Feast of the Holy Innocents

Holy Innocents Talk at St Joan of Arc – Dec 28, 2011
The President announced two weeks ago that the war in Iraq is over. The TV cameras showed the convoy of military trucks driving out of Iraq into Kuwait. All US Troops are now out of Iraq – well, except for several hundred which remain in the Kurdish north who will continue to train Iraqi military and police. And except for the armed mercenary contractors, somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 who remain to “protect” US State Department personnel remaining and to guard the largest embassy in the world which remains behind fortress walls in the Green Zone in Baghdad. And, of course, the CIA operatives who remain. Apparently it is much easier to start a war than to end one. And the news last week seems to indicate that the war is hardly over for the Iraqi people: car bombs exploding in Baghdad.
There appears to be no end in sight in America’s longest war further east in Afghanistan. 25 years ago American politicians smugly chortled as the Soviet military experienced their own Vietnam-like quagmire in the mountains of the Hindu Kush and the poppy fields of Helmand and Kandahar. Now, in our own hubris, we are replicating the same mistakes the Soviets made – and more. Soviet Premier Gorbachev pulled out his troops finally after 8 years. We are now going into our 10th year with the vague promise to be out in three more years but it is said without any conviction at all.
Drones continue to prowl over the countryside, reigning death on young boys collecting firewood, on wedding and funeral processions. “Night raids” by Special Forces troops continue to wreak havoc on the life of villagers often leading to more death or detention into the huge prison on the Baghram Airbase. How long will the Afghan people have to endue foreign occupation?
The story included in the Gospel of Matthew detailing the arrival of the Three Magi and their encounter with the Roman-appointed King Herod – and the resultant “slaughter of the innocent” might be historical or not. However, the writer of Matthew’s Gospel included the story for a reason:
Biblical scholars tell us that Matthew’s Gospel was written to the small, struggling Community of followers of Jesus in the Roman capital city of Antioch, the eastern capital of the expansive Roman empire that dominated the world around the Mediterranean Sea. This small group who were first called “Christians” lived as a minority within a minority in the section of the imperial city where other Jews lived. The city of Antioch was the base of operations for at least 4 Roman Legions and boasted huge Temples and other edifices proclaiming the dominance of the Romans.
One thing the Romans did not tolerate was public dissent – especially that of other “kings” and rulers that weren’t already beholden to the Roman Emperor. So whether or not King Herod ordered the slaughter of all the young male children in the Jerusalem/Bethlehem area, the story is reflective of what imperial powers do routinely- make sure there are no challenges to their power, even if it means the sacrifice of innocent children.
In Matthew’s story, the infant Jesus is smuggled out of the country and taken to Egypt by his parents to avoid the slaughter-to-come. How convenient to go to the place where the same old story took place with the birth of another infant who was targeted by the empire- that time it was Moses targeted by Pharaoh.
Make no mistake about it: we, today live in the midst of an empire which is in serious decline – and we want NO ONE to challenge our hegemony – especially those who speak a different language and follow a different religion from the majority in the US. And the way empires are able to continue this oppression is by dehumanizing the enemy as “the other”, and less-than-human. They are fanatics, insurgents, jihadists. Those in the US military often take a term of respect and turn it into a racial and ethnic slur- “Hajji”.
One thing the empire does not want you to see is the humanity of the “enemy”. And there is no better disrupter of imperial domination than the innocence of children. Nine years ago I had the privilege to travel to Iraq and meet people before our bombs and bullets came crashing in, further devastating the already crippled infrastructure damaged by the 1991 war and the crippling economic sanctions. My camera captured the faces of hundreds of children – children whose fate we know little of today after almost 9 years of war.

In March of this year, I again was privileged to travel to a war zone to stand in solidarity with Afghan young people committed to peacemaking. We planted trees for peace on the first day of Spring in a schoolyard in Kabul. We also met young filmmakers and photographers in Afghanistan who help us connect with the humanity of the children – this in a country where 42% of the population is age 14 or under. Look at their faces. Children just like them have been the targets of imperial drones as well as the indiscriminate attacks of religious fundamentalists and fanatics.

[show photos of Afghans]
The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers as well as the brave youth of The Open Society and the 3rd Eye Photojournalism Center are some of those risking their lives for an end to imperial domination and a desire to work for reconciliation within their country. Tonight I ask you to pray for them, advocate for them, speak to the Powers that Be in Washington, DC on their behalf. To say with your voices and actions: “Let there be no more children as victims of war and foreign policies of domination.”
I want to give special thanks to my friends Basir, Asif, and Hakim in Afghanistan for allowing me to use some of their photos.
Remember, 42% of Afghanistan are age 14 and under. They are waiting to be joined by other peacemakers who will help end the scourge of the violence of war and foreign occupation.

Reaping the Whirlwind: The Shadow Side of Imperial Bullying

Reaping the Whirlwind: The Shadow Side of Imperial Bullying by Steve Clemens. November 4, 2011

It was in conversation with the Iraqi doctors visiting from Najaf that I inquired about Muqtada al-Sadr and the role he and his militias might play in Iraq after the U.S. uniformed troops leave by the end of this year. [Note: we leave behind close to 6,000 mercenary “contractors” – mostly ex-military personnel hired at enormous cost to provide “security” for U.S. State Department and other American personnel remaining in Iraq.] Soon after the Saddam Hussein regime toppled, the Iraqi cleric and political leader, son of the murdered Grand Ayatollah Mohammad al-Sadr, formed his youthful followers into a political group which included a fighting force called the Sadr Brigades or the Madhi Army and declared the Coalition Provisional Authority as illegitimate. Al-Sadr’s forces were a key factor of what has been called the “insurgency” in Iraq along with uprisings in Sunni areas as well.

What I was told by one of the physicians who works in Najaf, the city known as the home base for al-Sadr [who is now studying in Iran to become an ayatollah himself] is that most of his followers are “ignorant young people”. The doctor went on to explain that one of the consequences of the economic sanctions put in place at U.S. insistence by the United Nations in 1990 was a severe devaluation of the Iraqi dinar as the ability to import and export goods became increasingly difficult. Although the declared purpose of the sanctions was to force Saddam Hussein from power, the actual effect led to a black market that only further solidified the power of the dictator as he controlled what underground economy existed. As a result, he and his cronies got even wealthier while the middle class and the poor bore the brunt of the devastation that ensued.

To “connect the dots”, the economic catastrophe which hit Iraq destroyed much of the infrastructure as spare parts or key ingredients were embargoed. Baghdad was well known as “the” place to go for quality medical care in the Middle East before the sanctions. Less than 10 years later, doctors had to scrounge for the tubing needed to administer IV fluids, let alone the critical ingredients for drug cocktails used for many cancer treatments. Water treatment plants and electrical power stations which were bombed in the 1991 war were left in disrepair when the spare parts or critical components were denied importation by the sanctions committee dominated by the US and the UK. But even more tragic was the impact on the “human resources” of the country.

Children often went to bed hungry after only one or two meager meals a day that stunted both their mental and physical growth. As the dinar’s value was rapidly deflated, the schoolteachers were forced to take additional jobs to support their families. One doctor told me his history/geography teacher took a “job” selling tobacco on the street corners in order to feed his family. With both inadequate food and schooling, it is no wonder many of Iraq’s precious resource of children, now young adults, remain “ignorant” and are easily swayed by the persuasive powers of leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr. We have reaped the whirlwind in allowing a whole generation to be inadequately schooled, thus unable to help discern what leaders might be worthy of following.

