(This week's post was written by VPT Board Chair Joanne Sheehan)
For those who have been reading A Peace of History, or know the history of the Voluntown Peace Trust, you will recognize a number of people in the history of the roots of revolutionary nonviolence (read the article here: https://www.warresisters.org/roots-revolutionary-nonviolence-united-states-are-black-community), which we hope you will read. The roots of VPT’s own history as the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) grew from roots in the Black community, the transnational solidarity with the anticolonial movement in India, and the solidarity of White allies who were radical pacifists.
As described in the article, Bayard Rustin was one of the Black activists committed to the development of nonviolent action in the US in the late 1930’s. Bayard worked closely with A.J. Muste, a Dutch-born minister whose organizing went back to the Lawrence, Massachusetts strike of 1919. They shared a deep understanding of the importance of strategic nonviolent action and played key roles in spreading the use of nonviolence. They were both co-founders of the Committee for Nonviolent Action in 1957.
The creation of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942 attracted Marjorie Schaeffer Swann, another CNVA co-founder. As Marian Mollin (who lived at Ahimsa Lodge at VPT) wrote in her book Radical Pacifism in Modern America:
“CORE organized its campaigns around discipline and deliberation, always militant but never reckless or hasty. Marjorie Swann, a young white pacifist who joined Chicago CORE as a charter member, recalled that “any time you did anything...there were certain rules. Nobody could do anything, even picket, without getting the training!” CORE’s well-disciplined tactics and carefully planned protests were strikingly successful.”
Nonviolence training was important to the preparation for action, and also helped deepen the understanding of nonviolent action. Wally Nelson and Juanita Morrow (Nelson), two Black activists involved in the early Civil Rights Movement, were both pioneers in the war tax resistance movement, nonviolence trainers, early CORE members, co-founders of the Peacemakers, and also worked closely with CNVA for decades.
In 1947, sixteen Black and white men, mostly war resisters, participated in the Journey of Reconciliation, an integrated interstate bus ride that became the inspiration for the better-known Freedom Rides of 1961. Over half of the participants became active in CNVA.
Polaris Action was organized by CNVA iIn the summer of 1960. Together with Peacemakers they organized a 16- day training in New London, CT. This brought together many of the people who had been actively developing nonviolence over the previous 20 years. Among the 24 listed as Faculty: Richard Gregg who wrote “The Power of Nonviolence” in the late thirties, co-founder of the Harlem Ashram Ralph Templin, Wally and Juanita Nelson and several others involved in war tax resistance, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth from Birmingham, AL who was a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Barbara Deming came to the training as a skeptical journalist, stayed for the remainder of the training and became a committed nonviolent activist.
In the mid 1970’s Marj Swann, who learned about nonviolence training in 1942 from CORE, and Bernard Lafayette who was one of the Nashville students trained by Rev. James Lawson in 1960, co-facilitated a “Training for Trainers in Boston. American Friends Service Committee staff person Suki Rice participated and went on to train the first Clamshell Alliance activists who occupied the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in 1976, and helped design the participatory process and structure of nonviolent actions based on training and affinity groups.
There are so many lessons that we can learn from these stories. We need to know and appreciate the history of nonviolent social change, particularly as so much of it was brought to us by Brown and Black people. As the movement today looks at how to center the people most affected by racial inequality and racial injustice and how to understand the role of white allies, we can learn from our Elders in the overlapping social movements of the 20th century. The lessons of solidarity, building trusting relationships, taking the time to learn skills through trainings, and developing strategy were, and remain, key to transforming society.
Seventy-eight years ago today, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 came into effect, forcibly moving an estimated 120,000 US residents of Japanese descent (most of whom were US citizens) out of their homes and jobs and into concentration camps for the remainder of the Second World War. While public opposition to this policy was scarce, some of the most vocal critics of the policy came from African-Americans, who more readily recognized the patterns of racial oppression -- Langston Hughes and George Schuyler were some of the most prominent critics of the time. But perhaps none wrote against Executive Order 9066 with more clarity and force than the columnist Erna P. Harris. Her example gives us a model for building alliances by recognizing patterns of our own oppression in others.
Born in segregated Oklahoma in 1908, Harris became one of the first African-American women to earn a journalism degree. Her father was an early American follower of Gandhi and was widely considered in his community as courageous and principled. Taking after her father, Erna not only struggled against the endemic prejudice in her area, but she also faced backlash when she argued against mandatory military conscription in her own weekly newspaper, The Kansas Journal. Harris was forced to close her newspaper due to her politics in 1941, and then moved to Los Angeles where she joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an interfaith civil rights and social justice group, as well as the secular antiwar group the War Resisters League (WRL). About her experience with FOR and WRL, she later recounted: “We didn’t formalize it as a support group, but I was there taking my chances for going to prison… encouraging violation of the Selective Service Act and later when the guys were in the camp and some of them went over the hill from camps. A lot of them spent several nights on the floor in my living room in the apartment I rented with Ella, a German girlfriend. She and I had a little apartment and I would move out of my room and sleep back in her room so the COs could sleep on the floor in my room. They didn’t have any money and we were harboring criminals” (Harris, “US Women”). Erna also found a job with the Los Angeles Tribune, the youngest and most progressive of the three Black newspapers in the city. Now with a wider audience and some more support at her back, Erna began writing an editorial column around social issues, “Reflections in a Crackt Mirror.”
Not long after she began writing for the Tribune, President Roosevelt made Executive Order 9066, and law enforcement began rounding up Japanese-Americans in 1942. It quickly became apparent that the Tribune was the only newspaper, Black- or White-run, in Los Angeles to formally oppose the order. Harris particularly went after the executive policy, writing periodically about the internment issue for the duration of the war. As law enforcement began to forcibly remove tens of thousands of people from their homes, Harris wrote in the Tribune, “[T]o visit evacuation neighborhoods and talk with neighbors of the ‘evil, treacherous, fifth column menaces’ who are being summarily moved away, who have been adjudged guilty without any trial at which to claim innocence was to acknowledge an event with all earmarks of a legalized community lynching” (Harris, “Reflections”). The use of the word “lynching” to describe the federal policy must have been intentional to draw the connection between Black and Japanese oppression.
