[draft of a lecture to be given in California in October 2008]
by Jim Forest
Having given too many sermon-like talks on peace and peacemaking, let me try something a little different. I’d like to share some stories about war and peace rooted in my particular life — my own pilgrimage of peacemaking. My purpose is not to put myself in the spotlight but to try to avoid drifting off into clouds of abstraction.
My first recollection of thinking about peace was noticing, when I was ten or eleven years old, about 1951 or ?52, the cancellation mark on one of the rare envelopes addressed to me personally. I think it contained a birthday card. Part of the cancellation mark was a three-word message: “Pray for Peace.” Roughly 57 years later, I’m trying to reconstruct why that invitation to pray for peace so arrested my attention that I still see that envelope in my hands.
No doubt one factor was my mother, a social worker employed at a nearby mental hospital. She followed the news closely and talked about it, on the assumption that kids should be aware of what’s going on in the world. As a result I was aware that something called the Cold War was going on and knew that the Cold War might very well become a hot war. Mother worried about World War III.
But even if my mother had been less informed and not so communicative, there was the fact of all the nuclear weapon tests going on in Nevada. These provided one of the great live television spectacles of the early fifties, reality TV with a vengeance. I was among the millions watching an almost featureless desert — colorless as there was no color television — and then the sudden explosion, the expanding ball of white light, then the cloud bubbling upward, rising high into the sky until the upper tier spread out in a mushroom-like shape.
One test included placing an ordinary house within a few miles of ground zero. We in the TV audience got to watch its instant demolition, wood going suddenly black and erupting with smoke before the hurricane-like blast swept it away. Yet it wasn’t intended as a doomsday program — rather a sort of “best bomb” exhibit to make Americans feel as proud of our weapons technology as of our Fords and Chevrolets.
In at least one test, Operation Bravo, hundreds if not thousands of soldiers were within miles of the explosion, an exercise to prepare the Army for battle conditions in the nuclear era. Many of those soldiers later died of cancer.
After the tests, there were interviews with generals and politicians pleased everything had gone so well. There was also the happy news that bigger and better bombs were in the works.
The Amazing Atom Bomb Show. In those days, no one seemed to be worrying about the radioactive atomic dust that was being carried wherever the winds took it, which, as any meteorologist will tell you, was more or less everywhere. Nor did anyone in those days speak of “downwind victims,” that is all the people and animals who really got fried. It’s disturbing to look at a US map that highlights where thyroid cancer was most prevalent in the fifties and sixties. Hardest-hit were Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa — the downwind states.
Yet, as the fifties began, the tests were an occasion of national pride. The big message was that the US was on top, the richest, freest, most powerful country in the world. I wasn’t immune from national pride. Though my parents were people on the left who viewed nuclear weapons with alarm, I was eager to connect with the mass culture around me rather than with my parent’s minority opinions. No doubt I was reading the times in a child’s totally non-ideological, practical way and saw how the political winds were blowing. When Eisenhower ran for president in 1952, I proudly wore an “I Like Ike” button and, once he was in the White House, sent him a snapshot of me holding a paint-by-numbers Eisenhower portrait that I had made. I was thrilled to get a thank-you letter back — the envelope once again bore the “Pray for Peace” cancellation mark — signed by Ike himself on White House stationery.
“Pray for Peace.” At that age I wasn’t praying for anything except the occasional odd prayer that went something like, “God, if you exist, could you please make yourself a little more obvious?” This may have had to do the fact that both my parents, scandalized with how house-broken and flag-adjusted Christianity had become, regarded themselves as atheists. It wasn’t a view that appealed to me, yet I couldn’t entirely shrug it off.
