje Paunovic, 53, broke forth, "It's a good idea! We always worked together. We had many friends, who were Albanian, and for 20 years we lived together, but the war spoiled everything. We're willing to help them because the wheat doesn't recognize the hatred" [emphasis added].

Separately, the ethnic Albanians agreed, but in the same breath said it could not work. It is a dialogue that echoes throughout the region. "How can you cooperate when the Serbs massacred us, burned down our village and killed 24 of our villagers?" replied Mustaf Berisha. Told of his former Serb friend's remarks, he got particularly angry: "He's the very man who led police in to our village-the one distributing arms to everybody in the village, even the children." Paunovic strongly denied everything.

There's more than wheat standing tall out on the farm. There is a high wall of well-founded fear that can only be torn down by people who can move beyond the past. To be stuck in the past is to be bound in the present, which in turn denies any future-be it for the Serb, the Albanian or for anyone reading this column.

Forgiveness Is Very Costly

Author Tim La Haye in his book Anger Is a Choice (pages 111-112) quotes David Augsburger's The Freedom of Forgiveness: "Forgiveness is very costly. It costs you, not the person being forgiven. Forgiveness means that justice will not always be fulfilled. Forgiveness does not rebuild the house that has been burned down by someone carelessly playing with matches. Forgiveness does not always put a broken marriage back together. Forgiveness does not restore virginity to the rape victim. Forgiveness is letting go. It is the relaxation of your 'death grip' on the pain you feel."

Augsburger seemingly could have been in the gym in Kosovo listening and watching Major Russell referee between the two opposing sides. He continues, "Forgiveness seems too easy. There should be blood for blood. Eye for eye. Yes, you can knock out a tooth for a tooth in retaliation, but what repayment can you demand from the man who has broken your home or betrayed your daughter or ruined your reputation?"

Augsburger concludes by quoting an old saying. "Doing an injury puts you below your enemy; avenging an injury makes you but even with him; forgiving it sets you above him!"

Seemingly, the Serbs and Albanians remain at the level of eye for eye and tooth for tooth. Such a village, such a country, such a world leaves everyone toothless and blind and the "wheat that doesn't recognize hatred" is left to rot in the field. Few of us have experienced the horrors visited upon many of the Balkan people of varied ethnic and religious backgrounds whose only reason for injury was "they were different." Personally, humanly, we, too, wouldn't want to budge. How will the cycle of pain ever end?

Another Time, Another Harvest

Long ago at another time of harvest, two peoples that were enemies came into the field to work together. The book of Ruth vividly describes the story of the young Moabitess working alongside the residents of Bethlehem. Her people and the House of Israel had been enemies for some time. It took courage for Ruth to come to glean the field, courage for Boaz to welcome her to his field and courage for her fellow harvesters to remain in the field with her. What would the people back in Bethlehem say?

There is a unique similarity between the efforts of Boaz and Major Russell. Both cared, both thought ahead, both were willing to make provisions. Both were willing to take risks. Both protection and substance were offered. Notice how in Ruth 2:8 Boaz states, "Do not go to glean in another field, nor go from here." He will make his stand for this stranger, here-and not pass the responsibility to someone else. In verse 9, Boaz reminds Ruth of how he "commanded the young men not to touch you." Her place and protection are now assured. But you can't do much on an empty stomach.

Notice 2:14. "Come here, and eat of the bread, and dip your piece of bread in the vinegar." Yes, a total sharing of resources. My favorite verse is found just a little further down in verse 16. "Also let grain from the bundles fall purposely for her; leave it that she may glean, and do not rebuke her." Boaz was planning ahead for this Moabitess' success at harvest. No Apache helicopters, no town meetings, no combines. Sometimes it just means one person standing taller than the wall of hate that divides people.

Perhaps most importantly, and what is most telling, is that he focused on Ruth's personal qualities and not on her national or ethnic characteristics.

Notice verses 11 and 12: "And Boaz answered and said to her, 'It has been fully reported to me, all that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, and how you have left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom you did not know before.

"'The Lord repay your work, and a full reward be given you by the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.'" Notice how he focuses on her individual achievements of family loyalty, courage and hard work. Simply put, he was focusing on what she was doing, not where she came from.

Powerful focus with a powerful outcome. Little wonder Boaz is likened to a type of the compassionate and caring Christ-the ultimate Prince of Peace Who sees to the needs of His people.

Who Failed? The Wheat or the People?

But not all stories have a happy ending, especially in this present age. "Operation Harvest" engineered by Major Russell in Kosovo suffered a tremendous setback as news circulated that 14 Serbs were massacred while farming elsewhere in Kosovo. He continued to encourage both sides to work together. Finally, when there was a step forward, bad weather postponed the effort for a day. The next day, the Albanians drove their tractors to the fuel distribution point, which was in a Serbian village. Things quickly turned ugly. There was only enough diesel for 10 farmers, which annoyed the Serb townspeople who ordered the Albanians out of town before any fuel was distributed. Old tensions flared again! The two sides simply would not work together.

Times staff writer Reitman declares "Operation Harvest has failed" because this was more than simply about a harvest of wheat reaped by combines. It was about the possibility of a combined future for two peoples in one land.

In Major Russell's section of Kosovo the question must be asked, Who failed? The wheat, the people or Major Russell? I think you know the answer.

In knowing that answer, Matthew 9:37-38 takes on new relevance for us. "Then He said to His disciples, 'The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.'" The focus is not so much on the harvest as it is on the need for harvesters to come to the fore. Men and women of vision, courage and sacrifice who will rise above the cycle of human conflict, and who desire to achieve the extraordinary even if it be in small steps. Men and women who understand the godly equation found in Luke 19:17, that if we have been faithful over little, He will grant us to be faithful over much.

Not everyone will appreciate at this time the message we have to preach both by our words and life's actions. But it still has to be said and done. One American officer a long way from home is trying to make a difference. I picture him even now slowly and steadily wading into the waving autumn wheat that doesn't know hate. Although he seems to be alone, he is not. The vision that motivates him says to all, "whether you come or not, this is the way, walk you in it." WNP

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