Spiritual Formation and Civil Disobedience

The Spiritual Roots of Civil Disobedience: Active Peacemaking as Discipleship. by Steve Clemens @ St. Paul Lutheran Church of the Reformation- adult ed 3/28/10

The last time I was here was when Fred Phelps was here protesting out front at the ordination of Pastor Anita. I felt I needed to be here in support of her. And I met a few members from here who travelled to the SOA a couple of years ago. So I’m glad to be back. David [Weiss] asked me to share a few things from my early spiritual formation and my young adult years that have propelled and sustained me over a 40-year “career” of peace and justice activism. Then I hope to recount a couple of stories on that journey of resistance.

Early Formation

1. My Mennonite heritage: Both my parents were raised within the Mennonite Church but they chose to identify with the growing evangelical/fundamentalist movement just before I was born. So although I was baptized at age 12 in a “Mennonite church”, it was not affiliated with any local Mennonite conference. At home we had the requisite copy of The Martyr’s Mirror, a thick book with its gruesome illustrations of early church and Anabaptist martyrs being executed by the Roman state, Calvinists, Lutherans, or Catholics. My brothers and I learned to be comfortable with minority status within both Christian history and American culture. Within my evangelical heritage I was taught to take discipleship seriously with the expectation of “suffering for the sake of the Gospel”. [This was back before evangelicals were seduced by political power.]

It was this quasi-fundamentalist upbringing that made me familiar with the rich Biblical history of nonviolent resistance – from Shipra and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who challenged the edicts of the pharaoh; to Moses, Miriam and Aaron in the Exodus, Queen Esther, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; Jeremiah’s call to draft resistance; Ezekial’s street theater. Peter and John’s proclamation, “We must obey God rather than human authority”; and, of course the numerous actions of Jesus in challenging both the religious and civil authorities of his day. The Triumphal Entry and the Cleansing of the Temple were certainly acts of nonviolent resistance.

2. My Dad: My father broke with his Mennonite upbringing with his decision to enter the Army in World War II. However, he refused to talk about that experience when I was growing up. It wasn’t until after his 80th birthday that he first answered some of my questions to him about that experience. However, his experience caused him to instruct my brothers and me before going hunting as a teenager to “never aim your gun at something you don’t intend to kill – and, eat what you kill”. We had no TV in our home before I turned 13 and then we were not allowed to watch any “westerns” either because of all the gun-play.

3. My experience of sexual abuse: However, another significant factor in my formation occurred in elementary school. For a period of more than a year I was sexually abused by my Sixth Grade male teacher. My parents had taught me not to question authority and so I naturally intuited that this abuse was a punishment from a judgmental God for my sins. I now think that early experience of victimization produced a strong longing for social justice and sensitivity to victims in my adult life.

Young Adult Formation

1. ROTC and the Draft: Probably one of the most significant decisions I’ve made on my spiritual journey to peacemaking occurred at the age of 18. In my freshman year of college, I was issued a rifle and a uniform when I registered for classes. Wheaton College in 1968 had compulsory Army ROTC for all male students. I had to drill two mornings a week in my uniform with my spit-shined shoes and rifle and took Military Science classes three days a week. Two months into that experience, I had to register for the military draft with the Selective Service System during the height of the Vietnam War. When I chose to register as a Conscientious Objector, it began a life-long trajectory away from the American Dream and its cultural conformity.

2. Summer in the City: However, it took me a summer of working with black and Latino street gang kids in Philadelphia the next year before I made the shift from peacemaking as a personal stance to a socio-political lifestyle. I began to “connect the dots” in how I began to view social reality from the lens of those “left behind” from the American Dream. I had watched the landing on the moon in a slum tenement apartment as a rat ran across the room. To a person, the black folk in that apartment didn't believe we really put a man on the moon - they thought it was staged somewhere out in the Rocky Mountains - because they didn't want to believe our nation would spend billions of dollars for some fool to walk on the moon while they were living in those conditions.

