[lecture given June 2nd at the 2012 conference of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship held in Abbotsford, British Columbia]
by Jim Forest
This talk began with a request from Alex Patico. He wrote: “At the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference, I’d like you to speak about peacemaking, not so much abstract reflections on the subject of peacemaking, but a very personal memoir of what it was to be a peacemaker — whether it was in the streets of New York City, at a draft board office in Milwaukee, or as the patriarch of a fairly large and interesting extended family. You had opinions about the Bomb, about Vietnam, about Iraq, etc. and you did not just cluck over them while holding a newspaper in one hand and your breakfast toast in the other, but tried to do your bit.”
With Alex’s letter a case in point, I’ve often been described as a peacemaker. I’ve even received a “Peacemaker Award” from the University of Notre Dame. Still more often I have been described as a “peace activist” though weeks and months go by without me participating in a protest action, carrying a peace sign, wearing a peace button or putting a peace-advocating bumper sticker on my car. (In my own defense, I must point out we have no car.)
Such labels make me uncomfortable. As Al Hassler, one of my mentors, used to say, peacemaking is an aspiration, not an achievement.
On the other hand it’s true that I’ve spent much of my life trying in various ways to prevent wars or attempting to speed their end, years trying to discredit war and strip it of its glamorous mythology, and done whatever I could to promote disarmament and nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution. I’ve been involved in a succession of peace and civil rights groups, belonged to several communities in which hospitality and protest were key elements of life, done a great deal of counseling of conscientious objectors, spent many hours on picket lines and in demonstrations, and been locked up a number of times for acts of war protest. As a consequence of one act of civil disobedience, I was once imprisoned for more than a year. I tend to call that long one my sabbatical, and in many ways it was — a year of reading, meditation and prayer. I was a guest of the State of Wisconsin in 1969-1970 as a result of being one of fourteen people who made a bonfire of thousands of draft records at a little park in downtown Milwaukee, an action meant to make it harder to force people into military service in Vietnam.
Yet protest and public advocacy is not something I’m drawn to by nature, though it may seem otherwise when one looks at some of the choices I’ve made and the trouble I have gotten into that I might easily have avoided. I dislike being part of crowds even when I agree with what they are crowding together about. I have an aversion to slogans. My vocational ambitions as a young man included being a park ranger and, later on, joining a monastic community. Instead I became a writer, which is a line of work that has a monkish side to it. And perhaps there is still a fragment of park ranger lodged within me, in that normally I start the day with a walk in the park near our home and sometimes putting trash in trash cans.
Part of my aversion to protest is probably linked to having been what used to be called “a red diaper baby.” That is to say my parents were Communists. For part of my childhood, the FBI took a great deal of interest in our family. Dad was in prison for nearly half-a-year when I was eleven. Such things leave a mark on kids. In my case, a life of political invisibility seemed to me a life worth having. It’s not that I disagreed with my parents’ beliefs and opinions, to the extent that I understood them. In fact there was a lot to agree with — opposition to racism, wanting a society in which people were not treated as Kleenex-like disposable objects, a society in which no one was left to freeze to death on the sidewalks. But their Marxist ideology never appealed to me. When I was high school student, trying to get an idea of what Marxism was all about, I did some reading but found Marxist writers mind-numbing. Also I was unable to embrace a core element of Marxism: materialism. The insistence that nothing exists which does not exist materially didn’t explain to me why beauty is so important or the mystery of having a soul or the phenomenon of love. When, about the same time in my life, I read Doctor Zhivago, it brought home to me the brutality that is an essential element in any violent revolution, Communist or otherwise.
But, to the extent I have a social conscience, its early formation is mainly thanks to my parents.
