Saturday, May 30, 2009
This past week I had the opportunity to visit an old friend in Western South Dakota. His name is Marvin Kammerer. He's a third generation rancher with land located just outside of Rapid City, South Dakota, on the edge of Ellsworth Air Force Base. I first saw Marv from a distance at a peace event at the Rapid City Civic Center back in 1980. He was one of the main speakers, and in his cowboy boots and cowboy hat, with his progressive perspective on issues of peace and justice, he was a most surprising presence. At the time, he was hosting a "Survival Gathering" on his ranch. It brought hundreds of people together from all over the planet to look at those concerns that were threatening our very survival as a species and to share ideas about how to combat those threats.
In those days, Marv seldom made his neighbors happy. The "Survival Gathering" was no exception. All of those outsiders camping together and supposedly planning all kinds of mischief drew harassment from the sheriff, other ranchers and the military base. Many conversations had to cease because of the deafening noise of bombers taking off overhead. Still, Marv persisted. A National Nonviolence Conference came to his ranch a few years later, to construct a peace sign, an ecology symbol and a medicine wheel at the base of the Ellsworth runway. Any plane taking off or landing had to observe them. In ways large and small, Marv has consistently resisted this nuclear weapons facility. Here was the grandson of a South Dakota homesteader, struggling against a nuclear dinosaur, at one time the largest nuclear facility in the world.
One year, several of us crawled under the fence separating the base from Marv's, pasture, to be arrested on Easter Sunday morning trying to place Easter lilies on the base runway. Another time a group of peace minded people planted a peace pole in a pasture near the base and declared the ranch a nuclear free zone. Several groups used the ranch as their home while touring the base and raising the provocative questions tour guides and military personnel don't want to hear. One peace activist climbed over a fence that abutted Marv's property and was meant to secure extensive nuclear ordnance, and landed a lengthy prison sentence.
As always, on this most recent visit, Marv's complaints were forceful and studied. Many of the bombers are not airworthy, a proven waste of precious resources. The base is a cesspool of toxic substances. Power brokers continue their efforts to keep the base from being closed, though it has outlived its cold war usefulness. Always, there are threats to the land from developers and the base itself.
At 72 years of age, this self reliant rancher has turned most of the ranching operation over to the next generation. Working with cattle is a precarious proposition, particularly when you have unexpected blizzards during calving as ranchers experienced this spring. You can lose your future overnight.
Still, still, even in the face of family hardship and uncertainty, I'm confident the native grasses will still be growing on this piece of the good earth when those Ellsworth bombers have rusted into oblivion and swords have been turned into plowshares. I believe this because of the passionate persistence of this prairie rancher. May we all have the tenacity of Marvin in the struggles we face with the tyranny of militarism.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Nonviolence for Gandhi is the law of our being, the cohesive law of love that binds humanity together and makes collective life possible and meaningful. It is also the power that operates through history facilitating human evolution towards the fulfilment of its destiny. So he wanted humanity to accept nonviolence as an article of faith – i.e., in thought, word and deed - and organize life on the basis of the principle of nonviolence. Gandhi was not content with advancing sound arguments in justification of the acceptance of nonviolence as the central organising principle of human life and existence. He demonstrated to the world the efficacy of non- violence by making it the basis of his personal life and of all his public activities including the fight for rights and freedom.
Gandhian nonviolence is premised on certain basic assumptions and convictions. The most fundamental of them is recognition of the oneness of life. All life is one. Everything that exists is intricately and inseparably inter-related. It is, in fact, a living consciousness of this oneness of life that provides the metaphysical and spiritual basis for the acceptance of positive and active nonviolence as an article of faith. Gandhi described nonviolence as ‘soul force’, a constituent characteristic of the human spirit. Once this is accepted, not merely at the intellectual level but deep at the level of the human psyche and spirit, the lines that separate persons and things, you and I would fade away. So one attains the realisation that one cannot harm or injure another without at the same time harming oneself; hurting others is hurting oneself. In order to attain this consciousness one has to undergo a process of self-purification through an arduous process of conquering one’s ego and reducing oneself to a cipher. Gandhi and some members of his ashram achieved this through the practice of ethical vows, known as ekadasa vrtas – eleven vows. When nonviolence is practised with as much ‘scientific precision’ as possible, it even tends to develop into an objective force. Such nonviolence transcends time and space and becomes a symbol, a perennial source of inspiration and a point of reference for the votaries of ahimsa. Also it becomes a force/power that can move mountains, even the most immovable mountains of the minds. Gandhi demonstrated this potentiality of the power of nonviolence when he calmed the mad fury of the violent mobs in Bengal and Delhi who were engaging themselves in a killing spree in the communal riots that followed the partition of India in 1947.
