Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Be a Peacemaker

Vietnam vet Frank Wagner protesting war in Iraq
for umpteenth year  (photo/Jan Barry)

Sorry, Bob Dylan, but the times are not a-changing very much. With the US military still engaged in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in a seemingly endless war on “radical Islamic terrorism,” consider where we were in world affairs back in the days of the previous Republican regime in Washington. Here’s the dilemma for progressives that I outlined in a talk at the Unitarian Church of Montclair, NJ on October 24, 2004.

Remember the famous military recruiting poster where Uncle Sam sternly points his finger and says “I want you!” Imagine a new updated version in which Uncle Sam says “I want you…to be a peacemaker!”

Wouldn’t that be something. Well, I’m not Uncle Sam—but I am here to ask you to join a life-and-death campaign, to reach out across the battle lines, here at home and overseas, and be a peacemaker. On this beautiful Sunday morning, America is at war, as our national leaders repeatedly remind us. Peacemaking has practically disappeared from the national radar screen and our television screens. Yes, our religious traditions proclaim “blessed are the peacemakers.” But our radio and television talk show hosts, who set the tone for national discourse, dismiss peace talk as unpatriotic, wishy-washy liberal folly. Calls to get tougher militarily have risen to such a pitch that the leading candidates for leading this country sound like rival boot camp drill instructors

War is in the saddle and riding relentlessly with the other three horsemen of apocalypse. Whatever the outcome of our presidential election, the war in Iraq will still be booming the next day. War between Israelis and Palestinians will still be exploding. Russians and Chechens will still be killing each other. Pakistan and India will still be rattling nuclear weapons at each other. Civil wars in Africa will still be destroying entire societies.

And here at home, there is a virtual civil war between patriots who support the war in Iraq and patriots who oppose the war in Iraq. Furious battles have erupted between veterans refighting the Vietnam war. One of the most startling scenes last week was a wire service photo of a burly man in Pennsylvania grabbing another burly man by the throat. “Both men Vietnam veterans seem to symbolize a nation bitterly divided over war,” the photo caption read. It’s a tough time to be a peacemaker.

When was it ever a good time? Twenty years ago, when this church was dedicated as a peace site, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a Cold War death-grip. Each side had thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at each other’s cities, ready to be launched at a moment’s notice. There were simmering tensions over a Soviet jet shooting down a Korean airliner whose casualty list included a US congressman, over US moves to put a new generation of nuclear missiles in Europe aimed at Moscow, over rumors and reports of spies amidst us and plots against us, over our president calling the Soviet Union the evil empire. We lived each day minutes away from potential doomsday.

This church, with other institutions in Montclair, played an historic role in helping to change that. Some of you may remember the Soviet visitors who spoke at a public meeting here in Fletcher Hall in 1987. Outside on Church Street there was a picket line of angry anticommunists, who shouted that talking with the enemy was traitorous. Where is the John Birch Society these days, any way? The citizen diplomacy campaign that arose in communities across America and the Soviet Union successfully defused the emotional landmines of the Cold War.

How’d they do that? By reaching out to people here to work together to reach out to people over there to work together to prevent nuclear war. In Montclair, peace sites were dedicated at the Religious Society of Friends, the YWCA, Glenfield Middle School, the New Jersey SANE (now Peace Action) headquarters, and at this church as symbolic and practical centers for instituting nonviolent conflict resolution. Hundreds of peace sites were dedicated across the United States and in other countries, hosting an astonishing array of activities.

Most effectively, Montclair’s peace sites helped launch a US-USSR Bridges for Peace citizen exchange project that sent a town council member, BJ Ricker, and me, representing the Essex County Office on Peace, in a New Jersey delegation to the Soviet Union in September 1986. The exchange visit in March 1987 by Soviet citizens, who were hosted by community groups from Bergen County to Cape May, sparked an amazing transformation in attitudes, which led to more exchanges. Montclair gained a sister city in Russia, Cherepovets. So many personal friendships and professional relationships grew from those citizen exchanges that we could fill this hall if there were a reunion.

So many exchange visits sprang up in so many communities between American and Soviet citizens—students, teachers, lawyers, doctors, war veterans, artists, athletes, religious groups, women’s groups, business groups, it literally thawed the Cold War era. The US State Department called the work done by the citizens’ campaign “track II diplomacy.” The head of the US Information Agency personally thanked leaders of that citizen diplomacy campaign for opening the door for President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev to meet in Moscow in 1988 and officially end the hostilities that had divided the world into warring camps for most of my life.

Counter-Productive Campaign

Now we are facing another division of the world, into us vs. Islamic terrorists, a virtually holy war that Pentagon officials have predicted might last 30 years. One of our military leaders during the Cold War, General Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander, argues that we indeed need to prepare for a long engagement, but he maintains that our government is waging a counter-productive, ill-conceived campaign in Iraq based on a distorted view of the causes of the demise of the Soviet Union.

“This dream of engineering events in the Middle East to follow those of the Soviet Union has led to an almost unprecedented geostrategic blunder,” General Clark wrote in a recent article in Washington Monthly. “One crucial reason things went wrong, I believe, is that the neoconservatives misunderstood how and why the Soviet Union fell and what the West did to contribute to that fall. They radically overestimated the role of military assertiveness while underestimating the value of other, subtler measures. … The truth is this: It took four decades of patient engagement to bring down the Iron Curtain, and 10 years of deft diplomacy to turn chaotic, post-Soviet states into stable, pro-Western democracies. To achieve the same in the Middle East will require similar engagement, patience, and luck.”

Among the diplomatic actions General Clark is calling for are “broader, deeper relationships with Muslim countries through student and cultural exchange programs and organizational business development.” General Clark, meet Hassan Fahmy, a borough councilman in Prospect Park in Passaic County. Since 9/11, Fahmy, who grew up in Egypt, has been working to develop sister city ties between communities in New Jersey and the Middle East. In a recent letter to the editor in the Herald News, Fahmy wrote: “Let us respect each other as human beings. God created us not to kill each other, but to love and to cherish and to help each other in this disadvantaged world. Tolerance cries out to be heard.”

Here, I believe, is the solution to the vicious cycles of violence convulsing the Middle East that have spilled into America: teaching and sharing tolerance of people with different faiths and ways of life. One way to bolster tolerance is to bring disputing parties to live for awhile in New Jersey. We have people from all over the world living side by side in this state. We have a vibrant history of outreach to other parts of the world via student exchanges, cultural exchanges, and international business relationships. And, for good measure, this is where peace sites grew from an idea proposed by a concerned citizen, Lou Kousin of Cranford, into an international network of community centers for fostering peaceful solutions.

So consider the state of the world today and what you would like to leave as a legacy. With war being waged in our name, with the spiral of violence growing more horrendous with each tit-for-tat military maneuver, what better time than now to be a peacemaker.