Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Blaming the Victim, Iraq, Peacemaker spirit, Taliban, Viet Nam | Tags: Afghanistan, Afghanistan troop surge, conscience, drones, pacifism, peace, robotic warfare
What is the meaning of the Nobel Peace Prize? Alfred Nobel, Stockholm native and the inventor of dynamite and other explosives was chagrined that his inventions were used in cruel ways. In the late 1800s towards end of his life he dedicated his considerable fortune to those who had made the greatest contribution to humankind. Each year prizes are awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, economics and peace.
Two sitting American Presidents Woodrow Wilson (1919) and ninety years later Barack Obama (2009) have been presented the Nobel peace prize. Both men believed that they had an overarching role to move history in a more peaceful direction. Wilson was disappointed and died in office. His League of Nations was crippled from non support at home and then burned in the ashes of World War II. We hope for a better outcome for Obama. Former President Jimmy Carter received the prize in 2002, 22 years after he was defeated by Ronald Reagan for a second term. Henry Kissinger accepted the peace prize for negotiating with the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (North Viet Nam) in the early 1970s while B52s simultaneous bombed his enemy. His counterpart Le Duc Tho of North Viet Nam refused to accept the prize. The war continued for two more years after the Paris Peace agreements. Between 1973-1975, another half a million Vietnamese were killed and wounded, 340,000 of them civilians.
President Obama’s eloquent speech accepting the Nobel Prize on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day laid out the necessity of war and ruminated on his nation’s understanding of just war – “war waged as a last resort, or in self-defence; if the force used is proportional, and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.” To his credit he defined what theorists believe is a just war. He did not identify how his administration purports to fine tune war making to meet the criteria of a just war in two big wars, Iraq, according to him a dumb war and Afghanistan, a necessary conflict.
How will those who target drone attacks, and other expressions of air war make certain that no civilians are killed? How will a new chapter in just war be written in the basic training manuals of soldiers preparing for deployment, for interrogation of the enemy, for treatment of captives, and for clean up of military waste? Can Alfred Nobel’s dynamite and its prolific offspring ever be controlled? Will the apparent unlimited use of U S wealth for military purposes bankrupt its citizens as once happened in Rome?
For a century the Nobel Prize for peace has hovered in that space between active peacemaking represented by monumental efforts towards peace and justice like land mine eradication, civil rights, or relief efforts, and the work of nations to create a framework that will constrict war and its effects on civil society. The prize was not primarily intended to celebrate pacifist solutions to war although people who questioned all war and violence like Martin Luther King and Jane Addams received the award. The acknowledgement of their achievements gives hope.
In his speech President Obama deftly distanced himself and his office from pacifist traditions as a President with responsibilities consistent with empire must do. To his credit he did so without the normal checklist of charges of idealism, lack of realism and or even naiveté, a checklist deeply embedded in the pillars of liberal democratic thinking upon whose shoulders his politic relies for ideological ballast.
President Obama didn’t tell us if there are any serious negotiations with adversaries, coalitions of Pakhtoon villages or Taliban groups. In a part of the world where negotiations have been practised for 3000 years it is hard to believe that something isn’t happening to find an end to armed conflict. How is the conduct of the Afghan-Pakistan war creating the context for real peace, democracy or development? The people I talked to in Pakistan are not sure. How will his administration encourage or even mandate the military chaplain corps to become a genuine conscience and moral compass for “just combat” in the field. What about the thousands of soldiers who joined the nation’s forces and, in the process of soldiering, developed a conscientious objection to war? Will they be allowed to get out without having their dignity and personal integrity dishonoured?
For many peace people, church members and third world nations Obama’s speeches on Afghanistan and the acceptance of the Nobel prize despite their eloquence was a time of disappointment. This was the moment when I realized that my long-term hope for ending the practice of war in say a century will require harder more focussed work than ever. I believe I can use this experience as a time to bound forward. The speeches remind me that the Lamb of God with even wider reach in the stretch for justice can overcome the god of empire that imposes chaos and destruction under the guise of democratic order.
The speeches remind us that fundamentalist preachers or pundits are tethered together with the liberal establishment on the question of war. Both stumble through various versions of just war ethics as the Predator drones drag us into a scary future. Above all the speeches remind us of the very limited options that are available to an imperial President in matters of peace and war. This is the moment to pull up our pants, turn off the T V, awaken our imaginations, and listen to God’s spirit of compassion for all human kind, and get on with our work.
Some of us will be called to unexpected sacrifice of time, career, and life itself. The goal of a world without war is worth all of the sacrifice of a great army of unarmed soldiers. This dream of a nonviolent world may be the only realistic vision now, despite the fact that our leaders doff their hats to just war. The renewal of our spirit will come one step at a time in fresh and even larger ways as our spirits are awakened to the politics of renewal and hope, a politic like Jesus himself, that is never dependent upon a president who himself is often powerless to transform an imperial culture that devours good policies and strong words.
The universality of this season’s mantra, “Peace on Earth Good Will Towards People” is a good place to start and it gets the best angels involved. If the mantra is going to bring down the institution of war we better be prepared with discipline and armfuls of imagination infused with love. When we are called idealists we do well to give the realist answer, all of creation is groaning for something better. That is where we will put our energy. Even elder Alfred Nobel might cheer us on.
Filed under: Militarism, Peacemaker spirit | Tags: air force, conscience, Human Rights, pacifism, spirit
Two weeks ago I spoke at a gathering in Austin TX on Honouring Conscience. As I prepared I revisited those times in my life when I had listened to my own conscience. And then I began to make notes of people around the world who had acted out of conscience. I remembered troubling days of decision making many had reported to me. I recalled the joy and freedom that lit up their faces as they told their story and the consequences including changed relationships to neighbours, nation and colleagues that flowed from their decisions. I had never experienced such energy and confidence in preparing for an event as I did for this one.
At our gathering we celebrated acts of conscience in an honouring ceremony where persons from many walks gathered for special words of blessing and recognition, former soldiers, tax resisters, community activists, educators, professionals, workers, and Conscientious Objectors. As the words of recognition were spoken, my mind was also illuminated with a cloud of witnesses with whom I had worked from every clan, culture and nation where I served. It was humbling to be in the presence of this sacred trust of inner light, a force more powerful than law or might.
Immediately before this honouring ceremony I attended a workshop where the presenters included six former and current soldiers from Fort Hood north of Austin, one of the major finishing schools and launch sites for soldiers going to Iraq and Afghanistan. Each soldier described his own journey through patriotic acts of killing to preserve “our way of life”. They spoke of the estranging space deep inside called PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), where the meaning of their acts intermingled with their conscience.