Gandhi’s contribution was not limited to developing nonviolence into a great spiritual and moral power by practicing it in thought, word and deed. For him nonviolence was not a cloistered virtue. He made nonviolence the central organizing principle of all his activities, social, economic and political. His unique contribution, it is generally agreed, lay in developing nonviolence into a matchless method of fighting against injustice and exploitation, architecturing the weapon of Satyagraha – nonviolent direct action. Satyagraha is the application of love force or soul force in the theatre of conflict. Satyagraha is the antithesis of terrorism. It draws a distinction between the evil and the evil - doer. While satyagraha aims at removing or eliminating the evil, it aims also at saving the evil-doer too, along with the victims, from the coils of evil. Terrorism might destroy some of those perceived as evil-doers, but the evil would remain. Some times it even intensifies and escalates. As a discerning student of human history and the human mind, Gandhi understood these dynamics of violence and nonviolence. He, therefore, tried and succeeded in organizing non-violence into a method of struggle and developed it into a moral equivalent of war.
Gandhi believed that nonviolence being soul-force or love force, has universal applicability. It could be used for resolving any form of dispute and conflict, removing even a dictatorial regime. He had used it in the solution of the problem of racial and political discrimination in South Africa, and also for the removal of several social evils that had infected Indian social life like untouchability, discriminations against women and girl- children, alcoholism etc. Another point that Gandhi proved through his nonviolent movement was that even ordinary people, the illiterate, the poor and the so called weaker sex - women, were capable of wielding the weapon of nonviolence as effectively as any other accomplished persons. Thus the Gandhian nonviolent movement exploded the myth that nonviolence was the prerogative of the few who were morally or spiritually evolved. Through proper mobilisation and training quite ordinary people - even the lowliest and the least- could be empowered to become brave nonviolent resisters or satyagrahis. This fact has infused great confidence and hope into the nonviolent movements all over the world.
Humanity is in a “now or never” situation. It is true that organized violence has built its own cathedrals, the armament industry, and the stockpiles of weapons of infinite destructive power and has almost mystified the world. But we must know that unless we start acting right from now on it may be too late. And we must begin from one's own self and try to reach out. A systematic transformation of the human self through the conscious and assiduous cultivation of the nonviolence latent in each one of us is the first step in the direction of a nonviolent future. But for Gandhi personal transformation was not an end in itself. It was a means towards the realization of the larger goal of social transformation. Only transformed individuals will be able to bring about social transformation. Unless and until personal transformation leads to an organized attempt for change and transformation of society, it would be of no avail. Hence Gandhi emphasised the collective use of nonviolence for the creation of a culture of nonviolence.
Gandhi pointed out that as nonviolence was the law of our being and the cohesive force that held human life together, it was essential to make nonviolence the central organizing principle of all human transactions and activities. Social, political and economic organizations should be made on the basis of the law of nonviolence. He explained that when life came to be organized consciously on the basis of the principle of nonviolence, its results would be really marvellous, probably far beyond what humans can visualize.
It is not enough that we agree with Gandhi that nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of humankind. We should work it out in our personal as well as collective lives. Let his example inspire us.
M.P. Mathai (An edited version of a speech given at the International Intercultural Forum, Monterrey, Mexico)
Thursday, May 21, 2009
It’s a soft, gray rainy afternoon. This is my day with Ellie, my nine-year old granddaughter. She is up for a trip to The English Butler, a tearoom in the next town. Our conversation runs to the usual banter about what happened in school today – what was fun and satisfying - - what was challenging - - accompanied by the rise and fall of emotions that go along with the joys and disappointments.
The streets of town are empty but “the butler” is out on the porch and the tearoom is open. Ellie takes delight in running her hands in front of the sensor that sets “the butler’s” wobbly head in motion and rings forth an eerie “Tea is served in the dining room.” The hostess seats us at a diminutive round table set with a real table cloth and real china cups and saucers painted with luxurious pink tea roses, of course. Her cheery British accent brings sun to an otherwise subdued and foggy atmosphere. We order a pot of peppermint tea and some blueberry scones with clotted cream and blueberry preserves. The honey for our tea comes in the shape of a small, golden spoon on the end of a wooden stick.
As we wait for our tea to brew, Ellie resumes the after school conversation and becomes somewhat pensive. “We had a lock-down today.” I feel my insides shrink a bit. “A lock-down? - - What does that mean?” She proceeds to tell me that it’s like a fire drill except there are no bells. The principal’s voice comes on over the PA system and announces the lock-down. Each unit of classrooms has a small galley kitchen and the kids all file in there and close the door so they will be safe in case anybody comes into the school with a gun.
