Spiritual Formation and Civil Disobedience

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

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

Early Formation

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

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

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

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

Young Adult Formation

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

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

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

The Road to Peacemaking

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Iraq Peace Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Almost] An American Hero

Alberto Mora: (Almost) An American Hero by Steve Clemens. March 23, 2010

Alberto Mora spoke with clarity and conviction. As a life-long Republican, Mora was appointed by President George W. Bush as the General Counsel of the US Navy from 2001 to 2006. While in this position, he served as a strong, vocal critic within the Administration arguing that the policy of “enhanced interrogations” ordered by the President were not only illegal but also counterproductive in the so-called War on Terror.

Speaking at the U of MN’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs today on the topic, Military Justice in an Age of Terrorism, Mora chose to draw a sharper line for criticizing the human rights abuses that led to the torture scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Mora argued on using a lesser standard than “was it torture?” - Did the policies and practices allowed and encouraged by the Bush Administration constitute “cruelty”? Citing the 8th Amendment to the US Constitution, Mora described the prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” as the appropriate threshold rather than the higher threshold of “torture”. Not all cruelty rises to the level of torture but all torture is cruel, he observed. And cruelty, the lesser standard is the Constitutional threshold in our law.

Dressed and comported like the conservative corporate lawyer he is in present practice (he has worked for Wal-Mart and now works for the Mars candy company), Mora expressed his alarm at what he witnessed over the past several years by quoting French philosopher Albert Camus: “You don’t kill values with the same weapons you use to defend them.” The lawyer said that the cruelty practiced at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo was not merely an abstraction but concrete, verifiable, individual acts. He went on to describe briefly the myriad degradations that a detainee, sometimes referred to as the 20th hijacker, Mohammed al-Katani, underwent in US custody. The list of abuses was long and Mora stated that one of the US Army’s own attorneys testified in court that his treatment met the definition of torture. “The fact that we tortured people is now not open to debate”, Mora claimed.

There were six beliefs or assumptions that were underlying the past Administration’s policies that led to this practice of cruelty (and torture) that Mora outlined. The Bush government assumed such policies and practices were 1) necessary to protect us against further attacks; 2) no law prohibited it; 3) the President as Commander-in-Chief was not limited by other laws during wartime; 4) it would not hurt our national interest or our security strategy; 5) no one would care; and 6) no one would be held accountable. Mora stated that all these assumptions have proven false although #6 is “still in doubt”.

“These policies were distributed and abuses occurred”, Mora continued. However, these constitutional rights against cruelty are rights granted to everyone, not just citizens – and everywhere. He elaborated on the point of how these acts of cruelty have seriously damaged the “legacy of American Foreign Policy”. Citing the Nuremberg Tribunals, the Geneva Conventions, and today’s German Constitution (adopted in 1949 with the help from the US) as landmarks for recognition of US Foreign Policy that raised standards of human rights and responsibilities around the globe, Mora argued that our practice of cruelty after the attacks of 9-11 had lessened and weakened our moral authority as a nation. Stating that “the War on Terror” will not be won by military means and how European cooperation seriously diminished as word of our practice and policy of cruelty came to light, Mora showed the ineffectiveness of the “gloves-off” policy that continues to be championed by Vice President Cheney today.

“We’ve compromised ourselves in the war of ideas”, he went on, and he told the over-flowing audience that “many flag officers I’ve talked with believe the #1 and #2 causes of US Military deaths in Iraq are due to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo”, referring to the outrage which fueled the Iraqi insurgency in 2005 and 2006. “Cruelty was not legal, not necessary, and not effective”, he claimed. He went as far as stating “Every military officer I have spoken to feels [this policy and practice of cruelty] is counter-productive and contemptible.” Military people do not want to abandon the moral high ground, he observed. “What was once unspeakable [torture and cruelty] is now discussed in polite conversation.”

His remarks were greeted with enthusiastic applause and Vice President Mondale joined Alberto Mora for the question/answer period that followed. Professor Larry Jacobs, the host and moderator asked Mora to respond to the culturally popular “ticking time-bomb” scenario frequently used by proponents of the “enhanced methods”. Responding in a similar fashion to the Biblical story of Abraham dickering with God about sparing Sodom and Gomorrah if only a few righteous folk could be found, this lawyer took apart the faulty assumption behind this theory. We often start by saying hundreds of thousands of lives might be saved, he argued, but what if it were only a few thousand, or a few hundred, or even two? A commander in Iraq who just lost two of his soldiers to an IED the day before might be tempted to torture a captured Iraqi in hopes that he’ll be able to prevent the loss of two more soldiers the next day. Local cops might want to torture a suspect who is detained after a child goes missing locally to [hopefully] prevent other children from the danger. Where do you draw the line once you embark down that slippery slope? We could justify cruelty upon any suspicion, he observed. He has yet to hear of any authentic case where cruelty/torture has prevented a “ticking time-bomb” incident despite the popularity of the TV show 24.

It was refreshing to hear all of this from someone who continues to identify himself as a Republican. Larry Jacobs told the crowd at the conclusion that Mora “is an American Hero”. I almost agree. One of Jacobs’ questions, however, caused me to re-think that accolade (at least partially): Jacobs, reading from a card submitted by an audience member asked the speaker what he thought about Daniel Ellsberg’s plea for there to be more “whistle-blowers” within the government to bring these illegal activities to light as he did in leaking the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s. Mora described the moral and legal dilemma military officers were put in when their oath to uphold the Constitution conflicted with the orders coming from the Commander-in-Chief. He talked about how he wrote memos strongly disagreeing with the policy but admitted that he didn’t “leak” them to the press.

