The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Two shotgun-wielding sheriff’s deputies barred our entry through the gates of the naval transmitter station, but our group of twenty-one protesters radiated the assurance of the overly prepared. We had trained a whole month for this moment. Though the deputies couldn’t tell from looking at us, we were skilled in the art of moral jujitsu. If only they knew that we weren’t a bunch of peacenik hippie agitators but religious activists who had the backing of God’s holy word. If only they knew that we were pacifists but not passive-ists. Sure, we wouldn’t resist arrest, but that didn’t mean we were a bunch of sissies either.
I think I secretly yearned for these men to hurt us, if only so we could demonstrate to the world our newfound ability to righteously receive a pummeling and not punch back.
We were the soon-to-be graduates of the Christian Alliance for Nonviolence Class of 2001, peaceful foot soldiers in the army of God. We took a step forward.
I’d first learned about the Christian Alliance for Nonviolence (CAN) the summer after I’d graduated from divinity school. I was bumming my way around the Guatemalan highlands when I boarded a bus bound for Chiapas, Mexico. Twelve hours later I set foot in the mountain hamlet of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. This was the country that had helped inspire Graham Greene to write his novel The Power and the Glory. I’d read the book in a divinity-school ethics class and been hooked by his characters — depraved sinners who still ached with desire for God. The whiskey priest in the book, despite his obvious flaws, renounced everything — even his life — to save his people. Could I do the same?
To be honest, what I had in mind was more a vague notion of helping people. My parents had been missionaries in Nicaragua and later in Nigeria, and though I didn’t share their evangelistic zeal, I had inherited from them a sense that a life of faith was an adventure. I was a cross between Thomas Merton and Indiana Jones: desirous of spiritual depth but with little patience for digging. I craved action, and I thought Chiapas — site of the 1994 Zapatista peasant revolution — was a good place to find some.
I arrived in June 2000, six years too late for the revolution, but there were still soldiers and army bases everywhere; more than seventy thousand troops, a third of the Mexican military, were based in Chiapas. Wanting to serve the cause of the oppressed Mayan farmers, I spent my first few days in San Cristóbal banging on the doors of nongovernmental organizations. None was especially interested in hiring a twenty-something gringo with no experience. (My one accomplishment as an activist had been to get arrested the previous year at Fort Benning, Georgia, protesting the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas — a state-terrorist-training facility.) They wouldn’t even let me volunteer. But a few of them directed me to the Christian Alliance for Nonviolence. Judging by how people spoke of it (“There is one group that might take you”), CAN was where the excess volunteers ended up. No one seemed to know exactly what the Alliance members did. Some spoke of them as “parachute peacemakers” who flew in wanting to do good but lacked experience on the ground in a war zone. A German woman who worked for a well-funded peace organization said, “I sink zey just, you know, hang around in ze willage.”
The most attractive thing for me about CAN was that it worked closely with Las Abejas. Some five thousand strong, Las Abejas — “the Bees” — were a Catholic civil society of Mayan peasants unified by their faith and their opposition to the Mexican government. They named themselves after bees because they were many in number, they prized the communal over the individual, and, like bees, they took their marching orders from a queen — in this case, God. What distinguished Las Abejas from other opposition groups in Latin America was their consistent refusal to use violence. Impoverished and abandoned by the Church hierarchy, they had decided to take what Jesus said literally and to stake their lives on his command to love our enemies.
And some of them had lost their lives. In 1997 Las Abejas had been attacked by government-sponsored paramilitaries. Using guns and machetes, the attackers had killed forty-five men, women, and children.
I had read about these modern-day martyrs in my last year of divinity school and had been inspired by their impossibly moral response to the world’s cruelties. I wanted to stand with them before another paramilitary attack could occur. But when I approached the CAN team in Chiapas and asked about working with Las Abejas, they told me I’d first have to travel to Minneapolis, Minnesota, for “basic training” in how to be a nonviolent Christian activist.
