Don't fracture the peace.
I repeat: Do not fracture the peace -- even though the silence of that peace masks the violence of war.
Do not fracture the peace of a peaceful Sunday -- even though during that peace thousands of U.S. service members and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are being killed.
Do not fracture the peace -- even though the resurrection being celebrated on Easter Sunday is the resurrection of the one who in the Christian faith is the ultimate fracturer of the peace, a peace that masks overwhelming violence.
Don't fracture the peace.
The Holy Name 6 became fracturers of the peace on Easter Sunday at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. Interrupting the homily of Cardinal George and dramatizing the blood being spilt in Iraq, they poured staged blood upon themselves with spatters damaging the carpet (and, quite unintentionally and inadvertently, the clothing of nearby parishioners.) The six now face up to 5 years in prison on a felony charge of property damage.
Their action invites us into deeper consideration and contemplation of what our response ought to be to challenge and end the war in and occupation of Iraq. It is a challenge and invitation to all of us -- and to each of us -- to deepen and intensify our nonviolent resistance to the Iraq - Afghanistan war, for their action was deeply rooted in nonviolence.
The Holy Name 6 are enduring great criticism for their action. Property was damaged. People were disturbed. Sensibilities were challenged. And those engaged in the action are all so young.
This all takes me back to 1985, as I prepared for and acted to dismantle Project ELF, then a key component of the U.S. nuclear weapons offensive first strike war strategy (ELF, closed in 2004, would transmit the message to U.S. nuclear missile submarines to initiate a nuclear world war). Both before and after this Plowshares - Disarmament action, I grappled with criticisms similar to those faced by the Holy Name 6 -- property damage. Property is considered sacred in our country. Property becomes valued more than human lives. Nuclear weapons and weapons of war are considered to be property to be protected infinitely more so than human lives. Carpeting becomes more valued than human lives.
Is it truly so outrageous that a carpet is damaged while attempting to end a war that has already resulted in the deaths of over 4000 U.S. military personnel and well over 500,000 -- and perhaps over 1 million Iraqis (a number which will likely never be known)? Is this minimal property damage so outrageous as to warrant felony charges and up to five years in prison?
The Archdiocese asserts that it will cost over $3000 to replace a damaged carpet. By way of comparison, the U.S. Navy claimed that in damaging Project ELF I caused about $4700 in damages with a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison. Also by way of comparison, after pouring my own blood inside of a pornography store in Minnesota (to dramatize the violence against women and children) the maximum penalty I faced was 6 months in jail.
Do we as a country and as a people truly value the fabric of a carpet more than we value the lives of Iraqis? The U.S. military blows up a home and we call it "collateral damage", and go on with our lives. A piece of fabric is damaged and the full power of the state is called upon to squelch the dissenters.
Don't disturb people's sensibilities. Act within the normative discourse of the day. Don't step outside the acceptable confines of dissent or public action.
In preparing to disarm Project ELF, I encountered the question: would an act of disarmament -- of nonviolent damage of the Navy's nuclear first strike component -- step outside of the normative discourse of dissent and thereby alienate people and hamper efforts to prevent Project ELF from becoming fully operative?
It's a practical question that should be considered in preparing to act. Yet in times of great crisis, it becomes incumbent upon us to engage in actions that pose the risk of fracturing alliances as well as that pose the risk of alienation. Now is such a time of crisis, with a majority of U.S. citizens opposing the war in Iraq, but with a majority also seemingly unwilling to engage in even the least risky of legal (let alone extralegal) actions to bring about the war's end. We are left with a normative political discourse that would leave current levels of troops in Iraq indefinitely (should John McCain become President) or establish a floor of 40,000 to 60,000 troops in Iraq for the next five to 10 years (should Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton become President).
And aren't the Holy Name 6 (being 18 to 25 years old) just all too young to be engaging in this form of action? They really ought to grow up a little bit, gain the wisdom of years and then think about what they have and haven't done.
Yet age does not equal wisdom. If age equals wisdom, members of Congress and three Presidents would not have imposed genocidal economic sanctions against Iraq from 1991 to 2004; or invaded Iraq in 2003; or permitted the Iraq war to continue to this day.
If not for 18 to 22 year olds, the U.S. may well have become much more engaged militarily in Central America than it did in the 1980s. In January 1980 (when I was 16), President Carter brought back registration for the draft. The response was immediate -- massive noncompliance, to the tune of well over 500,000 people refusing to register for the draft in the initial years. Significant numbers of draft registration resisters made their act of resistance public -- willing to risk up to five years in prison for their resistance. Communities came together as a handful of public resisters were indicted and tried for refusing to register. Federal courthouses were blockaded on the days of trial. The signal was sent to the U.S. government -- do not attempt to bring back the actual draft; we will not be your cannon fodder; your wars of aggression must end. Without this ready supply of soldiers through the draft, the U.S. could not contemplate a great expansion of its war in Central America. All this by people mostly between 18 and 22 years of age.
People's sensibilities ought to be challenged by this current day youthful fracturing of the peace. Holy Name Cathedral is home to Cardinal George. The sensibilities of the institutional church ought to be challenged -- whether Catholic or Protestant -- to become more truly and more fully engaged in ending the Iraq war. The Catholic Church has used its power in the debate over abortion -- with some Archbishops and Bishops denying communion to political leaders who are pro-choice. Will the Church use its power to end the Iraq war?
Cardinal George might learn from Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. On March 23, 1980 the Archbishop invited the Salvadoran army to mutiny, saying in his homily "Brothers, you are from the same people; you kill your fellow peasant...No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God...In the name of God then, in the name of this suffering people I ask you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: stop the repression." On March 24, as he celebrated the Eucharist, Archbishop Romero was assassinated by U.S. supported death squads. Perhaps Cardinal George will move from speaking words of peace to taking action to end the Iraq war.
What might our own response now be to the Holy Name 6? We ought to support them as they traverse the criminal justice system. Some may decide to enter into a plea agreement (if offered by the prosecution) which significantly reduces the potential for a prison sentence. Some may decide to pursue the case to trial with the risk of a five-year prison sentence. In either case, we should be fully supportive of each activist's decision.
More significantly and more substantively, however, we should reflect upon the challenge that their action presents to each of us, individually and collectively, to deepen our engagement in nonviolent civil resistance to end the Iraq war.
The action of the Holy Name 6 stands on its own. Whether we respond to the challenge is up to us.
Jeff Leys is Co-Coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. He served two years in prison, 1985 - 1987, for participation in a Plowshares-Disarmament action. He can be contacted via email, email@example.com.