Indeed, in 1944, Harris wrote in her column, “Ever since the evacuation of Americans of Japanese ancestry and Japanese along the Pacific Coast was proposed, I have pointed out that the issue was one of race and on that basis affected anyone who was physically distinguishable as ‘colored’” (Harris, “Reflections”; emphasis added). Two years into the policy, it was becoming clearer to some that a failure to stand up against these injustices could mean an expansion of these kinds of policies to other groups as well. Harris began writing for other publications at the same time, working hard to connect other Americans to the plight of Japanese internment, but also to humanize Japanese-Americans on their own terms. After the Second World War was concluded, and tens of thousands of people were released from the camps, Harris continued to encourage interracial solidarity against White supremacy and White leadership, specifically encouraging Blacks to reject White-led “Brotherhood” initiatives and instead to form their own groups that “Nisei [second-generation Japanese-Americans], American Indians and other Americans whose physical characteristics make them detectable” could join and support.
Harris’ persistent and clear stance against Japanese internment likely played a part in the newspaper’s decision to hire a bevy of excellent Japanese-American writers after the war. Thousands of African-Americans had moved into suddenly vacant neighborhoods during the war; now, many of the original Japanese-Americans were returning to their homes, only to find a new community already there. The Tribune sought to bridge the divide between the two communities. Until Harris’ departure from LA in the early 1950s to work more with the antiwar movement, this Black champion of Japanese-American rights worked with several Nisei individuals who would find renown as well: most notably, Hisaye Yamamoto, one of the best known Japanese-American writers of the post-war era. Yamamoto, in turn, would later become heavily involved in the antiwar and civil rights movements herself, joining FOR and communicating its activities to the Japanese-American community, as well as helping to organize the LA chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1947.
For decades, Executive Order 9066 was largely forgotten in the collective American memory, but in part as a consequence of the civil rights movement, a new generation of Japanese-Americans began to organize and seek justice. The issue of Japanese internment only began to be redressed decades after the fact when Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which officially apologized for the inhumane treatment of Japanese-American citizens and made reparations payments to the survivors. The US Supreme Court only reversed the notorious 1944 decision in Korematsu v. United States (which upheld Executive 9066) three years ago in 2018, well after most of the victims had passed away. The State of California made its official apology for its role in the removal and internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII just last year in 2020. But even as recent lawmakers and justices patted themselves on their backs for these mostly symbolic acts of apology, the “Muslim ban” was still in effect and practically unchallenged, and ICE was still holding countless people including separated children in internment camps along the Southern border. As we now step into the next stage of the movement for Black lives, it is worth looking at how people built alliances in the past. Erna P. Harris’ showed us that alliance-building really begins with standing up for others -- and that such alliances can grow into movements that transform society.
Cramer, Maria. “California Plans to Apologize to Japanese-Americans Over Internment.” New York Times. 18 February 2020.
Ellen, Elster and Majken Jul Sorensen, Editors. “Women Conscientious Objectors: An Anthology.” War Resisters International, 2010.
Hurwitz, Deena and Craig Simpson. “Against the Tide: Pacifist Resistance in the Second World War - An Oral Story.” War Resisters League Calendar, 1984.
Robinson, Greg. “Erna P. Harris: An African-American Champion of Equality.” Discover Nikkei. 26 November 2019. http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2019/11/26/erna-p-harris/
Robinson, Greg and Nichi Bei Weekly. “THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT--The life and times of Hisaye Yamamoto: writer, activist, speaker.” Discover Nikkei. 14 March 2012. http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2012/3/14/hisaye-yamamoto/
Today is the 54th anniversary of the passing of the illustrious A.J. Muste, perhaps the single most instrumental person in the 20th century US antiwar movement. At the end of his life,Muste. served as the National Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), had a seat in the national committee for the War Resisters League (WRL), and worked as Chairman of the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA, predecessor to the Voluntown Peace Trust). CNVA published a Special Supplement on A.J. Muste. 1885 - 1967 from magazine WIN: Peace & Freedom Through Nonviolent Action, co-published by WRL. The following are excerpts from that special supplement, written by supporters and admirers: from a civil rights leader to a famous US presidential candidate, from one of the most well-known communist leaders in history to the president of a liberal arts college in Connecticut. The sheer range of people Muste personally affected should speak to his incredible ability to bridge differences and build alliances between such different kinds of people, and provides to us a model for changing society.
On A.J.’s importance to the antiwar movement:
Neil Haworth, WIN editor, WRL member, CNVA activist
“Those of us involved in the large peace demonstrations of the past few years, in which tens of thousands have marched and hundreds have volunteered for arrest, have a hard time remembering that such events have a very recent genesis. Just ten years ago, civil disobedience protests against militarism were the province of a mere handful of people.
A.J. Muste has been the central figure of this growth. While a large number of conscientious objectors chose prison in World Wars I and II, the idea of pacifists actively confronting militarism on its own ground had its real start in the U.S. in 1957.
As chairman of the group that became the Committee for Nonviolent Action, A.J. was frequently in the front line of the action and always present as major strategist, fund-raiser, and reconciler of differences. His work in this role has been absolutely vital in the development of a movement that has included conservative Quakers and other religious pacifists, angry young artists and Marxists, traditional liberals, and New Left students…”
Bradford Lyttle, founder of the US Pacifist Party and organizer for WRL and CNVA
“Polaris Action, launched the following summer , stirred even greater controversy among pacifists than did Omaha Action. But in A.J.’s mind there seemed little doubt that Polaris Action could be an effort of high spiritual order and he backed it…
A.J. stood by the San Francisco to Moscow Walk, too. He negotiated tirelessly with Peace Committee officials in the Communist countries…
It came to me [last fall] that none combined a greater number of virtues than did A.J. It was an odd but inescapable fact that the tall, stooping, quivering, compassionate gentleman who worked in the office across the way had become the greatest man in the world…”
On A.J.’s physical and moral courage:
Barbara Deming, journalist, WRL member, CNVA activist:
“It was during the trip (to Vietnam) that five of us made with him last April to protest the war in Saigon. On the last day of that trip, when we tried actually to make our protest, I was very scared for A.J., as well as for myself. For one thing, we had decided not to cooperate with Ky’s police when they arrested us; they would have to carry or drag us. None of us had any idea how rough they might be; and A.J. looked so very frail. As it turned out they were gentle with us, but up to the last moment of course one was never sure that the next official to handle us would be gentle.”