Six months later I stood outside CAN headquarters on a Minneapolis sidewalk that was covered with a foot of snow. I was looking at a thirty-day stint in pacifist boot camp, after which I would return to Chiapas as an agent of nonviolent intervention and work with my beloved Las Abejas. And when my stint in Chiapas was over — well, then I’d leave CAN. I was prepared to take risks, sure, but I wasn’t about to go get shot at by Israeli soldiers or have my body end up in a river in Colombia. I much preferred the scenic Mexican peacemaking tour that included quaint mountain “willages,” hot showers, and free-spirited NGO women.
“I’m a proud member of the worldwide movement for social change,” our instructor, Brad, said to our class of twenty that first day. Brad was a member of one of the historic Anabaptist peace churches. “But I’m also into magic,” he said, his eyes flashing. During training he would be teaching us not only how to stay calm in violent situations, but also how to sustain a life of peacemaking through myth, ritual, and communal ecstasy. He wanted to reveal right up front that he was “struggling” with his Christian convictions and was “in a time of spiritual exploration.”
Myth? Communal ecstasy? I began to wonder if Brad, with his elfish eyeglasses, curly locks, and preternaturally deep voice, wasn’t some kind of druid.
We went around the room and introduced ourselves. There was the laconic Canadian who would later go on to serve valiantly in Hebron and Iraq, sending witty e-mails about his bullet-dodging feats. There was the thin-mustached, effeminate priest from Texas. There was the Brit who for twenty years had worked as a nuclear engineer building up the Crown’s store of warheads until one day he’d had a dramatic conversion experience, quit his job, and become a full-time peace activist.
The rest of the group were twenty-somethings like me: young men and women who wanted to do something bold and meaningful; wanderers flying their own versions of the progressive-anarcho-syndicalist-Green-Jesus banner, each looking for purpose and thinking it might be found in a war zone. We were middle-class Christian kids in thrift-store clothing — or, for the truly ambitious, homemade clothing — who wanted to publicize our downward mobility. For someone of our ilk, going off to Palestine or Chiapas as a peace worker was a hip thing to do. It garnered a certain cachet among our peers back in Atlanta or Brooklyn or Toronto. Before coming to Minneapolis, all of us had thought that we were unique, that only we would do something so crazy-cool. As I listened to these others introduce themselves, I saw my own sullied motives reflected back to me.
The first day of training was long and dull. There were lengthy abstract discussions of such subjects as Race, Class, and Nonviolence — big ideas ripped from their narrative moorings and made devoid of context or comprehensibility. What I found most irksome was a stunt Brad pulled called “noticing.” We were in the midst of a group discussion about Gender Inequality when Brad piped up. “I’d like to notice something,” he said, pronouncing the word “new-tiss.” “I’d like to notice that, for the past twenty minutes, I’ve been the only man in the room who has contributed to the gender discussion.” Subtext: The rest of you are a bunch of misogynists who need to get with the program.
“Noticing” was one of many group-process techniques I came to loathe during my month in Minneapolis. These passive-aggressive attacks were always dished out with a veneer of humility, as if the noticer were somehow performing a public service. Brad employed an arsenal of such parlor tricks to exert power over us. If you fell under the gaze of his noticing, he would cock his head at you, wizard eyes a blue blur behind wire rims, and give a smirk as if to say, So you really want to join the worldwide movement for social change? Then you have more work to do, my friend. Much more.
By the end of that first day I suspected that Brad and I wouldn’t get along. Naif that I was, though, I tipped my hand and told Brad that I really wanted to get placed on the Chiapas project so I could live and work with my heroes Las Abejas.
“Well,” Brad said, “what you want may not be in the best interests of CAN.” The need for Spanish-speaking volunteers was much greater in Colombia, for example, than in Chiapas.
My confession had served only to increase Brad’s power over me. I was beginning to wonder if getting to work with Las Abejas was worth all this rigmarole. But it was only the first day. I decided to stick it out.