An important fact of my childhood was growing up on “the other side of the tracks” — a mainly black neighborhood in Red Bank, New Jersey. It wasn’t until I was fifteen and had moved from Red Bank to Hollywood, California, that I met my first racist, a high-school classmate. She was a blond, blue-eyed girl who until that day had seemed quite attractive to me. At the time racial integration of schools was just getting started in states like Mississippi and Alabama. In the face of racist jeers, federal marshals were escorting black children into what had been all-white schools. My classmate was on the side of those who were screaming ugly words at a few dark-skinned children whose quiet courage stunned me. I would have argued with her had I not been struck dumb by astonishment. Meeting a zombie would not have amazed me more.
Like so many kids my age at that time — the latter part of the fifties — I thought a great deal about nuclear war. Open-air nuclear tests were broadcast live. As a member of the high school debating society, I gave a talk with the title “Generation in the Shadow.” The shadow was the shape of the radioactive mushroom clouds that again and again sprouted in the Nevada desert not far from Los Angeles. Each explosion made it clear that nuclear war was a major possibility, in fact a probability, in the coming years. Who ever heard of weapons being made but not used? Anyone who gave much thought to what was going on couldn’t think of the atom bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki except as dress rehearsals for an apocalyptic future. In those days many Americans, most of them Christians, were passionately advocating a unilateral nuclear attack on Russia and China. “The only good Red is a dead Red” was a popular slogan at the time. The Cold War was at its coldest. Visions of the future were grim.
While I was concerned enough to give a talk about nuclear war, it didn’t cross my mind to join one of the peace groups that had the courage to oppose not only using nuclear weapons, but making and testing them.
It wasn’t until after high school, while in the Navy, that it occurred to me to join a protest of any kind. By that time I had graduated from the Navy Weather School and was stationed with a small meteorological unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau headquarters just outside Washington, D.C.
What pulled me across the border from unengaged bystander to anti-war protester was the invasion of Cuba by a group of Cuban refugees in April 1961 — the abortive Bay of Pigs Invasion. Within days it became public knowledge that it had been a CIA-organized operation with the U.S. military in the background. I was truly shocked. Despite my left-wing parents, I had quite a naïve and uncritical view of the U.S. government, and was especially hopeful about the national direction following Kennedy’s recent inauguration. When I read in The Washington Post that a protest vigil involving such groups as the Catholic Worker and the War Resisters League was taking place in front of a CIA building in Washington, I decided to join it after work. I had not expected to be noticed — I was in civilian clothes — but somehow I was identified and in the days that followed got into a good deal of trouble.
Behind my involvement in the vigil was the religious awakening that was going on my life. While at the Navy Weather School in 1959, I became a Christian, an event that was set in motion by what I later realized would be called a mystical experience, that is an experience of God that was too intense to ignore or explain away. For the better part of a year I explored different Christian churches. In November 1960, I formally became a Catholic, and a Catholic I remained until becoming Orthodox in 1988.
While still in the Navy, one element in my life was working part-time as a volunteer at a home for children whose parents were unable to care for them. Among my tasks was taking the kids who were Catholic to Mass on Sunday. Providentially, it happened that the nearest parish had a library. How fortunate I was! As converts often do, I was reading all I could lay my hands on and here was a paradise of books — theology, church history, lives of saints, autobiographies of saintly people, etcetera.
Among the important finds in that library were copies of an eight-page tabloid newspaper with the surprising name The Catholic Worker. I can still see that pile of Catholic Workers on a ledge by a window side-by-side with a flowering plant. I took the entire stack back to my base and found myself deeply challenged by what I found in its pages. I discovered a movement, mainly of lay people, that centered its life on the one text in the New Testament in which Jesus speaks in detail about the Last Judgment. He describes a vast resurrection at the end of history of everyone who has ever lived and asks this vast assembly just six questions: Did you feed the hungry? Give drink to the thirsty? Clothe the naked? Provide shelter to the homeless? Care for the sick? Visit the prisoner? Within each question is the same question: Did you see Christ in the least person and respond to that person’s urgent needs? Or turn your back and look the other way?