Speaking of leaders, one of the primary charges leveled against Saddam Hussein in the run-up to war was that “he killed his own people” – referring to his chemical warfare attacks against the Kurdish population in the northern part of Iraq. Never mind that the Kurds, a ruggedly independent people, never really considered themselves as “Iraqi” but rather “Kurdish”; they suffered mightily under the Baathist regime as well as the “Marsh Arabs” and other Shia groups in the south. Is in not ironic (and certainly a revealing shadow-side of our empire) that we now have a U.S. President openly bragging about killing a U.S. citizen last month? Yes, Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemani-American cleric was considered by many as a “terrorist” or at least an inspirer of terrorists but he was a U.S. citizen who supposedly has a constitutional right to arrest and trial rather than summary execution. Saddam also accused the Kurds of “terrorism” and saw no need for a trial. Now we emulate those we say are our enemies; now our leaders “kill their own people” as well.

All in the name of “national security”. This idol, this obsession, has led us to the shredding of our civil liberties and our constitution. We continue to tremble in fear and obsequiousness whenever our leaders or corporate media tell us of another “threat”. We take off our shoes in the airport and trip-over ourselves in trying to be “more-patriotic-than-thou” by not only having the National Anthem played at the ballgame but have to add “God Bless America” to the seventh-inning stretch! All the lip-service given to “honoring the troops” is a mask to cover the shame many of us feel because these wars have cost us nothing as we go shopping at the President’s beckoning – leaving the bills for these wars as debt for the future generations.

We are a nation/empire in serious decline yet we live in denial. But the cracks are showing: the Occupy Wall Street movement and its metastatic-like spread around the country and the globe signals a stirring, possibly an uprising. Our Iraqi friends, in telling us their stories and experiences of sanctions, invasions, and occupations, can hold a much-needed mirror up for us so we can begin to see both the whirlwind and the shadow of empire.

A Message to Hillary from an Iraqi Doctor

A Warning to Secretary Clinton: Economic Sanctions Kill the Innocent by Steve Clemens. November 1, 2011
I sat across the table from my new friend, Dr. Ali, an Iraqi Radiologist who was visiting Minneapolis as part of the Sister City delegation from Najaf, Iraq. We were between scheduled appointments in a busy schedule which was set up by The Iraqi & American Reconciliation Project, the sponsoring nonprofit organization which helped bring 8 medical personnel and a journalist from Minneapolis’ newest Sister City to the country that continues to occupy his nation and people. What he told me yesterday morning serves as a cautionary tale that our Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, must weigh before she continues her threatened assault on Iraq’s neighbor – and our latest nemesis – Iran. Her proposed weapon of economic sanctions should not be cavalierly invoked before we learn the lessons from our most recent experience in Iraq.
Dr. Ali was only 11 years-old when President Bush the Elder led the movement to place economic sanctions on the people of Iraq, hoping to force the withdraw of Saddam Hussein’s troops from neighboring Kuwait in 1990. An unprecedented bombing campaign and a very brief 3-day land war in 1991 that left Iraq in shambles but Saddam remaining in power quickly followed it. The U.S.-led economic sanctions remained in place for an additional 12 years until President Bush the Younger decided to complete his daddy’s war with his own. In the interim, President Bill Clinton kept the comprehensive economic embargo in place despite the cries from humanitarian officials who pointed out the consequences to the people of Iraq, especially the children. Hillary Clinton’s predecessor, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, serving under her husband’s presidency, notoriously observed that she thought “it was worth it” when asked by a journalist about the excess deaths of more than a half-million Iraqi children midway through this cynical attempt to have the Iraqi people rise up to overthrow the brutally repressive Saddam regime.
I visited Iraq in December 2002 as part of the Iraq Peace Team just a few months before our present long war was reignited the following March. For many of the Iraqi people, economic sanctions, combined with U.S. bombing on average every three days during the Clinton years, were just a continuation of war in a lesser form. I visited hospitals and schools, water treatment plants and homes and talked with Iraqis during that trip, shocked at the devastating toll the Iraqi people paid from wars and sanctions. I had no idea that almost 10 years later I’d be sitting across the table at the Riverside Perkins restaurant over coffee and hearing another personal story of the continuing tragedy.
At age 11, and coming from a Kurdish family now relocated just outside of Baghdad trying to avoid the bombing campaign, Ali had neither the power or the ability to rise up to overthrow the oppressive dictator, ostensibly the goal of the economic sanctions campaign – but he now bore the brunt of it. He told me that he often only had one or two meager meals a day for many years. In school he noticed how his teachers often had to take second jobs to support their families and his father had to take second and third jobs to support his large family which included four brothers and three sisters – with Ali as the oldest sibling.
He went on to tell me about his mother’s breast cancer that was diagnosed in 2000 while Ali was in Medical College. Her cancer remained untreated because no chemotherapy or radiation treatment was available due to restrictions under the economic sanctions. She died 1 ½ years after diagnosis, at age 40, from lack of proper treatment; her youngest child just over one-year old. The frustration and horror of not being able to get the medical care she needed was a major factor in Dr. Ali choosing to make Radiological Medicine his specialty after he graduated and completed his two-year medical internship. After six years of Medical College and two years of government-mandated internship, Dr. Ali worked another four years to become Board Certified as a Radiologist. He now must work five years in a placement approved by the Ministry of Health (based on need and his ranking in exams) before he is free to practice wherever he’d like in Iraq.  
Although he doesn’t speak the Kurdish language, Dr. Ali hopes to learn it and someday move back to the northern region of Iraq where his relatives come from. He would like Americans to better appreciate the suffering the Iraqi people have undergone not only from the wars but also the economic sanctions which so degraded and destroyed his country in less dramatic and slower (but as deadly) a way.
Now, if only Secretary Clinton and President Obama would take the time to talk to everyday Iraqis before threatening the mothers and children of Iran with the same failed policies. Hillary Clinton talks about empowering girls and women yet her strategies make them some of the first victims. One of the greatest tragedies from our wars is that we either learn nothing from them or learn the wrong lessons. As Armistice Day approaches on November 11th, let us join with my friends of Veterans For Peace to remember and reflect rather than glorify war and our warriors.

