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    An Angry Activist Becomes a Peacemaker

    During a lifetime of antiwar activism, Jim Forest learned that peacemaking is about personal relationships, not results.

    By Phoebe Farag Mikhail

    August 6, 2022
    • Kevin Bruce

      Mahatma Gandhi died on January 30, 1948. He must have spoken to Jim through one of his many books. Otherwise a very compelling account of a life lived in love and dedication to peace and fellowship. Thanks so much!

    • Bob Stuhlmann

      Jim and I were beaten, maxed, bloodied and arrested by Boston Police at the Sanctuary at Arlington Street Church. We spent a few hours crammed in a city jail and released. I remember only a half dozen from those days and Jim is one I’ll always remember for his humility , calm and non-violence. It was in or around April in 1968.

    Just a month after the death of lifelong peacemaker Jim Forest on January 13, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. How this would have grieved him. Forest’s peacemaking efforts during the Cold War had included visits as an American to the Soviet Union to getting to know the people “behind enemy lines.” These visits eventually led him to join the Russian Orthodox Church. This was emblematic of his peacemaking journey: a path not of ideologies but of relationships.

    Many years before, in a letter to Thomas Merton, Forest told of a life-changing dream he had about President Lyndon B. Johnson. Forest had been working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship at the height of the Vietnam War, when protesters were known to shout, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Forest himself had a dartboard with LBJ’s face on it that he would throw darts at from time to time.

    Then one night he had a dream in which he sat down next to LBJ on a public bus, and they started a conversation about the war: “We didn't agree – he said the same kinds of things that I had heard him say at press conferences – but it was a real if troubled human exchange.” Then LBJ suggested that they take a walk in the countryside. Wordlessly, Forest “watched our shoes as we kicked up the golden fall leaves that were thick on the ground.” When he woke up, he saw the dartboard. “The photo of Johnson looked like it had been sprayed with bullets. I just made it back to the bed, collapsed and wept. I felt like a murderer.”

    This became a turning point for Forest’s work. “Whatever I might do about peacemaking in the years to come, it had better not be fueled by hatred and dartboard fantasies of homicide,” he wrote in his memoir, Writing Straight with Crooked Lines.

    When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.

    Forest had already spent several years trying to find his path in life, which even included enlisting in the Navy, though he later became a conscientious objector. He was baptized Episcopalian but found his way into Catholicism and joined the Catholic Worker community in Manhattan. The radical hospitality Forest experienced in his early years at the Catholic Worker with Dorothy Day would provide his activism with a different fuel source – love of neighbor – while also teaching him that “saints are not always saintly.”

    In 1962, Forest helped organize a sit-in at the Atomic Energy Commission in New York. Day didn’t want him to go, giving him an ultimatum characteristic of her sharp temper. He went to the sit-in anyway and was one of two demonstrators who got arrested and sent to jail on Hart Island for fifteen days. Forest regretted not returning to the Catholic Worker after the imprisonment, and it would be several months before he renewed his relationship with Day, who took the first step by writing to congratulate him on his imprisonment and ask his forgiveness for her anger.

    In 1966 Forest received a letter from Thomas Merton that, in edited form, became the famous “Letter to a Young Activist,” a response to Forest’s discouragement at the ongoing escalation of the Vietnam War despite the efforts of many peace activists to end it. In near despair, Forest had written:

    Who is listening? … Your words will be dutifully noted by some … But meanwhile murder goes on without interruption. This appalls me to such a degree that I get weary writing it down. Bomb after bomb after bomb slides away from the bomb bays. For every sentence in this letter, a dozen innocents will have died today in Vietnam. The end of the war is beyond imagination.