3. Radical Catholics: When I returned to my conservative evangelical campus for my sophomore year, I decided that my protest against the war had to become a political stance. It was then that I encountered a radical priest from the near-by Maryknoll Seminary who was leading the weekly marches at the Wheaton Draft Board office. Finding common cause with a Catholic –let alone a priest!- was a major shift from what my parents had taught me. [I was told to “never date a Catholic” because the Bible said, “Be ye not unequally yoked with unbelievers”.]

The Road to Peacemaking

Mentors have always played a role in strongly influencing me on the journey that led me from personal stance to public protest to prison for the sake of conscience.

1. Ladon Sheats and Clarence Jordan: After spending a year in graduate school, I chose to drop out of school to do Voluntary Service, a valued experience within the Mennonite and Conscientious Objector tradition. I first met the man who would become a significant peace mentor in my voluntary service orientation. Ladon Sheats was a former IBM executive who quit his job after meeting Clarence Jordan in order to join the intentional Christian Community called Koinonia Partners in southwest Georgia. Ladon gave a “Values Presentation”, a multi-media performance that compared and contrasted the “values” of American culture and the Way of Jesus. Rugged Individualism, materialism, and militarism were set alongside interdependence, community and simple living, and cooperation. Ladon’s call to a radical discipleship was challenging and compelling. We were called to choose which values we would live by. After my year of voluntary service, I moved to southwest Georgia, joined that community, and found both a spiritual and physical home for the next 16 years.

2. Liz Macalester and Phil Berrigan: However, before moving to Koinonia, in my year of voluntary service in Wash, DC, I was invited to join a Bible Study group led by Phil Berrigan and Elizabeth Macalester of the Jonah House resistance community. We read Abraham Heschel’s book The Prophets and wrestled with what the prophetic call was to the followers of Jesus. It was the gentle prodding and pulling of Liz Macalester that led me to my first arrest at the White House in the waning days of the Vietnam War 35 years ago this month.

3. Impact of books and speakers: All along this journey, I was fed, challenged, and nurtured by books and magazines, speakers, and conferences. John Howard Yoder re-introduced me to my Anabaptist heritage; William Stringfellow helped me understand the realities of spiritual powers and principalities. Dick Gregory helped me appreciate the value of humor in social change; Jesse Jackson was inspiring and celebratory as he encouraged me to take the “next step”. Daniel Berrigan, Ched Myers, and Jim Wallis all joined a growing cadre of mentors for me in “the Movement”. All of these, and many others, helped me move from a position of White Male Heterosexual Privilege to one of solidarity – an essential challenge to those who would embrace peacemaking as a vocation. More recently, that journey has included an inter-faith component and a growing desire to broaden my embrace of many other styles and traditions of peacemaking without watering down my own Christian motivation and inspiration.

Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia, often talked about fear being “the polio of the soul which keeps us from walking by faith”. He said, “Faith is not believing in spite of the evidence but rather living in scorn of the consequences.” His call to discipleship challenged and inspired me to take actions that stretched me and liberated me. I’d like to briefly share a couple of them with you.


In 1981, the first year of Reagan’s presidency and his policy to threaten nuclear destruction on any who would oppose us, I joined a group of six who decided to take our prayers for peace to the center of our nuclear weapons complex: the Pantex Planet, the final assembly point of all US nuclear weapons located just outside Amarillo, Texas. After several days of Bible Study, prayer, and conversation, we planned to scale the 12 foot chain-link fences topped with barbed wire to nonviolently enter the facility to pray.

We knew from the previous “scouting reports” done by others in the group that this was one of the most heavily fortified or protected sites in the country. Along with guard towers, two fences, and rumors of both a tank as well as bazookas and other heavy weapons, the plethora of guards would also be armed with automatic weapons and would probably not take kindly to a motley crew attempting to scale their fortress. It was with a sense of foreboding that I wrote letters to both my parents and my intentional community which I gave to my wife to be delivered in the event of my death.

