published in Trouw, 23 August 2011 (in De Verdieping)
By Frank Mulder
We cannot work for peace without being open to our opponents, says Jim Forest, writer and secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. And that requires setting our fear aside.
“Jesus loves Wikileaks” reads the banner in front of the American consulate on Museum Square in Amsterdam. A group of Christian activists are calling attention to the fate of Bradley Manning, the whistleblower who passed on military secrets to Wikileaks and has been imprisoned for several months without trial.
One of the participants is the 69-year-old peace worker Jim Forest. “Manning has been kept in solitary confinement for months,” says Forest. “People who dare to stick their necks out to expose abuses are the people I want to support.” He’s not very enthusiastic about the text on the banner. “Julien Assange of Wikileaks is not my role model. And you shouldn’t claim Jesus for your own particular cause. But I do know that Jesus told us to tell the truth. And that’s why I think we should be grateful to whistleblowers, especially when they expose what’s going on in Iraq.”
Forest is known in America mainly as a writer of books on spirituality. Recently he published a biography of Dorothy Day, the woman who founded the Catholic Worker movement in1933 and serves as a model for many Christian activists.
Forest himself lived in community with her in Manhattan during the sixties. “That was one of the ‘houses of hospitality’ for which the Workers are still known: communities, often in run-down neighborhoods, where addicts, refugees or other people in need can come for food, clothing and shelter. Since then hundreds of such communities have been established in all the cities of America and outside the US as well.” Catholic Workers are devoted to living out the Gospel in a literal, simple way, and they own as little property as possible. “Just like the early Franciscans. In a culture where many people prefer to live alone with their families, Dorothy challenged people to experiment with hospitality.”
Dorothy Day, says Forest, is still relevant for her radical social critique. “She didn’t think charity was enough. She wanted a society in which it was easier to be good, a society that was more hospitable to the poor and the stranger. Her action on behalf of trade unions and for peace often brought her into conflict with the authorities. She called herself an anarchist, by which she didn’t mean overthrowing the government but being loyal to the Gospel first and then to the government.”
Most Catholic Workers have spent time in jail, following the example of Day herself. Forest also spent more than a year in prison for burning draft records in 1968 during the Vietnam War. He conducted the action in public along with a group of clergy, while the Gospel was being read. “Sometimes you have to commit civil disobedience. But the purpose should always be to convey a message, never just to be confrontational.” His radicalism is not leftist, he says. “The good thing about the left is that sometimes they’re the only ones who do something about unemployment, war or racism. But when it becomes a religion, opponents are soon seen as political objects. Are you a follower of Wilders [the anti-Muslim Dutch politician]? Then I’m supposed to despise you! According to Christianity, however, I must always give the other the chance to repent by not getting in the way with a sense of my own self-importance. Every day I work on cleaning up my act.”
In 1977 Forest and his family came to the Netherlands to work for an international peace organization. “We were involved in the movement against nuclear weapons. They were being stored in Bergen, within cycling distance of my house. The movement was very important ? internationally, too ? but I always felt there was something lacking. The work of consciousness-raising was focused mainly on fear. ‘If the Russians launch a nuclear weapon on the storage site, all of North Holland will be destroyed!’ But it was that fear that was the most important cause of the Cold War.” For real peace you have to get to know the person behind the enemy, Forest believes, and for this reason he decided to visit the Soviet Union. He was so impressed by the church there that in 1988 he and his wife joined the Russian Orthodox church in Amsterdam.
The Eastern Orthodox are not among the most progressive Christians under the sun, Forest admits, and he even has a joke about it: “How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “None! What is this ‘change’?” The Orthodox churches have a survival mentality, Forest explains, which is quite understandable. “They’re in countries where you want to be seen as little as possible. But the social tradition is very rich. This is why we set up the Orthodox Peace Fellowship ? to tell those stories. We talk about the most important compiler of the Orthodox Liturgy, for example, John Chrysostom, the fourth-century Patriarch of Constantinople. He was exiled by the emperor for being too socially radical. According to him, you cannot find Christ on the altar if you have failed to see him in the beggar at the church door. Every day you must try to see the face of God in the other.” Forest laughs: “Christianity is really so bloody simple!”
Without that attitude, working for peace becomes a matter of dividing people into the good guys and the bad guys, and you have to choose which one you want to belong to. “The other side is never going to listen to you. If you want them to change, you have to enter into a relationship with them. Peace work is tied up with love, even if ideology sees that as betrayal.”
For Forest, peace work is more than solving violent conflicts. “It’s about everything that makes relationships, families and society more healthy. If you’re not working for peace ? if you’re making things that people don’t need, for instance ? you’re probably not in the right place. Hospitality is peace work, too. Peace work begins when you open your door, when you open your face.”
That can be exhausting, Forest knows from experience. There are so many people in need. “The people who inspire me ? Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi ? all say that you won’t last without prayer. It was a daily discipline for them, and it was more than meditating. Prayer is conversation with God, in which God is usually silent. But that doesn’t mean you can’t hear him. There are deathly silences but there are also audible silences.”
This is how we find the strength to keep from doing what society and advertising tell us to do. “They tell us we ought to be afraid. We must always refuse to listen to them. This is less exciting than exposing abuses, of course, but it is just as much a form of civil disobedience.”
Jim Forest (1942) is a journalist. He is married and has six children. Despite his communist upbringing, he soon found his way to Christian belief. Through Dorothy Day he was introduced to the Catholic Worker community in New York. At that time he was actively involved in the civil rights movement and campaigns against the Vietnam War, for which he spent more than a year in prison. “A great year,” he calls it. “I could finally read Dostoyevsky, at Dorothy’s recommendation. And I had time for the Bible.” Forest was also a friend of the famous monk Thomas Merton.
In 1977 Forest was appointed general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in the Netherlands. After traveling to the Soviet Union in the eighties he became Russian Orthodox. Since then he has been international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, for which he was the editor-in-chief of the magazine In Communion until this summer.
He has written several books on spirituality in addition to a few children’s books, and has recently published a new biography of Dorothy Day entitled All is Grace. Day (1897-1980) was an American journalist who, along with Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker, a movement for nonviolent action dedicated to helping the poor that is also active in Amsterdam.
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translation: Nancy Forest
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