PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Nobel Prize: Peace Or Just War by peaceprobe

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.


Why Halloween Matters by peaceprobe
October 27, 2009, 4:45 pm
Filed under: Philippines, Viet Nam | Tags:

My old masques are lost somewhere in storage but something inside me still wants to dress up like Dracula for Halloween. All Souls Day and All Saints Day and Halloween, all special days from popular cultures at this time of the year, help me remember the underworld and the dead.  The origins of these festivals cover a range of cultures from pre modern religion that combine threads of various holidays. When someone knocks on my door impersonating a  robotic looking devil that person is projecting a fear already present in my culture. By impersonating the demons of evil I make them visible so that I can do something with them perhaps even re form them into objects of opportunity rather than enemies.  

Many of my neighbours around the world believe that unless departed spirits are treated respectfully their spirits will haunt the living.  All of us remember our loved ones who have died.  In Viet Nam josh sticks are lit on special days and food is set out for the spirits of the dead especially the ancestors.  According to one tradition the custom of “trick or treating” goes back to the middle ages when poor people begged for a donut like soul cake and if they received a cake they would agree to pray for departed souls. The prayer connection to “trick or treat” has not survived but its interconnection to another world of devils is alive at Halloween usually at our front doors.  

All Souls Day  is a time of great celebration especially in Latin Countries and the Philippines.  A festival atmosphere not unlike a Mennonite relief sale pervades as families spend the day and often the night at the cemetery where the departed ones are buried. In the Philippines people bring food, flowers, and candles to be placed on the grave site.  Tents are constructed for overnight stays.

The cemeteries are so crowded that people sleep on top of the grave sites. Children invent new games like collecting melted wax and compete to be the one who makes the biggest ball of wax for recycling back home to make candles.  Family ties are strengthened.  People who have not talked to each other for months or even years due to disputes are forced to converse at the door of the  land of the dead.  Politicians move among the people giving words of greeting and comfort and silently courting support.  

In former times traditional priests sold prayers on behalf of departed souls who may be awaiting final entry into  heaven.  The religious significance of All Souls Day is being eroded by advanced market practices.  Chain stores set up temporary outlets to push their products at the cemetery where there is steady traffic.  All Souls Day and night is a time to wear good clothes.  It is an occasion when returning overseas workers show off how well they are doing.  Rich people build mausoleums, an extended crypt with amenities for living, at the cemeteries where they can stay in comfort for the entire celebration.  Young people dance and karioke music competes (and usually wins) over the sound of prayers and passion music.  Masked behind all the dancing, eating and festive activity is the experience of unbroken connection to the spirits of those who continue to make us who we are.

This year in the competition to wear the best Halloween costume that impersonates a modern devil I bet an award somewhere will go to the one who imitates a high finance “too big to fail” capitalist who just made off with a fantastic bonus.  And if the devils work as a team which the top ones tend to do I bet they will find a way to shmooze with politicians.  Like priests in long forgotten cultures they will raise money and garner power in places where the dead, whose good we celebrate, can’t talk about what bothers them and the living are cautious.

When Halloween is over some of us will go to church where we might be reminded that this is All Saints Day a time to  remember the Saints including martyrs.   Originally many Christian martyrs were executed because they refused to worship a Roman emperor, the symbolic head of the public religion of the day.  Some came to Christian faith as soldiers.  Their faith interrupted very promising careers and sometimes led to persecution and death. Beside these ancient martyrs this year we may choose to remember people like Tom Fox, the CPT worker (Christian Peacemaker Teams) who was taken hostage and killed in Iraq while trying to live out the way of nonviolent love.  

This season, Halloween reminds me of the dilemma that all people of the book face at some point.  If God is so good and perfect why is there so much evil and violence?  By remembering my freedom and autonomy I am respected.  I am allowed to get stuck with an obsession that one of those devils offers by tricking me for a treat.  I am also allowed to make choices about who I am and where I want my weight and overweight to be felt.  

The masks and elaborate masqueraders of the season remind me of the dangerous energy around me.  I can do better. By remembering the Saints and Souls I am inspired not to be trapped, tricked or captured by the gambling energies of high finance, consumerism and the attendant armaments required for their protection.  I don’t know if Dracula had all of this in mind when he inspired me to dress up for Halloween.  If he comes to my door later this week I will thank him for reminding me of all this bad stuff around me and that I (and the people of the earth) have some important choices to make in the coming year.