One described the “first” Iraqi child he killed because he thought that child would grow up to be a terrorist. Another described a 36 hour odyssey in the field of killing. Each soldier spoke of suicide thoughts, broken relationships, abusive behaviour, lying, stealing, legal and illegal drugs and alcohol in the journey to find safety from the memories. Now they stumble through college classes in a world where there are few jobs. When asked if anything helped in their journey to recovery they agreed that the spirit and compassion of Cindy Thomas who runs a coffee shop called Under the Hood, just off the base gave them hope. Cindy’s active duty husband’s experience and the decision of her son to join the marines compelled her to open this center. The soldiers couldn’t think of anything else that helped them.
But the Iraq veterans were not the only former military people at this event. An important spirit behind the celebration of conscience was Garland Robertson former air force pilot and chaplain. Garland’s journey included his own renewal of conscience when as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force he reached a boundary within that would not allow him to go on without speaking more directly about militarism. A multi year battle with his superiors through rejection, hearings and court cases led to his retirement and current pastoral work at the Austin Mennonite Church. His firm persistent familiarity with the Spirit encourages people around him to be alive to the life of conscience.
As these heroes spoke I remembered the Iraqi soldier I met in Baghdad who refused to serve in Iraq’s army. His ear was partially cut off as a permanent reminder of his disobedience. I remembered the paramilitary soldier in Columbia who showed up one day seeking help to disappear from his comrades who would surely kill him if they knew he was trying to leave. I remembered the local heroes, pastors, prophets, imams, monks and human rights workers who listened to conscience and saved lives in the Philippines, Viet Nam, Burma, Indonesia each in a special time of political emergency. In Pakistan this past June I met a Pakhtoon man from the part of Pakistan where the Taliban are strong who travelled for two days by foot and bus to tell the story of the bombing that his people live under and plea for help to save lives.
Did Albert Einstein really mean what he said, “Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it.” Conscience is not something that is owned by a particular class, nation or sect although it is foundational to the life of faith. Nor can it be destroyed when people find ways to listen to it and act on it. Tyranny finds its place when people of conscience fail to act. Listening to conscience does not make us over into perfect specimens of our species. When conscience choices are made the darkest hours of our common life become points of light for all humanity. Even a child understands the voice of conscience.
Before there was law, conscience already existed. That is why the breaking of law is not disrespect for the law. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from the Birmingham jail wrote, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
Filed under: Peacemaker spirit, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Detainees, Immagination, Pakistan | Tags: digital war, robotic warfare, drones, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Las Vegas
The invitation to a gathering of reflection on peacemaking in Las Vegas came several months ago. I was honoured to join the group for a day because the question of how to respond to America’s current wars, its plans for dominance in space and the unfolding movement of robotic warfare challenges all of us, young and old, to think in fresh ways. My time in Vegas would be completed with another adventure in contemplation in the desert sands where Creech Air Force Base trains pilots for robotic warfare.
The collapse of world wide finance and my lack of confidence in the big players may be creating a greater space for imagination. When I complained to one participant, Vincent Harding, that I still have little confidence in what to do he gave me a little pastoral advice from an African proverb. “How do you eat an elephant,” he asked. “One bite at a time.” I left Las Vegas where the demons of irrational luck seem to be in control determined to free up the mirage of powerlessness in my mind.
I am done with letting the big players and gaming machines control the culture. I know more than I have acted upon. Economics is also a matter of spirit. My mind’s deep freeze has kept me from the light within and the possibility of light in my opponents, the people who manage the remaining collapse of a world that takes care of the people who are “too big to fail”. Truth happens in experiments. It is backed by courage and preparedness for the teachable moments. My time in Las Vegas was one of the moments when I was taught.
My wake up call to finance capital was completed in the biggest detention center of Las Vegas. But first I had to go to Creech Air Force Base 45 miles northwest in the desert. I wanted to meet a commander at Creech to discuss the work of Predator I and II, the drones that I heard so much about from Pakistani people when I visited that Muslim country in June. I joined a group of seven. But, as we began to walk along the commercial entry way to Creech AFB we were detained by Clark County police behind a large movable cement barricade. We were placed in the care of military police with heavy belts who pointed their big black guns at us. It gave me a little extended time to think about the finances that pay the bill for Creech.
As we waited in front of the guns to be transported to Clark County Detention Center, two blocks from the Golden Nugget, one of Las Vegas oldest sanctuaries of luck, my colleagues asked me to redeem the time by giving a full voiced report on my recent trip to Pakistan for the benefit of my fellow detainees and our guard – caretakers. With apologies to my friends back in Pakistan for the absence of tea service I was able to represent truthfully some of what I learned about their fears of being the objects of Predator drones and their hopes for an unfolding of justice with peace in South Asia.
By midnight six hours after the pilgrimage into Creech began, I had been fingerprinted several times, questioned repeatedly, tested for TB, had my blood pressure checked, asked if I had recently tried to commit suicide, and I repeatedly spelled and corrected my last name for the vast criminal bureaucracy of the Las Vegas region. Somewhere along the way I was relieved of my shoes, socks, watch, ID, money, and everything but my pants and shirt. Later in the night I was pushed into a 10 foot by 20 foot holding cell where 18 other people were already making some kind of peace or silently plotting revenge at police who had shouted or insulted them on their road to detention.
The sounds of the cell included broad sustained snores, other body noises and loud television, a cacophony that reminded each of us non sleepers that we had reached a peculiar moment of truth. By approximately four am a gruel like slop arrived for breakfast. Most of us could not face the Wonder Bread and whatever else there was. Nausea teased our stomach muscles. The guards had thoughtfully placed a large plastic bag in the middle of the floor and told us to put any left over food that we couldn’t eat or would not stay down into it. “If you make a ‘blankety blank’ mess,” screamed the guard. “You can plan to be in the holding area for two more weeks.”
By the time of my release the second and third “gruelling” meals had come and gone. As those hours passed, I got to know my cell mates. Several had been picked up for the high crime of jay walking evidently a matter of major concern in the city of mostly bad luck. Others were picked up for traffic violations. Everyone except me had some other kind of outstanding legal problem. For several men, simple records had never been updated.
My loss of shoes and socks became a matter of considerable concern since the temperature in the holding area of lucky town is just south of a cool fall day near the solar ice cap. While the street people slept through the fog like another day on the tracks, the rest of us shared our stories.
One man, a high roller was tracked for outstanding debts of $125,000 at two casinos when he was stopped on a traffic violation. A couple calls and he zipped up his $700 dollar shoes and was off to another race. He told me he once won $600,000 in two hours but admitted his career on the strip had lost his family a lot more than he had won. I managed to get a modest applause, enough to wake up the permanent sleepers when I told them I was in for “disturbing the war” at Creech AFB.
