Witness against the War
Here is my promised update on how our interfaith witness against the war played out on Tuesday.
It was a beautiful day in Washington, and I rode the subway into Union Station and walked to Upper Senate Park with Mike Benefiel, who was one of our Presbyterian Peace Fellowship accompaniers in Colombia this year. Mike graciously agreed to house me for a couple of nights, and also gave up an entire day to support the witness by acting as my “support person,” in case our witness led to an act of civil disobedience for which I would be arrested. Thirty-five or forty other Presbyterians joined us for the day as well, including four pastors who ended up being arrested.
By ten o’clock, there were between 250 and 300 people gathered in the park for our peace liturgy. We were led in song (“Siyahamba – We are walking in the light of God,” “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around,” “Peace is flowing like a river,” “We shall overcome,” “Freedom,” etc.), and then we heard from a young man from Iraq who is Muslim and who spoke about the Iraqi peace movement. Then we began the liturgy itself, which included words from myself, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, a responsive reading with representatives of a number of different faiths, and a chant with a Buddhist peace group. As I emceed the gathering, I led with a reflection about the importance, when we gather in an interfaith context, of lifting up the best of our religious traditions, rather than watering our traditions down to the point where they are no longer recognizable in the interests of not offending one another. I began with a reading from the book of Luke, Chapter 19:38-43, where Jesus was entering Jerusalem and he broke down and wept over the inability of the people to see the things that make for peace.
As the liturgy ended, we read a statement of commitment to nonviolent principles, and were led in a moving prayer by Rev. Seiku, a pastor who heads the organization called Clergy and Laity Concerned about Iraq. We then formed a procession and walked toward the Capitol building to a point where we had agreed that a small group would break off for their own witness – attempting to place a mock coffin on the front steps. Rev. Andrew Foster Connors went with that group and was among those arrested as they walked across the lawn toward the front steps of the Capitol.
At that point, the rest of us turned and walked back past the park and on toward the Hart Senate Office building, where it was our intention to hold a public ceremony of prayer, scripture reading and song in the atrium in the center of the building. About a block from the building, we were met by D.C. Capitol Police, who formed a cordon of officers to block us from continuing.
Over the next hour, the group continued to sing as several of us negotiated with the Chief of Police about our intentions and how our witness would be carried out. The police were, at all times, unfailingly courteous, and even helpful as we tried to agree together on a way that our public witness could continue that would be acceptable to them. I was so gratified that those who were participating in the demonstration also remained courteous and respectful, even as they waited for a very, very long time for the negotiations to play out. There was a small group of about eight people who chose not to wait for those negotiations, and they were the second group arrested as they moved into the street and tried to go around the police barricade on the sidewalk.
Eventually, the rest of the group agreed to put down our signs and to continue with only strings of paper peace cranes that had the names of soldiers and others who have lost their lives in Iraq. The police asked us to continue individually if we wanted to see our Senators, but the group remained clear that we were there as a group to participate together in a public, interfaith expression against the war. The process of negotiating was fascinating as we would speak with the Chief, and then return to the group to decide together what was acceptable to us, while the Chief would speak on the phone with his superiors to make similar determinations.
When he agreed to let us go on toward the Senate Office building, the Chief was clear that we would have to be individually screened for security (which we expected and were fine with) and that, if we re-gathered together inside the building, he would be forced to consider that an unlawful assembly. We were clear at all times that we intended to have a peaceful witness as a group when we re-entered, and that we understood the possible consequences if we did so. As we moved forward and entered the building, about forty of us who were comfortable risking arrest moved to the front of the procession, while most of the rest stayed behind.
The Hart Building has a beautiful atrium that is seven or eight stories high, with balconies on all sides of the atrium on each floor. As we were processed into the building, we formed a circle there in the atrium, and Ken Butigan, one of the founders of Declaration of Peace (please sign the petition if you are so moved at www.declarationofpeace.org) spoke about our insistence that the War in Iraq must come to an end. I then read a few verses from Jeremiah 29, and reflected on God’s instructions to the people of Israel about how to relate to their enemies at one of the most pivotal, and fearful, moments of their history – while they were being held captive in Babylon. After instructing God’s people to make their homes, start families, and attend to the welfare of Babylon, God assured the people, “Surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
Pastor Gwin Pratt, participating with his close friend and colleague from Jacksonville, FL, Rev. Tim Simpson, then shared the marvelous verses from the second chapter of Isaiah about “beating swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they study war anymore.” There was singing, and some fairly quiet chanting, and all the while more and more people were coming out of the offices and lining the balconies. The police warned those of us assembled that we were in violation of the law (three times during our witness), and then announced that arrests were beginning. At that point, spontaneously, about fifteen or so people did a “die-in,” lying down on the floor in the center of the circle as the rest of us continued to sing.
The police continued to demonstrate the greatest professionalism, and I was proud to be a citizen of a country that bends over backward to protect the right of public dissent. As I was arrested, my arresting officer, named “John,” gently escorted me by the elbow to a waiting police van outside, where he gently patted me down before I joined the others in the vehicle. From there on, the day became an exercise in patience, and in building friendships with one another and sharing stories. It took almost eight hours to process charges against seventy-one of us who were arrested in all three incidences. In addition to Tim, Gwin and Andrew, my good friend, Roger Powers, who is also a pastor from Baltimore, was also arrested with us. I’ll have to return to Washington to pay the fine (fifty dollars for unlawful assembly) in a few months.
If you’re interested in more about the day, you can check out a great article in the Baltimore Sun that appeared the next morning, or another solid article by Evan Silverstein of the Presbyterian News Service. Here are the citations:
I’m aware that my actions have generated, and will probably continue to generate, a lot of conversation. I thought it important to share my own perceptions about how the events of our witness against the war unfolded, though I’m aware perceptions always vary depending on one’s predisposition and point of view. For instance, the coverage by the Washington Post described us “shouting” scripture in the Hart building, and though I cringed a little when I read it, I realize that it is certainly factual given the fact that we were raising our voices to be heard by one another, though we made no attempt to be heard by those up on the balconies.
In the end, it seems to me that many of our disagreements with one another – both in the church and in the broader context of our country, often come down to differences in perception like this.
As these things are debated, I do want to be clear that this was, and remains, a very personal decision to me, though I was pleased to see a clear, faith, witness - for peace and against war - lifted up by the media. I hope that all of us who are followers of Jesus, like Peter and the earliest disciples in the stories of the Acts of the Apostles, are clear about what we’re willing to risk as we seek to live our faith and to follow the Jesus who stood against the destructive powers of his own time. This one, in the end, turned out to be small risk (though we were told ahead of time by the police that it would be called a felony rather than a misdemeanor).
I will continue to seek ways to stand against this war, and the broader “War against Terror” for as long as it takes (perhaps my whole life) to bring about a different way of approaching our enemies that will, Jesus assures us, lead to greater security. In the meantime, I will also continue to also seek ways to put even greater energy into living a positive, and probably more risky, commitment to peacemaking through activities like Accompaniment in Colombia with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, or Nonviolent Direct Intervention in situations of extreme conflict with Christian Peacemaker Teams.
Somehow, we must risk everything for the “peace that passes all understanding.”
Thanks for taking the time to follow my own journey around these tough questions.