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My journey to Gospel nonviolence

Scott Wright

Scott Wright

A reflection by Scott Wright, Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace.

Fifty years ago, this month (June 1972), I returned my draft card to my local draft board in Lincoln, Nebraska. They sent me a new card and warned me that the penalty for not carrying a draft card was five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. I returned the new card. Weeks later, I received a letter that my papers had been turned over to the US Attorney for prosecution.

Strangely, I felt a profound sense of peace. I was 22 and had just graduated from college. I had benefitted from two deferments, first as a student, then with a high lottery number. I was not going to Vietnam. Yet my conscience was troubled.

Young men my age - either because they were poor, Black, Latino or Native American, victims of systemic racism and systemic poverty - were subject to the draft and headed to war. Perhaps some of them went for patriotic reasons. Many would return with shattered lives, and many, many more were killed in Vietnam, or committed suicide. They were my brothers, my generation; and those women who volunteered and suffered were my sisters as well.

The beginning of a journey

My journey to Gospel nonviolence began suddenly, on April 4, 1968. I was a first-year student at Duke University, a southern campus in Durham, North Carolina, and returning from the library at night when I heard the news. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. In the days following, the nation reacted with violence. I remember seeing on television scenes of National Guard troops with machine-guns on the US Capitol steps. Washington, DC was burning.

On campus, 1,500 students and some faculty initiated a two-week vigil and boycott of classes, joining hospital workers who were struggling for collective bargaining and Black students - one of whom was my college roommate - who were enraged. I joined them, nearly failed two classes as a result, which meant automatic expulsion, an end to my deferment, and a fast-track trip to Vietnam.

That Christmas, I remember telling my father, a World War II veteran, that I opposed the war and was thinking of returning my draft card. He would hear none of it. As I turned away he called me back and told me: When I was your age, I told your grandfather, "I don't know why my oldest brother wasted his life by going to war" - the First World War. I was shocked. Why was he telling me this? I asked: "What did he say?" My father answered: "He didn't say anything. He walked away. We never talked about it again."

It is only many years later that I realised something else was going on in our conversation. Something deeply traumatic, passed on from one generation to another. A silent acknowledgment that fathers and sons do their duty, they go to war. Yet my father questioned that when he was young, with his father, just as I did with him. When I finally did return my draft card, I will never forget how my father supported me without question. That memory of unconditional love has remained with me ever since, and especially since becoming a parent many years later.

Meeting Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker

I did not return my draft card that Christmas. Something about our conversation caused me to pause. It took me another three years, most of which was spent in a student project in a racially mixed poor neighborhood off-campus, where I met Black veterans returned from Vietnam, traumatised, and angry. They were my brothers, my generation, but race and class separated our journeys. When I finally returned my draft card, my sister sent me a copy of Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison. It would be the beginning of a long and fruitful conversation with his writings and Gospel witness as he struggled with what it meant to be faithful to the Gospel amid the Nazi horrors that led to the Holocaust.

For a year, I waited, expecting any moment to be arrested for draft resistance. I worked three months in a factory, watched the Watergate hearings, and despaired. Then one day I read a small news item in the newspaper: "Four Catholic nuns arrested at the White House for praying for an end to the war in Vietnam." I knew what I had to do.

I bought a one-way bus ticket to Washington DC and met the organisers of the protest who lived at the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), a Catholic Worker community. Every day that summer, a handful of people would enter the tour line at the White House, break away onto the patio once inside, kneel and pray for an end to the bombing in Southeast Asia, and be arrested for unlawful entry. I joined twice.

On the final day, August 15, 1973, Congress voted for the first time to cut off funding to the war, declaring that it was unconstitutional (and immoral) because it had never been formally declared, as required by the Constitution. Seventy people, including half a dozen priests, joined on the last day to celebrate a Mass inside the White House grounds, in protest of the war. It was my first Catholic Mass (I was raised in the United Church of Christ), and it was interrupted, as we were dragged away and taken to the local police precinct.

