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August 19, 2004

Reflections from an Australian Peace Activist

Living Room Dialogue with Margaret Bearlin

Margaret Bearlin from Australia is a long time member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, recently returned from their World Congress and from a retreat with the Thich Nhat Hahn community. Margaret is a long-term activist in the peace movement in Australia and has taught Women's Studies in Canberra University for many years.

We have asked Margaret to consider the following questions to initiate a dialogue for all of us.

-What effect does your nationality have on your initiatives to promote peace in this world?

-What effects does your spirituality have on these initiatives?

-What experiences do you have of other generations (younger or older) regarding these questions?


Margaret began with some personal history regarding her religious and national background. She was raised in a Protestant tradition that stressed that duty was noble and important. It was important to be morally right, and there was great awareness of the need for justice.

In her family, being female was not a hindrance - She grew up thinking she could do anything.

She was 15 at the end of WWII, a very idealistic time when so many wanted a world of peace and sharing.

In the 1950s she traveled to England where, as an Australian, she was treated with condescension as a colonial. This was a shock.

Her reaction was a stubborn "nobody is going to tell me what I'm going to be."

She thinks Australians, as a people, have a sense of fairness and generosity. Despite the history of white Australia's racism in relation to aborigines and its dreadful immigration policy, prejudices seem to disappear when people meet each other face to face. She was raised to think that it was important to help others, as for example, stopping to help someone who was stuck along the road. Hospitality and sharing were important.

As for initiatives for peace: She has been connected with the peace movement for 50 years. Her two brothers were involved in the Communist Party and their phone was tapped, but she did not experience that kind of attention. Her activism was associated with churches. She was influenced by the Iona Community of Scotland and Christian socialists. Her watchword was "Our work is our worship." Sharing bread meant not only celebrating the Eucharist but feeding the hungry. Her work had both political and religious significance.

Later on after she became involved in the women's movement, she withdrew from the church because of patriarchal structure and language.

She continues to believe that good is more powerful than evil and that love is more powerful than fear.

When she came overseas in 1956 to a left-wing conference, she returned through China and Russia convinced more than ever that "we are all brothers." She has never forgotten the devastation that remained in Warsaw and Moscow.

She joined the Quakers 15 years ago. Because of the silence of the devotions, the problem of patriarchal language did not come up so much.

In the last four months she has been traveling in Europe and the U.S. because her niece was married in May in Germany and she wanted to attend a WILPF meeting in Sweden in August. She renewed her connection with the Iona Community in Scotland, visited and meditated at Thich Nhat Hahn's Buddhist Retreat Center at Plum Village in France for a week and then to the Taize community where they sing all the time, so she has had a variety of spiritual experiences recently.

Her conviction that God is only love has been strengthened. She feels she cannot be involved in peace actions unless she becomes more peaceful herself.

Walking the labyrinth in Chartres has been significant in reclaiming the feminine.


The following observations were made as the dialogue proceeded following Margaret's presentation:

  • Fear and hate are related. The way fear is being promoted in the media is very disturbing. I'm concerned about what my children are learning. How come nobody is standing up to the manipulation?
  • Why do people need an enemy? Is this a human sin?
  • I don't want to minimize the tragedy of September 11 but in a way it was an equalizer. Most of the rest of the world has to live with potential disaster all the time. People here tend to be very self absorbed. How you choose to respond to fear is important. I believe in taking the road to be kind.
  • We're living in a big country. We think of ourselves as self-sufficient. We are too insular.
  • I have been to retreats at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center. I have been impressed that they refuse to speak bad about anybody, including political figures like Bush. They insist that using peaceful language is part of creating peace.
  • Margaret said she likes the Quakers because of their idea that there is that of God in every person. She would like to practice that in thinking about their prime minister, John Howard, but has difficulty with that because of his reactionary policies. At a Quaker gathering one time, she met a man who was the mediator between Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk. He had to take a position alongside each. He said you do not have to be a social activist and a reconciler at the same time, which was a relief to me. It's very important to take social action at this time for the sake of the world.
  • A turning point in my life was in 1973 when I was inspired by statement of American bishops that it is essential to act for justice.
  • When reading the gospels, it's hard to justify taking up the sword.
  • The labyrinth is a spiritual tool for peace.
  • What brings me closer to peace is these meetings. It's hard at home bringing up a teenager who wants to argue all the time.
  • I work with young people of all ages. I am struck by the fact that they have had no exposure to spiritual ideas or practice. They only want to connect with computer games.
  • I work with young people in a college and find that find that it sometimes is part of development to reject your tradition. I do see them looking for spiritual alternatives. For another positive example, the Network is connected to a group call iEARN which connects youth internationally who are concerned about issues.
  • Video games are scary. They feature violent activity and seem to foster living in a fantasy world disconnected from reality. The goal is not to interact with people.
  • Margaret -- It prepares them to be bomber pilots who can drop bombs on Afghanistan while being detached from what they are doing.
  • I feel I lack a world vision, although I do much service.
  • Margaret -- Everything we do that promotes justice helps to create peace. I took a booklet on women and sustainability to a UN member. That's a small thing but it counts. I believe that until women are involved at every level of society there will not be a sustainable peace. When that happens there is less violence against women and there is evidence that educated women make for a more peaceful society.
  • Violence results when we project our shadow side because we can't accept the shadow in ourselves.

Every CIL dialogue concludes with the question, What have you learned in our discussion this evening? Have you had a new insight?


  • Realization of the power of the circle [the group was sitting roughly in a circle].
  • Importance of meditations and reflections. Want to share with daughter and self.
  • Peace is fighting ugliness, making beautiful light and color.
  • Great to be in the midst of a powerful group.
  • Challenging to talk about spirituality being a motivation - not able to speak about it easily.
  • Likes the idea of LRD and will take it back to Australia. This room is an example of the peaceable kingdom.
  • The media causes damage, video games and violent cartoons.
  • We have to share with the world how we feel about spirituality and peace.
  • Even in the struggle we have to bring everybody along. Even the negative energy belongs to us. We can't be separated. This is "us."


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