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.