Filed under: Getting on the Way to Peacemaking | Tags: mountain top mining, Nonviolence
My Lord, what a mourning,
My Lord, what a mourning,
My Lord, what a mourning,
When the stars begin to fall.
You’ll hear the trumpet sound
To wake the nations underground,
Looking to my God’s right hand,
When the stars begin to fall.
- The Books of American Negro Spirituals, published in 1925-26 by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson
I slowed down for the curves and watched for signs to Hawk’s Nest Park as I approached Ansted. The State Park was established near Gauley Mountain on the New River where local people told me between 470 and 700 mostly African American miners died while working for Union Carbide from 1927 to 1933. The workers contracted silicosis in the mines while tunnelling through a mountain to build a hydro electric plant, one of the worst industrial disasters in the history of the Americas.
As I approached the mountain top on Highway 60 in my Ford Ranger I found myself humming the old Negro spiritual that I sang as a child, “My Lord, What a Mourning when the stars begin to fall” except in my version mourning had become morning. It was dark as I approached Ansted. The mountains were only remote shadows as snow began to fall. In the version of the song of long forgotten slaves I hum the lines that had been morphed as they travelled voice to ear over the decades..
“We’ll cry for rocks and rocks and mountains when the stars begin to fall,
Rocks and mountains they’ll not save you when the stars begin to fall.”
I searched for an hour along unlit one lane roads for Allen Johnson who would host me at a Christians for the Mountains facility. Modest homes that once housed mine workers were plentiful. As I searched for the guest house I listened to public radio for reports on the Copenhagen meeting. Finally, I gave up searching turned off the radio and called Allen. He met me at the Ansted Pharmacy and led me to the rented guest house beside a century old Baptist church. The old spiritual was still echoing from my unconscious.
As I approached my lodging I could see the outline of Gauley Mountain in the distance and Allen told me that just over the edge I would see mountain top coal removal but that would have to await the daylight. Allen had warned me that 500 mountain tops have been dynamited layer by layer in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee – Appalachia – to reach the seams of coal. The coal is carried by train, barge and truck to power plants to generate electricity and to factories where steel is fashioned.
Rocks from the blasting have buried a thousand miles of streams and destroyed 12 percent of West Virginia forests forever. The Appalachian mountains that once reached heights equalling the great Himalayas of South Asia rose 300 million years ago when coal was formed from trees, swamps and other vegetation. Part of the energy for the light that illuminates my screen as I write may come from this coal.
The price for coal is rising. Surface mining permits the only efficient access to thin seams of coal formed 50 million years before dinosaurs, that traditional underground mining can not reach. With the use of large machinery and explosives two and a half times as much coal per worker can be extracted as in underground mines.
My own life has a connection to Appalachia coal. Sixty years ago when my Northeast Ohio family used coal for heating, 125,000 people worked in the mines. Today that number has fallen to 15,000 because of mechanization. Already then, Appalachian miners with their children fled homes due to joblessness, health problems and poverty. Their special accent was a matter of curiosity in my second and third grade class. Later when I lived in Chicago the north side Uptown neighbourhood was populated by people seeking refuge from the coal fields, many suffering from black lung disease. Today Ansted is more than 60% retired people. Few residents now work in the coal mines. However, coal dust, sounds of dynamite, coal trucks, and plans for more mountain levelling threaten the town’s new vision, to transform itself into a tourist center.
On the day after I arrived people were loath to travel the mountain roads due to snow so I stopped by the Redeemer Episcopal Church. I cautiously entered the annex of the 120 year old church where ladies were holding a fund raiser. My caution was formed by a belief that an Episcopal Church like this one would have been founded to serve the owners of the mines. No sooner did I park myself in front of one of the woman’s cookie tables than I was asked, “Are you here to work to stop Mountain Top Removal?” in a tone that definitely suggested that I would be much more welcome if I would answer, “Yes”.
I asked the women selling cookies for more information about the mountains. Over hot cider and cookies a woman from the kitchen informed me that their church goes out to the mountains regularly where their priest leads participants from surrounding churches in BLESSINGS for the mountains. She inferred that these events were not popular with the coal companies. “I hope you are here the next time we do a Blessing.” said another woman.
Allen took me to visit his friend Larry Gibson at Keyford mountain twenty miles west of Ansted as the crow flies. “Thanks for finally coming to see me” said Larry who met Allen and me with a big hug and a hot cup of coffee. The use of the word “finally” in his jovial greeting was unmistakably firm. I knew it was meant for me. “We need your support.”
Larry’s family line traces its roots in Keyford mountain back 200 years and the evidence lies silently in the nearby cemeteries at least the graves that have not yet been dynamited away. Along the winding road to his mountain top memorial hide way I see the remains of another mountain that has been blasted away, a valley blocked with land fill, huge coal trucks and shards of chimneys from long burned out homes that once housed 10,000 people who lived off mining. Larry cares for the pristine property of his ancestors as a sign of resistance to dynamite, and power shovels. Five times a year on key holidays he invites hundreds of people to festivals like of celebration and remembrance of Keyford mountain.
But not all of Larry’s guests are friendly. Drunken thugs show up to frighten visitors away much like company hired goons once tried to break union organizing in the coal fields. He describes 15 years of struggle, the offers of millions to buy him out, intimidation, arrests and speaking tours before leading us out over his 59 acre mountain top spread, a living trophy to persistence and survival. We pass several cabins where distant relatives come for retreat. He points to bullet holes, a long closed store and finally we pass Hell’s Gate, the property boundary beyond which we begin to view the empty disappeared mountain top beyond.
Below I can see layers of coal and massive power shovels loading coal trucks for delivery to a processing site and later shipment for power generation. In another direction bulldozers slice off rock that has been loosened with blasts of dynamite for disposal in the valley below. A hardy but bland grass has been planted on the mountainside next to his property where mining was terminated. There are no trees, shrubs, mice or deer, just grass. I see the town of Dorothy in a hazy valley beyond, named a century ago in honour of the wife of a mining company owner.
Visiting with Larry Gibson was good preparation for the rally at West Virginia’s state capital, Charleston, called to stop mountain top removal at still another site, Coal River Mountain. The Monday, December 7 protest brought together hundreds from West Virginia and neighbouring states. Everyone gathered in front of the West Virginia state Environmental Protection Agency which has rubber stamped so many company mining initiatives. Cordoned off about 100 feet behind the rally and adjacent to the agency building were 150 counter protesters, some hired by mining companies from the village of Dorothy. Greeting many of the speakers as they rose to challenge the crowd were blood curdling blasts from the horns of coal trucks programmed by the coal industry to cruise just a block away but loud enough to be heard maybe as far away as Copenhagen,. Rally speakers creatively co-opted the horns with long chants that transformed their irritating noise barrage into future friends, “Hoooooonk if you love the mountains.”
As I departed a voice inside told me to go to wake the nations. The descendants of coal miners who live in the hollows and valleys believe that Appalachia can be saved. The industry claims that rallies like the one in Charleston are the result of outsider manipulation by tree huggers. In spite of the charges I found an expanding conviction in West Virginia that the dust of coal pollution and lakes of slime, artificial polluted reservoirs created from crushing and cleaning coal, will be stopped. When people work together to change things they create a culture for transformation.