We bundled up and trudged through dirty snow to our sleeping quarters in an old Methodist church a few miles from CAN headquarters. There weren’t any beds, so we all slept in the sanctuary: women spread out on the altar, men in the balcony. The balcony was small, and there wasn’t enough room for the ten of us to stretch out. It was also hot up there. I tried lying on top of my sleeping bag, but I woke before dawn feeling chilled. I pulled the bag over my legs only to wake an hour later soaked in sweat. A month of this was out of the question; I would need to find better quarters.
On the second night I moved down to a carpeted corner of the fellowship hall. I was away from my bunkmates’ snoring and coughing and farting, but it was still too hot. My inability to find physical comfort seemed to mirror my uneasiness about CAN and my doubts about whether I was cut out for the austere life of a would-be martyr.
On the third night I descended lower still, into the basement of the church. There, around the corner from the one shower all twenty of us shared, I found a narrow hallway with a short flight of stairs leading up to an exit that wasn’t properly sealed, allowing in a steady stream of January night air. It must have been forty-five degrees in the hall — ideal camping weather — and on that third night sleep floated before me like a silver platter bearing a cold, delicious feast.
Once word had spread about my sleeping arrangements, my teammates gave me concerned looks. They offered to make more room for me upstairs or to turn down the heat. But I was happy in my little cave. I felt like a hibernating bear who might bite if provoked. One of the women took to calling me “Ice Man.” “Look,” she’d say when I would emerge from my underground lair at breakfast time, “the Ice Man cometh.”
Besides the cave, my only solace during training was “life stories.” This was the hour each night when one of us told his or her story. Initially I’d thought that, after sitting in a circle all day with these people, I’d find listening to them tell their life stories a horrific chore, but I came to look forward to this ritual. A life story, even one badly told, is still a story. I learned things about my teammates that, against my better judgment, endeared them to me. The thin-mustached priest, for example, recited poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins from memory. I remember his weighty pause before the last lines of “God’s Grandeur,” how I could almost see the Holy Spirit brooding over our bent world with “ah! bright wings.”
Not only did I sleep in a basement during that month in Minneapolis, but I also spent most of each day in one at CAN headquarters. It was classic seventies church-basement décor: orange corduroy sofa, fake-wood paneling, and faux-marble linoleum, all permeated with the smell of mold, polyester, and stale coffee. On the walls were the pantheon of progressive Christianity: Dorothy Day sitting down before riot police; Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I have a dream” speech; an image of Jesus superimposed over an electric chair with the caption “Jesus was once asked what he thought about the death penalty. He responded, ‘Let the one without sin cast the first stone.’ ”
To keep costs low, we got our food from the dumpsters behind Safeway. We trainees didn’t do the actual dumpster diving; that was subcontracted out to a group of local volunteers who made deliveries in the night while we slept. Each morning we would arrive to find a “fresh” smorgasbord of tomatoes, hummus, lettuce, bread, onions, mayo, and cold cuts, all of it a few days too old for Safeway customers but not too moldy for hungry activists.
We had been at CAN boot camp only a week when we were assigned our first nonviolent direct action. A bitterly cold New Year’s Day found us all armed with pamphlets, headed downtown for a confrontation with one of the nation’s most egregious violators of peace and harmony: Toys “R” Us.
Brad and the other top brass had turned up some disturbing news: stores were selling toys and games that promoted violence. Our scouts had discovered that out of six area toy retailers, Toys “R” Us ranked worst. Our mission: create a disturbance in the store that would raise consumers’ consciousness and shine a light on what children were learning. We were going to wake people up. It would be sort of like Jesus turning over the money changers’ tables in the Temple, only instead of righteous anger, we had liberal outrage.