Actually I think I got lucky in Vegas because I was introduced to at least two angels in waiting. I haven’t had a chance to talk to them very much yet. You see angels always come to me in unkempt and upsetting ways. First, the angel of unearned and unconscious powerlessness showed up in the gathering to do peace visioning. I will be talking to that angel. The second appeared in both the shouts of the Clark County Sheriff’s officers and in the up close and personal discussions with other detained people. My cell mates were curious about Afghanistan and Pakistan but they also reminded me to watch out for bully behaviour wherever it shows up, in Afghanistan, in Las Vegas police uniforms, on the back streets of Vegas or on Wall Street. I will be having more conversations with this angel too. The light and dark of the desert has gotten me revved up again. I guess that is what a reflection session and retreat is supposed to do. Thanks!
Filed under: Christian Peacemaker Teams, Nonviolence, Peacemaker spirit, Scripture: Nonviolence | Tags: Blessed, conscience, military contractors, Nonviolence, pacifism
In theatres of war where I have worked I have met people who don’t want to participate any longer. In Colombia I talked with paramilitary soldiers seeking ways out of their previous commitments because the killing they have seen is so distasteful. Israeli soldiers have built a succession of organizations and support groups for persons not wishing to participate in specific wars. In Iraq I met former Iraqi soldiers who opted out of military service with great difficulty.
For these people their own participation in war was the trigger that unleashed a flood of personal questions about war making in general and witnessing against the sources of war. For some the flood of questions leading to new vision was set off by spiritual conversion. Despite the modern tendency among popular Christianity to link religious life with national purpose and militarism, people find a peace position often from their own study of the Bible.
Twenty years ago I was contacted by a person who was curious about Christian Peacemaker Teams. He wished to become involved and support the work. He had just resigned from a job in a corporation that was heavily involved in military contracts and he wanted to do something “positive”. We talked several times and eventually he helped to develop our internet based work. From time to time I had to call him at very inconvenient times of the day and night so he could make critical information available on the internet regarding a crisis event. He never once complained about my disruptive calls despite his own work and family obligations. He always wanted to do more and made me feel like I was doing him a favour by providing a route for him to effectively make use of the energy that was released within him when he made his decision to take pacifism to a new level in his personal life and career.
Another friend, a pastor told me of a dilemma that entered his life. He had been a supervisor for fuelling airlanes at a regional airport. His job included providing fuel for private planes of companies who stored their executive aircraft at a regional airport. Over time he realized he was providing gasoline to fuel a US military contractor whose work was shrouded in mystery. He needed work. One day the contractor demanded that he put more fuel in the airplane than regulations allowed. He refused to do so but was ordered to comply by his superior because the contract was very important to the small airport. He complied but over the next year and a half he continued to ponder his dilemma, being a peacemaker who fuelled jets that managed the delivery of modern weapons. Eventually he resigned.
People often approach me when I travel to discuss a career dilemma where family income depends upon design, development or fabricating the instruments of violence. Sometimes the discussion is not ready for decision. At other times it is. Those decisions always intersect with questions of economic survival, ethics, and peacemaking. Pacifist churches, meetings and associations are not exempt from these emotional and life changing opportunities for taking a decisive stand. People who are facing hard decisions know very well that any decisions they make will affect all their relationships for good and bad. What they don’t know and what I can only vaguely explain is that wide margins of new energy and creativity often follow decisions of dissent when the voice of conscience is acknowledged and acted upon.
Pacifism is not a static condition or position. I have recently learned that the word pacifism comes from two Latin root words through the French word pacifisme. Pac is traced back to the Latin word, Pax that means peace or harmony. Fism derives from the suffix ficus which comes from the Latin ficere that means to act or take action. In the Bible the Greek word eirenopoios (peacemakers, Matthew 5:9) is translated into Latin as pacifici, which means those who work for peace. Though in our day we tend to abstract ideas from actual living, the original meaning of pacifist was to be an active peacemaker. A pacifist inherently takes action.
Pacifism rejects the use of violent means despite the fact that the tree of violence reaches through contract and contractor into the main streets of most of our communities. The contradiction inherent in modern economy brings the production, ideological formation and general culture of violence inside our homes and work life. At one time it may have been possible to be a wedge into the organized violent suppression of violence by simply refusing military service. For most of us that expression of pacifism, refusal to join the military, is no longer the only critical boundary for a life of peacemaking. However, in some countries, like Israel, Colombia and Iraq the decision not to participate in the military is still the flashpoint. In systems where there is no longer a draft the decision by active duty soldiers to get out because of moral convictions is often transforming and costly.
There are three possible responses to violence to which we are connected in Afghanistan, Iraq and Cleveland, violent opposition, passivity, or militant nonviolence. The active even militant nonviolence inherent in pacifism transforms life from static hum drum and rules, to dynamic engagement with the power of active living. In the Bible peacemakers (the Latin translation used the term pacifist) are called Blessed.
To be Blessed according to Roman Catholic tradition is to be beatified and worthy of veneration. Perhaps not everyone who does peacemaking wants to be beatified by the Roman Church or venerated. However the root meaning of pacifism, peacemaking with all the release of energy that it implies, still holds. Being pacifist is not a rigid formula for action. Pacifism is the awakened conscience and the willingness to act on it sometimes alone, but preferably with some support. The blessing is inherent in the action itself, and the surprise that follows.
Filed under: Peacemaker spirit, Digital/Star War | Tags: pacifism, digital war, military draft, robotic warfare, military contractors
Why I want you to read Wired for War: the Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century by P. W. Singer, The Penguin Press.
In 1958 when I turned eighteen years old I went to what was called Portage County Selective Service office in Ravenna, Ohio to register for the military draft. That board placed my name in the record as a conscientious objector which required very little paper work and I requested a student deferment. The deferment was granted with little problem. The Korean War had been over for several years but the Cold War was getting hotter all the time and Viet Nam was waiting in the wings. Five years later in 1963 when I completed college and a year of seminary I was ready ”to do service” as we said then. I contacted the Selective Service to request permission to do my two years of alternate service in Viet Nam. Again, no problem. Two years later after very little communication or accountability to the board I was informed that I had completed my service obligations, meaning I would no longer be drafted.
Today the decision about participating in organized military violence is incredibly diffuse. The long arm of military service reaches into every industrial sector, to contractors or subcontractors, into educational institutions including high schools and think tanks. Production of components for advanced navy, air or ground-based fighting takes place in most industrial areas. Military contracts, sub contracts, sub sub contracts and consulting services pay well, and on time. You can even become a highly paid modern mercenary, and guard supplies or provide specialized security by signing up with Blackwater or one of the other military security contractors. No part of the military complex is more dispersed throughout industry than the development, production and maintenance of the thousands of digital systems that wire the new armed forces, guide robots in battle where they defuse explosive devices, collect pictures of the enemy, shoot at the enemy and directly bomb or shoot people from unmanned digitally controlled vehicles.
