Those Naïve, Idealistic Peace Activists
A number of years ago during a period in which the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan was not a top-of-mind concern for many U.S. citizens, I would regularly pass by a corner in which a small cluster of activists held a weekly prayer vigil for peace. There were typically some signs and candles, but for me, the vigils often blended into the background of ordinary life as I did errands around town. When I did pause to think about these acts of witness, I remember being of two minds: while I acknowledged that I resided in the same general camp of opposition to the occupation, I simultaneously held a somewhat reactively critical assessment of the vigils. I don’t remember my exact thoughts, but I suspect they were along the lines of “If we feel compelled to do public witness, can we at least be creative about it?”
Fast forward to this past year: With a fierce belief that public action was desperately needed to support Build Back Better legislation, I approached a veteran organizer in the Cleveland metro area with a number of action ideas that I thought were fairly creative. One by one, he patiently explained to me why my ideas would not accomplish any meaningful objective. His arguments were so irrefutable that I had no counter arguments. So, what did we end up doing? We organized a prayer vigil for a street corner. Not wanting to submit to the feeling of conducting an unimaginative activist ritual, I persisted in trying to suggest any creative twist to the event that my mind could muster. In the end, we invited people to bring and speak about objects that symbolized the kind of world they envisioned in supporting Build Back Better legislation. A local rabbi brought a shofar. A pastor brought a t-shirt from the U.S.-Mexico border evoking the rights of immigrants. I brought my daughter’s favorite stuffed animal: Tichawa the Sloth.
All of these thoughts and experiences came rushing back to me this week as I considered the Russian invasion of Ukraine and as I considered my on-going work to encourage people of faith to take public action in support of climate legislation. People, whom I highly respect and admire, have at times reacted to my call for action with a response equivalent to dismissing “those naïve, idealistic peace activists.” I wonder if people said the same about Isaiah, the Hebrew Bible’s prophet of peace. Simply consider how his peers might have responded to this declaration amid war: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.”
But is this naïve idealism? This past week, I read Katrina vanden Heuvel’s prescription in the Washington Post for a diplomatic resolution to the war in the Ukraine. In addition to outlining what a negotiated accord might look like, she suggested that now would be the optimal time to reassess our foreign policy. In the past, our policies have sown the seeds of conflict. Would it not be wise to focus now on vitally critical goals that can only be accomplished through joint cooperation with other countries—goals like addressing the deadly catastrophes of climate change and global pandemics? This is not naïve idealism. It is the practical and sensible alternative to more militarism and violence.
To achieve this realization, we sometimes need those who are willing to stand on corners with signs and envision a world in which the wolf doesn’t eat the lamb. If we can summon the spirit of the creative as we do so, all the better.
The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt is the UCC Minister of Environmental Justice. Next week, he will host a webinar on “The U.S. Military and Environmental Justice.”