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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Moral Imperative of Activism

The Moral Imperative of Activism

By Ray McGovern
Common Dreams
August 13, 2013

That America is in deep moral and legal trouble was pretty much
obvious to everyone before Edward Snowden released official
documents showing the extent to which the U.S. government has
been playing fast and loose with the Fourth Amendment rights of
Americans to be protected against unreasonable searches and

Snowden’s revelations, as explosive as they are, were, in one sense,
merely the latest challenge to those of us who took a solemn oath to
support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all
enemies foreign and domestic.

That has been a commitment tested repeatedly in recent years,
especially since the 9/11 attacks.

After all the many troubling disclosures, from torture, to
”extraordinary renditions” to aggressive war under false pretenses,
to warrantless wiretaps, to lethal drone strikes, to whistleblowers
prosecutions, to the expanded “surveillance state” it might be time
to take a moment for what the Germans call “eine Denkpause,” a
“thinking break.”

And it is high time to heed and honor the Noah Principle:

“No more awards for predicting rain; awards only for building arks.”

This is our summer of discontent. The question we need to ask
ourselves is whether that discontent will move us to action.

Never in my lifetime have there been such serious challenges to
whether the Republic established by the Founders will survive.

Immediately after the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin told
a questioner that the new structure created “a Republic, if you can
keep it.”

He was right, of course; it is up to us.

So let’s face it. The Obama White House and its co-conspirators
in Congress and the Judiciary have thrown the gauntlet down at
our feet.

It turned out that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

As Annie Dillard, one of my favorite theologians, has put it,
“There is only us; there never has been any other.”

And as one of my favorite activists/prophets continued to insist,
“Do not say there are not enough of us. There ARE enough of us!”

Besides threats to basic constitutional rights and gross violations
of international law, there are other pressing issues for Americans,
especially the obscene, growing chasm between the very rich and
the jobless (and often homeless) poor.

There is widespread reluctance, even so, to ask the key questions?

Is it right to fire teachers, police and firefighters; to close libraries;
leave students in permanent debt; gut safety-net programs, all by
feigning lack of money?

Yet, simultaneously, is it moral to squander on the Pentagon and
military contractors half of the country’s discretionary income from
taxes, an outlay equivalent to what the whole rest of the world put
together spends for defense?

It seems we are guided far more by profits than by prophets.

And without prophetic vision, the people perish.

Profit Margin

America’s lucrative war-making industry operates within a
fiendishly, self-perpetuating business model:

U.S. military interventions around the world (including security
arrangements to prop up unpopular allies and thus to thwart
the will of large segments of national populations) guarantee
an inexhaustible supply of “militants, insurgents, terrorists or
simply ‘bad guys’ a list that sometimes comes to include American

These troublemakers must be hunted down and vaporized by
our remote killing machines, which inflict enough destruction
and stir up enough outrage to generate even more “militants,
insurgents, terrorists or simply ‘bad guys.’

And, in turn, the blowback toward the United States, the
occasional terrorist attack creates enough fear at home to
“justify” the introduction of draconian Third Reich-style
“Enabling Act” legislation not very different from the
unconstitutional laws ushering in the abuses in Germany
80 years ago.

With only muted murmur from “progressive” supporters, the
Obama administration has continued much of the post-9/11
assault on constitutional rights begun by George W. Bush,
and in regard to Barack Obama’s aggressive prosecutorial
campaign against “leakers,” Obama has taken these
transgressions even further.

Are we to look on, like the proverbial “obedient Germans,”
as Establishment Washington validates the truth of James
Madison’s warning:

“If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in
the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”

Yet, while countless billions of dollars are spent on “security” against
“terrorism,” little attention is devoted to the truly existential threat
from global warming.

Can we adults in good conscience continue to shun the dire
implications of climate change?

This question was again brought home to me personally on Aug. 6, as
our ninth grandchild pushed her way out into a world with challenges
undreamed of just decades ago.

When she is my age, will she rue joining us last Tuesday?

I can only hope she will forgive me and my generation for not having
the guts to face down those whose unconscionable greed, continues
to rape what seemed to be a rather pure and pleasant planet when I
made my appearance seven short decades ago.

Prophets On The Margin

And, then there is the worship of “free market” idolatry which has
savaged America’s Great Middle Class and expanded the ranks of
the desperate poor.

The late Rabbi Abraham Heschel had challenging words for us:

Decrying the agony of the “plundered poor,” Heschel insisted
that wherever injustice takes place, “few are guilty, but all are

He added that, “Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., warned:

“A time comes when silence is betrayal … We must speak with all
the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must
speak…. There is such a thing as being too late…. Life often leaves
us standing bare, naked, and dejected with lost opportunity…. Over
the bleached bones of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic
words: ‘Too late.’”

Amid these daunting challenges, endless war, encroachment on
liberties, environmental devastation, and economic disparity,
there is also the question:

Are our churches riding shotgun for the System.

As truly historic events unfold in our country and abroad, I often
think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who founded the
Confessing Church as an alternative to the overwhelming number of
Catholics and Lutherans who gave priority to protecting themselves
by going along with Hitler.

