Reflections on Resisting War

St Paul Mennonite fellowship talk by Steve Clemens 1-25-09

We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total – but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial. So a whole will and a whole heart and a whole national life bent toward war prevail over the veleities of peace. In every national war since the founding of the republic we have taken for granted that war shall exact the most rigorous cost, and that the cost shall be paid with cheerful heart. We take it for granted that in wartime families will be separated for long periods, that men will be imprisoned, wounded, driven insane, killed on foreign shores. In favor of such wars, we declare a moratorium on every normal human hope- for marriage, for community, for friendship, for moral conduct towards strangers and the innocent. We are instructed that deprivation and discipline, private grief and public obedience are to be our lot. And we obey. And we bear with it- because bear we must- because war is war, and good war or bad, we are stuck with it and its cost.

But what of the price of peace? I think of the good, decent, peace-loving people I have known by the thousands, and I wonder. How, many of them are so afflicted with the wasting disease of normalcy that, even as they declare for the peace, their hands reach out with an instinctive spasm in the direction of their loved ones, in the direction of their comforts, their home, their security, their income, their future, their plans – that 5-year plan of studies, that 10-year plan of professional status, that 20-year plan of family growth and unity, that 50-year plan of a decent life and an honorable natural demise. “Of course let us have the peace”, we cry, “but at the same time let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact, let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor disruption of ties.” And because we must encompass this and protect that, and because at all costs – at all costs – our hopes must march on schedule, and because it is unheard of that in the name of peace a sword should fall, disjoining that fine and cunning web that our lives have woven, because it is unheard of that good folk should suffer injustice or families be sundered or good repute be lost – because of this we cry peace and cry peace, and there is no peace. There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war – at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.
Excerpt from No Bars to Manhood by Daniel Berrigan (written during the Vietnam War, 1968)
I chose to register as a Conscientious Objector when I turned 18 in 1968 – during the height of the Vietnam War- it was a personal, individual decision, not a political one. In fact, several weeks later it had no bearing on how I voted for President.

It took a summer working in the ghetto of north Philadelphia with street gangs before I saw the need to allow my personal commitment to nonviolence to impact my politics. At first, it was just participating in public protest – marching on the draft board in Wheaton, IL with a Catholic priest. Then going to large Mobilization rallies in Chicago, leafleting businessmen commuting into the city from the suburbs at the Wheaton train station. Finally, after one of President Nixon’s speeches announcing yet another strategy to bomb, invade another country, or further demonize “communism” or something, I burned my draft card. I had no “resistance community” for support and knew no one else personally taking such risks in 1972 so I gathered the ashes from the bathroom sink, put them in an envelope, and mailed them to my local Pennsylvania Draft Board – but without my return address! Later, resistance took the form of marking routine letters from my draft board: “Refused- obscene materials, return to sender”. But by that time, the jails were full of resisters and there seemed little political will in PA to prosecute more.
It wasn’t until 1974, when in Voluntary Service with Mennonite Central Committee at the Peace Section office in Washington, DC that my next step began. My housemate invited me to join his weekly Bible Study co-led by Elizabeth Macalister and her husband, Philip Berrigan. We read and discussed Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets and talked about the prophetic call needed in our society. Liz, especially, pushed and challenged me, to take the next step – to risk arrest in challenging the war-making of my own government.

It seemed to be a huge step for me. I had prided myself in never having even a traffic ticket. My “reputation” was something to guard and having a “criminal record” was a blemish on my moral character. As we discussed the Biblical stories of Daniel, Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego, the Hebrew Midwives hiding Moses, Queen Esther, and even Ezekiel’s “street theater” and Jeremiah’s call for desertion from the army, our small Bible Study group led me to my first arrest: the last large action against the Vietnam War, one month before the “fall” of Saigon. We went to the White House with letters for President Ford and refused to leave until/unless he met with us.

It changed me in ways I never anticipated. First, I felt empowered in being able to act on my convictions. It seemed to help my parents better understand that this was a result of my faith rather than “just politics”. And after being locked up for 4-6 hours while being processed, I was shocked to learn that 3 of the 60 others arrested with me refused “release on our own recognizance” because it was the result of white privilege – they remained in the DC jail in solidarity with the poor, predominately black, “criminals”. It made me realize that this journey was only beginning rather than an arrival.