Ho Chi Minh, President of North Vietnam at the time (by telegram):
“OUTSTANDING FIGHTER FOR PEACE AND DEMOCRATIC MOVEMENT IN USA AND WORLD”
Robert F. Kennedy, US Senator at the time and future US Presidential candidate (by telegram):
“A.J. MUSTE SPOKE TO ALL GENERATIONS BUT WAS LIMITED BY NONE. HIS COURAGE WAS BOTH MORAL AND PHYSICAL NOT ONLY IN HIS WILLINGNESS TO FACE IMMEDIATE DANGERS BUT MORAL AND PHYSICAL NOT ONLY IN HIS WILLINGNESS TO FACE IMMEDIATE DANGERS BUT ALSO THAT FAR MORE RARE WILLINGNESS TO OPPOSE HIS SINGLE CONSCIENCE TO THE OPINIONS OF HIS FELLOWS IN THE PURSUIT OF HIS IDEALS AND IN THE SERVICE OF US ALL. HE WAS ALWAYS READY TO TAKE THE FIRST STEP, THE NEXT STEP, OR THE LAST STEP.”
On knowing A.J. and his legacy
Gordon Chistiansen, WIN editor, WRL member, CNVA activist:
“Liberalism responds in strange ways when it bumps into radical pacifism. I encounter these extraordinary responses all the time here in New London, Connecticut. But what I’m thinking about right now are some reactions to A.J. Muste along about 1960 when Polaris Action was just beginning to bite into this community…
[Connecticut College President Rosemary Park] was saying that to truly know A.J. Muste is, in a way, tragic; to actually grasp and accept what is being said by that skinny Dutchman-preacher turned pacifist-revolutionary, whose face and words and actions could bore so gently but so irresistably [sic] into your conscience, is to lose control of your own destiny. When all that happens to you, the events, or the fates, or principles take over and your life moves inexorably toward… well, toward something. So far the judgment is a wise one; I believe that is what happens to anyone who is really touched by A.J. But the liberal goes on to structure it as a true tragedy by concluding that that “something” toward which the Muste-touched radical moves so inevitably is somber, unhappy, disastrous. He believes that dedication to the proposition that human beings should love one another and deal nonviolently with each other is fatal utopianism.
Here finally, is the tragedy of knowing A.J. It leads inevitably to the death of a liberal and to the destruction of cherished liberal standards. It is simply not possible, after once having been truly a part of A.J.’s life, to have an isolated, uninvolved life of one’s own. The radical tragedy comes if a person touched by A.J. tries to deny that knowledge and go back to being a conventional, establishment liberal; he is doomed to a life of denial, and he must live with the knowledge of his own denial.
The tragic liberal judgement [sic] sees this denial of radical pacifist vision as the only alternative. He cannot understand the joy and freedom and fullness of a life of resistance to a violent, unloving system. Hence the liberal’s tragic judgment of A.J.’s vision.”
Barbara Deming, journalist and WRL member, CNVA activist:
“I have sat with him at so very many committee meetings, where after hours it was easy to become dazed by our own endless words about this or that program of action which we might or might not adopt, and easy somehow to forget in the process the realities of the particular situation with which we were supposed to be concerned. And time after time I have seen A.J. at a certain point speak out of his own suddenly renewed sense of that situation, his sharp sense of the real people involved to whom real things were happening. And because it was real to him as he spoke, it would suddenly be real again to everyone in the room.”
James Bevel, Civil Rights activist since Nashville Lunch Counter Sit-in, Director of Spring Mobilization Committee to end the War in Vietnam (a role which A.J. Muste asked Bevel to take shortly before his death)
“We say A.J. is dead and the tragedy is that most of us don’t understand the process of life. We say A.J. is dead but anybody who was caught up in the process of bringing people together can never die.”
Reyes, Gwen, editor. WIN: Peace & Freedom Through Nonviolent Action, Special Supplement: A.J. Muste 1885-1967, 1967.
February is Black History Month, and today marks the 108th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks. Famously, on December 1, 1955, Parks became the catalyst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott after refusing to move to the “colored” section in the back of a public bus. What is less well known, however, is that Parks was already involved in civil rights and antiracist activism when she committed her act of civil disobedience.
In 1932, Rosa married Raymond Parks, an active NAACP member. Seeing the difficulty of her husband’s work started to radicalize Rosa to the fight for racial justice. In 1943, Rosa Parks officially joined the NAACP and started working as secretary for the president of the Montgomery chapter, Edgar Nixon. That same year, defying Jim Crow and all of its attending laws meant to keep her from doing so, Rosa began attempting to register to vote. On one of her first attempts to register, Rosa had a run-in with the notoriously racist bus driver James F. Blake, who kicked her off the bus for entering through the front “Whites” stairwell as opposed to the back. One must wonder if Blake’s treatment made Rosa even more committed to racial justice. Her voter registration was finally approved two years later, in 1945.
Over the next decade, Rosa and her husband Raymond would continue to work in the civil rights movement. Rosa began leading the NAACP Youth Council, and reformed it in 1954 to take greater stands against segregation. During this time, Virginia and Clifford Durr, a White liberal couple for whom she worked as a seamstress, encouraged Rosa to attend courses at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Clifford was on the Highlander board of directors, and thus helped Rosa fund her travel and stay at the school in the summer of 1955. Inspired by the successful folk schools in Denmark, the Highlander Folk School had been established during the Great Depression in 1932 “to provide an educational center in the South for the training of rural and industrial leaders, and for the conservation and enrichment of the indigenous cultural values of the mountains” (Horton and Freire). It was one of the only racially integrated schools in the South, and despite being the target of persistent racist violence since at least the 1950s (the central office building was torched by arsonists as recently as in 2019), the school came to be affiliated with several civil rights leaders: Dr. King, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Julian Bond, and more.