That was the beginning of my journey to the Catholic Worker. My cellmates that day were Daniel Berrigan, SJ, and Thomas Lewis, both veterans of the Catonsville 9. I stayed at CCNV for four years and made several trips to the New York Catholic Worker and Tivoli Farm, where on one occasion, sitting alone in the chapel, I met Dorothy Day, who graciously took me around the chapel and shared with me the significance of items that were there.

Four years later, I returned to New York for her funeral Mass and burial. I still remember passing by her open coffin at her wake, the same blue scarf she often wore still adorning her head. At the gravesite in Staten Island, we were invited to throw some earth upon the coffin as it was lowered into the ground. A simple stone marks her grave, with these words: 'Deo Gratias.'

Meeting Latin American missionaries and Tabor House

By now, my commitment to nonviolence was firmly established, having been formed through community and resistance to oppose all violence and all war. I met several young men my age who had spent a year or more in prison for draft resistance, and I met Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Liz McAlister, and others who were coming out of prison for nonviolent resistance to the war. CCNV also introduced me to Pax Christi USA, as the community served as the first General Secretariat for PCUSA, and Ed Guinan, a Paulist priest, as the first General Secretary.

Times were changing. As the Vietnam War ended in 1975, resistance turned now to abolishing nuclear weapons. I joined Jim Douglass and two others for 30 days in front of the White House, fasting only on water, to call for an end to US policy of a first strike option to use nuclear weapons. That policy remains.

Nevertheless, I struggled putting together nonviolence, resistance, and my faith. I knew they were intrinsically connected, but my faith was still in formation, and I was learning what it means to be a Christian. The same year I came to CCNV and the Catholic Worker in Washington, DC, I met several Catholic missionaries returning from the missions, on fire with the changes happening in Latin America and in the Church.

After four years at CCNV, in 1977, I moved into another Catholic Worker community called Tabor House, which was founded by a Carmelite priest, Peter Hinde, and a Sister of Mercy, Betty Campbell. There I received a further formation that both challenged and deepened my commitment to Gospel nonviolence. Every day provided a new opportunity for faith formation, as we provided hospitality for Latin American exiles from Chile and Argentina, and later Central America, joined them in Scriptural reflection and daily Eucharist, and actions of solidarity protesting U.S. support for military dictatorships in their countries.

One of the members of the community who deeply influenced my journey was Patrick Rice, an Irish missionary priest and Superior General of the Little Brothers of the Gospel in Argentina. Half of his community had been assassinated or forcibly disappeared in the dirty war in Argentina, and he had been brutally tortured and exiled a year before coming to live with us. I remember two of the Little Brothers from Argentina who did survive commenting that they would believe in nonviolence only when it was proclaimed by those directly impacted by the violence. Patrick became a life-long friend, and a Gospel witness to what it means to "shout out the Gospel with your life."

The witness of the Little Brothers and their founder, Charles de Foucauld, recently canonized a saint, provided me with another model of what it means to be a Christian, as Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker had done before. Nor is it surprising that these two be mentioned together, as the two communities lived in close proximity in New York City.

Both Peter Hinde and Patrick Rice have gone home to God, leaving behind countless friends, and loved ones who bear their memory and lift up their witness in ways that have changed lives forever, as they have mine. Both in turn were influenced by and actively pursued the cause of sainthood for people in their respective communities.

By a happy coincidence on May 15 of this year, Titus Bransdma, a Carmelite priest who was murdered in Dachau, and Charles de Foucauld, the founder of the Little Brothers, were both canonised saints in Rome by Pope Francis, fulfilling the ancient wisdom that "[t]he blood of the martyrs is (truly) the seed of new Christians."

