Part of my work from 1977 to 1988, the years I was General Secretary of the the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, was to go on annual speaking trips in the US. In 1982, one of my stops was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I had a lecture to give at the Harvard Divinity School. I was staying with my friend Robert Ellsberg, now publisher of Orbis Books, but at that time studying at Harvard. One evening Robert invited me out for a film. The one we choose was from the USSR, “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears.” Normally, even in an academic town like Cambridge, one rarely had the chance to see a Soviet movie, but this one had recently won the Oscar for best foreign film.
It was a film about economic and social classes in the allegedly “classless” society. Centering on three women who arrive in Moscow in 1960, the Brezhnev period, the film follows their struggles to build careers and families. Despite differences in temperament and ambition, they create an enduring three-way friendship. Mid-way the film jumps to the forward in time so that we see what has happened in their lives after the passage of fifteen years. The last half of the film is mainly a love story.
The stories told were comic, tragic, convincing and socially revealing. The result was that Muscovites became, for me, three-dimensional, not just cardboard figures living in the grey world of Communism.
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, 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 — like so many people in the peace movement at the time — I knew more about American weapons of mass destruction than about the people at whom they were aimed — and the same was true for Russians. 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 the apocalyptic consequences of nuclear war? 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 changing relationships with those we regard as enemies 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 turning point for me. The years of my life that followed 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, and much followed from it.
This is the first piece I wrote about Merton. It was done on the 11th of December 1968, the day after his death and published in Commonweal in the issue dated 10 January 1969.
By James H. Forest
“Please say he changed people’s lives. That’s why he was important. No one changed my life more than he did.” Such is my wife’s appeal as this recollection of Thomas Merton is begun.
She has lit incense from Lebanon, myrrh and frankincense. The room is full of smoke and silence. I realize Merton would be happy here. A splinter of Robert Bly poetry floats to the surface of consciousness: “A man throws back his head, gasps/And dies. His ankles twitch, his hands open and close,/And the fragment of time that he has eaten is exhaled from his pale mouth to nourish the snow.”
Thomas Merton is dead.
“He changed people’s lives.” Which is to say many heads, many lives were turned inside out; he brought together politics and the spiritual life; he helped give resistance a contemplative dimension. In part it was because he never interrupted the cycle of birth and death within himself, never became petrified, never was afraid to make it known that another Thomas Merton had perished. The Thomas Merton that wrote The Seven Storey Mountain died at least two decades before the Thomas Merton who became the world’s most political hermit died among Buddhists in Asia.
I first became aware of Thomas Merton on a blizzardy night a few days before Christmas in 1959. I had just turned 18, a Navy airman, and was in the unexpected midst of becoming a Marxist’s Christian son. A two-week leave had made it possible to spend Christmas with the Anglican monks at Holy Cross Monastery at West Park, New York, upstate along the Hudson. But to catch the bus, several hours had to be endured in the neon pall of Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. In a paperback rack I came upon Seven Storey Mountain.
I pictured Merton — no picture of him had yet been published, he was the contemporary equivalent of the man in the iron mask–as a lean, fast-weathered human scare-crow, something like St. Bernard in the desert and probably almost as irritable. But his writings — not only in the autobiography but in Seeds of Contemplation, The Waters of Siloe, No Man is an Island — were vivid and compelling, products of something more than a theologically-attuned cerebral cortex. “Everything that is, is holy” seemed more than an approved, homogenized thought, but an almost Zorba-like celebration of having millions of nerves — to see, hear, taste, smell, touch — reaching outward for communion; and he found a poet’s ways of giving it verbal flesh.
A bit more than two years later, in February 1962, then an editor of The Catholic Worker, four of us on the Chrystie Street staff got up at sunrise, bought several loaves of fresh, still-hot Italian bread from a Spring Street bakery and started hitch-hiking to Gethsemani. Thomas Merton had been carrying on a warm correspondence with Dorothy Day and the Worker staff and had recently begun submitting articles on war and peace for CW publication. Now he had invited us down for a kind of informal retreat.
Discovering no one would stop for four people, we broke our group in half: Nelson Barr (later to found the New York Psychedelicatessen) and Polish artist Alex Marcin in one contingent and American-Polish poet
Robert Kachnowski and I in the other. Although the weather was bitter, Christmas was sufficiently remote from memory for most drivers to comfortably ignore two long-haired, peace-buttoned vagrants. Countless open-armed dashboard Jesus statues sailed by. After three sleepless days we finally made it to Cleveland, scraped together just enough for a bus to Bardstown, Kentucky, and were there picked up by a monk who brought us to the monastery. Bob collapsed in a guest room while I went to the chapel.
I had been in the church loft five minutes or so when I heard, coming from the adjacent guest house despite distance and heavy doors, such gales of explosive laughter as I had never heard before. It was a kind of mon- soon. Rushing toward the hilarity, I threw open Bob’s door. On the floor was a bald monk in white and black robes, feet in the air, hands pressed to his belly–not a skinny monk–and face radish-red, almost suffocating from laughter. The smell! Bob had taken off his shoes. During our three days and nights of ride begging there had been no rest or showers or change of socks. The room was like the inside of a fish barrel at the Fulton Fish Market in the middle of July, the air like month-old hot fish syrup. Merton had probably not smelled anything like it in his life. But for such a smell to erupt in cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness Gethsemani — a kind of negative miracle. The Catholic Worker had arrived. Perhaps it was an apocalyptic sign.
How to tell the effects of those weeks at Gethsemani?
We had come from the Bowery. Our clothes were gifts from the dead. In New York the peace movement, including almost all of the Catholic Worker’s staff, had just gotten through the exhausting, round-the-clock week of the First General Strike for Peace, carried out under the intense direction of the Living Theater’s Julian Beck and Judith Malina. People were working day and night in an atmosphere of crisis and chaos. The Russians had resumed the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and we expected (correctly) the United States shortly to announce similar intentions. Vietnam, though as yet hardly known to anyone in America, was already the scene of a major U.S. confrontation with a revolutionary movement. In a climate of such urgency and exhaustion, it is not surprising that we at the Catholic Worker were showing signs of strain: staff crises developed from such world-shaking issues as what to do with the small amounts of real butter and eggs that were occasionally given us by convents and friends; the Great Butter Crisis, it was later called.
Then to be at a Trappist monastery in a remote part of Kentucky with Thomas Merton, a man who, despite distances and solitude, was more conscious of the agonies being decreed for man than were we in the midst of destitution and institutionalized brutality. And yet a man who could laugh as none we had ever encountered, and who spent days and weeks in silence broken only by occasion- al bursts of typing and lectures to the novitiate.
We crunched through the snow with him, tried on his hooded choir robe (heavy as chain mail) and, with his novices chopped trees and cut firewood in the surrounding woods. We learned the hand signs for bread, God and potato, saw one novice demonstrate a current popular song put to sign language, sampled the community-made cheeses (not eaten by the monks themselves), sat in with the novices for Merton’s lectures, spent afternoons in his cinder-block hermitage a mile distant in the woods.
What did he say to us? I don’t remember the exact words. But there are fragments still preserved, and certain images he drew upon in making points.
He spoke of the problem of consciousness: how incidental, accidental and minor is the ‘I’ we generally speak of, how distant that “I” from real essence. What I call myself, he said, is like the debris of fallen leaves and twigs and algae that happen to gather on the surface of a lake, a lake which is perhaps not only deep but bottomless.
He spoke of the Eucharist as a breaking open of time itself, something in which all bread is joined to man not as repeated magic trick but as a singular event forever, indelibly enacted.
He talked of the need for silence and the uncluttering of the mind, even more important for us than for monks: the imperative to protect the spirit from ambushes of busy-ness and schedules. “Inside of yourselves you shouldn’t be running all the time,” he said, knowing well the kind of momentum which had been within us.
For those of us in the peace and justice struggle who have fallen, one way or another, under Merton’s influence, it is in the last area that his impact has been most profound, and again his relationship with the Catholic Worker staff is an example. Before we came down he had tried to get it through to us with letters. In a special delivery letter received while we were among 50 sitting in before the Atomic Energy Commission’s New York office, Merton had written: “My Mass of February 1st … will be for all strikers everywhere in the world and for all who yearn for a true peace, all who are willing to shoulder the great burden of patiently working, praying and sacrificing themselves for peace. We will never see the results in our time, even if we manage to get through the next five years without being incinerated. Really we have to pray for a total and profound change in the mentality of the whole world. What we have known in the past of Christian penance is not a deep enough concept if it does not comprehend the special problems and dangers of the present age. Hairshirts will not do the trick, but there is no harm in mortifying the flesh. But vastly more important is the complete change of heart and the totally new outlook on the world of man … ”
Merton’s message was one of freedom, freedom from cultures and mind-styles that have been driven mad with acceleration (he would have been happy to wear a Speed Kills button), freedom to see and hear without self-imposed biases. He hoped for de-nationalization of the head. Those who have providentially been stirred to be- come the leaven of change, he said, those who seek to renew human imagination, those who try to use their lives to give meaning to communion and community, love, hope and happiness, they most of all must have entered into a peace, a now-ness, in which moments, men and events can be savored.
Now Merton is dead.
His face was like Picasso’s.
In the winter he wore a Navy-type stocking cap.
In his hermitage there is probably still some of the candy and beer he used to keep for visitors, and his ancient patchwork quilt is probably still on his bed and his 1957 Sengai calendar from Japan surely still hanging on the wall.
In his files somewhere are letters from Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, John Howard Griffin, D. T. Suzuki, Henry Miller, W. H. Ferry, James Baldwin, Hasidic rabbis, poets, musicians, conscientious objectors, resistors, mystics.
His friend the black snake is probably still in the outhouse.
He leaves behind, not children, but perhaps a few more peaceful people, a lot less parochial people, quite a few who learned from a monk and hermit what it means to be alive and in the world in time of plague.
[This interview was done in Galilee in June 1980 and published in the October 1980 issue of Sojourners magazine]
You won’t find it on the map of Israel unless the map is a remarkably good one, but if you draw a line between Haifa and the western bulge of the sea of Galilee, Ibillin is a quarter of the way from Haifa. This village of 5,500 Palestinians is atop a mound that, were you to dig through it layer by layer, would tell the story of life and faith in this contested land back to very ancient times. But the face of the past is largely buried, apart from a bit of a Crusader castle wall that was unearthed a few years ago when the villagers were building a community center.
Yet there are living monuments: the olive trees with their silvery gray-green leaves and gnarled, cratered trunks. Some on the hillside just south of Ibillin are more than 2,000 years old. It may be that Jesus, his family, and disciples ate olives from these ancient trees that, well-tended across the centuries, are still producing fruit.
Ibillin is a Christian and Moslem town. Two thousand of the villagers are Moslem, 3,000 Greek Orthodox, and 500 Melkite (Roman Catholics of the Eastern liturgical rite). The Melkite priest, a man well known throughout Galilee, is Fr. Elias Chacour. He is a gray-robed man in his middle years with a thick, jutting black beard, piercing gray eyes, and a contagious energy.
Chacour doesn’t fit either Christian or Palestinian stereotypes. A Palestinian who well understands the anger that occasionally leads to violence on the part of the Palestinian minority in Israel, an anger he shares, Chacour is a pacifist. Again and again he draws attention to a talk given some centuries ago on a hillside not far from Ibillin–the Sermon on the Mount.
A Catholic priest of tremendous dedication, Chacour is impatient with Christians’ preoccupation with their differences and their shrines–“holy stones and holy sands,” he says with impatience. His attention is entirely with living people. To the occasional bewilderment of his fellow Christians, including members of the hierarchy, Chacour has devoted himself to founding community centers, libraries, and kindergartens, in addition to his parish responsibilities. He organizes summer camps for Palestinian villagers in Galilee which are used by everyone–Moslem, Druze, Catholic, and Orthodox. He is raising funds now for Israel’s first peace center.–Jim Forest
Jim Forest: When did you first encounter the Israeli government?
Fr. Elias Chacour: I think I was six years old. My father told us–we were six children–that in a country called Germany there had been “a cruel Satan killing Jews.” Of course, we knew little about faraway places. We Palestinians had come out from under the slavery of the Turks, and then the British Mandate, ignoring almost everything else in the world. But nobody could ignore Germany, even if that nation was at the end of the earth.