How deeply disappointed Bonhoeffer was at the failure of the
institutional church in Germany to put itself “where the battle

This is the phrase Martin Luther himself used centuries before:

“If, I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every
portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which
the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not
confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing him. Where
the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved and to
be steady on all the battlefield, except there, is mere flight and
disgrace if one flinches at that point.”

No one has put it better than a precious new friend I met on a
“cruise” in June/July 2011 hoping to reach Gaza, author and
poet Alice Walker, who said:

“Activism is my rent for living on this planet.”

As some of you know, that attitude found her a passenger on
“The Audacity of Hope” the U.S. Boat to Gaza.

On July 1, 2011, we made an activist break for the open sea and
Gaza but were able to sail only nine nautical miles out of Athens
before the Greek government, under strong pressure from the
White House, ordered its Coast Guard to intercept us, bring us
back to port, and impound our boat.

Okay to be Angry?

Recalling the anger I felt at the time, I was reminded that, all
too often, people are conflicted about whether or not to allow
themselves to be angry at such injustice, whether it be in Gaza,
on the Aegean, or elsewhere.

I had been in that category of doubt, until I remembered learning
that none other than Thomas Aquinas had something very useful
to say about anger.

In the Thirteenth Century, Aquinas wrote a lot about virtue and
got quite angry when he realized there was no word in Latin for
just the right amount of anger, for the virtue of anger.

He had to go back to what Fourth-Century Doctor of the Church
John Chrysostom said on the subject:

“He or she who is not angry, when there is just cause for anger,


Because as John Chrysostom put it, “Anger respicit bonum justitiae,
anger looks to the good of Justice, and if you can live amid injustice
without anger you are unjust.”

Aquinas added his own corollary; he railed against what he called
“unreasoned patience,” which, he said, “sows the seeds of vice,
nourishes negligence, and persuades not only evil people but good
people to do evil.”

Frankly, I have not thought of us activists being virtuous, but
maybe we are, at least in our willingness to channel our anger
into challenging and changing the many injustices here and around
the world.

There should be no room these days for “unreasoned patience.”

One saving grace peculiar not only to the ancient prophets and
theologians but to the Alice Walkers and Medea Benjamins of
today is that they did not get hung up on the all-too-familiar
drive for success.

That drive, I think, is a distinctly American trait.

We generally do not want to embark on some significant course of
action without there being a reasonable prospect of success, do we?

Who enjoys becoming the object of ridicule?

The felt imperative to be “successful” can be a real impediment
to acting for Justice.

One prophet/activist from whom I have drawn inspiration is Dan

I’d like to share some of the wisdom that seeps through his autobiography, To Dwell in Peace.

Berrigan writes that after he, his brother Phil, and a small group of
others had used homemade napalm to burn draft cards in Catonsville,
Maryland, in May 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, Dan mused
about why he took such a risk:

“I came upon a precious insight. … Something like this: presupposing
integrity and discipline, one is justified in entering upon a large risk;
not indeed because the outcome is assured, but because the integrity
and value of the act have spoken aloud. …

“Success or efficiency are placed where they belong: in the

They are not irrelevant, but they are far from central. I was in need
of such reflections as we faced the public after our crime. … All sides
agreed, we were fools or renegades or plain crazy. …

“One had very little to go on; and one went ahead nonetheless. …
The act was let go, its truth and goodness were entrusted to the
four winds. Indeed, good consequences were of small matter to
me, compared with the integrity of the action, the need responded
to, the spirits lifted.”

The more recent prophets and activists I have known have generally
been able to do this, to release the truth of the act to the four winds.

And I am sure that helps them avoid taking themselves too seriously.

Anticipate The Jut-Jaw

Here’s how Dan Berrigan recounts the immediate aftermath of the
action at Catonsville:

“We sat in custody in the back room of the Catonsville Post Office,
weak with relief. … Three or four FBI honchos entered portentously.
Their leader, a jut-jawed paradigm, surveyed us from the doorway.
His eagle-eye lit on Philip. He roared out: ‘Him again! Good God,
I’m changing my religion!’

“I could think of no greater tribute to my brother.”

The Berrigans help affirm for me that this God of ours
is a God of laughter, and we are the entertainment.

And that’s just one reason a light touch seems to be required.
Will we be successful? Wrong question.

The right one is will we be faithful? Will we dare to go with the
Berrigans to where the battle rages.

I am very much looking forward to being able to refresh my spirit,
and also my sense of humor, with some later-day prophets at
the upcoming Conference on the Moral Imperative of Activism,
Aug. 16-17, at the National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine in Fonda,
New York.

Let me close with a poem written by the German writer
Peter Gan, in 1935 during the Third Reich.

I think it summons us in a thoughtful way to contemplate
who we are and what we are called to do, today.

But first the most important thing:

“What are you doing in these great times?

“Great, I say, for times seem great to me, when each man
driven half to death by the era’s hate, and standing in the
place he’s given,

“Must willy-nilly contemplate no less a thing than his own BEING!
A little breath, a second’s wait May well suffice, you catch my meaning?”

Ray McGovern was an Army officer and a CIA analyst for 30 years,
and is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

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