Torture: Trials of The Unspeakable by peaceprobe
September 10, 2009, 2:02 pm
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Detainees, Impunity, Iraq, Viet Nam | Tags: , ,

Torture has been on my mind.  I know that I need to push back its cover from where it dwells in the shadows.  I know that my nation may refuse to do so when they use torture as a means of waging war as a path to peace.  Lecturing others about torture comes more easily. I have learned in the last fifty years that laws preventing torture, and molestation will not stop it.  But law will help.  However, only a moral conversion will change things.  People tell me human nature will never change.  I believe change is always happening.  It’s what we do with change that counts.

The challenges of torture raised by Abu Ghraib (Iraq), Guantanamo (Cuba) and Bagram (Afghanistan) are particularly striking for Christians since at the heart of our faith is the memory of the flogging, taunting and execution of Jesus.  It takes courage to face the horror, overcome my silence and make an honest attempt to talk truth.  I  read the Bible, and only see the agony narratives as sanitized crucifixion drama that builds to resurrection.  I like Easter because it gets life moving again.  But resurrection invites me to look into the face of my species with both compassion and moral confrontation, two threads that are hard to carry simultaneously.  Resurrection is understood by admitting and looking at the whole story which includes frame-up, betrayal, torture, conviction and slow painful death.

Six years ago this month I was in Baghdad where I talked to some of the earliest prisoners to be freed from detention after the American occupation began. I wanted a profile of what was happening and maybe some hints on how to intervene with protective actions.  The interrogation routines reflected patterns, revolvers pointed at heads, loud sounds, sleeplessness, shouting, taunting, accusations and more.  When these descriptions ended very often there was a sigh and the former detainee would look at me and say “and there were things about which I cannot talk”.  I could not imagine what the unspeakable things might be until I saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib.  Then the unspeakable “things about which I cannot talk” took shape, sexual humiliation, nakedness, and molestation. Similar interrogation methods were described to me years earlier in Viet Nam, and the Philippines.

Torture and abuse by the modern state over the last century abounds.
These Abu Ghraib torture events happened in an Arab culture where nakedness and sexual innuendo is forbidden.   The pictures displayed sexual humiliation.  Before Abu Ghraib when I read the story of Jesus’ arrest, interrogation, and execution I failed to notice the deeper threads of similarity to modern practices of the politics of domination.  In the first century it was as culturally unconscionable to display someone naked, particularly a Jew in Palestine as it is in Iraq today.  Is it possible to read the arrest stories including Jesus’ stripping and disappearance for a time when he was turned over to the soldiers as a process that included sexual humiliation?  Did Jesus experience not only humiliation but actual sexual assault?*

According to the record Jesus was flogged, a process designed to hurt and humiliate the prisoner.  After Jesus was handed over to the Roman soldiers, themselves foreign occupiers, he was mocked, given a crown of thorns, dressed in courtly purple and taunted.  The digital photos from Abu Ghraib may be the closest representation of what might have happened when Jesus was alone with soldiers, better even than Mel Gibson’s more macho representation in The Passion of Jesus.  What would a hidden camera among the Roman soldiers who taunted Jesus have revealed that we don’t know from the existing record?

Torture touches people at the interface of culture, faith, and fear.  The context of torture creates space for sexual misconduct.  What may have begun as interrogation for fact finding turns into a ritual of dominance, penetration and molestation. Does torture open us to a reptilian side of our nature buried deep inside our brain? We don’t want to look, especially when it turns sexual.  Looking makes us ashamed.  Our shame awakens our lesser selves that we thought we had put away with the progress of history.  Some of us turn our heads in shock when we view the apparently acceptable government approved interrogation rituals on prime time TV.

A crucifixion was an extreme formula of execution in Roman times.  At first, under the Republic it was used for slaves, but under the empire its use was enlarged to include criminals and persons involved in revolts.  Cicero called crucifixion “the most cruel and disgusting punishment” and the Apostle Paul talks of Jesus’ end, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) almost to suggest that there are all kinds of less humiliating, less painful and quicker ways to be put to death.  Jesus may have been crucified naked as was often practised in crucifixion formulas of the time.  The first century historian, Josephus called crucifixion, “the most pitiable of deaths”.