While the main group stayed on the sidewalk and handed out anti-war-toy propaganda, eight of us were chosen to go inside and fan out across the store. I grabbed a shopping cart and piled it high with action figures: G.I. Joe, Transformers, Soldier of Fortune. Ten minutes later we reconvened in the checkout lines, held aloft our toxic toys, and shouted in unison: “Violence is not child’s play! Violence is not child’s play!”
My cashier went white and pushed a button under the counter. Then she grabbed the intercom: “I need a manager up front right now.”
Within thirty seconds security guards had descended on us, and we were escorted from the store, but not before we’d presented the manager with a “Notice of Toxicity.” We hollered a few more slogans at consumers and headed out into the cold to join our comrades.
The raid on the store had been a rush, I had to admit. The rest of the team, who had been watching our performance through the storefront windows, were elated. Taking advantage of the collective high, Brad decided to herd us to one of the busiest intersections in downtown. “Are you ready to speak truth to power?” he shouted.
Brad produced a milk crate, and we took turns standing on it and “witnessing” to lunch-hour pedestrians, most of whom pretended not to hear us. I was one of the last to go. By that time all the bases had pretty much been covered: American imperialism, our “culture of war,” globalization. I jammed my hands into my coat pockets and stepped onto the soapbox with no idea what to say.
“Well, folks, I guess —”
“Louder!” Brad yelled.
“What I want to say is, uh . . .”
“Come on! We can’t hear you!”
“We’ve got a problem in this country,” I shouted, “and that problem is us!” I was far from convincing, however, as became apparent on the video we watched of ourselves later. To my shame, my long list of denouncements didn’t add up to anything approaching coherence.
As we came up on the final stretch of basic training, Brad decided that another “witness” — he always insisted we call them “witnesses,” not “protests” — would be a fitting finale with which to end our month together. For the target, he chose the navy’s Project ELF, a transmitter station in Wisconsin that sent “Extremely Low Frequency” messages to submerged nuclear submariness hidden beneath the seven seas — which is to say, it sent messages that could rain down apocalypse on us all. But Brad was working out an elaborate demonstration to deliver our own message. It wasn’t clear to me what this would accomplish. Did he really expect the station’s guards to lay down their weapons and the navy to dismantle the project?
Just two days before we were to leave for ELF, the attack came. We had just finished the morning group-processing session — another exercise in “share and stare” — when two men in ski masks burst into the room.
“Nobody move!” one shouted. The taller of the two motioned for his partner to cover the door while he looked us over. When the tall man saw my face, it was as if he recognized me. He walked quickly across the room, put his chest to my chin, and pushed me. “Where’s our money?” he demanded.
I don’t remember what I stammered back, but it seemed only to aggravate him further. He gave me a shove, hitting my shoulders so hard that I fell partly back in my chair. I stood up again. I had never been physically threatened like this. Somehow I’d made it twenty-six years without ever feeling the pain of another person’s fist hitting my face. I wondered if I was about to feel it now.
“OK, buddy, just calm down,” I said. “Let’s talk about this.”
“No talk. I want my coke!”
In the mere seconds during which all this transpired, I developed the curious feeling that something was amiss. All those million and one phenomena one absorbs in a traumatic situation — gestures, words, tone of voice — seemed out of whack. His gravelly voice sounded forced. I looked into his eyes and saw fear in them, as he must have seen in mine.
The short man waiting by the door gestured to the taller one. I sensed my teammates watching us — or, rather, watching me, since my attacker had his back to them. My fear transformed into embarrassment, then shame, but not for myself. I realize this makes me appear more empathetic than I am, but I remember feeling ashamed for my attacker, that he would so debase himself by harming a fellow human being. Whatever he wanted from me, I pitied him for stooping so low in order to get it.
He must have seen my pity, because he started to shove me again, and that’s when I gave him what he had come for: When the tall man’s hands came at me, I put up my own to block them. We clapped in midair, like two overgrown boys playing patty-cake. My hands must have had some force behind them, because the man took a step back. I saw what looked like triumph in his eyes. “Let’s go!” shouted his friend, and they were gone.