I take a deep breath and ask her how she feels about having to drill for a lock-down. “It’s creepy and I feel scared. What if somebody really did come to school to hurt us?” I want to cry. Much as I know that the drills are in the interest of her safety, I want her world to be drill free just a little longer. Her anxiety reactivates old buried feelings in me from my 4th grade year – the year in which, when the alarm sounded, we nine-year olds quietly lined up, retrieved our coats from the coat room and filed out into a basement hallway where we curled up on the floor as small as we could and pulled our coats over us to protect us in the event of a nuclear attack.
Sixty-plus years later, in a world little changed with regard to the potential threat to human existence, I renew my inner commitment to nonviolent living, the stakes ever so much higher with this beautiful copper-haired child sitting before me, sipping her honeyed peppermint tea.
Monday, May 18, 2009
Although the faltering economy has received plenty of attention in the press and in the halls of Congress, few decision makers are asking the fundamental questions that need to be addressed. Why have we allowed the growth of institutions "too big to fail?" Must the economy continue to produce unnecessary waste products or is a sustainable model possible? How can we reorient the economy so it honors the earth? Can local economies better serve human needs?
An example of what I mean is near at hand. Just a few miles from our home is the second largest concentration of wind mills in the country, along Buffalo Ridge. Wind farms continue to develop across the state. On the one hand, I'm grateful we are developing this renewable resource and moving away from fossil fuels. On the other hand, why must we have huge developments needing huge amounts of capitol and power transmitted by huge energy corporations. What if we were to develop smaller wind generated power, accessible to each and every household. Extra power could go into a grid to be used by community wide institutions, like schools.
There are a few individuals in South Dakota who are initiating some debate about residential windmills. They are asking permission to have household windmills in town. One of the biggest obstacles seems to be what to do with excess power. The large power companies don't want to mess with small scale operations and local governments seem clueless about how local economies of scale might create real community.
Everyday nonviolence makes use of many different approaches to raise issues about a "just" economy. One way is to initiate new conversations about how a community might develop, with household generated power sources. Certainly one of the most entertaining approaches these days is a guerilla theatre operation called Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir. They have produced a hilarious DVD called "What Would Jesus Buy?" Imagine touring the country just before Christmas, stopping in big box stores and the Mall of America, and preaching/singing to the shoppers about how they should stop shopping. "The shopocalypse is upon us ... who will be saved." As you might expect, the result of their theatre is a security escort out of the building, sometimes arrest.
Recently, Rev. Billy has changed his approach. Now he's running for mayor of New York City. He's running on a Green Party platform of the importance of neighborhood. His supporters are small business owners and others who don't want the big corporations, big banks, and big box stores, coming into their neighborhoods and destroying their experience of community.
We need a lot more of us talking about and experimenting with, sustainability. The earth won't survive much more exploitation. Nor will the human person. Preach, Billy, Preach!
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Mother’s Day “Stand for Peace”
On Mother’s Day, 2007, a group of Brookings, South Dakota residents gathered near the intersection of Sixth Street and Main to “stand for peace.” For fifteen minutes that Sunday, they stood in silence, expressing solidarity with mothers everywhere who desire peace for their children. They stood in silence, expressing opposition to government policies that recklessly endanger military and civilian lives. They stood in silence, supporting a more nonviolent approach to international relations.
Participants in that first Stand for Peace subsequently decided to hold the vigil every Sunday, regardless of changing weather and shifting political winds. This Mother’s Day marks its second anniversary. Deedee Buettner, who stands regularly, describes it as “a vigil of caring and concern for our young military people; for all people who serve our country; for the future of our nation; for the future of our world.”
The fact that Mother’s Day inspired a peace vigil shouldn’t be surprising. The origins of this American holiday can be traced to the hard work of peacemaking and reconciliation during and after the Civil War. Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was an early voice calling for a Mother’s Day observance. Dismayed first by the Civil War and then by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Howe issued her famous “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” summoning women around the world to rise up against war on behalf of their own children as well as “the great human family.” She urged the creation of a “Mother’s Day for Peace,” but was unsuccessful.
Anna Jarvis, another woman intent on healing the nation after the Civil War, started an annual “Mother’s Friendship Day” to help reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors in her native Appalachia. After Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter campaigned for a national Mother’s Day holiday, wishing to pay tribute to her mother’s life and peacemaking efforts. It was finally established in 1914.