Several days later as I pulled out of Ansted I flipped on the radio to check developments in Copenhagen. The sombre reports of disunity among the nations reminded me to be realistic but thankful for the people, some diplomats, demonstrators and lobbyists who by their actions remembered the coal fields and disappearing mountain tops. The snow had ended and the fog had lifted. I could see the mountains and knew there was hard work ahead beyond the mourning or was it morning. It’s a new year. It’s a new decade.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Politics of Empire | Tags: anti American, counter insurgency
The guest is the editor of an Urdu Newspaper and a writer of fiction known in Pakistan and India. His life in Pakistan began in 1947 when he moved with his parents here from India to find a safe home in this newly established Muslim state. We are almost the same age. From separate viewing platforms we have travelled from the 20th century into the 21st. His leathery wrinkled face betrays little emotion. But his words are firm. You give billions to this government of traitors who use it for themselves and stupid schemes that bring false security. I know he is right but can’t figure out what to say to make things better. He continues. I listen. I ask about his life, about meeting the daily deadline of a newspaper, about books. I see the excitement in his eye when he speaks of his love of writing. One of his books is about to be made into a movie by an Indian group. Occasionally he returns to more talk of traitors and the stupid international people who support them, his words. He looks at me long enough for me to know he is really thinking of the Americans.
He and his wife delivered a lovely gift of sweets in honour of the new baby that arrived six weeks earlier in the home where some of us are staying. After tea, he leaves and another guest arrives with more gifts to honour the baby. I was introduced and tried in my clumsy Midwestern way to put my best manners forward. No sooner was this second guest introduced to the visiting American and I was greeted by an even stronger barrage of anger about America. I listened. I am now into week two of my Pakistan pilgrimage and I have come to expect this list of grievances as a kind reminder of the world where I travel. Here is the list, – you want to use Pakistan when you need us, you supported the military which brought us the Taliban, 10 billion dollars over the last 8 years, you supported the Taliban against the Russians and now we are terrorized, now you support our military which destroys our democracy, and you support Israel, you make us corrupt, you just send weapons and now they are killing us. The list is completed for the moment and then the guest and I talk about life here in Islamabad.
I know and she knows that this is one of the voices of deep frustration laced with fear that is part of daily conversations here. I stumble to find threads of common perception and curiosity in the present situation. I know that identifying myself with a peace delegation will not overcome the deep feelings of betrayal, and the suspicion that I am part of the American program. Every day there are new threats of bombs, new worries for children now completing their end of year exams. And the children are angry too. I am told not to go on the streets, not to look like an American.
These moments of testing of my national citizenship are not new. I am no longer interested in being the nice American so people can like us. Polite interruptions won’t fix a pattern of barren relationships based on exploitation. International relations based on aid programs and harsh actions of military interventions have been the standard of the meandering configurations of American big power relations for so long that even the potentially useful aid is not trusted. The pattern leads to fundamental distrust that cannot be fixed with a single speech or short term policies that fix things until the next election cycle.
These tough conversations awaken me to the fears unleashed when I first viewed the falling trade towers. The American response was laced with vicious condemnations of Muslims by people from whom I expected more balance. I have heard anger before in Palestine, Iraq, Jordan and from a chorus of lips. I remember the mothers and fathers clutching their children as they pour out their soul. I know this raw emotion of anger may continue for generations. I wish it wasn’t needed. I remember my own contorted responses when 9/11 came into our American lives. The towers came down and blood flowed because of the same anger, betrayal, hatred and disappointment that I am hearing here. But I am not hearing it from Taliban. No! It is too insecure to go into the Taliban controlled territories. I will be stopped by check points. The people I talk to are afraid of the Taliban. Beheadings, car bombs and road side explosions are part of their lives. And they blame a long list of perpetrators including Americans. Anger is not always coherent. Anger just is.
At the time I hoped 9/11 would be a wake up call for a generation of fairness. Naively I thought it could mark the end of CIA and military schemes of force that too often kill other people’s children. I thought the better American lurking underneath in the shadow of bravado and star wars would be jolted and awakened. Instead we have witnessed new faceless weapons of interdiction and picture taking from the sky. And anger in the Us increases as factories that might have provided economic life fade into bankruptcy. Is this our own Taliban in the shadow?
Today I will continue my listening and I know I will hear more puffs of anger, some bold and hardened over time, others muted and leavened by the culture’s surface harmony. As I leave my quarters I will pass near the site of a projected $736 million dollar US embassy complex. Another Green Zone like Baghdad? I want to turn those thoughts off. Maybe they will give the embassy a new name. I have a suggestion – Fortress of Anger Management
Today I can still burrow my way through the suspicions of most persons I meet here. I wonder if future generations of peacemakers will find people with whom honest conversation is a still a safe possibility. Or will the political culture be the completion of a Taliban revolution?
I learn of the pain in so many people’s hearts here over a national educational curriculum put in place by an impatient military dictator anxious to build a myopic vision of Muslim society. I hear the words of regret and a testimony to the fruits of a confined educational policy in this generation of university students. Their stories of delayed protest remind me of my own delays. When have I challenged the school teachers in my family, my city or community to tell the harsh truth of America’s blundering missteps of enemy making, horror, and terror. We teach about Taliban honour killings but we don’t teach about our own honour killings. Can we tell the truth in our schools and universities?
The children here are not protected from the naked truth of terror. There are real answers, albeit painful, to the question that rippled across America in the days after 9/11 – Why do they hate us? They hate us because we are dangerous to have around.
Filed under: Getting on the Way to Peacemaking
Though the region now called Pakistan includes some of the oldest settlements in South Asia dating back thousands of years, it was only in 1947 that Pakistan became a nation state for Muslim people from colonial India who wanted a homeland. Mahatma Gandhi resisted the notion of a separate state for Muslims to the end. The India that Gandhi and his colleagues dreamed of was a heaven of diversity and a cradle of kindness towards all. He was heartbroken when up to a million people were killed during the chaos of separation from India, migration and riots.
This past week I attended a gathering here in Islamabad called Minorities Solidarity Convention, an event that recalls deeply rooted threads of unity in the diversity of this region. Christians here are now in the season of Pentecost, when they remember how the diversity of their ethnicities at the very outset melted into unity. For the first time since the founding of Pakistan, a Muslim nation set apart to protect and lift up a life of Muslim justice, the government has established a law for minorities. Here in Pakistan the definition of a minority is religious, Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist, and other. The new law calls for a five percent set aside government jobs for minorities. In addition to political representation, activists hope that this will include official curriculum in schools and other marks of toughened respect.
At its founding Pakistan was envisioned to be a secular state for Muslims. The notion of a secular Islamic state is an inherently confusing concept that suggests an autonomy for the state in the context of the dominant religion, Islam. The notion of the separation of church and state which evolved in Europe and the Americas attempts to deal with the same matter. Both approaches can be and are manipulated for political and religious ends. With the growth of Muslim fundamentalism stretching from India through Pakistan and across South Asia the meaning of the nature of a secular Muslim state is being tested. The stretch from secular on one edge is balanced (some would say abused) by the pull towards a stricter application of traditional Muslim law on the other. Similar stretching has occurred in lands dominated by Christians. Fanatic, fundamentalist and fascist expressions of faith and politics claw for power.
I don�t think it is very helpful for Christians to lecture Muslims about state craft. We Christians tend to forget the substance of our faith when we get power. We forget that in its roots Christian faith requires transparency and vulnerability. Even Christian politicians who come from the bottom usually get snookered into heavy handed institutional notions of statehood and the exercise of power complete with tanks, mines, big armies that break things, and drone air planes. Our arsenal is completed with nuclear weapons. The highest expression of our faith and maybe all faiths is very rarely shown in statecraft. Our laws, their application, our market places and even our credit cards hide our deepest aspirations for equality, peace, a do unto others.., and the cautions about usury (lending money for interest) in both religious traditions.