One of the most important people at the Highlander Folk School was Septima Clark, a Black former school teacher who had lost her old job due to her activity in the civil rights movement. While Clark was attending her first workshop, Highlander founder Myles Horton was so impressed that he hired her soon after as the full-time director of workshops. That summer in 1955, a year after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision was made that federally mandated the desegregation of public schools, Rosa took Septima Clark’s two-week workshop, “Racial Desegregation: Implementing the Supreme Court Decision.” By all accounts, Rosa was quiet and not particularly optimistic about positive change coming to Montgomery, which she described as “complacent.” Nevertheless, the glimpse Rosa received at Highlander of a harmonious and racially integrated future transformed her. Rosa was particularly inspired by Septima Clark’s example: her personal story of losing her career and risking so much else to continue in the movement for civil rights, only to end up at Highlander as a director and equal to White men in the organization. Rosa left Tennessee with some reluctance but with a redoubled conviction, promising to continue working with the NAACP Youth Council for desegregation.
Five months after she had returned to Montgomery, a bus driver demanded Rosa that she give up her seat for White passengers. The driver was none other than James F. Blake, the man who kicked Rosa off the bus 12 years earlier. This time, Rosa refused; when Blake threatened to call the police, she responded, “You may do that.” That night, Edgar Nixon and Clifford Durr bailed her out. Within days, Nixon and the NAACP, led by the Women’s Political Council, had begun organizing a boycott of the Montgomery bus system in Rosa’s defense: a campaign that lasted over a year and which became one of the first major groundbreaking events in the history of civil rights.
A few years later, when the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) bought the “Peace Farm” in Voluntown, predecessor to the Voluntown Peace Trust (VPT), the Highlander Center was one of their major inspirations. Like at Highlander, the CNVA ran community citizenship and activist training workshops from its founding in 1962. Indeed, some of the founding members of the New England CNVA attended courses at Highlander Folk School, and later VPT members have taken workshops at its successor, the Highlander Center, as recently as in the past decade. The Voluntown Peace Trust continued this tradition of community folk education, hosting workshops and other events through the past couple decades: nonviolence training weekends, YouthPeace weekend retreats for high school students, and more. Last year, as the movement for Black lives gained momentum after the murder of George Floyd, VPT started running training workshops online for people wanting to get involved with racial justice in Connecticut. Another run of VPT workshops for 2021 is in the planning stages now.
The Highlander Folk School showed Rosa Parks a vision for a better world and inspired her to assert her rights in “the cradle of the Confederacy.” Five months later in Montgomery, Rosa sparked one of the most foundational campaigns in the civil rights movement. As a fellow folk learning center, VPT seeks to do the same for eastern Connecticut and New England as a whole.
Horton, Myles and Paulo Freire. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Temple University Press, 1990.
Robnett, Belinda. How Long? How Long? African-American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights. Oxford University Press, 1997.
Theoharis, Jeanne. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Beacon Press, 2013.
Whitaker, Matthew C. Icons of Black America: Breaking Barriers and Crossing Boundaries. ABC-CLIO, 2011.
Last Friday, January 22, over thirty-eight individuals gathered in New London, CT to celebrate the United Nations Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) coming into force. Participants held signs thanking the 51 ratifying states on the road to the General Dynamics - Electric Boat engineering building. Those participants belong to a 61-year movement in southeastern Connecticut to raise awareness of the dangers of nuclear weapons and to move the region’s economic reliance away from the military-industrial complex. Indeed, almost exactly 45 years earlier on January 23, 1976, peace activists launched a national action with roots in southeastern Connecticut. Hundreds of people would eventually be organized to cross 34 states and a total of 8000 miles on foot in less than 10 months, all in order to spread the message of peace and justice to big and small communities in a post-Vietnam America. This was the Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice.
The organizers for the Continental Walk were inspired by an earlier project: the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace from 1960-1961. That earlier Walk also had a connection to southeastern CT: the idea for it was first conceived in New London, CT. The San Francisco to Moscow Walk was organized in just a couple short months, with a much more limited number of participants, volunteers, and funds (to read more about it, see our previous posts linked at the end). But the Continental Walk would be different. After 1967, CNVA (which organized the earlier San Francisco to Moscow Walk) merged with the War Resisters League (WRL), and it was WRL that organized the Continental Walk. The goals for the new Walk could be divided into four parts: educating the public about the military-industrial complex, organizing local people for social action and connecting them to greater resources, promoting unity between various disparate groups working for social justice, and reaching out to communities that are often ignored and forgotten. Preparations took eighteen months. Press releases had to be issued, bills tracked and paid, and fundraising orders processed. WRL made t-shirts, leaflets, bumper stickers, posters, and more to advertise and fund the Walk. They had to write, print, and distribute literature, establish routes and acquire permits, and arrange for speakers at various sites.
The full name “The Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice” was chosen to emphasize the connections some had made a decade earlier: that the United States was investing so much into war at the expense of the needs of people already here. Incredible sums were (and are) spent researching and producing weapons which, in the best case scenario, would never be used -- while children in America went hungry. They also addressed issues such as racism, sexism, the growing problem of nuclear power, etc. The United States had officially left the Vietnam War in April 1975, less than a year before the Walk began. Many peace activists did not view the withdrawal from Vietnam as an opportunity to pat their own backs and rest on their laurels, but rather the time to maintain the momentum, stir up local organizing, and connect communities to prepare for future resistance. In preparation for the Walk, WRL even reached out beyond the United States, to Japan. Sixteen Buddhist monks and nuns from the Japan Buddha Sangha eventually joined the Continental Walk, ultimately establishing a permanent presence in the United States.
Shortly after the main group took off from Ukiah, CA, several regional WRL and other co-sponsoring groups like the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) , the Catholic Worker, SANE, Socialist Party USA, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Women Strike for Peace worked to coordinate and train regional “feeder” routes. Each route had its own unique logistical challenges. On January 31, two hundred people met in Hartford, CT to celebrate the launch of the San Francisco feeder group and to drum up local interest in organizing New England feeder groups. Several months later in July 1976, the New England CNVA in Voluntown became the main hub for training and preparing walkers for the Northeast Route. Six people joined with the AFSC staff, spending six weeks preparing their minds and bodies for the difficulties of walking 20 miles a day, and organizing the logistics for the walkers.