    So many peace activists, then and now, have similarly despaired. Forest called Merton’s reply “the most helpful letter I’ve ever received.” Merton first acknowledges Forest’s feelings: “You are doubtless tired.” But he goes on:

    Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. ... In the end, as you yourself mention in passing, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

    As Jim Forest’s colleague Nicholas Sooy observes, his life would be defined by the remarkable personal relationships he cultivated, putting Merton’s words into practice. Some of those friendships were with other renowned peacemakers of his day. Catholic priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan joined the Catholic Peace Fellowship, and together they engaged in demonstrations and civil disobedience, such as burning draft cards in front of government buildings, an action that was being replicated around the country. The Berrigans would go a step further and, with seven others, set alight draft board files outside a federal office in Catonsville, Maryland. Forest served as the press secretary for the “Catonsville Nine Defense Committee.”


    The Milwaukee Fourteen watch thousands of draft files burn.

    Forest would get arrested himself as part of the “Milwaukee Fourteen.” After tipping off the media and burning approximately ten thousand draft files at the Milwaukee draft board office, the fourteen demonstrators were arrested and tried. They were found guilty, and Forest spent over a year in prison in Wisconsin. Forest said he had agreed to join the Milwaukee action because of his love for Vietnamese Zen master Thich Naht Hanh, whom he had gotten to know through his work for the Fellowship of Reconciliation and who had put a face to the Vietnamese people who were dying every day because of the war. (Thich Nhat Hanh died a few weeks after Forest did in January 2022.)

    Forest played an instrumental role in the release from prison of Argentinian peace activist Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, by nominating him for a Nobel Peace Prize. Forest accompanied Esquivel to Oslo in 1978 when he received the prize.

    Forest risked losing his job in peacemaking several times. One of those times included a decision to print an essay by Daniel Berrigan after the Vietnam War ended and two years after the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision – an essay arguing that the peacemaking community’s next step should be fighting abortion. Unsurprisingly, Forest and Berrigan faced criticism and anger from many colleagues in the peace movement. Their concern for the lives of both unborn and born would make them “a minority even within minorities.” Despite the ire he faced, Forest continued to profess a “consistent pro-life ethic,” opposing all forms of taking life including abortion, war, and capital punishment.

    During these turbulent years, Forest must have struggled and often failed to find peace closer to home. His activism and travel for the peace movement clearly took a toll on his family life. He married Jean Morton and they had a son, but they parted ways after only a few years. His second wife, Linda Henry, was supportive of his civil disobedience, but their marriage didn’t survive his imprisonment following the Milwaukee action, and he left prison single again, and the father of three. Forest’s third wife, Laura Hassler, moved to the Netherlands with him in 1977, where he would serve twelve years as general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. They divorced after having three children.

    Forest was married a fourth time, to Nancy Flier, in 1982. He would spend much of the latter portion of his life writing, publishing biographies of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, and Thich Nhat Hanh in addition to theological works, children’s books about saints, and an autobiography.

    With Flier, Forest joined the Russian Orthodox Church and eventually restarted the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (OFP). The group’s work has taken on greater urgency since Forest’s death, as Orthodox Christians are taking up arms against one another in Russia’s war in Ukraine. The OPF is supporting Christian peacemakers and dissidents in Russia, publishing Russian language resources, building a Ukrainian and Russian Peace and Reconciliation Program, and evacuating its partners from danger.


    As Forest recognized in his dream about LBJ, a peace activist must be as active seeking peace in his inner life as he is active in the outside world. He would write in the Ladder of the Beatitudes: “Unfortunately, for most of us peace is not the kingdom of God but a slightly improved version of the world we already have. We would like to get rid of conflict without eliminating the factors, spiritual and material, that create division.”

    So, while Jim Forest would be grieved by the current war in Ukraine, he would not be surprised, for he knew that those factors that create division are alive and well in each of us. But I don’t think he would lose hope. As Thomas Merton advised that discouraged young activist years ago, “All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.”

    Contributed By portrait of Phoebe Farag Mikhail Phoebe Farag Mikhail

    Phoebe Farag Mikhail is the author of Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church (Paraclete Press) and a Sacred Writes Media Fellow.

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