This year my walk in Pakistan during Pentecost Sunday brings together threads of the ancient and modern world. At Pentecost, as described in the Book Of Acts, the divine was integrated in one place where there were people of many languages and memories of ancient conflicts were rife. That Pentecost gathering 2000 years ago was an event of the people from throughout an empire who were united around the mysteries that make for unity. We can speculate that they understood Jesus in various and even in confused ways. The outpouring of the Spirit happened at their gathering in Jerusalem a tinder box city of fanaticism, oppression, gossip, armed forces, secret weapons and calls for insurgency. There was great potential for division, and violence. Instead unity broke out in the midst of all the potential for stupidity. At the Pentecost gathering people understood each other despite the boundaries created by long held suspicions and language.
Today the peoples of this region hold tightly to their separate visions and boundaries, many of which were fashioned in an earlier age of empire. The incomplete business of unity is everywhere visible to the point of violence, terror, and insurgency.
I really need to remember Pentecost this year in Pakistan where the friction of divisive convictions, some devoid of a single thread of compromise, threaten neighbourhoods, villages, cities, and nations. I am in a place where a big imperial army with faceless weapons and intelligence operatives conjoined with local military forces are poised to make things come out right.
But I am also in a place where the voices of fairness, unity and justice and peace are finding ways to listen, act, report, organize and try to live out the better vision. Creating space for minorities is a sign. There are hints of resolution in the mystery of the spirit that nudges toward truth, if the battalion who march through this place of invasion can be sent away. There are brave people here. Some days they are tired. Some may die because of their words and actions. So on this Pentecost I pray that the decimated villages of Swat and the car bombs of Lahore are not punctuation marks along the way to destruction of this once glorious Indus Valley. I pray that these are the last days of reckoning before a new unity where people who hardly talk now, will soon sing a new song together.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Digital/Star War, Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Iraq, Politics of Empire, War and Poverty | Tags: counter insurgency, digital war, drones, Human Terrain Systems, Human Terrain Teams, robotic warfare
From Viet Nam to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan a lot has changed. But some days I am surprised at how much has not changed in the approach to local people. In the absence of tools sometimes called weapons to win hearts and minds the military has turned in two directions, higher technology, and social research.
It is hard to get people to talk candidly with you about their goals, dreams, hopes and personal problems when you carry a gun. Well actually I don’t know this for sure because I have never carried a gun. But I have learned that conversations don’t go very far in villages when I enter accompanied with soldiers or if there is suspicion that I am connected to soldiers.
Modern warfare usually incorporates something called counter insurgency. An insurgency is a rebellion as in an armed movement against foreign invaders or their own government. Those who carry out insurgency usually fight with sticks, rocks, guns, and the forced or willing cooperation of the local population. Unless the powers that be kill everybody, break everything and completely cut off water and food the insurgency usually grows. Building schools, passing out candy or even building irrigation systems doesn’t usually change things fundamentally because the favours, funds and fountain of development helps one side in the community but makes those sides who do not get anything even madder. The battle is called winning hearts and minds. The notion of getting to the heart awakens the imagination to a love affair. You get to the mind through the heart. Thinking right requires consent of the heart.
To get hearts and minds headed in the right direction imperial armies and their coalition partners, local and international, need to know very precisely who leads the enemy so that they can be killed. The CIA was set up to track down the necessary information but very quickly in its history it was derailed to perform operational duties, carrying out secret attacks that could not be traced at least not right away. It takes dangerous and often gruelling decades long work to get good information. Reliable information is called intelligence but in the real world of agency intelligence the product is not always based on intelligent facts because no one was able to assemble reliable facts. So short cuts are needed like analysts who are supposed to be good at reading the signs or what use to be called tea leaves.
I learned this first in Viet Nam when occasionally I met well groomed American civilians – my age or only slightly older – swaggering through wherever I happened to be. Sometimes we would have relaxed conversations during which each of us tried to figure out what the other knew. It took me months and years to realize that these folks were working from a very different framework than the one that I was learning from villagers. At first I thought I was just naive, and unable to read the signs. Later I realized that these folks were not listening to the same people I was. Still later when I became convinced that the war in Viet Nam would come to nothing good, I lost confidence completely in whatever template the smart well dressed civilian contacts seemed to put forward.
From Viet Nam to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan a lot has changed. But, some days I am surprised, at how much has not changed in the approach to local people. In the absence of tools sometimes called weapons, to win hearts and minds the military and its operational partner, the CIA has turned in two directions, higher technology, and social research.
Unmanned vehicles (drones) now circle the skies of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan with precision cameras scoping out targets and precision laser guided missiles ready to release their terror at the push of a button from command room pilots and staff thousands of miles away. Hired informants, some of whom are double agents on the ground may suggest targets. These attacks in Pakistan have caused a furor among Pakistani people. The US Defence Secretary’s budget this year calls for spending $2 billion on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support for forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, with much of the money going to drones.
Complementing the drones, digital warfare’s current crown jewel, is another innovation, Human Terrain Teams (HTT), unveiled in 2005. HTT are as radically low tech, as Predators and other robots are high tech. The teams incorporate professional anthropologists, other social scientists, linguists and analysts, who are assigned to forward area units. The civilian and military HTT team members who advise commanders may or may not carry weapons. The researchers talk to and listen to the local population to understand power, conflict, and grievances so that responses both developmental, relief, and military may be wisely targeted, timed, and conditioned for maximum effect. The use of anthropologists has brought warnings from their professional association. The first ethical responsibility of an anthropologist is to “do no harm.”
Some Human Terrain Team members report that the hardest part is overcoming the suspicion of being part of the American military – no surprise to development, relief, and human rights workers or unarmed peacemakers who carry out their work in militarized zones. This year 40 million dollars more was added to the US defence budget for Human Terrain Teams.
Part of me is sympathetic to a military commander who is usually left to his or her elementary instincts in relating to a local population. I have never felt that I was sufficiently knowledgeable or listened enough to local people when I travelled in peacemaking work. Admittedly, I had a little less to contend with than the soldier. I wasn’t as encumbered by the confining traditions and culture of combat and enemy talk. But let’s face it basic survival instincts are common to all of us who work under life threatening situations.
Will the Human Terrain System work? We’ll see. Probably not! Insurgencies of all kinds have a lot of control over the initiative. Insurgents can figure out how to influence Human Terrain Team members. Interviews can be finessed. Local culture can be tilted to encourage attack on an intertribal or intra tribal enemy A good researcher should be able to sort the truth from the wasted words. But can they? There is little that is reliable fact in a war situation where the first victim is truth itself.
If social research gets to the truth why have there been so many disputed bombings in Afghanistan where so many civilians have been killed? Is the problem cameras from above, analysis or social research. The analysing industry will grow. Human Terrain Teams will become part of the lexicon of war like psychological operations units, civic action officers, special forces and other specialized units that someone once thought would change everything and make those elusive hearts and minds more accessible and manageable.
This leaves me with other kinds of peacemaking, the kind without uniforms, drone protection from the sky, a culture of enemy talk and personal arms. I may not have complete confidence in Human Terrain Teams but I believe peacemakers and development workers too can deepen their capacity to listen to and enlarge cultural understanding too. Peacemakers are not engaged in a contest over control of hearts and minds. The only victory is peace. The sounds and visuals along the way give encouragement and hope. Peacemakers believe that the seeds of peace already exist. The point is to have eyes to see the signs, ears to hear its cadence and a voice to talk it out. In the absence of enough unarmed civilian peacemakers if Human Terrain Teams can help this to happen I will be the first to celebrate.
