A few memories of Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh, Paris, early ’70s (copyright: Jim Forest)

I traveled and also at times lived with Thich Nhat Hanh in the late sixties through the seventies. Here are extracts from various letters in which Nancy and I relate a few stories about him. In these passages Nhat Hanh is sometimes called “Thay”, the Vietnamese word for teacher.

— Jim Forest

* * *

I sometimes think of an evening with Vietnamese friends in a cramped apartment in the outskirts of Paris in the early 1970s. At the heart of the community was the poet and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh. An interesting discussion was going on the living room, but I had been given the task that evening of doing the washing up. The pots, pans and dishes seemed to reach half way to the ceiling on the counter of the sink in that closet-sized kitchen. I felt really annoyed. I was stuck with an infinity of dirty dishes while a great conversation was happening just out of earshot in the living room.

Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was suddenly facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’ve been mulling over that answer ever since — more than three decades of mulling.

But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”

That sentence was a flash of lightning. While I still mostly wash the dishes to get them clean, every now and then I find I am, just for a passing moment, washing the baby Jesus. And when that happens, though I haven’t gone anywhere, it’s something like reaching the Mount of the Beatitudes after a very long walk.

* * *

In correspondence with a friend not long ago, I was reminded of this one:

I recall going with Nhat Hanh and Phuong to one of the Paris airports to pick up a volunteer who was arriving from America. On the way back, the volunteer stressed how dedicated a vegetarian she was and how good it was to be with people who were such committed vegetarians. Passing by the shop of a poultry butcher in Paris, Nhat Hanh asked Phuong to stop. He went inside and bought a chicken, which we ate that night for supper at our apartment in Sceaux. It’s the only time I know of when Nhat Hanh ate meat.

* * *

Another story:

I often think about how Thich Nhat Hanh uses the image of one river/two shores as a way of attacking dualistic perception: Standing on a river bank, I see two shores, the shore I am standing on and the shore facing me, on the other side of the river. Two shores — you see them with your own eyes — two! But in reality there is only one shore. If I walk from where I stand to the source of the river and continue round that point, the “other side” becomes this side — the two-ness was created only by bending it. In time I will be on the opposite embankment, facing the spot where I was formerly standing, and I will have never crossed the stream to get there and I will never have changed shores.

* * *

Nhat Hanh and I were both friends of the Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton. They only met once, in May 1967. Merton immediately recognized Nhat Hanh as someone very like himself — a similar sense of humor, a similar outlook on the world and its wars, one of which was at the time killing many people in Vietnam. As the two monks talked, the different religious systems in which they were formed provided bridges. “Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother,” Merton wrote soon after their meeting. “He is more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things exactly the same way.” When Merton asked Nhat Hanh what the war was doing to Vietnam, the Buddhist said simply, “Everything is destroyed.” This, Merton said to the monks in a talk he gave a few days later, was truly a monk’s answer, just three words revealing the essence of the situation.

Merton described the formation of young Buddhist monks in Vietnam and the fact that instruction in meditation doesn’t begin early. First comes a great deal of gardening and dish washing. “Before you can learn to meditate,” Nhat Hanh told Merton, “you have to learn how to close the door.” The monks to whom Merton told the story laughed — they were used to the reverberation of slamming doors as latecomers raced to the church.

* * *

And another:

I recall an experience I had during the late sixties when I was accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh on a lecture trip in the United States. He was about to give a lecture at the University of Michigan on the war in Vietnam. Waiting for the elevator doors to open, I noticed my brown-robed companion gazing at the electric clock above the elevator doors. Then he said, “You know, Jim, a few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.” He was right. The clock is a religious object in our world, one so powerful that it can depose another.

* * *

It was from Thich Nhat Hanh that I first became aware of walking as an opportunity to repair the damaged connection between the physical and the spiritual.

In the late sixties, he asked me to accompany him on his lecture trips in the United States. He spoke to audiences about Vietnamese culture and what the war looked like to ordinary Vietnamese people. At times he also spoke about the monastic vocation and meditation.

In conversation, Nhat Hanh sometimes spoke of the importance of what he called “mindful breathing,” a phrase that seemed quite odd to me at first. Yet I was aware that his walking was somehow different than mine and could imagine this might have something to do with his way of breathing. Even if we were late for an appointment, he walked in an attentive, unhurried way.

It wasn’t until we climbed the steps to my sixth floor apartment in Manhattan that I began to [talk] take his example to heart. Though in my late twenties and very fit, I was out of breath by the time I reached my front door. Nhat Hanh, on the other hand, seemed rested. I asked him how he did that. “You have to learn how to breathe while you walk,” he replied. “Let’s go back to the bottom and walk up again. I will show you how to breathe while climbing stairs.” On the way back up, he quietly described how he was breathing. It wasn’t a difficult lesson. Linking slow, attentive breaths with taking the stairs made an astonishing difference. The climb took one or two minutes longer, but when I reached my door I found myself refreshed instead of depleted.

In the seventies, I spent time in France with Nhat Hanh on a yearly basis. He was better known then — his home had become for many people a center of pilgrimage. One of the things I found him teaching was his method of attentive walking. Once a day, all his guests would set off in a silent procession led by him. The walk was prefaced with his advice that we practice slow, mindful breathing while at the same time being aware of each footstep, seeing each moment of contact between foot and earth as a prayer for peace. We went single file, moving slowly, deeply aware of the texture of the earth and grass, the scent of the air, the movement of leaves in the trees, the sound of insects and birds. Many times as I walked I was reminded of the words of Jesus: “You must be like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Such attentive walking was a return to the hyper-alertness of childhood.

Mindful breathing connected with mindful walking gradually becomes normal. It is then a small step to connect walking and breathing with prayer.

* * *

Here is a story about him told by Nancy:

I came to the Netherlands in April of 1982 with my daughter Caitlan, who was five years old at the time. Jim and I were married shortly after that. We had been friends for many years in the US. Both of us worked together at the headquarters of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Nyack, New York, and Jim move to Holland in 1977 to serve as general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). We had kept in touch during those five years. Jim was Cait’s godfather.

Shortly after I had moved here, Jim told me Thich Nhat Hanh would be coming to Alkmaar to visit. I had never met Nhat Hanh, but of course I had heard a great deal about him, and I knew how close Jim and Nhat Hanh had been over the years. Jim said Nhat Hanh would be coming to our house, and that the IFOR staff would be coming over as well to meet with him.

It was a beautiful day in May. First the staff arrived and took seats in our living room, then Nhat Hanh himself arrived, dressed in his brown robe. A hush fell over the staff members, and everyone was apparently in awe of this man. I remember feeling nervous that he was coming to our house, nervous about hosting this event. After he had sat down, the room fell silent and a sort of Zen silence fell on the room. It was hard for me to tell what to make of the atmosphere in the living room that day, but it made me uncomfortable.

In the meantime, Cait, who had just been giving her first bicycle and was practicing riding it in the parking lot behind our house, kept running in to tell me how far she was advancing. So you have this room full of awestruck adults sitting there with what appeared to me glazed looks on their faces, and my little daughter running in, breathless with excitement.

After Nhat Hanh finished speaking with the staff, Jim came up to me and told me he had invited him to dinner. This was a little more than I could handle. I went into the kitchen at the back of the house and started chopping vegetables. I remember feeling that I really had to get out of that living room, that there was something definitely weird about what was going on there. It didn’t feel genuine, while the vegetables were certain genuine and so was Cait.

After a few minutes, Nhat Hanh came into the kitchen and, almost effortlessly, started helping me with the vegetables. I think he just started talking to me in the most ordinary way. He ended up telling me how to make rice balls — how to grind the sesame seeds in a coffee grinder, to make the balls with sticky rice and to roll them in the ground sesame seeds. It was lots of fun and I remember laughing with him. The artificial Zen atmosphere was completely absent. Cait kept coming in, and Nhat Hanh was delighted with her.

This was my first Zen lesson.

— Nancy Forest

* * *

And this also comes from Nancy…

Notes of a conversation with Thich Nhat Hanh on August 21, 1984 at the Plum Village in France”

(Thay was outside sitting on a stone.)

Nancy: Do you have a moment to talk?

Thay: Yes, please. Sit here on a stone.

N: I’ve felt rather out of it here. I’m not a person from one of the Zen Centers, and I’m not an old friend, like Jim.

T: (very emphatically) No, no! You are wrong. Maybe you are better than Jim!

N: (I tell him my “North Pole” experience — how, when I was young, I had a profound experience of standing at the point on the globe where all lines converge and intersect — an overwhelming experience of being at the absolute Center.)

T: It’s true we are each, as you say, like the North Pole. (He takes a stick and places it at the edge of his stone.) We are each on the edge. We are each separate, and each one of us has everyone within us.

N: How can that be?

T: (He holds up a leaf.) As this leaf holds within it everything – all the sun, all water, all earth.

N: But it also makes you realize we do everything alone. Everything, every step – alone. Walk through life alone. Die alone.

T: Yes. I told the people in the Zen Centers in America, “Meditation is a personal matter!” (He smiles.) That means meditation is an exercise in being alone – in realizing what it is to be alone. There is a story in Zen Buddhism about a monk. His name was (pause), “The Monk Who Was Alone.” He did everything alone – eat alone, wash dishes alone – everything. They said to him, “Why do you do everything alone?” He said, “Because that is the way we are.”

N: (I tell him how, lately, I’ve been reading so many things which all seem to pertain to this event. How I pick up a book or read an article, and it all connects. I tell him at first I thought it was a coincidence that so much of what I read is connected.)

T: (Smiles and shakes his head.) It’s no coincidence.

N: I’ve read some of Merton. And about the Hasidic Jews. And the story of the Fall in the Bible – Adam and Eve. About how, before the Fall, Eve just stood in her place, and walked in the garden. God had given them everything they needed, and it was all good. Eve didn’t know what evil was. Then when she was tempted to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, she decided there wasn’t enough for her, just standing there – even though she didn’t have any idea what “evil” was. So by eating, she destroyed the garden.

I’ve thought a lot about that here – walking slowly through the woods.

T: But you know – good and evil are just concepts. Maybe even the serpent was good, and the apple. All good. It’s like this stick. I can say, “This half is good, this half is evil.” They’re all concepts. Maybe Eve was even good after the Fall. You say “before the Fall – after the Fall.” It’s all the same.

N: The Hasidic Jews always are dancing. It’s all holy, everything. But after Eve ate the apple, we don’t know if she really was able to know good from evil – we only know she was ashamed.

(Thay smiles.)

N: Merton said Eve wasn’t good before the Fall and bad afterwards. He said she was her True Self before the Fall and not her True Self afterwards.

T: And he also said, “Everything is Good.” (He smiles and stares at me) – and he said that in Bangkok! (Long pause.) You know, if you are really able to understand this, you can look at all the nuclear weapons and … (very long pause – his eyes scan the distance) … and smile.

* * *

A Pilgrimage to Hell

view from the tower at Birkenau

by Jim Forest

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions…”
— Primo Levi, survivor of Auschwitz, If This is a Man

No one is certain how many died at Auschwitz. Most prisoners were gassed soon after arrival without having been registered, while, for those who were registered, the SS destroyed the bulk of their records before abandoning the camp. But years of research have shown that the figure is not less than 1.1-million people. Even that minimum figure leaves us with a number beyond comprehension. One million plus one-hundred thousand. In the summer months, there are perhaps that many leaves on the trees in the park where I take a walk each morning before starting work. I live in a city of 100,000 people — thus the number killed equals everyone in this city plus ten more of the same size. But in fact there is no way to envision such a number meaningfully. I cannot take it in.

The way we usually deal with so large a number of human casualties is to focus on just a single face. One face, one story. This is manageable. A single life and death can open a window on a vast crowd.

The most well known face of the Holocaust is Anne Frank, who was fifteen when she and her family arrived at Auschwitz. (From there she was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where she died.) It is consoling to know that her diary has been read or seen enacted in film or on stage by far more people than died in all the Nazi concentration camps combined. Millions have visited her hiding place in Amsterdam. In July 1944, shortly before she and her family were taken away, she wrote in her diary, “I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more.”

Or there is the face of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish scholar who wrote another widely-read diary of life in Amsterdam during the German occupation, in her case living in the open. Turning down offers to go into hiding, she explained to friends that she wished to share her family’s and her people’s fate. She died at Auschwitz on the last day of November 1943. “They [the Nazis] are out to destroy us completely,” she wrote in her diary. “We must accept that and go on from there…. Very well then … I accept it…. God, take me by Your Hand. I shall follow You faithfully, and not resist too much. I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can. I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others, wherever I go…. I know that a new and kinder day will come. I would so much like to live on, if only to express all the love I carry within me. And there is only one way of preparing for the new age, by living it, even now, in our hearts.”

Or it could be the face of the Edith Stein, a nun with Jewish roots whose life ended on the 9th of August 1942 in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. She had been born in Poland, had lived in Germany and was in a Dutch Carmelite convent at the time of her arrest. “I told our Lord,” she wrote, “that I knew it was His cross that was now being placed upon the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this, but that those who did would have to take it up willingly in the name of all. I would do that. At the end of the service, I was certain that I had been heard. But what this carrying of the cross was to consist in, that I did not yet know.”