Nobody spoke. We were all stunned. Then Brad sauntered in and cast a mocking smile in my direction. “OK,” he said, “you guys ready to debrief?”
© Raphael Shevelev
The group spent a good hour discussing the role-playing exercise. Brad told us that this was the kind of hostility we could expect to encounter in the field, the main difference being that, whereas our ersatz attackers hadn’t had guns, Israel’s soldiers or Colombia’s armed forces or Mexico’s paramilitaries would certainly be armed. Some CAN members had even stood their ground before tanks, like the protesters in Tiananmen Square. During the discussion nobody had questioned why the attacker had singled me out or, for that matter, why I had defended myself by pushing back.
After the discussion Brad told me he wanted to talk to me in private. I followed him into the office and shut the door.
“I’m concerned about you,” Brad said. “I’m worried about your lack of engagement, and when I try to address this with you, you’re distant, unreadable.”
Of course I was unreadable. I was the Ice Man, cold and solitary. Was that a problem?
Brad went on about my less-than-nonviolent reaction in the role-play and how I hadn’t had much to say on the soapbox the other day. As his words crashed over me, drowning my hopes of going to Chiapas, I wanted to drag him outside and tackle him into the dirty Minneapolis snow. Maybe that would stop him from talking.
The week before, we had done a role-playing exercise in which Brad had been the soldier-antagonist, and I’d been the nonviolent resister. “Who do you think you are, little rich boy?” he’d said, pointing at my feet. “Look at those twenty-five-dollar rich-boy Thorlo socks. You think you’re protesting the system? You are the system.”
We were supposed to be in character, but I think Brad meant what he said, and his words hit home. I was the rich-kid-turned-radical — just, I suspected, as Brad himself was. But my downward mobility wasn’t complete. While Brad and the other CAN trainees had thrift-store wardrobes, I still wore expensive North Face jackets. Sure, I had lived in Nigeria for three years as a missionary kid, but I was a doctor’s son. My passage through life had been paid for in advance, and then some.
Brad shifted in his seat, stifling a yawn. Our little chat was drawing to a close. “Basically it comes down to this question,” Brad said, “and I want you to consider it well, because we’d like to give you an assignment.”
What? An assignment? I thought I was getting canned.
“You’ve been in training three weeks now, and we’ve gotten nothing from you other than cold stares. We’re going to ELF in a few days. That’s your chance to show us who you really are. Show us how badly you want to be a Christian Alliance for Nonviolence Class of 2001 graduate. The question you need to ponder, my friend, is this: How can your teammates trust you in the field if you won’t open up?”
I don’t remember my reply. I do remember thinking that sometimes the hardest part about being a Christian peace activist is having to refrain from beating the piss out of your fellow peace activists.
It’s been eight years since those days in Minneapolis. Lately I’ve been skimming a book called Martyrs Mirror. I say “skimming” because this isn’t a book you read front to back. This is a 1,158-page collection of short biographies depicting, often in exquisite detail, the violent deaths of more than four thousand Christian martyrs. The book’s full title is The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only upon Confession of Faith, and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Savior, from the Time of Christ to the Year A.D. 1660.
A Dutch Mennonite named Thieleman J. van Braght compiled the book in order to shore up the convictions of his Anabaptist brethren, who were then being persecuted throughout Europe for their refusal to baptize infants and bear arms. It was translated into German so that Mennonites living in the New World might be strengthened by their predecessors’ nonviolent example.
For a few years my wife and I were members of a Mennonite church in the college town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Of the thirty or so members of the church, at least half weren’t “ethnic” Mennonites, and many had advanced degrees. We had been drawn to the church by its firm stance on peace, having become fed up with American Protestant waffling on matters of war.