Wired for War is not a 400-page book about how to lead a pacifist life. It’s a book about how war and advanced killing is unfolding. Singer tells us how the Talon robot “saves lives” by going places that are dangerous with its rapid fire gun, and how a warrior robot uncovers hidden roadside bombs. He introduces us to unmanned submarines that are increasingly used in the most dangerous underwater situations, and insect-like bioinspired robots that can fly up to windowsills, perch and stare inside, climb up walls or even into pipes to look things over for security purposes. And the revolution has only begun. Someday, in this century wars could be fought by Terminator-like machines. In fact, science fiction is here.
Singer, a Brookings Institution thinker and consultant for the departments State and Defense, CIA, and Congress, introduces us to the pilots, caretakers and commanders who are challenged to adjust their management ways, technical styles, and chat room manners to killing in the 21st century. Singer frequently returns to the ethical questions of where the transition to digital warfare will take us. He experiments with answers anchored in just war thinking. The uninitiated will be introduced to the vigorous reflections on the meaning of robotics for management (read Generals), tactics and long term strategy in military journals. He tells the reader that these new creatures or machines, already affect police work and hints that they will affect our larger culture in ways that will change us forever.
In my growing to adulthood the process of becoming a conscientious objector, performing alternate service and getting on in life was clearer, easier, and more cut and dry than it had been almost any time before American history. I have been in countries where young people, usually males, are rounded up on the streets and pressed into military service. By the time I had completed my alternate service there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Americans who found themselves in the throes of moral decision making about the Viet Nam war. Their choices were – join the military and get it over, try to get classified as a conscientious objector and do alternate service (where you then had to prove you were doing it for religious reasons), go underground and just disappear (estimated 500,000 draft offenders), flee to another country like Canada where you may be welcomed (estimated 100,000), or prove to the military that you were too sick or disabled to serve.
As the Viet Nam war unfolded the sleepy offices of the Selective Services where I moved through with nary a question were overwhelmed with petitions for exceptions. Things eventually got so far out of hand that in1973 under President Nixon the draft was ended. He had campaigned in 1968 to end the draft. The draft really ended because of the expressions of moral discontent from young people aged 18-26. The political costs outweighed whatever military gains once thought to justify a draft. The Selective Service System that administered the draft remains in place until now. The powerful influence of those draft resisters forty years ago can provide inspiration and perhaps deeper insight into how we organize to resist war making in our new context.
The Selective Service Board and exchanges at their offices once served as a rite of passage for millions of youth like me. My successors now entering the workforce are confronted with a plethora of decisions that will last a life time. Are they assured that they have a support structure of friends, churches, instructors, chat rooms, mentors and even families to cheer them on? Choosing to be pacifist in all these life decisions can feel like one is saying “NO”, to many opportunities and perks and sometimes not even realizing there is a decision to be made. .
Our lives today are honeycombed with the tentacles of the military infrastructure and the choices are not very sweet. The old one time decision to do alternate service is gone forever if it ever really existed. Today being pacifist is an exercise in repeated examination of industrial products, taxes, consumer goods and most of all the work place. And, this is just the outward journey, a walk that only makes sense if there is an inward journey of the spirit that informs our hope for the wholeness of all things. This complexity would have completely overwhelmed me as a young man 50 years ago. This is why all of us are invited to take responsibility to investigate and help sort this out.
In the reunified Viet Nam of today I was startled at first to stumble upon memorials for the martyrs of the American war which appear without warning often with an enormous socialist realist inspired sculpture, a few words from Uncle Ho and then the tiny grave sites. People visit the sites and remember the martyrs. Like the Viet Nam war memorial in Washington these shrines to those who died evoke respect and sometimes hope for families, friends, and nations.
I travelled to Viet Nam after a month in the United Kingdom, Holland and Germany where I visited memorials to the holocaust, one in Berlin and another in Heidelberg, site of a one time synagogue. In the UK on two occasions my hosts pointed out markers where people were once burned at the stake because of religious courage for doing things like reading an English Bible or illegal unfaithfulness depending upon which side you were on.
And in Holland my hosts were members of the doopsgezinden or the people who practiced adult baptism and nonresistance to evil in the 15th and 16th centuries, my own ancestors, referred to now as Mennonites. When I spoke at the Amsterdam Church my hosts brought out a centuries old printing of the Martyrs Mirror for me to view. I was told that it is retrieved every Sunday morning and placed on a table at the front of the church. I opened the massive 1200 page book and viewed some of the etchings. What might these people who gave their lives freely and sometimes singing be saying to me as lenten season approaches?
The ancient book of courage jolts the senses as the commitment to enemy loving is played out in the collected narratives. My hosts tell me that hardly anyone ever reads this book of stories from the people’s church long ago. But what about the stories, I gulp silently to myself, having read many of them in English translation as a child in my father’s study.
The Martyr’s Mirror collects stories from people who more than any other group in the 16th century were put to death for acting out their faith. The collection was assembled by a young man named van Braght who in his early thirties felt that these stories were exceedingly relevant for his generation which had become softened by affluence and had begun to neglect its martyr heritage. He sought to assemble a complete account of nonviolent Christian martyrs. “Read it again and again,” he wrote, and “Above all fix your eyes upon the martyrs themselves… and follow their example.”
Although the Anabaptists are today remembered for their nonviolent enemy loving in earlier times, elements within the movement then, impatient with slow progress, turned to organized rebellions and armed revolutionary activity. Like Muslims today this earned the movement the charge of terrorism and awakened the nations to fear. One such rebellion occurred in Munster, Germany in 1534-35. Thomas Müntzer the leader believed that a bloody rising of God’s elect to slaughter the ungodly would usher in the millennium especially for the downtrodden. The rebellion was defeated but the fear that it engendered lived on for at least a century. It a broader sense Munster was part of the peasant uprisings that preceeded and followed the uprising.
In Heidelberg my path unexpectedly crossed still another reminder of struggle for the poor and the death of a daughter of our own century. Elisabeth von Dyck, a Mennonite born in Uruguay moved with her parents to Germany as a child. In the 1970s she became involved with the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Army Faction. I probably would not have taken note of the fact that she was shot and killed in Nuremberg May 4, 1979 had I not been working at the time in the Philippines where her acts of armed resistance to advanced capitalism would have been respected by some.
When my German colleague told me that he knew her and attended her funeral at the Enkenbach Mennonite Church where I had spoken just two nights before I perked up. Thirty years ago my imagination had been awakened when I read in a prominent news magazine of her death at a safe house in a shoot out with German authorities. Now as I learned more about the person, Elizebeth, my mind flashed back to the Munsterite uprising more than four centuries earlier from a direct line of our religious forebearers. I felt a curiousity to know more about her and wished I would have been able to visit her grave site. No one mentioned her when I visited the church.