Father said there were Jewish soldiers who had escaped from Germany and that they would be coming to our village, Ba’ram, in the north of Galilee. He said some of them wanted to settle near us. As Christians, he said, we must welcome them, help them, and give them food and drink.
When the soldiers came, he told us they would need to sleep in our beds, and he asked us to sleep on the roof. And we children gladly accepted this–it was fun to sleep on the roof! We thought of the soldiers as our guests. For the first time in my life I saw father slaughtering a sheep to prepare a feast. It was like this throughout the village, and the soldiers stayed in every house. It was the consensus to accept them.
But a few days later, the keys to the doors were collected by an officer. For security reasons, he said, we must all leave for a few days. He would be guardian for our village. Then we could come back.
We accepted this. People like my father never thought our guests could play an ugly game with us. So we left and for several days lived in the open, under olive trees. I remember it was very, very cold at night. Then my father managed to find us a cave. After that we went to an abandoned village, where our whole family lived in one room of a deserted house.
What was to be a few days became weeks and then months and now it is thirty years.
Forest: And now Ba’ram is only ruins. How was it destroyed?
Chacour: When the elders realized the Israeli army had fooled us, when we saw that all our furniture had been taken away and that we were expelled–such a reward from our guests!–we applied to the Israeli Supreme Court of Justice in Jerusalem, and at last we won the case.
But when we asked the army to implement the court’s order, the soldiers refused. Their own court! We applied to the court a second time, and in 1951 we won again.
When this happened, the Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, ordered the destruction of the village. On Christmas morning it was bombed, and then bulldozers swept away what was left.
Forest: When those in your family realized they could not soon return home, where did you go?
Chacour: To Gish, also in the north of Galilee. My parents are still there and many others of Ba’ram. From there I was sent to a boarding school in Haifa.
Forest: And your education after that?
Chacour: Then a secondary school in Nazareth. Later my archbishop sent me for studies in Paris: philosophy and theology in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. In 1965, I was ordained in Nazareth. Afterward I went to Jerusalem and studied Bible and the Talmud at the Hebrew University. Finally, I went to Geneva, where I spent a year with the World Council of Churches completing a doctorate in ecumenical studies.
Forest: Have you had other childhood experiences which have shaped your understanding of belonging to a minority?
Chacour: There is one event I can never forget. I was perhaps ten or twelve at the time. There was a telephone wire running on the ground in Gish. One morning it had been cut, and a section of it was missing. Soldiers came and accused some of the children, including myself.
They took us, and then gathered our parents and grandparents, our entire families. Then they said horrible things: “You are worth nothing, your children are worth nothing, you are doing underground work, your children are thieves and you are the teachers of theft….” Words like these.
Then, before our elders, the soldiers beat us with sticks. Our parents did not dare interfere. At the end, a soldier said to me, “Now bring that piece of wire to me.” I went to my father and asked, “Father, where should I go?” Then the soldier thought my father must have the wire, so he began to curse and accuse him.
But to whom could I go and ask this question? I was innocent, but even my mother did not know what to believe. The next day my father and I were taken to a police station in a Jewish town, and they threatened us with prison if we did not confess and return the wire.
When we returned, I remember mother made a few sweets for me, saying, “If you took it, tell me where it is.” But I didn’t know! A week later it was discovered that the wire had been cut by a bus. The soldiers got the wire from the driver who had taken it back to his home in another town. But for us in our village there was never an apology. Why? Because we were just Arabs.
Forest: Experiences like this must be rather common. And the effect must be deeply embittering.
Chacour: It is amazing. You will not believe it. While of course some grow an attitude of revenge–to do it back to the other, to do it worse–others become disgusted and do not want to see these things done again. They try to act in the opposite way.
Many of us Palestinian Arabs do not allow ourselves any feelings of hatred, although we will never give up our rights, and we question many things. We will even turn to God and ask, “How can you allow this to happen?” It is understandable. Our people have always trusted God in everything that happened. “Why now do you mislead us?” we ask. Yet even now there is this effort not to hate, not to take revenge.
Forest: Every year people come to Israel–the Holy Land–and yet seem unaware of the people who live here today.
Yes, they come to see the holy stones and holy sands. They do not care much for the people. We have many basilicas to take their time, and even now there are new ones being built. It reflects a church mentality of triumphalism, a priority in the churches for stones and antiquities.
On the other side, there are the tourists and pilgrims who are much more interested in the phenomenon of the Jewish state. It’s new. It has something to do with Europe. There is the guilt complex of the European Christians about what has been allowed to happen to the Jews. There is a wish, mainly in Germany, that Israel do what Europe was unable to do. And to these visitors the Arabs within Israel do not exist except as enfants terribles, as terrorists. We do not exist.
Forest: Speaking of terrorists, it is remarkable that so far this morning there have been no jets flying over the Galilee to drop bombs in Lebanon. There have been many the last few days. Do you get used to this?
Chacour: At first it was terrible. Now it is our daily bread. We know these are bombs for our heads. For Palestinians. With these jets they can kill more innocent people in a single day than all the Palestinian soldiers kill in a year. Yet it is the Palestinians alone who are said to be terrorists.
One thing strikes me about the Palestinian people. We have never been colonizers. We have been satisfied with our land. We have never wanted to conquer any other nation, although others have always tried to conquer us. Yet not once have the conquerers stayed. Not one has remained forever here. Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Babylonians, Assyrians, Crusaders, Turks, British: They all came, and they all have disappeared.
Forest: Yet Palestinians seem very new to nationalism.
Chacour: Nationalism in the Middle East began with the end of World War II and the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The Arab states were stubborn and resisted Jewish existence here, and this did much to help the Jews found their separate state. Then in reaction to Jews becoming so radical, so fanatical, so Zionist in the negative sense, the Palestinians became more and more radical and nationalistic.
It is true there was little Palestinian national expression forty years ago. We were part of the Middle East. But this does not mean that today Palestinians have no right to a state, to nationhood, to existence on their own land.
Forest: What of the Jewish religious claim to the land?
Chacour: Many Jews truly believe they are fulfilling God’s will, that they are fulfilling ancient prophecies: “God gave us the land thousands of years ago, and we are coming back. These ugly Palestinians have no right to be here.” They forget we gave our name to the land of Palestine even before the Jews came. And they forget that the Holy Land was promised to Abraham and his descendants–all of them. If [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin is one of the descendants of Abraham because he is a son of Isaac, I too am a descendant of Abraham because I am a son of Ishmael. We are all Abraham’s children.
What makes the Palestinian children of Abraham so sad is the realization that we are being made to pay the cost of what other people, not we, have done to the Jews. We have felt solidarity with the Jews because we are both people who have been often persecuted. And now we, not the Europeans, become the victims of the children of the martyrs of Auschwitz.
Forest: What do you see in the future regarding relations between Palestinians and Jews? Is healing possible?
Chacour: I don’t believe it is impossible. But Zionist ideology does not allow another people within Israel equal footing. It is not an ideology of tolerance, or equality. This is troubling.
The Palestinian Charter can be criticized, but its basic idea is to have a democratic, secular state with no official religion and no raising of one people over another. The idea of a Jewish state in which others are barely tolerated, this must be changed. Otherwise, as they say in the Talmud, we non-Jews will have a britah–a footnote in the margins about how to deal with us.
Forest: We in the West have little sense of connection with Palestinian or Arab culture. Through films, books, and personal encounters, we feel connected with Judaism and Israel as a Jewish state. But there is no Palestinian equivalent to The Diary of Anne Frank or Leon Uris’ Exodus. Instead, all we have is a terrorist image of Palestinians, or perhaps an idea of people who lived on a land but neglected it.
Chacour: Why are the Jews so well known in your countries? Because for two thousand years they were there, in the Diaspora, while we Palestinians were at home. The Jews are well known because they have had a strong, effective lobby in the United States and Europe.
And, to speak plainly, they have benefited because Europe has wanted to get rid of the Jews and, since Hitler, the remnants of the Jews: “Go away, wherever you want, and you will get from us all kinds of help. You can have weapons. You can steal warships from France. You can have heavy water for nuclear reactors from Belgium. Anything you want. But go away.” This Western “sympathy” for Jews is another way of getting rid of them.
I remember a Swiss professor who was angry at a PLO attack on a Swiss Air jetliner. “You Palestinians are welcome to throw bombs in Tel Aviv and Haifa and Jerusalem, but in Zurich, in a Swiss airplane, no!” I told that Swiss friend, “I prefer that every Swiss airplane, if they are empty, be exploded rather than one Jew or Palestinian be wounded. The airplanes are not worth a single drop of human blood.”
Forest: How do you humanize the Palestinian image so that there is something more in the Western perception than a political killer? It seems to me every PLO raid that kills more children or bystanders only reconsecrates the terrorist image.
Chacour: The image can be changed in two ways. One is the way of the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus Christ, which let us admit is a slow way, a way many, including most people in the West, do not think is efficient. The other way, sadly enough, is the violent way, which is also used in your countries.
And I have to ask you: Without those bombs and terrorist actions, would the world acknowledge any right of the Palestinian people? Would you notice that we even exist? Would we be anything but poor refugees? What else has made you look at us?
Forest: It is true in every country that one person with a bomb can draw more attention in five minutes than a thousand unarmed people in a month. But is not the Israeli government glad that the Palestinians are noticed only as a people of violence? The Israeli counterviolence, even if it kills many more people, then only seems part of the game.
Chacour: Ask why! What is on your TV, what is in your newspapers? Is it our fault you see only the killing? Until a few years ago, you were unable to say, “I saw a good Palestinian on television.”
In 1974, a Dutch television station made a program about how we Palestinians in Israel were organizing kindergartens and libraries despite the complete lack of public help. The program never mentioned discrimination or the problems between Jews and Palestinians. But one letter protested the program as Nazi because it dared to give a positive impression of the Palestinians.
Forest: I think your libraries and kindergartens are far more threatening to some than guns and dynamite.
Chacour: You are not the first to say that.
The prime minister’s adviser on Arab affairs once said, “It is more dangerous to give Fr. Chacour the opportunity to provide Arabs with books than to give him a bomb to throw in a Jewish shop.” He’s definitely right. With a bomb you kill. With books you can make people aware of their own responsibility. But perhaps he thought of that only as leading toward vengeance. Responsibility can also lead people toward forgiveness.
Forest: Why have you spent so much time founding libraries?
Chacour: Three-quarters of our young people are under twenty-eight. Our future depends on the opportunities they have. I did some research earlier and discovered that every young person here, and it is true in other villages of Galilee, has six to eight empty hours a day–sitting on street corners, playing with stones, waiting for nothing–growing bitter thinking of the opportunities young Jews have in neighboring villages raised on confiscated lands.
I wanted to find an alternative for this empty time. Each time a young person accepts a book, you have given meaning to twenty hours in his or her life, and perhaps have done more than that. In this one small village, we have every day one hundred twenty to one hundred fifty persons taking books home from the library.
Forest: How many libraries have now been founded?
Chacour: There are five, with each of the community centers that have been started, and two more community centers with libraries are now planned.
Forest: With what you have been through, after what you have seen, under daily bombing flights passing over your village, how do you keep your hope? How do you speak of forgiveness?
Chacour: I remember what my father said when he realized it was a trick and that we had been driven from our village. “Don’t forget to return, even if at the end of your life, but to do that never use the same means that were used against us.”
I believe that that foolish man of Galilee, Jesus Christ, had something to tell us, to tell me. Not considering his existence here, I would immediately go into despair. Immediately. And forgetting him, I would first despair of the institutional church and its hierarchy, and only later, of the Jews.
We have tried violence. We have tried wars. We are sure that wars will bring wars. I am sure that the attempt to kill the Arab mayors on the West Bank in early June will bring more killings of Jews. I am sure. It’s a vicious circle. It’s the logic of violence.
We know where violence leads. Even if we are not certain where we are going with nonviolence, let us try it. At least that. At least we can be sure with nonviolent action that, even if we are destroyed ourselves, we will not destroy any other person.
