Back in the mid-80’s I was lured out of my Protestant practices into Lent by an unlikely connection. We discovered the Lenten Desert Experience. Ever since then, I have been pondering all the things we learned from dipping our toes into protesting the ocean of violent work of the U. S. Empire.
Maybe one of my readers will remind me how we got connected. I suspect it came from hanging around with our beloved Franciscans. However it happened, we got wind of a group now called the Nevada Desert Experience who were inventively protesting the ongoing testing of nuclear weapons in the huge Nevada Test Site north of Las Vegas. We could not resist going out there to see what was happening; we had to do something! Before long it was an annual event. Gwen even appeared in the local paper sporting plastic handcuffs.
George H.W. Bush ended full-scale nuclear testing in 1992 which felt like a surprising victory. His son, however, added the beefed up drone base at nearby Creech AFB and started less-invasive testing. We managed to stick our cocktail swords into the belly of the beast for a few years, but that monster has amazing recuperative capacity! That’s why we need a Savior.
For those interested, here is a short history from the Nevada Desert Experience site. The rest of you can skip to my point after it.
The Lenten Desert Experience (LDE) began in the early spring of 1982 to honor St. Francis of Asissi’s love of nature, peacefulness, and opposition to governmental violence. The primarily Christian prayer-activists came to the Nevada National Security Site daily for six weeks between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, just prior to Easter 1982. This was an obvious, creative, and bold peaceful witness against nuclear weapons testing in Newe Sogobia. Soon these experiences in the Nevada desert were drawing more participants, of a greater variety in faith traditions and spiritual paths. The folks who organized the first LDE continued to help facilitate other events in the region near Las Vegas, NV as part of a larger movement. The people coming annually for LDE formally organized themselves into a group known as Nevada Desert Experience (NDE) and this group remains steadily organizing nuclear abolition events to carry on the peaceful witness against nuclear destruction. Participants joining the NDE and other abolitionist events care sincerely about protecting the air, water, soil and earthlings, and against the spiritual sickness of mega-violence in the history of the world. In 1991 Dom Helder Camara commentedin a way that challenges North Americans to use our spiritual power to put an end to the Department of Energy’s destructivity: “This is the scene of the greatest violence on Earth. It should be the place of the greatest greatest acts of nonviolence on the Earth.”
The Lenten Desert Experience was my first experience of witnessing for peace with the very diverse groups who make up the peace movement. We were chanting with monks, keening with Quakers and dancing with Shoshones, none of whom we had ever really rubbed shoulders with. I began to form my rationale for sitting in holding tanks with people who might give Jesus a bad name if you met them without handcuffs. I based my thinking by stretching a saying from Jesus in Mark 9:
“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.
What Jesus is actually saying is that “People who are with me, John, might not be part of your group.” That is always a good thing for divided-up Christians to remember. He didn’t mean to say, “People who do good things aren’t against me enough to overlook their lack of allegiance.”
But I like the generosity of the latter interpretation, too. When it comes to the peace movement and many other social action movements, I make “unholy” alliances with people who are on my general wavelength, even though I might need to hold their spiritual direction at arm’s length. I let them know I am coming in the name of Jesus and sometimes that makes them hold my spiritual direction at arm’s length. But then we can get down to the business of sticking our cocktail swords into the belly of the beast together. They can meet Jesus on their own time schedule. For the time being, there is a monster to confront.
The Circle of Peacemakers core team was discussing this the other day, since we are committed to providing a list of the comrades and acquaintances we have developed over the years. We want to give twentysomethings, in particular, a chance to do something before they crystallize into non-activist adults like most of the population. We would like to give parents options for interesting vacations with the kids! In the past, we have sent people to the SOA vigil at Fort Benning, GA (pic above), to the Migrant Trail protest in the Sonora Desert, to Christian Peacemaker Teams actions and a lot more (check out the new website). Sometimes the participants spend more time wondering about the other participants than they do focusing on the action! It might be the first time they ever rubbed shoulders with the likes of these radicals! Sometimes they understand where the unbelievers in the crowd are coming from better than they understand the Christians. Even with local allies like Heeding God’s Call and the Brandywine Peace Community, who are faith-based, you have to wonder how to walk with Jesus and them at the same time, especially when you run in to the little power squabbles of little groups of activists. Our team was worried about recommending faith-damaging relationships!
I go back to my interpretation of Jesus’ teaching. I think we can risk walking in love with people whether we agree with them or even understand them. If they are not against the cause of peace and the dismantling of the economy of violence, they are for us. It is very tempting to begin with judgment instead of keeping our eyes on the goal. If we waited to sort out every potential bad influence from among the myriad or people and organizations we meet, it would be a full-time occupation! And for many of us, our faith is just that full-time occupation – we are judgers by nature, not peacemakers. That’s not right. I think being a proactive peacemaker, just like the Prince of Peace, will strengthen your faith much more than avoiding potential bad influences will.
If we gave too much attention to judging the validity of our peacemaking allies, our suspicion and reticence could allow the U.S. government to make the traditional Shoshone nation in Nevada the most bombed place on the planet and make us overlook the Pentagon supplying excess war-making material to village police in Missouri! We don’t have time for that. I don’t think Jesus wanted his disciples to become the judges of people trying to get it right. He did not want them to have a lack of discernment and miss following His heart, either! But the main focus of the Lord’s mission has a generous, reconciling mentality. We don’t know the exact right way to go on our journey through this desert, but we certainly have to keep going and we definitely need to love our fellow travelers.