If it happens, a nation’s recovery from a period of state torture takes decades.  In Latin America where state sponsored torture was rampant it took 15 years before Argentina and other sovereign states began to carry forward trials of perpetrators.  In the United States we are not yet far removed from Abu Ghraib.  Only recently have we learned of a pattern of sexual exhibitionism among State Department sponsored contractors in Afghanistan.

The response of the Obama administration which is to place torture at arms length with more study reflects an ambivalence about dealing with it now.  The brave words heard in the campaign reflected a  belief that we are better than the events of Abu Ghraib depict us to be, something we all want to believe about ourselves and our nation.  But denial also has even wider cultural support.  No leader can take on torture trials without using up considerable political capital and without exceptional support in the population.  President Obama does not have that support because people like me take so long to uncover and admit the depth of our own revulsion.

As I learned of the torture of Iraqi citizens in the wake of the US occupation I had an internal debate.  One voice said it is better to be conservative, methodical and thorough in order to make the unfolding drama of suffering more believable to far away citizens, legislators and military personal some of whom had their own doubts.  The stories we heard from former detainees were compelling and were reported by enough former detainees that I was convinced of their authenticity.  But months went by without wider confirmation in any media with pictures.  Were there symbolic actions, or other things that we could have done to jolt people even without the “smoking gun” of a picture?

When the photos from Abu Ghraib surfaced I was forced to look deeper into the interrogation process than I had before.  The people who supported me now could believe me too because the media gave confirmation.  But what if I could not depend upon media confirmation particularly in an era when being embedded with the military went largely unquestioned?  What if a soldier had not leaked his digital photos for the world to see?  How many more people would have been taunted, and betrayed, by state sponsored torture in Iraq because of my insistence upon evidence that would hold up with sceptics?

In a world where the door has not been closed and locked forever on torture by moral conviction or law I know I have to find a new way through to the heart of truth each time.  The fact that a central figure in my faith walked into an Abu Ghraib type event 2000 years ago reminds me of the continuity of the experience of torture.  I wish his cohorts who responded with denial, betrayal, silence and fear would have been more gutsy. I wish I wasn’t so much like them. There are times when moral conviction is so strong that silence is impossible.


* For a more thorough study of these themes read Prisoner Abuse: From Abu Ghraib to The Passion of Christ by David Tombs in Religion and the Politics of Peace and Conflict, ed. Linda Hogan and Dylan Lee Lehrke, Pickwick Publication, Eugene Oregon (Princeton Theological Monograph Series)

Magic Bullets: From Agent Orange To Digital Warfare by peaceprobe
April 28, 2009, 9:58 am
Filed under: Digital/Star War, Politics of Empire, Viet Nam

My time in Viet Nam this winter brought me up to date on Agent Orange, a legacy from the Viet Nam war we hear little about any more. According to the Government of Viet Nam more than four million Vietnamese were affected by Agent Orange. The consequence of this poison spraying during the 1960s now can be traced into the 4th  generation.  Curbing its effects has required special medical programs, and new Peace Villages to treat residual effects including physical deformities like improperly formed arms, legs, or fingers and cancer such as leukemia.

The use of Agent Orange by the US Forces in Viet Nam was the result of strategic thinking including “ethical” reflection that its use would make the war winnable faster and thus would save lives.  Those expectations turned out to be wrong.  The war was not won.  It was not fast.  And, American fighters, Vietnamese fighters, civilians and their descendants continue to get sick and die because of it.  Agent Orange lingers on reminding the third and fourth generation of the sins of their ancestors.  The invention and use of chemical warfare in the 20th century was for a time thought to be a game changer in war making.  


War Remnants Museum,  Ho Chi Minh City

War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

In 2003 the US government went into Iraq in part because of that country’s use of chemical weapons on Kurd population centers.  The US wanted to eradicate Iraqi chemical weapons.  It turned out that chemical weapons could not be found in Iraq (presumably destroyed).  Technically Agent Orange is a herbicidal weapon and does not fall under international agreements related to chemical weapons despite the fact that it has created more death and destruction in the last 50 years than mustard gases or nerve agents still in storage at military sites.  