Moving to an intentional Christian Community in south Georgia that fall began another consideration for nonviolent resistance: seeking the input and acceptance of my community before unilaterally choosing to act in ways that might lead to arrest. Our economic sharing, as well as the expected roles and duties as a fellow Community member meant that for me to decide unilaterally that I was “called” to resistance work meant that part of the “cost” of my action would have to be borne by those remaining if I was in jail and couldn’t work, do dish or visitor duty, or other community functions.

Getting married added another layer. Starting a family added another. With marriage, I now had in-laws who might be “scandalized” by my behavior. When my first lengthy incarceration took place only a month after Christine’s father died, other factors had to be considered before saying “yes” to the call. The added risk of death or serious injury at the hands of the security guards “protecting” the nuclear weapons plant in Texas added yet another layer and challenge.

But, choosing to act on faith rather than my fears was the most liberating experience I’ve ever known. I can honestly say that on that day, “perfect love casts out all fear”. Sharing that experience with others who had taken many more risks for peace than had I, was a great blessing. Being mentored in resistance, first by Phil and Liz, later by Ladon Sheats, Larry Rosebaugh, and Kathy Jennings really helped me in this first experience of “doing time”.

But it seems one of the areas you are interested in is how I decide WHAT concerns/issues I choose to devote my discipleship to. In a way, the government helped decide that for me back in 1968 with the military draft. It became literally a life-or-death decision. To enter the army could have cost me my life – but almost certainly could cost the lives of others – those at the “receiving end” of the guns and bombs of the American Empire.

However, after years protesting against the Vietnam War, our Bible Study group in Washington, DC helped me see the issues behind the war and the need for resistance to the whole project of Empire and Domination. So, we as a group readily transitioned from protesting the Vietnam War to that of nuclear weapons. Because the cloud of nuclear devastation hung over the entire world during the Cold War, and increasing amounts of military spending went to support that arsenal of Armageddon, it seemed clear to me that it was one area for my discipleship focus.

During the 1980’s, 2 other areas caught my attention and imagination: the death penalty and the Wars against the Poor in Central America. I started writing, then visiting, a poor, illiterate white man on Georgia’s Death Row. Because of my relationship with Bob Redd, I also found it necessary to publicly witness against the Death Penalty. I built a mock replica of the Electric Chair and carried it to the lawn at our County Courthouse every day the State had scheduled an execution. We were routinely cursed at by passers-by and even received a veiled death threat.
My relationship with Central American issues was greatly formed and informed by my friendship with Jubilee Partners, our “sister community” in north Georgia. I volunteered to help drive their converted school bus from Georgia to the Texas border, to transport Center American refugees back to Georgia and, then, ultimately to Canada for political asylum. Even though we risked 5 years in prison for each “illegal” refugee we transported, we felt it worth the risks (after taking some precautions) because we personally heard their stories of oppression and persecution. For me, when the issue becomes personalized, it is easier to be motivated for action.

That has also proved true for me in regard to my work against Alliant Techsystems and the School of the Americas. My trip to Iraq in December 2002 introduced me to some Iraqis so my protest was strengthened by my relationship with them and my concern for them. Seeing first-hand what the consequences of our use of depleted uranium in Iraq certainly impacted me. My trip to El Salvador for the 25th anniversary of Romero’s martyrdom also propelled me to action once again at the School of the Americas.

However, becoming a parent did have effects as well. Part of me understood the urgency of acting on behalf of their future – yet, if those actions led to lengthy times in prison that, too, would impact them. So, for the most part, I chose to forgo actions that would likely involve me in longer prison sentences. So I decided not to consider some of the riskier “Plowshare” actions that some friends embarked on. Some of us at Koinonia decided to “take turns” risking arrest so several of us weren’t in jeopardy at the same time. When my 2-yr. old son was more interested in the Sheriff’s bloodhounds penned up next to our jail when Christine brought him for a visit, - that was a sobering reality for me.

Having Christine present and participating at the Pantex witness in Texas was a definite plus. However, when it came to blocking the White Train, the death threats plus the uncertainty that the train would stop, coupled with having a 2-yr.old son, meant that she stayed home that day. Acting in solidarity with others is always preferable than a solo witness. I’ve tried to avoid jeopardy for more than one action at a time. It is also frustrating not knowing if one will go to trial - like my present situation from the RNC – it has been almost 5 months and I still don’t know if we’ll be tried.