For me, living in the Dutch city of Alkmaar, there is another way of making an intimate connection. On the 5th of March 1942, 213 Alkmaar Jews — all the local Jews not in hiding — were gathered at our one synagogue and from there transported, via Amsterdam and Westerbork, to Auschwitz. Only a few survived. (Today, after a 69-year recess, the same synagogue has just been restored and reconsecrated.)

So many names, so many stories, so many faces to choose from. More than a million.

It had long been a hope of mine to visit this Golgotha of the modern world. Though far from the only one, Auschwitz provides the most vivid image of the assembly-line production of dead bodies — a factory of absolute nihilism, a revelation of a demonic longing to assassinate God and the divine image in man.

The chance to visit Auschwitz finally came, thanks to an invitation to give a lecture at an interfaith peace conference at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. My topic at the conference was not a theory of dialog but the story of a rescuer — Mother Maria Skobtsova, now recognized as St. Maria of Paris, who founded of a house of hospitality in Paris where many lives were saved before she and her principal collaborators were arrested. Mother Maria’s life ended at Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany on the eve of Easter 1945. I could think of no better way to contribute to an interfaith meeting than to tell the story of a Christian willing to lay down her life for Jews.

I was one of three Orthodox Christians from outside Poland who came to the conference. The other two were Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, from Oxford, and Archimandrite Ignatios Stavropoulos, from a monastery near Nefpaktos in Greece. With us was Father Vladimir Misijuk, an Orthodox priest who has translated several of Metropolitan Kallistos’s books into Polish, and Dr. Pawel Wroblewski, one of the prime movers behind the peace conference in Wroclaw.

The day after the conference ended, we traveled together to the camp, now the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

The local weather seemed to be in mourning — chilly, gray, on the edge of foggy. The area for miles and miles around Auschwitz is flat and thinly populated. The town near the camp, Oswiecim, is almost entirely of post-war construction — the population had been removed by the Germans before construction of the concentration camp was started so that there would to be no local witnesses.

Standing near the only surviving crematorium, our delegation was met by an historian on the museum staff, Teresa Wontor-Cichy, who led us under the camp’s notorious Arbeit Macht Frei sign — Labor Brings Freedom. It was here that the famous Auschwitz inmate orchestra played as columns of famished prisoners marched in and out twice a day to their places of labor. The music, Teresa told us, made it easier for the guards to count.

I had imagined Auschwitz-Birkenau as one inter-connected camp, but soon learned that Auschwitz served as the nucleus for more than forty other camps, with nearby Birkenau the point of delivery for the daily trainloads of prisoners, mainly Jews but also Christians, gypsies, homosexuals and political opponents of the Nazis.

In Auschwitz itself, nearly all the buildings had been constructed of brick. It could pass for a solidly-built military post. It would not have been hard to convince a naive visitor, so long as he didn’t look behind the wrong doors, that the conditions of life at Auschwitz weren’t so bad. Why there was even an orchestra! On the other hand, were a visitor to be taken inside the buildings, he would have soon discovered that there are hells in this world worse than any hell he might imagine in the next. For example, there was Block 10 — the domain of Nazi doctors carrying out the most vile medical experiments. One of the physicians, Josef Mengele, became known as the “Angel of Death.” Block 11 served as a “prison within the prison.” A small court operated here at which many were sentenced to death. The basement cells were for those deprived of all food and water. Among those who died in one such cell, now marked by a tall Paschal candle, was Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who took the place of a young husband and father. Kolbe was the last to die, enduring two weeks of starvation, thirst, and neglect. He has since been canonized by the Catholic Church.

We stopped for a time in the yard between Blocks 10 and 11. This had been used as a place of summary execution for those convicted of breaking camp rules. Even a baseless accusation could mean death before a firing squad. Here Metropolitan Kallistos led us in a prayer, long silences between each phrase, both for those who died here and for the guards who had caused so much suffering. We prayed with the awareness that, while the Nazis themselves despised Christianity, centuries of Christian anti-Semitism had helped create an environment of contempt and hatred without which the Shoah would have been impossible.

The charts, maps and photos we saw in the various buildings we passed through effectively told the story of the creation and uses of Auschwitz and its surrounding network of camps, but what made the deepest impression were the many items the SS had failed to destroy as, the Red Army fast approaching, they made their hurried retreat in January 1945. We passed through room after room containing the mute evidence of people who, after stripping naked for a delousing shower (so they were told), were gassed by the hundreds at a time — all children less than fifteen, their mothers, the elderly, those judged unfit. Among those condemned on arrival, the lucky ones were those closest to the shower heads — they died immediately — while those further away took up to twenty minutes to breathe their last.

Even as they were dying, their possessions were being carefully sorted. We saw a mountain range of shoes, thousands of reading glasses, the train tickets more affluent passengers had purchased for the privilege of riding to Auschwitz first or second class instead of traveling in freight cars, and countless suitcases bearing names and addresses of the doomed. We saw dense piles of hair that had been cut from the bodies of women after their bodies were removed from the gas chamber. The hair was for use, Teresa told us, as a commercial component in making textiles. Finally we saw empty canisters of Zyklon B, the substance from which the lethal cyanide gas was released.

Our final stop in the original Auschwitz was the camp’s one surviving place of gassing and body burning. It had escaped destruction because, when much larger gas chambers and crematoria were built at Birkenau, this smaller building had been converted into a bomb shelter. The adjacent crematorium, with its tall square chimney and just two ovens, was also left intact.

Birkenau, about a mile away, didn’t bother with brick structures for housing its captives. It was a gridiron of quickly-erected wooden barracks filling a vast area, barrack after barrack as far as the eye could see. Though a small number of barracks survive, in most cases only the foundations remain. The one brick building left standing is at the entrance to Birkenau, a one-storey structure crowned with an observation tower in the center under which prisoner-bearing freight trains arrived from every part of Europe. A few hundred yards beyond the station, truly the end of the line, was the area where an SS doctor presided over the selection process. Some were judged healthy enough to work — a slow death sentence for all but a few — while the rest were led away to the nearby gas chamber. About 75 percent were killed on arrival.

We visited two barracks, one of them still containing the deep wooden bunks on which inmates — up to a thousand per barrack — were stored at night like cigarettes in a carton. The shed-like structure provided almost no defense against the elements.

Walking from place to place in the two camps, I felt as if I had turned to wood. Words failed me — indeed my emotions failed me, and they still do. It’s not possible to respond in word or sentiment in an adequate way to evil of such magnitude. The awful images are unerasable. Having been there in the flesh, the events that happened in this rural corner of Poland are forever real to me. Any pilgrim to Auschwitz is brought closer to the mainly anonymous people who died here.

One thought kept running through my mind. This human-made hell could never have existed without fear and obedience. Those who ran the camps, from the commandants to the lowest ranking soldier, knew they would themselves be killed if they failed to obey orders. While no doubt some of the staff were already psychopaths, most of those who were assigned here were, at least at the start, ordinary people, probably relieved that they hadn’t been sent into combat.

Adolf Eichmann, the chief bureaucrat of the Holocaust, claimed that he had no ill feeling against Jews. He did what he did because it was his assigned duty. He was “just following orders.” We have heard the same justifications from everyone involved in all concentration camps: “I was just following orders.” The same was true of those who created and staffed the Gulag Archipelago or who dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or who firebombed Tokyo or Dresden or Coventry or London. It remains true of those today whose daily work involves killing. Only psychopaths want to kill. The rest of us are “just following orders,” whether because of a sense of duty or driven by fear of what the consequences would if we dared to say no.

In his “Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann,” Thomas Merton reflected on the fact that psychiatrists testifying at Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem found Eichmann perfectly sane. “The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless,” Merton commented. “A man can be ‘sane’ in the limited sense that he is not impeded by disordered emotions from acting in a cool, orderly manner, according to the needs and dictates of the social situation in which he finds himself. He can be perfectly ‘adjusted.’ God knows, perhaps such people can be perfectly adjusted even in hell itself. And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one’s own?”

Perhaps sanity has come to mean merely the capacity to live successfully in a toxic society and follow orders. Following orders is made easier by propaganda — slogans inciting fear and hatred, slogans to kill by. For everyone involved wants to believe that the murderous work he or she is doing serves, at least eventually, some larger good.

Underneath such adaptation is fear — fear of punishment, fear of exclusion, fear of death. Thus we conclude that it’s better to remain alive by becoming a murderer than to die without the stain of innocent blood on our hands.

During the visit to Auschwitz, I kept thinking of Easter and the resurrection of the crucified Christ from his tomb, an event which, for Christians at least, ought to equip us not to fear death and no longer to be prisoners of hell. But how rare are the Paschal people — and how numerous those who obey orders no matter how deadly the consequences.

Leaving Auschwitz, I remembered the words of one of its victims, Etty Hillesum: “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty, to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”

* * *

Auschwitz photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/albums/72157628042735399

text as of 20 December 2011

After the War Was Over: Seeing What You’d Rather Not See

My Lai massacre, 16 July 1968

by Jim Forest

It was in 1975 that the Vietnam War came to an end with the sudden collapse of the South Vietnamese regime. The iconic image of that event was a helicopter taking off from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon carrying diplomatic and military personnel to safety aboard an offshore aircraft carrier.

The Vietnam War was one of the main events of the Cold War — three decades of combat that began in 1946 with the French attempting to regain their colonies in Southeast Asia. That stage of the war ended in 1954 with French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The result was the division of Vietnam into two zones, North and South. As French influence waned in South Vietnam, little by little the US took on the war the French had abandoned. You get a vivid glimpse of the early stage of American engagement in Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American” or the film version of the book in which Michael Caine plays a jaded British journalist trying to make sense of what a very quiet American (in fact a CIA agent) is up to.

The US objective was to prevent the Communist regime in North Vietnam from taking over the South. This meant not only taking sides in a civil war but covertly creating the Saigon government we were supporting. Does this sound a little like current events in, for example, Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya?

If you have ever been in Washington, DC, perhaps you visited the Vietnam Wall and walked the length of its 58,272 names, all the US service members who died in that war. How many Vietnamese were killed is unknown — estimates range from one-million to more than three-million. For years American bombs rained down on jungles, towns and villages. Many thousands of those bombs carried napalm, a jellified gasoline designed to stick like glue to the body of whoever happens to be nearby when the bomb explodes. Napalm was only one of many varieties of “anti-personnel” weapons that were developed for use in Vietnam — another type exploded thousands of fragments of razor-sharp blades. Every war is hellish, but few have shown less interest in protecting non-combatants. In fact non-combatants became targets. At a place called My Lai, US soldiers methodically killed each and every man, woman, child and infant in the village.

When the US engagement in Vietnam was gathering momentum in the late fifties and early sixties, most Americans thought of it as something necessary to halt the spread of Communism. Few did more than shrug their shoulders, paid little attention. Even if you offered a $20 bill as a reward, you wouldn’t easily have found people on the streets who, shown a map of Asia, could have pointed out the location of Vietnam.

At first it was only American military advisers who were sent, but then came combat troops, a few thousand at first, large numbers before the war ended. As troop levels rose and military conscription was imposed, public interest rose too. You pay a lot of attention to a war in which a family member has been forced to participate. The war became increasingly controversial. Small demonstrations eventually grew into mass events involving tens of thousands. In one 1969 demonstration, half-a-million protesters clogged the streets of Washington, DC.

Part of the shame and disgust that took hold of many Americans was due to the fact that this was the first war Americans were able to watch on television as it was happening. On the one hand there was nothing inspiring about the series of Saigon regimes on whose behalf we were fighting. On the other hand there was the sheer horror of seeing the casualties of the war. Most of the dead were women and children, the aged and sick — the people, that is, who were least able to protect themselves. About ninety percent of Vietnamese casualties were non-combatant.

As time passed and the war got worse, many protesters began to sympathize with the other side — the Vietcong, as they were called, the forces of the National Liberation Front, and North Vietnam as well, for what was a ground war in the South Vietnam was an air war in the North. Before the war ended, many anti-war American peace activists had been honored guests of the North Vietnamese. They were taken on tours, visited bomb victims in hospitals, met American prisoners of war who assured their visitors they were being well treated (in fact many suffered torture), and took shelter with their hosts when US bombs began to fall on the places they happened to be visiting. Many of them came back to the US with glowing reports of how warmly they had been treated by their hosts.

My own engagement in protest against the war began quite early, July 17, 1963. At lunchtime the day before, two members of the Catholic Worker community, Tom Cornell and Chris Kearns, had demonstrated outside the building in midtown Manhattan where the South Vietnamese Observer to the United Nations had his apartment. Their signs read, “The Catholic Worker Protests US Military Support of Diem Tyranny.” Diem was president of South Vietnam at the time. It was the first US protest of Vietnam War. Hearing from Tom that this small action would continue each lunch hour until the 25th, I joined the next day. By the last day, our number had swelled to several hundred and drawn TV news attention.

