An explosion of tweets and pundit opinions shot off recently when President Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Obama was moving his way through a line of international leaders that included Castro and chose to take the high road by shaking Castro’s hand and sharing pleasantries. The response to Obama’s actions have ranged from Cuban-American political leaders disappointed he didn’t address human rights abuses in Cuba to one senior U.S. Senator who compared the handshake to Neville Chamberlain (British Prime Minister from 1937-1940) shaking hands with Adolf Hitler in the lead up to World War II.
Each morning my wife and I try to absorb as much of the newspaper as we are capable during the brief moments of calm in our house. While reading the story about the Obama-Castro handshake with one eye, I watched my three boys (twins who are 22 months and a four year old) play and at multiple times disagree over many issues related to their toys. Patrick wanted a cardboard box that Ben had been using for a hockey rink. James wanted to push his stuffed Grover doll around in the stroller, which Patrick decided he wanted after he lost possession of the cardboard box, etc., etc. There were numerous interventions by both of us to make peace during this very brief breakfast respite:
“Use your words. Calmly tell him how what he is doing makes you feel.”
“Keep your hands to yourself if you are not able to play nicely.”
“Find ways to work together.”
These phrases are part of the daily mantra in our house. They are grounded in the ideas that we try to solve problems without using violence, use respectful words and actions to express how we are feeling and ultimately try to find ways to work together to be a happy family. These are tough lessons when you are not quite two, still tough when you are four, and based on the Twitter uprising critiquing President Obama’s handshake, tough even when you “grow up.”
Should President Obama have shaken President Castro’s hand? If it were me, I think I would have approached an encounter with President Castro the same way I ask my children to approach problems they encounter while playing together:
1. Be Respectful – By shaking Castro’s hand, Obama demonstrated a respect for Castro that sets a standard for how we hope Castro and Cuba can treat its own citizens and those who come to their country. The Obama administration has already made numerous steps toward opening up dialogue and interaction since 2008. Cuba will also need to continue to make great strides in protecting human rights;
2. We do not solve problems with violence – Okay, this is a tough one because of course as a country we solve problems with violence all the time (drones, militarizing our border, capital punishment, etc.). However, in the “handshake” scenario maybe the less violent approach is to be civil and respectful and not bolt into attack mode just because we have the chance. Mission accomplished in this instance;
3. Our family (ie. our global community in this case) needs to find ways to work together to be happy – Is our situation with Cuba one that is creating global happiness? That term is clearly a little euphoric for geopolitical scenarios, but our tumultuous relationship with Cuba has created long-term isolation for many families over the past fifty years. A handshake may not achieve global happiness, but it might encourage both countries to take small steps that make a difference in peoples’ lives.
I don’t know if anything will come of the infamous handshake. Nor do I know if the compromise of Grover being allowed to ride in the stroller pushed by James for 10 minutes and then carried in a cardboard box by Patrick for 10 minutes is going to change the world. However, I do think Mother Teresa is right, “peace begins with a smile,” and maybe a handshake too.
ORIGINAL IMAGE SOURCE: Hurriyet Daily News
Chris joined the Ignatian Solidarity Network (ISN) as executive director in 2011. He has over fifteen years of experience in social justice advocacy and leadership in Catholic education and ministry. Prior to ISN he served in multiple roles at John Carroll University, including coordinating international immersion experience and social justice education programming as an inaugural co-director of John Carroll’s Arrupe Scholars Program for Social Action. Prior to his time at John Carroll he served as a teacher and administrator at the elementary and secondary levels in Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. Chris speaks regularly at campuses and parishes about social justice education and advocacy, Jesuit mission, and a broad range of social justice issues. He currently serves on the board of directors for Christians for Peace in El Salvador (CRISPAZ). Chris earned a B.A. and M.A. from John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio. He and his family reside in Shaker Heights, Ohio.