Monday, February 25, 2008

See What the Young Are Saying...and Be Moved

In my peacemaking class I challenged my 20-year-old college students to approach global issues by studying the conflicts they engender and then to seek the ways of peace and nonviolence by starting with themselves to “be the change they wish to see in the world.”

Over the past six weeks we have looked at global warming, overpopulation, the “clash of civilizations”, and resource depletion (i.e., oil). I feared depressing them and even apologized for presenting them with such a glum picture of the future!

And then they surprised me.

As I read their journals, which reflect on the past week’s work, I consistently discovered that my students were far from being paralyzed by all these troubles. Instead they were facing the world with hope and courage and actively seeking practical solutions. Look at some of the remarks from their papers.

“I am depressed by the current situation, horrified by the possible future, and at the same time, completely inspired. As our conversation began to shift from how frightening the circumstances are at this point to what can still be done, I became very motivated to DO something.”

“Yes, it is true that our generation will be facing some of the most challenging decades to come….Yet, humanity is at the mercy of its own doings, and this is a beautiful concept in my eyes, because it means that there is a budding potential for change. If we look upon the history and disposition of civilization that produces such circumstances as human-made, they become influence-able. We have full responsibility.”

“One person at a time will change the world little by little, even if our good actions aren’t seen instantly.”

“I don’t know why I didn’t feel depressed or upset about our current and future state of affairs. Rather, it inspired a curiosity within myself to really think about how things are currently around the world and to learn more about what’s going on, to see what I can do and how minor ’sustainable’ or ‘green’ changes in my life will affect it and the way I see myself living it in the future.”

“Through all the dust and piles of dry wall, I could still see the progress we had made [in our Habitat for Humanity project]. It might be a slow process, but every shovel and every bucket full of dry wall is another step closer to the final product: a house for someone who could not afford one otherwise. And knowing that I am contributing to this product makes everything worth it. That is why I am willing to devote 3-4 hours every other Saturday morning.”

“We have to understand and make changes within ourselves before we can make changes in our community. I think that is vital for everyone, without exception. I never would have thought that I could make changes without first realizing that I had the potential and the passion [to so do].”

“I feel that I have reached that point in my life where I have become aware that something I love [the earth] is currently being destroyed. I cannot simply ignore it, because if I truly love it then I have to do something to save it. I cannot simply give up hope and be depressed about our situation because that is what enough people are doing already.”

“I think that my biggest downfall in my pursuit of the peacemaker lifestyle is my tendency to be overwhelmed by the feeling that I want to fix every problem of the world. This sensation of drowning in the problems of the world can often inspire feelings of apathy, and the notion that nothing you do will be enough to change the world. However, I have recently decided that what is important for me right now is taking the steps to enact change at home.”

“I believe that seeing the immediate effects on my college and community will not only make me a more engaged citizen, but will also remind me why it is important to remain positive and start at the local level.”

“How tired I am of having all the anger of seeing how others are more privileged, are better-off than I am and then to pretend that everything is all right….I now understand that anger is good only when it is taken in a positive direction. This is what creates passion, passion for change.”

And then here are some things they say they will do:

  • Begin an urban organic garden this summer in my community
  • Join Building Blocks (http://www.kzoo.edu/servicelearning/buildingblocks.htm) a College project where students paint houses in poor neighborhoods
  • Reduce my carbon footprint (http://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx)
  • Slow down my pace of life
  • Double my efforts in conserving resources that I use and encourage those around me to do the same
  • Change the way I view production, the economy, and our consumerist culture
  • Make a conscious decision to walk when I can instead of driving and encourage others to do the same.
  • Protest against the energy crisis by becoming a vegetarian “as an alternative to the gluttonous carnivorous [American] lifestyle”
  • Take cold showers twice a week during Lent to be in solidarity with the poor
  • Do more research on New Urbanism (http://www.newurbanism.org/) to reduce urban sprawl
  • Observe more closely the violence that is inherent by our inaction (i.e., Hurricane Katrina, Kyoto Protocol, allowing the Iraq War to continue)
  • Apply for a job with Greepeace (http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/) in order to fight global warming
  • Apply for Teach for America (http://www.teachforamerica.org/)
  • Organize College events for Women’s History Month, volunteer for the Amigos Tutoring Program (http://www.kzoo.edu/servicelearning/amigos.htm), work with College Democrats
  • Continue to work on alternative forms of energy. (Last summer the student built a solar oven and planted a first-time organic garden.)

Truly, the best part about teaching is being inspired by the students!