In 1964, less than a year later, I wrote an article meant to give readers some basic knowledge of Vietnam and its recent history. It wasn’t easy doing the research. At the time there were very few books about Vietnam in the New York Public Library. There were also no privately owned computers and there was no web.

Not many months later I left my newspaper job and began working full-time for the newly-established Catholic Peace Fellowship, an offshoot of the Catholic Worker. Our work focused mainly on assisting conscientious objectors who were refusing to fight in Vietnam and also making it better known to Catholics that conscientious objection as well as draft resistance was an option.

One of the events that brought Vietnam much closer to me at the personal level was a friendship that developed with a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh. In 1967, he asked me to accompany him on his lecture trips in the US. Vietnamese food, music, language and poetry became part of my daily life for weeks on end. I began to understand that the population of Vietnam was not tidily divided between Communists and anti-Communists. There were millions of South Vietnamese in the middle, mainly Buddhists. They identified with neither side and sought what they called a “third way” solution. They suffered a great deal of persecution from the Saigon government. A number of Buddhist monks and nuns gained international attention when they immolated themselves in acts of anti-war protest.

In 1968, I was part of a group of fourteen people, half of them Catholic priests, who filled sacks of key files from Milwaukee’s nine draft boards and burned them, using homemade napalm, in a little park in the center of the city. We were protesting both the war and military conscription. Following our trial, we began serving one-year prison sentences. I look back on it as a kind of sabbatical.

Released from prison in 1970, I renewed my efforts to end the Vietnam War. In 1973, I was appointed editor of Fellowship magazine, the monthly journal of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, America’s oldest and largest peace group. Two years later, it was my joy to edit an issue of the magazine celebrating the end of the war, at the same time raising the question: “And now what?” It wasn’t an easy question to answer. Years of our lives had been devoted to ending the war in Vietnam.

What I didn’t anticipate was that Vietnam would still hold a major place in my life and in the lives of many others who had celebrated the war’s end.

While I was in France the following summer staying with the small Vietnamese community led by Thich Nhat Hanh, letters smuggled out of Vietnam arrived with the news that the Hanoi government was arresting and jailing not only participants in the former Saigon administration but also Buddhist nuns, monks and lay people who had actively and courageously opposed the war. “My act [of self-immolation],” the monks Thich Hue Hien explained, “may be described as unusual both in the Dharma and in the world, but as wisdom shines, we should look at events in their own timing…. I do not act in foolishness. By my act I hope the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and living beings in the Six Realms will benefit from the light.”

Also at that time a left-leaning French journal, Nouvelle Observateur, was publishing a series of lengthy reports about post-war Vietnam. The author, Jean Lacouture, was the first western journalist invited into Vietnam by the Hanoi government. He was deeply jarred by some of what he saw, not least by his visits to prison camps. He estimated there were 300,000 prisoners, 100,000 more than Vietnam had admitted, but even 200,000 would have been an astonishing number. He asked why there were so many? After all, there had only been 35,000 army officers in the forces of the South, and thousands of them, along with nearly all important government officials had fled Vietnam after the northern victory.

It turned out that many of those imprisoned were people, including Buddhist monks and nuns, who had opposed the war, siding with neither North or South. Those whose lives were centered in their religion rather than in politics, whether Buddhist or Christian, were being singled out, temples and churches closed, publications suppressed, charitable and educational projects locked up. There was also news of the arrest and imprisonment of leaders of the Unified Buddhist Church.

Back in the US, I wrote an article about the reports that had reached Thich Nhat Hanh plus the reports by Jean Lacouture, a name respected in the anti-war movement in the US. Circulating the text in draft to peace movement leaders prior to its publication, I vividly recall a phone call from a colleague who urged me not to publish it. Should it appear in print, he warned me, “it will cost you your career in the peace movement.” My caller was a member of the national staff of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. Our conversation ended abruptly when he slammed down the receiver at his office in Philadelphia. I was astonished. Why would a peace organization wish to ignore human rights violations, especially in a country in which they had contacts in the government?

The caller’s key word was “career.” Until he called, I had no idea I had a “career,” but I began to realize that even in peace groups one can embrace a careerist mentality.

My article — “Vietnam: Reunification Without Reconciliation” — was in fact published in the October 1975 issue of Fellowship, by which time I was one of several people  (the others included Tom Cornell and Robert Ellsberg) drafting an appeal to the government in Hanoi. Here are the main paragraphs:

“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… [A list of names was included.]

“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 twelve 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 … including those assisting war orphans, have been closed, their funds frozen and properties confiscated.”

Quite a number of people quickly signed. Just as quickly passionate opposition arose.

Some of the appeal’s opponents were so outraged that they accused me of being a CIA agent. The author of an article in one peace movement publication proposed that I should to be sent to a re-education camp. Another accused me of being a white bourgeois American — which was true except for the adjective “bourgeois.” I was also charged with being a covert anti-Communist. (That reminded me of how, in the fifties, my father had often been accused of being a Communist, except in his case it was true.)

Rational opposition to the appeal largely fell into two categories. Some objected that the reports of human rights violations could not possibly be true. Another group said some of the reports, possibly many of them, might be true, but — given what America as a nation had done to Vietnam — no American, even those who had spent years of their lives opposing the war, had the right to protest what the Vietnamese government was doing.

There were some who regarded the reports as true but saw such actions as justifiable. One non-signer, professor of international law Richard Falk, explained in a letter to me that one need not be troubled by re-education camps in Vietnam: “What has been done is to remove temporarily from the political order some of those who seem obstructive in a period of national economic emergency.” In my response, I pointed out that these words could have been used word for word by Stalin and his apologists back in the 1930s to justify the creation of the Gulag.

On the positive side, the appeal was signed by a hundred well-known Americans who had struggled to end the war, many of whose names would have been known and respected by leaders of the Hanoi government. We could reasonably hope to be taken seriously.

One of the appeal signers was Joan Baez. She called me one morning to describe the intense pressure she was under to withdraw her signature. It had been exhausting. The night before she had endured a six-hour coast-to-coast phone call from one weighty opponent of the appeal. In addition Joan told me that a distinguished friend, recipient of several peace prizes, had made a personal visit to warn her of Jim Forest’s “possible CIA connections.” Her first response to her guest, she said, was laughter. She then told him, “Jim Forest is much too nice — and much too disorganized — to work for the CIA.” (In fact how does one prove he isn’t working for the CIA? Should you ask the director of the CIA to certify you weren’t an employee? Denial only adds fuel to the fire of suspicion. The only thing you can do is joke about it.)

Joan wanted to assure me that the pressure to withdraw her signature had only made her more determined not to. She said she could hardly imagine what the pressures were on me. Then, to cheer me along, she sang me a song over the phone. Would that I had recorded it.

She also issued a public statement in which she recalled Albert Camus’s comment that justice is the “eternal refugee from the camp of the victor.”

“I have,” she said, “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.”

What did our controversial appeal achieve? We certainly failed in our main proposal — Vietnam’s camps and prisons were never opened to the Red Cross or Amnesty International. But did we do some degree of good? Governments never acknowledge that appeals or protests have any influence, though occasionally later on we learn that the impact was significant. Someone in the government writes a book, an insider makes secret papers public, revelations occur at a hearing or trial. But mainly we never know. Perhaps we made a positive difference for some of the prisoners in Vietnam, perhaps we totally failed. Perhaps we prevented worse from happening. All one can say with certainty is that it was a worthwhile effort.

What did I learn from this event? Here are five lessons:

* There is no peace where there is a systematic violation of basic human rights, beginning with the right to life itself. War of its nature involves a massive violation of human rights.

* Human rights issues can be divisive even in groups that one associates with the protection of human rights. Much of the opposition to the Vietnam War grew out of disgust with the systematic violation of human rights by the Saigon government — imprisonment and torture of dissidents had been commonplace.

* Attention to violations of human rights can severely strain relations not only between governments but between persons and organizations. Whenever we identify with the perpetrator of human rights violations, there is always a temptation to downplay, ignore or even justify violations of human rights. For example, in the 1930s, many on the left were rightly outraged by human rights violations carried out by Nazis and Fascists in Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain, but turned a blind eye to similar actions carried out under the red flag in the Soviet Union. The reverse was true of those on the right.

* Our way of seeing the world around us is often shaped by peer group pressure. Like certain kinds of fish, we humans tend to swim in schools. It happens even to dissidents, who band together in their own smaller schools. If I belong to a group that regards abortion as a human right, the chances are I will adopt that view. If I belong to a group that sees abortion as a violation of human rights, then it’s more than likely I will too. How little independent hard thinking we actually do!

* Last but not least, there is the problem of careerism. Careerism is possible even in idealistic movements. How easy it is for the bottom line in one’s life not to be the search for truth but the search for economic security. We say what our bosses or more powerful colleagues want to hear, and we say it with a smile. We even try to believe what we’re saying.

It’s only graying people who can recall the Vietnam War. It’s in a category of dusty past events that include the Punic Wars and the War of the Roses. Today Vietnam is a tourist destination and a country offering cheap labor to major corporations. But the issues raised both by that war as well as its aftermath remain all too timely. We continue fighting wars that bring us immense shame and cost immense treasure. We continue to pay lip service to human rights while ignoring them when it suits us.

* * *
text as of 10 October 2011
* * *

For more on this topic, see Jim Finn’s essay, “Fighting Among the Doves”: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2011/08/08/fighting-among-the-doves/

US Lecture Trip Calendar – October 2011

Thursday, October 13:

fly from Amsterdam to Pittsburgh via Newark
Continental flight 071 13 AMS-EWR dep 0915 arr 1140
transfer to Continental flight 4904 13 EWR-PIT dep 1316 arr 1449

October 14-15: Pittsburgh

For information re the days in Pittsburgh: http://thomasmertoncenter.org/Documents/GeneralFlyerJForest3v2.pdf
Contacts: Molly Rush: 412.398.2163 or Carol Gonzalez: Teacher41 /at / aol.com

Friday 14 October:

11:30 to 1: A Meager Meal in the Spirit of Dorothy Day hosted by Carlow University at the St. Agnes Center (3333 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh)

7:30 PM talk “Dorothy Day: All Is Grace” at St George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral, 3400 Dawson, Pittsburgh, PA, 1521

Saturday 15 October:

10 AM to 4 PM, Day of Reflection: “Dorothy Day: A Saint for Our Times?”
at Holy Family Nazareth Conference Center, 285 Bellevue Rd., Pittsburgh, near Perrysville (exit off 279N)

Sunday, October 16:

7:35 AM flight to Laguardia: USAir 3134, departure from Pittsburgh at 07:35, arrival Laguardia 08:58

2:30 PM lecture at Maryknoll “A Life of Radical Grace: Dorothy Day”
for details see: http://www.maryknollsociety.org/index.php/articles/2-articles/782
Contact: Colleen Brathwaite (CBrathwaite /at / maryknoll.org)

Monday, October 17:

drive by rented car from Ossining area to St Bonaventure’s University in Olean, NY
Contact: Barry Gan (BGAN /at / sbu.edu); cell 716-244-8135

Tuesday, October 18:

4 p.m. talk on “Dorothy Day: Saint & Troublemaker” (the Fall Honors Program Lecture) at SBU Thomas Merton Campus Ministry Center

7 p.m. Tuesday, Conversation with Jim Forest at SBU Thomas Merton Campus Ministry Center

Wednesday, October 19:

9:30 and 10:30 — speak about my post-war Vietnam experiences and nonviolence in general with two of Barry Gan’s classes

4 p.m. talk (Vietnam After the War: Seeing What You Don’t Want to See) at SBU Thomas Merton Campus Ministry Center

Thursday, October 20:

morning departure, driving the rented car back to Ossining from Olean, then take the train to Manhattan

7:30 PM talk — “Love in Action: The Challenging Life of Dorothy Day” — at St Mary’s Episcopal Church, 521 West 126th Street
sponsor: Emmaus House: 160 W. 120th St.; phone 212-749-9404; e-mail: emmausharlem /at / gmail.com ; web: http://emmaushouse-harlem.org/
Contact: Julia Demaree (juliademaree /at / gmail.com)

stay that night at Emmaus House

Friday, October 21:

train from Manhattan to Baltimore, staying the next few days with Alex & Elaine Patico in Columbia, Maryland

Saturday, October 22:

9 AM to 4 PM, day-long retreat: “All is Grace: The Revolutionary Life of Dorothy Day” at Bon Secours Spiritual Center Marriottsville, in Maryland (1525 Marriottsville Rd., Marriotsville, MD 21104; tel: 410: 442-3142
http://bonsecoursspiritualcenter.org/redesign/programs/2011programs/october2011.html#grace
Contact: Lynn Lieberman (Lynn_Lieberman /at / bshsi.org)

dinner that evening at the Patico home, staying that night with the Dykhorsts in DC

Sunday, October 23:

4 PM talk — talk (“Dorothy Day: A Saint for Our Time?”) at Catholic University, Washington, DC
Hannon Hall, room 108
Redline Metro: Brookland stop
For campus map, see D11: http://www.cua.edu/res/docs/cuamap.pdf
sponsor: Crossroads Cultural Center
more information:
http://www.crossroadsculturalcenter.org/events/2011/10/23/dorothy-day-a-saint-for-our-time.html
contact: Suzanne Tanzi (suzannetanzi /at / gmail.com)

Monday, October 24:

6:30 PM talk on Dorothy Day at
Viva House (26 South Mount St., Baltimore, MD 21223; tel 410-2330488)
contact: Brendan Walsh & Willa Bickham (vivacatholicworker /at / gmail.com)

Tuesday, October 25:

train from Baltimore to Newark and from there to Red Bank, New Jersey — family visit with Ben & Amy and the grandchildren

Friday, 28 October:

7:30 PM talk: “I Never Knew What Hit Me: Memories of Dorothy Day” at Maryhouse Catholic Worker, East Third Street, New York City

Sunday, 30 October – Monday 31 October (4th anniversary of the kidney transplant!):

night flight from Newark to Amsterdam – Continental flight 070 EWR-AMS dep 1821 arr next day 0705

* * *

“Christianity is really so bloody simple!”

photo for Trouw by Patrick Post

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.”