Journey into Peacemaking

Journey into Peacemaking – presentation to People of Faith Peacemakers. October 26, 2011 – Steve Clemens
My journey into peacemaking has been a progression from a purely personal stand (registering as a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War draft) to understanding it must inform my politics and sociology as well. Spending the next summer on the streets of Philadelphia with street gangs helped me realize that my “pacifism” had to extend to the rest of my life – not just in wartime. John Howard Yoder’s books, The Politics of Jesus (1972) and The Original Revolution, helped me understand how to link my ethical stand with the life and witness of Jesus.
In joining public protest at the local Draft Board in my college town of Wheaton, IL (led by a Catholic priest from the Maryknoll Seminary), I was forced to broaden my narrow circle of Evangelicalism to include other traditions. My rigid theology defining who was “saved” and who was not was the next piece of my upbringing that I was forced to jettison. Next, I was challenged to stop demonizing our national political and religious leaders and instead of anger and rage at them, I was encouraged to focus on compassion for the victims of war and injustice.
Throughout my early years of embracing peacemaking and nonviolence, I continued to draw inspiration from others who shared my faith-based values. One important voice was that of William Stringfellow, an Episcopalian lawyer who practiced in Harlem and was a close friend of the Berrigan brothers. His 1973 book, An Ethic For Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land was pivotal in helping me understand the nature of what the Apostle Paul called “the Principalities and Powers” and what Stringfellow called the idolatry of National Security. Stringfellow’s contention that institutions as well as individuals were affected by the Biblical concept of the Fall helped me focus on structural and institutional violence rather than just individual political leaders or military officers.
Next, when I doing (voluntary) Alternative Service with the Mennonites in Washington, DC, I joined a year-long Bible study group led by Phil Berrigan and Liz Macalister from Jonah House Community which introduced me not only to the “Catholic Left” but also the writings and insight of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Jewish theologian and cohort of Martin Luther King Jr. We read Heschel’s masterpiece, The Prophets and discussed how we were being called to undertake prophetic witness today. Under Liz’s gentle prodding, I decided to take a next step and risk arrest and possible jail sentence by protesting the Vietnam War inside the grounds of the White House just one month before the war finally ended with the fall of Saigon. I was arrested with Dick Gregory, Dan Berrigan, Jim Peck, Liz Macalister, and Ladon Sheats – people who became guides and mentors for me for the journey ahead.
It was the decision to risk arrest and jail that finally convinced my conservative evangelical parents that my “different path” might not signal my rejection of Christianity for radical politics: people didn’t usually risk jail for just “politics” – maybe my proclamations that I was acting on my faith, although different from theirs, might be what was behind what they first thought was merely “youthful rebellion”. My decision to continue on a different path by moving to an intentional Christian community in south Georgia, Koinonia Partners, reaffirmed that direction. This ecumenical community embraced commitments to nonviolence, racial reconciliation, simple living, service to others, and Christian discipleship.
I arrived in Georgia just as the 1976 political campaigns were beginning to gel and I lived only 7 miles from Plains, GA, home of Jimmy Carter. My year with the Jonah House folk, coupled with Stringfellow’s insights, kept me from buying into the illusion that “personal piety” and integrity were capable of repairing the politics of the Watergate mess. Stringfellow, writing in an early issue of Sojourners Magazine observed that electing a moral person to an immoral position – that of Commander-in-Chief of a successor to the Babylonian Empire – was an illusion – putting moral people in places of wickedness. In the same issue, John Howard Yoder opined that voting was actually one of the least significant political acts that Christians should engage in – feeding the poor and working for justice and stopping the wars were far more important than voting.
In the summer of 1980, I traveled to a national Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) conference held in Berea, KY. I rode the bus there with my new friend, Murphy Davis, who was in the process of forming a new Christian community now known as The Open Door Community in Atlanta, GA. At the conference, an old-time Southern Baptist preacher and writer, Will Campbell, led a workshop on visiting prisoners. He told us that there were very few specific commands Jesus gave us but one of the most explicit is that we must visit those in prison. Murphy, who with her husband, Eduard Loring, were heavily engaged in visiting and advocating for the growing number of men on Georgia’s Death Row, said she’d find someone for me “who needed a visitor/friend.” It began a 10-year relationship for me (and later for my wife, Christine) with Bob Redd – a man who had been on Death Row already for several years. After our sons were born in 1983 and 1986, Bob asked if we would bring them along for our visits on Death Row and to see the joy on his face when he met them and played with them is something I’ll never forget! It also led me to holding vigil at our Sumter County Courthouse with a full-size replica of an electric chair every time Georgia executed one of its prisoners. Our small group of prayerful vigilers were often jeered and cursed at by those passing-by.  
In the Fall of 1980, my friend Ladon Sheats, who had moved from Koinonia to Jonah House just a month before I moved to the South, approached me and asked if I’d consider joining him and a few others in what might be a very dangerous undertaking. (At the time, I was not aware of the plans for the first Plowshares action at King of Prussia, PA where later that month the Berrigan brothers and several others would put hammers to nuclear weapons – but Ladon must have known since he lived in community with Phil Berrigan.)  Ladon instead felt the call to pray at the physical site of the assembly of all the US nuclear weapons, the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, TX. He asked me to pray about joining him and to discuss it with my wife, my community, and our families. This was further complicated with the sudden onset of my father-in-law’s leukemia, culminating with his death four months later, just weeks before the planned nonviolent prayer witness. Christine and I spent our Christmas vacation in Pennsylvania, shuttling between our two families, sharing with them my sense of call to take this next risky step.
Writing letters to our families as well as to my community during our four-day pre-action weekend of preparation helped steel me for the emotional roller coaster of contemplating my own death in the event of Pantex guards firing on us with their tank, bazookas, or rifles which guarded the alleged most-secure US facility. Choosing to act on my faith rather than my fears gave me a sense of liberation that is hard to describe. As we drove up to the area where we would attempt to scale the dual 12-foot fences topped with barbed wire, although the adrenalin was pumping, I never felt more at peace with my decision to try to pray for peace by being physically present at a place incarnating death. The following six months in the county jail and then Federal prison were grace-filled and taught me a new appreciation for reading the Bible in the context of prison – it gave the Psalms, Jeremiah, Revelations, and Paul’s epistles – books written in prison or exile - a whole new meaning for me.
Acting on my faith rather than my fears only helped increase my faith. Clarence Jordan, one of the founders of the intentional Christian community where I lived used to say that fear is the polio of the soul that keeps us from walking by faith. He went on to say that faith is not acting in spite of the evidence but rather in scorn of the consequences.
It wasn’t until I moved from the Potter County Jail to Federal Prison that I learned that the Roman Catholic Bishop of Amarillo, Leroy Matthieson, had visited Fr. Larry Rosebaugh – one of the six of us – in the jail at the behest of a parishioner whose conscience was troubled when he heard about our nonviolent witness at the place of his employment. Several months later, this Bishop took the unbelievably courageous stand and called for “all people of conscience to quit their jobs” at Pantex and he set up a fund in the diocese to help any families do such! He later joined Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen and Tom Gumbleton in pushing the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue the Peace Pastoral Letter against nuclear weapons the following year. 
This experiment in peacemaking was also very important for our intentional community and I think we both grew in our understanding of risks we could take for peace. I think the shock (for some) of our 6-month to one-year sentences helped many to realize the seriousness of this undertaking. We learned how the call of resistance affects the rest of the community and this was a big step which helped enable another step a few years later.
When several other community members chose to spend a week in the DC jail with me instead of paying a $50 fine for praying for peace in the Capitol Rotunda in 1983, it helped the community see that others shared the call to take similar risks. One of the things which was reinforced for me during that week in jail together was how important music has been for me in resistance work. When we were preparing for the Pantex witness, I had just learned the song “Be Not Afraid”. (“Be not afraid; I go before you always. Come, follow me, and I will give you rest. …”). We sang it together as the Pantex guards pointed their automatic rifles at us as we awaited arrest. In the Peace Pentecost witness in the Capitol Rotunda coordinated by my friends at Sojourners, Henri Nouwen taught us new songs he had just brought back from South Africa as well as songs from the Taize Community in France. We learned “Freedom is Coming”, “We Are Marching in the Light of God”, and “It Doesn’t Matter If You Should Jail Us (we are freed and kept alive by hope)” from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The 400+ of us herded into the holding cells of the DC Jail the first night after our arrest sang those songs back and forth between the men’s and the women’s holding cells to keep up our spirits and solidarity. Then when the 50 of us continued in jail for the week, those songs were a constant reminder not only of our witness against nuclear weapons in the US Capitol but also our linkage with brothers and sisters in South Africa who were also struggling nonviolently for change.
