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

A Brief History of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)

Like the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) began out of the horrors of the First World War.  It also grew from the first wave of international feminism.  As women in Europe and North America were struggling for the vote (suffrage) and equal rights with men, they also were leading the way to more just and compassionate societies.  Many of the women involved in the struggle for women’s rights had also been part of the movement to abolish slavery and some were still struggling for equal rights for minorities. Many were working to end child labor and for better housing and working conditions for the poor.  They also worked for international peace. In fact, it was widely believed at the time that women would more likely vote for peace and against war–this was an argument many feminists themselves used–that femalWhioe suffrage would transform the world because women were more naturally just and compassionate and peaceful than men.  (This belief in female moral superiority was also used by men to argue AGAINST female suffrage.)

While subsequent history has proven that women are just as fallen and sinful as men are, it is true that the early feminists were also campaigners in many moral and social causes, and none more so than the budding peace movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Thus, the eruption of the First World War in 1914 was seen as a horror and a huge mess by many of these leaders.  True, some women rallied round the flags of their various nations–reverting to nationalist militarism–and others, like Alice Paul, used the contradictions of a supposed “war for democracy” when women did not have the vote to put pressure for passage of women’s suffrage.  But for many of the leaders of this first wave feminism, stopping the war became the most essential cause of their lives.

The war began in August 1914.  In April, 1915, some 1300 women from Europe and North America, both from countries at war with each other and from neutral countries, gathered for a Congress of Women at the Hague in the Netherlands. They were responding to the call of Dr. Aletta Jacobs, M.D., a Dutch suffragist and feminist, who urged that women concerned for peace come to the Hague.  The purpose of the Congress of Women was to protest the killing then raging throughout Europe–which would soon spread to Europe’s colonies in Asia and Africa and would draw in the United States as well.  The Congress issued some 20 resolutions:  some short-term such as calls for cease fire and resolution by binding arbitration from neutral parties, and others with more longterm goals–to lay the foundations to prevent future wars and produce a world culture of peace.  They called on all neutral nations to refuse to join sides in the war, to pressure the belligerant nations to cease fire and to pledge to help solve their differences through binding arbitration.  They called for a league of neutral nations (an idea that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson would later use in his argument for a League of Nations–in fact, most of Wilson’s 14 point peace plan came originally from the Congress of Women’s 20 resolutions!).

At the end of the Congress, the women elected small teams of delegates to take the messages of the conferences to the belligerant and neutral states of Europe and to the President of the U.S.A.  These delegations managed to visit 14 countries (during wartime!) between May and June 1915.  They also decided to form themselves into a permanent organization with an international headquarters and national branches. This beginning of WILPF was first called the International Women’s Committee. They elected Jane Addams (1860-1935) of the U.S.A. as the first president of the Congress and as the delegate to Pres. Wilson. Addams was already famous throughout North America and Europe as a pioneer in what today would be called social work and community organizing.  (See Hull House.)  Addams had been raised a Quaker, though her father had served in the U.S. Calvary and was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln.  The adult Addams left her Friends meeting, tried for a time to be a Unitarian (because of their greater acceptance of male/female equality), but eventually became a baptized member of the Presbyterian Church.  She had been elected to the Chicago City Council on a reform ticket.  Upon returning to the U.S. from the Hague, she not only presented the views of the Congress to President Wilson (who, as I said, “borrowed” heavily from them when he formed his own peace plan), but formed the Women’s Peace Party to try to keep the U.S. out of the war.

When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the rights of pacifists and conscientious objectors were greatly trampled. Speaking out against the war was prosecuted as treason, as was counseling draft resistance or even refusal to promote the buying of war bonds! Freedom of the press and speech were greatly curtailed–even ignored–during the war fever.  Addams, who continued to protest the U.S. involvement in the War, did not end up in jail as so many, but she had her passport revoked and lost much of her prestige, attacked in the press.  She was kept a virtual house prisoner for some time.  Addams’ younger associate, Emily Greene  Balch (1867-1961) lost her post as Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College due to her refusal to support the war or sign a loyalty oath.   Other International Women’s Committee women in other countries faced similar or worse hardships, some even being thrown into prison for the duration of the war.

When the war ended in 1919, the International Women’s Committee attempted to be true to its promise to hold a parallel Congress to the official peace meetings of the belligerant nations.  Because the French government would not allow German delegates to meet in France, the IWC’s Congress met not at Versailles as they’d planned, but in Zurich, Switzerland.  A small number of women “ran shuttle” from the Zurich meeting to the governmental deliberations at Versailles–though they do not seem to have made much of an impact.  The Treaty of Versailles was so brutal in its treatment of Germany and other defeated nations that historians widely credit it with sowing the seeds of the rise of Naziism and the Second World War.  The Women’s Congress denounced the terms of the Treaty of Versailles as revenge of the victors and correctly predicted that it would lead to another global war.  They decided to make the International Women’s Committee permanent, called it the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and stated its purpose as “to bring together women of different political views, and philosophical and religious backgrounds, to study and make known the causes of war and to work for a permanent peace.” That remains the purpose of WILPF to this day.

