Tag Archives: pacifism

Russian Watchtower

From time to time I’ve good-naturedly poked fun at the Watch Tower Society members who used to visit with some frequency. I don’t belittle anyone’s belief system, however. Believers of any faith are generally sincere and certainly entitled to follow the dictates of their own consciences and reasoning. Still, as John Cale sings, “nothing frightens me more, than religion at my door.” Some of us prefer to keep our religious preferences private, while musing publicly about the wider world of religious diversity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to mind again because of an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger my wife clipped out for me. According to Amanda Erickson, writing for the Washington Post, Russia has now classified the Witnesses as religious extremists. She points out the irony since the Watch Tower Society is officially a pacifist group, opposed to any violence. It’s difficult to radicalize a pacifist.

I’m not at home enough any more to be here when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by. I know they still come because I can see their tracts. There is a Witness who occasionally stands outside my gate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. He stands, patiently smiling, next to the entrance holding up the Watchtower while anxious commuters and day trippers give him nary a glance. He seems like a nice guy to me. Always neatly dressed. One day I noticed him commenting to a New Jersey Transit employee that a particular denizen of the Post Authority was acting oddly. He was right, and, as a daily user of that facility, I know it takes quite a lot to earn that kind of notice. Ports, after all, bring in many with diverse outlooks on life.

What’s behind the Russian rage against the “extremist activities” of a peace-loving sect? I suspect the real problem has to do with the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are so typically American. And, like the Mormons, a fairly successful New Religious Movement. Religions, it seems, do grow a bit stale with age. Once in a while, something new comes along and revitalizes old systems of belief. Russia, however, is not the Port Authority. There is a repression there that is the envy of New Jersey Transit and every other carrier, I’m sure. Right, United? If only people would conform. Wouldn’t we all be happier if everyone else just believed like us? I’m not sure that history concurs on that point. Perhaps the safest alternative is to remain private. You don’t, however, grow a religion that way. If Russia wishes to inherit these States, they’ll need to learn a bit about the joys of religious diversity. Pacifism is a risk you have to take.

Flying with Strangers

TSAThe world is safe now. It’s okay—you can unlock your doors and windows at last. I have the proof right before me. Two weeks ago I was out of town. To get to my final destination I had to fly. I travel light. Seeing families at the airport with stacks of suitcases, I often wonder what people find necessary to take with them. It depends on the destination, I suppose. If you’re skiing you’ll need different gear than if you’re snorkeling. Or spelunking. In my bag there’s just the same old togs I wear at home. Never a clothes horse, I seldom update my wardrobe. I’m not into extreme sports, and for hiking, well, I can wear what I’m wearing right now. One thing is universal, I suspect. Underwear. We all have tucked away in our bag somewhere that necessary item of human social politeness. That’s why the world is safe, you see. I have in front of me a slip of paper informing me that the Transportation Security Administration has looked at my underwear and declared it safe. Go ahead and fly the friendly skies. Just make sure your underwear is clean.

Long ago I learned that if I fly alone I will be singled out for added security checks. I’m a bearded man. A non-conformist. My beard isn’t one of those consisting of trendy hipster stubble either. Just a regular beard. No fuss, no muss. My life is far too busy for me to spend extra time scraping off hair that will only grow back. I have enough pointless tasks as it is. But once you’ve seen the TSA agents looking you in the face and pointing you to the extra-search line time and again, you start to notice patterns. Especially since nearly every TSA agent in Newark parks in the same airport lot as I do and rides the same shuttle in. Sometimes there are so many of them that they ask if I’m lost. No, just looking for a restroom so that I can check my underwear before you do.

The truly ironic part—and I appreciate irony so I know that there’s no way that an agent can know this—is that I’ve been a life-long pacifist. The draft was reinstituted when I was just the right age to sign up. I was a conscientious objector. One of my uncles was too, during the Second World War. The very title of the conflict should’ve made the need for more objectors obvious. I wouldn’t knowingly hurt another person. Or animal. I step over worms after it rains and will yield to an ant on the sidewalk. Still, you’d better check my suitcase just to be sure. To me, it seems the world might benefit from teaching more people to respect those who are different. Bearded men and those whose skin tone differs are not evil. We just don’t have the time to get to know them before we throw their bag onto the conveyor belt.

PTSD

In a recent post on BBC Health, James Gallagher discusses ancient Assyria. What can ancient Assyria have to say about modern health, beyond the occasional liver model used in haruspicy? Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, of course. As Gallagher notes in his article, PTSD was diagnosed after the Vietnam War. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t in existence long before then. In fact, it stands to reason that if people experience it now, they likely experienced it during traumatic events then. War is among the most horrific and tragic activities in which humanity engages. Men, in the days of Assyria, sent to kill other men in the hundreds, and thousands, could not have walked away from the battlefield unchanged. There are those who seem not to suffer, but the majority of us know that, no matter how just the cause, it is simply wrong to kill others. On a massive scale it can only be worse.