Also in the early 1980s we learned of the prophetic witness of Jim and Shelly Douglass and the Ground Zero Community in the Seattle area of Washington State choosing to block trains carrying nuclear weapons to the submarine base located in Bangor, WA. They taught us about “The White Train” which transported nuclear warheads to the submarines from the Pantex Plant in Texas. By tracking the train from state-to-state and city-to-city via a network of activists, we learned that the notorious White Train would also head east to resupply the Poseidon submarines at Charlestown, SC and later the new Trident subs at a new naval base being built at King’s Bay, GA just near the Florida state line.
After tracking the train for several years and holding candlelight vigils, I felt led to take another risk for peace by attempting to block the train as it came through our state of Georgia. Having followed the train for numerous harrowing trips where we were always harassed by US Marshalls who escorted the train with their Bronco SUVs, we decided on the small town of Montezuma, GA, about a half-hours drive from the Koinonia community. After several meetings with the head of security for the CSX Railroad, the local Police Chief, and the Oglethorpe County Sheriff to politely but firmly describe our plans as well as our commitment to disciplined nonviolence, six of us calmly walked towards the tracks as the train (which had to slow down considerably before coming down the Main Street of this small town) approached us at only a few miles per hour. The police chose to arrest us before the train came to a complete stop which led us to chose noncooperation with them as we had informed them we would if arrested before the train physically stopped. In the haste to carry us off to jail (and to allow the train to pass), one of the six, and husband of the only woman in our group, a fellow Koinonia community member with me, was left behind as the “paddy wagon” hauled us off! (He later joined the next group to block the train about 9 months later.) We chose to fast in the jail and after a court appearance a week later, we were released with a promise to return for trial – a trial which never occurred due to a gross violation of our rights by the Judge prior to our arrest. (But that, and the death threats our family received, are another, much longer story.)
Looking back, my wife and I realized our second son was conceived the day I was released from jail so no one can say nothing constructive ever comes from acts of civil disobedience!
But having young children and parenting responsibilities are factors that must be taken into consideration in choosing to risk arrest, particularly when lengthy jail time and/or one’s physical safety might also be a consequence. Micah, my oldest son, came to visit me at the County Jail with Christine after the White Train action but at 1 ½ years old, he was more interested in the Sheriff’s bloodhounds in the cage next to our prison visiting yard than in seeing his Dad. Even though Christine has never been arrested, she has been an absolutely essential partner for me all during my “criminal” career. To show the change which had occurred in our community since the original skepticism when I proposed the Pantex witness about five years earlier, the entire Partnership (the name of our community members) carpooled over to the jail to sing and pray outside one evening in lieu of their regular Partner meeting. Katy and I were very touched by that gesture from our fellow Partners.
To fast forward into my journey, our family moved to Minnesota in 1990 for a Sabbatical Year and then chose to remain here and join the Community of St. Martin. It was a difficult decision to leave our commitments to our “family-of-choice” behind in Georgia (although we didn’t mind leaving the heat and humidity). We experienced the loss as somewhat akin to what others have experienced in a marital divorce and, still today, I deeply miss the close fellowship and sense of partnership we experience for 16 and 20 years respectively. It was the place where we met, married, and started our family. When you’ve worked, worshipped, and got arrested with folk over many years, those bonds are hard to replace.
However, as I gradually got involved with the Alliant ACTION vigil circle, the Lake Street Bridge vigil, WAMM, Pax Christi, and several other groups here in the Twin Cities, they have become a new family for us. As the war threats against Iraq (again!) began to surface in August of 2002, Kathy Kelly came to speak at Loring Park, having just returned from another delegation to Iraq in defiance of the economic sanctions. She described a vision of people of faith, peacemakers, traveling to Iraq just to stand side-by-side the Iraqi civilians, in solidarity and friendship, as our bombs were falling – taking risks with them – letting them know that not all Americans were their enemies. I came home excited about the challenge and the prospect of another concrete way to stand for peace. Also, my sons had by then entered high school and college and I felt freer to take on some additional risk. I have to be honest: it was a much harder sell with Christine this time – and with one of my sons as well. In forming a small “discernment group” of friends from the Community of St. Martin, one of them, Peter Thompson, a former Federal Prosecutor, Public Defender, and Criminal Defense Attorney, told me he was discerning that he should join me – but his wife was even more reticent than mine! As a compromise, we agreed to try to limit our time in Iraq to only two weeks although the time we were going, early December, would coincide with the deadline date the United Nations and the US had given Saddam Hussein to release all the documents about “weapons of mass destruction” – December 8th. Many of us thought the war might start that night or the next day – little did we know that he would release those documents – and, more surprisingly, we have all later discovered that he had no WMDs – just like the UN weapons inspectors had said! Two days later, on Kathy Kelly’s 50th birthday and the day the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded, she was invited to meet with the Deputy Prime Minister and former Foreign Minister, Tarik Aziz and told she could bring “some of her friends with her”.
This trip of solidarity continues to be important as I got to visit the area where depleted uranium was used in the first Gulf War and to visit the Children’s Hospital in Basrah where the doctors introduced us to children whose cancers, they believed, were resultant from their exposure to the radioactive dust left behind by these weapons built and sold by Alliant Techsystems. I made a solemn pledge to the Iraqis I traveled with to the Highway of Death area that I would do all I could, nonviolently, to try to prevent these weapons from being used again – after tearfully asking for their forgiveness for their use in 1991 by my nation. As we hugged and cried together, we also felt the bonds of recommitment for the long struggle ahead.
It was just a little more than 8 years later that Kathy contacted me again to travel to a war zone. She had met Afghan young people on her two previous trips to Afghanistan who were being mentored by a doctor from Singapore committed to Gandhian nonviolence. Going by the name Hakim, this doctor met people from the Bamiyan Province when they were in a refugee camp in Quetta, Pakistan where this doctor was working as a public health physician. When the refugees were able to return to Bamiyan, he returned with them, having learned Dari, their language, to supplement his fluency in both Mandarin and English. Kathy asked Hakim and the group of young peacemakers he mentors called the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers how other peacemakers around the globe could support them. They told her that a tangible sign of solidarity would be to plant trees together for peace – on the first day of Spring, which is also the Persian New Year which is once again celebrated in Afghanistan now that the Taliban is out of political power.
They also stated that they wished to do an inter-ethnic peace march in the capital city to model the need for an end to ethnic and tribal and religious rivalries. They indicated that they did not wish to have internationals join that march, as they wanted it to be a clear call for peace in Afghanistan by the Afghans themselves. So just one day before we arrived, 28 of us from Germany, Australia, and the US, 40 young people – Hazara, Pashtun, Uzbeki, Tajik, Turkmen, and others, Sunni and Shia and those who identify as humanist – marched from the Iranian Embassy to the Embassy of the United Nations, in the heart of Kabul. The police were amazed that this protest was not accompanied by the usual “death to so-and-so” chants with angry fists up in the air but rather smiles to the police, telling them, “We can be friends”. It was inspiring to me to take relatively small risks (compared to their daily lives – especially when they are in the presence of westerners) to stand in solidarity with them. We continue to keep in contact almost monthly through Skype calls and FaceBook.
I have found that the use of pictures helps people connect with others on a non-rational level. I use my blog entries to try to help demystify nonviolent resistance actions, arrest, and jail so others realize they too might be able to consider these strategies in their own work as peacemakers. In my desire to stand in solidarity with the actual and potential victims of war, including traveling to war zones, it is likely we will have to take risks which others can’t afford to do. We have to consider the costs of peacemaking. Dan Berrigan reminds us that the costs of making peace are at least as costly as making war and there is no peace because there are few peacemakers. (read quote from No Bars to Manhood)
In our desire to be peacemakers, we must resist our culture’s obsession with rugged individualism and the Lone Ranger mentality; instead, we must envelope ourselves with small communities of challenge and support in order to be about prophetic witness. John Howard Yoder reminds us that we are not responsible to “make history come out right” – that is God’s job. We are called to try to be faithful rather than only striving to be effective. Yoder goes on to say, however, if God is really sovereign, than what is faithful will always be effective in the long run.
However, part of all of this is acting confessionally rather than dogmatically. We need to guard against self-righteousness and as Quaker leader John Woolman observed, we need to see what are the seeds of war, injustice, and slavery within our own lives. Our political leaders have embraced weapons of domination because they feel this is what the people want. We need to embrace lifestyles which do not need “defending” against others. Clarence Jordan used to talk about the “incarnational theology” of Jesus. Jesus modeled for us what our relationship to God can be. In Clarence’s CottonPatch translation, he tells us that “Jesus parked his mobile home next to ours.” What we need to do is incarnate our peacemaking.
One final observation: it is important that we recognize that peacemaking involves both saying YES and saying NO. Dan Berrigan in a beautiful poem, No and Yes and the Whole Damned Thing, observes that we stand on the dark side, waiting for our NO to be swallowed up in God’s YES, the resurrection.
I want to end with several images – first of some of my mentors, then of some of those on the receiving end of our empire of domination and destruction.