“I tell you,” he (Jesus) replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40)
Filed under: Getting on the Way to Peacemaking
From south to north Viet Nam is a nation of earth moving equipment, towering cranes, motor scooters/cycles and very lush green fields. Forests have been cut down; some have been reforested. Fields and crops teeter on the sides of mountains. Towns and cities are exploding
upward to seven stories and outward enveloping former rice fields. Industrial zones announce their presence with truck traffic and huge buildings. In the “pho” shops (the real fast food sector) noodles mixed with recipes of delicious stock honed over generations are served to lines of customers as they always have been.
My travelling partners rightfully became impatient with me as I struggled with the value of the currency when we paid for food and services. It took me about a week to get it through my head that a US dollar is worth 17,000 dongs and not 1700 dong. Even the cashiers at the shops and hotels had to help me sort things out and seamlessly reached into my billfold to speed up my faltering calculations when it came time to pay. How could a teacher live on $70 per month (that’s one million dong), drive a motor scooter and remain positive, I kept asking. Everyone has other ways of generating income, I was told.
The buses move a lot slower because of an apparent fear of police fines. When we told people how we use to live with military check points and fear on every road, a driver told us, “You lived with fear of check points and ambush and we live with fear of the traffic police.” When a taxi cyclist gave me a lift, usually for five to ten thousand dongs, he reached under his seat to pull out a helmet for me to borrow for the ride. Only twice in my month long visit did I see motor scooter riders daring the law and riding without helmets.
Several incidents reminded me that police conduct in Viet Nam today is not unlike many other places I have lived in the world. With enough money a fine can be made to disappear. One driver told us that bus and transport companies have informal prearranged protection schemes in place with authorities so that traffic violations including speeding tickets go away. These shades of the old pre unification Viet Nam remind me that change is hard, and tough regulation needs tough enforcement, a lesson that some over developed economies might learn as well.
There are roads to places I once only dreamed of going. In this land that President Johnson once made the poster child of terrorism no one spoke of a single terrorist. “This is one place that is safe for foreign travellers,” bragged a merchant who serves backpackers. Everything that is new in Viet Nam is built on the old Viet Nam – the national myth of invincibility, the traffic patterns of going with the flow like modern freeways but with scooters; sweeping statements of government mistakes, reliance on the great river systems, some street hustlers who apparently were trained in the old Viet Nam, and confidence in a future among the community of nations.
Church buildings, and pagodas are not the measure of a people’s spiritual life, but to the extent that rebuilding, polish and quantity are a tiny piece of some kind of test there is a lot happening. Some are being rebuilt with government support but many are the projects of communities and people seeking to connect to another side of themselves. These religious expressions are pushing out for more space. Recently in Hanoi, Catholics of the region gathered with candles and sustained prayers to support their church’s tough negotiations with government over land issues. As a result the disputed urban land is now becoming a park instead of a project site for developers. Unlike some places I know, people here wait in line to attend seminaries and Bible schools. Marxists in Viet Nam like post religious folks in the West turn to religious institutions as interesting expressions of art and creativity but generally devoid of spiritual meaning. In Viet Nam something else is happening.
When the four million Khmer people of the South, religious minorities or highland tribes demonstrate for more autonomy the Vietnamese answer sounds like the American response to Afghanistan’s growing conflict, “There needs to be better economic development.” One person told me “those people need to learn to work with us”, another person said the problem was “fired up and uncooperative leaders.” As I travelled the
highlands of central and northern Viet Nam I nervously viewed newly denuded forests on the mountainside, and the many more Vietnamese settlers interspersed between occasional highland tribal villages. My Vietnamese friends always described the highlanders as poor but the greater number of fields and terraces that hugged the mountains, and their handicrafts available everywhere suggested to me that these one time hunter gatherers had now been “settled down” and were in an irreversible stage of learning to do business the Vietnamese way.
I am still on a quest for answers to questions that gnaw at me, questions that may be fair or irrelevant. What happens when the graduates of the one or more Universities in each of the 60 or more provinces become restless, impatient or just don’t share the hope of this present generation? What happens when the bulldozers and construction cranes go silent because of the global depression? Without a Wall Street to blame who is left to shoulder the burden and heat?
There were moments of pure joy in returning to Viet Nam after an absence of 34 years since my last trip. The warmth that enters a situation when you communicate in a little Vietnamese moves things along as it always has. I felt a little pride that I may have been part of a movement that helped end the American war. Driving over the Ben Hai Bridge that once separated North Viet Nam from South Viet Nam was a vigorous reminder that things really do change even though they may not happen on my clock. Again and again I found myself asking what would this nation have been like if it had not been catapulted into extended wars that lasted for thirty years from 1945 to 1975? Would the reforested areas be more mature? Would Viet Nam be a cradle for renewal not only for its own people but for the region? Would the seven story buildings have grown into a renaissance of life and hope for people everywhere?
I wished I could have met my old Vietnamese colleagues and friends. Most are gone and I could not find those who remained. I couldn’t even find the houses I once lived in although some of them may have survived the seven story explosion as backyard storage areas or servants quarters. Everything in Viet Nam is old, and everything is new.
Filed under: Nonviolent defence, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Digital/Star War
On Thursday, April 9, the day before Good Friday, Ground the Drones vigil participants entered Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs NV with the goal of meeting with commanders and pilots. The 14 people from all over the US, crossed into the base just before rush hour singing, “When the Saints Go Marching In”.
By extending the 10 day vigil of prayer and Holy communication from the base entrance more directly to the people inside we underlined the urgent need to think again about the implications of what will be done with the unmanned Predators, dropping their deadly bombs on civilians in Afghanistan or Pakistan. All the vigil participants who entered the base were arrested. The vigil and the entering Creech AFB is a public cry to think about the implications of drone warfare today and in the future.
After the vigilers entered there was some confusion as Military Police and contracted guards shuffled about furiously to prevent the group from moving deeper into the base. Some members of the military Police who had recently returned from Iraq stood with their M-16 rifles pointed at the those who had entered. By this time the vigilers were kneeling in prayer just inside the steel gate which was slammed shut behind them. Traffic was rerouted to the commercial entrance a mile away.
The sign at the entrance of Creech AFB tells it all, Home of the United States Air Force Desert Warfare Training Center. Pilots, officers, enlisted people and civilians had passed us all week, many in shiny foreign built vehicles – some in buses. We waved and prayed for their safety especially the Marines who had come for specialized training in desert warfare before deployment. As I stood there I wanted to write a new poster to hold, Drop the Drones: Develop the People or Drones Belong In Bee Hives but I couldn’t find a thick black pen.
Overhead the more advanced version of the wily digitally controlled Predator, the MQ-9 Reaper Hunter/Killer UAV, circled every six minutes as a column of them touched down and took off in practised precision bombing. They also rehearsed techniques for camera use and intelligence gathering. In a few weeks the pilots and their staff will be directing the same type of planes still from Creech AFB in Indian Springs as those planes take off from Bagram Air Force Base forty miles north of Kabul, Afghanistan. Those Predators will deliver their Hellfire Missiles and collect information in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I will continue to wonder if their powerful cameras took pictures of me as I stood with my sign and if they did, would they have printed it out for the bulletin board to entertain themselves over coffee.
Vigil participants remained on their knees on the hard paved road for more than an hour with guns pointed towards them until Nevada State Police arrived to write citations. Before the final act of arrest of the peace warriors, a Military Policeman from the air force was ordered to read a statement formally warning the warriors now deep in prayer that they would be arrested if they did not leave immediately. I watched with others outside the main entrance to Creech as my colleagues were hauled away in Nevada State Police vehicles after a citation was written.