I must admit that the sentences I have received: mostly 1 week in jail, 3 months, six months … are paltry in consideration of what I am about. The decision to trust God/Jesus/the community for one’s security rather than a nation that worships at the altar of nuclear weaponry and military bravado is, in reality, treason.

Should we expect a fate different and better that that of the Biblical prophets?

This is where Dan Berrigan’s insight about Scripture is instructive. He takes the passage from Galatians 2:20 –“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” Dan goes on to say that when we are submerged in the waters of baptism, we choose our own death; when we rise out of the water, our life is returned as a gift. When we have voluntarily undergone our own death, what can the government threaten us with greater than that?

That is the power of nonviolence in the face of “the Principalities and Powers”.

I want to close with 2 things: a top 10 list and a poem.

Top 10 Reasons to Go to Jail:

10) Free room and board! Federal prison even gives you a uniform with your name on it! Prison can be a source of humor: when I called from the Federal Prison and told my 20-year old son how much my “pay” was for working that month in the prison kitchen “dish pit”, he said, “Pops, I earn more than that in less than 2 hours!”
9) Going to jail is how much social change happens in the U.S.: women’s suffrage, civil rights, ending the Vietnam War, “Act-Up”/Stonewall actions, labor laws and worker’s rights, … It helps create “political space” for change.
8) Gandhi talked about “experiments with Truth”. Prison allows you to better refine one’s tactics, attitude, comfort level, … for when it might really be needed in crucial struggles. It is always good to practice one’s non-conformity or non-cooperation.
7) Kathy Kelly reminds us: “What you see depends on where you stand”. Prison helps you view the empire from the underside and possibly shed some of your white privilege. Prison helps “demystify” the real nature of the domination system. Helps you understand powerlessness. It is a humbling experience for a white, educated male to feel “out of control” of your situation.
6) Being in prison gives your friends new opportunities to talk about “why” with their friends in less threatening ways: “What do you think about what my friend did?” is easier than risking: “This is what I believe”.
5) Jail offers one a sense of solidarity with “the least of these”.
4) A prison record lets you join the fraternity of other “graduates”: Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Caesar Chavez, Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi, Daniel from the Lion’s Den, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Paul, Silas, Peter, John, - and Jesus!
3) Acting on faith instead of being crippled by fear increases one’s faith. Prison can nurture Spiritual Discipline. Reading the Bible “inside” gives one a whole new perspective.
2) Prison is designed to crush the human spirit – surviving it makes you stronger. Surviving jail gives the government on less weapon with which to threaten you. It is a power the State cannot overcome.
1) Matthew 25 promises us that it is one of places where we’ll find Jesus!
Yesterday My Friend Chose Prison: Dedicated to the SOA prisoners of conscience
By Bill Quigley

Yesterday my friend walked freely into prison
Chose to violate a simple law to spotlight the evil
Of death squads and villages of massacred people
that we cannot even name
mothers and children and grandparents
butchered and buried
and forgotten by most, but not by my friend.

Yesterday my friend stepped away from loves
and family and friends
was systematically stripped of everything,
and systematically searched everywhere,
was systematically numbered and uniformed
and advised and warned
clothes and underwear and shoes and
everything put in a cardboard box,
taped and mailed away.

Yesterday my friend joined the people we put in the
concrete and steel boxes
mothers and children and fathers that we
cannot even name
in prison for using and selling drugs
in prison for trying to sneak into this country
in prison for stealing and scamming and
fighting and killing
but none were there for the massacres
no generals, no politicians, no under-secretaries, no ambassadors

Yesterday my friend had on a brave face
avoiding too much eye contact with the stares of
hundreds of strangers
convicts, prisoners, guards, snitches
not yet knowing good from bad
staying out of people’s business
hoping to find a small pocket of safety and
kindness and trust in the weeks ahead.

Last night my friend climbed into bed in prison
an arm’s length away from the other prisoners
laying awake on the thin mattress
wondering who had slept there last
wondering how loved ones were sleeping
awake through flashlight bed checks
and never-ending noises echoing off the concrete floors and walls
some you never ever want to hear.