Trauma

Trauma

Multiple stresses, I would contend, go undiagnosed. I have known those who’ve experienced significant loss—a job, for example, in an economy that makes future prospects dim—who begin showing the same kinds of symptoms. They are, of course, not diagnosed with PTSD, but are simply told to either buck up or go see a shrink. “Pull up your socks,” as they say in the UK. I wonder, though, if it is that simple. People throughout history have been capable of inflicting great stress on one another. Sometimes it becomes so normal that we don’t even recognize it. The forcing of loss and resultant terror of future deprivation is a daily affair. The civilization we’ve been is so complex almost to demand this kind of horror. We may not be sent to the battlefield to kill others, but we are daily faced with situations that cause us great pain, often for prolonged periods. And we wonder why people aren’t satisfied.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I have no doubt that the level of stress faced by those who survive war is severe. I don’t make light of it. Being a pacifist, I do believe there is a solution to war that involves education instead of fighting, but I don’t in any way suggest that those who suffer aren’t suffering in reality. They are. Sometimes they can no longer function in society. We institutionalize, cut funds, then send them out on the streets. This is nothing new. As Gallagher points out, soldiers in antiquity weren’t professionals. All healthy men, apart from the one-percenters of the day, served in armies on a rotating basis. One thing, however, has not changed over the millennia. War today remains as unnecessary as it was then. If we could turn our attention to improving the lot of the 99 lost sheep, the one already found might, to its surprise, be much better off if all were accorded ample care.

The Price of Flags

As a child, Memorial Day signaled the start of summer. Most of the time it announced that the obligations of school were nearly over and that was sufficient cause to celebrate. It was not until well into adulthood that I realized the holiday commemorated those who’d died in the armed services. I’d noticed the flags in cemeteries, of course, and we often visited the graves of civilian ancestors buried close enough to reach. The message did not penetrate my head, however, that all of those little flags should be telling me something. I grew up not knowing my father, but I did know he was a veteran. When all his children gathered for a (mostly) impromptu picnic yesterday, for the first time in well over thirty years, I realized how much of a mystery he was to me. At his funeral the flag on his coffin was presented to my older brother as part of military tradition, although he had died in peacetime, and pretty much isolated from all his progeny. It is a somber thought even now, although it was eleven years ago.

I have been a pacifist since my youngest days. Sure, I played with toy guns and G. I. Joe, but that was the culture of kids growing up during the Vietnam War. Only vaguely did we realize the actual horrors that were happening daily thousands of miles away. In my mind there was no reason to go to war. In Sunday School we were taught to settle our differences nicely, even if it meant that you had to be cheated or take less for yourself. This always seemed the central tenet of Christianity to me, and I wondered why the most conservative of Christian presidents seemed the most hawkish, the most ready to sacrifice the fathers, sons, brothers, and now mothers, sisters, and daughters of others for so little. The number of flags even in that little country graveyard where my grandparents were buried haunt me.

We still have members of the armed forces over seas. The military budget of one of the most prosperous nations on the planet is astronomical. We can now kill with drones so that we don’t even have to see the carnage we create. When did the lives of young adults become small change? I know it’s idealistic of me, and probably terribly naive, but I still can’t make sense of our cultural perception of how cheap human life can be. Maybe I’m just a little overly sentimental about a father I never really knew. But looking over my siblings, I see that he produced some nice, generous, and peace-loving children over half a century ago. And while we have our picnics and enjoy a rare day off of work or school, thousands of silent flags will be flapping in cemeteries all across this country reminding us that better ways exist to resolve our differences. If only we could take a holiday from war and violence we might see fewer flags and even more holidays.

Photo credit: Remember.

Photo credit: Remember.

Witnesses All

Witness“Only the bad man. I see. And you know these bad men by sight? You are able to look into their hearts and see this badness?” The words of Eli Lapp in one of the most memorable scenes in Witness often come back to me. While the lifestyle of the Amish strikes me as somewhat extreme, I have always admired their conviction that a simple life is a better life. The finer points of Anabaptist theology don’t always agree with my Weltanschauung, but their pacifism is the closest thing to Jesus’ Christianity that I can imagine. So as the NRA pulls out its big guns, arguing that the solution to children being massacred is to provide even more guns, I say they should watch Witness.

The year is 1985. In the movie Samuel Lapp witnesses a murder and when detective John Book finds out, he is chased to the Lapp’s Amish community where he hides out. One day young Samuel finds his gun and the camera angle is so oblique as the weapon in the foreground fades out to his grandfather Eli’s face, that you sense some violence has already been done even in the smelting of the metal to cast the revolver. “This gun of the hand is for the taking of human life. We believe it is wrong to take a life. That is only for God. Many times wars have come and people have said to us: you must fight, you must kill, it is the only way to preserve the good. But Samuel, there’s never only one way. Remember that. Would you kill another man?”

At this point all the fuss is only about limiting assault rifles. There is no sane reason that private citizens (my convictions go even further, but let’s not be too idealistic here) should have assault rifles. Not even a grizzly bear attack would justify it. The only effective weapon against violence is education. But look at one of the first budget items to get slashed when times get tough. Imagine a world where people were taught to solve their differences with discussions rather than violence. Even most crime, I suspect, would vanish if people didn’t feel themselves unfairly disadvantaged. Our violent legacy may go back to our common ancestor with the chimpanzees, but we like to imagine we’re better than they are. Are we?

“I would only kill the bad man.” So Samuel says with the conviction of a child. Badness is a fraught concept. It is often one of those qualities that we are not fit to judge in others, because we all know the directions our own thoughts take from time to time. Eli’s grandfather is a voice of wisdom here. But Samuel has the last word in this poignant scene, “I can see what they do. I have seen it.” If we exegete this just a little, however, I think we may be surprised at just who the bad really are. Think about it.