Forest: You said that, if you despaired, it would be first with the institutional church. Why?
Chacour: It is painful to say, but we clergy, if we read the New Testament at all, read it only as an instrument of instruction for the people, not to be instructed ourselves. You know the churches here in Israel are the most wealthy churches in the world. At the top. But there is a divorce between the institution and the people. The people get very little from the wealth of the church. Where all that huge amount of money goes, only God and the hierarchy know.
Forest: Is the peace movement in Israel a source of hope for you?
Chacour: There is no peace movement. There are various groups. Some are good. Some are motivated only by self-interest–the “peace” they speak of only means everyone accepting the status quo. Let everything stay as it is, but stop the fighting. We stay, in our places, the refugees stay in their places. This kind of “peace” can only lead us to pieces, and in the very near future.
So far none of these peace groups has had any impact on the national level. None whatsoever. The people are well-intentioned, but they are without influence. The general trend goes against them. The main political parties go the opposite way.
Forest: Still, the peace groups seem to be steadily growing.
Chacour: Yes, and that is encouraging. It indicates that, within the Jewish community, there are more people recognizing that they have to take note of the existence of others.
Forest: What, in general, is your advice to the traveler in Israel?
Chacour: Do not suffice yourself with holy antiquities. Jesus is not in Jerusalem. He is not there, he is risen. The Holy Sepulcher is only a reminder of a person who is not there. To touch Jesus Christ, to have contact with him, is only possible through his living brothers, his living sisters, the community.
We Christians in Galilee have a vocation to behave beyond all confessional and denominational boundaries, to try to behave as Christ behaved, to represent the living, risen Christ to all who come searching for him. We do not have to show you that we are reformed, or re-reformed, or not-yet-reformed, or Roman Catholic, or Orthodox. That should mean nothing to us here in Galilee. What means something is that the man of Galilee is risen and is still alive.
Forest: And how does the visitor find the community and not just stones and hotels?
Chacour: Here in this remote village, in less than two months, fifty-four groups have come just to have contact. Each year there are more people coming for such encounters, here and many other places. Tourists are less and less satisfied with shrines and historical explanations. They want to see something living.
Forest: And what about people who want to do something more than visit–who are ready to help in some way?
Chacour: First they can spread the word that people are, despite all differences, still alike–in each nation some good, some wicked. There is no terrorist people and no righteous people.
A second way is to come and help. There are ways of helping in the summer camps, the community centers, the libraries, and other projects.
A third way is to send money, through private, direct contribution, or through funding agencies helping the work here.
Or people can sometimes send things we need; for example, books.
There is one special need we have now. We are starting a peace center–the Galilee Peace Research Center. It will be a place where people can meet across the lines of conflict. We will be able to receive visitors from other countries. We will have the first study center with the first library on nonviolent alternatives in Israel.
Forest: What is it, in working for peace here, that you, a Palestinian Christian priest, hope to say to your Jewish neighbors?
Chacour: I want to say, “You can take our lands, you can take our houses, you can kill us. But you cannot take our hearts with violence. Impossible! I hope you will try to have our hearts in the way described by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince–‘to tame each other’–not with bombs, but with silence, contemplation, and one’s own conversion. We have to tame each other. There is no alternative if we are to survive. We go on killing until there is no one left, or we choose to survive together.”
I met Misha Slonin, a scientist active in the Christian segment of Russia’s democratic movement, just ten days after the collapse of the coup in Moscow. He had been one of the people in the “human wall” around the Belodoma — the White House — the sleek marble building on the Moskva River housing the Russian parliament and governmental apparatus that was under siege during the attempted coup in August.
Brought together by a mutual friend, we met at the Octobrskaya Metro station, crossed Moscow underground, then took one train and then another until there was no trace of urban life. We got off at a village stop and walked into the nearby woods. The area was so green and unspoiled that we might as well have been in the heart of Siberia. Already members of his club had built a fire and were boiling water for tea.
“This is the real life,” Misha exclaimed. “Russians are never happy in cities.”
After helping to cut up a tree that had already been felled we set off to find another so that there would be enough wood to last the night. “Our club is very ecological,” Misha explained. “We have a rule that you cannot be a member if you cut down a living tree.” It took much walking through the woods till we found a tree that was both dead and of the right wood to burn without too much smoke.
Our main activity was sitting on a ring of logs around a fire, drinking tea, singing and telling stories and jokes. (One of the jokes described a sign to be erected at Sheremetyevo Airport: “Will the last immigrant to leave please turn off the light?”)
The group — about 20 people, mainly young adults in their thirties — has been getting together like this three or four times annually, some of the older ones for 15 years. Most are active in the democratic movement. Misha was not the only “veteran of the White House.” Another was a former army major who had been part of the group guarding Boris Yeltsin.
It was mainly because of my questions that several of them talked about the defense of the White House. “The three who died, Ilya [Kruchevski], Vladimir [Usov] and Dmitri [Romar], are a cross section of the country,” said Misha, “one a Jew, one Ukrainian, one Russian. One was an architect, one a worker, one a businessman. One was an Afgansi [veteran of the war in Afghanistan]. It’s symbolic.”
One of the White House defenders Misha introduced me to was an ecstatic man in bright colors and bare feet, Max Nikishim, an Afgansi who told me about going down to Armenia with 25 other Afgansis after the earthquake. “There were already some students who volunteered but we realized it would be a problem for them, having never seen blood. A lot of people were killed in the earthquake. So we did what we could. Then in the end they told us to pick out three people from our group to get medals. We said we didn’t want any medals. What for? We went to help, not to get medals. We went for our souls. Should you get a medal just to be human? Inside yourself you have to decide whether to follow devils or prophets. Should you get a medal for not following devils?” He felt the same about going to the White House.
After returning to Moscow the next morning, I didn’t see Misha again until ten days later when he took me for a walk through parts of central Moscow. A great lover of Russian culture and history, he knew not only what stood where in the modern — city but — more importantwhat and who had been there in the days before so much of Moscow was made ugly. While walking, Misha told parts of his life story.
“It’s only in the last few years that I found my way to religious belief,” he said. “But there was some inspiration in this direction within my family. I had a grandmother who was an unsystematic believer. She believed in God and had a certain saint she prayed to. My other grandmother, an actress, wasn’t religious but she was sure the world was created by God. It was a very literate family. My grandfather read me Pushkin’s stories and poems when I was little. My father loved poetry and music. I think I had a kind of `genetic’ religion — I couldn’t not believe in God. I was never absolutely atheist.”
I asked about political loyalties within his family. “The only Communist was a grandfather in the diplomatic service who was shot during the Great Terror in the 1936 or ’37. Apart from him, I can say that our family was always anti-Communist. I remember how glad we were when Stalin died. Their were no tears in our flat! We read Solzhenitsyn’s books in samizdat. A big event was the radio my father was given as a reward for his work as an engineer — he was quite brilliant and got ahead despite not being a party member. With that radio we listened to the BBC Russian Service and Voice of America. My friends in school thought the same way and we were able to talk openly with each other. None were communist-minded. One is now a priest here in Moscow. He was the one who introduced me to Bulgakov [author of The Master and Margarita]. His books were a big event in my life. There was a definite attraction toward social democracy and much respect for what was happening in Czechoslovakia at the time. In fact I was able to go there and saw for myself what was happening before it was crushed in 1968. I had fallen in love with Prague — the thought of Soviet tanks on its streets was horrible. I always respected everyone with a spiritual life. There was a definite religious feeling. But my main interest was in science and mathematics.”
He graduated from the Moscow University in 1973 and in 1979 received his a doctorate. “Now I am assistant director of a laboratory of the Academy of Sciences. Earning 600 rubles a month, I am rich by Soviet standards, but at the present exchange rate that’s less than $20. I’m married a little more than ten years ago. Tamara and I have a daughter, Julia, nine years old.”
I wondered if he was a political activist at the university. “Not at all, unless you count what we did on the social level. I had no hope for outbreak opposition but, with my friends, I thought something could be done in the long run through cultural activities. We opened an international friendship club, which sounded fine to the authorities, and here we had the chance to learn about other cultures — to eat different kinds of food, enjoy different kinds of music — Armenian, Georgian, and so forth. It gave me a lot. Our simple idea is that people should really know each other. In 1976 we opened the Rhythm Café Club which was especially for jazz and poetry and theater lovers. We did a lot of singing there, just the kind you heard us singing in the woods. But our café didn’t fit in and was closed, along with many other things, in 1981. They were willing to let it go if we put it under outside control but we wouldn’t. So it died. We wouldn’t collaborate. Then in 1985 came Gorbachev, speaking about glasnost and perestroika. I must say that I never expected much from a General Secretary of the Communist Party. In 1986 a friend and I put on a satirical play about what he was saying in Gorky Park. It was a kind of low-key comic protest against the Communist Party and more than a thousand people saw it. Looking back, I realize it wasn’t dangerous but at the time we didn’t know that. We felt so happy to be brave! This set the stage for my religious resurrection.”
While his movement toward religious faith was intertwined with his social development, the decisive event came from taking a fresh look at the Bible. “What finally changed everything was simply reading the New Testament. There were other factors but that was the main one. This was three years ago. It had quite an impact on me. I was terrified how foolish I had been all my life — nearly 40 years in vain! I felt very dirty. I desperately wanted to receive communion but it took time before I cleared away the obstacles. Fortunately, having some friends who were believers, I could talk to them about it. Finally it was clear to me what I was living for. It wasn’t my friends moving me in a certain direction, however. The main thing moving me was the word of God. I didn’t need more than that.”
Why the Orthodox Church? “I found the Protestant churches too strict, too narrow. While working in Poland, I was impressed by the Catholic churches I visited and yet didn’t feel completely at home. I feel at home in Orthodoxy. But the main thing is to see not what church you belong to but to see Christianity as a way of life. And for me this has had big consequences. I can honestly say that since my baptism two years ago, I have forgotten what anger is. Yes, I can get irritated, but it is something else. I feel more self-confident, more centered. Many complexes that used to trouble me are simply gone. And it is not only a change in my life. Both my wife and daughter were baptized. We were able to take this step together.”
I asked about the Christian democratic movement. “There are several Christian democratic parties. Part of what is unique in ours is the emphasis on separation of church and state, similar to the western European model. I don’t think it is good to have a favored church in Russia, even if it is the one I belong to. There is another Christian democratic party oriented toward the Orthodox Church — they want it to have a special place. But we believe this would be bad both for the church and the country. What we believe is that the social structures are good only insofar as they promote the development of the soul and its service to humanity. This is at the heart of what we think of as Christian democracy. It is something not only for Christians but for everyone.”
I asked about the coup and what led him to be among those guarding the White House. “I didn’t decide to do it. I just had to do it. I turned on the radio on the morning of the 19th and there was the news about Gorbachev’s removal. I was in a state of shock. I told Tamara that if I was arrested, she should call Sonia [a friend working at Moscow bureau of the The New York Times], and then I went to my laboratory — the Institute for the Development of Mineral Resources — to see what was happening with my co-workers. Then I went to the office of our Christian Democratic party and we got out a statement saying the self-appointed new Soviet leaders were not a legitimate government and that the only legitimate authority was the government of the Russian Federation. It wasn’t that we were so supportive of Gorbachev — we had lost confidence in him several years ago — but his return was essential. We managed to make a lot of photocopies. And then we went to the White House to hand them out. I went home that night — it seemed clear there wouldn’t be an attack yet. In the morning I stopped in at my laboratory again, where we made more photocopies of the statement, several hundred, and then went back to the White House and, except for a hurried trip home to get fresh clothes and some food in the late afternoon, stayed there right through the night until after dawn when the danger had passed. This was the night when they tried to break through the barricades with tanks and the three were killed. But we weren’t near the place where that happened. Our company was near the northeast corner of the White House. We heard gunfire but we didn’t see what was happening. In the quiet hours we handed out small prayer books and also several thousand newspapers from our party.”
Were there many religious believers there? “Many, although this is a word that means different things to different people. There were all sorts of believers — Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, Jews, Moslems, and people who believe, like my grandmother, in an unsystematic way. There were people who were baptized that night. There were some priests, for example Father Gleb Yakunin. He was a source of much inspiration. He is a national hero. And we heard over the Russian Federation radio from inside the White House about the declaration by Patriarch Aleksi calling on soldiers not to any obey orders to shed blood.”