Sidebar:

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.

* * *
translation: Nancy Forest
* * *

Fighting Among the Doves

drawing by Len Munnik

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.

For my personal account of the controversy, “After the War Was Over: Seeing What You’d Rather Not See”, see: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2011/10/10/after-the-war/

* * *

(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….

Anne Aitken
Robert Aitken
James K. Aiu
James V. Albertini
Joan C. Baez
Roger Baldwin
Charles Bloomstein
Robert Bly
Elise Boulding
Kenneth Boulding
Malcolm Boyd
Kay Boyle
Millen Brand
Patricia Brandt
David R. Brower
Mary Bye
Angie O’Gorman Calvert
Hayden Carruth
Arthur W. Clark
Roberta Cohen
Community for Creative Nonviolence
Thomas C. Cornell
Dorothy Day
Paul Deats
Richard Deats
Marty Deming
The Rev. Frederick Johnson
Geoff Pope
Kate Pope
Richard Dieter
R. Scott Kennedy
Bishop John J. Dougherty
James Douglass
Shelley Douglass
Bishop Carroll T. Dozier
Daniel Ellsberg
Robert Ellsberg
Pieter Eterman
Howard Fast
James Finn
James Forest
Robin Foster
Jerome Frank
Congressman Donald M. Fraser
Allen Ginsberg
Bob Goldberg
Sanford Gottlieb
Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
AI Hassler
Laura Hassler
Uli Henes
Ginger Hentz
Mary Ellen Hombs
Wallace J. Inglis
Homer A. Jack
Anthony Jebb
Ken Kesey
Jerry Kinchy
Sue Kinchy
Peter Klotz
Jonathan Kozop
Anne Kriebel
Ed Lazar
Lee LeCuyer
Bernard S. Lee
Alice Lynd
Staughton Lynd
Bradford Lyttle
Lynn MacMichael
Jeane Magnotti
Barbara McDaniel
James McGraw
W.S. Merwin
Anne Moody
John E. Muior
Aryeh Neier
Richard John Neuhaus
Paul O’Dwyer
Chris Payden-Travers
Jack Payden-Travers
Glenn Pontier
Bob Randels
Lin Romano
lgal Roodenko
Ira J. Sandperl
Margaret Schmitt-Habein
Howard Schomer
Henry Schwarzschild
Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild
Judith Smith
Gary Snyder
Milch Snyder
Allan Solomonow
Phyllis Taylor
Richard Taylor
Andrew Thomas
Michael True
Carl Vast
Richard Voigt
Mobi Warren
Abbie Jane Wells
George Willoughby
Lillian Willoughby
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf
Mildred Young
Wilmer Young
Gordon Zahn
Howard Zinn

* * *

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.
* * *

Changing a society which has devalued women and de-humanized the unborn

correspondence with the Fellowship of Reconciliation on the issue of abortion

February 1998

Dear National Council Member,

The Fellowship of Reconciliation is not known for avoiding controversial issues. Since its founding it has supported those who refused to take part in war, even during periods when pacifism was regarded by many as treasonable. When racism was far more acceptable than it is today, FOR members launched campaign after campaign on behalf of interracial justice, playing an important and constructive role in changing the way Americans respond to each other. We have opposed executions no matter what the crime, how grim the circumstances and how seemingly unrepentant the murderer was. In nearly every area of life, the Fellowship’s role has never been simply to say no to violence but to seek life-affirming alternatives. Ever since our founding in 1914, we have promoted a vision of a nonviolent culture affecting nearly every area of life.

Yet there has been one notable area of avoidance. If a person knew nothing more about America than could be learned from statements and publications issued by the FOR or its program initiatives, he or she would have only the faintest awareness that the issue of abortion has divided the country for the past quarter century. So far, the FOR response has been to look the other way. The tragic irony is that one of the most pro-life organizations in US history says and does nothing to defend human life while in the womb or to support women under pressure to kill their unborn children.

The reason for this silence and passivity is that abortion is an issue dividing rather than uniting the FOR membership.

But is not passivity and silence in fact consent to abortion? If we had responded to any war or any area of social injustice with silence and without resistance, would anyone imagine we opposed what was happening or had a vision of a nonviolent alternative?

As a member of the FOR National Council, you belong of a community of people helping to give direction to the Fellowship of Reconciliation. We appeal to you to consider ways that the FOR can sensitize its members and friends to understand that, for some members of the FOR, the sanctity of human life, realized at every stage of life, is a constitutive dimension of pacifism. We believe the FOR could play a significant role in looking for ways to support women under pressure to have abortion and in the process help reduce the frequency of abortion. The FOR should promote dialogue, in small groups and via the pages of Fellowship magazine, to try to reach common ground on this critical issue.

Each of us began life in our mother’s womb and no doubt some of our mothers had a lonely struggle on our behalf in bringing us into this world. Let us see what we can do to make it a little easier for pregnant women to find the support and encouragement they need in a society which has de-valued women and de-humanized the unborn.

Yours in fellowship,

William Anderson, Faye Kunce, Shelley and Jim Douglass, Daniel Berrigan, Carol and Dick Crossed, Marie Dennis, Dan Ebener, Marie Dennis, Jim and Nancy Forest, David Grant, Anne McCarthy, Don Mosley, Will O’Brien, Anne Symens-Bucher, Richard Taylor, Jim Wallis [a few other names were later added]

* * *

on the stationery of the

Fellowship of Reconciliation
Box 271, Nyack, New York 10960
(914) 358/4601 / Fax: (914) 358/4924

to:
Jim and Nancy Forest
Dan Ebener

March 5, 1999

Dear Jim, Nancy and Dan:

Last spring we received a letter from you, signed by eighteen persons, asking for FOR to deal with the issue of abortion in a way that seeks life-affirming alternatives and promotes the vision of a nonviolent culture. We are grateful for your concerns.

Your letter has been taken seriously by the National Council. We have entered into discussion at our subsequent Council meetings about this issue. Both in plenary sessions and in committee meetings we have sought to deal with this issue in a sensitive and compassionate way that recognizes the wide spectrum of belief about abortion, the areas of difference, as well as the areas of common concern. We have discovered and reaffirmed that persons in the FOR with varying views on abortion also share many of the same concerns and all are seeking to form opinions consistent with our shared reverence for life.

Attached is a working internal document that developed out of committee efforts over the past few months. It was discussed at the Council meeting February 26-March 1 and has been amended to reflect suggestions coming from further Council discussions. We send it to you and to others that have inquired about this issue to indicate where we are at this time. As we will be bringing it before the Council at our spring meeting in May, after further reflection, we request you not to circulate this but we are sending it to you to indicate the seriousness with which we have taken your original letter.

Yours in fellowship,

Lou Ann Ha’aheo Guanson
Vice Chairperson FOR National Council

* * *

attached to the letter of Lou Ann Ha’aheo Guanson:

Working Internal Document! Not for Circulation or Publication (3-3-99)

FOR National Council

On Recognizing and Respecting Diversity Regarding Abortion

The FOR is an interfaith, international fellowship of women and men who are committed to nonviolence and reconciliation. Coming from a wide variety of religious, national, and ethnic backgrounds, we share a common identity in our reverence for life and the search for nonviolent ways of attaining justice. We oppose killing, whether in war or capital punishment or personal violence.

There is, nonetheless, a wide variety of opinion among committed FOR members on the issue of abortion. Some believe that abortion, from the moment of conception on, is always wrong. They believe that embryonic life is the beginning of human life and therefore should be accorded full human rights. Their belief in nonviolence leads them to protect women and the unborn.

Others, equally committed to nonviolence, do not equate embryonic life with the life of the mother. They believe that, especially in the early months, fetal life should be put in a context that considers such things as the health of the mother, fetal deformity and pregnancy arising out of rape or incest. They believe the pregnant woman should make the difficult decision herself. To forbid her this decision would be to deny respect for the individual and the belief that all persons should be free to follow their own consciences and the leading of the spirit.

There are many gradations between the above beliefs in the FOR, as there are in the wider society. Many who support either a pro life or a pro choice position do not see a constitutional or legislative solution as the best effort. Amidst our differences there are areas of agreement that we share:

* we are deeply concerned about women and children and lament the tragic dimensions of abortion.

* we believe that men need to be called forth to responsibility on this issue.

* we believe that women who are pregnant deserve health care, adequate nutrition, shelter and freedom from violence.

* we affirm efforts to reduce violence against women and efforts to enhance family planning so that the frequency of abortions will be decreased.

* we see the feminization of poverty as an injustice that must be addressed

* we would all seek to protect women from being coerced into a decision for or against abortion and we believe that women should have adequate support during pregnancy from family and community

* we deplore killing of doctors and the threat of violence against abortion providers and their families and groups providing reproductive services.

We believe that there needs to be space for respectful dialogue and compassionate listening on this issue. Such an endeavor will help recognize the differences among us and enable us to respect one another and reduce the violence and hostility on this issue. This will help further Martin Luther King’s vision of the Beloved Community and the call to nonviolence and reconciliation that we have received from our elders Mohandas Gandhi, Muriel Lester, A.J. Muste, Andre and Magda Trocme.

* * *

March 10, 1999

Dear Lou Ann Ha’aheo,

Thank you for sharing with me the draft text on abortion that will be presented to the FOR Council in May.

Unfortunately I find in it no recognition that abortion inevitably involves killing human life and that it thus raises an essential issue for an organization dedicated to protecting human life and promoting nonviolence. I find in it no commitment by the FOR to take any action that would result in there being fewer abortions. It basically says: “Some see it this way, some see it that way, and we in the Fellowship of Reconciliation find both points of view equally acceptable.”

The summation of the views of opponents of abortion is oversimplified. I doubt any FOR member would say there is never a reason for abortion. As far as I know, all anti-abortion campaigners agree that abortion is permissible when the life of the mother is threatened. Thus they would not say that “abortion is always wrong.” I also think that few if any would use the phrase “embryonic life” but rather “life in the womb,” “the unborn child,” or something similar.

In the next paragraph there is this sentence: “To forbid her this decision would be to deny respect for the individual and the belief that all persons should be free to follow their own consciences and the leading of the spirit.”

Can you not easily think of situations in which this principle would not apply? If someone says he is following his conscience in shooting those who carry out abortions and is doing so at the leading of the spirit, would we not object? I’m sure many racist and anti-Semitic actions have been carried out by people who claimed they were obeying conscience.

The text states: “We believe that men need to be called forth to responsibility on this issue.” I would say yes, of course, but why are not both men and women in this sentence?

Could you explain to me the term “the feminization of poverty”? It’s new to me. Mind you, I live in Holland.

The text states: “We deplore killing of doctors and the threat of violence against abortion providers and their families and groups providing reproductive services.” I’m sure every FOR member, no matter what his opinions on abortion may be, opposes killing doctors, but the last two words are an inappropriate euphemism. In fact we’re talking about abortion services, the opposite of reproductive services.

One last question: When are you sending this draft text to the other 16 signers of the letter which led to the creation of the groups that drafted this text?

Once again, thank you for your efforts on this very tough issue. I hope we meet one day.

friendly greetings,

Jim Forest

cc: Dan Ebener, John Dear

[there was no reply]

* * *

Date: Wed, 24 Mar 1999 15:39:52 -0800

From: Dan Ebener
To: “Lou Ann Ha’aheo Guanson”
CC: Jim Forest , John Dear , Richard Deats , Bill Ditewig
Subject: Abortion statement

Lou Ann –

Thank you very much for your thoughtful response to our group’s pro-life letter concerning the FOR’s lack of position on abortion. I understand the situation that this issue puts you in is a tenuous one. Clearly, the FOR diversity on this issue seems reflective of the culture we live in. While we may not easily come to an agreement on abortion, it is good and just for us to dialogue about it. I have been actively involved in the most intense efforts at pro-life / pro-choice dialogue in the country, for the past three years. Out of this experience, I offer these reflections / observations:

1. I hope that we could express more clearly a critical understanding of how the search for love and truth can lead toward pro-life pacifism. (Clearly, the draft which we have received is a committee document, and for that, I can only wish you my condolences. My experiences with committee writings is that you get a lot breadth and little depth. This draft certainly reads like a committee document.)