Though now a weekly event, the Brookings Stand for Peace continues to honor the original spirit of Mother’s Day. Many of those who participate, such as Chris and Florence Moller, are moved to do so by faith. “The Lutheran Church has always emphasized the Christ as the Prince of Peace,” they say. Fellow Lutheran Jeff Buettner agrees, observing that as a pastor he feels “driven to always emphasize the many ways Jesus of Nazareth shunned violence and domination in favor of love, understanding and peace for all.” Carl Kline, a United Church of Christ minister, says the vigil “disciplines me to be thoughtful and prayerful at least once a week about how wars are being waged in my name. It also gives me an opportunity to be with other like-minded people who are making peacemaking a priority in their lives.” Michael Feikema participates because his studies of history and theology have convinced him that “grassroots movements are decisive in making positive change in the world.” Change is exactly what mother and grandmother Susan Thompson was hoping for when she started standing for peace two years ago, but given the number of wars being waged in the world, she’s realistic. “With a heavy heart I feel that I’ll be standing for peace indefinitely. When will world leaders learn that war is not the answer?”
The Statue in New Hampshire Honors Gold Star Mothers
(First published as a "Speak Out" in the Brookings, SD Register.)
Friday, May 8, 2009
Anyone living near a CAFO is aware of the potential health hazards. If it's not the air or water quality, it's the nauseous smell. Living in South Dakota, as I do, I can smell most CAFOs a mile away, even with the car windows closed. But perhaps we haven't adequately addressed the potential health dangers these factory farms pose to the development of new viruses. First the bird flu, now the swine flu.
E.F. Schumacher gave us the book, Small Is Beautiful. The subtitle is, appropriately, Economics As If People Mattered. It's a clear and unmistakable call to think small; to think in terms of family, of neighborhood, of community. If what you are about to do negatively affects your neighbor, or the earth, you don't do it. You apply the principle of ahimsa, no harm. You place people before profit.
The swine flu experience should convince us that we are truly one human family. The values (or lack of them) of one CEO of one corporate giant like Smithfield Farms, can potentially impact the health and well being of any and every person on the planet. This recognition comes at the same time we are experiencing the consequences of banks and insurance companies "too big to fail." One failing financial giant can threaten economic catastrophe for people all over the globe.
Now is a good time for all of us to think small. How do we create those small scale, sustainable efforts that will build the new society in the shell of the old? A good start might be for pork eaters to start buying local, encouraging farmers to raise a few pigs for the neighborhood market, as their forebears did before Smithfield monopolized the industry. How about a CSA (community supported agriculture) for pork producers? And what if we quit buying Smithfield products?
And maybe we need to cut up those credit cards and look more closely at credit unions. Or maybe we need some political campaigns that emphasize neighborhood businesses over big box, big chain, big corporation development. (See Rev. Billy's campaign for mayor of New York City www.revbilly.com).
It's a fact, stark as never before. If we want to think about economics as if the great majority of the world's people mattered, then centralization and "big is better" thinking brings de-development. De-centralization and an attitude of "small is beautiful" brings development. As Gandhi recognized, "there's enough for everyone's need, but not for anyone's greed."
(Photo by doveimaging.com)
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
I recently attended an Earth Day event that featured a gourmet meal that was entirely homegrown and handmade. Not only was it absolutely delicious, but also knowing it was locally grown made it even more palatable. A shining example of what most of us can do for our own well being—health-wise, dollar-wise, and even the now well-worn cliché of greening the planet.
Grow your own vegetables and fruits, or buy from local people who do. You can find providers here in South Dakota by the internet, word of mouth, a visit to the Farmers Market, or find an excellent listing of producers in a “Local Foods Directory” published by Dakota Rural Action of Brookings. Their phone number is 605-697-5204 and the booklet is free for the asking. It includes growers of various meats, eggs, vegetables of any and all sorts, fruits, wines, _________ the list goes on.
Please plan to grow some food of your own. Most yards have at least a corner that will accommodate fresh salad greens or a tomato plant or two, or whatever your palate desires. How about a dwarf fruit tree in your yard? Even apartment dwellers can do container gardening. Vertical gardening is a new thing. Your local greenhouse, master gardeners, or even your neighbor with a green thumb can help you get started if you are timid about starting a vegetable patch large or small, or filling a pot or two of fresh edibles. Believe me, gardening is therapeutic, both mentally and physically. It helps weight loss, heart health and more, and don’t you just drool over the thought of biting into a you-grown tomato. Or bring on the eye-candy images of colorful peppers or kale or many other colorful edibles that can be growing a few feet from your door.
I can go into the statistics of not eating food that is grown 2000 miles away, or from other countries that have lower standards of pesticides and processing for their exported foods, but you already know that, I bet. There is no melamine or pesticides in my garden, and your piece of dirt won’t either. There are safe and natural pesticides if absolutely needed; just ask your county extension office or again, your local greenhouse grower or organic gardener. They say you are what you eat! Who are you?
If I’m singing to the choir for those who already garden and love it, I say Stand Proud and spread the word. Our parents and/or grandparents who gardened as a way of life were thrifty, healthy people. We can be no less.
Excuse me now. I have to finish planting my garden.