In 1955, when I was thirteen, Mother took my brother and me to see a major photo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was called “The Family of Man.” It was an amazing array of images. Each photo seemed a revelation of the human mystery — children, the aged, dark skinned and light, naked and clothed, joyful, in grief, praying, playing, dancing, standing still, on battlefields, in city parks, alone, in crowds, dancing, making music, making love, just out the womb, just breathing their last, in classrooms, in cemeteries. Seeing these photos was my first experience of being astonished at being a member of the human race. How pleased I was that mother gave me a book with all the exhibition’s photos. It was my first Bible. There are few books I’ve ever looked at so closely and returned to again and again. A few years ago, my original copy falling to pieces, I was relieved to find a fresh copy in a California book shop.
I could speak at length about many photos included in that exhibition, but one that burned itself into my memory was a child’s face — a boy about three years old. The caption only indicated the place it was taken and the photographer’s name: “Nagasaki, Japan. Yosuke Yamahata.”
It’s an icon-like picture, absolutely still. The boy gazes full-face toward the viewer. He stands erect. No one is holding him. What is it about his stillness? About his emotionless eyes? Only the fact that the photo was taken in Nagasaki and the child’s face has many small scratches and thin lines of dried blood gives away the event outside the image. It’s the face of a child who has survived a nuclear explosion. It is the face of a child who has witnessed a rehearsal for the end of the world. It is a photo of unspeakable desolation mirrored in a child’s eyes.
About the time I saw that photo, the pastor of the Methodist Church and his wife in the town where I lived — Red Bank, New Jersey — took in as long-term guests two young women who were survivors of the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki. American peace groups had brought them and others like them to the United States for plastic surgery and found them temporary homes in and near New York City. It wasn’t an easy kind of hospitality in the fifties, when the word “peace” was regarded by many as a synonym for “Communism” and when most people had no desire to think about, not to say see with their own eyes, what American nuclear bombs had done to actual people. In fact, I could only guess at the results myself, as each of the women wore a broad-brimmed hat from which was draped a veil of silk. They could see out but we couldn’t see in.
My mother, who wasn’t a full-time atheist, sometimes took us to services at the Methodist Church. We never missed Easter and Christmas. As a result I saw these two very poised, meek women sitting side-by-side in a pew near the front of the church, their faces hidden behind their silk veils. I couldn’t stop staring. They were a bridge into a nightmarish event on the other side of the world that happened when I was four. Along with the Nagasaki photo I had seen in New York, these two women helped me understand the human cost of war, the effect of nuclear weapons, and the fact that the victims of war are mainly the innocent. The designers of empire, the engineers of war and its generals usually have the privilege of dying of old-age. Some, like Napoleon, are buried in tombs that are architectural celebrations of national honor.
I began to understand that to pray for peace is to pray that such events will not happen again. But is prayer really prayer if it isn’t connected to how we live and the choices we make? Perhaps by then I was old enough to be aware that, while many people said “amen” to prayers for peace, actually to work for peace was extremely controversial. Just to open one’s door to two bomb-damaged women, as the Squire family had done, was a brave action at the time.
That wasn’t all I gained from the witness of the Squire family. Thanks to them, I began to understand that following Christ was not, as it had seemed to me in the past, for the faint-hearted. While in many cases the church in one’s neighborhood might be an association of people dedicated to respectability, there were Christians who actually did adventurous things, actions that revealed the Gospel, a major theme of which is hospitality: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was a stranger and you took me in…”
While I wasn’t drawn to Methodism as such — interest in sermons has never been my strong point — what I saw in that particular Methodist church was certainly a factor in my taking Christianity more seriously. This was true for my mother as well. Not many years later — just after reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography, as it happened — she was fully cured of her atheism and returned to the Methodist Church, becoming one of its pillars in Red Bank. For the rest of her life, she missed services only when she was sick.
Given such events in my childhood, it’s not surprising that concerns about war and peace played a major part in my thoughts as I was growing up.