During those months I also read The Long Loneliness, the autobiography of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker. In the book she recounted her early adulthood in the same radical world my parents had been a part of, yet in her case the door had eventually opened to a radical Christianity. Perhaps it was in that book that I first encountered her observation that “those who cannot see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”
It was in large measure thanks to the Catholic Worker and Dorothy Day that I began to understand that what the Church does is transform our lives, gradually making them into channels of God’s love and mercy. It’s very simple. All the things we do in Church life are intended to make us inhabitants of the kingdom of God, a kingdom without greed, without hatred, without violence, without war, a paschal kingdom, a kingdom free of death. To gain entrance, all that’s required is the transformation of ourselves that we pray for every day of our lives: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Though I had known many people who had become socially engaged due to their political convictions, in my own case it was only as a Christian that I moved from being an observer to engagement in activities protesting war, for what human activity more opposes the works of mercy than war? Far from feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, war destroys all that is life sustaining.
The thoughts I had once had of a Navy career had by now evaporated. On the other hand, I enjoyed my work at the Weather Bureau and got on well with my Navy colleagues. The work itself was as nonviolent as military work can possibly be. If at all possible, I thought it would be best to finish out my enlistment rather than seek a special discharge. But first I had to fill out a security form in which I found I could answer every question without raising a red flag except one. The question was: “In what circumstances, if any, would you refuse to obey a superior’s orders?” I spent a sleepless night in the base chapel struggling with that sentence, trying to find a way to answer it truthfully and yet remain in the Navy until the end of my enlistment. But in fact it was only too easy to think of circumstances in which any decent person must disobey orders. The most hideous things human beings have done to other human beings were carried out by people who were simply obeying orders.
I wrote a lengthy answer to that difficult question that mainly focused on the conditions for a just war that were established Catholic doctrine. One of these is the protection of the lives of non-combatants. I could not justify to myself remaining in an institution whose fundamental purpose regarded killing and destruction as normal and even praiseworthy actions — actions in which even military meteorologists have a role to play. (I realized only after the fact that my unit at the Weather Bureau had provided the weather predictions used for the Bay of Pigs Invasion.)
One of the reasons I had been reluctant to apply for a C.O. discharge was anxiety about how my Navy colleagues would treat me once the application was filed. As it turned out, everyone in my unit remained on friendly terms except the commanding officer and one or two others. In order to better understand my views, my executive officer, Commander Mirabito, borrowed a book from me, War and Christianity Today, written by a German Dominican, Franziskus Stratmann, who had been condemned to death in Hitler’s Germany for his anti-war declarations, but managed to survive the war in hiding. After reading Stratmann’s book that same night, Commander Mirabito was so openly supportive of me that he may well have sacrificed promotion to captain for doing so. I cannot think of him without profound gratitude. It was thanks to him and many others I got to know while in the Navy that, in later years, I was never tempted to think of people in the military in demeaning terms.
I was discharged in June 1961. By then I had already become an occasional volunteer at the New York Catholic Worker. At Dorothy Day’s invitation, I moved to Manhattan and joined the staff. In many ways it was this move that set my course until now. I can even credit Dorothy for making me aware of the Orthodox Church — she brought be to the New York cathedral of the Moscow Patriarchate and also involved me in a discussion group that brought together Orthodox and Catholic Christians. While it wasn’t her intention that I would someday become Orthodox, she would sympathize.
My education in peacemaking had begun in the Navy and continued at the Catholic Worker.
One of the major lessons in that early period of my adult life was becoming aware of how readily we shape ourselves to fit into the society we happen to belong to and tend to do so unconsciously. I started to learn this important lesson as a consequence of one of the routine activities that was an element of Catholic Worker life in New York in the early sixties. Once a week several of us would go uptown to hand out leaflets critical of preparations for nuclear war. We would stand for an hour at mid-day on the four corners of a Lexington Avenue intersection in the immediate neighborhood of the office responsible for “civil defense,” the organizing center for all that New Yorkers were obliged to do in preparing for a nuclear attack. Once a year a civil defense drill was imposed on the city, stopping every car, bus and subway and requiring everyone to take shelter in basements and subway stations. The world’s busiest city briefly became, at street level, a ghost town. Dorothy Day had been arrested several times for sitting on a park bench in front of the mayor’s office instead of taking shelter, as obliged by law.