In 1922, WILPF tried to get the League of Nations to convene a World Congress to renegotiate the Treaty of Versailles at a “Conference on a New Peace.”

In 1924, correctly seeing the development and global sale of arms as a major cause of war, WILPF worked to mobilize scientists to refuse to work on weapons of war or on projects funded by the military.

In 1927 WILPF first went to China and Indochina, moving beyond the European and North American scope of its concerns.

In 1931, first WILPF president Jane Addams, now in failing health, was belatedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but she was too ill to travel to Oslo to receive it. (Addams would finally die in 1935.)

In 1932, WILPF delivered over a million signatures for complete global disarmament to a disarmament conference.

From 1940 to 1945, WILPF found ways to aid victims of fascism, Naziism, and Japanese imperialism.

In 1946, WILPF was at the founding of the United Nations and pushed for the concept of mutual security–urging that security be based on justice and freedom from want, rather than on military might and prestige.  WILPF gained official UN status as a non-governmental organization (NGO) at that founding meeting of the UN.

In 1946, Emily Greene Balch, first International Secretary of the WILPF, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  In 1958, WILPF sent missions to the Middle East. In 1961, WILPF convened the first of many meetings between American and Soviet women to break down the barriers of the Cold WAr.

From 1963 onward, WILPF was a major force urging an end to the Vietnam War, undertaking investigative missions to North and South Vietnam.  In 1971, they went to Chile, where the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) had just toppled the elected government of Salvador Allende and installed military dictator Pinochet, to investigate Pinochet’s human rights abuses.

From Northern Ireland to the Middle East to East Timor, WILPF has been a force for peace. With an International Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland, WILPF has a UN Office in NYC, and national “Sections” on every continent except Antartica.  There are 36 national Sections in all.  WILPF works on peace, disarmament, racial justice, economic justice, environmental health, the democratization of the United Nations (especially the reform of the Security Council), defense of human rights.  It also pushes for greater roles for women in negotiating peace treaties since women and children are often disproportionally affected by war and conflict. And it recruits young women peacemakers for the next generations.

As WILPF approaches 100 years of work (2015), it’s vision is still that of its founding:

  • the equality of all people in a world free of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.
  • the guarantee of all to fundamental human rights including the right to sustainable economic development
  • an end to all forms of violence: rape, battering, exploitation, military intervention, and war.
  • the transfer of world resources from military to human needs, leading to economic justice within and between nations
  • world disarmament and the peaceful arbitration of conflicts through the United Nations.

The U.S. Section has a Jane Addams Peace Association (JAPA) that focuses on peace education among children.

In addition to Nobel Prize winners, Addams and Balch, WILPF has had numerous amazing members and leaders including Coretta Scott King, Phyllis Bennis (whom I suggested as Under-Secretary of State for the Middle East, though no one took me seriously), Evelyn Peak, Dr. Elise Boulding, and many others.  I urge women who read this blog to check out WILPF and its national sections and men to pass this page on to the powerful peacemaking women in your life.

November 10, 2009 Posted by | feminism, gender, human rights., nonviolence, peacemaking, violence, war, women, young people | 5 Comments

Book Review: The Book Thief

the-book-thiefMarkus Zusak, The Book Thief (Knopf, 2007).  I must confess that my 13 year old daughter read this before I did.  I’m glad she introduced me to it.  I can’t say enough good things about this great book.

Imagine writing a book on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust that is morally serious without being depressing.  Imagine writing realistic fiction about the horrors of war that still has plenty of humor.  Imagine vivid, fantastic, heartbreaking characters, a plotline dominated by WWII and the Holocaust, and an uplifting book that is full of death, prejudice, ignorance, struggle, pain, and the reader’s constant feeling of “And here I thought MY family was crazy!” Imagine trying to portray ordinary Germans, including the pro-Nazi ones, during that era in a humane manner without downplaying the horror.  Now imagine trying to do all that in a book for older children and teens.

The Australian writer, Markus Zusak, pulls it off amazingly in The Book Thief.  He uses the technique of making Death the nearly-omniscient narrator.  But this Death is not a grim reaper or malevolent force, but a world weary bureaucrat doing his job and telling this story as a way to convince himself that humanity is actually worthwhile.  One of great passages has Death refute the old adage that War is Death’s friend.  Instead, he describes War as a nagging boss that gives one far too much to do and then looks constantly over one’s shoulder and complains about the quality and pace of the work!