Alex, one of the “ethnic” members, amazed us with tales of how his parents would read to him from Martyrs Mirror each night at bedtime. While the rest of us had dozed off listening to The Lorax or Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, Alex had sat wide-eyed in bed and learned about the burning of Barnabas, the tearing-apart-by-animals of Felician, the beheading of Maerten the Walloon.
As I thumb through van Braght’s little shop of horrors, I think of Alex. What kind of parent, I wonder, reads to a child bedtime stories like this one, which describes the killing of the Waldensians, five men and three women burned at the stake at Troyes, Champagne, in 1200 AD by decree of Pope Innocent III for failure to baptize their infants? Then again, given that Christians worship a man who went willingly to his death and called on his followers to do the same, what kind of Christian parent doesn’t read these stories to his or her children?
“When Christ calls a man,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “he bids him to come and die.”
Bonhoeffer was one of the few German churchmen to speak out against National Socialism. Unlike many other Christians, who willingly bowed to the Führer’s demands or fled the country, Bonhoeffer remained in Germany and ran an underground seminary for the few devout young men the Nazis had not co-opted. Bonhoeffer’s words were prescient: only months before the Allied forces arrived, he was hanged.
Though I couldn’t articulate this at the time, my nagging doubts about CAN and its motives, as well as my own, stemmed from our shared misunderstanding of martyrdom. My training at CAN seemed to encourage a kind of naiveté: just grab your knapsack of nonviolent tactics and head for the front. Such activism too easily becomes a foolish crusade. Genuine martyrs are those who have faced that moment when their dearest convictions meet the world’s animosity, and who have refused to cave in — the end result being their death. Las Abejas, the Waldensians, Bonhoeffer — all were simply going about their business, living seemingly innocuous lives that those in power saw as a threat. They weren’t looking for a fight.
Of course, Las Abejas didn’t just sit around the house, either. They organized protest marches and walked from San Cristóbal to Mexico City — a journey of three months — to demand their basic rights as citizens. Jesus, too, had his confrontations with power. Nonviolent love doesn’t remain passive; it takes risks. It engages the world.
Perhaps the distinction lies in our understanding of where evil resides and how we root it out. Some things in this world must be decried and resisted, but not to the exclusion of fighting a more important battle first: the one inside the human heart. To denounce injustice out there, we must first be wounded in a few interior battles, and then we must heal enough to speak without animosity toward those whose actions we oppose.
My own interior skirmishes had been far too few, which meant that no amount of nonviolent training could prepare me. I wonder how much farther along I would have gotten if instead of learning how to deal with conflict in a Minneapolis basement, I had spent that month kneeling in a quiet room.
The night before we traveled to Luck, Wisconsin, a town near the ELF station, to prepare for the protest, we had our final life-story session.
It was Brad’s turn. He told us how he’d gone to seminary, become disillusioned, dropped out, and developed an interest in magic. What I remember most, though, is that he shyly admitted to writing poems, several of which he read to us. One in particular struck me. I clearly recall the first line: “In church this morning my chest was an opened field.”
In the poem the speaker looks up to see if anyone else notices his opened chest. No one does, not the preacher nor the parishioners. We’re the only ones in on his secret, and we watch as the speaker looks back down and sees a tiny tractor harrowing the field of his chest. There is a little man driving the tractor, opening ground that will be planted by the Sower. The speaker begins to weep. He is unworthy. Yet he knows the Sower has chosen him for a reason, that his life will become a harvest for another to reap. The poem ends when the little man has plowed his way up to the speaker’s sternum. Then “he turns at row’s end, gives an offhand salute, plows deeper still.”
Brad looked up and adjusted his spectacles. I wasn’t sure how he had done it, but he had created a work of power — not the sort of power he exerted over us with his stunts and tricks, but something else entirely. In Brad’s poem I’d felt the presence of the One before whom all our petty hurts and grievances must give way, before whom we can only beg forgiveness for the hardness of our human hearts. I wanted to linger there awhile with that man on his tractor, awaiting the Sower, who would soon arrive to do his work. I wanted my own chest to be opened like a field and sown with the Word. I wanted my life to produce a worthy harvest.