The Continental Walk also has another special connection to the Voluntown Peace Trust. Our current Chair of the Board of Directors, Joanne Sheehan (as well as her now-partner Rick Gaumer), served as part of just four national organizers in the WRL New York office at the time the Walk was happening, and was instrumental in helping to overcome some early challenges. Unlike the earlier San Francisco to Moscow Walk, which had a single small core group of walkers, too many people wanted to participate in the Continental Walk. A few of the core group invited anyone to walk with them, including people who did not agree to the guidelines. Soon, local organizers were unable to provide hospitality and assistance to the growing numbers of sometimes undisciplined participants. Joanne was one of several organizers who joined the Walk to help reinstate the guidelines, and work with the core group to return to the number of permanent walkers that could be sustained.
Now, over 75 years after the first ever use of nuclear weapons in war, 51 governments have come together to assert that such weapons are illegal according to international law. Notably, the United States is not one of the ratifying nations. As the only country to ever use nuclear weapons aggressively in warfare, the United States of America has an unique moral obligation to ratify this treaty and disarm its nuclear weapons program. Just as the Continental Walkers reminded us of this fact in 1976, so too did the folks in New London last Friday. Yesterday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists released their 2021 statement. It is 100 seconds to midnight, they said, citing how the covid-19 pandemic has exposed so many governments inability to manage massive and catastrophic issues such as climate change and nuclear weapons. And if we want to turn back the clock, perhaps we should take a look at the past.
“Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice Records, 1975-1978.” Swarthmore College Peace Collection, accessed 27 January 2021. http://www.swarthmore.edu/library/peace/DG100-150/dg135cwdsj.htm
Leonard, Vickie and Tom MacLean, Ed. The Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice. Continental Walk for Disarmament and Social Justice, 1977.
Lyttle, Bradford. You Come with Naked Hands: The Story of the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace. Greenleaf Books, Raymond, New Hampshire: 1966.
Mecklin, John, Ed. “This is your COVID wake-up call: It is 100 seconds to midnight.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, accessed 27 January 2021. https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/current-time/
More on the earlier San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace:
Yesterday, Joseph Biden was inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States of America. To many Americans, this was a moment of immense relief: the authoritarian Donald Trump is finally out of the White House. And yet, many others on the left have already cautioned that a Democratic President is no guarantee for progressive, effective policies. Among Democrats, Biden is known for being a pushover for conservative policies and for being slow to adopt civil rights and other progressive legislation. Though there are recent signs of a progressive turn for Biden, we must not rest on our laurels yet. Indeed, our history shows that we must now work harder and smarter than ever.
The determination and momentum carried by Dr. King provide an excellent example. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not stop seeking equality when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 (which outlawed segregation and other forms of discrimination), nor justice when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 (which removed racist laws that prevented countless Black Americans from voting), but rather continued to aggressively interrogate the root causes of injustice, inequality, and suffering in the United States. Despite Democratic President Johnson’s stated wish to focus on the “war on poverty,” after 1965 LBJ found himself diverting more funds from his “Great Society” project into the actual war in Vietnam. Dr. King clearly saw that militarism consistently funnelled much needed resources from the poor, even when the liberal President devoted to fighting poverty was reluctant to do so.
Thus, King’s vision of civil rights and social justice came to include all Americans, regardless of race, suffering under the inequality of modern capitalism. After segregation was outlawed, he started speaking of a “revolution” in an era when peoples around the world were violently struggling to assert their rights, dignity, and self-determination after decades, sometimes centuries of colonization. Social and liberation movements have always demonstrated their strength most effectively on the streets in mass actions. But, of course, Dr. King meant a nonviolent revolution, one in which the nonviolent means would be consistent with just ends, one that would require immense cooperation, discipline, and organization. Nonviolence is sometimes criticized for being too insular and for caring more about the individual’s moral egotism than about improving real lives in society, but Dr. King’s nonviolence was always rooted in mass action and tangible results: from the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott to the 1963 March on Washington to his last campaign, the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. As King wrote in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail": "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored." Crucially, such action can force a community to confront the issue while still maintaining a certain moral legitimacy.
Asking to consider legitimacy is not a call for respectability politics; it’s a call for practical strategic thinking. Donald Trump may be out of the White House, but the White supremacist / conspiracy theory movement he stirred can be found in communities all across this country. Their ideology is manifestly violent. But for every person who went to the Capitol to protest the election results on January 6, there were several more watching from home who had considered going but didn’t. With the authoritarian defeated but the threats to our society spread all across the country, now is our chance to frame the issues, expand our alliances, and inoculate our communities against such a movement.
Source: King, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” 1963. https://letterfromjail.com/
Could Trump launch a nuke in the last week of his term? Following the right-wing conspiracy theorist insurrection that was instigated by President Trump at the Capitol last week, many have been wondering this question. Some might find the question irrelevant and silly -- what do nuclear weapons have to do with a domestic political conflict? -- and sweep questions of strategy, morality, power, and accountability under the rug. Others, however, have realized that the question is the logical end of US Presidential overreach, and one that should raise more questions as well. Why is the US nuclear arsenal under the command of one person, the President? What are they there for? And considering the history of deranged leaders of wealthy countries with powerful militaries, are these weapons safe to keep around at all? What can we do to keep ourselves and each other safe from nuclear weapons?
Activists have been asking these kinds of questions for over 70 years. Indeed, there has always been a pacifist faction of the left arguing for unilateral disarmament, even preceding the invention of nuclear arms. But everything changed after the United States dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the years immediately following, the former labor organizer A.J. Muste tried to reach his fellow Christians with the message of disarmament, especially in the face of this new super weapon -- but found that the vast majority of liberal Protestants had come to adopt a “realism” that, in the words of Muste biographer Leilah Danielson, “devolved into a kind of American moral complacency and self-satisfaction that exempted the United States from any responsibility in the rising tensions of the Cold War” (Danielson 247). He also sought to convince the country’s nuclear physicists and engineers that building these weapons at all was inconceivably dangerous, but was met with a different kind of obstinance: the scientists believed that peace could only come from supranational, one world organization and governance -- a long-shot, most of them would admit, given the tense relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union at the time.
