Sunday, May 31, 2015

Memories of Activist Old Days

I am one of those baby boomers who came of intellectual age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Civil Rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the New Left, the New Right, the Beatles, LBJ, Nixon, illegal incursions into Cambodia and Laos, and Kent State were among my teachers.

I became opposed to the war in Vietnam sometime in 1968 if memory serves while I was a student at T.W. Browne Junior High School in Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas. In retrospect I must place the blame on my friend at the time, probably my only friend outside of my family, John Cirillo, and the fact that I listened regularly to groups like The Beatles and Credence Clearwater Revival all of whom made me think about things, including the Vietnam War, critically and morally. Soon I was wearing black armbands to school to protest the war and trying to organise walk outs in opposition to the war all, to some extent, to the consternation of my parents.

My opposition to the war in Vietnam made me ask questions about why I thought the way that I did. I had been brought up to believe that America and particularly Texas were the best of all possible worlds and that any wars they fought were done to protect the liberty and freedom of all Americans and Texans. As I learned about the reality behind the Vietnam War and as I learned more and more about real American and Texas history this naive and very manichean form of brainwashing no longer had a hold on the way I thought and the way I perceived the world. By the time I got to college the ideological scales had fallen from my eyes and I become more and more interested in pacifism and in the Christian pacifist sects, groups like the Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends, and the Anapabtists, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren. I started to hang out with Quakers particularly of the FGC variety. I liked their activism. I liked their pacifism. I liked their silent meetings. I liked the role they had played in social movements such as the women's rights movement, the Indian rights movement, abolition, and opposition to wars. I liked the role women played in Quaker meetings.

But while I liked and admired the Quakers a great deal I never became a Quaker. As I read more and more of Christian social ethicists like Reinhold Niebuhr and John Howard Yoder I became more and more convinced that Quaker worldly activism and pacifism was too naive and simplistic. Thanks to what I saw happen after the Sixties, the powers that be pushed back and pushed back hard marginalising its critics, and thanks to the many writings of Niebuhr I came to have a healthy skepticism that human perfection was possible and that humans could create "heaven on earth".

Niebuhr's focus on human fallibility seemed to me to dovetail with the Schleitheim Confession's skepticism that"the World" could be turned into the "beloved community", the community of peace and agape, that so many activists hoped for. Despite this skepticism I kept coming back to Quakers, however, for some reason, their persistence and courage, perhaps.

In the 1990s I was living in Provo, Utah and teaching, studying, and doing research at Brigham Young University. In 1992 I and five Mormon friends decided to go down to the Quaker Lenten Weekend at the Nuclear Test Site in Mercury, Nevada about 45 minutes northwest of Las Vegas. While we were in Vegas preparing for our protest the six of us sheltered in a Black Catholic church in downtown Las Vegas along with others of various faiths and non-faiths who had come to Vegas that weekend to protest underground nuclear weapons testing at the Nuclear Test Site. A Catholic Worker fed us some of the best food I have ever eaten. The Quaker business meeting we held the morning before our protest--or was it the day before, my memory is hazy--was one of the best I have ever experienced. The female clerk was one of the best Quaker clerks I have ever seen in action. In forty-five minutes we had decided to allow those who felt called to physically occupy the test site, decided not to allow those sixteen and under to trespass in protest, and decided a host of other things which I can no longer recall. It was breathtaking to watch and even more breathtaking to be a part of.

I was sure while I was sitting in business meeting that I would not be among those who would break the law and trespass at the nuclear test site. When I arrived at the test site I felt the same way. I learned afterwards that the five other people I had come with felt the same. While sitting in silent Quaker worship on the other side of the fence from the test site and with Mercury, Nevada, the city that those engaged in nuclear weapons testing and Nevada used to live and which is now a ghost town for obvious reasons, I felt that I had to engage in civil disobedience. My friends felt similarly. Within thirty or forty minutes we were all criminals. Eventually we were arrested, segregated by gender--the first gender segregation we had experienced the entire weekend--and placed in pens out in the Nevada desert. Within an hour or so we were released.

Little did I know that the most powerful part of going to the desert to protest was still to come. I had met Diana Lee Hirschi at the Salt Lake Friends Meeting which I used to visit periodically when I lived in Provo and knew she had been involved in the protests against nuclear weapons testing. After we were released Diana and a member of the Shoshone Tribe who had given us permission to enter the test site--the Shoshone claim it as theirs--took me and my five Mormon friends to the Peace Encampment across the highway from the test site. They had been its founders and had lived at the Peace Encampment for a time protesting the bombing and the environmental destruction the bombs caused in the Nevada desert. The experience of having the two of them show us around the Peace Encampment and telling of its history was incredibly moving and by the time they took us to a circle of stones underneath which were laminated pictures of downwinders from St. George, Utah, who had become ill and in some cases died from radioactivity, the whole experience had become emotionally draining.

Coming back to Provo after having such experiences seemed bizarre if not surreal. The six of us felt like we were no in the world or of it. We spent the next several weeks seeking out and being with each another. We made tie-die t-shirts. We talked about how the things of the world, romance, celebrity worship, the weather, whatever, seemed silly, petty, and irrelevant. We talked about our experiences to classes full of students at BYU. We talked about doing a Mormon weekend at the test site the next year.

And that is what we did. We spent the next year planning what would become the Mormon Peace Gathering during the Lenten season at the Nevada Test Site. More than 100 Mormons and me, a "Gentile in Zion", came to Las Vegas, stayed at the same Black Catholic Church we had the year before, and protested against nuclear weapons testing once again in the Nevada desert. But it just wasn't the same for me as it was the year before.

Since that magical Quaker weekend in Nevada the world has slapped back. Friends became acquaintances and then distant memories. Being hit time after time by reality turned me more and more cynical and made me more and more misanthropic. And that is where I am today dear readers. I Ron. I cynic. I misanthrope. I tired of and bored by the world I live in. What is a cynic to do?

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