The day was dreary and cold, the sky already growing dark at 3 P.M. Just above our heads a bank of gray clouds looked ready to unleash their payload. “Let us pray,” Brad said, and all twenty of us bowed in unison.
We were finally here. We had driven through a four-hour snowstorm to arrive in Wisconsin’s Great North Woods, and now we stood before ELF’s gates. Though I had thought of it as a navy “base,” ELF was nothing more than a middle-of-nowhere transmitter station: two seven-mile-long power lines crossed to form a giant X. From these power lines came a signal that circumnavigated the globe east to west. Each time the signal returned from its trip around the earth, the giant electrical cross picked it up and slapped it back into motion with renewed force, like a tetherball. If the president ever decided to launch the nukes, the signal would go out from here. But the messages could travel only one way. The Trident submarine captain couldn’t call back and say, “Sir, are you certain you didn’t mean ‘lunch’?” All it took was a hiccup in ELF’s innards to begin the countdown to Armageddon.
I stood with my teammates and listened to the faint hum coming from across the fence: 1.3 million watts of electricity surged along those wires, flinging Death’s name around the world. Brad prayed in a voice loud enough for the sheriff’s deputies to hear. He struck a balance between reverent awe before eternal mystery and barely concealed outrage in the face of injustice. He asked God’s forgiveness for our complicity in this country’s idolatrous worship of Mars, god of war. He asked the Holy One to dismantle this transmitter: an evil of the extremely low-frequency kind that traveled undetected by the average citizen but had not slipped past the spiritual radar of those gathered here; an evil made even more insidious because it was being perpetrated in our name.
“And so,” he concluded, “we come here on this day to say, ‘Not in our name, Lord. Not in our name.’ ”
Brad decided that now it was time for the “circle dance.”
“I’m a butterfly,” he said, flapping his lanky arms and traipsing around our circle. “I speak for all the creatures that ELF has destroyed.”
That was our cue, and the rest of us made our own halfhearted attempts at animal imitations. The especially earnest emitted strange grunts and chortles that were supposed to be a wolf or a bear. A few began to sing a song about weaving together strands of earth and wind and fire. The tune was a round, and they sang it round and round and round for a mind-numbingly long time.
For my part I gamboled around the circle and tried to appear engaged whenever Brad looked my way. I felt like a killjoy who just can’t bring himself to participate for fear of looking foolish. But my fear of being ostracized — or denied a certain assignment — kept me from standing rigid in defiance. The compromise I reached was to play along halfheartedly and hope nobody would call me out. If getting to Chiapas meant that I had to dance a jig here in the Great North Woods, then dance I would.
The sky by now had turned battleship gray, and several fat flakes landed on my shoulder. Brad was still flapping but looked tired. The deputies watched us, curious but nonchalant. I wondered what they thought of this display. They probably weren’t bad people — just Mike and Dave, say, from Luck or nearby Clam Lake, doing their jobs. At least we’d provided them with a story to tell their families over supper. I wanted to walk over to Mike and Dave and explain that I was just tagging along here, that I really had nothing to do with these people.
The group began to sing “We Shall Overcome.” It was snowing lightly, and I had trouble paying attention to the song, so amazed was I by all the lovely snowflakes. Brad stopped his butterfly movements, and some others took over the dance, but with little enthusiasm. The rest of us milled around, not quite sure what to do, shuffling our cold feet in the snow. I looked one last time across the fence, my gaze following the power lines into ELF’s center, the belly of the beast. I began to wonder about that giant cross of wires. I wondered whether each time ELF’s signal swung back through our little outpost of opposition, it sapped a bit more of our determination and slung it back into the world. Perhaps ours would be a slower, less painful death than those suffered by the martyrs of old. Our death would occur not over minutes but over years in a steady accretion of meaningless protests and petty compromises. Maybe this kind of self-flagellation was necessary for martyrs of the nuclear age to endure. But I doubted it. If this charade was what Brad meant by “the power of myth and communal ecstasy,” then I wanted to “notice” that we were all a bunch of silly, middle-class Americans who would never understand real sacrifice — like that of Bonhoeffer and Las Abejas — because by seeking confrontation, we had already failed the test. We tried to make history, but we could make only histrionics.