Failing with the majority of liberal Protestants and the scientific community, in 1947, Muste brought together pacifists from across the United States to discuss strategy in the new atomic era and the emerging Cold War. By then, Muste had become a prominent public critic of nuclear weapons. Disagreements with the more liberal pacifists, who still believed in working within the system, led Muste and others to hold a second conference in 1948. From this second conference would eventually develop a whole new anti-nuclear pacifist movement. In the 1950s, more groups began to emerge or shift their missions to include opposition to nuclear weapons: the Committee for Nonviolent Action (predecessor to the Voluntown Peace Trust), the War Resisters League, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), the Catholic Worker Movement, and more. Muste himself held a leading position in those first three groups listed, and was a close friend of Dorothy Day, a prominent leader of the Catholic Workers.
All of these groups came to the same conclusion: nuclear arms production is a primary obstacle to world peace, and unilateral disarmament is the only solution to the existential threat of the Cold War. The United States had both the practical and ethical responsibility to be the first superpower to reject the nuclear arms system that it had started, since the United States alone was the only one to ever use such weapons in war. In the absence of a moral government, these groups argued, the ethical individual should refuse to participate in the unjust society. Stop following the script. Don’t play along. Surely we can find better uses for these physicists and engineers. Surely our spiritual lives would be richer if the world was consistent with our values.
Resistance to nuclear arms in the United States have waxed and waned over the decades. In the early 1960s, small groups protested at nuclear and weapons production sites, including at General Dynamics Electric Boat in the New London-Groton area. Daring young activists in small sailboats like The Golden Rule chased nuclear-armed submarines, trying to board them -- some even succeeded. Women Strike for Peace organized the largest national women’s peace protest of the 20th century: 50 thousand women in 60 cities specifically calling for nuclear disarmament. Long-term peace walks, some lasting several months and covering thousands of miles, started to expand across the country and the world. Perhaps the most famous anti-nuclear protest occurred in 1977, when 1414 protesters of the Clamshell Alliance and other allied groups were arrested at Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant and held in National Guard armories for 12 days. But five years later, in 1982, one million people in NYC’s Central Park protested against nuclear arms and the arms race -- the largest political demonstration in American history.
Since the 1980s, the Cold War has ended and the arms race dissolved, but the issue of nuclear weapons has not closed. In some ways, without the principle of “mutually assured destruction” that supposedly kept the Cold War from “heating up,” the use of nuclear weapons in war is more likely now than it was forty years ago. But on January 22, 2021, people around the world will celebrate the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entering into force. This is perhaps the first major step for global nuclear disarmament, what the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICANW) describes as “the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.” On that afternoon from 2:45-4pm, volunteers will gather in New London to express thanks to each of the 51 nations that have ratified the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons. Participants will stand along the route driven by General Dynamics Electric Boat employees. The goal is to honor the hard work of the treaty ratifiers, to call on the United States to begin the process of disarmament, and to make EB engineers consider the danger they are actively designing into the world. (To participate or learn more, please visit the RSVP form for this event here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdF0x6tdnyisX9ACu2seMJoX21liUVGZOXls84O4-ggynnQZQ/viewform)
Two days after the insurrection, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to subtly ask him to prevent President Trump from commanding the nuclear arsenal. Milley argued that that was not his role, pointing to the legal process and norms in place. Checks and balances are great when they work, but under such an obviously unstable person as Donald Trump, it’s hard not to wonder at which point one would have to stop going along with it all.
Danielson, Leilah. American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Sanger, E. David and Eric Schmitt. “Pelosi Pressed Pentagon on Safeguards to Prevent Trump From Ordering Military Action.” The New York Times, 8 January 2021 (updated 13 January 2021).
On January 8, 1885, Abraham Johannes Muste was born to a humble, working-class family in Holland. At age 6, Muste and his family immigrated to a Dutch community in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A.J., as he would come to be known, was strongly influenced by his religious upbringing, instilling in him a deep devotion to justice and peace. But he never let his spiritualism cloud his view of reality. A story from A.J.’s seminary days tells of a friend warning him against reading Darwin. Muste’s response was to read all of Darwin’s writings he could get. Charismatic and well-loved by all, he was the captain of the basketball team at Hope College, graduating valedictorian. At the much more conservative New Brunswick Theological Seminary, Muste chafed against the lack of academic rigor and outdated thinking. And yet, despite his open criticism of the school’s academics, he remained popular with professors and fellow students when he graduated in 1909.
Muste took additional classes in philosophy and theology during and after his time at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. While attending lectures by William James in New York City, Muste met the great progressive theorist John Dewey. The two became good friends. Muste became influenced by Dewey’s theory of pragmatism: that learning and deep understanding is best achieved through direct experience. This was also the time in which Muste became more interested in the “Social Gospel” movement as well as other progressive and left ideas. He left his pastorship and the Dutch Reformed Church in 1914 over its conservatism, but joined the radical Christian-oriented Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) shortly after its founding in 1916. He resigned again from another pastor position over his pacifism in 1917, as the United States entered the First World War. For a time, Muste worked for the ACLU aiding conscientious objectors. Then, in 1919, A.J. Muste got involved with Lawrence Textile Strike.
We have told the story of the 1919 Lawrence Textile Strike before (https://www.facebook.com/groups/voluntownpeacetrust/permalink/10158108528137978/). Almost all outside support for the strike came from the Boston Comradeship, a group of radical pastors which Muste helped found. And so, after a week of picketing and violence, the workers asked Muste to organize and lead them. For the next 16 weeks, Muste personally led a nonviolent strike even as the police became more aggressive, winning public support and ultimately forcing the factory owners to accept most of the workers’ demands.
Following this strike, Muste became more involved in the workers movement and socialist politics. For the next 17 years after the 1919 Lawrence Textile Strike, Muste worked on organizing unions, pushing dominant unions like the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to the left, and proving the practicality of nonviolent strikes. Among some of the strikes Muste led include the 1936 Goodyear Tire Strike in Akron, which is the first recorded use of the sit-down technique in a modern civil disobedience action. He became a Marxist-Leninist, a revolutionary, and became convinced of the need for an American labor party.
