We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price,” Daniel Berrigan wrote in the wake of the 1968 Catonsville Nine anti-war protest. “And because we want peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total—but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial.”
It is a haunting indictment. But over the last quarter century, some North American activists have been experimenting with bolder—and higher risk—strategies of nonviolent witness, from prayerful trespassing into high security military bases to accompaniment work in war zones. Careful preparation has become part of the work, as is the consciousness that many around the world routinely face these risks.
On the forefront of this work is Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), founded in 1988 by activists from the historic peace churches (Mennonite, Quaker, Brethren) intent on intensifying Christian nonviolent resistance to war and injustice. Their teams have been present in hot spots around the world. In Iraq, CPT members are the only unarmed international workers left outside the “Green Zone.” In 2004, they helped expose the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. This winter, however, the moment arrived that had long been dreaded.
On Nov. 26, 2005, four CPT members were abducted in Iraq by a group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade. Despite an unprecedented international outcry, including public appeals from significant Muslim leaders, on March 9 Virginia Quaker Tom Fox’s body was found on the streets of Baghdad. Two weeks later the other three—Toronto Catholic Worker Jim Loney, 41, Cansadian Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, and British Baptist Norman Kember, 74— were freed in a bloodless military action by Coalition troops, after almost four months in captivity.
“We have known from the very beginning that this is a struggle that involves people’s lives,” said CPT co-founder Gene Stoltzfus. “People have to face the question of life and death before they join.” Tom Fox joins the small number of North American activists who have died trying to express nonviolent solidarity with victims of injustice and war. This cloud of witnesses is the moral equivalent of those countless soldiers who have given their lives in military service.
CPT’S BIBLICAL FAITH in the power of nonviolence to redeem a history deadlocked by vengeance challenges those who believe that only success, realism, or power can change the world, who perceive that unarmed work in a war zone is senseless, misguided, or even (in the opinion of certain right-wing commentators) deserving of contempt. Just before being taken captive, Fox wrote, “Why are we here? ...We are here to stand with those being dehumanized by oppressors and to stand firm against that dehumanization. We are here to stop people, including ourselves, from dehumanizing any of God’s children.”
Above all, the death of Fox sharply reminds the church of Jesus’ inconvenient but unavoidably central call to a discipleship of the cross (Mark 8:34)—which was, ironically, the Sunday gospel reading following the discovery of Fox’s body. Hostage Jim Loney, reflecting on the example of an Iraqi friend who had resisted Sadaam Hussein’s regime, invoked Isaiah 53: “You set your face like flint against the war machine. By your wounds you are healing the world; the punishment you accept brings us peace. You are the suffering servant, all that is holding the world together.” The same can now be said of the witness of Fox and his companions.
The CPT four “got in the Way”—the brilliant double-entendre that is the organization’s slogan. Because of their nonviolent obstructing of both the violence of the U.S. occupation and of reactionary terrorism in Iraq, Fox walked the via crucis (the way of the cross). Their witness invites us to reflect deeply on the query at the heart of the CPT mission statement: “What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?” How we respond will determine whether or not the blood of the martyrs will again become the seed of the church and hope for the world.
Ched Myers works with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in southern California (www.bcm-net.org).