Why are most of the memorials to sacrifice for the greater good placed for soldiers who believe that the highest form of sacrifice is to kill “enemies” for the nation and the truth for which it stands. The Lenten season reminds me that the highest form of sacrifice is to accept the death, sometimes called martyrdom voluntarily without a hint of violent defence. By avoiding this opportunity I can slip into the life of defensiveness where others must die for me to protect me. It is good to honour them. They remind me and maybe even encourage me to embrace a better way. I hold to a higher striving for all humanity outside my single nation’s god. I hope I can be awake to the patience, the boldness and higher consciousness that the journey deserves.
The day after the election may be a downer for people like me who were seduced by the adrenalin of this election season. Mornings will continue to dawn and the progress of late fall to winter will continue. Eventually I will be coaxed into looking around at the world we live in and reminded that a few things may be different, but a lot stays the same, a nation that controls half the world’s military might including nuclear arms, a global economic crisis, an impending world food crisis and serious environmental challenge are in front of every one of us. Some people are praying and this will help. Activists some of whom pray too, will be wise to take a few moments to reflect on what their priorities should be. Unless I have a longer view I may fall into a very long depression because so little has changed.
In the 1968 election between Nixon and Humphrey I refused to vote and to this day friends challenge me for this act of civic mistrust in the hard won right to vote. Although I didn’t believe elections were a bad thing I was so disappointed that Hubert Humphrey, the nominee, persisted in the rhetoric of war. The Viet Nam war seemed to have no end despite the intense work of that pivotal year, 1968. When Richard Nixon was elected with even fewer credentials for peacemaking and a “secret plan” I got depressed.
Admittedly some of my depression may have been due to working in a war situation for many years and my unrelenting pace to get it stopped. Depression of course has many sources not all of which can be blamed on an election or a war. All in all I think that constitutional change based on one person one vote that is actually counted, preferably without the need for lawyers, is a better way to move forward than relying upon the whims of a combination of oligarchs, big money, and military power. Those big three already have disproportionate influence even when one person one vote works reasonably well.
But that is the big challenging picture. I am not powerless nor am I ready to cede important matters to the elected ones. Real change largely comes from the bottom and the participation of people, which at the same time, is not to say that all local change work is necessarily good. A group of thugs, land grabbers and polluters can change a community to function out of sickness or fear. It is one thing to have a long term vision. Doing the nitty gritty work to get there is another. It takes people who are devoted enough to attend meetings, do all kinds of messy tasks and put forward an authentic face of hope. This election has already shown that realistic, disciplined organizing works.
We shouldn’t have to wait for elections to get down to work, nor should we have to wait for elections to ignite our hope and vision. Elections are messy and often imperfect. So are our local efforts for change and we easily run out of energy. Closing a local military base or recruiting office, pressuring an irresponsible corporation to stop producing toxic products or overturning terrorist style interrogation tactics – takes five to twenty years or more. It transcends election cycles. Abolition of slavery took more than 100 years and in fact it is still not over. The U.S. still has to make good on the 40 acres and a mule promise. Change comes from good strategy carried out by a trained team of people who try all kinds of tactics from delegations and discussion, to education, and nonviolent direct action.
Most change work has to do with various arts of communication. Some can be learned in institutions with respectable names but the integration of symbols with words, actions, humour, and perseverance is always being written in a fresh way in the field. Much of the real work is done by people who have not benefited from studying in respectable institutions. Together we invent on the fly in real life situations.
I have a simple rule for myself in the development of tactics that build on a long term strategy. Two questions keep me on track. Will my words or actions give the people on the other side something to think about or even talk about over coffee? And, will my actions awaken positive and uplifting emotional responses from the heart? Maybe you could call this the Stoltzfus Rule of Hearts and Minds.
The long term personal demands of the work should not be easily glossed over. Hard facts of injustice must be rigorously researched, judgements need to be made and a vision articulated so that it can be grasped by people. Negotiations and change only comes at the final stages when money, wealth, power, policy and the common good are put in their proper place. Along the way I may be tempted to engage in diatribes about how evil someone has become. I hope that I don’t choose that track but when I do I know another voice within will remind me that the spirit of nonviolence has been violated and I have capitulated to messages worthy of negative political advertisers. With time and good critics I will get back on track.
At least as big a challenge will be the fashioning of a real team to get on with the work. Genuine team players recognize strengths and weaknesses within themselves and co-workers. Team diversity hopefully includes people who are good at organizing the data, doing competent analytical work, maintaining team life and at least one out front visionary and coordinator who sees the road ahead. The more diversity of age and ethnic life in the context of gender balance, the more competent the team will be over time. Team members also need to understand how they and others behave in crisis or emergency moments of opportunity. There are ways to train together and prepare for this.
It is a rare local community that does not have at least one expression of the four global threats that are upon us, militarism and the environmental, economic, food crisis. If twenty percent of our congregations, mosques, and synagogues would determine as a highest priority to form and support action teams, in five years the world would be on the road to recovery. Over ten years we would see larger solutions beginning to form out of a collage of our efforts. There would be fewer corporations and money managers who try to corner destructive control for quick profit, fewer military bases, more protection for the earth, and the pain of hunger could be narrowed. We will know that the spirit is in this by the fruits of these efforts.
Filed under: Iraq, Peacemaker spirit, Politics of Empire, Walk in Wisconsin 2008
Route 21 from Tomah, Wisconsin west to Sparta goes through hilly corn fields and woods. After the tiny berg of Tunnel City the fields end and Fort McCoy begins. Eighty miles northwest of Madison this Fort is one of the few major army training bases in the Northern Midwest. The base provides training for troops headed for Iraq and other combat zones. It also provides jobs for civilians.
On this Sunday in August with reporters and cameras looking on the base prepared for the visit of 50 peace walkers on Witness Against War pilgrimage from Chicago to St. Paul. Twelve walkers would seek to enter the base to talk with soldiers and officers about war and peace. I was one of the twelve. The 350 mile walk was organized by Chicago based Voices for Creative Nonviolence.
I joined the group at Tunnel City five miles east of the main entrance to Fort McCoy. State Route 21 was thick with security cars among army trucks, Hummers, SUVs and other vehicles, some out for a Sunday excursion and others basking in vacation days. Horn blowing and waves from people encouraged us. No harsh fists or crypto-patriotic shouts. By 11 am we reached the main entrance only to discover that it had been closed and, that persons seeking entrance must go on.
The night before an Alice Cooper heavy metal concert on the base was not only opened to the entire community, it also challenged the trees and animals of the surrounding forests. In thick darkness the rock concert sounds were antiphonally answered by coyote calls. On days or nights when rock concert sounds don’t invade, the seven tiny mock villages hidden in the base’s woods are used as training territory. In these simulated third world hamlets soldiers practice house raids, and surveillance or capture of hostile villagers who are thought to exist in distant lands. In communities along the Mississippi River people in need of employment are hired at $12 per hour to imitate enemy village life. We were not able to assess the risks for temporary employment of this sort. Retirement benefits are nonexistent because enemy village war game employees are considered temporary help.