Yesterday my friend chose prison over silence
chose to stand with the disappeared and those who never counted
chose to spend months inside hoping to change us outside
chose the chance to speak truth to power and
power responded with prison
Though my heart aches for my friend in prison
No one on this planet is more free.

An Antidote to Infidel-ity

An Antidote for Infidel-ity by Steve Clemens. Jan 1. 2009

After reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiographical Infidel, my eldest son recommended that I read Reza Aslan’s No god But God for a different perspective on Islam. Although both authors have ended up in the US, they came from both similar and quite different circumstances. Both fled their previous homes fearing for their lives – threatened by the zeal of “true believers” who sought to purify Islam of its wayward offspring.

Reza Aslan’s family fled from the excesses of the Iranian Revolution after the clerics seized power in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Shah and his Pahlavi dynasty in 1979. While the Revolution itself was at least partially engineered by the people who were pushing not only for an end to the US-supported oppression under the Shah, it was also a product of an Islamic reformation movement as well. However, in the power vacuum that followed, the Iranian people fell under the spell of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the other conservative clerics who pushed for a more theocratic state. Aslan’s family, supporting a more secular-run government, fled the country after the US-backed Saddam Hussein-led Iraqi forces invaded Iran in opposition to the Iranian Revolution. The ensuing Iran-Iraq War cemented the power of the Khomeini religious conservatives in Iran.

Where Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s and Reza Aslan’s stories diverge is in their analysis of their refugee situations. The former views the misogynistic abuse she endured as coming part and parcel from her direct experience of Islam as it was practiced in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and even in her immigrant diaspora in the Netherlands. Ali understood the patriarchy, paternalism, and misogyny she witnessed and experienced as being central to her understanding of the Quran and Muslim teaching. However, as I pointed out in my essay about Infidel, some of the practices (like female genital mutilation) had their origins in tribal and cultural traditions that often pre-dated the rise of Islam as a religion.

No god But God instead attempts to give its reader a broader historical outlook on the experience of the Prophet Muhammad, the revealing of the sacred text, the Quran, and the early history of the rise of the faith in the Arabian Desert communities of Mecca and Medina. In direct contradistinction from the practice in what Western critics have classified as “fundamentalist” Islam, insisting that women be veiled and covered in public –a practice especially pronounced in Saudi Arabia and among groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – the Prophet Muhammad himself did not advocate the veiling of women except for his own wives – and then primarily for their own protection from men seeking the Prophet’s favor.

Aslan contends that Islam is on the cusp of its own Reformation; one remarkably similar to what Christianity itself went through after its 15th century. That struggle (like the present one) was violent and disruptive over many years as those wielding the control and power of dominant institutions are wont in their reluctance to change and power sharing. After witnessing recent battles within Roman Catholic circles between the Vatican II adherents and the present-day pushback from the “traditionalists” typified by Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict, it is clear that more “Reformation” is the wave of the future as “modernists” and “traditionalists” strive for control of the religious institutions as well as the “hearts and souls” of “the faithful”.

Aslan sees the same forces at work within Islam as the faith is confronted by modernity. The power vacuum created upon the death of Prophet Muhammad was contested between various groups that now trace the divide between Sunni and Shi'a back to those early disputes. The clerics who stepped in to the power vacuum, the Ulama, (religious scholars) have dominated the interpretation of the Quran and the traditions of the faith for centuries and have remained a very conservative force. However, as the Muslim experience grows well beyond the Arab tribal culture, movements pushing for a more modern expression of the faith ebb and flow.

Ultimately, Aslan’s perspective is a hopeful one; he sees the coming Reformation within his religious tradition as both welcome and inevitable. His history includes the rise of the Shi'a, Sufi, and Wahhabi traditions which help the non-Muslim reader better understand the complexities within that faith. My own limited experience within local interfaith dialog circles and events has exposed me to both Jews and Muslims (as well as those from my own Christian tradition) who want to embrace a religious faith that promotes healing and reconciliation as, together, we strive for justice tempered with mercy. Both books have helped me better understand the hopes and struggles of my Muslim neighbors. As Minneapolis continues to grow more diverse with its inflow of immigrant populations, it is essential that we hear these voices of our brothers and sisters – because our own liberation is wrapped up in theirs.