Remarks for MN Fellowship Of Reconciliation Peacemaker of the Year Award – Steve Clemens. Nov. 1, 2009
Peacemaking is a journey, not a point of arrival. I never thought my up bringing would lead me to this event. My Evangelical background dismissed anything labeled “inter-faith” - and its stark “saved/lost” dichotomy almost relished the idea of leaving some behind. My “peacemaking” got off to a rocky start in the late 1960s and was characterized more with disgust and hatred of President Nixon rather than out of compassion for the Vietnamese civilians or US soldiers killed in that war.
When I chose to become a conscientious objector during the height of the Vietnam War in 1968 in response to the military draft, it was a purely personal decision. I couldn’t reconcile my desire to follow a Jesus who called me to “love my enemies” with the uniform and rifle I was issued for my compulsory Army ROTC class and drill at my college.
Becoming a conscientious objector was a personal decision initially and it didn’t impact my politics or career choices. It was only during the following summer of 1969, after having my life threatened by a Black Panther on the streets of Philadelphia and then watching the landing on the moon in a tenement slum apartment as a rat ran across the room that it began to dawn on me that my conscientious objection had to become a commitment to peacemaking - to become “political” in the sense that it had to go beyond whether I was willing to take up a gun or not but had to impact all the choices I made.
What was personal had to become social and political. It was a Catholic priest from the Maryknoll seminary down the road from my Wheaton College campus that helped me move from a personal stand to public protest.
It was another Catholic, a former nun, Elizabeth Macalister and her husband, Phil Berrigan, who a few years later helped me transition from public protest to nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience. It was a long journey from a childhood where I was coached to avoid Catholics because they weren’t “born-again Christians” like my family was - to being inspired by their commitment to a God of Peace.
The genius of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) is that it draws from the strength and insight of many streams of religious thought and practice, refusing to attempt to contain “truth” within the confines of one religion or set of doctrinal beliefs.
I had first heard of the FOR during my years of street protest against the Vietnam War and my attempts as a draft counselor where groups with acronyms like the FOR and CCCO (The Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors) and NISBCO (National Inter-religious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors) became helpful sources of information for young men wrestling with issues of war and peace and the draft.
But the power and witness of FOR really hit home when I moved to south Georgia and met an 80-year old man at Koinonia in 1975. Will Wittkamper was raised as a member of the Disciples of Christ or Christian Church. He didn’t know what a pacifist was, he just knew that the Jesus he followed wouldn’t allow him to carry a gun. When he was drafted for World War I, he refused to take up a gun and was thrown into prison for his conscience. He told me how a few years later he wept when he heard of a group of others who were also morally opposed to war and how eagerly he signed on to become one of the early members of the FOR. Christine and I named our first son, Micah Will, after this man of conscience and we hope our lives, too, will serve to inspire others like Will did for us.
One other FOR experience had a major effect on my own journey: I attended a national FOR Conference in Berea, KY in 1980 where I encountered presentations from Dan Berrigan and the radical Southern Baptist preacher, Will Campbell. Will insisted that Jesus had very few direct commands to his followers – but one of them was that we must visit those in prison. As a result, and with the mentoring of Murphy Davis of The Open Door Community in Atlanta, I ended up visiting a man on Death Row in Georgia over the next 10 years. Meeting Bob Redd, and eventually trusting him to hold and play with my infant sons during our prison visits taught me a lot about peacemaking and the need for justice to be tempered with mercy.
I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned on this journey.
· Peacemaking, while it often appears to be a solitary witness, is more often the result of partnerships and community. I’ve been blessed with a life-partner and spouse who has supported and encouraged me even though our styles are quite different! Thank you, Christine. And, being surrounded by a community which shares my convictions has been an essential part of my peacemaking efforts - first at Koinonia Partners where I lived from 1975 to 1990, and now The Community of St. Martin since then. This award must be shared with them – as well as the “communities” of Pax Christi, Alliant ACTION, WAMM, IARP, SOA Watch, MN Peace Team, Vets for Peace and many other groups.
· There is always new learning and deeper commitments to explore: After my first arrest in 1975 at the White House during the final days of the Vietnam War, I was shocked to learn that a few of my fellow arrestees remained in jail rather than accept “release on their own recognizance” -they had understood the “White Privilege” implicit in that offer. Constantly I’ve been challenged with the question, “How deep do you want to go?” and as I witness the courage and conviction which leads others to take their first step or go deeper I am humbled and grateful for their commitments. Some have paid a heavy price for their risks for peace.
· I’ve learned when I allow myself to act on my faith rather than my fears, my faith is strengthened and new possibilities emerge. When I chose to climb the fence outside the Pantex Nuclear Weapons Assembly Plant in 1981, or sit on the train tracks in southern Georgia to block the shipment of nuclear warheads to the Trident submarines in 1985, or traveled to Iraq with war threatening with the Iraq Peace Team, I had to wrestle with the possibility of my own death before acting. It has been my experience that acting after considering the potential costs has been a very liberating and empowering thing.
Clarence Jordan, one of the founders of the Koinonia Community, used to say that “Fear is the polio of the soul which keeps us from walking by faith”. He went on to say that faith is not believing in spite of the evidence but rather acting in scorn of the consequences.
· I’ve learned that time spent in jail or prison need not be “unproductive”. My experience of reading the scriptures while in prison gives one a very different perspective than reading it on the “outside”. It is amazing how much of the Christian and Jewish scriptures were written either in exile, prison, or on the run from “the authorities”, political or religious. Prison time forces you to draw on your inner resources.
Like Dr. Martin Luther King, I’ve found writing from prison lends one a different sense of credibility or authority than when on the “outside”. I’ve been inspired by King, Daniel Berrigan, Kathy Kelly, Rita Steinhagen and others who have written about their experiences while “guests of the state”.
More importantly, as a white male, time incarcerated can help one experience powerlessness and not being in “control”. This is a critical learning for anyone striving to be a peacemaker. Jail is not the only place to learn this but it is hard to escape learning it when one is imprisoned.
· I’ve also learned that I need “decompression” time after time in jail or prison –almost equal to the same amount of time one has spent locked-up. Time for reflection and renewal is often neglected in the life of activists and I’ve found it essential if I am to be equipped for “the long haul”. Reading and writing are helpful disciplines for me.
· I’ve struggled over the years with the continuum within peacemaking efforts between faithfulness and effectiveness. There are many different styles of peacemaking and we need to appreciate all of them rather than giving special recognition to one style (like civil disobedience) over the others. Some of us would rather risk going to jail than to sit through interminable strategy/planning meetings! All our gifts will need to be implemented for peace to prevail.
I ask myself as bad knees or an aching back make it more difficult for me to participate in a “die-in” or to get into the top bunk in my prison cell: Am I getting too old for this? I am so grateful to have so many “fellow travelers” to accompany me – many of whom are here today. I am learning the importance of mentors and mentoring the next generation. I’ve been blessed to have learned from Phil and Liz and others from the Catholic Worker movement, and from Ladon Sheats and Kathy Jennings, two peacemakers almost no one in this room has ever heard of. Now I find myself joining “young people” in protest at immigration deportation centers and foreclosed houses, meeting with SDS activists from Macalester, and talking with RNC arrestees – hopefully sharing some of what I’ve learned in my own journey.
I am humbled by your recognition and accept this award on behalf of the communities with which I act and receive my support. Thanks to all of you for the important peacemaking work you have done and continue to do. Hopefully our paths will continue to cross as we encourage, challenge, and nurture one another as we together strive to make this a world worthy of the next generations. Thank you.