He recalled how some people came to give food and stayed though they hadn’t intended to. “One was Mira Tetarina [Misha took pains to write her name in my note book], an old woman who brought tea and ended up staying. She kept her place all through the night. She was very calm even in the hours when the rest of us were very frightened, wondering if we would live to see the dawn.”
He pointed out it wasn’t only the defenders of the White House who were frightened. “The soldiers were scared too. They were mostly young boys who didn’t know what it was all about and who hadn’t had much sleep. They were in a state of shock. I think the three deaths were all accidents. No one wanted to kill anyone. Some of the tank drivers hardly knew how to drive a tank. The soldiers were victims too.”
Was he optimistic about the future? “It is too soon for optimism. The hat has been removed but not the head. The head is still the same old head which is still working in the same old way. There are a lot of believers in communism from the older generation and they aren’t finished trying to have things go their way. They want to defend their privileges, and some are afraid of being punished for what they’ve done in the past. But there is a chance for us. The events at the White House not only changed the way people in other countries look at us but changed the way we look at ourselves.”
Misha had a parting gift for me, a small prayer booklet: “To dear Jim, to remember the spirit that surrounded the White House August 19-22, 1991. This prayer book was there and maybe helped us. I hope that looking at it, you will remember your Moscow friends. Misha, September 10, 1991.”
On August 19, 1991, two months after Boris Yeltsin’s election as president of Russia, a junta led by KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov made a nearly-successful effort to suppress the democratic movement that had emerged during the Gorbachev years. The junta announced formation of a “State Emergency Committee” that was “taking supreme power.”
Gorbachev, still president of the soon-to-be extinct Soviet Union, was under house arrest, but Yeltsin remained free, having taken refuge in the Russian Parliament, a modern building on the Moskva River known, because of its white tiles, as the White House. First using fax and telephone, then radio and television, Yeltsin summoned the citizens of Moscow to defend democracy. At 1 PM on the day of the coup, Yeltsin stood on one of the tanks the junta had placed around the White House, calling for public resistance. Muscovites streamed by the thousands to the White House, forming a human shield.
The news that ten of the tanks had gone over to the White House defenders quickly became known – a defection that encouraged other in the military to side with the democratic movement. Elements of three army divisions sent to storm the White House were now supporting Yeltsin, including the elite Alpha Unit.
Yet the outcome remained in doubt. The junta still had the support of entire armored divisions plus much of the state bureaucracy. If the human shield was attacked, thousands would die.
Part of the credit for preventing a bloodbath that never happened belongs to Patriarch Aleksy, elected in June the year before to lead the Russian Orthodox Church.
One of Yeltsin’s first actions had been to appeal to Aleksy for his support, “The tragic events that have occurred throughout the night have made me turn to you,” Yeltsin said to Aleksy by radio broadcast. “There is lawlessness inside the country – a group of corrupt Party members has organized an anti-constitutional revolution. Essentially, a state of emergency has been declared inside the country due to the extreme gravity of the situation. The laws and constitution of the USSR and of the sovereign republics of the Union have been grossly violated…
“At this moment of tragedy for our Fatherland, I turn to you, calling on your authority among all religious confessions and believers. The influence of the Church in our society is too great for the Church to stand aside during these events. This duty is directly related to the Church’s mission, to which you have dedicated your life: serving people, caring for their hearts and souls. The Church, which has suffered through the times of totalitarianism, may once again experience disorder and lawlessness. All believers, the Russian nation, and all Russia await your word!”
Aleksy threw his full weight behind Yeltsin and against the coup.
As tanks filed into Red Square, Aleksy was on the other side of the Kremlin walls, in the Cathedral of the Assumption, where he was presiding at the liturgy for the Feast of the Transfiguration. During the service Aleksy made his first gesture of opposition to the coup. In a litany which ordinarily would have included a prayer for the “authorities” and “the army,” he prayed instead “for our country protected by God and its people.”
All those present, noting the changed text, instantly understood its meaning. Patriarch Aleksy had sided with Russia’s infant democracy.
The following morning, Aleksy faxed a letter throughout the country challenging the junta’s legality:
“This situation is troubling the consciences of millions of our fellow citizens, who are concerned about the legality of the newly formed State Emergency Committee. … In this connection we declare that it is essential that we hear without delay the voice of President Gorbachev and learn his attitude toward the events that have just taken place.
“We hope that the Supreme Soviet of the USSR will give careful consideration to what has taken place and will take decisive measures to bring about the stabilization of the situation in the country.
“We call upon all parts of the Russian Orthodox Church, the whole of our people, and particularly our army at this critical moment, for our nation to show support and not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood. We raise a heartfelt prayer to our Lord and summon all true believers in our Church to join this prayer, begging Him to dispense peace to the peoples of our land so that they can in future build their homeland in accordance with freedom of choice and the accepted norms of morality and law.”
The words “not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood” were understood by all as an appeal to the army not to obey orders to kill their fellow citizens.
By August 21, most of the coup leaders had fled Moscow. Gorbachev was freed and returned to Moscow. Yeltsin was subsequently hailed by his supporters around the world for rallying mass opposition to the coup. On November 6, 1991, Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party.
Yeltsin’s role will never be forgotten, and neither should that of Patriarch Aleksy.
preface to A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton by Rowan Williams (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2011)
It is a pity Thomas Merton and Rowan Williams never met. What a friendship it would have been. Their age difference was the obstacle — Rowan was only eighteen when Merton died. Yet there is another sense in which meetings occur and friendships spring to life despite the impossibility of correspondence or face-to-face encounter. Good writing always remains in the present tense; the attentive reader meets the author in the intimate space of the printed page. When that occurs, a relationship can take root that flourishes despite the problem of death.
One sees the reality of such a friendship in this slim volume that brings together Rowan’s explorations of Merton’s writings. Merton would have been delighted to have found himself so carefully and perceptively read. The correspondence between them would have made this a much larger book.
In fact Merton’s own life, especially once he had become a monk, was to a great extent one of dialogue with people who were either distant or dead (many saints and writers of past centuries).
Rowan looks closely at two such relationships in Merton’s life — first with the Orthodox theologian, Paul Evdokimov, and then with Karl Barth, the Reformed theologian who, by a surprising providence, died on the same day as Merton. Rowan also takes note of the impact on Merton’s thought of books by Hannah Arendt, Dostoevsky, Vladimir Lossky, Olivier Clément, Bonhoeffer, Boris Pasternak, and St. John of the Cross.
Not the least of the many meeting points for Merton and Rowan is their Orwell-like awareness of the abuse of language, so easily used for magical (that is to say, manipulative) ends. Thus war is described and justified in words that mask its actual purposes, dehumanize the adversary, and cloak its actual cost in human agony. The problem extends to religious words as well — ways of speaking about God that flatten rather than unveil. “Words of faith,” Rowan observes, “are too-well known to believers for their meaning to be knowable.” Indeed, “almost any words in the modern cultural setting will be worn and shabby or illusory and self-serving.” Rowan sees in Merton’s writings how, with ascetic effort, language can be restored to the transparent state of plain speech, a revealer of truth, a preserver of freedom, but this involves a day-by-day, word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence struggle.
We see in these several essays that Rowan, no less than Merton, regards Christian life without a contemplative dimension as incomplete and also recognizes that the contemplative life is accessible not only to those living in monasteries but to anyone who seeks an “interiorized” monasticism, for “contemplative prayer is the vocation of every believer.” One of the major tasks of contemplative life is the ongoing search for the actual self, the unmasked self, a self that is not merely the stage clothes and scripted sentences that we assemble and dutifully exhibit each day in the attempt to appear to be someone, but the self that exists purely because it exists in God. Rowan notes how often Merton is drawn to a “delusory self image” but then quickly abandons each self-image as a ridiculous deception.
Merton’s pilgrimage, from his initial attraction to the Trappists until the day of his death, was to disappear — that is not to be the brand name “Thomas Merton” or a Thomas Merton who has become mainly the bearer of various labels: monk, writer, contemplative, mystic, etc. Twice in this book Rowan cites a passage from The Sign of Jonas that he first read when he was eighteen: “I have to be a person that nobody knows. They can have Thomas Merton. He’s dead. Father Louis — he’s half-dead too.” In fact, for all Merton’s grumbling about his famous adversary, Thomas Merton, he remained Thomas Merton, fully alive and always writing in a voice that was intensely and recognizably his own — but a Merton who was unwilling to make himself the prisoner of his readers’ expectations and illusions. (No doubt the struggle not to be defined purely by an ecclesiastical role is every bit as pressing to Rowan as it was to Merton.) “Truth can only be spoken by a man nobody knows,” Rowan writes, “because only in the unknown person is there no obstruction to reality: the ego of self-oriented desire and manifold qualities, seeking to dominate and organize the world, is absent.”
Both Merton and Rowan are people who have drawn deeply from Eastern Christian sources, both ancient and modern. Rowan’s doctoral dissertation concentrated on the work of Vladimir Lossky, whose writings also had great impact on Merton. Lossky was one of the Paris-based Orthodox theologians who distinguished the “individual” from the “person,” the latter understood as the self existing in communion with others rather than attempting to live in a state of one-person apartheid. To the extent one is becoming a person, Rowan notes, the process of sanctity is underway, for one “cannot be simply an individual pursuing an impossible ideal of individual sanctification in a sort of spiritual solipsism; this is, rather, the condition characteristic of hell.”
For the Orthodox Christian, it is often noted, there are “at least” seven sacraments. On the long list that can be attached to the seven, surely one is the mystery of friendship: an enduring relationship held together not only by affinity, shared questions and common interests, but the awareness that each can help the other in a quest — a partnership in pilgrimage. As the bond between Rowan Williams and Thomas Merton bears witness, not all friendships depend on being of the same generation or even being simultaneously alive.
December 8, 2010
note: The water color of Canterbury Cathedral on the book’s cover is by Owen Merton. In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton refers to his father painting in the Cathedral Close at Canterbury during his Easter vacation from Oakham in 1929.
In the early evening, a month and a day after the twin towers of the World Trade Center suddenly became dust and rubble, I gazed down through the window of a small commuter jet slowly descending into Newark Airport, watching Manhattan unfurl north to south. At the island’s upper end, rising steeply over the Hudson River, there was the dark patch of Fort Tyron Park containing my favorite New York museum, the Cloisters, a healing place that must have cured many people of suicidal thoughts; then the light-pricked darkness of the Upper West Side and Harlem; the long rectangular blackness of Central Park; next, Times Square and the theater district, glowing like a fireplace; then the Empire State Building rising steeply in Midtown, once again the city’s tallest building, its upper tiers illuminated red, white and blue, a nighttime flag in stone; then the smaller, dimly lit structures of Chelsea and Greenwich Village; and finally lower Manhattan and the Financial District with its own collection of skyscrapers, but now a maimed landscape.
It seemed as if a giant meteorite had hit the southern tip of the island, leaving a smoking cavity where the World Trade Center had stood. The klieg-lit crater had become Manhattan’s brightest spot. I knew there were men hard at work in the artificial light, like players in a football stadium, but couldn’t see them. Finally there was Battery Park and the glistening water of the harbor with the Statue of Liberty still holding her golden torch in the sky, still offering her silent greeting to newcomers who had crossed the Atlantic. But it was mainly the wound in Manhattan that held my attention as our plane descended toward Newark.
I had seen the same view twice while in the US in June. Now not only were the city’s most dominant urban landmarks no longer there, but it was a very different America in October.
The September 11 attack had focused on primary symbols of America, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The White House was the probable target of Flight 93, which instead crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers battled the hijackers. When symbols are destroyed, it isn’t surprising that part of the response is also at the level of symbols: the national flag. America has long been one of the most flag-displaying cultures in the world, but even on the Fourth of July in earlier years I had never seen anything to match the outbreak of flags that greeted me once I was on the ground.