The journey to El Salvador and San Romero of the Americas

On February 17, 1979, I was baptized a Catholic, shortly after traveling with the Tabor Community to the meeting of the Latin American bishops in Puebla, Mexico. There we joined several prophetic bishops in the evenings "outside the walls" of the conference when they reported on the day's activities. I remember especially hearing Bishop Leonidas Proaño from Ecuador, a prophet among the Indigenous, and Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had just received the news, before coming to Puebla, that yet another of his priests, Octavio Ortiz, had been assassinated in El Salvador. There I had the privilege, the one and only time, of meeting Monseñor Romero and shaking his hand.

A year later, members of the Tabor community were in El Salvador, accompanying the people, and tragically, being present at the exhumation of the four US churchwomen assassinated by the Salvadoran military, funded and trained by the US Army School of the Americas.

My journey to Gospel nonviolence was being challenged by a people in armed rebellion against an oppressive and cruel dictatorship, like is happening today in Ukraine. However, it was also being deepened by the struggle of the people who resisted in nonviolent ways, and by the church who accompanied the people in their struggle and ended up like them on a cross, giving their lives out of love for the poor.

Every few weeks, we received letters from Peter and Betty, and read them together in community. Each letter was an unspoken invitation to "Come and see," to go deeper into the mystery of such suffering and evil, the mystery, too, of such great love seen in the faith of the poor and the witness of the martyrs.

In March 1981, I did go, and within weeks of arriving at the Honduran border with El Salvador, encountered 5,000 Salvadoran refugees who had crossed the Lempa River into Honduras the day before, pursued by helicopter fire and mortars in their baptism by fire. That encounter, and what was intended to be a visit of several weeks, became a journey of eight years accompanying refugees and displaced communities in El Salvador in zones of conflict.

What I learned during those years has stayed with me, as I struggled to make sense of my commitment to Gospel nonviolence amid a brutal war, funded by the US against a poor and peasant people in armed rebellion struggling to survive. I was never tempted to renounce my commitment to Gospel nonviolence, but I often wondered what it meant to others, if anything. In the end, I realised that the people whom I accompanied were grateful that I was there, and I in turn was profoundly grateful for their acceptance of me, who came from the country that was funding the war that was bombing and killing their families.

One thing I learned is that for many of us, our point of departure is not only one of Gospel nonviolence; it is one of complicity with the structural and actual violence that is oppressing and killing others. Because they are poor, because they are living in places with valuable resources, because they look "different," they are "other," and they are thus "expendable." The challenge for us, then, becomes "How do we change sides?" "How do we through our choices take on the risks that people who have no choices bear?" "How do we share the struggle?" and if need be, as Archbishop Romero said, "share the same fate as the poor?"

Archbishop Romero responded with what he called "the pastoral ministry of accompaniment," best described in an address he gave in Louvain, Belgium shortly before he was assassinated at the altar on March 24, 1980. Accompaniment means many things, but it includes "incarnation in the world of the poor," "proclaiming Good News" to those who have only heard bad news, "supporting (nonviolent) social movements that defend the poor," and if necessary, "giving our lives out of love for the poor."

That nonviolent witness of the Salvadoran people and Church became even clearer in the words of one of the six Jesuit martyred on November 16, 1989, Ignacio Ellacuría. As much as anyone, Ellacuría defended the right of an oppressed people to armed rebellion against a long-standing dictatorship. Shortly before he was assassinated, however, Ellacuría added that for Christians, the witness ought to be one of Gospel nonviolence, even as they accompany their people's struggle.

Coming home to endless war

On November 30, 1989, just two weeks after the six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper, and her daughter, were assassinated, I was arrested and detained by the Security Forces in El Salvador, held for four days, and deported. Suddenly the tables were turned. We, who had come to accompany the Salvadoran people, and by our presence, we thought, add a measure of security for them, had become a liability. As happened, the international denunciation of the Salvadoran government for the Jesuit massacre was so strong, that many of us were able to return to work another year in El Salvador.