Two weeks ago during Holy Week as I watched Predators and Reapers at Creech AFB in Nevada practice touch down and take off,  my mind stretched back 40 years to my own days as a civilian volunteer in Viet Nam when for a time I was in denial.  I refused to believe that the US would spray chemicals from the air to destroy crops, vegetation and people.  I was wrong then and could kick myself for being such a slow learner.  I missed it because I thought war strategists would have more concern for civilian victims.   

The movement of digitally guided, unmanned systems on the ground, at sea, in the air and space are here for the duration.  The technology, like the chemistry of Agent Orange is widely available and components can now or soon will be cobbled together from off the shelf.  The players and advocates at the center of the movement are not yet sure of where it is going but I do know that split second decision making, often by young soldiers or civilians, will determine life and death for people. In each major transformation, nuclear bombs, chemical weapons, gunpowder, bows and arrows and others,  new development has made war faster, and more deadly than the previous stage of military evolution.   The digital age will further enlarge the distance between combatants and victims.  There will be human, environmental and probably security costs, now only imagined in science fiction, 40 years down the road. 

Today my gut still doesn’t want to believe that this generation of robotic warfare which is at the heart of the US Defence “transformation” is as dangerous as my brain knows it to be.   After all I am typing this on a computer and I get really irritated when my internet connection goes down which happens here about once a week.  Later, in May, I expect to visit Pakistan where some of the effects of digital warfare and this generation’s “saving lives” technology is being played out among the people..  My brain and my gut may get coordinated as I talk to victims, their families and their leaders who care about them.

In this age of globalization the Government of Viet Nam has welcomed  relationships with the US and seeks cooperation to deal with the legacy of Agent Orange.  But it can’t deny the agony that the US spraying of Agent Orange has caused Vietnamese people particularly in the South.  When I visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City two months ago there were murals and displays that drew attention to the use and continuing effects of Agent Orange.  At the Khe Sanh war memorial I saw additional material and in conversations I learned that it was a sizable and continuing health problem.  Already in 1966 the North Vietnamese government charged that defoliants like Agent Orange caused congenital deformities in babies.  Three years later  in 1969 studies at US National Institutes of Health confirmed those findings.  And yet the US continued to spray Agent Orange for two more years.

The debilitating health effects of Agent Orange have been carefully documented by Vietnamese scientists and their findings have been supplemented by scientific study elsewhere.   The contaminant, dioxin, found in Agent Orange is a carcinogen associated with soft-tissue sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).  A link has also been found between exposure to dioxin and diabetes.   The US Veterans Administration includes these and other diseases on its web site as presumptive to Agent Orange exposure. Studies of US veterans have found a link between dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals known to science, and  acute myelogenous leukemia in their children.  Scientific studies of the effect of dioxin continue. 

From 1962-1971, approximately 18 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed on millions of acres in Viet Nam to destroy jungle so that enemy forces could be identified, and to eradicate crops that may support them.  According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs “Operation Ranch Hand,” code name for the Agent Orange project, an estimated 400,000 Vietnamese have died or been disabled from defoliants, primarily Agent Orange.  Another 500,000 children have been born with birth defects. 

As I have studied digitally networked warfare I notice that there are very few people thinking about where this will lead us, in this case all of us in the world.  I can understand why any military would want to find the perfect weapon, a weapon that assures victory, kills fewer people particularly your own, does less collateral damage, and maybe even makes fewer people mad.  When gun powder was discovered and perfected those who owned it thought they had the perfect weapon.  It didn’t work out because over several centuries everyone had gun powder.   Today centuries of change are telescoped into a few weeks because of the pace of invention and change.  

According to the Bible, the legacy of sins like Agent Orange which are now in the 4th generation can not be expunged, forgiven or made right by human or divine effort until the 7th generation.  The people who produced, purchased, shipped, paid for, and flew the C-123 air crafts to apply Agent Orange may or may not have anticipated this generation’s damage and pain that their work had caused. Probably no one warned them.  The inventions related to digital warfare arising from a “transformed defence” that integrates the heavens and the earth, the sea and the land, remind me of my loss of innocence over Agent Orange. Now I think I need  to participate in a gigantic global effort to place controls on these new magic bullets.