This article appeared on Common Dreams on Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Things They Do for Love

Americans are largely unaware of the vastness and lethality of U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiles, say Sisters Ardeth Platte, Carol Gilbert and Jackie Hudson, the three nuns who did time in federal prison for breaking into the N-8 Minuteman missile site in October 2002.

Now that the sisters are all back from prison, they spent some time with me to explain how their religious commitment and civic duty led them to become activists for nuclear disarmament.

In 1978 after Sisters Ardeth and Carol first heard Helen Caldicott’s message on the dangers of nuclear weapons, they decided to work for the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign in Michigan, their home state. At the time, Michigan held the sixth largest cache of nuclear weapons in the country. The two sisters helped to organize a statewide ballot initiative for the Freeze in 1982, which passed at 56 percent.

They continued to work to free Michigan of all nuclear weapons until the Defense Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) inactivated the Wurtsmith Air Force Base near Oscoda in 1993 and the K. I. Sawyer Air Force Base near Marquette in 1995.

Continuing to feel the intensity of their call to eliminate nuclear weapons, Sisters Carol and Ardeth then joined Jonah House in Baltimore and became members of Plowshares. The worldwide peace organization spotlights the dangers of militarism and weapons of mass destruction through symbolic acts like their blood-spilling on the N-8 missile site.

Sister Jackie began her activism against nuclear weapons after being inspired by Sister Marjorie Tuite (1922-86) who talked about the “burden of knowledge” that doesn’t allow a person to know what’s going on in the world and not do anything about it. This burden calls for a “revolutionary integrity” that challenges one’s morality and calls for a continued commitment of the gospel’s message of “doing justice.”

“You can educate others and you can act,” said Sister Jackie, 73, who served 30 months at the Victorville Federal Prison Adelanto, Ca. “This is not always easy because there are consequences. However, when the consequences come, there is something that happens within that is deepened.”

Sister Jackie dedicated herself to the Ground Zero Center in Bremerton, Wash. near Seattle where she has lived since 1993. The center is located adjacent to the Trident submarine base where 2,000 nuclear warheads are stored. Peace activists regularly protest at the base and advocate its closing.

In 1996 the U.S. military stepped up its strategic capacity with Vision 2020, a plan to exploit and dominate outer space by linking all land, sea and air bases.

“Most people have no clue about Vision 2020,” said Sister Carol, 59, who spent 33 months at women’s prison at Alderson, W. Va. “Such a plan, if enacted, would lead to the utter devastation of the planet. So in 2000 we rang a bell saying that this was happening in our country and we must stop it.”

The sisters’ action against Vision 2020 occurred at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Co. where they poured their blood on a communications satellite and hammered a grounded fighter jet prior during an air show exhibit there. They did this because both presidential candidates that year had endorsed Vision 2020. The sisters were subsequently released without punishment.

“Nuclear weapons are the taproot of all violence,” said Sister Ardeth, 71, who served 41 months in the Danbury Federal Correction Institution in Connecticut. “Because we have these weapons of mass destruction and see ourselves as the remaining superpower nation, we proceed to intervene in other nations, claim other’s resources, and set up our military bases in their countries.”

She cited our war in Afghanistan, where we wanted to build an oil pipeline, and in Iraq, where we wanted their oil.

“The U.S. is obliged to abide by the non-proliferation treaty, to dismantle all of these weapons, in order to gain partnership with others and begin to work together,” said Sister Ardeth. “This is for our future survival, the survival of all people, of creation and the planet, herself.”

Sister Ardeth noted that since 1945 the United States has spent $20 trillion on military weapons. Meanwhile, millions of people in America and throughout the world are poor, sick and hungry because they lack even a fraction of such resources.

“When I learned about how poverty and racism work from the people who experience them, I saw that these things injure Mother Earth, too,” she said. “And I thank God in understanding the connection of all these violences. I thank God for the consciousness to say no to war and all violence.”

The sisters consider their action at the N-8 to be their citizen duty aimed at exposing the truth about weapons of mass destruction and the country’s unmitigated and bipartisan support for them.

They didn’t expect to go to prison nor did they think their sentences would be so severe, however, given heightened 9/11 security concerns, the prosecutor’s case against the nuns was probably used a deterrent to others who might want to plan future “symbolic” demonstrations.

Nevertheless, the sisters regard their prison time as “sacred time” not only because they “sacrificed” themselves for the cause of justice and nonviolence, but because their case received a lot more publicity than it might have. Their aim was to attract attention to the dangers of our country’s WMD as we were marching toward war over Iraq’s WMD.