Handing out our leaflets, we were like children pointing out that the emperor was stark naked. You won’t survive nuclear war by taking shelter in the subways, our text pointed out, but if by any chance you do, you will find yourself in a world resembling hell. You will envy the dead.
It was an education attempting to connect with people hurrying along a busy city street. New York’s traffic light system being what it is, people come down the avenues in waves. I learned that the response of the first person in each group — almost always a man in a hurry — usually determined the response of everyone who happened to be following him even though they were strangers to each other. Not a word was said, not a look was exchanged — the process was automatic and unconscious. This meant that I had to do my very best to get the man in front to take the flyer. If I succeeded, at least some of those behind him were likely to follow his example. If he refused, the chances were no one in that group would accept the piece of paper I was offering. If he balled up the leaflet and threw it on the ground, some of those following him were likely to do he same. My best hope was to make eye contact with the front-runner. It requires what a nun friend of mine calls “hospitality of the face.”
Prayer was involved. If hospitality of the face is to be more than wearing a smiley mask, you need hospitality of the heart, which in turn involves a pretty intense spiritual life. It was helpful to see in Dorothy Day what a focused, disciplined spiritual life involved — in her case daily Mass, daily rosary, time each day for prayer and intercession, spiritual reading, weekly confession.
Standing at the intersection once a week, it didn’t take long to realize that we’re just as bound together as the sorts of fish that swim in schools. It’s a human tendency to shape our lives, activities, opinions and vocabularies according to what is more or less “normal” among the people we happen to be living and working with. As the Indian writer, Tagore, observed: “The best defense for a person, just like an insect, is the ability to take on the color of his surroundings.” We adjust our lives, even our understanding and practice of Christianity, to fit within the norms of the society we’re part of. Thus if I had been living in Germany in the 1930s and hadn’t well-formed convictions that put me on guard about Nazism, the chances are I would have held Hitler in high regard and perhaps even become a Nazi. Or if I were a white person living in a racist milieu, it would be remarkable if I didn’t become a racist myself. If everyone in the neighborhood puts the national flag by their front door, would I dare to isolate myself by not doing the same? Go to a windy place and you notice how the trees are shaped by the wind.
What I learned handing out leaflets was only stage one of learning about how we adapt ourselves to our social environment. What came later on was the realization that not only do I have to be aware of the tides that move within the mega-group I am born into, that is the particular nation, but I also have to be conscious of how easily one shapes oneself to be fully part of whatever subculture I’ve bonded with. If you find yourself at odds with key aspects of the larger society, it’s natural to look for a group of people with similar dissident convictions. But you will need a well-formed conscience just as much among dissidents as you need it in the surrounding society.
For example, if you regard abortion as the killing of an unborn human being and just as tragic as the killing of a defenseless person in war, unless your keep your view hidden, in much of the peace movement your view, and possibly yourself, will be unwelcome. Supporting access to abortion was, for most of the women’s movement that emerged in the seventies, a non-negotiable issue, an attitude that gradually became bedrock for anyone in a “progressive” organization. Even in a pacifist group like the Fellowship of Reconciliation, in which I was active for more than 25 years, my own attempts to initiate dialogue on the issue of abortion not only got nowhere but cost me several friendships. That failure is among the more dismal experiences of my life. There is no peacemaking without dialogue, but even social activists are not always interested in dialogue.
For me, another painful collision with many others in the peace movement had to do with the question of how to relate to Vietnam after the war’s abrupt end in 1975. Keep in mind that the peace movement, though spoken of in the singular, is in fact a patchwork quilt of groups, some religious, some secular, some with a one-issue focus, some with a wide range of concerns, some far left, some hard to label in political terms.