Those first few days in the US were spent in Red Bank, New Jersey, a town linked to New York City by rail. This is where I grew up and is now the home of my oldest son, his wife and their two young children. In the course of a leisurely walk to the center of the town and back, I counted more than two hundred flags, not including flag pins of various kinds that many people were wearing, or the small flags in a park by the river which had become a spontaneous memorial site for local victims of the events of September 11. More than a hundred people from Red Bank or nearby had been among the three thousands killed when the towers of the World Trade Center imploded. One of the dead had been a passenger on Flight 93. Here, amid many candles, were their photos as well as displays about them — wedding pictures, medals, prayer cards, poems, drawings and quilts. A smaller memorial was set up outside a nearby firehouse. Since September 11, when so many fireman and policemen sacrificed their lives rescuing others, Americans see heroes when they see people in either profession.
Visiting an Orthodox parish in Princeton, I was given a flag pin by a retired black woman whose son had narrowly escaped death at the World Trade Center. For her, she explained, the flag had become a different symbol after September 11 than it had been before. For her, it represented people trying to protect diversity in the face of ideologies that demand uniformity. But another member of the parish found himself uncomfortable with the flag. “Before the bombing of Afghanistan started, I saw it as a sign of mourning, but now it might be taken to mean that I support the [Afghanistan] war, which is mainly lengthening the list of victims of September 11.”
Traveling across the US giving lectures and leading retreats in seven states, from Massachusetts to California, I became aware of other changes that were not as visual as the flag.
There is the much greater care taken in searching passengers at air terminals. (A British bishop, Kallistos Ware, I know was searched with care three times on his way from London to Louisville because, as one searcher confessed, “you look like an imam.”) I also noted a greater tendency of strangers to talk to each other while waiting for flights. People seemed more inclined to reach out. Perhaps it had to do with the extreme nervousness everyone feels about flying after September 11. Again and again I heard people remark that not since the Wright brothers got the first plane off the ground has it been so safe to fly as it is today, given all the precautions, but now everyone anywhere near an airport feels a certain dread. With passenger traffic down sharply, there are fewer flights, but these tend to leave on time.
Whenever I mentioned that I live in Holland, I would be asked why it is that so many people in other countries hate and fear the United States? I responded that, while criticism of various aspects of the US is widespread, Americans should be aware that the shock and grief they experienced on September 11 circled the globe. Again and again I described the response of the Dutch — how on the day of mourning that stretched across Europe on the 14th of September, everything in Holland came to a dead stop at noon: every truck, train, car and bus pulled over, people stood still wherever they happened to be, transactions ceased in stores and banks, and a deep silence blanketed the land. Though the Dutch put out their flags only two or three times a year, every flag was out that day, all at half mast. Neighbors came to our door to express their condolences as if Nancy and I were local ambassadors of the United States.
In conversations at airports, schools and churches, I became aware of other changes that perhaps are best summed up by noting key words that one hears more often.
The word “war,” heard again and again each day, no longer referred to events in some distant place which many Americans would have difficulty finding on a map, but rather war up close, a war that might at any moment take one’s own life or the lives of family or neighbors, yet not war in any traditional sense. No particular country has attacked the United States. It is a war with people who refuse to name themselves, using methods which make it hard to identify those responsible. The main headlines during my month in America had to do with anthrax. Gas masks and anti-anthrax antibiotics were selling in huge quantities.
Another word I heard day after day was “vulnerability.” Americans were painfully aware that their country is no longer behind impenetrable castle walls. Clearly an enemy doesn’t need an intercontinental ballistic missile — he doesn’t even need a nuclear weapon — to become a formidable adversary to the world’s mightiest power.
One of the words being used far more frequently is “evil.” Though most people have had experiences of doing evil things, and also have been victims of evils of various kinds and degrees, the word “evil” itself was hugely neglected in the past generation or two. We preferred to speak of evil actions in psycho-therapeutic terms.
Inevitably the word “Islam” was being used far more than before September 11. I sensed an embarrassed awareness of how little most people know about Islam, how few and superficial or nonexistent are social contacts with Muslims. We are noticing both our own ignorance and the existence of an invisible wall.
The word “God” is being used far more often by people who don’t often enter places of worship and who think of religion as something for the brainless. It had been an embarrassing word for many people, a word one tried not to use, but the shock of September 11 has made Americans people think again about what life is all about, what is of ultimate significance. Many things Americans regarded as treasures on September 10th seemed like trash on September 12th. Churches couldn’t open their doors wide enough. People who hadn’t been at a church service in a long time were streaming in.
Perhaps the word one hears more than any other when talking about September 11 and its aftermath is “fear.” It is not that Americans were a people without fear before September 11. I wonder if there is another country on earth where there are so many privately owned weapons or so many locks per person? But the concentrated dread many have known since September 11 is of a different magnitude. The sale of hand guns has risen sharply. Stores selling gas masks couldn’t keep up with demand. Practically any product that makes the purchaser feel safer is selling briskly. According to press reports, the sale of tranquilizers, anti-depressants and sleeping potions had risen 40 percent.
While leading a retreat on the Beatitudes at Notre Dame University in Indiana during my last weekend in the US, I talked with a student who belongs to a group of peace activists on campus who have been wearing a T-short with the message “Pray for Peace” while handing out leaflets protesting the war, an activity in the present climate that requires real courage. “I think the bombing going on in Afghanistan right now is in part a political response to a contagion of fear,” he said. “Bombing is the government’s way of reassuring frightened people that we are taking the offensive now, even though it may be a strategy that makes acts of anti-US terrorism even more likely in the future. Bombing says, ‘We are doing something,’ even if the main thing achieved is to draw more Muslims to a pro-Bin Laden attitude.”
Before returning to Holland, I had a meeting in New York with a Greek Orthodox bishop. Taking the train from Red Bank to Penn Station, I walked the several miles to his office on East 74th Street. It was a beautiful fall day, the sky a deep cloudless blue, but every step of the way I was aware that this was not the same Manhattan I had lived in earlier in my life. Flags and signs of mourning seemed to be in every shop and bakery window, every restaurant, every newsstand. Everyone was wearing a flag pin. Faces revealed people still in a stunned condition. But what struck me most of all was the smell permeating the air, a strange burned smell. I recalled a phrase from an essay Dorothy Day had written in August 1945 just days after the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though living in New York, she was aware that the radioactive dust of those two pulverized cities was being carried by the winds around the globe. She was, she wrote, “breathing in the dead.”
And here in Manhattan, a month after the destruction of the World Trade Center, so was I. All of us were breathing in the dead.
For the Peace from Above brings together a substantial collection of primary texts on war, peace and nationalism drawn from the Old and New Testaments, Church Councils, the Church Fathers, various saints and many other sources, ancient and modern.
* * *
Since the early days of the Church, Christians have struggled to come to terms with Christ’s words of peace and His example of peace. In Christ’s life, as recorded in the New Testament, it is striking that He neither killed anyone nor summoned any of His disciples to kill. Indeed, the final miracle Christ performed before His execution was to heal an enemy’s wound, an injury caused by the Apostle Peter in an attempt to defend his master.
Yet, in the course of more than twenty centuries of Christian history, we see Christians often involved in war and, in surveying the calendar of saints, find not only those who refused to take part in war but also those who served in the military, though no one has been canonized due to his skill as a soldier.
Besides the millions of Christians who have fought in armies, often against fellow Christians, we also find many priests, bishops and theologians who have advocated war and blessed its weapons. Our subject is an urgent one. Many people today live either near conflict areas or are directly touched by war or in areas where terrorist actions may suddenly occur.
Everyone on the planet is in some way affected by wars in progress or wars in the making as well as the consequences of wars in the past. Every day thousands of Christians struggle in thought and prayer with some of the most difficult of questions: May I fight injustice by violent methods? Am I allowed to kill in combat? Are there limits on what I can do in the defense of my country? Am I as a Christian allowed to disobey demands that I believe are unjust or violate the Gospel? When the demands of my country seem at odds with the demands of the Kingdom of God, how do I respond to this conflict? Rarely do we find easy answers to these and similar questions.
Thus, those of us in the Orthodox Christian tradition search for help in Holy Scripture, the canons provided to us by ecumenical councils, the witness of the saints, the writing of the Fathers of the Church as well as theologians of recent times. Imitation of saintly forebears alone, however, will not solve our problems. Different eras have adopted different attitudes. Also many of today’s problems never existed before, not least the changed character of war in an era of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and mass propaganda. Yet knowledge of the thought and action undertaken by the Orthodox Churches on the issues of war and peace in recent decades surely can help us find ways out of the dead ends that many communities are experiencing today. This is the aim of this book.
The icon on the cover is a panel from the border of a large St. Nicholas icon that was probably painted in Moscow in the early sixteenth century and now is in the collection of The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. (photo: Jim Forest)
* * *
The Orthodox Research Institute
Paperback, 461 pages
$24.95 + S&H (USD)
note: The book is now out of print but a free PDF file is available on request. Use the contact form on this web site.
* * *
The table of contents plus a list of principal authors of texts included in the book.
Introduction — iii
Chapter One: Defining Terms — 1
Chapter Two: Reference Texts from Holy Scripture — 15
Chapter Three: Canonical and Synodical Reference Texts — 43
Case Study 1: The Definition of Religious Nationalism (Ethno-Phyletism) — 69
Case Study 2: The 1986 Chambésy statement — 73
Case Study 3: Church, Nation and State — 88
Chapter Four: Reference Texts from Authors from the Patristic Period 99
Case Study 4: Acts of the Martyrdom of Early Christian Soldiers — 147
Case Study 5: Christian Soldiers in the Roman Army before Constantine — 152
Chapter Five: War, Peace and Nationalism — 155
Case Study 6: Prayer for Peace in the Liturgy — 177
Case Study 7: Commemoration of Warrior Saints — 179
Chapter Six: Reference Texts from Modern Authors — 199
Study 8: Orthodoxy, Culture and Nationalism — 233
Case Study 9: The Serbian Church and Milosevic — 238
Chapter Seven: Various Recent Official Statements — 243
Case Study 10: Orthodox Americans, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and Iraq — 287
Chapter Eight: Essays and Texts — 303
Chapter Nine: Study and Action Guide — 451
* * *
In addition to numerous Church Fathers and Councils, the book’s authors or persons quoted at length include:
Archbishop Anastasios of Albania
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Fr. Hildo Bos
Fr. Sergi Bulgakov
Bishop Irenaeus Bulovic of Backa, Serbia
John H. Erickson
Metropolitan George of Mount Lebanon
Fr. Lev Gillet
Fr. Stanley S. Harakas
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk
Fr. Thomas Hopko
Metropolitan Maximus of Sardes
Fr. John McGuckin
Fr. John Meyendor
St. Maria Skobtsova
Louis J. Swift
V. Rev. Dr. Georges Tsetsis
Charles C. West
* * *
Review by Fr Michael Plekon for Cistercian Studies Quarterly:
The past decades have been times of deep disagreement and division among Christians, Orthodox Christians included, on matters of politics. No area is excluded—the economy, the role and size of government particularly at the federal level, social values and policy and foreign policy. This excellent resource book, ably compiled by Fr Hildo Bos and Jim Forest, is a revision and expansion of a volume originally published in 1999 by Syndesmos, the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth, and the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Fr Hildo Bos was long in the leadership of the former and Jim Forest of the latter organizations.
This collection is structured in a most effective and singular manner. There are selections of texts from the scriptures, from the acts of synods and canons, from patristic as well as modern writers and from contemporary statements—declarations of an ecumenical nature as those of Bosphorus, 1994, Vienna, 1999, Assisi, 2002 and Moscow, 2004, as well as statements from various church bodies—Albania, Serbia, the Greek Archdiocese in America, the Orthodox Church in America, from groups such as SCOBA and the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and individual hierarchs—Patriarch Bartholomew I, Alexis II, Petros, Ignatius IV, Archbishop Ananstasios of Tirana, Metropolitan Georges Khodr, among others. And there is a fascinating selection of essays from some of the hierarchs just mentioned as well as contemporary authors such as Olivier Clement, John Erickson, Jim Forest, Stanley Harakas, and John McGuckin, to name a few.