But now, my sights were returning home. In that sudden interruption of my life, my arrest, detention, and deportation, I fell in love and met my life partner, now of 32 years, Jean Stokan. We married, first in El Salvador on December 12, 1990, and six months later in Washington DC on June 22, 1991. But between those two weddings, the US once again went to war, this time against Iraq. It was over in a matter of months but was brutal in its wanton destruction of human life and infrastructure, like water sanitation facilities that support life. For the next 12 years, sanctions on the people of Iraq denied them essential medicines and clean water, resulting in a million deaths, primarily of children under five.

While the world witnessed the horrific genocides in the Balkans and in Rwanda, and the Truth Commissions in El Salvador and Guatemala were uncovering other massacres and genocides, the Iraqi people were themselves dying a slow death of attrition, due to the sanctions. When the Second Gulf War broke out in 2003, the Iraqi people were already decimated by a decade of war with Iran, the First Gulf War with the United States, and the sanctions.

9/11 changed everything, at least for those of us who never experienced terror in our own land, as we began to hear talk of "Homeland Security" and "A Global War on Terror." Soon after, the US invaded Afghanistan, shunning the sympathy of the world and engaging in a 20-year war against that people. Two years later, in January 2003, just six weeks before the Second Gulf War, I joined a Voices in the Wilderness peace delegation to Iraq, led by Kathy Kelly. As we travelled overland through the desert to Baghdad, past several Bedouin encampments, alone on this lonely highway, I remember thinking about our Abrahamic ancestors making similar journeys: "Go, leave your people, and go to a land that I will show you." I looked up at the sky and remembered these words from Martin Luther King Jr : "The stars never shine so bright as on a dark night."

I will never forget what we saw and witnessed in Baghdad. A people worn out by decades of war. A supremely hospitable people who welcomed us, from the nation that once again was threatening them with war, into their homes. Children from Basra in the south, in the paediatric hospital of Baghdad, sitting beside their despairing mothers, dying of leukaemia, caused by the depleted uranium used in missiles by the US in the First Gulf War in that region of Iraq to penetrate Iraqi tanks.

I had seen people die before, though we do everything to hide death in our culture. I had seen children die of malnutrition in the Salvadoran refugee camps, gasping their last breath. But I had not seen children like these Iraqi children dying and known so clearly that it was our weapons and depleted uranium tipped anti-tank missiles that were the cause of their agony. I gave one of the children, whose name was Noor or "Light," a doll that my five-year-old daughter gave to me to take on this trip.

The image that I have of that visit is that we were like those Roman soldiers, pounding the nails into Christ's hands and feet, crucifying these poor children.

During those long nights, because of the time change, we often would come down to the lobby of the pension where we were staying, and call home. As we would wait for the calls to be placed, we got to know three Iraqi men who were the hotel clerks. We exchanged pictures of our families. I showed one of the Iraqi men a picture of my five-year-old daughter, Maura, named after one of the four US churchwomen, martyred in El Salvador. He looked at her picture, placed his hand on his forehead and said: "When you go home, kiss your daughter on her forehead for me." I will never forget that moment.

The School of the Americas, my father, and my daughter

One of the persons who had a deep influence on my life, and who accompanied me to Iraq, was Jim Harney. A few months before he died, he told me this story. In 1967, a year before he was ordained a priest, Jim spoke at an interfaith anti-war rally at a church in Boston. He had just read Gordon Zahn's moving biography, In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jaegerstatter, an Austrian peasant who was beheaded for refusing to serve in Hitler's army. That night, Jim lifted up Jaegerstatter as a model of Christian witness and resistance to the war in Vietnam. Zahn, who was in the audience, came up to him and said: "I wrote that book!" They became good friends. At his ordination a year later, Zahn brought Jim a first-class relic as a gift. Six months later, Jim was in prison for a draft board raid in Milwaukee. The pastor of the church where he assisted put all Jim's belongings on the street in protest of Jim's action. Unbeknownst to him, the relic was lost as well.