When I was fourteen, I took part in the regional Science Fair, but what I brought to the exhibition had less to do with science than anxiety. Using plywood, cardboard, plaster, raw bleached cotton and ink spray, I built a foot-high model of a nuclear explosion about 30 seconds after detonation — a fiery mushroom cloud rising vertically from a plywood base on which, using a thin later of plaster, I had painted the destruction at ground level. Attached to all this was a carefully-lettered text explaining what I had learned about how nuclear weapons were made (very little) and what they did (about which I was better informed). My exhibit failed to win a prize, but it was a worthwhile experience building the model and writing the text. The finished work attracted a gratifying amount of attention when it was shown.
Two years passed. I was now living in southern California with my father, step-mother and half-sister and was a student at Hollywood High School.
A good part of my reading in my mid-teens was science fiction. Many books in that genre had to do with what the world might be like for the survivors of nuclear war. It was in some respects grim reading, but such apocalyptic books were thought-provoking. The authors took seriously where the human race was headed. It was a kind of prophetic literature whose authors were trying to bring us to our senses.
Meanwhile I had joined Hollywood High School’s debating society and as a consequence was required to deliver a lecture. The idea of standing up in front of other students plus several teachers to make a speech was daunting.
I ended up writing a lecture with the title, “A Generation in the Shadow,” the shadow being the darkness under a mushroom cloud in which kids my age were standing. I wish I still had the text — it would be interesting to read it again. It might be better than the talk I’m giving today. I’m guessing the main theme was the problem of living in a world in which it wasn’t at all obvious that any of us would die of old age. It seemed unlikely that anyone in my generation would live to be 30.
Such an expectation has consequences. Who wants to paint a house that will be burned down tomorrow? But perhaps by then I had already heard those helpful words of Martin Luther’s: “Even if I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would go out an plant apple trees today.” This was a sentence that would have been a good ending, and indeed would have reflected my view that today is the only day available to us and offers the only opportunity we have to shape what happens next.
In 1957, the Beat Generation was suddenly in the press — a generation that had abandoned the social conveyor belt. I found the Beats fascinating. I managed to buy a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, at that time banned in California, from a newsstand in west Hollywood that did a brisk business in under-the-counter items. Poetry was not its usual trade, but Howl was at the time a hot item. There’s nothing like a book being banned to perk up reader interest! If certainly perked up mine.
In a world daily preparing the means and strategies of destroying itself, Ginsberg was a writer whose howl I could identify with. In fact, as my wife pointed out to me recently while reading Howl, one line was almost prophetic in my case. It’s about a guy “who coughed on the sixth floor of Harlem crowned with flame under the tubercular sky surrounded by orange crates of theology.” While I have yet to be crowned with flame, I was part of a house of hospitality in Harlem, have done my share of coughing, and have had many orange crates of theology.
I look back on that part of my life and am a bit astonished how well I did living under the nuclear shadow, given my sense that World War III was practically inevitable and that few would survive. Russia and the US were frequently testing nuclear weapons and France and Britain had also joined “the nuclear club.”
This was part of the background for my making some unusual choices.
During the Christmas holiday in 1958, soon after my 17th birthday, I dropped out of high school.
Five months later, the spring of 1959, still trying to find out what came next and influenced by posters that read “Join the Navy and See the World,” I joined the Navy. It was not exactly a Beat choice, but the idea of going to sea made me think of books like Moby Dick. After basic training, I was sent to the Navy Weather School for training as a meteorologist. From there, having graduated first in my class, I was sent not to sea, as I had hoped, but to Washington, D.C., where I became part of a small Navy unit at the headquarters of the U.S. Weather Bureau.
Even in the weaponless Weather Bureau, it was not all isobars. World War III proved not to be so far away. In our Navy unit, one of our daily exercises was to plot the fallout pattern at 12-hour intervals for the coming three days should a 20-megaton nuclear weapon explode at noon today over the center of Washington.
But something else was now going on in my life. It had started while I was studying meteorology. It would require a separate talk for me to explain how it came about, so let me instead cut to the headline. I became a Christian. While it was not easy discovering where exactly I fit on the Christian map, a year later, in November 1960, I was received into the Catholic Church.