Eventually all 14 participants were transported to the Las Vegas City jail 45 miles away for a cold overnight stay in a cell where rich and poor, disorderly drunks, addicts, street people, prostitutes and other vagrants are stowed away. According to those arrested there were no criminal Wall Streeters or Bank executives in the Las Vegas jail. My friends were released the next morning. The final gathering of those who vigiled was blessed with a rousing Easter poem urging Jesus to come on out of the tomb!
Video of the Vigil
Filed under: Getting on the Way to Peacemaking
Indian Springs, NV: The wind blew from the North this morning as the MQ-1 Predator took off early for its practice run. It flew over the mountains towards Frenchmen’s Flats, a practice bombing range in one corner of the vast Nevada Test Site where nuclear weapons have been tested since 1945, the dawn of the nuclear era. Our vigil support room here is located in a facility once called Atomic View Hotel where ordinary citizens could stay as they waited to watch the atmosphere light up and clouds form as nuclear tests unfolded. Until now the desert retains its eerie beauty.
This morning I stand with my colleague, Father Louis Vitali, a devoted Franciscan, and former air force officer. Louis has spent the last 25 years both listening to his former military colleagues and speaking out on the dangers of modern warfare and praying at sites like Creech Air Force Base, headquarters of the unfolding digital age of warfare. Louis and I watch together as the Predators disappear over the mountain where their laser guided dumb bombs are released with precision on the desert beyond, aimed at targets that simulate hard to reach villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With Predator engine sounds in the distance we wave to base personnel as they come and go. Father Vitali teaches me how to give warm greetings to soldiers and workers without being too patronizing or communicating mushy niceness. As we vigil, a caravan of seven buses with soldiers depart Creech.
I learn that the buses are on their way to Nellis Air Force Base located on the edge of Las Vegas. Nellis reaches through the vast desert territory and occasional mountains for 45 miles to our vigil site. Nellis AFB may have more nuclear bombs within its boundaries than any other site in the world. The troops are headed to and from exercises, training, recreation and study. Beyond the massive test site, 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas is Yucca Mountain where billions have been used in an apparent empty quest to find a safe place for spent nuclear fuel. The current US administration has rejected the use of this site for nuclear waste, but the problem of what humanity will do with this dangerous matter persists.
As the sun warms the cool dry morning desert air I realize I am standing in the midst of 65 years of military history that determines an inappropriately large part of my future. Forty-five miles away the world’s gathering place for gambling, Las Vegas, has lost 20% of its business but the gamble on life here continues. Casinos and nuclear energy interconnect with each other as civilization persists to defend a way of life and enjoy it. Almost unnoticed here on the edge of Nellis AFB, beside the nuclear test site and Yucca mountain beyond and as lavish casinos light up the night sky in the distance, the robotic edge of the newest era of defence unfolds.
A Navaho man joins Louis and I and tells us that the local Shoshone Nation has declared the entire area as a nuclear free zone. Across highway 95 from our vigil site there is a sign for Echos of Faith Christian Church. Our native visitor’s words and the church sign reminds me that faith and spirit that was present at the creation of this magnificent canopy of beauty continues to hover even though we insist on finding ways to undermine the Creator’s security intentions.
Filed under: First Nations People, Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Politics of Empire
Although I grew up in the state of Ohio, I never met Joe the Plumber who became famous in the recent US election campaign. When I have plumbing problems, I try to fix them myself because plumbers are expensive. When I don’t know the plumber I worry that they might find fantasy plumbing problems that will push up my bill even further. There is a limit, Joe!
I am a little ashamed of my suspicions about plumbers because I know that duck tape doesn’t always do the job. Plumbing is a good place to start talking about taxes as well as about leaky pipes. Usually people like me who don’t have much money live in old houses that need disproportionately more help from plumbers to fix long outdated or poorly designed drains and pipes. I am also a little like Joe. All things being equal I prefer not to pay taxes. But all things are not equal.
Joe became famous because he was on a Main Street near Toledo, Ohio when Barack Obama said “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” Joe and his allies didn’t like the idea of governments promoting a form of economic equalization through taxes. Words like socialism and communism suddenly emerged from the closet for public scrutiny. Plumber that he is, Joe understands the usefulness of closets.
This principle of equality has deep roots in most religious teachings but I am most familiar with those of my Hebrew Christian roots. The whirl wind of public commentary got me to dig into the Bible to see if maybe this notion of spreading the wealth around has any connection in the story of Hebrews and Christians. I also wanted to understand why the idea makes people so mad.
Rulers say and do various things to show themselves to be defenders of justice and the protectors of small folks. Empires, imperia ideology/theology and notions of peace are reinforced by pronouncements and law codes that lift up the plight of common people. Nothing new here in Obama. This has been going on for millennia without modern media or press offices.
The problem is that wealth accumulation gets so far out of balance that empires and nations crumble. The Hebrews moved out of slavery in Egypt and nomadic life to settlement in Palestine over 3000 years ago. When they settled in Palestine and built a new life around God they were remarkably open to accept new solutions to old social problems like too much accumulation of land and wealth by a few.
As a child I thought that the verse “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it ” (Psalms 24:1 NIV) was really irrelevant and boring. My Old Testament seminary professor tried to tease my interest in this concept, as a connection to my craving for understanding how the Bible views justice. Still no fire of interest until 20 years later when I travelled to Palestine and Israel. I thought it would be smart to bring back some holy land. So I filled a tiny bottle with soil from what then was the Green Line or border between Israel and occupied Palestine. Then later, I asked my U.S. audiences if they could see, feel or smell anything particularly spiritual in the soil of the holy land. I knew I was pushing the edge when I did this but my use of the special soil this way allowed me to go to the next step and ask what is really holy in our world.
Eventually I got back to the verse, “The earth is the Lord’s …” and of course back to the whole problem of private property, public property and the distribution or redistribution of wealth. I learned that everything is holy, the land, the animals, the people, the crops, and the whole ecological system. The earth is a really big holy land. I am being swallowed daily in a completed sea of holiness according to this way of thinking.
In fact if you listen to the intent of the Bible you will learn that I don’t permanently own anything. There goes the permanence of the deed to our house but not because of foreclosure. This is a little hard for a person with an `age of enlightenment` brain and liberal economic way of thinking to swallow. God is not simply out there. God is everywhere in the known universe.
The God idea as put forward in these ancient Hebrew texts is not just mighty and terrible like most ancient empires but ”impartial and incorruptible” (Deut. 10:17). The mighty are not favoured over the weak. For the stranger in the land, exploitation, the normal practice, is replaced by love for him or her. Even land is to be redistributed on some kind of regular and fair basis every 50 years. In this social system it is not only God who has power through the sovereign emperor. People also have power in the world where God is everywhere.
There are rules, but the purpose of the rules and regulations is to keep the system in balance and work for re-adjustment when justice fades. Fate is not only in the hands of a remote deity, accessed through a national security system ruled by a monarch, emperor or President. The Hebrew prophets thought that the future was in the people’s hands and that the people had the right and responsibility to make it fair. The change that they called for with all kinds of creative and symbolic actions, and with some very tough economic analysis looked backwards to the original intent of the tradition. It also looked forward to the dangers of what lies ahead unless there is reform based on fair principles of the distribution of wealth.
As far as I know Joe the Plumber is a hard worker. I hope he earns a fair wage. But if he gets too lucky or smart he might corner up too much of the plumbing business which could lead to system breakdown. With expansion the quality of his work might slide as he worries about debts and possible foreclosure. He might even pay himself way too much. That wouldn’t be good for Joe or the rest of us in the long run. How would I get my pipes fixed?