The snow now fell in earnest. It was difficult to maintain a spirit of animosity toward the Global Empire amid such gentleness, and our righteous anger dwindled until a sleepy winter peace descended on everyone’s shoulders. Even the most ardent among us simmered down. Chanting turned to murmurs, turned to silence. We looked around at each other, some proud, others sheepish. So this was it. We were now nonviolent Christian activists. From there we would fan out around the globe: Hebron, Colombia, Iraq. I would get assigned to the CAN team in Chiapas and live with my beloved Las Abejas. After three short months, due to our team’s internal divisions, general befuddlement, and lack of a coherent plan, we would close down the project, and I would leave CAN for good.
But at that moment, beneath the falling snow, I had yet to receive my assignment. I could have been sent anywhere to place my body between the downtrodden and the violent forces of injustice. I tried to imagine that I could do that, that I was one of these martyrs-in-waiting, prepared to die for peace — if only we could first make peace among, and within, ourselves.
The sheriff’s deputies wrote us tickets for trespassing and thanked us for coming out. Then, like giddy teenagers who’d just committed a minor crime, we hopped into our minivans, waved goodbye to the guards, and headed back to Luck.
The names of certain people and organizations have been changed to protect privacy.
Fred Bahnson’s essay “Martyr’s Mirror” [June 2009] is lively, entertaining, and honest, but its central thesis is untenable.
Bahnson writes, of his experience as a Christian peace activist, “We were all a bunch of silly, middle-class Americans who would never understand real sacrifice.” By “real sacrifice” he must not mean death, because in 2006 Christian activist Tom Fox was tortured and executed by an Iraqi militia. That very sincere volunteer peacemaker followed Jesus even to the grave.
Bahnson apparently considers the commitment and sacrifice of Fox and other volunteers like him to be less than that of his heroes Las Abejas and Dietrich Bonhoeffer because “real” martyrs die at home resisting an evil that descends upon them rather than dying abroad resisting an evil that would otherwise have let them be. Bahnson writes, “By seeking confrontation, we had already failed the test.”
Bahnson’s outlook comfortably relieves him of any duty to resist genocide as long as it doesn’t occur in his immediate vicinity. I suspect this is not his true theology so much as a contrived justification for his dislike of the organization to which he briefly belonged. His amusing and revealing story of a nonviolence training camp that didn’t work for him would be better off with no unifying thesis than with such a self-serving, petty one. Then I might have reached my own conclusions — for example, that Christian peace activists can be naive, fallible, and ridiculous at the same time that they are perceptive, righteous, and courageous.
The “we” of whom I wrote includes only the twenty or so folks who participated in the collective silliness I described. Our training happened in 2001, five years before Tom Fox’s death. In no way do I mean to hold him or his motives up for scrutiny. Nor do I claim that real martyrs die only at home or that attempts at peacemaking abroad aren’t worthwhile. They are. It’s more a question of motives and methods.
Juhnke accuses me of not doing my duty to resist genocide, and he’s right. I confess that I am as baffled and scared and hopeless in the face of such atrocities as the next person. Most days it’s all I can do to try and live peaceably with those in my own community, and in my own home. Not that this lets me off the hook.
I admire those who are called to travel to places like Darfur and Iraq to bear witness, pray, and try to be a peaceable presence. John Dear had it right when he said that the challenge is for Christians to continue the story, by which he means being active peacemakers wherever we are. But any attempt to codify the Christian message into a one-month tactical training camp will end in reductionism and inanity.