Render to Caesar or Render to God?

Render To Caesar reflection for St. Joan of Arc Catholic Community – Steve Clemens. Oct. 16, 2011
The Gospel lesson assigned for today comes from the Gospel according to Matthew 22:15-22
Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how they might entrap [Jesus] in his talk.  They sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are honest, and teach the way of God in truth, no matter whom you teach, for you aren't partial to anyone.  Tell us therefore, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?"
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, "Why do you test me, you hypocrites?  Show me the tax money." They brought to him a denarius.
He asked them, "Whose is this image and inscription?"   They said to him, "Caesar's."
Then he said to them, "Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."  When they heard it, they marveled, and left him, and went away.

In the English of the King James version, Jesus statement is recorded as “Render to Caesar …” and this phrase has been bandied about by apologists for submitting to governmental authority for decades, in not centuries.
Note in the story told, the purpose of the question was to TRAP Jesus. The question comes from “the Pharisees and Herodians”- the Pharisees were “separatists” stressing personal purity in the face of Roman political and military domination; the Herodians were the collaborators with the colonial occupation of the Jewish homeland.
Ched Myers tells us we should understand the word render as “Repay Caesar what belongs to Caesar but repay God what belongs to God.”  Jesus is inviting his opponents to act according to their allegiances which are stated clearly as opposites. Note again: Jesus is NOT carrying one of these coins that bear the image and inscription of Caesar. To carry such for a devout Jew would violate the “no graven image” commandment. The image on the coin was a constant reminder of two things: Caesar is divine and Rome controls you politically and militarily.
Obviously the response by Jesus causes us to ask, “What belongs to Caesar – and, what belongs to God?” While Caesar is always wont to claim more and more, Psalm 24 indicates that everything already belongs to God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all that dwell therein…
But render to Caesar could also be a call (to us) to support the Commons. This was not possible under the occupation reality of the Jewish nation by the Roman Empire when Jesus lived in Galilee - but what is our call today? Some Tea Party advocates in a lashing out against any and all taxes might say we shouldn’t have to pay taxes for “government programs”. But what about funding for the Clean Water Act, for Fair Housing laws, for enforcement of regulations making public buildings accessible to those with disabilities? Maybe there are some areas where it is appropriate for us to render our taxes to Caesar. If “Caesar” stands for “government”, is all the government “evil” as some Tea Party advocates might conclude? Many Catholic Workers and other anarchists argue that we don’t need government to tell us how to behave. But others see government as a helpful organizing tool to help avoid social chaos. Ultimately, however, Christians need to remember that government is backed by “the sword” and its threatened use.
What we cannot render to Caesar is how to respond to our “enemies” – in fact, we cannot allow Caesar to define for us who our enemies are.
In Dec. 2002, I traveled to Iraq to be part of the Iraq Peace Team. Shortly before I left, I got a letter from the US Government which told me that anyone traveling to Iraq in violation of the Economic Sanctions was subject to 12 years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. While in Iraq, I learned how the economic sanctions destroyed the Iraqi economy so that the Iraqi Dinar was now virtually worthless. This 250 dinar note [hold it up] was worth $85 before the sanctions were put in place. In Dec. 2002 this same bill was worth only 12 ½ cents!
So I decided that if “Caesar” was threatening to order me to “render” to him $10,000 for traveling to Iraq and taking aspirin and ibuprofen with me to give to a Children’s hospital, I would pay the fine with Iraqi Dinar notes based on the value before the crippling economic sanctions – so I did the math and then brought a stack home with me! [hold them up]. (It comes to less than $15. at the then present value)
You could call this being prepared to “render to Caesar” with a twist!
The Render to Caesar quote has frequently been used by politically conservative theologians in their arsenal against what they see as anarchistic radicals bent on rebellion against authority. It has often been paired (especially during the late 1960s era of social change) with the Bible passage of Romans 13 in a call for obedience to the government. However, it is critical to note that even the “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities” phrase of Romans 13 does not call for obedience but rather something else. There were good words in the Greek language Paul could have chosen if he meant to write that we are called to obey but he did not do so. In fact, Paul’s context in the book of Romans refers to refusing to seek vengeance on enemies and claiming to owe no one anything other than love. Echoing Jesus call for discrimination in this area, Paul calls the Church at Rome to determine what is properly “due” to whom or what.
John Howard Yoder used to help Christians understand our relationship to the State by informing us that this infamous Romans 13 text, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God…” should be understood that there is a clear distinction between “obedience” and “being subject” – the latter only implying that one be prepared to suffer the consequences of disobedience. This attitude was modeled so well for us by the stories of Martin Luther King and his comrades sitting in jail. It means for us to be willing to pay the costs for our nonviolent resistance rather than our acquiescence or obedience.
Looking more broadly at who is Caesar for us today, theologian Walter Wink talks about “the Domination System”. All of the “Principalities and Powers”, the term the Apostle Paul uses, includes more than just Caesar – basically all those individuals and institutions which seek to dominate and oppress others. A more current manifestation of this principle could be a “render to Rome?” question. Our friend, Roy Bourgeois claims that when push comes to shove, he cannot faithfully subvert his conscience to an exclusive male hierarchy – even after he was threatened with excommunication and de-frocking unless he recants of his public stand for full women’s equality in the Church. For him, he must render to God – rather than the man who claims to be God’s Vicar and a male domination system.
If we are going to resist the call when Caesar asks us to render what we feel belongs more properly to God, it is well to note that Jesus’ resistance was done in the context of community. Jesus deliberately sought out community with his disciples and other close followers whenever possible – although, at the end, when standing before Caesar’s Governor, Pilate, he was alone. Sometimes, like Jesus, sometimes, like Franz Jagerstatter, like Dietrich Bonheoffer, we must make our “render” decisions alone - BUT the preferred strategy is always better when one can be challenged and encouraged by a small group of fellow disciples. This is the call to our church fellowships today: to help each of us to better faithfully discern what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God.
Another question arising from the text for us today is: WHO bears the “image of God”? And, thusly, how are we called to respond to that image? I saw it in March on the first Day of Spring in the faces of young men and women I met in Afghanistan - in the faces of Zahra, Abdulai, Basir, Sharbanoo, Mohammed Jan, and Zikrullah. Jesus is abundantly clear: Caesar does not define for the followers of Jesus WHO are enemies are!
Every time the Early Church used the phrase “Jesus is Lord”, the political echo of that declaration was also readily understood: Caesar is NOT our Lord. Followers of Jesus must never allow Caesar to determine what belongs to him – he always seeks to be the Lord. “Being subject to the authorities” means that we must also be prepared to pay the cost of our lack of obedience. 
At the 9-11 anniversary service held at the State Capitol last month, I chose to remain seated for the “presentation of the colors” (all 3 sets of US flags were paraded in by people in uniforms carrying guns) and for the Pledge of Allegiance. I can’t pledge allegiance to competing “Lords” – I have to choose the flag or my faith in a God whom Jesus reveals to us as nonviolent. You won’t win a popularity contest by remaining seated during the National Anthem! Why couldn’t the event organizers substitute the song “Findlandia” instead? “Oh hear, my song, O God of all the nations. A Song of Peace for their lands and for mine” instead of the “rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air”?
You might rightfully ask, “Why should we listen to a convicted criminal?” – especially if you know of my record of having been a “guest of the State” several times, having been arrested dozens of times. Fair enough – but so were the Apostle Paul and Jesus. And Peter, James, John … in fact one would be hard-pressed to find an author of one of the New Testament books who hadn’t been tossed in jail after they chose to follow the executed carpenter from Nazareth. So “rendering to Caesar” or rendering to God is a choice all of us need to make. Some of these decisions are small and likely inconsequential – but other times, as we discern the call of the Spirit, they could be very costly.
Some of those who heard Jesus that day reported back to the governing officials; when he was tried, one of the charges against Jesus according to Luke’s Gospel was that he advocated refusal to pay taxes to Caesar. We all remember, each week, here at Mass, what the results of that trial were. BUT we also remember the YES of God that is commemorated on Easter Sunday. When we render to God, we leave ourselves and our future to “the One who holds the future”.

