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The Face of Nonviolence in a Violent Century

A Review Essay

Staughton Lynd


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Editors’ Picks Issue 5

Plough’s editors share their best reads of recent weeks. This issue (Plough Quarterly No. 5, Summer 2015) they feature books by David Brooks, Noel Castellanos, David Baker, Andrew B. McGowan, and Kazuo Ishiguro.

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The hundred years from 1914 – when the first shots of World War I rang out – until Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2014 constituted the most violent century in history. Carnage included the Holocaust and ranged from cavalry charges to atomic bombs, with more than 180 million people dying in wartime, according to David Hartsough’s estimate in Waging Peace. But this bloody century will also be remembered for prophetic lives –such as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Oscar Romero – who embraced nonviolence, whether as a means of protest or to exemplify the coming kingdom of God.

What does it mean to advocate nonviolence? Pope Francis says that when we renounce violence, we must also “say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” In Evangelii Gaudium he writes: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. . . . [U]ntil exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples is reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence.”

Historically, the nonviolent way of life has taken a variety of forms, including conscientious objection to military service, intentional communities and alternative living, and nonviolent activism. Each of these remains vital today.

Conscientious Objection

When World War I began, federal law permitted military exemption only to men who could demonstrate conscientious objection to all wars on the basis of religious training and belief. Only members of certain well-recognized Christian peace churches, such as Quakers and Mennonites, were permitted civilian alternative service.

Of approximately three thousand prisoners at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1918, about three hundred were men whose conscientious objection to war had not been recognized by the government. Among them, two Hutterites, Joseph and Michael Hofer, died after being chained to the bars of their cells [see The Martyrs of Alcatraz by Duane Stolzfus in Plough’s Summer 2014 issue]. Hundreds of other prisoners spontaneously walked off work in protest, a story told in the book Nonviolence in America, a collection that my wife and I edited. In every wing of the prison, inmates elected one of their number to serve on a general strike committee. A reporter who happened to be present witnessed the action as it unfolded in the seventh wing. A conscientious objector named Simmons mounted a box.

He declared that no authority could withstand the power of a united body of men. . . . “Violence accomplishes nothing,” [Simmons said]. “Solidarity accomplishes all things. The watchword of the working men throughout the world today is solidarity. Say nothing, do nothing, but stand like this.” The speaker folded his arms.

Colonel Rice, the officer in charge, took the prison inmates’ demands to Washington, DC. Upon his return, 60 percent of the conscientious objectors had their sentences reduced, and 33 percent were released immediately.

Resisters to military service during World War II included many now known for their leadership in postwar struggles for civil rights and peace. Among them were Bayard Rustin, organizer of the 1963 March on Washington (at which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech), and David Dellinger.

Dellinger – who recounts the story in his gripping autobiography From Yale to Jail – was imprisoned twice for his refusal to register for the draft. His first prison term was served at Danbury, Connecticut. Here he requested that guards use his name as well as his number when addressing him, and refused to remake his bed on command (“I was the one who slept in it”). He spent a good deal of time in the “hole,” that is, solitary confinement.

When convicted the second time, Dellinger was sent to a notorious prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Here he joined a hunger strike with two objectives: to stop prisoners from being put in the hole and to end censorship of mail. At one point, the prison warden told Dellinger that his wife wanted him to stop his hunger strike – and that she was dying from pregnancy complications. Shaken, he asked to be brought to her. The warden refused. “[T]he more I thought about it,” Dellinger wrote, “the more I thought that he had lied to me.” He had. Weeks later the men ended their hunger strike after they won on the question of censorship, and Dellinger received a pile of supportive letters from his wife.

Living Out an Alternative

Military conscription during both World Wars had forced thousands of young men throughout the United States to think about their personal responsibility to society. When conscientious objectors were released from Civilian Public Service camps or prison after 1945, many sought positive peacetime alternatives to the root causes of war. They had said “no” to conscription and now yearned for something to say “yes” to. They hoped to discover and pursue a consistently nonviolent way of life.

Some formed intentional communities where economic resources were shared and decision-making was by consensus. My wife and I lived for three years in one such attempt, the Macedonia Cooperative Community in Clarkesville, Georgia. David Hartsough grew up in a similar community, Tanguy Homesteads in Pennsylvania, and describes the experience warmly in his memoir Waging Peace: “Moving there was one of the best decisions my parents ever made.”

Among pilgrims who have embarked on a more individual quest for peace, one of the most moving is Rory Fanning, who literally walked across the United States. Shortly after 9/11, Rory had volunteered for the Army Rangers. As his belief in nonviolence gradually crystallized, he was befriended by two brothers and fellow Rangers, Pat and Kevin Tillman. Pat Tillman was known to the world as the professional football player who, aft er the Twin Towers attack and at the height of his career, gave up millions of dollars to volunteer for military service. Pat Tillman was also, according to Fanning, “the fi rst person to suggest to me that it was possible to stand up to the US military. . . . I am alive today, or at least less damaged, because of Pat Tillman.”

As he walked, Fanning carried a heavy pack and a sign that read: “Rory Fanning, who served in the Second Army Ranger Battalion with Pat Tillman, is walking from the Atlantic to the Pacific to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation.” Everywhere he was befriended and helped.