Not all of his endeavors were successful. For two years after his first strike, Muste tried and failed to organize the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America. He had to leave his positions at both religious and secular organizations due to his politics numerous times. He even had to leave his director position at the Brookwood Labor College -- a school to learn labor theory and militancy -- in 1933 due to controversy over his activism. In 1929, Muste helped found the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA), from which the American Workers Party (AWP) was born. Muste’s sharp and effective organizing skills became so deeply associated with the AWP that many contemporaries called the group “Musteites.” Within a few years, the Musteites would merge with the Trotskyist Communist League of America to form the Workers Party of the United States (WPUS). Under the new organization, however, Muste started to become disillusioned with the efficacy of socialist politics, and began to consider leaving the Trotskyist movement.
It was 1936 when Muste took a vacation and met the man himself, Leon Trotsky, in exile in Sweden. Muste was impressed, even captivated by Trotsky, but was ultimately unconvinced by the great revolutionary to stay within the movement. By the time Muste had returned to the United States, Muste had decided to retry the revolutionary Christian pacifist path, but now with all that had learned in the labor movement. He would stay that course for the rest of his life.
But for Muste, leaving a college, a church, a political party, or a movement did not mean having to burn bridges. He served as the executive director of FOR from 1940-1953. He joined the national committee of the War Resisters League. He became a close friend and ally of Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the direct-actionist Catholic Worker Movement. He mentored the great civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin, who claimed that he never made a difficult decision before discussing it with Muste first. He organized for years against US nuclear weapons policies. He led opposition to US involvement in the Vietnam War, even traveling there with the Committee for Nonviolent Action in 1966. But even as Muste made more connections with new people all the time, he also kept in touch with his past allies: even the communists during the height of McCarthyism, when so many other allies abandoned them. He was trusted by anarchists and pacifists, housewives and union guys, New Left youth and old school socialists. His integrity was legendary.
A year after his death in 1967, the War Resisters League began to rent the building at 339 Lafayette Street in Manhattan; they bought the building in 1974 before selling it to the A.J. Muste Institute four years later. From 1978 to 2015, 339 Lafayette Street was known as the “Peace Pentagon” for the number of social justice organizations that were headquartered there, including the War Resisters League, the Socialist Party USA, the Metropolitan Council on Housing, the Catholic Peace Fellowship, Political Art Documentation/Distribution, and more. For decades after his death, the leftists, pacifists, and progressives inspired by A.J. Muste’s example continued to work, if not side-by-side, then under the same roof: a fitting legacy for a person who directly and indirectly affected so many lives.
Danielson, Leilah. American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Reyes, Gwen, editor. “WIN: Peace & Freedom Through Nonviolent Action.” 1967.
The turn of a new year can often feel significant, but this one feels especially so. The vaccines for covid-19 are starting to be distributed now, and with the incoming Biden administration taking over from the catastrophically incompetent President Trump, many have good reason to feel optimistic about 2021. But covid-19 did not simply reveal the vulnerability of this country’s healthcare and pandemic response system; it also exposed the economic fragility of so many working Americans’ living situations. Despite moratoriums and ban orders, people are continuing to lose homes at unprecedented rates. And even for those who do not suffer eviction, most are still forced to pay rent even as their working hours have been reduced. Many are falling further into debt just to survive. As important as the vaccine will be in the months ahead, it will not solve the debt and homelessness crises that this year have exacerbated. But looking forward to the turn of this new year, and ahead to the inauguration of a new President, perhaps we can take some lessons from the ancient past to give us inspiration on how to recover from the immense trauma our society has recently experienced.
In the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian kingdoms, debt seems to have been invented before writing. According to anthropologist David Graeber, the concept of debt and its twin, interest-bearing loans, was likely invented by government administrators to incentivize local traders and still receive a cut. But the concept quickly jumped from commercial debts to consumer or individual debts. By around 2400 BCE, it was apparently already common practice for peasant families suffering bad harvests to take advance loans from wealthy merchants or officials, having their goods, lands, and even family members taken as collateral. People taken in this way were debt-peons: a kind of enslavement in which one is forced to work for the “lender” (merchant/official) until the “borrower” (peasant) can redeem the person in peonage with the debt owed -- but of course, this became more difficult to do as more the borrower’s assets would be seized and family broken apart.
To make matters worse, this was not simply an individual or family-level problem, but one that threatened to rip society apart completely. Bad harvests usually result from a regional issue like drought or flooding. Consequently, every bad harvest meant that large portions of the peasant population would be thrown into complete crisis. From Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years: “Before long, lands lay abandoned as indebted farmers fled their homes for fear of repossession and joined semi-nomadic bands on the desert fringes of urban civilization” (Graeber 65). Therefore, to avoid the periodic threat of absolute societal collapse, it became customary for new leaders to enact “clean slate” general amnesty to all outstanding consumer debts upon their ascensions, as well as periodically throughout their reigns. Indeed, redemption from debt-peonage appears to be the first recorded use of the word “freedom” at all.
The concept of “clean slate” debt amnesty was not unique to the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations. In the Book of Nehemiah in the Hebrew Bible, a similar debt-bondage crisis gripped Judaea. Families were broken apart, with some children going to serve in the households of wealthy neighbors, while others being sold into slavery abroad. In 444 BCE, a Babylonian-raised Jewish governor instated policies of debt forgiveness in Judaea, the most famous of which was the Law of Jubilee: “in the Sabbath year” (i.e. after seven years) all debts would be cancelled and all those in debt-peonage would be released. This theme of liberation from bondage echoes through much of ancient Jewish history, and was taken even further in Christian theology with the redemption of Christ: “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
In ancient Greek history, Solon “the Lawgiver” is viewed as an especially important early reformer who laid the foundation for Athenian democracy. By his time, the debt-peonage crisis had spread to Greece, and Athenian society was terribly divided by the few wealthy creditors and the masses of farmers forced to sell themselves and their family members to them. Seeing this primarily as a moral problem of society originating in unrestrained greed, Solon included in his famous reforms the policy of seisachtheia, the “shaking off of burdens.” All debt-peons were returned home, all current debt contracts were cancelled, and future debt slavery was forbidden. In the popular imagination, if not in fact, Solon’s reforms ushered in a golden age of Athenian civility, sophistication, and heroism which ultimately came to fend off the much more powerful Persian Empire.