Joe and his fans are not impressed with a government that practices a little Robin Hood economics, take from the rich and give to the poor. Some of his followers believe that it is a violation of the American way. The quest for social justice animated the Hebrews and Christians even down to the present day. But it was not without conflict at Wall Street and Main Street. A relationship with the Divine One, passes through the relationships among the rest of us. Joe has a right to his convictions but he and his allies will have to stretch the Bible beyond spirit and reason to make his doctrine one that can be based on Hebrew Christian traditions.
It may not be fair for me to put all this on Joe the Plumber and his fans. He is trying to make a living and get ahead. The bad news for Joe is that the principle of redistribution through legislation for the common good began ages ago.
I can’t talk about social justice without entertaining notions of how a new tax code might affect my life. I make a lot less than $250,000 so I might be safe from being a loser in this particular stage of the redistribution game. This year my social security check was $842 per month. But, the tax code is not just for me. What would it look like if it spread from very timid beginnings to the “whole earth”. My $842 per month would look gigantic to a landless worker in Zimbabwe or Haiti. How to actually implement world re-distribution is an exciting thought that gets my blood pumping again.
There are reports, Joe, that you are considering a run for Congress in Ohio’s 9th Congressional District for 2010. You will be a busy man, congress, pipes and all. Joe, we must talk to each other about taxes sometime over coffee before your campaign heats up.
Filed under: Christian Peacemaker Teams, Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, To those who disagree
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” - Bishop Desmond Tutu
When I left Viet Nam in October 1967 to work against the war in the U.S. I thought it would be a fairly simply matter of getting the word out that the war was wrong. No sooner did I start the work in North America than I discovered that some co-workers subscribed to the notion of neutrality, a new concept to me at the time. They insisted that as a person of peace I should propose a way for the various sides in Viet Nam to get along and the person of peace, by definition, stood in the middle and got them to talk long enough to agree on a solution. I couldn’t understand how someone who respected peace could be neutral when the overwhelming source of the big foot in Viet Nam was US policy. The prickliness of my responses when confronted with this position were apparent. Over the years I have learned that the notion of neutrality can be used to avoid taking risks. I have also learned that in selected situations neutrality has a place.
History in the Bible points to sacred neutrality, the sanctuary. According to Scripture persons who fled the law found asylum in the sanctuary where God was nearest. The tradition continued among Christian churches and was never completely lost even in modern times. Beginning in fourth century English law, a person could be safe from arrest in the sanctuary. Out of office royalty may have benefited from these practices more than common folks but we don’t know very much of grass roots history. In the 1980s, 440 churches in the U.S. provided sanctuary asylum for persons seeking safety from the wars in Central America. In this ancient practice the neutral sacred place was the safe refuge of last resort. It worked because of an acknowledgement of the sacred more than because of legislation. This power and principal of sacred space should not be overlooked in the work of faith based peacemaking.
Switzerland, the home of some of my ancestors is held up among the nations for its neutrality because it does not take sides in war. This policy has survived through several centuries. However, Swiss neutrality in war time has not been applied to its economic life. Swiss neutrality provides asylum for money, and perhaps in only limited ways, for people. Swiss financial institutions provide safe and secret hiding places to political misfits and opportunists, Nazis, disenfranchised communists, shady capitalists, dictators, and crooks to stash billions of dollars. The Swiss experience is a vivid example of how the principle of neutrality can be turned into profit, far removed from the sacred heights of a nobler neutrality that creates space for the victim.
Very early in the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams we were challenged by some casual supporters not to enter selected situations where we could not practice neutrality because, our challengers said, it would undermine our ability to function from a nonpartisan perspective and destroy our good reputation. I suspect that CPT continues to receive such warnings despite the fact that from the beginning it has deliberately identified itself as standing with victims in situations where the plumb line of justice is violated.
That kind of simple guideline does invite differences of interpretation and can be used or misused depending upon the convictions and analysis of participants. Over time we also learned that we may be called upon for help in high tension situations where a degree of neutrality (perhaps more correctly termed independence) was exactly what was needed. For example, CPT was asked to be present in a special action organized by Sioux people in South Dakota who resisted the take over their land through federal legislation.
The goal of a team presence was very specific, to help monitor, document and resist vigilante type attacks from the surrounding community and keep watch against pressures from law enforcement agencies. In this case and others like it, CPT was able to promote the peace because of its independence. In this situation a neutral participant would not have entered without the consent of political leadership and law enforcement. CPT did not seek their consent. The invitation from the Sioux people came because CPT was independent and trusted not to meddle in internal tribal affairs while we worked to create space for grievances to become visible.
I have come to see that my choosing to be neutral at times may simply reflect more of my own personal needs and fears than a strategy for change. I have learned to recognize what for me are negative para messages inherent in the language of neutrality. There are risks in taking a position and personal benefits to being neutral. Taking a position may lead to trouble, loss of job, respect, all kinds of misunderstanding and even hostility. Neutrality is safer. Most of us have highly developed ways of not taking sides in controversial matters. When I feel this kind of neutrality coming on I know it is arising from my weakness. I have learned that the skills of conflict avoidance are deeply rooted within me. To be fair, sometimes I do not take positions because I just can’t carry one more divisive concern.
People inclined not to take sides during the war in Viet Nam deepened their orientation towards neutrality, sometimes with the language of impartiality. By becoming specialists in the processes of mediation, practitioners felt the neutrality of the facilitator was essential in order to reach towards reconciliation between individuals and some groups. Conflicts could be resolved if people would just talk to each other. In the context of war, injustice and oppression I felt that neutrality was morally suspect. Professional conflict resolution people remained more open to both sides. Occasionally these differences have erupted into disputes with each position marshalling arguments of efficacy, practicality and morality. Now after all these years and more wars we have generally just gone our separate ways and probably talk to each other too rarely.
Differences between mediators and activists arose from the need for language to work for peace in very different contexts. Our separate positions arise from a moral or philosophical base and also from practical goals. The mediator works to create a fair framework often between individuals, for example, a difficult divorce or the resolution to staff conflicts. The mediator tries not to force a solution between people because she or he believes that forced solutions won’t last. A mediator tries not to judge, threaten or leverage the solution in the media or take sides. By prodding, encouraging and helping to create a safe confidential framework, the mediator believes that a way can be found that works.
The social activist organizes to make hidden disparities visible. The activist is not primarily focussed on a balanced middle ground solution between individuals. The activist works with at least two populations one of which has more military or police power, property, money, lawyers and a supporting political establishment. For the activist, neutrality is acceptable only when both sides have equal power and a midpoint compromise is possible. In any other case neutrality is morally unacceptable. Dante Alighieri author of The Divine Comedy said it succinctly, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”
The activist also understands that the victim lacks social, political and economic power and tries to create the context for a fair solution out of a different set of instruments, instruments that move in the direction of levelling the field so that fair talk can happen. The instruments of the activist – marches, campaigns, voter registration drives, nonviolent actions, press releases – might be a little ridiculous in some of the settings where mediation is practised. The mediator practices some of the arts of powerlessness. He or she only has power that is given from the consent of the disputants.
A good activist knows that a solution will require negotiations at various points along the way. Authorities are contacted to put them on notice that grievances exist. Military and police personnel are engaged to seek quick release of people who may have been arrested, clear roads and to provide equal protection for civilians, particularly in war situations. Public actions are supported. Religious communities are engaged and invited to join. The media is invited and work is done to encourage healthy life giving interpretations. All of this requires negotiation, communication skills, imagination and awareness of when the skills of mediation might be called upon.