2. The three sentences intended to express the pro-life position are very weak. It is a rather superficial expression of the pro-life position. I would be glad to re-write them completely. Better yet, they could be written out of a dialogue experience. I would be ashamed to show them to my pro-life friends in Iowa; in fact, my pro-choice friends (who are members of the FOR) here would be embarrassed for the FOR. (One of our experiences with the dialogue process is that you must be able to express the other person’s viewpoint to their satisfaction. Some of the pro-choice people here have become so articulate in expressing the pro-life position that we kid them that we want them to speak at our press conferences. Maybe they could write the pro-life section for us.)

3. I know of no pro-life person who uses phrases like “embryonic life” or “fetal life”. This is clearly pro-choice language. In our local Common Ground group, we have recognized that use of the word “fetus” is a pro-choice term, “unborn child” is the preferred description for pro-life people.

4. The 3 sentences describing the pro-life positions are qualified by phrases like “some believe” or “they believe”. The same is true for the pro-choice paragraph until the last sentence, which makes a very bold pro-choice statement without any qualification.

5. It is an over-simplification to assume that pro-life people oppose abortions in cases of rape and incest. In fact, almost every law and regulation governing abortion excludes these cases. That’s not where the real debate is, except among philosophers and theologians. Politically, it is often used as a “wedge” to polarize the issue, not to bring people together. It is the proliferation of “elective” abortions which is the common concern of most good-intentioned people. There is no mention of this in the draft.

6. Even Bill and Hilary Clinton agree that abortions should be rare. But there is no mention of whether the FOR believes that abortions should be rare. Was this considered?

7. To single out men as the only ones who need to be “called forth to responsibility on this issue” sounds like a loaded and un-explained statement. What does it mean? Should not the mother and father of the baby function as a team in responding to the crisis pregnancy? The role of men is often to push for and pay for the abortion, even when the mother does not want to abort. Perhaps what you could say is that abortion provides an easy way for men to act sexually irresponsible and destroy the consequences.

8. While most pro-life people do not promote the Human Life Amendment any longer as a realistic solution to abortion (it is too quick and too drastic), we do promote a range of legislative regulations which might place reasonable restrictions on abortion. The way I see it, the reason for the violence and inflammatory language is the same as in war: We have set up a paradigm where there has to be winners and losers. Right now, the pro-life side is losing. 26 years after Roe, the pro-life movement is stronger than it has ever been. It is not going to go away. It gets stronger every year. (If a Human Life Amendment was passed tomorrow, we would witness a huge growth in the pro-choice movement, along with more violence from the pro-choice side, just as we witnessed in the years just prior to Roe.) For the FOR to deny the possibility of further legislative solutions to the issue is to condemn the pro-life side to a losing future. The only way the pro-life side will rest its passion for this issue is for some progress to be made toward a more pro-life policy. To deny that possibility, as this draft does, is to condemn all of us to more violence.

9. To be consistent, if we are going to condemn violence against abortion providers, as we should, we should also condemn the violence occurring against Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which I would be glad to document for you. (As I’m sure you know, just because it doesn’t get reported in the secular media doesn’t mean it does not exist.) Again, we need to be balanced and fair in our statements. I realize most FOR people are probably unaware of the violence against pro-life leaders and CPC’s, but we all understand that this is becoming a civil war, and once a conflict reaches those proportions, we know that the violence goes both ways. The role of the FOR, of course, is to bridge the gaps and bring greater understanding to both sides of the humanity of the other.

10. Could we consider some action steps in the statement? Perhaps express more directly a call for dialogue and understanding?

The Iowa Common Ground group, which has been featured on ABC News, the Wall Street Journal, Harper’s magazine, and many other media, would be willing to facilitate a process of dialogue on this issue for the FOR. I understand that it may seem like an overwhelming issue. It is. But I believe that it is the basis for an undeclared civil war in this country, and if the FOR is opposed to war and committed to the search for truth and the resolution of conflict, we need to be willing to step into the middle of this.

I would be glad to be helpful in whatever role you want me to play.

As requested, I have not circulated the letter to anyone. I believe that the signers of our original letter deserve a response directly from Nyack, so I have not contacted them either. They are all members of FOR and the national office would have their current addresses.

Again, thanks for your response.

In peace,

Dan R. Ebener

[There was no reply.]

* * *

From: Nancy Forest-Flier, [email protected]
To: Lou Ann Ha’aheo Guanson, [email protected]
Jim Forest, [email protected]
Dan Ebener, [email protected]
Richard Deats, [email protected]
Date: 05-04-1999 5:23 PM
RE: response to FOR statement on abortion

Dear Lou Ann,

As I am one of the three people personally addressed by FOR’s “On Recognizing and Respecting Diversity Regarding Abortion,” I would like to register my reaction to it. First, I want to thank you for your work in putting this document together and in getting such a dialogue started. It cannot be easy working with a committee to arrive at a single statement on such a divisive issue. But I think it is essential that this work be done and that it continue.

I have read both Jim’s and Dan Ebener’s responses to the statement, and I basically agree with both of them. The section that professes to express the pro-life position is quite weak and almost stereotyped. The first statement about the pro-life position (“Some believe that abortion, from the moment of conception on, is always wrong”) is grossly un-nuanced; in fact I would think that all pro-life people who are FOR members are willing to accept abortion when the life of the mother is at stake. There are loaded words used that pro-life people would never use (“embryonic life,” for instance, in the next sentence).

Finally, as Dan points out, the last sentence of the pro-choice paragraph is made without qualification (“To forbid her this decision would be to deny respect for the individual and the belief that all persons should be free to follow their own consciences and the leading of the spirit”). The problem I have with this sentence is that actually it applies to both pro-life and pro-choice people, yet you confine it to the ranks of the pro-choice. Pro-life people also believe that women should be free to make a choice; that women who believe in the sanctity of life since the moment of conception should be free to bear their child in a child-supportive, family-supportive, woman-supportive environment. But this is often not the case. It is not uncommon for women to be forced to have abortions by their partners or their parents, even when they sense that it is wrong. They may be young, they may never have thought very much about whether they are pro-life or pro-choice, yet suddenly they are supposed to make this staggering decision. The basically pro-choice society around them does little or nothing to support them. If they decide to go ahead with the pregnancy, they may be rejected by their partner or parents, or worse. They may know nothing about Pregnancy Crisis Centers. For these women, and there are many of them, such a phrase would be nothing but cynical posturing. Like the cynicism inherent in William Styron’s book “Sophie’s Choice,” the word “choice” has a hollow ring to it when it means deciding which of your children you are going to have killed.

You may be familiar with groups such as Pro-Life Feminists. These people see abortion more as a convenient way of society avoiding responsibility for women, children and families and for allowing men to behave in a way that is sexually irresponsible. The question for them is not only whether human life begins at conception, but whether the social problems that abortion represents should be offered only one solution: that woman endure a deeply invasive medical procedure that may have an enormous psychological impact on them for the rest of their lives.

I do not live in America, and the “civil war” that Dan talks about it distant from me. In Holland, where we live, the abortion rate is the lowest in the industrial world. This, the Minister of Health recently said, is something we are proud of. If lowering the abortion rate is enough to make a Minister of Health proud, then it must be worth pursuing. Holland is a country that has excellent sex education for young people, considerable social support for families, good medical coverage for everyone, and a major pro-life organization that prefers to help women in a non-accusatory, non-strident way. Perhaps the abortion rate of a country is a strong indication of that country’s social health. Look at Russia, where the abortion rate is soaring.

Finally, I wonder whether the title of the statement, “On Recognizing and Respecting Diversity Regarding Abortion,” doesn’t fail to recognize that there is a real problem here. It’s very nice to recognize and respect diversity, but the FOR also probably recognizes and respects diversity on many other issues — vegetarianism, for instance, or spanking your children, or use of alcohol or soft drugs. Should the FOR pat itself on the back for recognizing and respecting diversity on an issue that, unlike these others, is tearing the country apart?

I’d like to know whether the statement has been sent to the other signers of our letter. They should be made aware of how this discussion is progressing.

Finally, I hope that you take Dan Ebener up on his offer to be of assistance in this discussion.

Again, thank you for all you are doing.

Sincerely yours,

Nancy Forest

[email protected]

[There was no reply.]

* * *

On May 24, 1999, the following statement was approved by the Fellowship of Reconciliation National Council:

The FOR and Abortion

The FOR is an interfaith, international fellowship of women and men who are committed to nonviolence and reconciliation. Coming from a number of religious, national and ethnic backgrounds, we share a common identity in our reverence for life and the search for nonviolent ways of attaining justice.

There is a wide variety of opinion among committed FOR members on the issue of abortion and the beginning of human life. We have observed integrity and sincerity in members who are led to very divergent convictions on this issue, and we affirm and respect their place within the FOR.

Amidst our differences there are areas of agreement that we share:

* we are deeply concerned about women and children.

* we believe that women who are pregnant deserve health care, adequate nutrition, shelter and freedom from violence.

* we affirm efforts to reduce violence against women in a society where oppression of women, male domination and the open promotion of the subordination of women continue.

* we support efforts to enhance family planning so that the frequency of abortions will be decreased.

* we see the feminization of poverty as an injustice that must be addressed.

* we believe that women should have adequate support from family and community during and after pregnancy, and that men should be called to responsibility on this issue.

* we deplore murder and bombings directed at women’s health care clinics and their health care providers.

We believe that there needs to be space for mutually respectful dialogue and compassionate listening on this issue. Such an endeavor will help recognize the differences among us and enable us to respect one another and reduce the violence and hostility on this issue. This will help further Martin Luther King’s vision of the Beloved Community and the call to nonviolence and reconciliation.

[end]

* * *

to John Dear, executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation

June 19, 1999

Dear John,

In January, I wrote to you that I was considering resigning from the FOR because of its unwillingness or inability to recognize abortion as another form of murder similar in character to other acts of killing the FOR has opposed, or to make any initiative that would make abortion less common. You responded by asking me to hang in a bit longer in order to allow time for a dialogue on abortion at the February National Council meeting. You also asked how I could resign when the FOR has “a seamless garment advocate at the helm.”

Last night, after receiving the FOR National Council statement on abortion, it was clear to me that it was impossible any longer to remain an FOR member in the hope that the kind of change might occur which would renew my sense of connection. Thus my letter of resignation last night.

You mentioned in your letter that there would be a process of dialogue. I have to say I have had no experience of such a dialogue. I helped to write and was one of the signers of a letter to National Council members on the subject of abortion in which possible areas of FOR response were proposed — I attach a copy. So far as I am aware, only three of the letter signers (Nancy, Dan Ebener and myself) ever had a personal response to our letter. This came from Lou Ann Ha’aheo Guanson, vice chairperson FOR National Council. She sent us a draft text of a proposed declaration on abortion. She asked us not to send this to other signers of the letter. All three of us wrote back to her, among other things asking why those other FOR members who shared our concern were not allowed to see the draft. There was no response to this question or any reply to any of the more substantial comments any of us had made.

Did members of the National Council see our responses to that draft? What we said seems, so far as I can tell, to have had no influence at all in the text approved by the NC.

Is this dialogue?

It’s now 38 year since I joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I was 20 years old and living on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. I had lately left the US Navy as a conscientious objector and had become part of the Catholic Worker community (a movement that had come into existence in part because of Dorothy Day’s need to repent of an abortion she had had when she was a younger woman, though it wasn’t until I wrote a biography of Dorothy in the mid-80s that I became aware both of her abortion and its later impact on her life).

What drew me to join the FOR in the first place? Partly it was simply friendship with a staff member, John Heidbrink, who had the title Church Work Secretary. In those years membership in the FOR was probably 90-95 percent Protestant Christian. John was actively reaching out to Catholics, people like Merton, Dan Berrigan and Dorothy Day. Somehow he also wrote to me. I was excited to find a Protestant minister with such a warm heart for Catholics, something that wasn’t at all common in those pre-ecumenical years. I also came to appreciate John. He showered me with books and in many ways widened my world. We became good friends, a friendship that has lasted all these years. In 1964, he made it possible for me to take part in a small FOR group traveling to Paris, Rome, Basel, Prague and Moscow, a life-changing journey for me. He played a major role in the creation of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which during the Vietnam War brought many hundreds of Catholics into FOR membership. It was partly thanks to the CPF that the Catholic Church produced so many thousands of conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War.