Perhaps to many of us today, the concept of debt forgiveness sounds absurd, even unethical. Don’t those people owe that money though? If they couldn’t pay it back, then maybe they shouldn’t have gotten the loan in the first place. Don’t their creditors have a right to get back what they had agreed upon? And yet, that line of thought only obscures the unjust reasons for having acquired that debt in the first place. Yet, for hundreds of years and across diverse peoples, the practice of periodically canceling all outstanding debt was commonplace, popular, and to a large degree, the practical and necessary policy to avoid massive social crises. In more modern times, the very first community land trust in the United States, started by Black civil rights activists as a safe haven for Black farmers, was foreclosed upon after years of being denied the same government debt forgiveness their White neighbors received. Americans are saddled with enormous debts, mostly from credit cards, auto loans, and student loans. Due to the overwhelming personal debt that so many Americans face today, it is not uncommon now for a college-graduate to return home to their parents for a few years. Many of those with the best training and education are financially unable to create, innovate, and enact the plans they have made. Countless couples have put off having children indefinitely for fear of an uncertain future. And now, despite ostensible legal protections preventing this very thing from happening, record numbers of people have lost their homes this year through no fault of their own. This is our modern consumer debt crisis. No vaccine will cure this cycle of debt; no vaccine will prevent evictions. Recovery from covid-19 will take so much more than mass immunization. This was a landmark year. A dramatic change in leadership is just a few weeks away. The time feels right to wipe the slate clean. It’s time to bring back the debt jubilee.
David Graeber was a cultural anthropologist, one of the primary theorists of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and the thinker behind many recent analyses of modern life, such as the significance of political direct action, the meaning of “bullshit jobs,” and, of course, debt. Something of a radical academic, his writing style is at once familiar and approachable while also conceptually challenging. David Graeber suddenly passed away this year at the age of 59.
If you would like to learn more about debt-cancellation and the modern consumer debt crisis, check out Rolling Jubilee, a project of Strike Debt which formed out of the Occupy Wall Street movement (http://rollingjubilee.org/).
The South-Eastern Connecticut Community Land Trust (SECT CLT) is a nonprofit dedicated to establishing permanent affordable housing using a unique and equitable system first pioneered in the United States by civil rights activists. With a recent change in staff, SECT CLT is getting ready to renew a push to continue its mission in 2021 (https://sectclt.org/).
If you are interested in assisting local community members who have recently lost their homes in the Norwich area, a new group has formed for that purpose. The first project is to create a directory of services and essential information, especially for those who are newly unhoused and thus might not know the systems in place to help them. Visit the Norwich Homeless Resource Volunteers group page to learn more (https://www.facebook.com/groups/658687648159825)
Sources & Further Reading:
Amadeo, Kimberley. “Current US Consumer Debt.” The Balance, updated 28 December 2020. https://www.thebalance.com/consumer-debt-statistics-causes-and-impact-3305704
Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5000 Years. Melville House, 2011.
Hudson, Michael. “A debt jubilee is the only way to avoid a depression.” The Washington Post, 21 March 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/21/debt-jubilee-is-only-way-avoid-depression/
The child’s parents lived in an old, proud country that had come under the “influence” of a much more powerful country across the sea. Conflicts had led to civil war, and the country was only just starting to recover. To appease his imperial bosses, the king of the country coordinated a census, requiring all citizens to go register in their families’ ancestral town. The child’s parents would have to join the many other people on the roads and travel to Joseph’s hometown to register.
But there was a problem: the teenaged Mary was very pregnant. She could only move so fast. And so when she and Joseph finally arrived at an inn to stay the night, they found that they were too late: all the rooms were already full. But they could stay in the barn; at least it would be a roof over their heads. That night, among the hay straw and animals, Mary went into labor. One can only imagine how scared the two young parents must have been, trying to deliver their first baby with no one to help them. Some local shepherds, considered rather low-class in that country, were collecting their sheep in a field nearby and must have heard the commotion of Mary giving birth -- they discovered a young couple with their newborn son in the stable: the parents weak and tired, but filled with joy at the health of this perfect child.
Many are familiar with the Christmas nativity story, but the story is worth reconsidering specifically through the lens of 2020. Despite the eviction ban under the Covid-19 pandemic CARES Act (which ended in July) and the subsequent executive order to halt even more evictions in late August through to the end of the year, people in the United States have been losing their homes at record rates. And yet, even with the shutdowns, lost wages, the bare minimum of federal aid, and all the other attending difficulties of the pandemic, many Americans still believe that it must somehow be due to a personal failing that someone loses their job, or has to sleep outside, or gets pregnant at 14. It is practically the default narrative of hardship in our country. The nativity story, however, is specifically about a young, itinerant, pregnant couple dealing with difficult challenges due to circumstances outside of their control. No one has ever accused Joseph of being an alcoholic and waking up too late, or blamed Mary for being lazy and not walking fast enough -- Christians have long understood that the occupied inn and the lowly circumstances of the birth were the cards dealt to the couple, and a message to us.
Many more people today are being dealt worse hands for reasons outside of their control. This was true before the pandemic arrived, but Covid-19 has exacerbated the problems. But Covid-19 has also broken open new possibilities, new visions for the future. Like Mary and Joseph of the nativity story, we live through a transitional period in which the old world is dying and the new struggles to be born. Moments like this are full of real, suffering people. So let us regard each other with the same generosity of spirit as Christians have always regarded Mary and Joseph.
We leave you with this poem from Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and committed promoter of social justice.
“Room in the Inn”
Into this world, this demented inn
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ comes uninvited.
But because he cannot be at home in it,
because he is out of place in it,
and yet he must be in it,
His place is with the others for whom
there is no room.
His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power, because
they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited,
who are denied status of persons,
who are tortured, bombed and exterminated.
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.
- Thomas Merton
Eichenberg, Fritz. “Christmas 1954” (or, “A Christmas Meditation for a Troubled World”).
Goldstein, Matthew. “Landlords Jump the Gun as Eviction Moratorium Wanes.” New York Times, 23 July 2020 (updated 2 September 2020). https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/23/business/evictions-moratorium-cares-act.html
Jones, Zoe Christen. “COVID driving record homelessness figures in NYC, advocates say.” CBS News, 11 December 2020. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/covid-driving-record-homelessness-figures-in-nyc-advocates-say/ar-BB1bR7TU
Merton, Thomas. "No Room in the Inn.”
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.