Filed under: Digital/Star War, Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Nonviolence, Viet Nam
Political advertising has assigned itself the work of taking us to new heights or lows as we discover our vulnerability to half truths. Gossip is chitchat about someone else and usually turns up dirty secrets related to intimacy, misuse of money or abuse of power. Frequently it is a malicious report which will affect the other person’s ability to function or perform in the public sphere. I cringe when I watch political advertising. I struggle to find ways to not allow my world to be so simplistically defined by the good or evil portrayed before me.
When I listen to gossip I become unglued until I remember that the half truths and atmosphere of secrecy upon which it depends need not define my inner knowing. Gossip does not come from rationality or deep conviction but why do I so easily forget and respond with anger. Why do I forget that gossip comes from a need to demean, destroy, and thereby achieve a quick victory. I am still learning how to live with the two kinds of gossip that assault me; the personal type that is passed on to me over coffee and the culture of gossip reflected in political advertising.
The gossip may be about Muslims, persons of African discent, liberals, evangelicals, Iraqis, Israelis, or politicians. This is the time to do what is right and make a break from the habits of gossip. As we compost our old habits there will be space and natural fertilizer for the new that is trying to come to life.
The power of gossip first came home to me in Viet Nam when friends described public officials as corrupt, meaning they took money, cement, or construction materials from government coffers. It became so normative that I expected some gossip whenever the subject of the performance of public institutions, particularly government, was discussed. Now forty years later whenever I carry on a conversation with Vietnamese the discussion will not proceed far before someone in the circle will say how corrupt the government is – all this after a revolution. I suppose that some of that is true but in hindsight I can see a cultural thread that implicitly identifies public figures as inherently corrupt and tolerates passing on or inventing rumours. Viet Nam is not the only culture that does that.
In Viet Nam I learned that the person who passes on rumours seemed really smart, and more connected. I also discovered that governments, and intelligence operatives often from foreign countries understood the power of gossip (rumours) as a political tool to influence people and turn them against government. Finally on a personal level I learned that gossip often challenged my self confidence. This meant that the source of my power was no longer from within but was allowed to be defined from outside of me. In the end I had less to give untill I could summon the courage to respond out of my core values arising from my heart and communicated with the power of reason and respect.
Over time I learned to trust my inner eye to recognize gossip and rumour. There is no absolute answer to the tricks of gossip. Sometimes silence can communicate rejection of half truths and rejection of untruth. Calling the soldiers of gossip liars usually doesn’t help a lot. And, heated argumentation rarely works though it is tempting. If I think I am going to get pulled into an extended argument I know it is better to say nothing but sometimes I can’t overcome the temptation to argue. I end up marshalling all kinds of extraneous facts that might impress me but do little to win over the gossiper. My adversary may, in fact, be delighted that I have came out swinging with a verbal assault.
We are surrounded with a culture of gossip that is reinforced by gossip columnists who masquerade as reporters, political advertising and news systems that we don’t completely trust. In this environment we can feel trapped, isolated, and cut off from our own best judgements. This has happened to me.
It was after I returned from Viet Nam that I became more attuned to the hold of gossip in my own society. In April 1968 during a speaking tour across the United States I arrived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on the day Dr. Martin Luther King was buried. All of my speaking engagements had been cancelled so I passed some time in the lobby of the YMCA where I had a room. There I heard from local people that King was a communist (remember this was as bad as anything you could say about someone at the time).
Evidence was variously presented by everyone in the room. One person had a relative in the police. Another claimed to have studied King`s life. A third quoted authoritative family members. I was shocked at the unity of conviction about King`s communism. No one in the room correctly identified King as one of a long line of Christian reformers, black and white reaching back before the dawn of American democracy whose faith, conviction and method were deeply rooted in the gospel.
I had personally experienced similar charges during my months of speaking. I felt that neither strong words nor silence could respond to the assault of this culture of gossip that was bleeding the heartland. On that day my silence was not the silence of strength.
Society depends on confidence and trust among its members or it can self destruct. But it is hard to deflect the quick fix of gossip. Stopping gossip one on one is already difficult but what I encountered in the Sioux Falls YMCA was a culture of gossip. So how do you answer gossip the kind that impugns you either as a compulsive leftist, conservative desperado, or an unkempt person in your private life.
One of the best responses to gossip is to name the falsehood and supply correct information even when you know it may have little immediate effect. In those moments you live in the faith and confidence that a word of truth does not return empty. Even one sentence may be enough.
Our churches, peace groups and workplaces are not immune to the violence of gossip. Nor are we always aware of the nonviolent ways to answer untruth. By making clear that half truths and unsubstantiated rumour will not be tolerated within our organizations we make a start. But this is not just a matter of having good rules. Each one of us must be relied upon to know our own inner truth and to speak out in timely ways. Even winning a defamation of character or discrimination suit in a court of law does not cure the culture of gossip although it puts everyone on notice for a time.
The negative political advertising that shortchanges truth and undermines democracy leads to long term distrust of government and other public institutions. Sometimes that culture is fed in churches and church institutions. Gossip and its first cousin casino type investing that is also rooted in irrationality has now gotten us to an economic melt down. Of course we can throw up our hands and just say “Oh my, things are just awful,” which may be true. But this condition can get a lot worse unless we speak up.
There is no single package of modalities to use to speak back to half truths. Election season with its off key choir of negative ads can turn us all into little people who are either counter attack or become whiners. We are tempted to polarize with all the good being on our side and all the bad out there somewhere else. The answer won’t come from polarization. It will come from collaboration across boundaries. This is the time when we refine our inner knowing and hold to our vision of something better in our personal and political lives. Saying NO to gossip is a skill that begins as a gift within each of us. The NO is the first step. What follows is hard work because something more healthy is getting started.
Last week I visited three communities in the Great Plains as part of a Wheels of Justice bus tour. We travelled in a made-over 56 passenger bus powered by a 290 Cummings diesel engine that once transported school children in Tucson, Arizona. At stops in Denver, Wichita and Manhattan, Kansas our 100 gallon tank was filled with fuel made from soy, now costing more than five dollars a gallon. Our clown like bus called out at whoever noticed the animal life and written words of hope on the sides of the vehicle “War is not the Answer”. The sight of our bus made us a hit, an instant enemy, or a curiosity in every town and rest stop, mostly a curiosity.
We travelled in this way to elicit conversations on war and peace. The mission of Wheels of Justice now approaching eight years of criss crossing the country is to tease the nation away from war. The bus is under the able management and driving of Bill Hill, 62 , a foster child, Viet Nam war veteran and single father who raised two daughters. Bill learned to manage big machines as a tank driver with the 3rd Tank Battalion of the 3rd Marine Division in Da Nang, Viet Nam. He helps two speakers on the bus’s travelling team by telling his story that includes war making, addictions and the war memories buried deep in his mind that last for a lifetime. During the six months of the year when the Wheels of Justice is not announcing “war is not the way” Bill has retooled 20 old buses that now carry passengers in Cuba through Pastors for Peace.
High school students, college students and peace warriors made up our audiences as we wound our way through the Great Plains. In ventures like this I am accustomed to at least a little hostility, but this was not to be last week. The mood of the times has swung away from the days of Shock and Awe. But we know a single incident may bring those days back. Warrior-peacemakers like me can get inspired when students push us for new, more effective ways of violence reduction and peacemaking, a strategy for the future. I feel the hope in their faces looking for something worth working for, worth living for, worth dying for.