The Book Thief tells of one orphaned German girl, daughter of parents who ran afoul of Hitler by being members of the Communist Party, who is sent as a foster child to a poor and dysfunctional married couple with grown children in the town of Molching, outside Munich.  It tells of her foul-mouthed foster mother who is good in a crisis, but who never learned any way to show love and affection except through heaping verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse on her husband and foster daughter. It tells of her mostly-silent, foster father, a house painter who can get little work because he is not a member of the Nazi Party and who must play the accordian in bars to try to enough to keep the small family from starving–and who takes time to teach his foster daughter to read. It tells of a boy befriending a pre-teen girl, a German boy who has Jesse Owens as a hero and once painted himself black before going to race around the track, mentally recreating the 1936 Olympics! It tells of a family hiding a Jew from the Nazis–of art and fist fights and hunger and cigarettes–and stolen books.

Warning to parents:  Although very humorously done, there is quite a bit of profanity in a book for older children and teens, much of it in German, but usually Death translates to English! There are no perfect characters as role models.  There are no saints in this work and plenty of sinners, but at least some are trying to become fully human.  And there are many moments of grace.  Yet here is a work that can help young people (and old folks like me, too!) grow.  The Book Thief entertains (I could hardly put it down) while peforming the indispensible act of all good literatue: illuminating our moral world.

April 28, 2009 Posted by | books, holocaust, young people | 1 Comment

Media Bias Against Democratic Believers

Faith in Public Life has the story here.  Exit and entrance polls asked Thursday night’s Iowa caucus goers whether or not they were “born again,” or “evangelical.” This helped the pundits see what the rest of us knew already–Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR)’s Iowa win was the result of a huge effort by conservative Christians in Iowa. But the media didn’t ask this question of Democratic caucus goers.  So, in a state that is mostly filled with white evangelicals, but in which the Democratic turnout was twice as big as the GOP turnout, we have no data on how many Democratic caucus goers were “born again,” “evangelical” or some other type of person of faith.  Did evangelicals of a different persuasion also make the difference for Sen. Barack Obama(D-IL) or were they evenly distributed between Obama, fmr. Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY)? We don’t know, because the media didn’t ask! Are we to assume that in IOWA, most of those huge Democratic caucus goers are secular or agnostic or atheist? I don’t think so.

I would have thought that the media had caught on this year to the existence of a broad religious left, including an evangelical left (as well as an evangelical center!) in this nation. They have covered the candidate’s faith in great detail, including more on Democratic candidates’ faith than at any time since Jimmy Carter ran in 1976 and had to explain to Time magazine what being “born again” meant. (Time went on to describe 1976 as “Year of the Evangelical.”) They have covered first Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton speaking at Rick Warren’s mega-church conference on the AIDS crisis. They have covered the resurgent environmentalism among evangelicals. They have covered the Catholic population as the ultimate swing vote (because on issues like abortion and gay rights, Catholics agree more with conservative Republicans, but on issues like poverty, the death penalty, war, and the environment, Catholics think more like liberal Democrats).

And yet, still, the media are stuck in their narrative from the ’80s and ’90s: “Christian,” “evangelical,” and “person of faith,” necessarily means “conservative Republican.” How else to explain their failure to ask about the faith identifications of Democratic caucus goers?  Let’s hope they do better in New Hampshire and beyond.  We need raw data to know whether our stereotypes of the voting patterns of persons of faith are matching the reality of the nation.

Without such data, far too many will assume that if early predictions are right (and early predictions are notoriously shaky) and the Democrats win both the White House and increase their majorities in Congress this year, it will mean that the country somehow has become “more secular.” (Yep. That’s right. We all were overnight persuaded by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins to abandon our faith. Don’t believe it.)

Let the media and the pollsters know you don’t appreciate this bias. UPDATE:  Center to Left Evangelical Leaders have now written an open letter to pollsters asking that this be corrected–asking that polls help us find out how many evangelicals are voting Democratic and for which Democratic candidates.  This will keep from giving the public the false impression that all evangelicals vote Republican.

January 6, 2008 Posted by | prejudice, progressive faith, U.S. politics, young people | 2 Comments

Vern Ratzlaff Speaks to the Children

vern-shares-a-story-with-the-children.jpgHere is Vern sharing a story with the children during one of their special sessions.

July 30, 2007 Posted by | young people | Comments Off on Vern Ratzlaff Speaks to the Children

Children at Peace Camp

Here are some of the many kids who came to BPFNA “peace camp.” The girl in the blue, 2nd fromthe back, is my daughter, Molly. She wants to be U.S. president some day. My answer, “Well, sweetheart, you couldn’t do any worse than the current dude.”