Waiting for our Tahrir Square Revolution

Practicing for the Revolution: Preparing for our Tahrir Square Moment by Steve Clemens. Oct. 5, 2011

Peacemaker Kathy Kelly told our new friends, Zahra, Shahrbanoo, and Basir, in Kubul in March, “We didn’t know when the revolution would start in Egypt or what might trigger it but we did know that behind the scenes there were young people just like you – committed to nonviolent change – learning tactics and strategies of nonviolence. And we didn’t know that the change would come so quickly.” Those 3 Afghan peacemakers, along with their new friends from the Bamiyan Province, the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, are working for a new, peaceful, and more just Afghanistan to come out of the bitter ashes of war and occupation.

Here on our side of the globe, we too need a radical re-ordering of our politics, our economy, and our whole society as the transition away from the declining empire become imperative. The last time I was in the Imperial City known as Washington, it was with environmental justice activists pleading with the President to stop the Tar Sands/Keystone XL Pipeline and to help move us more quickly into our post-oil/fossil fuel future. By all indications, it appears our protests and 1,253 arrests fell on deaf ears.

I’m back again, this time to join with a myriad of peace groups in an attempt to occupy Freedom Plaza, a park area in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol. October 6th, the 10th anniversary of the start of the longest war in US history was the date picked to begin what hopes to embody an on-going nonviolent presence calling for the end of both the wars on the Afghans and the Iraqis but also a radical re-orienting of our social and political priorities away from war and domination toward care for the earth, assistance for the poor and marginalized, and an end to corporate and big money control over our politics and policies.

This presence is with the same spirit and energy fueling the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, now entering its 3rd week, and is metastasizing in other cities around the nation. We don’t know what might spark our own “Arab Spring”-type uprising but many of us know deep in our guts that it is needed and the time may be ripe for the masses to get off their couches and into the streets demanding change. The Tea Party folk are already angry but most of that rage has been misdirected by the Koch brothers and other right-wing bloviators like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh towards the victims rather than the perpetrators and enablers.

I don’t expect the revolution will begin tomorrow (or, as has been said by prophets and poets, will it be televised by the corporate-owned and controlled media). But we do need practice in learning to say NO!, in using nonviolent methods, in taking responsibility for orchestrating change rather than merely voting for politicians whose promises are quickly abandoned on the altar of real-politick and re-election strategies managed by those with entrenched vested interests and a lot of campaign contributions.   

It is a broad coalition attempting this occupation. Some of us come from religious/faith communities and networks, others eschew the role that religious institutions have enabled and baptized the imperial order. Some still hold out a diminished hope for change within the political systems while others see voting as a waste of time and energy which should be channeled elsewhere. Some are avowed anarchists; others envision themselves as true patriots. The group will include whistleblowers as well as those who have never worked “within the system”. Military veterans will be standing side-by-side with conscientious objectors and draft resisters. Many of us are retired while a growing number who will join are under- and unemployed. I suspect that our initial presence will be way too white but hopefully we will continue to work more frequently with our brothers and sisters of color who are more frequently on the receiving end of our empire’s dysfunction and destruction.

Hopefully, it will inspire, reenergize, and encourage us and others for the long slog ahead of building a nation which places people before profits, looks to the well-being of both present and future generations, and is designed around compassion rather than domination. [For more info, check out www.october2011.org]

The Things I Carried To My Arrest

The Accoutrements of Arrest by Steve Clemens. September 28, 2011
Usually when I risk arrest in an action of nonviolent civil disobedience I try to only carry the bare essentials: my drivers license/ID and possibly some cash if I will try to make bail. I even remove my wedding ring if I’m expecting to end up in jail. Today, however, for our last arrest witness at Alliant Techsystems, Minnesota’s largest war profiteer, I carried a Civil Arrest Warrant for ATK’s CEO, Mark DeYoung. I also wore my blue scarf brought home from Afghanistan this Spring as a symbol of solidarity with nonviolent peacemakers in Kabul and Bamiyan Province.
I wore my Blue T-shirt with the bold lettering of “No War” coupled with “Love your enemies” and “our God is Love, our Gospel is Peace” statements.
I also carried excerpts of International Law provisions from the Hague and Geneva Treaties, resolutions from the United Nations, statements from the International Committee of the Red Cross, and statements from experts about the illegality of depleted uranium weapons. I carried a copy of my personal letter to CEO DeYoung as well.
Alliant Techsystems, also well known by their stock-ticker abbreviation as ATK, just recently announced that they are moving their corporate headquarters from Eden Prairie, MN to Arlington, VA so they can be close to their preferred customer, the five-sided Department of War headquarters also known as the Pentagon. Here in Minnesota they are a big fish in a small pond when it comes to corporate sales; in the Washington, DC area, close to the center of pork barrel politics and military contracts, they will just be one of many trying to sidle up to the hog trough.
Our AlliantACTION vigil group, usually about 20-30 stalwart peacemakers, have come every Wednesday morning for more than 15 years running from 7-8 AM to hold signs, sing songs, and gather together to call for ATK to cease production of illegal and indiscriminate weapons and instead use their inventive engineering genius to create products that are life-giving and useful. “Peace conversion with no loss of jobs” is one of our on-going mantras. It is coupled with another, a query: “Who profits? Who dies?”
We carry few illusions that our act of nonviolent civil disobedience today will result in a radical change in policy for a corporation which has profited from weapons of death and threats of annihilation. This spin-off of Honeywell’s weapons division (after years of nonviolent protest at their south Minneapolis corporate headquarters organized by The Honeywell Project), ATK has the notorious distinction of being one of our nation’s largest manufacturer of landmines, cluster bombs, and depleted uranium weapons.
To further add to this pantheon of what the United Nations lists as “weapons of mass or indiscriminate destruction” (and, as such are illegal to manufacture, sell, or use), ATK also makes components for nuclear weapons, including the nuclear missile for the Trident Submarine. As if that were not enough, they have developed a gun that purports to “shoot around corners”, the XM-25 which is now being field-tested in Afghanistan. There are also reports that Alliant is also providing components for the Pentagon’s latest obsession, the un-manned aerial vehicle, aka the drone. While ostensibly targeted at Taliban leaders, scores of reports of innocent civilians being killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan has led hundreds if not thousands to join the insurgency to seek revenge for the attacks on family members.
Our act of civil disobedience comes just four days before the birthday of the premier disciple of nonviolence, Mahatma Gandhi. On October 2, the AlliantACTION vigil group will return to the front doors of the newly vacated corporate headquarters. The move of the corporate officers is to take place on October 1 but Gandhi’s birthday comes only once a year so we will gather to celebrate his life and witness as well as the power and the blessing our vigil circle has provided to us over the past 15 years. It was not our goal to “chase” ATK out of Minnesota; our state can use good paying jobs. We just want those jobs to affirm life rather than find ever more creative ways to destroy it.
My letter to Mark DeYoung:

September 28, 2011
 Mr. Mark DeYoung, CEO
Alliant Techsystems
7480 Flying Cloud Drive
Eden Prairie, MN 55344-3720

Dear Mr. DeYoung,
I come to ATK Headquarters today with a heavy heart. The last time I approached this front door, just a few weeks shy of one year ago, it was in response to your gracious agreement to meet with a small group of us from the weekly Alliant ACTION vigil. As you may recall, during that meeting you told us “We are not in that business” in reference to depleted uranium weapons and went on to say that ATK always “pick and choose what contracts we will go after” – or words to that effect since you requested that I hand over all my written notes as we left the meeting so these quotes are my best recollection of what was said last October 11th.
Although I am not a shareholder of ATK stock, several members of our vigil group are and they reported back to those of us vigiling outside or the morning of your annual shareholders meeting in August that you admitted in that meeting that ATK is assembling munitions containing depleted uranium provided for you by the U.S. Government.
You might recall during our meeting with you we gave you (and your legal counsel who was also present) a lengthy document identified as “Employee Liabilities of Weapons Manufacturers Under International Law”. Included in that document was a resolution passed by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1996 which stated categorically that weapons containing depleted uranium are “weapons of mass or indiscriminate destruction” and “the production, sale and use of such weapons are incompatible with international human rights and humanitarian law”.
Therefore, we come with the intent of serving you with a Citizens Arrest Warrant, charging you with both the production and sale of illegal weapons according to Treaties signed by the U.S. Government. It has always been the intent of our vigil group to advocate “peace conversion with no loss of jobs” for the company you lead but since you have decided to move the corporate headquarters to the Washington, DC area at the end of this week, we felt we needed to take this nonviolent action.
 Sincerely, in Peace,
 Stephen D. Clemens
Member, Alliant ACTION Vigil

The Rest of the Story - Climate Change Arrest at the White House

The Rest of the Story: Tar Sands Action at the White House by Steve Clemens. August 30, 2011

When I first signed up to come to Washington and return to the White House, I thought to myself: wasn’t it just a year and a half ago that I told Christine that I’m getting too old to spend another night in jail? My experience protesting President Obama’s continuation of the Afghan and Iraq Wars had left me physically very sore (but spiritually content) after 28 hours in the four different DC jails we occupied after our “die in” at the White House the day before the 2010 State of the Union address.

This time it was an email from my friend, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia that got the juices flowing again. He sent me a letter signed by Bill McKibben, Jim Hansen, Naomi Klein, and Wendell Berry (among others) asking us to come to DC at the end of August to nonviolently pressure President Obama to declare that allowing the Trans-Canada project to build the Keystone XL pipeline linking the Alberta Tar Sands oil fields to Houston, TX refineries and Gulf Coast shipping would not be in “the national interest”. Since the proposed 1,700 mile pipeline would cross the international border, Obama can unilaterally declare it is or isn’t in our national interest without Congressional interference. Come to Washington, the letter said, and risk arrest in a two-week civil disobedience campaign. The letter especially encouraged we older folk who have made a very large carbon footprint over our lives to share some of the burden of risking arrest to change our policies.

I first tried to see if several of my friends from the Community of St. Martin might be interested and willing to travel with me and join the action. Unfortunately Jack, Dave, and Peter, although very interested and supportive, couldn’t go. Neither could Scott, my friend with a new baby – I’m sure Tara would be uneasy with him getting busted as school is about to begin and he has primary care for the new family member! It’s not the easiest thing to approach people asking them if they want to go to jail with you.

Although the organizers were telling us as well signed up that they were trying to negotiate a “fine and forfeit” arrangement with the DC authorities (as is often the case with group arrests for nonviolent protest at the White House), I knew from past experience that one needs to be prepared: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime”. I read Dr. Jim Hansen’s statement that if this pipeline is built, it will be like a carbon bomb being set off and it is essentially “game over” for our attempts to avoid (or at least mitigate) some of the nasty results from human-induced climate change. Here was (another) cause worth risking arrest over.

I was anxious to join the group early on in the two week planned action because I knew many of the participants had never been arrested before and felt it would to helpful to lend them some of my experience. However, before committing to the day I would risk arrest, my friend Rose Berger, an editor and writer at Sojourners, told me that they would like to plan for one of the days to be an inter-faith action day and encourage religious leaders and faith-based activists to join together for worship before arrest. That’s my style: acting with others with similar values and beliefs is always an empowering experience for me ever since my first arrest more than 36 years ago at this same seat of imperial power. The cause then was Vietnam; last January, our latest imperial wars; now, our war on the environment and the planet’s climate. I jumped at Rose’s invitation and signed up on-line for August 29th, not knowing a hurricane would try to intervene.

As I was about to fly to DC (yes, I’m aware of the hypocrisy of taking an airplane to protest our dependence on fossil fuels – I’m working on that), I was aware of the monster Hurricane Irene was headed straight up the East Coast and the airlines informed me that I might want to reschedule my trip so I wouldn’t arrive the same day as the projection for Irene. So I flew into DC on Friday and joined the daily gathering at the White House Saturday morning as the dark storm clouds began to roll in. The Tar Sands Action coordinators had discussions with the police about the emergency conditions anticipated if the hurricane came nearby and already decided to call off any civil disobedience for Sunday in order to free up the law enforcement personnel for the hurricane.

Friday evening, those planning to risk arrest discussed the same issue and made the same choice for Saturday’s action –so we just had a public presence, sang some songs, listened to some inspiring words from Bill McKibben and then posted for group photos as the rain and wind gusts started. Many of those who had originally planned to risk arrest on Saturday or Sunday tried to rearrange their schedules in order to take action with our Monday group. On Sunday afternoon, the folk planning on participating as the inter-faith religious group met to outline the plans for a worship gathering in Lafayette Park prior to the arrival of the rest of the Tar Sands activists. Rabbis (and other Jews), Buddhists, and Christians of all stripes were there– from a large Unitarian contingent to mainline and evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, and at least one Anabaptist. Others represented Native American spirituality as well as other traditions. Since some folk arrived after introductions, it’s hard to include all the perspectives represented.

After the hour for inter-faith planning, more than 100 others jammed the room at the local Methodist church for the pre-arrest nonviolence training and legal team briefings. Our trainers were three energetic young people from the Ruckus Society and another woman activist. They were engaging and helpful, especially to the many for whom this would be their first arrest. At least ½ to 2/3s of the potential arrestees were planning on taking this step for the first time – some of whom appeared to be in their 60s and 70s! As in any new and potentially threatening experience, there were multitudes of questions and the lawyers and trainers did a great job of fielding them. We were asked to pose for individual photos so the Tar Sands Action team could later post “pins” on an online map to show where we all came from to be part of this action. A caravan from California arrived shortly before we began so I’m sure our group represented close to half the States and we also welcomed the couple in their 60s who had come from Alberta because they had witnessed the reality of the destructiveness of the tar sands “development” first-hand.

By 9 PM I was tired and hungry (even though they served us a modest vegan supper as we selected “arrest buddies” during the training. Since we were likely to be arrested and transported by perceived gender, we were asked to select a same-gender partner to look out for one another during the action component the following day. Since Dr. David Hilfiker and I had spent several weeks together in Baghdad as part of the Iraq Peace Team just prior to the start of the present war, we agreed to be arrest partners. (His wife was also risking arrest, both of them had never been arrested – even though David and I were threated with up to 12 years in federal prison for traveling to Iraq during the economic sanctions but fortunately were never prosecuted.)