A large segment of the American peace movement had been so alienated from the U.S. government and what it was doing in Vietnam that a friendly bond had formed between many peace activists with revolutionaries in the south as well as with the North Vietnamese government. When evidence began to emerge after the war that the victorious Hanoi regime was just as ready to arrest the same dissidents who had been jailed by Saigon and was just as anti-religious as other Communist governments, many preferred to dismiss or ignore the evidence. Others accepted that things were as bad as the evidence indicated but argued that, given what America had done in Vietnam, no American had the right to protest.
A letter addressed to the prime minister of Vietnam that I had drafted called on Hanoi to allow the Red Cross and/or Amnesty International to visit prison camps. Eventually it was signed by more than a hundred people who had been prominent in anti-war activity. A major controversy exploded within the peace movement. Some of the non-signers accused me of being a CIA agent. I kid you not. I was told by one senior staff member of the American Friends Service Committee that what I was doing in support of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam would “cost [me] my career in the peace movement.” Having made that prophecy, he slammed down the phone.
While I was astonished by his anger, I was enlightened by what he said. Until that day I hadn’t thought of what I was doing as a career. I had thought of it as a vocation. For me “career” meant doing something in a careful way that would assure promotions and regular pay raises leading ultimately to retirement. It might be a career in an area you enjoyed, but not necessarily. “Vocation” meant, as its Latin root suggests, a calling, that is something God calls you to do, an act of obedience to God’s intentions in your life that is discerned through a well-formed conscience. A career was security-centered. Vocation often involved a leap of faith. If your work is more career than vocation-centered, before you say or do anything, you make sure you’re not putting your career at risk.
At the time, my vocation was editing the monthly journal of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I was fortunate that in fact my “career” in peace work did not go down the tubes — I spent the next twelve years heading the staff of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, the job that brought me to Holland in 1977. Then in 1988 I became Secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.
But I was and remain something of a black sheep even among black sheep. I seem to be a black sheep by vocation. Sometimes one has to be a conscientious objector even within the peace movement.
This is a talk about lessons in peace work I’ve come by, mainly the hard way. Let me briefly tell one more story that has to do with the round-about way I became an Orthodox Christian. There is not enough time to tell about it in detail — the roots go deep — but a major part of the process occurred in the early 1980s when I realized that the peace movement, in trying to get rid of nuclear missiles and other weapons of mass destruction, was focusing mainly on the weapons rather than the people at whom the weapons were aimed — mainly on doomsday and doomsday technology and not on the broken relationships of which the weapons were a symptom. Those working for disarmament at the time could describe types of ballistic missiles and the destructive capacity of particular weapons with an expertise that equaled what one might expect from a weapons expert working for the Pentagon. We could describe quite vividly the devastating environmental consequences of nuclear war, how it might trigger a “nuclear winter.” But we knew almost nothing about the Soviet Union and about the people American weapons would kill. In those days, the only people I knew in the West who were occasionally visiting the Soviet Union were Communists like my father who got the red carpet treatment. They saw happy workers in humane factories in a society in which there was no unemployment, everyone had a place to live, and health care was a human right. The KGB and the Gulag were kept behind curtains.
I recall an article by Thomas Merton that we published in The Catholic Worker in 1961. It’s title summed up the contents: “The Root of War is Fear.” If one of the root causes of war is fear, a fear that precludes significant contact with one’s enemy, one of the root causes of peace is doing all you can to know your enemy. For any Christian attempting to put into practice the love of enemies, actual contact with the supposed enemy is basic. How can you love someone you avoid meeting?
The insight that face-to-face contact with Russians was essential came to me in 1981 thanks to seeing a Russian film, “Moscow Does Not believe in Tears,” the one Soviet film ever to win an Academy Award. It was a story that centered on three totally a-political women who became best friends while sharing a room in Moscow.