So, what does this all have to do with Gospel nonviolence? Friendships are important, and so are stories. They often enable us to do things we never knew we could do, they give us courage, and shine a light on where we need to go. When I reflect on my journey, I sometimes tell myself: "I went to El Salvador because of Vietnam, and I went to Iraq because of El Salvador." What do I mean by that?

For many years, I thought simply that since I had not shared t suffering of the Vietnamese people and the generation of my peers who went to war, I went to El Salvador. There I experienced all the brutality and dehumanisation of war, but also the dignity, courage, and deep love of the people.

What about Iraq? That experience of accompanying the people of El Salvador, sharing the risks with them, simply by being there resisting the militarization imposed on them by their own government backed by my own, sowed a seed that drives one to break down walls, cross lines, and change sides through our solidarity. The challenge is how to make of one act of solidarity, or one visit to a war zone, a lifetime commitment to active Gospel nonviolence and solidarity.

It is not easy, and we live in a culture not only of violence, which particularly targets people of colour, but also of indifference, a culture that numbs us and beats us down with yet another despairing act of violence, like the racist massacre of African Americans in Buffalo, New York, or the senseless killing of those 19 Latino children and their two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. Added to that is the failure to respond, even nonviolently, of a well-armed police force that did nothing for 75 minutes. Courage has nothing to do with guns; on the contrary, those most afraid are the ones who carry the guns. Gospel nonviolence must be for the courageous.

But it is not always clear. Sometimes our own frailties and vulnerabilities overcome us. I recall the annual protests at the School of the Americas in Ft Benning, Georgia, led by Roy Bourgeois, and the year I decided to cross the line. During the night, something occurred that changed my mind. I had an anxiety-induced asthma attack, something that happened to me in El Salvador as we fled from the Salvadoran army and rested for the night in a community that had just been bombed. For the next sixth months I had to sleep sitting up.

My father had recently died, and that night I heard him say to me: "You take care of your family." I was worried what the impact would be on my five-year-old daughter, and I was worried if I would be strong enough to endure imprisonment, even though I had endured those many years of war in El Salvador, fleeing from the Salvadoran army with the people by night, hiding by day; even though I had been arrested, threatened with violence, and deported.

I still live with the memory of that night, and wonder: "Was I lacking in courage?" Or was I simply exhausted, by my memories, by the loss of my father, worried about my daughter. Those questions remain with me. What I have since allowed myself to believe, graciously, is how much we need each other, how much we need community, how much we need communities of resistance to help us be courageous. I give thanks for the many friends, too numerous to name, who continue to inspire me, and who are my teachers of peace as well as companions on the journey. For each of you I am deeply grateful.

There are seasons to our lives, our journeys will and do look different, but we are empowered by grace and the love of friends and family that help us be faithful and call out the absolute best in each of us, call out that "generosity of spirit" that we need so urgently in our world today.

"Forward together, not one step back," the Poor People's Campaign says at every rally, and that word "together" makes all the difference. We must take the necessary time to build community, to sustain friendships, to welcome the strangers in our midst.

Seeds of Gospel nonviolence, companions on the journey

Many communities have sustained and nurtured my journey to Gospel nonviolence. In addition to those previously mentioned, I am grateful for friends at Assisi Community and the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in Washington, DC. Both communities are deeply connected to Pax Christi, at the local, national, and international level, and provide a bridge of friendship, as well as a witness to Gospel nonviolence that inspires those whose lives intersect with theirs.

In a special way, I have been drawn to accompany those whose lives have been directly impacted by violence, including survivors of torture and migrants forcibly displaced and seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. I accompanied survivors of torture at the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC), the organisation founded by Sister Dianna Ortiz, OSU, herself a survivor; and accompanied migrants at the US-Mexico border, working with the Columbans, a Catholic missionary order. What do survivors and migrants teach us about Gospel nonviolence? What have I learned from them?