July 24, 2006 Posted by | peace, young people | Comments Off on Children at Peace Camp

We’re in Good Hands: Young Leaders of BPFNA

Some peace and justice organizations are greying and recruitment of younger members is a real issue. This is also true for many progressive congregations. I am very pleased that this is NOT the case with the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (http://www.bpfna.org/ ). I have told many, many people that my highlight from last year’s peace camp (McMinnville, OR, first week of August 2005) was the night that many youth and young adults signed personal testimonies of conscientious objection, saying that they would not join the military and, if a draft comes, would register as conscientious objectors. They invited us older COs to stand with them and sign their individual cards as witnesses. It was wonderful.

That spirit pervaded this conference. So many “Next Generation” folk are already leaders in peace and justice work and others are learning. There’s Frances Kelly, who has literally been coming to peace camp since she was a baby and is now an undergraduate at Yale (hard for me to believe since she still looks like a skinny 14 year old to me!). Frances has been leading peace camp worship with liturgical dance since I can remember. 2 years ago, at Townsend, MD peace camp, she fell down one of the ultra-steep hills on that campus and broke her leg–but she still went, crutches and all, to the peace protest in front of Congress, calling for an end to the Iraq War and confronting members of Congress passing by!

Rachel (Rae) and Daniel Hunter, siblings, have also been coming since childhood and are now early 20-somethings. They come from a mixed marriage (Carol Hunter, their mom, is a Euro-American who teaches history at Earlham College and Bob Hunter, father, an African-American who works for InterVarsity, teaches courses in the religion dept. on race at Earlham and is a Diversity and Justice Specialist) and a rich history of involvement in both church life and movement work. Rae has taught high school theatre and middle school science, is an author and poet and currently serves on the BPFNA board as its pastor. Daniel has written a book on nonviolence training and community organizing and leads training in nonviolence around the world–working on hard on experiential learning as a key to empowering marginalized groups.

Then there’s Daniel Collins, a member of the youth at Glendale Baptist Church, Nashville, NC who read Scripture at one of our services. He has already been involved in many justice actions domestically and globally and later this year (14-19 September) will travel with other Glendale youth to the University of Denver for Peacejam 2006: http://www.peacejam.org/ At this event, which will gather more living Nobel Peace Prize winners than ever before in U.S. history, Daniel and other youth will get to learn and be challenged from the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Oscar Arias Sanchez (recently elected again as president of Costa Rica), Bishop Carlos Belo of East Timor and his co-winner Jose Ramos-Hortos (just elected president of East Timor) and many others. What a treat for Daniel and his friends to be mentored by such peacemakers!

Then there’s Lucas Johnson, a young African American who joined BPFNA last year and whom I met at last year’s peace camp. He is currently serving as an Americorps VISTA volunteer in Macon, GA working with Habitat for Humanity. Macon, GA has the highest concentration of churches of any geographic area in the Southeast (over 300 for a medium size town), but only 30 are partners with Habitat or seem concerned about homelessness or substandard housing. Lucas is working to change that. He is a member of BPFNA partner congregation Oakhurst BC in Atlanta and has just been elected to the BPFNA board.

Another young person, slightly older, working on homelessness is Rev. Laura Ayala, pastor of Primera Iglesia Bautista de Caguas (FBC Caguas), Puerto Rico. One of the few women pastors in Puerto Rico, she is also the Exec. Dir. of Coalicion Criolla de Ciudado Continuo a Personas sin Hogar (Caguas Coalition for the Homeless).

Other young people at peace camp impressed me, including Jessica Wilbanks, who simply cannot be more than 21 at the oldest. She’s not a BPFNA member (I think she’s Presbyterian), but came as a representative of Faithful Security: The National Religious Partnership on the Nuclear Danger. This organization was formed by the late William Sloan Coffin in 2005 as an interfaith organization working to harness the moral power of faith communities against the resurgent danger of nuclear weapons, which most people had assumed had retreated after the Cold War. Jessica is the coordinator for Faithful Security. She comes from an evangelical background, but is eager to work with as many different faith communities as possible, knowing that the nuclear danger cannot be addressed with strictly legal and treaty language, but must have the spiritual and moral resources of the faith communities in order to defeat this threat.

The list of impressive young Baptist peacemakers goes on: Johnny Almond, Minister of Music @ FBC Mt. Gilead, NC and Communications Director @ BPFNA; Lydia, Jerene, and Naomi Broadway of Durham, NC; Dee Dee Dikitanan of Oakland, CA; Justin Gall of Oberlin, OH; Trey Lincoln of Mount Gilead, NC and so many others– far too many to mention, let this middle aged activist-theologian know that faith-based peace and justice activism, and the BPFNA in particular, is in good hands. Considering the news this week, that’s very good to know!

July 15, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, peacemaking, young people | Comments Off on We’re in Good Hands: Young Leaders of BPFNA