Being a Christian put everything I had been thinking about in a new light. The subject was no longer only war. It was also peace. Fear, though not banished, was no longer at the center of my life.
One of the big events in 1960 was the finding Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, for sale in a rack of paperback books at my parish church, St. Thomas Apostle. I read it in a day or two.
During time off from work at the Weather Bureau, for several months I spent many hours helping out at a home for children whose parents, for one reason or another, were not able to take care of them. Among my tasks was taking the Catholic kids to Mass on Sunday. The nearest parish was Blessed Sacrament. One of its attractions was the fact that it had, on the ground floor of a house next door, a substantial library. And what library it was! I used it intensively.
Among its many treasures was a stack of back issues of the paper Dorothy Day edited, The Catholic Worker, an eight-page tabloid. I didn’t bother taking one or two at a time — a took the whole pile back to my Navy base on the Potomac and read each issue cover to cover.
Reading the paper made me want to visit the New York Catholic Worker. On my next free weekend, instead of helping out at the home for children, I hitchhiked to Manhattan, sleeping at night on the floor of one of the Catholic Worker apartments while helping out during the day with the soup kitchen. Other visits followed.
Being at the house on Chrystie Street, the Catholic Worker’s New York base in the early sixties, was roughly equivalent to riding the rails as a Jack-London-ish tramp in Depression days. Here was a collection of wild souls, a far from homogeneous bunch, who managed to feed and clothe — and in some cases house — a good many street people who had few allies. The community of volunteers itself lived a kind of anarchic monastic life, sustained up by the Liturgy, daily prayer, the rosary, and a shared intellectual life. It was an extraordinary place to be.
All the while I was reading the Gospel as if it were a long letter written to me personally, plus quite a few books from the Blessed Sacrament parish library. In the background of my reading was the pressing question, “What should I do with the rest of my life?”
At the very beginning of my conversion, the Gospel sentence that had astonished me most and continued to haunt me was, “If you would be perfect, go sell what you have and give it to the poor and come follow me.” I wasn’t quite sure what this might mean in my own life, but it didn’t strike me as an invitation to a military career and the things that the armed forces exist to do. If you were following Jesus, even if you were deaf to what he had to say about love of enemies, wouldn’t the fact that he had killed no one and had nothing to do with war suggest that his followers should kill no one and have nothing to do with war?
The Gospel text that Dorothy Day referred to again and again had to do with the works of mercy and ended with the sentence, “What you did the least person you did to me.” What one would not want to do to Jesus, and therefore not to the least person, was let allow him to starve to death, die of thirst, live in rags, freeze on the streets, be sick and uncared for, or be in prison without visitors.
This took me to another level of understanding peacemaking. Peacemaking was anything you do to protect human life, no matter how young or old, no matter how sane or insane, no matter how attractive or ugly, no matter how clean or unclean.
Within half a year of reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography, and after getting into a good deal of trouble for taking part in a vigil protesting the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, the Navy granted me an early discharge as a conscientious objector. I immediately became part of the Catholic Worker community in Manhattan.
Becoming part of the Catholic Worker gradually changed my understanding of peacemaking, in large measure thanks to Dorothy Day and the example she gave.
There was first of all her amazingly disciplined spiritual life — daily Mass, frequent use of the rosary, pausing to pray monastic offices during the day, weekly confession.
I was also struck by Dorothy’s wide-ranging interests, not least opera, which she listened to on the radio on Sundays whenever possible — definitely not a good time to knock on her door.
She also had a gift for giving significant responsibilities to quite young people such as myself. Not only did Dorothy eventually appoint me as managing editor of The Catholic Worker, but she also involved me in some of her own activities.
