Rusty NelsonRusty Nelson: On Peace & War

There was never time for nostalgia, here, even when I wrote this column every month. Just as PJALS was so often derailed from local projects by global violence and the siren call of war, my plans for a 40th anniversary recollection have been curbed by horrible attacks in Paris. Curbed, but not cancelled.

Here’s what must be said in November, 2015: The established powers of the earth continue to prepare for the same war, thinking we’ve learned from every tragic human sacrifice offered in the names of peace, panic and greed. Now, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our outraged allies to prove we have not yet learned the lesson of the Trojan Horse, never mind Vietnam or Iraq.

I don’t know if Islamic extremists studied Homer, but I’m betting the so-called leaders of the free world never thought of 9-ll as a lure to further disaster. France has already opened its gates to roll in the latest gift horse, and they do know Homer, even if the story of the tar baby and Bre’r Rabbit is Greek to them. As a consolation prize, they should have Donald Rumsfeld encourage their folly in deploying the military they have instead of one they wish they had, perhaps backed by Zeus, instead of Obama.

Only a few peacemakers are left to say beware of Greeks bearing gifts or mice roaring or the enticing traps that smell only vaguely of quagmire. The Joint Chiefs are not going to ask you and me what we should do. Even our elected leaders and the media will resist the idea that diplomacy and peace should have a role, because our corporate masters are telling us that these huge, wooden road apples smell like military opportunity.
Our world continues to shorten the cycle for its pursuit of self-destruction.

Consider 40 years ago when visionaries like Fr. Frank Costello imagineered the Peace and Justice Center to nurture social justice in Spokane. Or, 34 years ago when Nancy and I arrived in Spokane and met Nick Kassebaum who introduced us to the Spokane Mennonite Fellowship and the PJC. The big issue was nuclear weapons, and satellite topics were led by attitudes about war, militarism, and the sacredness of Fairchild Air Force Base. I’m grateful to Dale Raugust for recounting the earliest days and researching many of the subsequent years to give us historical context. If I had been just a bit of a historian during my stewardship of the Handful of Salt, you would have a comprehensive history of PJALS.
Having promised to someday write about how Nancy and I found PJALS, here’s a brief version. We arrived from Minneapolis at the Kassebaum home on Lincoln Place, in May of 1981, exactly one year after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Their home was listed in a directory called, “Mennonite Your Way,” and we had been presumptuous enough to ask if we might stay there five days with our two-year-old son, although they would be the first Mennonites we knew.

Besides being Pastor of the Spokane Mennonite Fellowship, which met in his home, Nick worked for the Peace and Justice Center as coordinator for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which, at the time, was a mere 66 years old. We lived in his house closer to five weeks before house-sitting for Joe and Mary Ellen Gaffney-Brown, then co-directors of the PJC. They were able to visit family for about a month because not much happened over the summer. Talk about nostalgia. By then, I was full-time at KXLY radio, and we bought a house. Becoming Mennonites, we cleared the way for immersion into the culture of nonviolence.

Even as fledgling pacifists, we considered programs of the PJC a little radical, but we were interested in the Amnesty International adoption group started by Ron Frase and a Simplicity discussion led by Mary Ellen. Human rights and simple lifestyle seem like bread and water, now, but in 1981 these were life-changing elements that gave hands and feet to our refreshed faith. Our daughter joined our family, and we moved to Chattaroy in 1983. An intentional neighbor arrangement allowed Nancy to volunteer in Spokane as PJALS evolved into a membership organization and Nick became director before he moved to the west side. Nancy was part-time PJALS staff in 1985 when she, Nick, Gary Jewell and Kevin Baxter were arrested for blocking the train carrying nuclear warheads to the submarine base at Bangor, the first civil resistance action in Spokane since the Wobblies. She had moved to the Central America Solidarity Association before Kathleen Donahoe and Diane Jhueck took the helm of PJALS in 1987. After a year, Diane left, and I went half-time at KXLY so I could assist Kathleen and edit the newsletter.

Although the cancer that killed her forced Kathleen’s resignation in 1989, it was her work that made it possible for the little organization to thrive when Nancy and I became co-directors. Another important element was a particularly effective steering committee, led by Judy Lacerte.
A quarter century on, thrive may seem a presumptuous term. We were often asked how we persevered when PJALS never won. There are several answers: Peacemaking is about conversion, not winning; we were called to be faithful, not successful, and; we counted and celebrated small victories.

It’s important to remember Spokane has actually changed. On the PJALS staff, Diane Jhueck put the Handful of Salt into an appealing and attractive package of dissent and advocacy that my later, cost cutting measures could not diminish, but being openly lesbian in Spokane was a grind in 1987, and she moved to Seattle. Kathleen’s determination to put GLBT rights on the agenda made me nervous, and sparked a rash of non-renewals among PJALS members. It was one of the biggest risks PJALS ever took, but how long could we have been relevant, not to mention prophetic, if we had failed to confront homophobia? Today, there is no important struggle that has made more significant progress over the last 20 or 30 years. And we would lose substantial support if we failed to acknowledge that the work is not done.

PJALS hasn’t ended our community’s reliance upon violence, but good things happen when we resist responsibly. Today: we’re fully engaged in holding the police accountable for arrogant and aggressive acts that have oppressed our community; we helped lead Washington to a pace-setting minimum wage; we state clearly that the droppings of a ruling class are not acceptable remuneration for workers or for those excluded from what the establishment calls The Economy.

It’s our legacy to declare that war and violence are our enemies, not people. We must condemn every act of violence from throwing rocks to executing tyrants, destroying families through deportation, transporting deadly fuels to enrich the rich and afflict the environment, increasing killer drones, continuing to build weapons that are expensive and obsolete, punishing innocent relations of suicide bombers, killing thousands to show how angry we are about the deaths of dozens.

There is always an alternative to violence, as obscure and unattractive as it might be. Ft. Sumter, Sarajevo, Pearl Harbor, 9-11, Paris 2015. Once again, those in charge will choose military solutions, leaving the earth with more and bigger problems.

Someday, one of us will have a voice that reaches beyond the mouth of the cannon. Because little organizations like PJALS are still here, not for nostalgia, but for teaching peace, caring who suffers, making ripples. – RN