Would he have made more of a difference with a public resignation or clandestinely leaking his memos? We won’t know. I am grateful he is speaking out now in clear, unequivocal terms. He is supporting the important healing and advocacy work of the Center for Victims of Torture, singling them out as one of the groups lending a critical voice to the public conversation of trying to reclaim the ideals proclaimed in the Constitution. He and Mondale both advocated that a Truth Commission or similar investigatory group (hopefully bi-partisan) be established to try to prevent these policies of cruelty to be justified again.

Until we are willing as a people and a nation to honestly repent for the cruelty done under the pretext of “national security”, we will need the reminders of the protesters clad in orange jumpsuits and black hoods standing in front of the Federal Courthouse or by the University of St. Thomas Law School (where one of the memo writers providing legal “cover” for Bush now teaches) calling for accountability.

A Call for Christian Tree-Huggers

A Sapling at the Birth of Jesus? By Steve Clemens. Feb. 28, 2010

After spending a week of Bible Study on Jesus and Eco-justice (at the Bartimaeus Institute), I made a pilgrimage to one of America’s oldest cathedrals: the stand of giant Sequoia trees in Kings Canyon National Park, about 5 hours northeast of Los Angeles. The Park Rangers estimate the unfortunately named General Grant Tree as being between 1600 and 2000 years old with the nearby larger General Sherman Tree as likely more than 2200 years old. Growing from a sapling which sprouts from a seed the size and shape of an oat flake, these gargantuan trees are more than 40 feet in diameter at their base and often reach into the clouds at their growing altitude of 5000-7000 feet elevation. Weighing an estimated 1,300 + tons, they might serve as a substitute for the amazing mustard seed of Jesus’ parables- something that grows huge from a tiny start.

When 5 or 6 of these behemoth trees grow near each other like they do just a few hundred feet from the General Grant, they form a cathedral as every bit awe inspiring as those built in medieval Europe. Yet it took an act of Congress to make the area the second National Park in the U.S. after hearing the pleas from John Muir to halt the logging of these special trees. Many had already been chopped or sawed down before Congressional action allowed the preservation of the remaining ones to be enjoyed more than 100 years later. It is reported that it took two men 13 days to chop and saw one of these sequoias in order to topple it in the late 1800s.

It was only recently that environmentalists recognized that fire is one of the factors that help these trees grow: the heat from the flames help open the egg-sized and shaped pine cones allowing the seeds to germinate in the soil mixed with ashes. The incredibility thick bark on the Sequoia trunks help shield the trees from most of the fire’s effect although many of the ancient giants show some burn marks around the base of the trees. Some of the fallen trees have had the inside of the tree hollowed out from fire.

I wonder if these trees had not been protected before 1900 if we would bother doing it today. Our capitalism run amuck seems hell-bent on privatizing the Commons and seeking to monetize whatever we can exploit in the natural realm. Maybe naming these two trees after Civil War generals was a stroke of genius – at least our society’s warped values offer respect and deference to conquering warriors. If the trees were named after Walter Rausenbush or Eugene V. Debs, true American giants of the social justice variety, they probably would have fallen to the wood cutters’ axe in the same way as they’ve been chopped out of most U.S. history textbooks.

Our week of Bible Study echoed the phrase, “You can’t save a place you don’t love. You can’t love a place you don’t know. You can’t know a place about which you haven’t learned.” Unfortunately, the giant Sequoia trees of Kings Canyon don’t lie in my home bio-region. But they are a heritage for all of us to appreciate and enjoy. They are worth a pilgrimage if you find yourself in central California.

In the Bible Study we were reminded several times about how important trees are in the Scriptures: Abraham made his first altar under the oak at Shechem. He built another at the Oak of Mamre. We spent a lot of time exploring the role that the Cedars of Lebanon have played in both Biblical and secular history - they were coveted by many empires and rulers, especially King Solomon who used them to build his Temple. The Phoenicians used the cedar to build their ships when they dominated the Mediterranean world. The Assyrian invaders took their war chariots (our present day tanks) up to the hills of Lebanon to secure the theft of this war booty. What once was the crowning glory of Lebanon today is only a small stand of these world-renown trees after 5,000 years of assault. Isaiah the prophet claims that the trees exault with praise after the empires which clear-cut them were defeated. Finally, the last vision in Revelation is the image of the Tree of Life healing all the nations.

Generals Grant and Sherman “earned their stripes” militarily in the Manifest Destiny wars against Mexico and our own Native Americans. They were part of the imperial project which has characterized our nation since its founding. Although our politicians see us as the “last, best hope for the world” (American exceptionalism) the world of nature has experienced us as one of the more prolific destroyers. What an irony to name these sentinels of the forest after a man who burned his way through Georgia during the Civil War and another whose initials came to stand for “unconditional surrender”.

Despite the heavy snow at that elevation last night, coupled with my disappointment at being unable to see the General Sherman Tree yesterday because I didn’t have chains on the tires of my rental car, the Park Rangers were able to plow overnight which allowed me access to the other park entrance this morning. The trees were flocked with heavy snow but those branches just drooped gracefully, occasionally dropping clumps of their white, wet load on those of us worshiping at their bases.

Ched Myers, our Bible Study leader and theological animator,introduced me to his “Grandmother Oak” about 20 minutes from his home in the Ojai Valley on Friday evening. It took four of us linking hands to surround the trunk of this live oak that must be 500-600 years old. Now with these “Grandfather Sequoias”, I’ll need to appropriate the Native American practice of referring to the deity as Grandfather/mother next time I recite the Lord’s Prayer. Certainly the power and compassion of the God Jesus revealed to us is fully present in these gifts of nature. The Apostle Paul reminds us that “all creation is waiting for we humans to take off our masks of domination and co-optation” and join together to both defend, celebrate and stand with it.