But it wasn’t only friendship with John, and later with other staff members, that made me so deeply respect the FOR. Here was an organization that recognized the sanctity of life in a remarkable and consistent way, working tirelessly to overcome all those forces which make people enemies to each other. Agreeing fully with General Sherman’s observation that “war is hell,” the FOR encouraged people not to go to hell. It also opposed capital punishment, even in that less violent time by no means a popular position in the US. It struggled to overcome racial prejudice and injustice. It was not uncommon for Fellowship members to risk imprisonment and even violence against themselves in their effort not so much to force change but to change people. Its nonviolence was not merely something negative but what Gandhi called satyagraha: the power of truthful living.

My involvement with the FOR led me to three periods of FOR employment, first as Interfaith Associate, later as Vietnam Program Secretary, then in the mid-70s (not long after getting out of prison) as editor of Fellowship magazine, a job I left at the beginning of 1977 when I was appointed to head the IFOR in Holland. In the 11 years since leaving the IFOR staff in 1988, I’ve spent a great deal of time helping build the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. (It was experiences in Russia while working for IFOR that led me from an academic interest in the Orthodox Church to become an Orthodox Christian.) I’ve spent most of my adult life working for the FOR or its associated groups. Such a long commitment makes it not so easy to resign.

When I joined the FOR in 1961, I hardly knew there was such a thing as abortion. It wasn’t an issue I can recall people either in the Church or in any peace group discussing. It wasn’t until later in the decade, with the emergence of the women’s movement, that the issue came up. Part of an emerging consensus among feminists at that time was that a woman should not be forced to bear a child. Put that way, I couldn’t help but agree. There was at the same time growing concern about the “population explosion” — the planet and all creation was under threat because of too many human beings. The case seemed to me, as it did to many others, convincing — and it gave another reason to support abortion, not only as a woman’s right but as a way not to overfill the human lifeboat. The Catholic Church was at that time the only loud voice in society taking an opposing view and even I, a Catholic, wasn’t convinced by what the Church had to say on the subject. I was among those smiling at such one-liners as: “If priests were the ones to get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

On the other hand, I would be caricaturing myself if I said that I was an eager supporter of abortion. It seemed to me, at best, a tragic choice. I had to agree with the traditional Christian view that human life begins at the beginning — that we are no less human in the womb than out of it — and that the killing of an unborn human being was never something to cheer about. Nor could I accept the rhetoric that very often was applied to the unborn — “a clump of cells,” “a product of conception,” etc. — or the tendency among the more articulate to use technical words (embryo, foetus, etc.) to depersonalize and dehumanize the unborn.

It was only when the FOR was seriously considering expulsion of the Catholic Peace Fellowship from its list of associated groups — this because of a statement it had issued opposing abortion — that I was finally forced, reluctantly, to realize that I was letting peer group pressure get the better of me, overwhelming both truth and conscience. I began to realize that the minimum one could do was to actively look for ways to help those who were under pressure to have an abortion — and quickly discovered how much even the smallest gesture of support could mean to a pregnant woman.

During that period, the war in Vietnam came to its sudden end. Preparing the June 1975 issue of Fellowship, I wrote to a number of FOR members who had played a major role in the movement against the war, asking them to write briefly “on lessons learned … and the ways in which we can better become a peacemaking community within the world’s most violence-prone society.” Among those to respond was Dan Berrigan, your brother Jesuit priest, who had spent part of the war in prison. At the time he was teaching in Detroit and could see, he related, a billboard out the classroom window that read, “Abortions,” and provided a phone number. Dan said that whenever he looked at this sign, he recalled a question Bonhoeffer had asked: “How are the unborn to live?” The billboard made abortion seem as normal an activity as delivering groceries or selling used cars. At the time, Dan wrote, “nearly two-million nearly-born people in our midst have been so disposed of.” He went on to ask a series of questions, one of which was what can we do to “help everyone walk into the full spectrum and rainbow of life, from womb to old age, so that no one is expendable?”

Would that the National Council statement on abortion had opened with such a question and attempted to answer it!

For the last few years I have in various ways tried to raise this issue once again within the FOR, chiefly through correspondence with members of staff, finally joining with other FOR members in writing to members of the National Council, asking them “to consider ways that the FOR can sensitize its members and friends to understand that, for some members of the FOR, the sanctity of human life, realized at every stage of life, is a constitutive dimension of pacifism.” We expressed our belief that “the FOR could play a significant role in looking for ways to support women under pressure to have abortion and in the process help reduce the frequency of abortion.” We made a few modest suggestions for what the FOR could do, such as “promote dialogue, in small groups and via the pages of Fellowship magazine, to try to reach common ground on this critical issue.” In the spectrum of pro-life writings, our observations and suggestions could hardly have been more mild. But none of them have made their way into the NC statement.

I have been asked, “Isn’t it enough that we agree about certain things? Let us hold together with our areas of agreement and not concentrate in our disagreements.” In general I am prepared to say yes. But for a fellowship of reconciliation (the lower case letters are intentional) not to be shocked at abortion and to fail to respond to it in a constructive way, undercuts the most basic point of all: that at no stage in life are human beings appropriate targets of violence, least of all in the womb.

This also raises the question as to whether the Orthodox Peace Fellowship should remain an associated group within the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I believe it should not and will be propose to our officers and board of advisors that we end this alliance.

This is already too long a letter. Let me end it simply by slightly revising Bonhoeffer’s question: “What can we do to help the unborn — and their mothers — to live?”

in Christ’s peace,

Jim

PS Though this is a letter first of all to you, John, I hope you don’t mind that I will be sharing it with other FOR members, hoping that it will help them better understand my reasons for resigning.

attachments: 1) group letter to the FOR National Council 2) draft text on abortion from NC working group 3) responses to that draft from myself, Nancy Forest-Flier and Dan Ebener 4) the text issued by the NC on May 24

[No reply was received.]

* * *

letter to Richard Deats
editor of Fellowship magazine and senior FOR executive staff member

From: Nancy Forest-Flier, forest_flier
To: Richard Deats, [email protected]
cc: John Dear, [email protected]
Date: 20-06-1999 11:22 PM
RE: abortion statement

20 June 1999

Dear Richard,

Thank you for sending the FOR statement “The FOR and Abortion”. You already have Jim’s response. I have been struggling with the contents of the statement and my own response to it for a few days now. I have been surprised with the depth of emotion that this exercise has revealed. I joined the FOR in 1974 — 25 years ago — and I recently turned 50, which means I have spent half my life as an FOR member. Jim and I met at the FOR in Nyack. Our first years here in Alkmaar were deeply entrenched in the FOR community both here and abroad. So trying to deal with the impact that this statement has had on me has meant some long, hard thinking about how much the FOR has been part of my life.

I understand that the statement on abortion is an attempt to search for areas of agreement. This is certainly admirable. At least now we know what the foundation is. But as I read down the list of articles, I realize that there is nothing in any of them indicating a courageous support of the “reverence for life”, which the first paragraph claims to be a basic part of membership in the FOR. Who indeed could not fail to agree with any of these points? You don’t have to be an FOR member, or even a pacifist, to agree with them. Having “concern” for women and children is something we expect of any normal person. The same is true for the rest of the statement. Is there any special way that the FOR, because of its “reverence for life” and aspiration for Martin Luther King’s “beloved community”, has something new and courageous to say to the world about this most important subject?

If the FOR’s aspirations were any less (say, like those of an environmental organization like Greenpeace), I would say, certainly the membership is divided on the issue of abortion. And I could live with that. But FOR’s aspirations are profound and very broad. They are nothing short of the search for truth, the establishment of a “beloved community” based on nonviolence, respect and justice.

Again, if abortion were any less of any issue (say, like vegetarianism), I would say every person is free to follow his or her own conscience. But whether you believe the unborn child is actually a child or simply a clump of cells, abortion is violent. It is profoundly violent. And no matter how I turn it, I cannot reconcile FOR’s high aspirations with this violence. I cannot. I cannot relativize the issue and say, it all depends on how you look at it. We are talking about violence and death here. Something (whatever it was) was once alive, and now it is dead, and it is dead because it was intentionally destroyed.

When I work all this into my own spiritual development, I realize that I cannot be part of a group that relativizes this issue. I cannot say on the one hand that abortion is a grievous sin, and on the other hand say “but it’s only a sin for me, because I’m an Orthodox Christian, it may not be a sin for you.” I must throw the weight of my entire life, my entire soul, my mind and my strength behind this truth and say it is a sin for everyone, no matter who they are. Otherwise my pursuit of truth is a joke, my prayers are empty, my confessions are hollow.

This is hard for me to get around. It has hit me right between the eyes these past two days. I fear that you will receive this news from me and from Jim and will say, they didn’t get what they wanted so they’re picking up their marbles and going home. But I implore you to realize that this is not the case. The fact is that I cannot be a member of an organization that claims to revere life on the one hand and then says that abortion has nothing to do with universal truth.

Richard, I am so, so saddened by this. I have felt myself growing further and further from the FOR in the last ten years. Even so, to make a definitive break, which almost seemed inevitable, is very hard. Yet I cannot continue with my membership.

love and peace,

Nancy

[There was no reply.]

* * *

John Dear
Executive Secretary
Fellowship of Reconciliation
Box 271
Nyack, NY

December 4, 1999

Dear John,

This is not a letter I have been looking forward to writing but no doubt you have been expecting it.

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship will be ending its formal association with the Fellowship of Reconciliation as soon we have a US account operating, which seems almost certain to occur by the end of the month.

This follows a decision made within OPF not to affiliate ourselves with organizations which do not promote a consistent pro-life ethic. This would include attention to the unborn and their mothers, who often resort to abortion not so much from choice but under intense social or, in some countries, even legal pressure. The recent FOR National Council statement made it clear that the FOR and OPF take a very different view on this matter, which for us is central to our reason for being: protection of human life at every stage of development, from the womb to the death bed.

We will welcome opportunities to cooperate with the FOR on specific projects of common interest, insofar as we are able. The informal link is unbroken. We greatly admire many areas of FOR achievement and activity.

in Christ’s peace,

Jim Forest
Secretary
Orthodox Peace Fellowship

* * *

Saint George and the Dragon

Saint George and the Dragon: A children’s book, written by Jim Forest, illustrated by Vladislav Andrejev, published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

* * *

Though Saint George and the Dragon was written first of all for children, I had adult readers no less in mind. Whatever our age, we need to stop slaying dragons and instead convert them, beginning with the dragons we carry within ourselves. That’s the point of the legend and why it is in fact so profoundly Christian.

* * *

Recipient of the gold medal Moonbeam Spirit Awards for 2012. “For dedication to children’s books and literacy and for inspired writing, illustrating and publishing.”

* * *

From the book’s afterword for older readers:

True stories become streamlined into legends and legends become compressed via symbols into myths. The St. George of myth was a knight in armor who fought a dragon to save a princess, but the real George never saw a dragon nor did he rescue a princess in distress. We are not even sure he had a horse or possessed a sword.

A Christian convert born late in the third century after Christ, George was one among many martyrs of the early Church.

What made George a saint among saints was the completely fearless manner in which he openly proclaimed his faith during a period of fierce persecution when many other Christians were hoping not to be noticed. According to one ancient account, George went to a public square and announced, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this George was arrested, tortured and beheaded. The probable date of his martyrdom is April 23, 303, in the town of Diospolis in Asia Minor — today’s Turkey. His witness led to the conversion of many and gave renewed courage to others already baptized.

In early icons, George was shown dressed as a soldier and holding the cross of martyrdom, but in the course of centuries the dragon legend emerged. It has been told in many variations, but in its most popular form it concerns a dragon living in a lake who was worshiped by the unbaptized local people who, in their fear, sacrificed their children to appease the creature. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, to be sacrificed. While going toward the dragon to meet her doom, Saint George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance. In this profoundly Christian legend the dragon was only wounded by George. Afterward Elizabeth led the vanquished creature into the city — its populace charged by George with caring for a former enemy. Refusing a reward of treasure, George called on the local people to be baptized. The king agreed, promising to maintain churches and show compassion to the poor.

From a journalistic point of view, the dragon story is a literary invention, yet what better way is there to symbolize the evil that George actually confronted and defeated than to portray it in the form combat with a fire-breathing dragon? George fought and was victorious over an adversary which enslaved and terrified most of the people of his time. The white horse George rides in the icon, a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider, represents the courage God gave to George as he faced the power of death. It is the courage God gives to any Christian facing martyrdom or, for that matter, much smaller challenges.

This beautifully-illustrated book relates the classic story of St George and the dragon, with an afterword that looks at the real meaning of the legend.

* * *

a book full of treasures

Told in a gentle, flowing manner, Saint George and the Dragon explains not only the legend, but shows how faith drives out fear, letting in peace, love and harmony. The explanation following the lavishly illustrated text discusses not only St. George in history, but details the symbolism of icons that depict this brave martyr. The illustrations by Vladislav Andrejev are iconographic in their execution, but brilliantly coloured and vivid accompaniments to the text. Both parents and children will find this book full of treasures worth coming back to again and again.

— Bev. Cooke

* * *

What a treat!

