"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Still I Would be Your Faithful Servant

"I’m saying we are the ones we have been waiting for, that we are creating the alternative. If that is what we are doing, not just going through some exercise of opposition, some knee-jerk resistance or recalcitrance, then we have a lot of work ahead of us — and need to take the work more seriously, and ourselves less so...

"We were so used to being marginalized and written off and now there we were on the front page. It took some adjustment. Starting in 2003, just about every demo we’ve organized has gotten great press coverage. Sometimes the tone is snarky, and reporters always ask why we did not have more people — but we got covered.

Eventually, I realized we were getting press coverage not just because of our cutting edge, awesome demonstrations. But because we were manifestations of popular sentiment against the war. At a time when the administration is desperately trying to distract the American people from the war and the economy those two things are becoming fused in people’s minds, and we are part of triggering, directing and sustaining that discussion. And that discussion turns the wheel of action." - Frida Berrigan, "Dismantling Peace Movement Myths"

The myth Frida was countering here is "We are marginalized and we are not having an impact." She points out that to compare ourselves to the demonstrators of the sixties is self-defeating, not for all the media-multiplied reasons about how effective and popular those protests were, but because contrary to that same media, our current protests are having an impact, despite the impression successfully implanted by the message multipliers.

The reason for the power of the myth is not far to seek. We have only to look into our own emasculated passion for justice, our satisfaction at the "prosperity" we have managed to enjoy. Or in the words of Daniel Berrigan, "Creatures like ourselves are whipped into shape (into shapelessness), morally inert, our passion surgically removed like a circumcision, at birth. Shortly thereafter we fall in line. We submit to authority good and bad, we grow fatalistic, we accept the shape of things as inevitable. The shape of life today. How terrible to reflect that Christians, people like ourselves, have been seized on as perfect instruments for fascism, nazism. And, dare we say it, for Americanism?" - Daniel Berrigan, "Uncommon Prayer"

And the triumphant irony is that this state is described as "being a Christian". Told that Christianity means submission to authority, whether corporate or governmental, that the Christian accepts the "shape of things", we begin to see challenges to injustice as Satanic. The conventional, whatever is widely accepted, become the boundaries of Christian reality and to restrict ourselves within those boundaries becomes Christian meekness, that interior sense of moral goodness which flushes our hearts with self-satisfaction. The same self-satisfaction suffused the functionaries of the state apparatus in Nazi Germany, most of whom confused Christianity with utter submission to whatever "shape of things" the government wished to impose.

The conventional wisdom today is to contrast the passion of the 60's with the bleak student anti-war landscape of today, but as Frida rightly points out, "The average 'lifespan' of a 60s activist was about six months — from turning on at their first protest to tuning out and going back to Middle America. You don’t end war in six-month increments — no matter how much you rage during that period. Can we see ourselves today — in 2008 — building an anti-war movement founded on the idea that war is a failure of the imagination, that war is wrong, and that it must be resisted and opposed even if it is not affecting one personally? I think we can." - Frida Berrigan, "Dismantling Peace Movement Myths". Precisely. Those of us who were present in the 60's tend to morph our memories in the direction of heroic struggles, but honesty compels us to admit that most of our 60's activism was limited, conditional, and soon compromised. It might have been intense while it lasted, but the revealing symptom was that it did not last. Delving a little deeper, we realize that for many of us, sixties radicalism was primarily, if not wholly, a fashion statement. Today's students usually make different fashion statements, but the style of our fashion statements does not and did not validate our commitment to justice.

In fact, the quality of student participation today may be higher than that of the sixties, precisely because radicalism is no longer rewarded. To persist in the face of apathy and incomprehension requires a quality of engagement which is what the typical sixties radical lacked. While the commitment to marijuana and sexual self-indulgence was usually sincere, actual anti-war activity was almost always hedged with dozens of qualifications and compromises, which most often culminated in the abandonment of political activism. During the seventies, there was often a "spiritual" excuse for this abandonment, but in the end both spiritual and political commitments were forgotten.

It is not fashion statements that change societies. It is the sixties generation that started and maintains the 12 billion a month Iraq occupation, that brought us global neoliberalism, and starves millions each day to fund its nuclear war machine decades after the Cold War ended. When your basic commitment is to style, war and torture can supply as compelling fashion statements as peace and justice. It is genuine commitment to God's justice that ends wars, both the kind fought with bombs and the kind fought by the International Monetary Fund. We should have founded our radicalism more deeply during the sixties, but the opportunity to do so has not abandoned us. Our shame is all the greater if we cannot bring ourselves to act when, "The latest polls about the war have more than 70% of Americans opposed to the war, and when the question gets more general — 80-something percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction this country is going." - Frida Berrigan, "Dismantling Peace Movement Myths" The numbers weren't even close to this during the Vietnam war.

The words of Daniel Berrigan about our apathy during Vietnam should now be applied with more force to our abandonment of the Iraqi people, "We allowed the Vietnam war to go on for some fifteen years of multiplied horror. Most of us found our lives not at all thrown off track by the longest, bloodiest crime in all our history. It is as though a Kitty Genovese, with a Vietnamese face, were being slowly with exquisite cruelty, murdered under our window. She cried out for many hours, for days, for years. The murder went on. She was a child, she was a village woman, she knew nothing of ideology, of why she must must die, of what passion drove the knife. She knew only that she was dying. She sensed there were humans about, listening at the darkened windows. Where were they? How could they let her die for years and years?" - Daniel Berrigan, "Uncommon Prayer"

Where were you? Where are you?

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