The sisters recognize that not everyone can or is willing to go to prison as they did. As nuns they have the freedom to engage in public protest and to serve time in prison without disrupting family life.

“How could we not?” said Sister Carol without hesitation.

Actually, going to prison gave them the opportunity to “wash our hands of our complicity” with the military industrial complex.

Although the sisters’ religious status (and earning capacity) does not require them to pay income taxes, they do pay sales taxes on consumer goods and services. In other words, it is nearly impossible for them or any American citizen to avoid supporting the country’s war machine simply because everyone pays some kind of federal tax.

One might wonder if the sisters regard their effort and their prison time as worth it, especially as the Iraq War is nearing its fifth year and the president has been rattling sabers with Iran.

“We decided that our work is to end the war, to dismantle all WMDs, to stop all killing,” said Sister Ardeth. “At every Mass, in every prayer, we ask for this. It is programmed into us.”

“I don’t ever want a child to say that we did nothing,” said Sister Carol.

“I have a strong belief in life and love and lived to the best of my ability to practice those beliefs,” said Sister Jackie.

* * *

PLEASE NOTE: A new film titled “Conviction” by Brenda Truelson Fox of Boulder, CO, illustrates the sisters’ commitment to disarmament. Copies of the 43-minute film are available through Zero to Sixty Productions: www.ztsp.org.

This article appeared on Common Dreams on Friday, February 14, 2008.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

That Ultimate Sinking Feeling


I don’t know what it is but every morning when I wake up I expect to see a news report about something terrible that has happened overnight.

As I boot up my computer, watch the screen appear and wait for the Internet to click on, I hold my breath. After a glance over the headlines I then breathe a sigh of relief to find out that nothing terrible thing has happened. Yet.

Oh, there are the usual stories about civil wars, military coups, starvation, global warming, jobs leaving the country, buildings or bridges suddenly collapsing, storms, fires and floods. Frankly, I have become inured to these news items. What I’m looking for is that ultimate, disaster story that I fear, like another September 11.

It seems strange for me to worry like this, especially since I don’t live in the midst of danger as people do in Gaza or Colombia or the Sudan or Iraq or Pakistan. I don’t fear a terrorist’s bomb coming down on my town. Actually, I feel safe in my neighborhood and excited about the strides my city has made to revitalize itself.

Things are going well here despite the loss of our corporate mainstay, The Upjohn Company (now called Pfizer). And yes, over the past 10 years we lost four or five major paper companies, our landmark department store, the GM plant, and a few other manufacturing businesses. However, these bad news stories don’t compare to what I dread in the morning news report. I just have this sinking feeling that something terrible will happen that will change my life and our country forever. And I don’t want to face it.

It’s odd how the seasons calmly take their turn in the window outside my home. Birds continue to chirp. Squirrels are always scrambling. Rain or sunshine, snow or dreary weather comes and goes with each new day. Flowers bloom, grass dries out, leaves fall. I notice these regular, seasonal events and I anticipate them with a certain joy. My trepidation about the world is different and I’m consumed with that terrible sensation that something very bad will happen all too soon. So, sometimes I don’t read or listen to the news as if blindfolding myself can stop whatever I fear might happen.

I don’t think I’m any different from many Americans in these feelings. So what is it about us that our interest in news stories, even one as important and as dramatic as the Iraq War, is so fleeting after a while? It was only two years ago that the war was THE main issue and cause for a complete changeover in Congress. Yet, today, even though we’ve been at war for almost five years and spent nearly half a trillion dollars, you hardly hear much about it. Even our presidential candidates have managed to dodge talking much about the war. Now it’s the economy that matters most.

Like so many things we’ve had to endure over the past seven years, maybe we just get used to the same old stories and need to move on to something else.

It would seem I’d get over my feelings of expecting some terrible disaster to occur because it never happens. However, as I look at the accumulated list of all these little things, I’m coming to believe that perhaps, something terrible IS happening to America and maybe we just don’t recognize it. But then, what would we do?

Friday, February 1, 2008

Space Heroes Revisited











“Apollo 13,” one of my favorite movies, was on TV last weekend. It’s a good story about a “successful failure” that illustrated how good ol’ American ingenuity and determination saved the three moon-bound astronauts from perishing in space.

Although the film takes some artistic license in depicting the events and people of the flight, what popped out at me in watching it were the astronauts’ and flight commander’s leadership qualities of courage, confidence, determination, and focus.

I suspect that these qualities came through because like so many Americans I’m desperately searching for them in today’s political leadership.

The heady days of the Apollo moon flights and the Mercury and Gemini missions that preceded them were different times from today to be sure. America was growing. We were ready for any challenge. We were well-respected for our principles and ideals.