Members of the Department of the Army Police, a civilian body now used for security duty that was once the responsibility of military police, greeted us and refused our polite requests for entry to Fort McCoy in order to complete our mission of dialogue. As I began the walk into the grand entry way where rock concert goers had travelled the previous night I could overhear police orders barked into tightly gripped two way radios. “Bring on the teams.” I assumed that they were not referring to Christian Peacemaker Teams but did not anticipate the twenty police deployed to meet our motley inter-generational group. For a moment I felt like I might be in a movie set. The late morning sun was perfect. Two very different forces were walking (marching might be a little strong) and something was about to happen. Even after we were stopped, frisked and placed in stiff plastic hand cuffs I wanted to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Everything seemed so choreographed.
Inside the security building I was interviewed, photographed, fingerprinted and ticketed. I would be informed when I had to appear in court, probably in Madison. The plastic cuffs bit into my arms but I managed to carry on reasonably human conversations with the officers. As my processing moved towards completion, I engaged the Sargent who commanded the unit, regarding strategies of security. I explained I had been working on security matters from a nonviolent point of view for many years. I also noted that no doubt his responsibilities came about because of advanced education, degrees and careful reflection on the theories of effective police work. I pressed him to talk about his own theory of security and asked if he believed that the best way to achieve security was by way of overwhelming force.
In our conversation I reminded him that we are in fact both concerned about the security of the human family and even in his text books there were various theories that suggested minimal and even no use of force. Discussing security with a Sargent who commands police for the Department of the Army while in hand cuffs may be a little disjunctive but I think we had a tiny but worth while two way conversation. Judging from the honks and waves of support from soldiers outside the base I suspect the reception inside beyond the guard post might have been even more cordial than the arresting greeting from police on that August day.
After two hours of processing we were driven several miles beyond the base and released. Finally I felt like I had departed the movie set for good. Every one had been polite, too nice. What was achieved? Perhaps local people who have long held uneasiness about the cultural, economic and military influence of the base were encouraged – at least they said they were. Folks in surrounding towns thanked us for joining with local people in the witness. And for me there was an added personal dimension.
On many occasions in Iraq I spent hours in homes that had been the object of US army raids. Was Fort McCoy one of the places where army recruits learned to turn over furniture, threaten families in the middle of the night and cart off young men and husbands for long hours of interrogation at Abu Gharib? Would Wisconsin tolerate this behavior in the homes of its own residents? Could our nation survive such a primitive strategy? Coming here this Sabbath day to pray and to shine the light on military tactics abroad was one more response to those Iraq home visits.
I was tempted to seek temporary employment in those mock villages of the forest where I could feel the energy of a practice raid first hand. I know the participating soldiers come from orderly villages and farms like those we passed in our walk. I know they were not trained to do house raids in their homes, churches or high schools. What would the people at the English Lutheran Church in La Crosse think if they saw the overturned furniture, devastated families and trashed homes created by Wisconsin citizens? Does the Governor understand the thin veneer of pseudo-patriotism and public policy that allows him to send his own citizens off to distant lands to do house raids?.
Now tell me, those American flags pasted so prominently on police uniforms, what exactly do they mean? In times like this I get confused My mind is teased with questions about patriotism. Who is the patriot, the one wearing the flag or the unarmed detained walker here in the heartland?
They call the 4000 mile U. S. Canada border the “most open free trade border in the world.” You wouldn’t know it here in the border town of Fort Frances when you talk with people who spent much of their lives moving back and forth across the border for business, pleasure, and shopping. “It isn’t worth it any more” my neighbour tells me. “I get tired of the inconsistent and sometimes belligerent behaviour of the agents.”
As the deadline looms when Canadian citizens will be required to show a passport when entering the US, these visits whatever their purpose are decreasing. People here are tired of being questioned, searched, and feeling belittled by INS and Customs officials.
With Robert Frost’s lines, “Good fences make good neighbours.” still ringing in my ears from long ago literature class, I try to comprehend these fences for nations. Something in me doesn’t like them. I look forward to a time when my human family gives up on border fences, custom houses, check points and toll booths?
I live about three miles (five kilometres) from the border. In high visitor months like we are in now, back ups for homeward bound American vacationers at the US border crossing can reach as much as a mile in length. When this happens I walk across or use a bicycle to fetch my mail in International Falls, Minnesota. Cameras, helicopters, and small aircraft now regularly monitor this freest border in the world. Every time I go I see at least one frustrated or angry traveller. And, this is in fact pretty free compared to another NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement) frontier, the 2000 mile long Mexican border where a real fence is being built by Elbit, an Israeli defence company which also is building the wall between Palestine and Israel. Its partner in the creation of great walls, the Chicago based Boeing is another well known defence contractor. The US Secretary of Homeland Security tells me these border crossings, fences and monitoring devices make me safer and have challenged their Canadian counterparts to toughen their security as well.
Some months after I moved to Canada I was pulled in for a hard nosed three hour interview and told that I was not welcome unless my civil disobedience arrests were cleared up. They all were neatly listed on the computer screen, compliments of the FBI records to which Canadian officials in remote Fort Frances had access. If I was going to stay in Canada I had to go to every jurisdiction where I had been arrested for what I believed to be patriotic actions and get a letter of clearance that charges had been either dropped, or properly adjudicated, and that if found guilty I had been rehabilitated. I spent a week and 1500 miles collecting verification. When an arrest in the US is processed and completed, one’s FBI file is never updated nor erased. There are limits to rehabilitation.
Borders that mutate into fences have been happening in this world for millennia. Hadrian’s Wall begun in 122 AD was built across England to prevent raiders from Scotland from invading civilized Roman controlled Britain to the South. Persons watching the Olympics won’t miss seeing the Great Wall of China which, like the Canadian border, stretches for about 4000 miles. Two to three million people reportedly died during its centuries long construction. It was also built to keep dangerous tribes out of Imperial China.
The Berlin Wall was constructed to keep people in and Ronald Reagan didn’t approve. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”, he shouted in Berlin shortly before it did come down. If tough talk and shouting at border walls really helps to bring them down, maybe Palestinians and Mexicans should organize to clang frying pans, train official shouters and brigades of naggers at these unwelcome walls.
Once I believed that customs posts were the last vestiges of military checkpoints which I had encountered around our globe. Forty-five years ago in Viet Nam and Cambodia I leaned to act really dumb at these bothersome checkpoints. I pretended not to notice the tiny little transactions that lubricated the movements of goods, services and people across military check points and customs tables. Today such bold bribery for “free” passage is almost gone. Or, has it moved to bolder state control and free trade arrangements with the supporting cast of agents and lawyers who do the lubricating?