Suffice it to say there is an amazing content in the sections just described. Two thousand years of witness, not only from the Orthodox Church but more broadly from universal Christianity are documented. However, the editors also chose to entwine these texts with a provocative ten case studies from an equally wide range of sources. These include the 1872 synodical condemnation of ethno-phyletism, the 1986 Chambesy statement on the Orthodox Church and peace, the 2000 “Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church,” to ancient texts on Christian soldiers, the writings of Fr Lev Gillet on peace and Hildo Bos’ essay on the commemoration of warrior saints in the liturgy. Also there is Thomas Hopko’s essay on the Serbian Church and Milosevic. Lastly, there is Michael Azar’s probing essay on the debate among American Orthodox on the war in Iraq in the past decade, including the Orthodox Peace Fellowship’s Iraq appeal, signed by many clergy and laity and the strong criticism of this effort by Frank Schaeffer, Patrick Reardon, Johannes Jacobse and others.
This will be, for a very long time, the resource on war, peace and in a lesser manner, on nationalism for readers of every religious background interested in the Eastern Church perspectives. The texts make it clear that there has always been debate about violence and warfare. There are prayers in time of war, prayers for the military, but also prayers for peace and the poignant plea of the late Patriarch Pavle of Serbia that clergy not use prayers for the blessing of weapons. The statements of the bishops of Serbia and Albania are also moving in their condemnations of killing, torture and other violence in the Balkans.
As valuable as this collection is, it will of course be criticized by some for its “pacifist” and “liberal” reading of the Orthodox tradition on war and peace and nationalism. However, I think this volume is marked by honesty about the many atrocities committed in the name of God, real deviations from the Gospel’s mandate of love. It is also careful in the use of source documents and texts, providing a striking array of points of view in different periods and from different writers. Finally, it is balanced and this is typified by essay which concludes the collection, John McGuckin’s very careful and discerning look both at the larger Christian tradition East and West and then, particularly, at the Eastern perspective. He warns against the easy and often “politically correct” simplifications about church history in general and the positions on war and peace in particular.
Rather than use a “just war” theory, the East was more often ambivalent, seeing in war and violence and betrayal, a loss of the vision of the kingdom of God’s peace and justice. Whether Saddam Hussein or Islam, the urge to want to remove variously perceived “forces of evil” or “axis of evil” is always a dubious undertaking of divine judgment and action, he writes. Just as Eastern churches have too often allowed the state to master them, so also the “blessing” of weapons and armies and war more broadly is more an aberration of the essential Christian vision in McGuckin’s view.
And such a nuanced perspective is given by the editors here. The history of engagement with war and nationalism and politics may be complex, but the message of the Gospel remains consistent, opposed to easy, expedient political alliances and strategies. The claim of any “declaration” or statement, by a single bishop, theologian or group, that theirs is “the” Orthodox position—none others allowed voice—is a clear deviation from tradition’s complexity and consistency.
* * *
review by Ron Dart of the University of Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, British Columbia:
My wife asked me a couple of weeks ago when we were on a retreat in the desert a leading question. ‘If I was on a deserted Island for a few years, what three books would I want with me?’ I pondered the answer to the question for a few days. Our answers to such questions often tell us much about the state and orientation of our soul. My answer emerged after some listening: the Bible, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and the Adages (all 1450 of them) of Erasmus.
What do all three books have in common? All deal with both the subtle inner and outer dimensions of war and peace. The Bible constantly returns to the war-peace motif, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the finest novel ever written on the theme, and Erasmus is, probably, one of the most important Christian theologians of peace within the Christian Tradition.
So, it was with much delight and anticipation that I received and read For the Peace from Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism.
I teach a course on ‘The Western Peace Tradition’, and Ronald Musto’s The Catholic Peace Tradition is a must read in the genre. Many of the historic Anabaptists had a passion for peace in opposition to the Magisterial Reformers, but it was the English Peace Tradition that did much to shape and inform via Erasmus the 1st generation Anabaptists. Sadly so, most in the West know little or nothing about the fullness of the Eastern and Orthodox thinking on war and peace: For the Peace from Above definitely and decidedly fills in a gap for many within the West about a well thought-out historic peace tradition. This timely tome is a must read.
For the Peace from Above is a comprehensive historic overview (origins of Christianity to the present) on how the Orthodox Tradition has thought about peace. ‘This resource book is a revised and expanded edition of a book first published in 1999 by Syndesmos, the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth, working in cooperation with the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Now thanks to the Orthodox Research Institute, it will reach a broader audience, not only Orthodox, we hope, but Christians from other churches’. I would hope, for the thoughtful and curious, such a book will reach inquisitive minds and imaginations beyond the churches also.
For the Peace from Above is divided into 9 compact and succinct chapters. Each chapter emerges and unfolds from the earlier chapter. Each chapter builds up, brick by brick, the case for the Orthodox peace position.
Chapter 1, rightly so, deals with ‘Defining Terms: Definitions from Dictionaries and Church Authors’. It is essential, of course, that agreement is reached on what words mean, hence the priority of chapter 1.
Chapter 2 (should appeal to the best protestant instincts) lists ‘Reference Texts from Holy Scripture’.
Chapter 3, after dipping the bucket deep in Holy Scripture, turns to ‘Canonical and Synodical Reference Texts’. The argument is being made well and in an intricate and convincing manner. Both the Bible and Synods-Canons embody a distinct peace position. Case studies are offered to illustrate such authoritative positions. But, there is yet more.
Chapter 4 highlights ‘Reference Texts from Authors from the Patristic Period’—-more case studies are brought forward that add to the peace argument.
Chapter 5 deals with the historic and contemporary dilemma of ‘War, Peace and Nationalism’—again, a couple of case studies are offered the reader to ponder. Some might argue that the authority of the Bible, Canons, Synods and Patristic authors are a necessary but not sufficient condition to be convincing. How do these founts of authority speak to us today? Fr. Hildo Bos and Jim Forest have not let us down.
Chapter 6 holds high ‘Reference Texts from Modern Authors (with more case studies) and chapter 7 includes ‘Various Recent Official Statements’ from Orthodox leaders on war and peace in our contemporary context. Bos and Forest have yet more goods to draw the aspiring and mature peacemaker.
Chapter 8 threads together ‘Essays and Texts’ and chapter 9, ‘Study and Action Guide’are a fine primer on how to act, in a peaceful manner, in issues of conflict and war.
For the Peace from Above offers many within the Orthodox tradition an alternate to an uncritical nationalism and patriotism. For the Peace from Above also spells out for those in the West (Roman Catholic and Protestant) the motherlode of the Orthodox peace tradition. There are moments on our journey when caricatures within the Christian Tradition dissipate like a cloud. There are many who have little or no understanding of the Orthodox Peace Tradition, hence caricatures of such a wise and time tried way abound—this book will correct such misunderstandings both within and outside the Orthodox and Western Christian Tradition. Those who have a passion for peace should have many copies of For the Peace from Above to pass on, like nutritious food, for souls that are hungry for the Divine banquet of true peace from above.
I asked my wife if I could, perhaps, take a fourth book with me to the deserted Island alongside the Bible, War and Peace and the sagacious Adages of Erasmus — just one more, I was kindly advised. So, I chose For the Peace from Above. It’s an A++ keeper and pure diamond.
published in Trouw, 23 August 2011 (in De Verdieping)
By Frank Mulder
We cannot work for peace without being open to our opponents, says Jim Forest, writer and secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. And that requires setting our fear aside.
“Jesus loves Wikileaks” reads the banner in front of the American consulate on Museum Square in Amsterdam. A group of Christian activists are calling attention to the fate of Bradley Manning, the whistleblower who passed on military secrets to Wikileaks and has been imprisoned for several months without trial.
One of the participants is the 69-year-old peace worker Jim Forest. “Manning has been kept in solitary confinement for months,” says Forest. “People who dare to stick their necks out to expose abuses are the people I want to support.” He’s not very enthusiastic about the text on the banner. “Julien Assange of Wikileaks is not my role model. And you shouldn’t claim Jesus for your own particular cause. But I do know that Jesus told us to tell the truth. And that’s why I think we should be grateful to whistleblowers, especially when they expose what’s going on in Iraq.”
Forest is known in America mainly as a writer of books on spirituality. Recently he published a biography of Dorothy Day, the woman who founded the Catholic Worker movement in1933 and serves as a model for many Christian activists.
Forest himself lived in community with her in Manhattan during the sixties. “That was one of the ‘houses of hospitality’ for which the Workers are still known: communities, often in run-down neighborhoods, where addicts, refugees or other people in need can come for food, clothing and shelter. Since then hundreds of such communities have been established in all the cities of America and outside the US as well.” Catholic Workers are devoted to living out the Gospel in a literal, simple way, and they own as little property as possible. “Just like the early Franciscans. In a culture where many people prefer to live alone with their families, Dorothy challenged people to experiment with hospitality.”
Dorothy Day, says Forest, is still relevant for her radical social critique. “She didn’t think charity was enough. She wanted a society in which it was easier to be good, a society that was more hospitable to the poor and the stranger. Her action on behalf of trade unions and for peace often brought her into conflict with the authorities. She called herself an anarchist, by which she didn’t mean overthrowing the government but being loyal to the Gospel first and then to the government.”
Most Catholic Workers have spent time in jail, following the example of Day herself. Forest also spent more than a year in prison for burning draft records in 1968 during the Vietnam War. He conducted the action in public along with a group of clergy, while the Gospel was being read. “Sometimes you have to commit civil disobedience. But the purpose should always be to convey a message, never just to be confrontational.” His radicalism is not leftist, he says. “The good thing about the left is that sometimes they’re the only ones who do something about unemployment, war or racism. But when it becomes a religion, opponents are soon seen as political objects. Are you a follower of Wilders [the anti-Muslim Dutch politician]? Then I’m supposed to despise you! According to Christianity, however, I must always give the other the chance to repent by not getting in the way with a sense of my own self-importance. Every day I work on cleaning up my act.”
In 1977 Forest and his family came to the Netherlands to work for an international peace organization. “We were involved in the movement against nuclear weapons. They were being stored in Bergen, within cycling distance of my house. The movement was very important ? internationally, too ? but I always felt there was something lacking. The work of consciousness-raising was focused mainly on fear. ‘If the Russians launch a nuclear weapon on the storage site, all of North Holland will be destroyed!’ But it was that fear that was the most important cause of the Cold War.” For real peace you have to get to know the person behind the enemy, Forest believes, and for this reason he decided to visit the Soviet Union. He was so impressed by the church there that in 1988 he and his wife joined the Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam.
The Eastern Orthodox are not among the most progressive Christians under the sun, Forest admits, and he even has a joke about it: “How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “None! What is this ‘change’?” The Orthodox churches have a survival mentality, Forest explains, which is quite understandable. “They’re in countries where you want to be seen as little as possible. But the social tradition is very rich. This is why we set up the Orthodox Peace Fellowship ? to tell those stories. We talk about the most important compiler of the Orthodox Liturgy, for example, John Chrysostom, the fourth-century Patriarch of Constantinople. He was exiled by the emperor for being too socially radical. According to him, you cannot find Christ on the altar if you have failed to see him in the beggar at the church door. Every day you must try to see the face of God in the other.” Forest laughs: “Christianity is really so bloody simple!”
Without that attitude, working for peace becomes a matter of dividing people into the good guys and the bad guys, and you have to choose which one you want to belong to. “The other side is never going to listen to you. If you want them to change, you have to enter into a relationship with them. Peace work is tied up with love, even if ideology sees that as betrayal.”
For Forest, peace work is more than solving violent conflicts. “It’s about everything that makes relationships, families and society more healthy. If you’re not working for peace ? if you’re making things that people don’t need, for instance ? you’re probably not in the right place. Hospitality is peace work, too. Peace work begins when you open your door, when you open your face.”
That can be exhausting, Forest knows from experience. There are so many people in need. “The people who inspire me ? Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi ? all say that you won’t last without prayer. It was a daily discipline for them, and it was more than meditating. Prayer is conversation with God, in which God is usually silent. But that doesn’t mean you can’t hear him. There are deathly silences but there are also audible silences.”
This is how we find the strength to keep from doing what society and advertising tell us to do. “They tell us we ought to be afraid. We must always refuse to listen to them. This is less exciting than exposing abuses, of course, but it is just as much a form of civil disobedience.”