For one, my encounter with survivors, befriending them, hearing their stories, also put me in touch with my own trauma, much of it surely from the years of the war in El Salvador. I learned as well, something about human dignity, about the journey of survival, about communities of healing, and solidarity and hope. In our encounter with survivors and with the victims of war, we become something more: we become witnesses. Survivors and victims have a claim on our lives; they have called us to remember, to cry out with them "Never again!" and to live in such a way that both torture and war are abolished from the face of the earth.

Like survivors, migrants also teach us about Gospel nonviolence. For one, they reveal in profound and very personal ways, the structures of violence that bring such suffering upon them and their families. It's not only that their "right to migrate" has been violated; their "right not to migrate" is violated by decades of U.S. policies driving migration. But, equally important, I have learned something about human dignity and human resilience. I have seen their compassion for one another and have been inspired by their solidarity. I have heard the depth of their agony, for what they have suffered and for those who have not survived the journey, but also experienced their joy as they anticipate a tearful reunion with a loved one.

During these past few years, the work of Marie Dennis and Pax Christi International's Catholic Nonviolence Initiative has also been a source of inspiration, reflecting the global reach of Gospel nonviolence, and more recently, the ways in which the Catholic Church has been asked to embrace Gospel nonviolence as a constitutive dimension of the teaching of the Church. I traveled twice to Peru and El Salvador to be part of consultations of the Latin American region of Pax Christi, and to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Israel and Palestine. These trips provided encounters with past and current victims of violence, with survivors and nonviolent activists in those countries committed to the challenging work of truth, justice, and reconciliation.

In the end, the journey of Gospel nonviolence invites us to realize that we are one human family, and we share one common home. Climate change and nuclear war are the existential challenges that our generation and future generations face; but so also, for much of the world, are the lack of food, clean water, a dignified home, or health care, due to systemic racism and systemic poverty. We know what we must do. "Either we will find ways to live together as sisters and brothers," in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. "or we will perish as fools."

One redeeming feature, one saving grace, is that we are not alone. Indigenous peoples tell us that we are bound to each other through seven generations, both past and future. We are called to protect and care for the sacred lands and sacred waters of this planet, this beautiful creation. Pope Francis' beautiful encyclical, Laudato Si,' invites us to hear and respond to both "the cry of the earth" and "the cry of the poor." We must care for each other as we care for our common home. Everything and everyone are connected.

In every culture, and every generation, in every struggle for justice, and every risk for peace, there are "seeds of Gospel nonviolence." Our faith traditions teach us this: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," it bends toward peace. Gospel nonviolence is at the heart of the universe, it is in our genes, and runs like a thread through all generations.

Gospel nonviolence is that arc that bends toward justice, sustains all life, plants in our hearts a dream for peace, and calls forth from every one of us that generosity of spirit and courage to love as we walk together, creating the Beloved Community as we go: companions on the journey, risen in the Spirit.

During these seven weeks of the Easter Season, we recall how Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene, who by her great love remained at the foot of the cross and later at the tomb, and then to the disciples hidden behind closed doors on account of their fear. That is important to remember: "Perfect love casts out all fear." Women are at the source of life, the ones who hold together our families, and creation itself. They are the ones who bear within the seeds of Gospel nonviolence and invite us to untie the bonds of patriarchy and domination in the world and in the Church that have wreaked havoc with all creation.

Jesus appeared to the disciples as risen, but his wounds were fresh. We still live in a crucified world among crucified peoples. But crucifixion is not the end of the story. At the end of the 12-year war in El Salvador, I remember being present as Jon Sobrino, SJ, speaking in the chapel where his Jesuit brothers were buried, said: "Wherever great suffering and great love converge, we are standing on Holy Ground."

Now that we have celebrated Pentecost, let us go forth with passion for justice, always, and with a dream for peace in our hearts, as we continue the journey and renew our commitment to Gospel nonviolence: "Come Holy Spirit, set our hearts on fire, and renew the face of the earth."


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