Remind me again of the reason for this new era of fences, custom houses, and immigration agents. Oh yes, this is part of the war on terror to make things safer for me. Is the world out to kill me? When 9/11 struck my first thought was that the US as victim nation would use this as a wake up call to profound changes in cultural, economic and disastrous political strategies. I didn’t actually think about borders, walls and new fences as a solution.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” writes Robert Frost in his opening line, before he meanders along his fence with his neighbour in the springtime. Frost wonders why the effort to fix the fence is so necessary. His neighbour repeats, “Good fences make good neighbours.
But the question, “Why do they [the fences] make good neighbours?” lingers. Frost can’t find the answer except that a neighbour told him so.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
I am sure this little poem had nothing to do with the war on terror. And, that Frost would be smitten with embarrassment to think that he had anything to do with public policy in general or with immigration agents and custom clearance here at Fort Frances, Ontario. That it has always been this way does not impress him. Oh well, he is just a poet.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more: There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
The 20th Century was the most violent in human history a time when the percentage of civilians war casualties rose from five percent to ninety percent. The 20th century also may have produced more martyrs than any other century.
I have met the survivors of those who gave their lives on every continent. For forty-five years since becoming a young volunteer in Viet Nam during the war I have asked how people like me with all our flaws and our own wounds of war might train ourselves with people everywhere who want a better choice than simply being at the mercy of the cascading explosive force for ever higher weapon technology. In this search certain voices and lives have sustained and deepened my commitment.
We are now a week away from Hiroshima Day, August 6 when we will remember the bomb that killed so many and its continuing threat to all of us. This year I will also be remembering the death on August 6, 1943 of Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian peasant whose name was once unknown beyond his village but is now inspiring devotion, confidence and courage around the world. I first learned of his life, as a peace activist during the Viet Nam war when I searched for friends, and colleagues who could encourage me in the walk of faith through the minefields of Washington D. C. and beyond. His story was first brought before the world in 1964 by Gordon Zahn’s work, In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter. Perhaps I was drawn to him because of the Germanic roots we share.
Franz Jägerstätter was an Austrian conscientious objector during World War II. Refusal to serve mandatory military service in war time was a criminal offense in Germany, and Jägerstätter was sentenced to death and executed at age 36. Jagerstatter spent his entire life except for military training and his imprisonment in Berlin, in his native village of Sankt Radegund, Austria where he had a basic elementary education. An illegitimate child he had a reputation of being wild and himself fathered an illegitimate child. Around the time of his marriage in 1936 to Franziska Schwaninger a women from a neighbouring village he experienced a spiritual awakening and began to become more deeply involved in his village church life.
By 1938 when Hitler’s forces arrived in Austria he became convinced of the evil of the Third Reich and was the only person in his village to vote against the take over. He was drafted and went through military training where his plea to be assigned to emergency medical duty was rejected. During these years his spiritual life grew through Bible study and prayer. He may have been influenced also by several priests in the region who were also detained for speaking out about the Nazi program. Three daughters were born to his family. As call up to active military service awaited him, he sought counsel from priests and bishops who advised him that his growing convictions about killing and war should be moderated so that he could care for his family and be a responsible husband. Despite this advice his convictions about God’s love and non participation in the war grew. Neighbours uniformly regarded his sacrifice as foolish and his story may have been forgotten had it not been for Gordon Zahn’s book.
After frequent delays Jägerstätter was called to active military duty in February 1943. By this time his internal sense of a confident call to what today we refer to as Christian nonviolence led him to refuse to enter active duty whereupon he was imprisoned in the Austrian city of Linz. Later he was moved to Berlin where he was tried in a military court and beheaded on August 9, 1943, two years to the day before the second atomic bomb was dropped by the U. S. on the city of Nagasaki, Japan.
In the closing months of his life with the words and advice of responsible fatherhood ringing in his ears he wrote that it was clear to him that refusing to cooperate with the Nazis was the most precious gift he could give to his wife and daughters. He wrote that it would be better to have a father who was killed serving Christ than to have a Nazi for a father. He spoke of his eternal homeland in the spirit of God’s timeless and universal purpose as taking precedence over the drumbeat of “the Fatherland”.
After his death the memory of his witness lay silent for years. Villagers rarely spoke of him because of the enormous dissonance of his lonely witness and perhaps because of their own growing apprehension of how they had been swept up by history. His final words captured in a letter from prison now ring bells of hope around the world.
“I must write them [these lines ed.] with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering, a strength far stronger than all the might of the world. The power of God cannot be overcome. . .
THE TRUE CHRISTIAN is to be recognized more in his works and deeds than in his speech. The surest mark of all is found in deeds showing love of neighbour. To do unto one’s neighbour what one would desire for himself is more than merely not doing to others what one would not want done to himself. Let us love our enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us. For love will conquer and will endure for all eternity. And happy are they who live and die in God’s love.”
Jägerstätter could not have known that his life and death (now referred to as martyrdom) would become the stuff of Saints. On October 27, 2007 after a lengthy process he was beatified in the Cathedral in Linz, Austria before 5000 people from around the world. Writer, priest, and nonviolent visionary John Deer SJ described the great ceremony in the same city where Jagerstatter was once imprisoned. “There were many consoling, inspiring, uplifting moments last Friday … at the beatification of the anti-war hero Franz Jagerstatter. The resounding applause for his 94 year-old widow Franziska. The reading of the declaration. The unfurling of the 30 foot banner with Franz’s photo and the sight of dozens of bishops and cardinals standing up, looking up–at last!–to Franz. But the most moving was the presentation of his relics. Franziska kissed them, gave them to a cardinal for the Cathedral in Linz, then wept. She knows it now. Franz no longer belongs to Austria. Now he belongs to the world. And his work is just beginning.”
Franz has been my companion for some forty years, a gift when my imagination needed sparking, courage when moments of hard decisions were upon me, and inward peace when so much confusion surrounded me. He has been a partner and I believe continues to cheer me on in his sometimes lonely but firm and stubborn Germanic way.
Forgiveness and apology has often gotten mixed up in my mind. I am finally getting it sorted out. I apologize for a wrong I have done to someone else. I forgive when I have been wronged. When I forgive I choose to give up my right to keep bad feelings about the other person, institution or nation. This means that I am releasing those fantasies of revenge, or hate that threaten to dog me or have occupied my energy, perhaps for years.
Apologizing and forgiving are two of the most difficult things we can do. Maybe it is because even when we forgive we worry we might not be able to keep our word. Perhaps it’s hard because forgiveness comes from the same place in our brain that gets jumbled with retribution and reconciliation. That is why it gets so confusing and throws a wrench into our understanding of health and its connection to justice. I believe that the reason spiritual teachings in the Bible and elsewhere come back to this theme is that without the grace and extra space that forgiveness provides we might destroy each other in the legalistic demand for justice.