A few months ago, we went on a trip to Saint Vladimir’s Seminary and I was able to shop in their bookstore. What a treat! While there, we pre-ordered Saint George and the Dragon and a week or so ago, it came! What a book! Jim Forest has done an excellent job of re-telling this legend in a way that will interest children. One of the most lovely parts of the book is when Saint George declares that he is a Christian knight and proceeds to explain in a beautiful and very child-friendly way all about Christianity. It is also very helpful that several pages in the back of the book are dedicated to explaining the real Saint George. After reading Saint George and the Dragon, it is quite easy for parents to speak to their children about who Saint George really was because the information on this beloved saint in right in their hands.

Vladislav Andrejev’s work is visually stunning and his illustrations for this book are the perfect pairing to Forest’s words. I wasn’t prepared by the cover for how glorious they actually are! There are thirteen full page iconographic illustrations in the book (as well as several smaller ones) and each one tells the legend of Saint George visually. The colors are rich and though the story has several scary parts, the illustrations aren’t graphic or gory in any way.

My own little ones are delighted with this storybook. They were properly horrified by the dragon and loved the story of Saint George saving Princess Elizabeth, taming the dragon, and baptizing an entire kingdom. To be honest, when I was pre-ordering the book, I was a little taken aback by the cost ($20)… especially since I wasn’t able to see it prior to ordering. I can tell you that the price is worth it. This book will be treasured by your family! In fact, I will be donating our copy of Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges to our library’s book sale. We have no need for it now that we have this gorgeous book. Bravo, Mr. Forest!

Orthodox Children’s Book Review

* * *

A blessing of a book

In this large format children’s book, Jim Forest retells the story of St. George in simple, clear language that helps you see and feel the story. Every page spread is illustrated in the style of a Byzantine icon by iconographer Vladislav Andrejev. The icons are stunning in detail and color, and I found myself spending more than several minutes looking at them and identifying the messages within. For example, the attitude of the hands in all the pictures clearly communicates conversation. In the icon where St. George tells Elizabeth about Christ, George gestures toward Heaven as Christ leans out of the clouds and blesses him. In the following picture, Christ is leaning and blessing Elizabeth, indicating that she has believed the Message. Wonderful!

And in the icon where St. George is facing the king and queen, the dragon is clearly underfoot and even seems to be licking the foot of the cross on George’s shield in an appeasing posture. I know I will continue to find hidden details as I examine these works of faith and art.

At the end of the story, author Jim Forest provides a special essay with historical background about St. George and more icon images — a great addition for those who want to know more. In all, the book is a wonderful reminder that we can depend on Christ’s strength, might and sovereignty over the dragons–those evils and troubles–in our lives.

The story of St. George is for all of us who need courage.

I see that I need an icon of St. George near at hand to remind me of both Christ’s power and gentleness. There are so many lessons for us in this legend.

This saint’s story blessed me and increased my faith. I highly recommend this book, to both children and adults.

— Else Tennessen

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* To order the book from the publisher: http://www.svspress.com/saint-george-and-the-dragon/

* The illustrations for the book made by Vladislav Andrejev are in this folder: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157627339844345/with/6057026760/

* The book’s afterword, The Real Saint George, is posted http://www.jimandnancyforest.com/2011/06/13/the-real-saint-george/

* A blog entry about the book’s origins is posted here: http://jimandnancyonpilgrimage.blogspot.com/2011/04/saint-george-dragon.html

* A folder of icons, paintings and sculptures of St George is posted here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157626322019037/with/3858736091/

My journey to the Orthodox Church: an interview with Jim Forest

An interview with Jim Forest made in mid-October 2007 by Elena Nazarova for Nikolaas in de Jordaan, the quarterly journal of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church, located in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam. For more about the parish, see its web site: www.orthodox.nl.

EN: Dear Jim, we know you for a long time as a member of our parish, so I suppose it is time to get acquainted once again. What I mean is that fifteen years ago, when our family first appeared in a little chapel in Utrechtsedwaarsstraat, our parish consisted of no more than 30 people. You and Nancy were one of the first to greet us, and let us feel at home in church, and to offer your help and assistance in difficult times. We are very grateful for this, and very happy to know you both. But since then our parish has grown very much, and it is difficult for church members to know everyone even though we are praying side by side every week. So that’s why this interview.

Please tell about yourself. What are you — an American — doing here, in a Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam? Let’s begin from the beginning. Where were you born and who were your parents? Were they believers? Tell us please about your childhood.

JF: I was born in 1941 in Salt Lake City, in the state of Utah, which is in the western part of the USA. It’s a city best known as the main center for the Mormons, a strange variety of Protestant Christianity that is based on what its founders regarded as a lost book of the Bible, The Book of Mormon. But it wasn’t because of the Mormons or their beliefs that we were there. My parents were people on the political left. My father had been sent to Utah to be the regional organizer of the Communist Party. I know I’m not the only member of our parish who grew up in such a home. Father Sergei is another, and I’m sure there are others.

EN: As the son of Communists growing during the Cold War, did you ever feel an outcast in America?

JF: Not exactly an outcast but certainly someone living under a shadow. While the interest of the FBI was focused in my parents, especially my father, there was one occasion when FBI agents finger-printed my brother and me. I think they did it just to alarm the family. Of course I never mentioned to friends anything about my parents ideological convictions, but the FBI had visited our neighbors and probably also spoke to teachers at the school my brother and I attended. I never felt I had lost a friend due to my parents’ activities and views, but it was a scary time. I recall the execution of the Rosenbergs, convicted of passing on information about nuclear weapons to the USSR, and my having the feeling that they might not have done anything except belong to the Communist Party — though as an adult I began to wonder if they might not have been guilty of the charges that were made against them. There certainly were Americans in the Communist Party who felt a greater loyalty to the Soviet Union than to the US — people for whom the USSR was a kind of paradise in the making and Stalin a saintly leader.

EN: Did your parents have strong anti-religious views?

JF: Luckily, no. Though in principle both parents regarded themselves as atheists, neither was in fact personally hostile to religion. I was fortunate. My father had a Roman Catholic past — he had once thought seriously of becoming a priest — and my mother had grown up in a devout Protestant home. At least twice a year, Christmas and Easter, my mother took my brother and me to church.

EN: How did you get involved in Christianity?

When I was about eleven, thanks to the invitation of a friend, I visited a local Anglican church and found myself amazingly at home there. What attracted me was the Eucharistic service, in its main elements similar to our Orthodox Divine Liturgy, only not so long. This made me ask to be baptized — I wanted to be able to receive communion. It was as a catechumen being prepared for baptism that I began to understand such Greek words as Eucharist, meaning an act of thanksgiving, and liturgy, a public work. On the day of my baptism, the priest gave me what I now think of as a prophetic gift, an ancient Byzantine coin with the image of Christ Pantocrator on one side. This period of my life was the beginning of my complicated journey that finally led me, many years later, to the Orthodox Church.

As for other aspects of my childhood — well, it was in many ways amazingly normal, except that for about half of 1953 my father was in prison, as were many Communists in those days, while our family was being closely watched by the FBI. Even so, it is remarkable how normal one can be in such an abnormal situation. I was a Boy Scout, I delivered newspapers, I read a great deal, I enjoyed school, I was active in the church where I had been baptized, serving at the altar.

EN: What happened then? Have you met special people and was there some special experience in your youth? Tell please about your participation in anti-war struggle.

JF: For the latter part of my teen-age years I fell away from the church and described myself as an agnostic. I had acquired the idea that churches were for the simple-minded and that nature provided better places to worship. My religious life rekindled when I was in the Navy. I had quite a strong religious experience. As a result I returned to the Anglican Church.

Several of the big events of my life happened while I was in the military. I had been trained in meteorology and was part of a Navy meteorological unit working at the headquarters of the US Weather Bureau, just outside Washington, DC. It was fascinating work — it was the time when we had use of the first weather satellite. I did well in my work and was glad to be stationed in Washington.

While in Washington, my religious life was in a state of transition. The more aware I became of how deep the theological and liturgical divisions were among Anglicans (called Episcopalians in the US), the more troubled I was. This led me finally to become Roman Catholic. In the Catholic Church one met the same Liturgy in every parish church, and the same beliefs. Also I was impressed by how Catholics were responding to social issues — homelessness, hunger, violence. It seemed to me a church touching people’s lives more deeply — and also that it was not an elitist church. Perhaps, had I known about Orthodox Christianity at the time, I would have become Orthodox much earlier than I did, but my single Orthodox encounter at the time was with a Greek parish that was not welcoming to people who weren’t Greek. If you didn’t speak Greek, why were you there?

About the same time the peace aspect of my life began to come into focus. It was really the consequence of reading the Gospel. Despite my family background, I wasn’t politically minded, in fact someone who kept his distance from anything political, but I could see that there were certain qualities any Christian has to try to bring into his daily life. One of the major themes of the Gospel is forgiveness. Another is love, including love of enemies. I could see both these qualities not only in the words of Jesus but in the way he related to people around him. It struck me that he killed no one and that he gave no one a blessing to kill. Instead again and again he reached out to people who opposed him. Even when he was dying on the cross, he appealed to his Father to forgive those who were responsible for his crucifixion.

About this time the US, through the CIA, arranged an invasion of Cuba — the Bay of Pigs Invasion. It was in the early spring of 1961. I was shocked and ashamed both about the event itself and also the fact that, in the days following, it was claimed by President Kennedy that the US had nothing to do with the invasion. Then, when the press was ready to publish evidence that it was in fact a CIA operation, Kennedy admitted the truth. A few days later, when I read in The Washington Post about a small group of people who were praying in silence in front of a CIA building in Washington to protest to invasion, it seemed to me what they were doing was an appropriate response. After work and wearing civilian clothes, I went down to the place they were standing and joined them. I thought, as a US citizen, that anyone could engage in peaceful protest. It didn’t cross my mind that I might be getting into trouble, but in fact I got into a great deal of trouble. Photos had been taken. I was recognized. My commanding officer was outraged. I was threatened with prison. Luckily, thanks to help from others including several supportive people in the Navy, instead I received an early discharge as a conscientious objector. It was only later in life that I had some times in jail.

EN: What happened when you left the Navy?

JF: The next stop was to join a small Christian community in New York, the Catholic Worker, which was helping people who were living rough in the streets in what was an especially poor part of Manhattan. We ran a free kitchen and gave out clothing. It was led by a remarkable woman, Dorothy Day. She is likely in the coming years to be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church. One of my books is a biography of her.

EN: Maybe, it is very personal, but how did you find your way to God? I don’t mean joining the church yet, but just when was it possible for you to give a “yes” answer to a question of God’s existence? Was there a turning point?

JF: Even in those earlier times in my life when I was embarrassed to speak about belief in God, even then I had a sense of God’s existence and the fact that God was not distant. This may be partly due to my parents, especially my mother. I vividly remember, in my mother’s case, the sorrow in her voice when, answering my question about God, she said she didn’t think God existed. The answer was less important to me than the deep sorrow in her voice when she said it. Why was she so sad? Not many years later, while I was in the Navy, she managed to find her way back to her Christian roots. She had left the Communist Party some years earlier, when Soviet troops invaded Hungary. My father also eventually left the Communist Party, in his case late in his life.

EN: And the Orthodox Church? I suppose it was a long way before you found your way to the church. And as far as I know by this time you were looking for this way together with Nancy…

JF: Both Nancy and I were Catholics but not quite at home in any parish. By this time the Catholic Church, quite notably in Holland but in many other countries as well, was deeply divided. In its attempts to modernize, it had much too quickly changed its approach to worship. Practically everything that the Church had once taught was being challenged if not rejected. I envied what seemed to me the deeper roots and stability of Orthodox Christianity, but I still had the idea who had to be born in an Orthodox culture to be accepted as a fellow Orthodox.

EN: How did you make your living?

JF: After I left the Catholic Worker community, most of my jobs were in journalism. I worked for a time for a business magazine in New York, later for a daily newspaper, then for a news service, and later still edited a monthly magazine. I also did a lot of freelance writing. I also had what I joke about being my “sabbatical” — a year in prison in 1969-1970 for protest against the war in Vietnam. My life has been a mixture of writing, journalism, and also involvement in peace activities.

EN: Is the chaining-yourself-to-the-rails story true? I’ve heard you did something like this during the Vietnam war?

JF: I have never been chained to any rails! I was briefly in jail several times for acts of civil disobedience — for example in 1961 I was one of the people blocking the entrance to an office of the government agency responsible for making and testing nuclear weapons. It was a protest against atmospheric tests of the H-bomb. I was jailed for about a month. It was quite an interesting experience.

Later on, in 1969, when I was about 27, I had a much longer time in prison, about thirteen months. It was during the Vietnam War. I was one of a group of fourteen people who removed files from a the military conscription center for the city of Milwaukee and then burned the files in a nearby park.

EN: Looking back on that experience, can you say it gave you some special inner experience?