Jim Forest (1942) is a journalist. He is married and has six children. Despite his communist upbringing, he soon found his way to Christian belief. Through Dorothy Day he was introduced to the Catholic Worker community in New York. At that time he was actively involved in the civil rights movement and campaigns against the Vietnam War, for which he spent more than a year in prison. “A great year,” he calls it. “I could finally read Dostoyevsky, at Dorothy’s recommendation. And I had time for the Bible.” Forest was also a friend of the famous monk Thomas Merton.
In 1977 Forest was appointed general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in the Netherlands. After traveling to the Soviet Union in the eighties he became Russian Orthodox. Since then he has been international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, for which he was the editor-in-chief of the magazine In Communion until this summer.
He has written several books on spirituality in addition to a few children’s books, and has recently published a new biography of Dorothy Day entitled All is Grace. Day (1897-1980) was an American journalist who, along with Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker, a movement for nonviolent action dedicated to helping the poor that is also active in Amsterdam.
One of the most bizarre and disheartening experiences I had during my many years working in the peace movement was the passionate opposition I encountered from a number of fellow anti-war activists when I circulated reports I had received from Thich Nhat Hanh and other reliable sources of major human rights violations in post-war Vietnam. The reports led me to propose an effort be made by well-known war resisters to urge the Hanoi government to open its prisons and “re-education camps” to inspection by staff of Amnesty International or the International Red Cross.
Little did I anticipate the firestorm that quickly followed.
(Apologies for any typos — this is scanned from a photocopy.)
Worldview magazine (NY) / April 1977
There will always be people to minimize violations of human rights and to justify those they acknowledge. This is happening now in the case of Vietnam.
Fighting Among the Doves
by Jim Finn
At the end of the war in April, 1975, there was no bloodbath, as some of the more harsh antagonists of North Vietnam predicted. That terrible possibility not having come to pass, many Americans were pleased to turn their attention elsewhere. But others, including some leaders of the antiwar movement in this country, did not let falter their interest in and their compassion for the cruelly tried people of Vietnam. They collected as much information as they could about what was going on in Vietnam. Much of it was admirable, even impressive. But gradually rumors, reports, unverifiable but persuasive testimony, foreign news stories, and the accounts from refugees forced some people to believe that there was also in Vietnam a substantial violation of human rights.
Those moved by this evidence mounted relatively modest efforts to place their concern before officials of the Vietnamese Government. At first they wrote private letters to Mr. Dinh Ba Thi, the Vietnam Observer to the United Nations, and when these went unanswered, they made a public appeal. But even as these efforts were going forward, they were attacked by people who questioned the accuracy of the reports and the propriety and usefulness of making them public.
It becomes increasingly clear that, taken seriously, the issue of human rights is divisive. It disturbs what might otherwise be stable relations between individuals, between organizations. between governments.
Having taken seriously the issue of human rights in Vietnam, the “peace movement” in this country has splintered into different and sometimes acrimonious factions. People who marched side by side in antiwar demonstrations and sometimes shared the same cell for their acts of resistance now approach quite differently the reports of human rights violations in Vietnam, the explanations and justifications offered by the Vietnamese, and the moral and political responsibility of American war resisters.
As trivial and unsavory as the exchanges between the factions sometimes are, the debate itself is important. It is important because its outcome will influence the attitudes of Americans toward issues of human rights, even more important because it may help determine the fate of political prisoners in Vietnam. On both sides of the debate are writers, publicists, and leaders in various organizations — people who influence attitudes and policies in this country and may even influence those in Vietnam.
That is what gives whatever significance it has to this debate on human rights.
The first organized efforts to get some response from officials of the Vietnam Government were begun last September, when Richard Neuhaus, senior editor of Worldview, in cooperation with Jim Forest, drafted an initial version of the Appeal. Forest, a prisoner some years back for acts of war resistance, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), and editor of its magazine, Fellowship, also wrote an article (“Vietnam: Unification Without Reconciliation”) in the journal detailing the charges with which he was concerned. The draft of the “Appeal to the Government of Vietnam Regarding Human Rights” was then reworked with the help of Tom Cornell of FOR; Laura Hassler, formerly with the U.S. Liaison Office for the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation; and Robert Ellsberg, managing editor of the Catholic Worker.
Before the Appeal was made public Jim Forest, wrote letters to the Vietnamese Observer to the U. N. asking for some response. These went unanswered. Among other unanswered letters to the Vietnamese Observer to the U.N. are a letter sent by over twenty Representatives to Congress and another sent last fall by Sanford Gottlieb, Executive Director of SANE. Citing the long history of that organization’s opposition to the war, the letter looked forward to the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations, but it also expressed concern about reports of hundreds of thousands of detainees, including Third Force parliamentarians, Hoa Hao leaders, and Buddhists who had staunchly opposed the Thieu regime — reports that had come from both the press and private Vietnamese sources.
In gathering corroborative evidence for the Appeal this ad hoc group relied upon the reports of experienced journalists such as Jean Lacouture and Patrice De Beer, whom the Vietnamese revolutionaries had respected for their reporting during the war years and who had spent considerable time in Vietnam since the war; on individuals who had been reliable sources of information concerning repression and torture during the Diem-Thieu regime; on the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which, throughout the war, worked to bring it to an end, assisted draft resisters, and advocated political tolerance; and on the testimony of some refugees.
This Appeal was then signed by about a hundred people who shared opposition to the war and now share a concern for the violation of human rights in Vietnam. (See partial text and attached list of signers.) The Appeal calls for the admission of Vietnam to the U.N. and for aid to that country, and it ends, as it begins, on a note of hope. But the burden of the Appeal is to call attention to reported violations of human rights in Vietnam, the thousands in “re-education” camps, including named individuals who opposed Thieu, and the “tragic self-immolation of 12 monks and nuns in Can Tho Province” who burned themselves on November 2, 1975, as a protest against repressive measures.
This Appeal was sent to the Vietnamese Ambassador on November 16, with a request for a meeting. There was no immediate response, but the Appeal formed the basis for a well-publicized press conference held by The International League for Human Rights on December 29, 1976. The conference made public a letter from Roger Baldwin, a veteran fighter for the protection of human rights and Honorary President of the League. Formally requesting Ambassador Dinh Ba Thi to convey the Appeal to his Government, Baldwin’s letter said in part:
“As a non-governmental organization affiliated with the United Nations, we address you to convey our deep concern with reported activities of your Government which appear to be in violation of the human rights principles to which we assume your Government subscribes by virtue of its United Nations connection.
“These activities, supported by documentation, cover suppression of language held to be critical of the Government or its policies, thus contravening Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In similar fashion, other articles of the Declaration appear to be violated in the detention of political prisoners solely for activities not involving violence or organized opposition. In this connection, we enclose a petition addressed to your Government and signed by 90 well-known Americans concerned with foreign affairs.”
The Vietnamese immediately responded publicly to this press conference, and early in February I received — as I presume all who signed the Appeal received — a letter from Ambassador Dinh Ba Thi saying he had been instructed by the Prime Minister, Mr. Pham Van Dong, to reply to the November mailing. The rather sketchy reply was in two parts: first, a one-page “aide-memoire” denying in general terms any violation of human rights and second, a one-page statement commenting on three specific cases, including “The ‘Immolation’ in Can Tho.”
The aide-memoire stated that those who had opposed Thieu now occupied “well-deserved positions in the new society,” and those who were misguided but have learned better and repented are now full members of the new society. “Being detained are only those who had done so much harm to the people and the country and now continue to sabotage activities against the laws and the peaceful life of the people.”
What is offered as a description of what took place in Can Tho deserves full quotation:
“According to the testimony of the witnesses, the following are facts on the so-called “immolation” in Thien Vien Duoc Su Temple, Tan Long A hamlet, Tan Binh village, Phung Hiep district, Can Tho province, on the night of November 1, 1975:
“1. Pham Van Co was a wrong-doer who claimed himself specialized in medical treatment for women but his only purpose was to give sexual stimulation. He disguised a s monk and had been twice admitted to live in temples but twice he was expelled for immoral conduct of promiscuity which is severely forbidden by Buddhism. April 1970, he set up for himself a pagoda in Tan Long hamlet named Thien Vien Duoc Su and called himself Duoc Su Nhu Lai (Buddha The Healer) where he admitted young women as disciples for his sexual satisfaction.
“2. 1972, a nun called Dieu Hau was pregnant with him. He killed her and burnt her corpse at midnight, then spread the news about her “immolation for peace.”
“3. 1974, another nun named Dieu Nguyen became pregnant. He also killed her and burnt her corpse to erase evidences of his crime.
“4. After the liberation of South Viet Nam, Co continued his immoral conduct and housed prostitutes in his temple. In face of being exposed, Co decided to end his life, burnt the temple and himself after killing 11 others including two youngsters. This incident however was described by some reactionary elements as an “immolation” to accuse the local authorities of repressing religion.”
This account of what is taking place in Vietnam and of what took place in Can Tho differs from reports offered by reliable journalists, refugees, and the Unified Buddhist Church. One might expect that a group of people who had learned to distrust official government statements would at least express cautious skepticism of reports from Vietnamese officials and lend support to the Appeal, which suggests that some independent international agency investigate discrepancies in the accounts of what is taking place in Vietnam.
The Appeal has generated such a response, but it has also provoked sharp attacks against those who initiated and those who signed it.
For his efforts Jim Forest has been accused of being an agent of the CIA, of needing to spend some time in a reeducation camp, of being a covert anti-Communist, of being a white bourgeois American — of anything that might undermine the legitimacy of his efforts. The present Chairman of Clergy and Laity Concerned (of which Richard Neuhaus was co-founder) wrote a letter to the Washington Post and the New York Times to dissociate the organization from the Appeal, in the course of which letter he criticized not Vietnam but the United States. In the first issue of Seven Days, of which he is a staff member, David Dellinger, a longtime pacifist, accused those who initiated the Appeal of “circulating for sometime now every remotely credible rumor it could get its hand on that, if true, would discredit the new Vietnamese government.” He states that the two major sources of their information are Thich Nhat Hanh (who was not allowed in Vietnam under Thieu’s regime and is not allowed in now) and Ted Jacqueney, both of whom Dellinger suggests are untrustworthy because they were long hostile to the National Liberation Front and Hanoi.
Another person who totally rejects the grounds of the Appeal is Gareth Porter of the Indochina Resource Center (which Graham A. Martin, the last U.S. ambassador in Saigon, bitterly credited with undermining essential support for the war — no small beer). Porter has organized a group that subscribes to the sentiment that there is no evidence that allows anyone “to impugn the good faith” of the Vietnamese Government in regard to human rights. He assesses the facts as he perceives them and concludes that they do not provide a warrant for investigative action. Presumably, if he were led to a different assessment or were presented with irrefutable evidence that serious violations of human rights do exist, he would change his stance.
For others, however, even hard evidence would not be sufficient to warrant investigation. Consider, for example, a longtime pacifist deeply engaged in Vietnamese affairs over the years. Writing from Hong Kong to take issue with Jim Forest, he stated:
“Even if I believed that there was a consistent policy of the violation of human rights, I just would not have the nerve — as an American — to tell the Vietnamese how to organize their society. Rather I would, I do — acknowledge and confess my own complicity in allowing the war to go on for such a long time …. If the Vietnamese had chosen the course of mass executions and plunder, of political prisoners and torture, it would have been our own strategies of terror and brutality which drove them to it.”
Not to have the nerve to defend those unjustly punished be cause one is an American is failure of nerve indeed. Rational discussion on these terms is difficult.
Other prominent Americans have both minimized the evidence that has been offered and shifted responsibility on thi s issue from Vietnam to the United States. A number of these people signed a statement (drawn up by Corliss Lamont and published in the New York Times on January 30 of this year), which estimates the number of people “detained in re-education centers” as 40,000 and states that many of these people are guilty of “rape, murder, torture, bribery and extortion.” That number of imprisoned “Saigon collaborationists” is smaller than almost all other estimates. (Early in February, 1977, Fox Butterfield of the New York Times estimated 200,000, and even Vietnam’s Ambassador to France put the number at 50,000.)
