Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Needed for Long-Haul Peacemaking: A Spirituality of Nonviolence

By now, many in the U.S. have read the emotional decision by “peace mom” Cindy Sheehan to “retire as the public face of the anti-war movement in the U.S.” If not, you can read it here.  For those who may not know, Cindy Sheehan is the mother of a U.S. soldier slain in Iraq whose public confrontation with Pres. George W. Bush in 2004 brought sustained mainstream media attention to the peace movement and to the failures of the occupation of Iraq for the first time.  She is one of the founders of Gold Star Families for Peace (composed of family members of those whose lives have been lost in Iraq), and a member of Military Families Speak Out (composed of U.S. military families who oppose the war). 

I do not question Ms. Sheehan’s right to “retire” from her very public role.  The poor woman has never even had the space to properly mourn her son, Casey’s, death.  Her written decision is full of frustration, the exhaustion of someone villified by the Right and, then, when she held the Democrats to the same standards as she did the Republicans, villified again by the Left.  This kind of “burn out” is common in social activism, unfortunately.  In his memoir of the Civil Rights movement, Walking with the Wind, John Lewis (then Chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC or “Snick”], now U.S. Representative from Georgia) talks movingly about the way that many of the civil rights workers suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder like Vietnam veterans–but without any access to mental health services.  Today’s anti-war activists aren’t subject to the exact same kinds of stresses–jailed constantly and beaten (and the women activists were often raped by police officers), shot at, seeing friends and colleagues killed, on the go constantly, living on subsistence wages for years, etc.–except for those whose loved ones are in Iraq.  But the pressures are great, nonetheless.

This is a cautionary tale for the rest of us, including myself.  Outrage, righteous indignation, anger, public grief, are all valid reactions to war and human rights abuses, but they will get us only so far. They may strain marriages and family life. They may lead to speech and action that is not in the spirit of nonviolence and active peacemaking.  And, since imperialist militarism is a system (biblically speaking, a Power), it will resist change for the good.  Work for justice and peace over the long haul requires spiritual discipline, requires deep roots in a spirituality of nonviolence, including cultivating the virtue of patience.

Cindy Sheehan is stepping down from her leading role in ending the war and occupation of Iraq. The rest of us need to step up and do more–and beyond ending one war, working for a just and peaceful world on many fronts.  For those of us who are Christians, it is part of our calling as disciples.  But, in doing so, we need to guard against burn-out. We need to attend to contemplative prayer and other spiritual disciplines.

May 30, 2007 - Posted by | love of enemies, nonviolence, peacemaking


  1. Thanks, Michael, for this insightful analysis! Any suggestions on how we might effectively draw on prayer and other spiritual disciplines in support of our Christian peacemaking efforts?

    Comment by haitianministries | May 30, 2007

  2. I can’t say how important I think this posting is, Michael. I date my peace activism from 1973, and if I’ve learned nothing else, it’s the ever-present danger of burn-out. I’ve experienced it myself, and I’ve seen it in my colleagues.

    Seems to me that this kind of burn-out isn’t dissimilar to accedia, the noontide demon of the desert saints, in which one is just too worn out to give a damn about anything. All one can do is lie in the hot sun, energy-less, listless, disheartened, and pant.

    To a certain extent, I think that periods of accedia are inevitable in any kind of work that involves heavy-duty spiritual labor (like peacemaking). I don’t know that the soul or the psyche can sustain such intensity for extended periods without a time-out, and perhaps accedia is one of those failsafe mechanisms that kicks in when our souls need downtime but our wills are too stubborn to give it to them. Most people I know who’ve suffered from burn-out bounce back. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cindy Sheehan doesn’t, too.

    I think that periods of burn-out can be minimized and shortened, though, by trying to stay focused on the witness, on the task at hand, and not on results or goals or ends. Our job, as my hero Dorothy Day used to say, isn’t to achieve. It’s to witness. I think all spiritual masters agree. If we peacemakers are always measuring ourselves against goals, disillusionment comes quickly. I know that we have to consider them. I know that the goals we set help determine our agendas. But I also know that it’s easy to forget the value of the labor and focus increasingly on results. And the difficulty with that is that the end products of our labor, at least as we initially envisioned them, are rarely achieved.

    Sorry for rattling on.

    Comment by Kerry | May 30, 2007

  3. Kerry, my work dates to 1983 and I have experienced this, too. Yes, most of us bounce back and, yes, remembering our focus is central.

    Daniel, I find that contemplative prayer is central for me. At BPFNA “peace camp,” I have been glad that for several years we have given people the opportunity to begin each day in prayer and meditation.

    I spent each day of 2003 and 2004 praying specifically for George W. Bush (including that he would CHANGE). It may have done nothing else, but it kept me sane and kept me from hating him.

    This helps us cultivate patience–not resignation, but revolutionary patience, remembering that God is Sovereign and active in the world. We are invited by God in grace to be participants in God’s redemptive work in the world, but GOD, not us, is responsible for the outcome.

    Jesus was quite the activist for the Rule of God–but had no trouble withdrawing for prayer and rest.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 30, 2007

  4. Dear Friends,
    Cindy has been at this peace with justice stuff a relatively short time. Her actions are valiant and noble and she deserves a rest.

    Here in Los Angeles California we recently concluded a tour of Mayan leader Emilio Tojin who is one of the leaders of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, a group of 18 Mayan villages that are pressing genocide cases against Rios Montt and others for the crimes they committed in the 1980’s. All who heard Emilio were deeply touched by his witness. How does one sustain such a work for justice and reconciliation for 20 plus years? There is a deep spiritual committment that in turn nurtures patience with persistence.

    In 1968 I participated in a sit-in “take over” of a campus building at Wichita State University protesting the Viet-nam ‘conflict’. I brought my guitar and sang a song. I had voted for Nixon twice. Once when he lost to JFK and again when he won.

    However it wasn’t until 1980 when Reagan secretly organized the Contras to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua that our Baptist missionaries Steve and Sheila Heneise, also family friends, spoke honestly to us about their realities. My father and I went to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace in August of 1985.

    I returned to Guatemala with the Guatemala Education Action Project (GEAP)in 1992 accompanying Rigoberta Menchu when she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

    I still work with GEAP though many times over the years I have been tempted to write my own ‘resignation’ letter.

    Reading and re-reading Job and Jeremiah have helped sustain me. The writings of Jeremiah are in some sense long ‘resignation’ letters. But then look at what he is ‘resigned’ too! Look again at Moses’ calling. Exactly how many times did Moses say to God “No, please send someone else!”?

    This spring we hosted a Guatemalan speaker Emilio Tojin who witnessed to the genocide against Mayan people in his country.

    More persons died in Guatemala during 36 years of war and genocide than the death toll of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile and Argentia COMBINED. Yet where is the outrage?

    How much programming did we witness to the Armenian genocide? (which was horrific and is justified) and yet nothing about the Mayan Genocide in Guatemala. Ask your housekeeper, your gardner, your mechanic, your handyman who is a Guatemalan and you may learn. Unfortunately it is probably the only way you will learn.

    Even Jesus the begotten Son of God couldn’t change the politics of the Roman Empire. He could and did befriend those in need and champion their cause.

    Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the evangelical mandate: we have not been called to be successful, we have been called to be faithful.

    La lucha continua.



    Comment by Garth Sorensen | May 31, 2007

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