JF: Definitely! It became part of my daily discipline to read at least a chapter of the New Testament. I spent more time praying. I was fortunate to be in a prison that not only had a library but a library that was part of the state university library system. If they didn’t have a book I wanted, they could always get it for me. I had always wanted to read Russian literature but hadn’t had time. Now I had both the time and the opportunity. I started with Tolstoy’s War and Peace, then Anne Karenina, and went on to Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and others. “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Crime and Punishment” were particularly important. I also owe a debt to Gorky, especially the first volume of his autobiography, My Childhood, with its astonishing description of his very devout grandmother. All this reading eventually played a part in my finding mt way to the Orthodox Church.

EN: What brought you to Holland?

JF: I came here in 1977 to head the staff of a peace organization, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and also edit its journal. It was a job I had for twelve years.

It was in connection with that work that I went to Russia the first time in 1983 to take part in a small theological conference hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. I had intentionally come a few days early. During those days, with the help of an English-speaking member of the staff of the External Affairs Department, I visited most of the active parishes in Moscow as well as Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery. What I saw surprised and impressed me. For all the obstacles church life was confronted with, it was clear to me that there was a strength and vitality in the Russian Church that was not only quite different than what I had been led to expect by western press reports, in fact a vitality unlike anything I had ever personally experienced before in any church in any country. I proposed to the Moscow Patriarchate that I write a book about the Church in Russia. In 1983, because of the political restraints imposed on the Church, it wasn’t possible, but by 1985, after the election of Gorbachev, things changed rapidly. I was given the permission that I had been seeking and began to travel widely in Russia, assisted by an English-speaking priest from Kiev, Fr. Boris Udovenko. In 1988 the book was published: Pilgrim to the Russian Church. That was followed a year later by a second book, Religion in the New Russia, which included a detailed description of the celebration of the thousand year anniversary of the baptism of Russia.

EN: Did you have contact at the time with the Orthodox parish in Amsterdam?

JF: It must have been about 1983 that I first met Fr Alexis Voogd and his wife Tatiana. Both of them were teaching at the University of Amsterdam. They loaned me books and gave me advice about people and places I should visit in Russia. But it wasn’t until the December 1987 that Fr. Alexis pointed out to me that, having visited so many Orthodox churches in Russia, wasn’t it time to visit the Orthodox Church in Amsterdam?

That did it! Nancy and I came to the parish for the first time in January 1988. It was a small community in those days but very strong. Once we started coming, it became impossible to be anywhere else on Sunday. A few months alter, on Palm Sunday, I was chrismated and the same happened to Nancy on Pentecost. Next year will be our twentieth anniversary as Orthodox Christians.

EN: Tell please about the people who influenced you most to make your choice, to become Orthodox, and about your spiritual teachers.

JF: Fr. Alexis [Voogd], of course. Thank God for all his advice and encouragement. Also Tatiana [Voogd]. Then there was Margot Muntz, another of the founders of the parish. She had come to Amsterdam from the USA just after the Second World War and never left. Her husband, Pierre, was Russian. Margot had an amazing gift for noticing strangers and making them feel at home. And then there was Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom]. Nancy and I went year after year to the Sourozh diocesan conference in Oxford, partly just to hear him speak. I felt as if I had met one of the apostles — one of the people who had witnessed Christ’s miracles, someone who had seen the risen Christ.

EN: We know you as an editor of a magazine “In Communion”. Can you tell more about it and about the Orthodox Peace Fellowship? Also about your lectures in America and elsewhere.

JF: The Orthodox Peace Fellowship is an international association of Orthodox Christians who seek to practice the peace of Christ in everyday life. The group has its roots in the Amsterdam parish. Its existence has a lot to do both with Fr. Alexis Voogd and Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov. Both thought that to be Orthodox shaped the way you live your life, how you relate to other people, what kind of work you do, how you respond to conflict and enemies. It was especially Fr. Sergei who gave me the blessing to do this work. Another member of the parish, Michael Bakker, is the OPF president, and the treasurer is parish member Silouan Duetekom.

It was from Fr. Sergei — in those days he was still a theological student in St. Petersburg — I learned the Russian word miloserdia — the works of mercy. Miloserdia is what we do to translate of the Liturgy into daily life. There is a great deal on this topic in the writings of the Church Fathers, such saints as John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, but also many others. The Orthodox Peace Fellowship journal, “In Communion”, is simply a means to explore these topics via the written word. “In Communion” also exists as a web site — www.incommunion.org — where all the articles in past issues are available as well as many other texts and resources. The lectures I sometimes give are just another means of doing the same thing, except in a way that permits dialogue. Also I’ve written a number of books. Books tend to generate invitations to speak.

EN: Books are in some way like children. You bear them, give them birth and care of them. Please tell us about your books for adults and books for children.

JF: Probably the most translated of the books is Praying with Icons — just this week we received the first copies of the Romanian edition. Ladder of the Beatitudes has also been widely read. There is a book on confession — Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness.  There are two biographies, one of Thomas Merton, the other of Dorothy Day. The most recent book is The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life — a book that looks at pilgrimage both as a physical journey to sacred places but also as a way of being even if you living the most ordinary life and never crossing a border. Also just published is a children’s book, Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue, which is about a recently canonized Russian saint, Maria Skobtsova, who rescued many people who were in danger when the Nazis occupied France. She died in 1945 in a German concentration camp. One of her main collaborators was Fr. Dimitri Klépinin, who also perished in a concentration camp. Fr. Dimitri’s granddaughter, Tania Bos, is a member of our parish, so we have a special tie.

EN: We all know that you and Nancy have to undergo a serious operation soon. You have already written about your experience of illness — there is a chapter about it in your pilgrimage book. Can you tell us something in this respect?

JF: I’ve had kidney illness the last few years. Since January 2006 this has meant I have to have sessions of dialysis three times a week. At the end of October I’m due to receive a new kidney — Nancy is the donor. If the operation is successful, it will make it a lot easier to work and travel. Say a prayer!

EN: We all wish you and Nancy a lot of courage for the forthcoming events, we love you both and wish you God’s help for every moment of your life.

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published in the December 2007 issue of Nikolaas in de Jordaan
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Thomas Merton: a poster boy?

Often works of biography reveal more about the author than about his subject. Mark Shaw’s recent book about Thomas Merton strikes me as a case in point. Here is the review I wrote for the Winter issue of The Merton Seasonal.

Jim

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Beneath the Mask of Holiness:
Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair That Set Him Free

by Mark Shaw
Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, $27

review by Jim Forest

While still a young, aspiring writer who had not yet set his sights on becoming a monk, Merton lamented his latest rejection letter in a journal entry with which any writer can identity: “Other people’s bad books get published,” he noted in his journal. “Why can’t my bad book get published?” Mark Shaw has much to celebrate. Despite (or perhaps because of) his purple prose style and sensationalist approach to the life of Thomas Merton, his particular bad book has gotten published.

The book centers on what Shaw presents as shocking revelations of closely-guarded secrets. The reader learns that, while a college student in England, Merton had a sexual liaison that resulted in the birth of an out-of-wedlock child; and then later in life, long after becoming a monk, fell in love with a nurse he met while recovering from surgery.

Is there anyone with the remotest interest in Merton’s life who is unaware of Mark Shaw’s headline news? Soon after Merton’s death in 1968, his friend Ed Rice became the first to write, in The Man in the Sycamore Tree, about Merton fathering a child while at Clare College, Cambridge. No subsequent biographer has ignored the event. As for his affair with the nurse when he was 50, it was first described a quarter century ago by Michael Mott in The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. It is now more than a decade since Merton’s journals about the affair, included in Learning to Love, were published.

Shaw is indignant that Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, referred in only “watered down” terms to the more serious sins he committed before he became a monk. This is nothing less than intentional misrepresentation, Shaw asserts, “the result of a concerted effort to disguise a tormented sinner as some sort of plastic saint rehabilitated through monastic practices.” (21) The real Merton was transformed into a Catholic “poster boy.” (p vii)

Continuing in the same vein, Shaw sees the lack of detail as nothing less that the result of “a quiet conspiracy, a cover up, if you will, by not only Merton, but also the Catholic Church hierarchy stretching from the United States to the Vatican, Abbot Frederic Dunne [Merton’s abbot when he wrote the book], Merton’s literary agent, and his publisher, none of whom did anything other than promote the book as factual even though critical parts did not disclose the whole truth. Strict censorship, in effect, issued a restraining order on Merton’s true story, omitting crucial information about him, and readers were hoodwinked and misled into believing that while Merton may have been a sinner prior to entering Gethsemani, he was not ‘that bad’ a sinner.” (21)

Thus the book’s title: Beneath the Mask of Holiness. Shaw sees “holiness” as a disguise that the Catholic Church and the Trappist Order managed to squeeze Merton into. But, thanks to his affair in 1965, Merton finally discovered what life was all about and thus was no longer “a schizophrenic persona, passive on the outside while pangs of anguish and fear patrolled within him.” (9)

If such over-heated sentences appeal to you, either for content or prose style, I urge you to rush out and buy a copy. Otherwise save your time and money for a better book.

Perhaps it’s not entirely accidental that the reader is reminded of Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, populated by evil Catholics whose goal in life is to conceal the truth. In Shaw’s book, Merton is assigned the starring role in an anti-Catholic tract. (In the book’s last chapter, Shaw speculates that Merton may have been murdered, in which case “the logical suspects would be directives hired by the Catholic Church hierarchy, who were afraid of a scandal if Merton were to return to his lover or leave Gethsemani.” [213-4])

If you want to know about actual Merton’s life, including those events that he brought to confession, read Merton himself or one of his less conspiracy-minded biographers.

Regarding his year at Cambridge, Merton asked aloud in The Seven Storey Mountain, “Shall I wake up the dirty ghosts under the trees of the Backs and out beyond the Clare New Building and in some rooms down on Chesterton Road?” He decided to let the ghosts slumber. “There would certainly be no point whatever in embarrassing other people with the revelation of so much cheap sentimentality mixed up with even cheaper sin,” as he put it in an earlier draft of the autobiography. It was characteristic of Merton to take pains not to embarrass others.

What Merton makes crystal clear in The Seven Storey Mountain, as published, is that it was a hellish interval in his life, “an incoherent riot of undirected passion,” as he put it — a time of “beer, bewilderment and sorrow,” in the words of his friend, Bob Lax. “I had fallen through the surface of old England,” Merton wrote, “into the hell, the vacuum and the horror that London was nursing in her avaricious heart.” He remembers reading Freud, Jung, and Adler, struggling to understand “the mysteries of sex-repression.”

Though clearly something dreadful occurred, the reader was left guessing exactly what actually happened — something to do with the mysteries of sex-repression, clearly, but what? On the other hand, what Merton shared with his readers is a great deal more than is provided by most authors of autobiographies. In Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, to give one typical example, Chaplin simply skipped over some of the more painful or humiliating moments in his life, while inventing or radically revising others.

For all its sorrows, Merton’s year at Cambridge wasn’t a total loss. Perhaps the high point was Professor Edward Bullough’s class on Dante. Canto by canto, Merton read his way to the frozen core of hell, finally ascending through purgatory toward the bliss of heaven, a “slow and majestic progress of … myths and symbols.” It was purgatory’s seven storey mountain that provided Merton with the metaphor for his autobiography.

While Shaw provides a compact if voyeuristic chronicle of how Merton fell in love with a young nurse and what occurred between them in the weeks that followed, by far the best and most vivid and three-dimensional account of the same story is related by Merton himself in Learning to Love. Here the reader gets both a day-by-day history of what happened as well as a poignant account of his struggle to make sense of what all this meant, his justifications side-by-side with his self-recriminations. Here one can also can read about the very human community Merton was a part of and his frustrations with his abbot, James Fox – and then hear him express his gratitude for both.

Unfortunately, Shaw seems to have no understanding of or sympathy with Merton’s basic choices: to become a Christian, to be baptized in the Catholic Church, and then to embrace monastic life in a penitential order. It was ultimately because of Merton’s renewed realization that he had a monastic vocation, not a vocation to marriage, that made him end the affair.

It wasn’t, in my opinion, Merton’s finest hour. Many priests suffer from extreme loneliness and have affairs which, in most cases, end as Merton’s did. I have known several women at the other end of similar stories who felt abandoned, suffered from a deep sense of rejection for years afterward, and even wrestled with thoughts of suicide. The fact that this particular story involves Thomas Merton doesn’t make it better and mean that, thanks to the special magic of the Merton factor, it became an encounter sprinkled with pixie dust for the young woman who so desperately loved him.

“God writes straight with crooked lines,” says a Portugese proverb. After the affair, Merton realized he needed not only a hermitage but also vital relationship with several Kentucky families he had begun to know. Never a hard-hearted man, he became even more compassionate. One hopes the nurse he loved was also able to make good use of the intense relationship she had with Merton in that period of her life. (In the past, biographers have shielded her identity, either using the initial “M,” as Merton did in his journals, or her first name, Margie. To his shame, Shaw reveals her family name.)

One could write much more about Shaw’s book and its thesis that it was only thanks to his affair that the true Merton at last emerged from hiding rather than remaining a masked counterfeit coined by the Catholic Church. But then I would have to discuss every chapter, the reading of which is a penance I leave only to those who find ordinary penances inadequate.