Our trainers were explicitly clear: we were to carry as little as possible on our persons when we went up to the White House fence to risk arrest. Carry a photo ID, $100 in cash to pay the “fine and forfeit” charge if we were offered it (and we were strongly encouraged to do so to facilitate others later in the week being able to receive the same “offer” rather than going to jail overnight and face a Judge the following day), $5-10 additional cash to purchase a bus or Metro ticket once you were released, and a disposable bottle of water. Anything else could be confiscated by the police or would certainly delay the processing time – and with such large numbers, it would already take a long time without making it much longer.

We were told to remove wedding rings, watches, other jewelry including piercings, and one of the trainers recommended wearing adult diapers just in case you weren’t permitted access to a bathroom for hours on end. Put your ID and money in a zip-lock bag and put it in your pocket or bra. The Buddhist religious leader helpfully pointed out she didn’t wear one but maybe she had a pocket in the robes she wore the next day. Trainers recommended women not wear skirts as the pat-downs upon arrest were often quite aggressive. (And they were – especially for the women as we watched them as we waited for our own arrests the next morning.)

At the end of the training, Rose Berger rose to address all of us. She explained how she and several others had wanted to encourage religious faith leaders from many traditions to be part of this action and that Monday the 29th had been designated for that day. But she told the group of us that she was very cognizant of the fact that many of us had (and have) been deeply wounded by both religious traditions and proponents. Religion has often divided us and has marginalized others. She asked us if instead we could see our presence tomorrow as a group of religious folk trying to act on the best within our traditions – a striving for compassion, justice, and inclusion, especially for the marginalized. And then she welcomed any of the group who wanted to be included in the “religious contingent” of the activities the next day. As someone who often shuns the moniker “religious” and often cringes at what is often labeled “Christian” in our culture and world, I was relieved to hear my friend’s confession and welcome.

Arriving back at my son’s apartment about 10 PM, I needed some time to decompress and then headed off to bed. I awoke, restless, as is often the case prior to an anticipated arrest, about 3 AM and since I was alone in the apartment, I put some music on my iPod and the shuffle feature must have figured out just what I needed – the song that came on was a South African freedom song that I first learned in 1983 when I was arrested for praying in the US Capitol Rotunda during a Sojourners-led Peace Pentecost witness. The words are “We shall not give up the fight, we have only started, we have only started (repeats). Never ever put to flight we are bound to win, we are bound to win (repeats) Together we’ll have victory, hand holding hand, hand holding hand (repeats).” Warm memories of singing in the DC jail with 400 others that night, followed by about 50 of us who chose to spend a week in the DC Jail rather than pay the $50 fine. We sang those South African movement songs all week to one another. It was a time of spiritual enlivening for which I remain grateful 30 years later.  

I arrived at the park early the following morning, ready to put my prayers for climate justice and environmental protection into action – what Abraham Heschel used to say was “putting legs on our prayers”. We gathered in a circle as we were led in some Jewish prayers and songs, a brief Buddhist meditation, some reflections from several Christian pastors, priests, and lay leaders, a young Muslim man who described the inspiration and encouragement he had received from the Quran to join us and then a Rabbi blew his Shofar, a ram’s horn “trumpet” as a fellow Rabbi interpreted the tradition.

Following the worship time, many others joined a circle in the park facilitated by our training team. We checked in with the legal team to confirm who was going to risk arrest that day. Bill McKibben addressed the group and reflected about the destruction happening in his home state of Vermont from the hurricane and how the intensity of the storm was likely related to climate change. Dr. Jim Hansen, the NASA scientist and climatologist, also spoke to the crowd gathered but I had a hard time hearing him over the muted bullhorn and with such a large crowd. One thing I did hear him say was how he had tears (of joy) in his eyes the evening Obama won the election because he believed the campaign statements about addressing climate and environmental issues.

After last minute instructions, we lined up in two lines to process to the White House fence and sidewalk area known as the “postcard spot” because many tourists want their photos taken there with the White House neatly framed in the background. This is the same area the US Park Police has designated as a “no protest zone” and if one remains there for any period of time and choses not to leave when approached by a police officer, one will be arrested. In a way it fosters a less controversial method for nonviolent civil disobedience because one is “guaranteed” to be arrested if one doesn’t leave and allows activists of all stripes to risk arrest if they so choose.
We were told in the training that we would be given 3 verbal warnings by the police before we were arrested and that is how it played out.

Since there were more than 140 of us, the arrest process took quite a long time, close to two hours. I took some ibuprofen for my aching back and muscles after the first warning. I knew I’d be sore after standing in one place on the sidewalk for an extended period of time. Each of the women were individually handcuffed, banded with an arrest number, and aggressively patted-down. It took a long time so some members of the to-be-arrested group stated singing. Then some of the support people on the other side of the police barricades about 30 yards away also started singing.

As more and more women were arrested and escorted away, it gradually morphed into a men’s choir or glee club. I joined in and when some of the songs lagged, I tried to teach folk a couple of the South African songs including “We Shall Not Give Up the Fight” and “It Doesn’t Matter If You Should Jail Us (we are free and kept alive by hope)” I’m not a song leader so I sang them as much for my own benefit as well as the edification of others, knowing that we stand in a long tradition of witness and protest to governments and political leaders. Indeed, as Rose Berger reminded us in our circle, this weekend was to be the dedication of the memorial built to honor Dr. Martin Luther King and Rose observed the irony of honoring someone who was frequently vilified by political leaders while alive only to be honored when he was safely in his grave. She said King’s spirit was better honored in a “living memorial” of people today committing civil disobedience, recognizing that climate change more drastically affects the poor, those for whom Martin gave his life.

As I awaited my own set of plastic flexi-cuffs (which don’t actually feel that “flexible” when one is cuffed with hands behind one’s back), I had the honor of having Dr. Hansen sitting at my feet. It was not the time or the place to have a conversation with him; I was just very grateful to have him join us. After the handcuffs and the pat-down, we were photographed with a police officer holding up our arrest number (mine was 119) and then placed into the police transport van, squeezed in 6 to a side on a narrow metal bench with very little between our knees and the aluminum dividing wall between us and the six on the other side.

Rabbi Fred from a congregation across the river in suburban Virginia was closest to the van’s front so I asked him to describe where we were headed as the van took off, headed for the police station in Anacostia in SE Washington. It was a great tour although we had to use our imaginations a lot since we further back could see very little. As we pulled up to the Park Police Headquarters building I was relieved that it had only taken about 15 minutes. Little did I know that we would wait locked in that little box for another hour and ten minutes before being let out. We used the time to get to know each other a little better.
Finally, we were let out, a couple at a time, and then asked to line up according to our arrest numbers. Once we go into the garage area of the building, our handcuffs were cut off and I felt great relief in my hands and shoulders. After another pat down, we were then processed and we confirmed that we were choosing to “pay the fine and forfeit”, paid the $100 and then waited on a ramp to be released. Dr. Hansen had been in the van ahead of us so we were released together and were greeted by a group of supporters and our training team. We were grateful for the cups of water and snacks we were offered. We checked in with the legal team and then walked the little more than 1-mile distance to the Metro station. I was exhausted when I got on the train and was glad to sit down and put my feet up after walking to my son’s apartment. I’m glad I did this and had a great group of dedicated folk to share in it.

(For updates, photos, and more details, visit www.tarsandsaction.org ) Photo credits: tarsandsaction.org, Josh Lopez and Milan Ilnyckyj.