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.
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