It took quite some doing, but in 1983 I was in Moscow for the first time, having helped prepare a small theological conference initiated by the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. I arrived in Moscow a day or two earlier than other Western participants. That first night, too excited to sleep, I took a solo walk from my hotel to Red Square. The hour was so late that for most of the walk I was the only person in sight and there were very few cars — very different than the Moscow of 2012. Even on Red Square the only others present at that hour were two statue-like soldiers ceremonially guarding Lenin’s Tomb. The main presence on the square was the Church of Saint Basil with its circus-colored domes.
In the days that followed, what impressed me more than anything else was the intensity of spiritual life in the parishes I visited, a vitality I had not anticipated, in fact a vitality I had never experienced in churches in the West. The prayer was as solid and life-sustaining as black bread. Despite decades of repression, punishment and countless martyrdoms, this was a Church that was, like Christ, risen from the dead.
Our theological seminar in Moscow proved to be a breakthrough. In the years that followed, conferences and collaborative projects involving people from the West meeting their Soviet counterparts became more and more frequent until one could not begin to keep track of them. The East-West climate, after many arctic years, became more and more tropical.
A number of friendships with bishops and lay people took root during that first visit. On my second visit, the following year, I proposed to Metropolitan Pitirim, the bishop heading the Church’s publishing department, that I come back in order to begin work on a book. The following year, 1985, the year that Gorbachev became head of state, permission was given. When published several years later, the resulting book had the title Pilgrim to the Russian Church. As it happened, I was the first Western journalist in Soviet times to have gained such broad access to the parishes, theological schools and monasteries that were open at the time.
What I hadn’t anticipated in my efforts to open East-West doors was not only that the effort would quickly spread to a great many other groups, including major corporations, but that my own life would be changed at a very deep level.
In December 1987, while still writing Pilgrim to the Russian Church, I got a call from the rector of the Russian Orthodox parish in Amsterdam, Father Alexis Voogd. For a year or more, he and his wife had been giving me helpful advice about places to go and people to meet in Russia. Father Alexis pointed out that few people had visited so many centers of Orthodox religious life in Russia as I had, and yet neither I nor Nancy had ever attended services at the Russian Orthodox parish in Amsterdam.
Two weeks later, in January 1988, Nancy and I attended our first Orthodox Liturgy in Amsterdam. To our joy and surprise, we found that the intensity of liturgical life we had known in Russia was equally present in this small Dutch parish. (These days it’s quite a large one.) The result was that within not many months Nancy and I crossed the thin border that separates the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. It wasn’t so much that we had left the Catholic Church, slamming the door behind us. Not at all. It was simply that we found ourselves unable to miss the Liturgy at Saint Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. Clearly, if we were going to be there every Sunday, we needed to be able to receive communion there. Chrismation followed.
It was not a journey from imperfect to perfect Christianity. Of course there is much that needs urgent repair in the Catholic Church — I can understand why some people walk out. But every church, the Orthodox Church not excepted, urgently needs repair. To its credit, every member of the Catholic Church is at least vaguely aware that he or she belongs to a world church, a church which transcends national and linguistic borders. This is not something one can say about a great many Orthodox Christians for whom national adjectives — Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Cyprian, etcetera — come first.
Perhaps because it’s a world church not threatened by fractures along national or linguistic lines, in the past hundred years or so the Catholic Church has provided the world with a series of encyclicals and conciliar statements on the social implications of Christianity. In most Orthodox jurisdictions, one has to look back centuries, even to the patristic era, to find similar guidance. Even when they speak, our bishops have not been able to speak to the world with a united voice. Rather our hierarchs struggle to decide in what order to commemorate the various patriarchs while barely managing to stay in communion with each other.
To get back to my own journey, whatever the challenges are for me as an Orthodox Christian and whatever troubles me about the Church in its human dimension, it’s a blessing far more valuable than any treasure to have found my way to the Orthodox Church. And it all happened as an unexpected consequence of wanting to meet people who were regarded as the enemy and had become the targets of nuclear weapons.
The lesson? It’s very basic Christianity: Love your enemies. They might bring you closer to the Kingdom of God.
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This lecture was presented at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference in British Columbia in June 2012.
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