Gossip, Rumours and Political Ads by peaceprobe
September 19, 2008, 2:11 pm
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.  

Peacemaker Wheels by peaceprobe
April 17, 2008, 2:16 pm
Filed under: Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Viet Nam


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.  wheels-of-justice-bus

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.

JFK and the Unspeakable by peaceprobe
April 1, 2008, 2:38 pm
Filed under: Nonviolence, Peacemaker spirit, Viet Nam

 I have known of Jim Douglas’ work through the years and once when he was in Chicago completing some of the research we asked him to address a Christian Peacemaker Teams training group. When the second Iraq war was about to break out we worked together, he in Rome, and me in Chicago to try to persuade Pope John Paul II to make a trip to Iraq.  I liked Jim.  His quiet firm commitment to honest inquiry, activism and spiritual centeredness was, I knew, what we needed in the world wide movement to overcome war. 

However, when Jim called me to say his 20 year work on the Kennedy assassination was completed and about to be published by Orbis Books I was less than enthusiastic.  I asked myself again, “How could Jim deny us his wisdom and leadership that we desperately needed just to write a book?” I really felt that he had fallen off the track by taking out so many years to research an incident that by now was simply part of the fallenness of the American mythology.  Perhaps Jim could hear the thinly disguised ambivalence in my voice as we talked.  His last words were, “If you are not in agreement or have criticism I need to hear it.”

I was wrong and Jim was right.  Jim’s research is thorough.  He has lived his way into the character of John F. Kennedy and all the supporting characters, Castro, Khrushchev, Ngo Dinh Diem, Thomas Merton and Lee Harvey Oswald.  With the help of the steady flow of newly unclassified documents he has pushed open the envelope of the operations of the CIA, the Joint Chiefs, the FBI, and the limits to the institution of the American Presidency.  And by doing this he has shown that it is believable that the US government secretly plotted in the Kennedy assassination as a necessary step to the fuller development of the national security state in the early 1960s.

Woven through this 400 page masterpiece is the thread of wise spiritual compassion and the mystery of God at work, something rarely seen in modern political writing.  By reaching deep into the developing faith of President Kennedy he shows how a Quaker delegation to the President and the concern of a dying  Pope John (XXIII) contributed to seeds of peace already trying to find life in Kennedy and Khrushchev’s mind and spirit.   These seeds germinated in a world dominated by the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and gave Kennedy courage to risk reaching towards Moscow during the Cuban missile crisis.  

The search for another way was already visible in Kennedy’s notebook during his  brief 1945 career as a journalist after he had been discharged from the Navy due to war wounds.  He mused about the ultimate problem of war, national sovereignty, and the rule of law.  In this same notebook Kennedy wrote, “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today.”

In early July 1963 I arrived in Saigon only weeks after the first Buddhist monk Thick Quang Duc self-immolated in protest to the discrimination from the Diem government.  By the time of Kennedy’s assassination four and half months later I was already at my assignment and the event set off a raft of security orders to US civilians from the nearby Military Assistance Command Viet Nam ( the US military advisors ).  

In the intervening 45 years a debate has continued about whether Kennedy would have given his blessing to a build up in Viet Nam or if he might have supported the assassination of South Vietnamese President, Ngo Dinh Diem.  This book convincingly provides compelling evidence that although Kennedy knew of the plans for a coup in Saigon, US operatives there circumvented White House orders.  Indeed at that time Kennedy was turning away from expansion of US involvement there towards diplomatic means and lowering the American military profile.  Thanks to Jim’s careful research we now know that Kennedy was acting against the advice of his Generals and the CIA.  Had Kennedy lived, it is possible to believe, for the first time in my life, that there might not have been an American war in Viet Nam. 

Every page of this magnificent work is bathed in confidence and prayer by an author who has done his job well.  The book will give moral courage to generals and their soldiers as well as those of us who have chosen the way of nonviolence.  The facts of the assassination story build through the entire book not just as drama for drama’s sake but as a warning and encouragement for all time.