One day she took me with her when she was visiting a priest from Moscow who was serving at the Russian Orthodox cathedral in uptown Manhattan. Along the same lines, on at least one occasion she brought me to an eastern-rite Slavonic liturgy in a small, candle-heated chapel not far from the Catholic Worker. One evening she brought me with her to a meeting of a small group she belonged to called the Third Hour, a discussion group that brought together Catholic and Orthodox Christians plus one Anglican, the poet W.H. Auden.
Such activities not only made me aware that Christianity is divided along east-west lines but also widened my understanding of peacemaking. Some of the roots of war are religious. The Great Schism not only split the Church but multiplied the flash points for war. Thus one important area of peace work is to do all one can to end the Schism, now nearly a thousand years old.
Dorothy loved books. One of the hardest things about living in community, she once told me, was that so many of her books disappeared. But her most valued books, even if no longer in her small library, never disappeared from her memory. She could recite long patches of Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. It was a book that Dorothy regarded as a kind of fifth Gospel. She very much wanted me to read it but it was only during a year in prison that I at last read it from start to finish for the first time.
Beauty was a important word for Dorothy. In the days when she was becoming Catholic while living with her common-law husband Foster Battersham, a passionate atheist, she would say to him, “How can there be no God when there is all this beauty?” I don’t think anyone could be close to Dorothy for any length of time without becoming better equipped to see beauty even in unbeautiful places. Once beauty is recognized, it becomes a sacred duty to protect it — one of the most important motives of peacemaking.
Dorothy shared her friends. One of the other extraordinary things Dorothy did was to involve me in her friendship with Thomas Merton, with whom she corresponded. One day in the late summer of 1961, she gave me a manuscript he had sent to her for possible publication in The Catholic Worker and asked me to get it ready for publication. It must have had something to do with her awareness that I liked Merton’s books. Thus I became involved in publishing Merton’s first Catholic Worker essay and also, again thanks to Dorothy’s suggestion, in writing to him. It was the beginning of a correspondence that lasted until Merton’s death seven years later. How many editors would turn over to a very junior assistant a manuscript from one of the most renowned writers of the time? Just one, in my experience.
Merton’s essay had the title “The Root of War is Fear.” It was an expanded version of a chapter for a book he was then working on, New Seeds of Contemplation. What he had to say in those six or eight pages had great impact on my understanding of peacemaking. From then on I became increasingly aware of the many ways we are shaped, or rather deformed, by fear. I became more conscious of how so many of our choices, even the work we choose to do and how we live, are driven by fear. War itself is driven by fear.
I sent Merton’s essay to my father, who earlier in his life had been Catholic and had even considered becoming a priest. He was genuinely appreciative, amazed that a Catholic of Merton’s stature was writing for The Catholic Worker and was tackling the hot issue of preventing war. Nonetheless he had to disagree with Merton’s main thesis. “The root of war,” Dad wrote me, “is bad economics.” Much to my surprise, several years later I had a letter from my father in which he said he was still thinking about Merton’s essay and wanted me to know he had concluded “that the root of bad economics is fear.”
Part of the weekly rhythm of life at the New York Catholic Worker when I was there was going uptown once a week to the headquarters of the Civil Defense Agency on Madison Avenue. Here we stood on the four corners of the nearest intersection handing out copies of a leaflet. I can’t recall the leaflet’s text in detail, but no doubt it pointed out that going into cellars and fallout shelters, or hiding under desks, would not save you in the event of nuclear war. Even should you exit your shelter alive, the world we would be returning to would not be hospitable to the human presence. Probably it also argued that our best protection was in dialogue with adversaries rather than in preparations for a nuclear holocaust.
It was something of a miracle to find any takers for the sheet. The big discovery I made in my attempts to pass it out was that, given the fact that the red light system created waves of people instead of a steady flow, should I succeed in getting the leaflet into the hands of the first person in a group coming my way, my chance of getting others who were following to take it were hugely improved. Though few if any people following the leader knew each other — all they had in common was the fact that they were pedestrians going from one place to another in Manhattan — they tended to imitate the response of the person up front. I actually prayed for the person in front — invariably a man in a hurry — to notice my friendly face and take my very important leaflet.
