Rusty Nelson on Peace and War:
Power to the Peaceful!

“Power to the Peaceful” is emblazoned upon one of my favorite t-shirts, the one commemorating the VFP National Convention of 2013. Hollis Higgins brought it to me from Madison, Wisconsin, and it’s part of my motivation for attending the convention in St. Paul, this August. The slogan is not a statement of transaction but a hopeful greeting, a desired outcome, like “good morning” or “Merry Christmas.” But, I like it and encourage you to use it to spread empowerment among those willing to channel individual power into peaceful enterprise.

I wish I could offer you a bandwagon or a movement to be swept up in as power from this sentiment disrupts the business that flows from military might and corporate hegemony. but peacemakers are forever scrambling to get the attention of someone with influence. We often settle for letters to the editor or to junior staff of Members of Congress, but sometimes we are propelled by unexpected events and seize a variety of platforms. Let’s be ready when the peaceful have power.

For most of my 37 years in Washington, I’ve felt I could have some influence with power brokers if I articulated the arguments that resonated in my life, transforming me from a willing warrior in a shameful and illegal war to an objector to every murderous military action by any individual or state. That was overly optimistic, but we still have opportunities. Instead of whining that our U.S. Senators only reply to large-batch letters and emails, and our Representative only meets with the squeakiest wheels, we need to seek political leverage elsewhere, and allies, everywhere.

Who would have thought we could oppose the federal insanity of reviving nuclear weapons by approaching the Spokane City Council? Teaming with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, Spokane Veterans for Peace has strong council support for a resolution to ban nuclear weapons and components from the city and establish a day of commemoration for the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This could be a bandwagon moment, if you wish to contact council members in support of the resolution to be introduced on August 6th.

There’s still a problem. Those of us who prioritize peace for ourselves and for our country lack standing in U.S. politics. Withholding funds for death and destruction is considered a worse breach of trust than sexual impropriety, and Congress has a penchant for granting the Pentagon more than the stupendous sums routinely requested. It’s not right. It’s bad for our country. It’s worse for the environment than Scott Pruitt, and it exacerbates the lethality of our global collateral damage.

I consider myself to be a Christian Pacifist, dating to 1981 when I encountered and joined the Spokane Mennonite Fellowship (now meeting in the Community Building as part of Shalom Church). The great freedom in this faith perspective is that I don’t have to fret over whom God wants me to kill, and I can ignore any pious, outrageous definitions of my chosen terms. The downside is that the dominant culture in the U.S. is worshipful of military power and overwhelming force and has little use for my suggestions for saving the earth. Pacifist or not, you probably know the feeling.

Conventional wisdom says pacifists are flakes, if not cowards and traitors. Conventional religion says pacifism would be a good thing if only humans could attain it. Conventional politics says the ‘good guys’ are exempt from “You must not kill.” Conventional militarism says it is godly to kill for your country, as long as you follow orders and conventions. Conventional wisdom, of course, is an oxymoron. I prefer the unconventional quote from Jeannette Rankin: “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”

Rankin, as far as I can tell, is the only pacifist to be elected to Congress. Known as the only Member to oppose U.S. entry into both WWI and WWII, she wished to be remembered as the only woman to vote for women’s suffrage. Hers is a great story, especially if you’re a Montanan, but she also lived in Spokane for a while and helped women vote in Washington before she did the same in her home state. The first woman to hold federal office, and still the only woman to represent Montana in Congress, she was present for both declarations of war. Her pacifist position didn’t keep her from being elected in 1916 and 1940 but did preclude her reelection. Nevertheless, she persisted, and was said to be considering another run for Congress to oppose the war in Vietnam when she died in 1973.

The irony today is that Rankin truly could not understand how a woman could be other than a pacifist. Such a feminist inclination has obviously been lost in the wake of Maggie Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Madeline Albright and Condeleeza Rice, among others. For 14 years, my all-female congressional delegation has shown no comprehension or appreciation of the pacifist perspective, even (or, especially?) when it comes from a combat veteran, one of those whom they claim to honor and support without regard to political peculiarities or history of war crimes.

Do you sometimes mitigate your anti-war position by saying, “I’m not a pacifist, but…?” Perhaps you hear that from peace mongers among your closest friends. Next time, ask them, or yourself, “Why aren’t you a pacifist? Is violence sometimes better than nonviolence? Will the next war be better? Can our planet survive another war? Is it possible to save veterans without ending the system that destroys them?” These are questions I’ll be asking veterans for peace in a workshop at our convention.

I hope you’ll help me subvert the myth that our freedom depends upon our willingness to destroy the world. If you enjoy life on earth, thank a peacemaker. -RN

Rusty Nelson retired as co-director of PJALS in 2009 after serving as staff since 1982. He is an active member of Spokane’s Chapter 35 of Veterans For Peace.