But the number is further diminished in importance by comparing it to the “several million Vietnamese involved in Saigon’s war effort.” If these people are being “detained” for the crimes imputed to them in this statement, one would like to know if they have been so charged by the Government and whether they have passed through even a crude judicial process. These are questions usually pressed by those who are concerned with human rights. The signers of this statement assert, however, that “Vietnam presents a very different case.” That, of course, is what is at issue.
In the ongoing debate between those who signed what has been labeled the Forest Appeal and those who criticize it, the national office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has played an important role. Staff members, working from this Quaker office in Philadelphia, have circulated letters and statements sharply criticizing those who shaped that Appeal and challenging the validity of the evidence that has been offered. Louis W. Schneider, the Executive Secretary, wrote a letter to all signers of the Appeal saying that the evidence offered “is either open to serious question or is insufficiently substantiated in order to be able to make particular allegations concerning certain individuals who may have suffered a loss of human rights. Indeed, in certain instances, including the alleged immolation, there is contradictory information. Until such questions are dispelled or more authentic documentation is adduced, our colleagues demur to subscribe either to generalizations or to representations on behalf of particular individuals who may have been cited.” The judgment of AFSC, he concludes, is that the government of Vietnam is acting with extraordinary humaneness.
From the Quaker International Center in Paris, the Director, Joseph Heflin, “after much investigation into international law concerning the protection of human rights,” wrote to ask that his name be withdrawn from the Appeal, which he had originally signed, for the following reasons:
First, “Since the United States Government has failed to ratify a single United Nations Convention on Human Rights, I am no longer in a position to sign any appeal as an American citizen which is addressed to another Government….”
Second, “I also believe it to be most presumptuous of me to have taken this stand when the U.S. Government has still not officially recognized the Republic of Vietnam at the United Nations.”
The rationale of the first reason would, one presumes, hobble even President Carter and that of the second once again places responsibility on the U.S. And, in the meantime, about those political prisoners in Vietnam, well….
That reasoning does not, however, permeate Quaker activities in this country or in Vietnam. During the war, some members of the national staff talked with representatives of the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) and publicly supported, not simply peace, but a North Vietnamese victory. Soon after the war the AFSC circulated a letter in which a staff member; describing the killing of looters in Vietnam, implicitly endorsed the execution of such summary justice. These staff members continue to be sympathetic to the victors in that war. Nothing criminal about that — even if it does suggest a political orientation most people do not associate with the Quakers. But it helps to explain why some AFSC staff members are skeptical of those whom they regard, correctly or not, as anti-Communist. (In this debate, perversely recalling some of those in the 1950’s, the charge of being anti-Communist is exactly that — a charge.)
One could spend more time threading the byzantine corridors of this potentially significant debate. But we only arrive, finally, at what in these circumstances is the overwhelming question: Presented with the evidence available and the argument that swirls around it, how can most of us reach a practical decision? Morally and politically, what are we to do? Ignore the alleged violations, accept them as the inevitable if regrettable concomitant of Socialist reconstruction, or urge their investigation and possible mitigation?
Each person who signed the Appeal — or refused to — must speak for him or herself. Joan Baez, for example, correctly pointed out that the letter was not an indictment but an inquiry as well as an appeal. And she added:
“Although there is doubt concerning the political prisoners in Vietnam, I would rather err in unintentionally offending government officials anywhere in the world, to whom I would apologize later if I have been mistaken, than to offend one political prisoner whom I might now conceivably help and whom later I may never be able to reach.
“In offering my own reasons for signing the Appeal I acknowledge that one moves in an area in which facts are inseparable from judgment and a degree of uncertainty is inevitable, that one relies upon reports from those one has earlier learned to trust. Many of us during the war relied upon the journalistic reports of Jean Lacouture. When he now reports on the number of prisoners in Vietnam, I know of no particular reason to distrust him. During the war some of the information I received came through the good offices of Jim Forest, Tom Cornell, the Catholic Peace Fellowship, and their sources. It checked out. Although they are not infallible, I see no reason to distrust them now. And there are others I could name whose help I have received. For fear of reprisal some of these sources cannot be named, but that, too, was true during the war when we relied, many of us; on publicly unnamed sources.
“There is, in addition, the general attitude and expectation that one brings to bear on postwar situations. I don’t mean a possible ideological approach that might obscure — or clarify — one’s observations. I mean the kind of thing that forces one to feel with a heavy heart the truth of Lacouture’s remark, itself the expression of deep sadness, that ‘it is better for someone trying to preserve intact his admiration for a revolution not to know its victims.’
“This recalled to me when I first read it Camus’s reference to ‘justice, that eternal refugee from the camp of the victor.’ I have a general expectation that grave injustices will be inflicted upon the defeated after almost any war, and almost certainly after one fought under the banner of revolution. That expectation may be dismissed as undue skepticism or cynicism, as insufficient faith in and reliance upon the goodness inherent in humankind. I would like to be persuaded that this were so and that Vietnam today could be the instrument of my conversion. But the melancholy history of wars and their aftermath, to which recent decades have contributed a possibly undue share, seems not to point in that direction. My own hope is that the injustices that occur will be limited, and finally brought under civilizing control. That is my hope concerning Vietnam.”
And what of those visitors to Vietnam, some of whom are obviously intelligent, sincere, concerned, diligent, who bring back highly favorable reports, contradictory to harsher views? Are not they to be trusted? For the most part, the efforts of these people are to be honored and their sincerity respected. But we know that honorable people have traveled through other countries and brought back glowing reports, unaware that they had passed through and around areas that were scenes of extensive misery and horror. I know that I could guide a stranger, even an English-speaking foreigner, through the streets of New York (skipping Harlem and South Bronx) and lead him to make a report of this city that Mayor Beame himself might find unduly fulsome. I cannot think the Vietnamese leaders are less skilled than I, and I consider it natural that they would like to display the most attractive aspects of their new society.”
There is one other point, which for Staughton Lynd was critical. In an open letter to Dave Dellinger explaining why he and Alice Lynd signed the Appeal, Lynd wrote that “Any revolutionary government finds itself much less threatened by the ordinary adherents of the overthrown regime, who often enough have opportunistic motives for throwing their support to the new men of power, than by persons who opposed the old regime for principled reasons other than the reasons of the victors. It is this kind of person who fares worst the day after the revolution. In Russia, the Social Revolutionaries, the Workers Opposition, the Kronstadt rebels were persons of this kind. This is a point I keep in mind when I read, for example, of the people described by Ted Jacqueney in his accounts of Vietnamese prisoners.”
What then is to be done? The Appeal itself is modest in that it asks only for an examination of the mounting charges of serious violations of human rights in Vietnam. The work of reconciliation should go forward, but we should not avert our eyes from possible abuses that we would object to in other countries tor whose people we felt special concern. As it was well expressed at the World Council of Churches meeting in Nairobi, “it is impossible to have zones of silence in the area of human rights.” It is not impossible to have some impartial international body investigate, with the help of the present Government of Vietnam, the questions that are being raised and that, if left unresolved, will continue to fester. Since it is not impossible, and since it is desirable, we should work to bring it about.
* * *
APPEAL TO THE GOVERNMENT OF VIETNAM (Partial Text)
Beginning soon after the victory of North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government in the Spring of 1975, and sharply increasing in recent months, reports have reached us indicating grievous and systematic violations of human rights by your government. The evidence is too specific and persuasive for us to ignore.
Especially with regard to those imprisoned or otherwise detained, in May a Vietnamese official stated that 200,000 were being held in re-education camps. while some respected foreign journalists in Vietnam have estimated 300,000 detainees — the actions of your government constitute a great disappointment to all those who expected not the “bloodbath” so eagerly predicted by the American White House but rather an example of reconciliation built on tolerance. We realize that those held include individuals responsible for aspects of the war and the repressive mechanisms of the former Saigon government. But, having believed your fervent past expressions of commitment to human rights, we are deeply saddened to hear of the arrest and detention of a wide range of persons. including religious. cultural and political figures who opposed the Thieu government despite considerable personal risks, such individuals as Bui Tung Hum, Doan Quoc Sy, Luong Trong Tuong, Fr. Tran Huu Thanh, Tran Van Tuyen. Tran Ngoc Chau, Vu Hoang Chuong, Hong Hai Thuy and Duyen Anh.
Differences among us on what could be hoped for in the revolution’s victory did not in the past hamper our solidarity in opposing America’s intervention. Our agreement, then and now, transcends difference in ideology and analysis, being firmly grounded in our concern for the lives of the Vietnamese people. We have recognized that the credibility of our witness is related to the candor with which we demonstrate our concerns and our commitment to certain ethical precepts regardless of politics….
We therefore call upon you to honor the concern for human rights which you have expressed both in formal agreements and in countless conversations with peace activists. We call for a complete public accounting of those detained or imprisoned indicating as well, the charges for which they are held. We call on the government of Vietnam to facilitate on-the-spot inspection by the United Nations, Amnesty International or other independent international agencies in order to assure that those in the government’s charge are treated in accord with international covenants regarding human rights. We call on you to release any individuals who are held purely because of their religious or political convictions. We call for government recognition of the right to open and free communication.
We recall the tragic self-immolation of l2 monks and nuns in Can Tho Province last November 2, protesting administrative orders redefining and drastically restricting their religious practice. We have noted reports that many service projects of the Unified Buddhist Church (An Quang), including those assisting war orphans. have been closed, their funds frozen and properties confiscated….
James K. Aiu
James V. Albertini
Joan C. Baez
David R. Brower
Angie O’Gorman Calvert
Arthur W. Clark
Community for Creative Nonviolence
Thomas C. Cornell
The Rev. Frederick Johnson
R. Scott Kennedy
Bishop John J. Dougherty
Bishop Carroll T. Dozier
Congressman Donald M. Fraser
Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
Mary Ellen Hombs
Wallace J. Inglis
Homer A. Jack
Bernard S. Lee
John E. Muior
Richard John Neuhaus
Ira J. Sandperl
Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild
Abbie Jane Wells
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf
* * *
VIETNAM: A TIME FOR HEALING AND COMPASSION (Partial Text)
… some Saigon collaborationists have been detained in re-education centers, perhaps 40,000 at present. But such a number is surprisingly small considering the several million Vietnamese involved in Saigon’s war effort. it is well to recall the savagery with which the Saigon regime pursued its war policy before condemning the new Vietnam leadership for taking steps to punish and re-educate the worst wrong-doers. Many of those detained engaged in crimes against their own people, including rape, murder, torture, bribery and extortion. On balance, consider the terrible difficulties left behind by the war and made worse by America’s continued hostility. The present government of Vietnam should be hailed for its moderation and for its extraordinary effort to achieve reconciliation among all of its people.
We share the view that American citizens should be gravely concerned about abuses of human rights, whether they occur in our country or abroad. This concern is especially appropriate where our government supports a foreign regime that is engaged in flagrant abuse of its own people — abuses including systematic torture. But Vietnam presents a very different case. The present suffering of the
Vietnamese people is largely a consequence of the war itself for which the United States bears a continuing responsibility.
James Armstrong, Bishop, United Methodist Church
Richard Barnet, Co-Director, Institute for Policy Studies
Norma Becker, Chairwoman, War Resisters League
Atlee Beechy, Mennonite Central Committee
Robert McAfee Brown, Professor Union Theological
Robert S. Browne, Director, Black Economic Research
Mrs. Eleanor Brussel, Educator
David Dellinger, Seven Days Magazine
Prof. Richard A. Falk, Milbank Professor of Law,
Howard Frazier, Executive Director, Promoting Enduring
Rev. Stephen H. Fritchman, Unitarian Minister
Don Luce. Co-Director, Clergy and Laity Concerned
John McAuliff, Coordinator, Appeal for Reconciliation
Paul F. McCleary, Executive Director, Church World
Grace Paley, Author
Dr. Paul Sweezy, Co-editor, Monthly Review
George W. Webber, President, New York Theological Seminary
Cora Weiss, National Coordinator, Friendshipment
Corliss Lamont, Author, Coordinator
* * *
James Finn is Editor-in-Chief of Worldiew and author of Protest, Pacifism and Politics, a study of the antiwar movement.
* * *