It was a useful lesson for any would-be peacemaker. All of us are constantly taking cues from one another. Not many people are inclined to solitary gestures. Like many varieties of fish, we prefer to swim in schools. The result is that we are easily influenced by the society in which we happen to live, not only by nationalism, in the sense of unswerving devotion to nation, but also by the ideologies the nation promotes at a given time. Had I been a German in the Hitler years, I would have been under immense social pressure to greet my neighbor with a raised right hand and the words, “Heil Hitler!” Had I been a Russian in the Lenin and Stalin years, I might have succumbed to atheist propaganda and been someone destroying icons rather than kissing them. Had I been a white South African in the apartheid years, going along with apartheid would have been much easier than opposing it. Had I been born in a slave-owning society and been among those benefiting from such cheap labor, the arguments (some of them biblical) in favor of slavery might have seemed convincing.
Peacemaking, then, involves becoming more aware of the myriad ways manipulation occurs and finding ways to help ourselves and others not be so easily manipulated.
Having said so much about the first twenty years of my life, and wanting to have time for dialogue before we go our various ways, let me summarize what has happened to me in the years since being part of the New York Catholic Worker, then focus on one item that seems to me to have been especially significant. This requires skipping over my activities during the Vietnam War, several stays in prison for acts of civil disobedience, and much else that I wish we had time for.
My work after leaving the Catholic Worker has been a mixture of journalism, writing books and essays, occasional teaching at colleges and seminaries, and being on the staff of several peace organizations — the Catholic Peace Fellowship, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and, most recently, after joining the Orthodox Church in 1988, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.
My final story has to do with what was perhaps the most important aspect of my work with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.
It was work with the IFOR that brought me from the US to Holland in 1977, and, life being full of unplanned events, it’s Holland that has been my home ever since. For twelve years, from 1977 until 1988, I was General Secretary of IFOR.
In 1982, I was back in the US for a speaking trip. One of the stops was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, an area of the US where there were — perhaps still are — many underground silos housing nuclear-armed missiles kept in constant readiness for launching. Also nearby was the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, whose nuclear-armed B52s were in the air 24 hours a day.
On the stage with me in Sioux Falls was an interesting array of speakers, including a retired Marine Corps general and a rancher whose vast property was adjacent to the main runway of the Strategic Air Command. The well-attended event we were part of had been organized by the Nuclear Freeze movement. For the speakers present, our common cause was advocacy of freezing the development, manufacture and testing of nuclear weapons — an idea that came to win immense popular support that cut across political and ideological lines. For a time it was a proposal that seemed to have a real chance of becoming an area of agreement for the US and the USSR. But the following year, 1983, when Soviet jet fighters shot down a 747 passenger plane that had strayed over the Kamchatka Peninsula, not only did that airplane go down but the idea of a nuclear freeze with it. The temperature of the Cold War plunged.
One of my subsequent stops on that same 1982 trip was in Massachusetts where I had a lecture to give at the Harvard Divinity School. I was staying with my friend Robert Ellsberg, now editor-in-chief of Orbis Books, but at that time studying at Harvard. One evening Robert invited me out for a film. The one we happened to choose was “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears,” winner of the Academy Award for best foreign film. It’s a story set in the Brezhnev years that follows the friendship of three quite different women who originally meet by chance, having been assigned to the same room in a Moscow residence for women. It’s a great film — see it if ever you have the chance. My wife and I have it on DVD and still watch it from time to time.
What was so important to me at the time about this non-political film was the window it opened on ordinary Russian life. Walking out of the theater with Robert, I realized I had spent a large part of my life trying to prevent war between the US and the Soviet Union but had never been to Russia. The awful truth was that I knew more about American weapons than about the people at whom they were aimed — and that the same was true of everyone I knew who was involved in peace work. It was a shocking realization.