Reading Fanning’s book, Worth Fighting For, I was confused at first. There was and is an enormous scandal about Pat Tillman, who was killed in April 2004 in Afghanistan by “friendly fire,” that is, by American soldiers. At first, military sources offered the media a concocted story of heroism in the face of the enemy; Tillman’s brother and mother later exposed the lie. Why didn’t Fanning’s sign do likewise?

Gradually I began to understand. When Fanning made known to his Ranger superiors that he had become a conscientious objector, officers went out of their way to disgrace and humiliate him. Regulations require that a soldier who claims conscientious objector status must be given noncombatant assignments until the claim is decided. In Fanning’s case, he was sent to the Afghan mountains with his unit. He spent his days chopping firewood. No one spoke to him. No place to sleep was provided him and he had to bed down “outside, often in the snow and the mud, by myself with a single blanket.”

Finally his discharge as a CO was approved. Fanning came home feeling he had let his country down by quitting the military. He decided to walk across the country because he was feeling “guilt, betrayal, a sense of adventure, ignorance, a desire to be accepted, pride. . . .” Knowing Pat Tillman was his most positive recent experience. He would walk into towns where he knew no one, protected by Pat.

Is this nonviolence? I say yes. It is recognizing one’s vulnerability and, donning that vulnerability, confronting the world exposed and unarmed.

Peaceful Activism

Others pursued nonviolent civil disobedience. Not surprisingly, political activism comes at a cost to one’s personal comfort. But what if one’s effort to be responsible to the wider human family appears to risk the well-being of one’s own spouse, children, or elderly parents? Many activists struggle with such conflicting loyalties.

Perhaps that is why the individuals who broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and revealed the existence of COINTELPRO kept their identities secret for forty years, as recounted in Betty Medsger’s excellent book The Burglary. Bonnie and John Raines, two of the Media burglars, “revealed their big secret to each of their children separately” long after the fact. When questioned, Bonnie and John explained arrangements they had made for their family to be raised by Bonnie’s parents and uncle had they – Bonnie and John – been imprisoned. But the difficult question remained: “How could they have cared so deeply about anything that they were willing to risk having the family severed?”

Frida Berrigan addresses this question in her memoir It Runs in the Family. She is the daughter of the late Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, former priest and nun. Prison separated her parents for eleven of their twenty-nine years of marriage. Although her father and mother tried to avoid being incarcerated at the same time, Frida said she “turned three and my brother turned two while they were away. We all struggled with being apart.”

Parents can never know with certainty how their nonviolent activism will affect their children. When I left home to make an unauthorized trip to Hanoi in December 1965, my seven-year-old son Lee clung to my legs, trying to stop me. As it turned out, I was not imprisoned upon returning; Lee, now fifty-six, and I, at eighty-five, are both doing well.

Because the intensity of my objection to the Vietnam War caused me to be expelled from academia, I came to know displaced steelworkers and high-security prisoners. My wife and I found our way to what Archbishop Romero called “accompaniment.” We went to law school, acquired a skill that steelworkers and prisoners desperately needed, and as attorneys were privileged – are privileged – to walk beside certain of the poor and oppressed.

I believe this is the form of activism the world most needs. We do not presume to provide strategy from on high. The chairs are in a circle, and we learn as well as teach.

A Surprising Power

From the books under review, the nonviolent action that impressed me most deeply is told in Medsger’s book, The Burglary. During the summer of 1971 a group of war-resisters planned to raid the Selective Service office in Camden, New Jersey, to destroy draft records as a statement against the ongoing war in Vietnam. One of their number, Robert Hardy, secretly agreed to be an informant for the FBI. The group was apprehended after they broke into the Camden office and faced possible prison sentences of more than forty years.

While trial preparations were underway, Hardy’s nine-year-old son Billy died tragically in an accident. Father Michael Doyle, one of the defendants, had been a longtime family friend and conducted Billy’s funeral; in church, “the FBI agents and the people they had arrested were sitting near each other.” After the funeral, “Peg and Bob Hardy showed Doyle two pieces of wood they had found in Billy’s dresser drawer. With a nail and hammer Billy had chiseled the word ‘peace’ in one and the word ‘love’ in the other.”

Billy’s sudden death impacted the trial that followed. Billy’s father, Robert Hardy, became a witness for the defense. All twenty-eight defendants were acquitted.

This story illustrates why nonviolence is best described as a belief that love will find a way – or, as Quakers say, that “way will open.” When way opens, it may not be because we sought it or made it happen. Way must open between nuclear-armed nation-states as it did in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Way can open between heavily armed guardians of authority and unarmed protesters. Again and again, when it looks least likely, way will open.

Detail from a Japanese-style block print of a windswept tree. Margaret Rankin, Windswept Tree
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Contributed By Staughton Lynd

Staughton Lynd is a conscientious objector and civil rights activist; he and his wife Alice, both attorneys, have advocated for Ohio steelworkers, the disabled, and prisoners.


Books discussed in this review

Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America by Rory Fanning (Haymarket Books)

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI by Betty Medsger (Vintage)

It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood by Frida Berrigan (OR Books)

Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist by David Hartsough (PM Press)

From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter by David Dellinger (Pantheon Books)

Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History by Staughton and Alice Lynd, ed. (Orbis Books)