The NASA space program of the 1960s served as a beacon of our national pride as the exciting race-to-the-moon match up between the USA and the Soviet Union consumed us, I maintain, in a healthy way. We educated ourselves on space technology, watched their flights from lift-off to splash-down and reached for the stars ourselves in our own stations of life.

However, by April 1970 when Apollo 13 was launched, it became obvious that we had come to a turning point as Americans grew blasé about space flight. Going to the moon? Well, we had seen it twice before.

Some of this attitude is cultural: Americans are hyper-active for new and improved things. However, we were also affected by the heaviness of the disastrous Vietnam War, which like today’s Iraq War, seemed to have no end.

We were also probably exhausted over the challenge and excitement that the civil rights and the women’s movements made on our business-as-usual attitudes toward racism and sexism. Working for justice and equality was in the air but it was painfully difficult to face the ways our prejudice had silenced and omitted so many people from full participation in our society.

Most assuredly our attitudes were also influenced by the loss of our heroes—John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy—who had given us hope, moved us to our best selves and ignited our activist spirits.

Those tumultuous times drained our confidence in ourselves and perhaps killed our spirit along with our heroes. It left us to sink in a grand funk of self-absorption, greed, and anxiety that we’ve been unable to shake ever since. Perhaps that is why our leaders today seem to be short on leadership and long on pandering.

However, when the Apollo 13 astronauts were in trouble at least for a little while we forgot our malaise and gathered around Commander Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert in genuine prayer and heartfelt support for their safe return. That happened because we moved outside ourselves and our own problems and focused instead on three people in serious trouble.

Here are some examples of ways the film depicts leadership.

Fred Haise (played by Bill Paxton) is so sick he can hardly function yet he never gives up on himself or on the crew to do his duty.

When the crew learns that Ken Mattingly (played by Gary Sinise) is working on their re-entry procedure in the simulator, they all breathe a sigh of relief because they trust him. He refuses to take a break because he knows that his fellow astronauts aren’t able to rest either.

As the astronauts pass around the moon, Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) prefers to look away not because he had seen it before on a previous flight but because he is deeply disappointed about the scrubbed landing. He struggles with his disappointment and then bucks himself up to move on.

“Gentlemen, what are your intentions?” he asks. Then answers: “I want to go home.”

But going home presents its problems. He must steer the ship without a computer. Carbon dioxide levels become too high. Food is frozen and the three astronauts are freezing. A typhoon forms near the splash-down site and the heat shield may be damaged.

As the men prepare for re-entry, Lovell congratulates his men on what they have been able to do. “Gentlemen, it’s been a privilege flying with you.”

Lovell is a brave gentleman himself without tears and without gimmicks who has understood that his responsibility as commander requires that he set a good example for his crew.

On the ground Flight Commander Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) shows the same leadership qualities. He has an absolute commitment to the crew and an absolute faith in his engineers to do the impossible, like “putting a square peg in a round hole.”

Kranz sets goals and organizes his ground crew to achieve them. He asks for opinions, listens carefully, and makes calculated choices. He is competent. Most importantly, he knows the value of life and is determined “not to lose those men on [my] watch.”

The film also illustrates what leadership isn’t through the characters of the lunar module (LEM) contractor and the media. They represent the “fear factor” with its accompanying paralysis as well as the greed that accompanies selfish concerns.

For example, the contractor could only aver that the LEM was not designed to be anything other than a moon taxi to and from the command module. He limits his imagination because he is more concerned about losing his own job.

Kranz pushes him back and reminds him that the mission has changed and requires new definitions. The LEM becomes a “lifeboat.”

The media looks equally bad in the film. Uninterested in an “old news story” of landing on the moon, reporters ignore the Apollo 13 flight until it gets into trouble. Then, like a pack of starving dogs going after a slab of meat, the reporters discover a “new story” and intrude on the astronauts’ families in a brash, voyeuristic and just plain rude way.

Only Walter Cronkite, the most trusted newsman of that time, shows a human side to his work. He worries about the astronauts during the flight and then shares his tears of relief and joy when they return to earth.

America needs to recognize that it has reduced itself to the level of the LEM contractor and the media and WE need to change.

In this year’s presidential election WE need to call forth a new kind of leader who is willing to confront not only our country’s problems but those of “spaceship earth” (i.e., global warming, poverty, health care, unemployment, resource depletion).

And WE need someone who will inspire US to tackle these problems courageously and confidently with determination and focus.

I think Barack Obama might be the one we’re looking for.