I wondered how we could regard what we were doing as peace work if it mainly had to do with informing people what nuclear war would do to the planet we live on? If Merton’s insight about fear being the root of war was true, would it not be better if we who sought peace in the world focused on building bridges rather than trying to prevent war by selling a nightmare? After all, the weapons and missiles we knew so much about were symptoms of fear.
That night at the movies in Cambridge was a major turning point for me. The following years of my life mainly had to do with trying to open east-west doors, doors that had long been locked on both sides. On the Russian side, there was a lot of worry about letting in people whom they knew opposed Russia’s war in Afghanistan, then in the middle of its decade-long run, and who were critical of the Soviet political system. No doubt they worried that we would demonstrate on Red Square.
It took more than a year of hard work to arrange a small conference (the theme was liberation theology) organized by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was probably the first such event in Russia since the Bolshevik overthrow of the Russian government in 1917– an event that was religious rather than political in content, and whose agenda came from the west. All things considered, it was quite an achievement.
But its greatest value was not the conference itself but opening a door that afterward opened much more easily. Our initiative helped make east-west work a priority for others, and not only peace groups. Many organizations, academic bodies and businesses began to develop their own contacts and arrange their own events and programs in Soviet Russia. What happened in the decade that followed helped create a climate for greatly improved relations between the US and Russia, which in turn led to still more face-to-face contact. Thousands of people from the US and its western allies began to visit Russia for business, cultural and purely touristic reasons, and more and more Russians came to the west. Eventually there were inter-governmental breakthroughs that resulted in treaties that significantly reduced the number of nuclear weapons and missiles.
In 1988, while at work on a book about dramatic changes in Russian religious life in the Gorbachev period, I visited the city of Ulan Ude in the far east of Russia. I stayed in a guest house in the city center which at the time was the residence of an American couple and their children. The guest house, they told me, had been built in the thirties in the off chance that Stalin might come to visit Ulan Ude. Were that dreaded event to happen, this would have been his little palace for a few days. But Stalin never came.
The couple were both members of the staff of the US embassy in Moscow. They had been sent to this remote part of the country for an extended period in order to witness firsthand the destruction of Russian missiles and nuclear weapons under the terms of the US-Soviet treaty.
I thought back to my childhood — the blasts in Nevada I had witnessed on live television, the model of a nuclear explosion I had built, the high school lecture I had given about a generation living in the nuclear shadow, the years of my life I had spent doing all I could to prevent nuclear war, various programs I had been part of introduce Americans and Russians to each other, and here were two Americans whose job it was, on behalf of the US administration, to watch Soviet missiles and nuclear weapons being scrapped, while their Russian counterparts were in US on a parallel mission.
I had no illusions that the danger of nuclear war was over — many hundreds of nuclear bombs and an array of weapons of mass destruction remain intact in both countries, not to mention in all those countries which followed the US-Soviet example in developing their own nuclear weapons.
Yet it was something of a miracle to see that, partly thanks to the peace work of many people who had no governmental role, such a major breakthrough had occurred, and therefore could occur again.
One way of describing what happened in the eighties and nineties is to note that a lot of people learned to love their enemies — love in the biblical sense of caring about them and regarding their lives as worth preserving. Remarkably, the friendships that were formed were a factor in bring about a world that was, for a time, much safer than the world I grew up in.
Love of enemies is supposed to be one of the Christ’s all but impossible teachings, but it turns out to be quite possible. But before love of enemies can occur, it’s necessary to meet that enemy. It’s not only a work to be carried out by diplomats but by ordinary people.
Right now we’re back in a more familiar situation, lost in a labyrinth of enmity just about as bad as we faced during the Cold War, and now it involves not only the Russians, once again, but all the countries who are part of what the current administration has labeled “the empire of evil.”
Time’s up. The monologue is over. Time for conversation…
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text as of September 23, 2008
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