Yet I was reminded and inspired by the insight of Dan Berrigan who had written about the Apostle Paul’s insistence in his letter to the Galatians that our baptism “into Christ’s death” and our “raising to new life” ought to give us a confidence to act within the grace bestowed upon us. [I had memorized the verse as a kid: I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth within me. And the life that I now live, I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave his life for me. Gal 2:20] Dan reminded his readers that there is nothing the State can do to us that we haven’t already chosen to undergo in our baptism. If we have truly “died with Christ”, the State can imprison us –or even kill us- but we’re already “dead” and the “life we now lead, we have by the grace and power of the Spirit”. There is nothing The Powers can do to us that we haven’t already voluntarily chosen in choosing to follow the way of the nonviolent Jesus. This confidence gives us the power to act in the face of their threats – our faith can overcome our fears.

I clearly remember that cold, blizzardly day in February 1981 as we drove our cars onto the 10-mile square weapons facility, headed for the ultra-secure area ringed by the double fences. I was nervous but I felt the fear lift and I had this amazing feeling of liberation as I chose to act on my convictions rather than my fears. Many times over the next six months in prison I thought about the power of those feelings. I still marvel today over the grace I received to sustain me in climbing that fence and in the County Jail and Federal Prison that followed. Little did we know that as a result of our witness, the Catholic Bishop of Amarillo would call all people of conscience to resign their jobs at Pantex!

Iraq Peace Team

20 years later I decided to update my will before my journey to Iraq just prior to the start of this present war in December 2002. I again drew on the strength of my faith over my fears. Kathy Kelly spoke in August at a rally to end the economic sanctions that were strangling the Iraqi people. But she spent much of her speech telling us that war was definitely “on the horizon”. She shared a vision of creating an “Iraq Peace Team” consisting of people of faith who would travel to Iraq to stand side-by-side Iraqis in an act of solidarity, facing the US bombs alongside them. When I heard her, I immediately thought, “this is something I could do”. But I didn’t dare “sign up” until first discussing it with my wife and kids! [Back in 1981, I didn’t have kids - and my wife and two other close friends travelled to Texas with me.]

I’ve always felt a disconnect about protesting war “over there” from the safety of my home “over here”. The vision of the Iraq Peace Team was to put our bodies where our prayers were directed – to embody peace. That has been one of my goals in doing direct action/civil disobedience over the years. Christian Peacemaker Teams (one of the two co-sponsors of the Iraq Peace Team) uses the motto: “Getting in the Way” – meaning following the Way of the nonviolent Jesus while also interposing oneself between those intending violence and oppression and the intended victims.

What I learned in Iraq was the graciousness and hospitality of people who were supposed to be “the enemy”. Even though my country was publicly threatening to “shock and awe” the Iraqis into submission, they were able to discriminate the difference between me as an American citizen and my government – something many Americans did not seem to be able to do whenever the demonizing name of “Saddam Hussein” was mentioned. I admit there were times when I was nervous and “concerned” in the face of clear oppression exhibited while in Iraq under Saddam –even though I was there only for two weeks. The fear spread by the heavy-handedness of the government was palpable. So I was especially appreciative that there were others who accompanied me as part of the Team. But I was also keenly aware of the prayers and thoughts of my friends and community back home. Even though I returned before the bombs dropped, I felt a deep satisfaction at being willing to be there.

I’d like to read a few brief excerpts from Dan Berrigan’s No Bars to Manhood published in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War:

We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total – but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial. … But what of the price of peace? …

“Of course let us have the peace”, we cry, “but at the same time let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact, let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor disruption of ties.” …

because of this we cry peace and cry peace, and there is no peace. There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war – at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.

I’ve learned over the years to try to never act alone. Even if you might be the only one risking arrest, have a support group present if possible. But, the bottom line is that it has been my experience that acting after considering the potential risks and costs has been a very liberating and empowering thing. Civil disobedience can be a spiritual discipline – declaring who is “Lord”, and who/what is not. It is the unmasking of idolatry. Here in our nation, national security is an idol from the Biblical perspective. Choosing to act despite ones fears allows ones faith to grow. For who or what are you willing to risk arrest or risk going to jail? What values do you hold dear enough to take some risks?

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