HOW I GOT FROM THERE TO HERE
I would have to say that it all started with that job interview. Sure, I had gotten a good Jesuit education in high school and my older brothers had come of age under the shadow of the draft during the war in Vietnam, but I hadn’t given the militarism vs. anything else debate a whole lot of personal thought. I was busy working on a double major in electrical engineering and music, playing bass in a dance band and a German ethnic orchestra, and courting the girl who would become my wife. I was really busy. I even found time to squeeze in giving my life to the Lord in the spring of my junior year of college. Then came that interview in the fall of my senior year.
That was back when lots of large employers would send recruiters to college campuses to interview the engineering students. (My music student friends’ eyes would be wide with wonder when I told them about such things – them coming to us.) I signed up for an interview with a particular aerospace company. I had a vague idea they made gear for commercial aviation. I was wrong – really wrong. They made missile guidance systems. And when the guy said, “We like to think of our products as defensive weapons,” I immediately knew three things:
1) that kind of thinking is nonsense,
2) I wanted the interview to end as quickly as possible, and
3) I wasn’t going to do that sort of thing – ever.
An ordinary soldier might be responsible for killing a dozen people. A commander might be responsible for hundreds. A bomber pilot might be responsible for thousands. By designing weapons, I could be responsible for tens of millions. I swear, some engineers would design a machine to turn their own mothers into ground meat if they could use technology that was dazzling enough. I don’t know how such people can sleep at night. I couldn’t. It must have been that giving-your-life-to-the-Lord stuff at work.
Well, I graduated (without the music degree), went to work for IBM for a year, came back home to take a position as the electrical engineering lab instructor where I went to college, got married, and started going to an inner city church that was connected with the Sojourners community that is in Washington, D.C. The same folks who put out a magazine by the same name. Those were good years with good people, and while I was providing one education to college students I was getting another different education myself in peace and social justice issues. While working at the college, once in a great while, I would be called on by federal investigators doing background checks on former students who were wanting to do military work. I wasn’t prepared the first time it happened, but thereafter I had a plan. I would give an honest evaluation of the student and then add, “But I cannot recommend this student, or anyone else for that matter, for the position in question because what he/she would be doing is contrary to how Jesus taught us to live.” I am still amused by the fact that the federal investigators were obliged to write down everything I said.
I eventually left the college, giving up the teaching of electronics for the doing of electronics. My family and I moved and started going to a different church that, for a while, was like the first one in many ways: small, personal, and Christian community. Not so much interested in peace and social justice, though. As the years turned into decades, the church changed once and I changed twice. For me and for a while, peace and social justice concerns went to the back burner, replaced by my career, church involvement, raising children, home remodeling, and family problems. As time went on, the church lost its Christian community aspect and became larger, less personal, and more mainstream American Protestant, right-wing, and George-Bush-can-do-no-wrong Republican. But while the church continued to slowly turn away from its roots, I started to turn back to mine.
Both turnings accelerated after the 9/11/2001 attack on the World Trade Center. I saw that what was touted as “compassionate conservatism” turned out to be lip service, with the rich continuing to get richer at the expense of the poor and middle class. The country became accepting of, even obsessed with, militarism to a degree I had not seen even during the war in Vietnam. America and a coalition of those it duped invaded Iraq on the flimsiest of excuses (Just where are those much hyped weapons of mass destruction?), directly leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. Not what I would consider following in the footsteps of Christ, and yet my fellow church members made excuses for it all. I became more outspoken.
Our differences finally came to a head during the presidential election campaign of 2004. In a sermon, the senior pastor gave the congregation political information on the candidates that originated from the Republican National Committee, claiming that it was unbiased and nonpartisan. I documented the information’s source and asked for disclosure and apology, but was ignored. Later, several church members and I attended one of many conferences held by a large national Christian men’s organization. The conference leaders highly praised the troops and expressed their wholehearted support for the war, and a (supposedly) Christian comedian ridiculed the French for refusing to sanction or support the war. The only thing that kept me from trying to shout down the speaker was the realization that, in a large stadium filled with thousands of people, I could not hope to be successful.