On this trip I mostly told stories of Iraqi families and their children who are still disappearing into the catacombs of US and Iraqi prisons. The two speakers, me on Iraq and another on Palestine wove together the threads of war, terror and smart bombs in the Middle East and here at home. We nudged and challenged our audiences to remember that comprehensive solutions lead back to dealing with the US government’s unbalanced support for Zionism expressed in the nation of Israel.
A brightly painted bus gets attention. But attention getting buses, speakers and literature tables reminded me that organizing for peacemaking is still hard work. After getting people to notice you must keep their attention long enough to motivate them to do real long term work. Thirty-eight years ago I helped organize the Indochina Mobile Education Project, not a very catchy name by today’s standards. The project did in another war period some of what Wheels of Justice tries to do today.
We equipped a VW mini van to carry 24 display panels showing everyday life for Vietnamese people and the effects of war. Over five years the exhibits appeared in 350 shopping centres across the country for two to five days. Viet Nam hands, civilian and military, Vietnamese and Americans who had been through the war spoke in schools, colleges, churches, service clubs and community meetings. I wish we could have been a little more creative with the paint on our VW vans. To be honest I think one reason we didn’t spice up the paint was because we preferred not to have our vans trashed by people who hated our message. Several times the travelling team called me to prepare a replacement display panel that had been spray painted or destroyed by upset citizens.
In those days the country was not yet so carefully tucked in with “private” regulations about shopping malls or a “free speech culture” of a Department of Homeland Security. We expected that our message might be a hard sell and learned how to deal with harsh charges and mean words. I would get a calls from a local organizer who couldn’t figure out how to get permission to place the exhibit in a mall.
Often I jumped into my aging Volvo and travelled to a future display site, put on my only suit and went with local people to meet the mall manager armed with letters of blessing and recommendations from important personalities and mall managers who had formerly opened their doors to us. Often the negotiations were protracted. Occasionally when we suggested that the media might be interested in the success of our local display, its speakers and special Vietnamese dinner the door got nudged open a little bit further.
We learned early on not to take the easy way out and place the exhibit in little visited church basements. Like people everywhere we Americans go to market, but we call it the mall. Could we get into 350 malls today? I doubt it. It would easier to get into a Baghdad or Saigon market. Forty years ago the law of the private American market place had not yet constrained us to consumer conversation and colourful displays of boundless goods.
So now we need attention getters like Wheels of Justice and local organizers who know how to work the phone, the internet, and breakfast meetings to bring visibility to hard truths. By combining the visuals of a display, the sounds of our voices, the touch of materials from Viet Nam with the taste of Vietnamese food we learned how to light some flames. The steps to creating a recipe for conversations about the signs of times is as difficult on the Wheels of Justice as it was with our fledgling efforts 40 years ago.
One thing these two projects have in common. Everywhere we went last week as in the late 60s, we met veterans newly returned from war who are trying to put their lives together and escape the memories. I always looked for a better way to include their pain and harsh memories in the trek across our country. Bill Hill, the driver helped me get closer to an answer by telling his story.
“War is not the answer.” “Occupation the Roadmap to Nowhere” cries out from the side of our bus as we move on. I suspect it’s a little pushy for some. It may make others cringe with embarrassment that there are people like us who have not yet learned to see America as that unique nation under God put here to be a light on a hill.
As we travelled I watched spring unfold. I saw lush green wheat fields drinking up the sparse sunshine. These are the field where settlers met and their government betrayed native people. In those days the earth sometimes shook. In the fields I saw another future for all of us, the children of clashes, the prophets of hope.
Filed under: Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Nonviolence, Peacemaker spirit
When I was a high school student in the 1950s I thought I might like to be a social worker because social workers helped people, served and made society better At that time social work was a new profession. I actually didn’t know any social workers but it seemed like a good idea. When I went to college I took a social work class and I noticed that my mind wandered in class and although I always meant to read the text book for some reason I never got it done. I did pass the class in an undistinguished way as I recall.
My social work dreams slipped away from me. Maybe the latent goals festering down there somewhere got consumed in the culture of church that surrounded me and led me to seminary. Maybe I could do social work by being a minister. The primary purpose of seminaries is to train ministers, however there is the little matter of studying the Bible in seminary. I soon discovered that priests and ministers as we know them now were primarily an invention that came later.
In the Bible there were prophets, an office that struck me as such a high calling that no one with a name like mine could ever aspire to it. I actually never knew a prophet although a couple professors struck me as prophetic. So that sent me back again to the original quest for a way to make things better in this world. I wanted to know what really helps? I also discovered the failed way of asking the same question, does anything help – the door into cynicism.
This brings me to the concept of charity which until I started reading the Bible more carefully, appeared to have something to do with helping the poor. That was a good idea as long as my tangled mind didn’t ask why people got poor in the first place. In its purist form as I learned about it, charity was giving money or bread to beggars. Now remember that I grew up in a time when there were famines in India and people were dying from hunger by the millions in China. I knew it because we prayed for those people every day before dinner and in our worship services.
So it wasn’t so far fetched that I would want to fix some of these things. One day before a seminary field trip to Chicago I was told that we should not give money to the beggars we met on the streets because they would just take it and buy booze which would destroy their lives. This simple guideline seemed logical, except that it threw my idea of charity into a tailspin. About the same time I learned about agape love which according to the Bible was the highest form of selfless love.
Today we have professional charities which blur into NGOs, non government organizations, that span the globe with missions, development programs, health programs and even visions of a world without poor people. I just read a book by Bill Clinton, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World, which is his take on how the world can be fixed with an outpouring of creative charity devices, investment schemes, and volunteers. Interesting, but I did wonder why he couldn’t have done a little more when he enjoyed power over the institutions of the world wide body politic.
This gets me back to one of the lessons I started to learn in seminary, real change usually comes from the bottom. And, transformation literally relies upon the organizing and collective energy of the people who have little or no power. Without people pushing for transformation from outside the palaces and mansions we are left with court histories, and presidential dynasties that produce books with titles like The Road to the White House and Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.
With the organized prophetic energy from the bottom, we start thinking differently and sometimes do something about our thinking. At one point I got interested in chemistry and learned that when two or more elements are combined with heat you come up with something totally new and previously unknown. Sometimes what is produced - like plastic – can be dangerous for the earth. At least it requires firm controls. The clash of mixing elements and heat can also produce something very useful and the transformed substance can feed life. We have known about this for a long time in a personal way. We called it conversion, a term that has been adapted to various forms of industrial activity for example, obsolete military bases and industrial sites are changed into parks, museums or educational centers.
In the Bible the Greek word agape was translated into English as charity and later as love. In the 1960s agape love animated many discussions. It is out of fashion now, but no less lies at the root of the motivation for genuine nonviolent change. A word of caution: many of us confuse nonviolent change with non conflictual change.
Transformation doesn’t come out of good ideas alone although good ideas can help. Transformation comes out of the mysterious meeting or clash, sometimes heated, between individuals or groups. For transformation to be the means to new reality only one side of the engagement need be in touch with the infinite power of charity, love or agape which ever word you like. Usually some of that resource is embedded within both parties because it has been given to all of us, although we find so many ways to forget or avoid it.
According to the Bible charity is not only about good works, giving to the poor, having prophetic powers or even insight into the mysteries and knowledge (I Cor. 13:1-3) although all these can help too. Real transformative charity isn’t so much about rules, “shoulds”, “oughts” and “have tos”. It comes from a zone within and may break out in a big way when many of us catch it together. Occasionally it comes out of great tragedy. But we can cultivate our lives in such a way that we don’t have to await crisis to remember that it is available. I am still learning to recognize its many faces and names.