Last week I attended a meeting in Pennsylvania where the massacre of Amish children in Nickel Mines, PA was noted as part of a longer discussion. In October 2006, five young school girls were murdered and five more were severely wounded. The perpetrator then killed himself. The Amish community forgave the perpetrator and reached out to his family. The reporter at the event last week informed us that he recently visited the Amish home of the one victim who may have permanent brain damage. When he entered the house, the still recovering girl was in the arms of a non Amish visitor who had come to hold the child. The visitor was the former wife of the man who carried out the crime.
The unilateral act of forgiveness by the Amish in this instance grabbed world attention and awakened discussions around the globe. Jay Leno has a regular thread of humour built on the the curious life style of Amish that he and his writers find to be fertile ground for giggles. He gets laughs because he touches something inside his audience although I personally wish he could learn to say Amish correctly with an ah rather than a long hard A. There were no jokes about forgiveness when Amish persisted in this long held practice. Amish forgiveness touched the masses because the curiosity, thirst and acknowledged need for the grace of forgiveness is recognized as a necessity for survival.
For the Amish parents and community, forgiveness may have been no easier than it is for others. After all they have most of the same DNA information pumping through their neurological systems that the rest of us do. I bet some of them are still finding ways to complete their forgiveness at the deepest level. They are helped of course by 300 years of community teaching and a culture of forgiveness.
When Jay Leno tweaks our funny bone with Amish with a long A stories, he doesn’t notice the nuances. For example, Amish communities are rather imperfect. Unlike other utopian communities like the Shakers, Amish are not economically communal although they practice creative forms of mutual aid and not just in barn raisings. Amish families and communities have their problems. Occasionally there is abuse. Leaders sometimes misuse power. Groups split away over what others might consider negligible issues of life style. Even notions like forgiveness and reconciliation are still in formation like other great ideas that some of us hold to like democracy, peacemaking, and building consensus. But the imperfection of the Amish community does not detract from the power of the prophetic witness to grace that they were able to give to the world in a moment of supreme crisis and death.
The October 2, 2006 massacre occurred in a time when people doubted. The Iraq war had infected all of our lives and forgiveness was not on our minds. We couldn’t even decide who should be forgiven, President Bush, Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda, those who went to war, or those who refused. Into this valley of death where evil surrounded us, another word enlivened our lost conversations to remind us of that forgotten piece of ourselves called forgiveness.
But if we forgive people who violate us, what kind of society will that get us? We are back to the problem of justice. We live in a world of an “eye for an eye” where evil including murder must be paid for. Remember the “eye for an eye” code was not always accepted. In fact it was a reform of an earlier ethic that demanded a genocidal destruction of the village or people who perpetrated an act of murder, terror or other violations. The Amish who root their understanding in God’s forgiveness through Christ have upped the ante. We notice because we know that something about the way we do justice and make war isn’t working. It is not getting to the peace. That is why the Amish witness to unilateral forgiveness is so refreshing for us now.
For a brief moment the world listened. The exceptional story of forgiveness in a time of school house, military, and terrorist violence gave room for hope. I don’t think any of us expect to find all the answers in the Amish system. But they are here for such a time as this, a people who never wanted to make noise, be prophetic, or publicly launch campaigns about the evil of violence. They just knew they wouldn’t engage in retribution or indefinitely nurture their sense of being violated. Amish remind us to listen to those forgotten teachings like forgiveness that live in our shadow side. When forgiveness blossoms even for a moment the planet is made more safe and we have a wider chance to be what we are meant to be.
Peacemaking work can get heavy especially when one always has to be right. Hard nosed politically correct peacemaking is related to its cousin, hard nosed religiously correct spirituality. Both communities have had some impact upon my life and I have learned that I apparently close down in both environments. In closing down I erect my own borders because of my fear of rigidity. When they come together the two can reenforce each other and get lost in the thicket of oughts, have tos, and shoulds. Closing down means that my mind turns fuzzy, uncreative, and sleepy. When it catches me by surprise I suddenly find myself detached from the world, alone, so alone that I can’t even think of good pun or joke.
Religious faith can be morbid and heavy when there is too little joy. I have come to see that true spirituality lives in the uncharted territory between the sacred and the profane. Laughing allows me to go into the unknown. By sidestepping my fear I enter into that place where the walls designed to protect me either dissolve or cease to inhibit me. This is the place where creativity can find a home and new possibilities become visible. Humour shifts my perspective and allows my body and mind to imagine.
Laughter experts tell us that humour is a very good medicine because it allows our bodies to release a fresh set of chemicals that affect our mood and our outlook. Over the years I noticed that peacemaking work can be like a harmonious eco system when there is a little lightness and laughter. I also noticed that teams and work groups can stagnate when the walls of fear are erected. Often this can happen when just one person insists on their vision. That person may be the “leader” but it might be anyone. In some groups that person is called a blocker. These moments of immobility are not expunged by a bristling discussion of the evils of authoritarianism although it might feel good for a time and the analysis may even be correct.
I grew up in a home where there were frequent visitors. Some of those visitors were from the Amish community who lived 20 miles north of our Ohio home. Occasionally the visits were characterized by incredible story telling, spats of laughter and general levity, not the popular understanding of Amish people but nevertheless true. Amish who have a firm belief system often have a joyful life together full of laughter, tricks and teasing. At other times those visits from the Amish were morbid and heavy.
Often my father would take the guests into the living room, shut the door and tell me to go somewhere else. Of course that was the signal to me that something interesting was about to happen, a time that the boundaries of confidentiality needed to be tested. So I would listen at the door, trying not to get caught and thereby get a handle on the unfolding mystery. Usually I got bored with the long sad sentences and weight of a conversation full of blame and guilt. After a time I just went away. As I child I thought that I was banished because I would get in the way of heaviness. I believed that truly spiritual people were heavy. But now, as I remember those events I suspect that my father was protecting me from a moment of spiritual and personal heaviness.
In recent years the study of laughter has been baptized with a really tantalising combination of a Greek words, gelotology, the study of humour and its physical affect, laughter, as well as the psychological and physiological effects on the human body. I don’t think that word got used in our home, however occasional bouts of humour were a part of my formation. Laughter is not always ignited by jokes especially the type that are not funny or worse still, manipulative. Humour invites us to carry our belief systems with the kind of respect that prevents us from placing burdens or guilt upon others. Laughter may signal to others that we want to be part of the group and turn interactions in a positive direction.
Laughter can bring clarification to hard questions that require the invention of new thoughts and more creative ways to communicate those thoughts. Often laughter is contagious and occasionally brings tears although the geolotolgists (if that is what laughter theorists or therapists are called) remind us that the chemical make up of tears of laughter are different from sad tears. Some comedians are our best prophets because they live in that place beyond fear and they get us to laugh at our walls of separation. Laughter comes from that place beyond, where space is providede for the transforming power of kindness, truth telling, sympathy, and compassion.
Just in case you want to learn a little more about the tantalising effects of laughter you may want to check out How Laughter Works by Marshall Brain even though it does not promise complete bliss.