In church the next day, when we were invited to tell the congregation about the conference, I got up and went to the microphone. I read Matthew 5:38-48: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, do not resist an evil person... You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...” I read it, tore the page out of my Bible, wadded it up, and threw it on the floor. I read Luke 6:27-36: “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you...” I read it, tore the page out of my Bible, wadded it up, and threw it on the floor. I read Romans 12:14-21: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse... Never pay back evil for evil to anyone... Never take your own revenge... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” I read it, tore the page out of my Bible, wadded it up, and threw it on the floor. I read 1st Peter 3:8-9: “To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead...” I read it, tore the page out of my Bible, wadded it up, and threw it on the floor. And then I continued, telling them how ashamed I was of the American church and for abandoning the Gospel of Peace.
Jonathan Dymond put my exact feelings into print almost 200 years ago:
“What is the fact? Muslims and Pagans (have seen our scriptures and) do not believe that our religion allows war. They reproach us with the inconsistency. Our wars are, with them, a scandal and a taunt. ‘You preach to us,’ say they, ‘of Christianity, and would convert us to your creed. First convert yourselves; show us that you yourselves believe in it.’ No, the Jews at our own doors tell us that our wars are evidence that the Prince of Peace has not come. They bring the violence of Christians to prove that Christ was a deceiver. Thus do we cause evil to be spoken of the way of truth. Thus are we, who should be the helpers of the world, its stumbling-blocks and its shame. We, who should be lights to those who sit in darkness, cause them to love that darkness still. Well may the Christian be ashamed for these things. Well may he be ashamed for the reputation of his religion. And he may be ashamed too, for the honored defender of the Christian faith who stands up, the advocate of blood, who invents subtle sophisms and searches over the fields of speculation to find an argument to convince us that we may murder one another! This is the ‘wisdom of the world’ – that wisdom which is emphatically called FOOLISHNESS.”
To say that the incident in church got me into a whole lot of trouble would be an understatement. I apologized the next week for scaring the children, but I am still ashamed that the American church – and that congregation – have abused the scriptures in a way that is far worse than me. They may as well tear those pages out and throw them away, for all the care, attention, and obedience they pay to them – which was, after all, my whole point. At any rate, that was pretty much the end of that church for me, and the end of me for them. I was permitted to conduct two or three poorly attended Sunday school classes on nonresistance after that but was not permitted to preach a sermon, even though no one was able to show my views to be Biblically incorrect. (The church had previously been relatively open to non-clergy delivering sermons.) It is remarkable and sad how quickly and completely 20 years of fellowship evaporated when I took a stand for peace.
It was while I was preparing for those Sunday school classes that I stumbled across Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You. In it he wrote:
The work of Garrison, the father, in his foundation of the Society of Non-resistants and his Declaration, even more than my correspondence with the Quakers, convinced me of the fact that the departure of the ruling form of Christianity from the law of Christ on non-resistance by force is an error that has long been observed and pointed out, and that men have labored, and are still laboring, to correct. Ballou’s work confirmed me still more in this view. But the fate of Garrison, still more that of Ballou, in being completely unrecognized in spite of fifty years of obstinate and persistent work in the same direction, confirmed me in the idea that there exists a kind of tacit but steadfast conspiracy of silence about all such efforts.
I was amazed – he had gotten it exactly right. Most Christians would rather politely ignore the obviously nonviolent nature of the Gospel than face their own spiritual poverty and admit that the Just War doctrine is just wrong. And I was inspired – what could I do to break the conspiracy of silence? I could start by making as much of the literature as possible as available as possible. Garrison, Ballou, and others inspired Tolstoy. Tolstoy inspired Gandhi, Gandhi inspired Martin Luther King, and King inspired a whole generation.
Perhaps there is another Tolstoy, Gandhi, or King out there, just waiting to be inspired.
I hope so.