A week in the life

Occupy Chicago panel on nonviolent direct action

Even at this stage of the game, I wonder what my actual job is. I’ve meandered through life patching together a potpourri of duties that mostly arrived without warning. Thirty years ago, when I was ensconced in graduate school, there was little inkling that I would soon begin zigzagging across the thin ice of the next three decades, following the scent of one social cataclysm after another, and hiring on with a series of social movements, nonprofits, and schools that seemed to be on the right track.

To say that I had no sense that activism was ahead, though, overstates the case a bit. Even before finishing college I became addicted to the writings of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who in the last decade of his life wrote voluminously on the apocalyptic challenges facing the world — and on our calling as human beings to join in the monumental task of creating a new direction. Merton provided both the nudge and the terminology for an activist life, including the vision and principles of nonviolence.

But before anything came of this, I found myself taking another preparatory step. I began to write short stories about a staid guy who, against every fiber of his better judgment, couldn’t help but take an irrevocable action for justice and peace. He was living an ordinary life, but this life was grinding away at him. He didn’t have the language of either structural violence or soul-force. It wasn’t ideology or social analysis that compelled him to make a dramatic move. It was something deeper — something that had infiltrated every part of his reality. Finally, without holding a meeting or telling another soul, he left his apartment and drove out to a nearby nuclear weapons facility where he quietly climbed and crossed a security fence. Landing softly on the ground, he simply sat there. The story ends as he waited to see what would happen.

I wrote a few pieces of fiction like this before I became an activist. As with any other form of preparation, this writing seems to have been a kind of rehearsal for acting my way into thinking some years later when I finally got around to engaging in public nonviolent action. While the reality turned out to be different — the protests I took part in at nuclear weapons sites and federal buildings, for example, were not solo ventures but something done in the context of community, with all the support and wisdom that can bring — there were elements that the writing foretold. The most powerful one was the awareness that this kind of thing is not a “gesture” or a “statement” but an experience of offering one’s whole being.

Sitting on the wrong side of the nuclear fence, the staid guy in the story used the most powerful language he had at his disposal — his unarmed body and spirit — as he waited silently for what would transpire. He may have had hopes for change, or not. What was important was his decision to engage the terror around him with his whole self. In the intervening years, I had this kind of experience when joining with others for a nuclear-free future, peace in Central America, freedom in East Timor, and an end to U.S. occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, or options for homeless women and men. In the heart of nonviolent action there is an empty, wordless moment where we are free — and where we are invited to offer this freedom for the healing of a world that longs for liberation.

The nonviolent journey came to captivate me more and more. Whatever plan I had for my life back in the day gave way to an increasingly improvised existence, with years working in a movement office; facilitating workshops for a nonviolence training outfit; teaching at a string of colleges; helping to organize one campaign or another. Occasionally all of these stints coincided, but no one became primary.

Sometimes I wonder about this path and whether there has been too much zigzagging. Or if I should try to focus. Or if this pasted together set of things that has become my “job” should be boiled down — or should become something else altogether.

These thoughts cross my mind fairly often — but not this week. The past week has been one of those intense times when, because of the cobbled together nature of what I do, I was able to get another glimpse of the growing movement for change in several different contexts in Chicago, including a high school, a local university, the streets, and a resurgent Occupy Chicago.

The week started at Loyola Academy, a suburban high school north of Chicago where I was asked to facilitate a forty-minute workshop — four times in a row, back to back, for a stream of students who are members of the school’s Amnesty International and Pax Christi chapters. They reflected on the vision and stories of justice and shared their own experiences of justice and peace. They were engaged, inquisitive and intense. As someone who never heard the phrase “social justice” in high school, I am forever inspired by high schoolers who want to make a difference in the world, and these students were no exception.

The next night, I was at DePaul University. As part of its Journeys to Justice Series, I facilitated “Facing a Troubled World: Imagining Justice,” a workshop attended by 70 students in which we grappled with our own experiences of injustice and reflected on powerful examples of people power movements that created justice. We closed out the evening with a parallel lines role-play that simulated a conflict for and against a (hypothetical) proposal that the university create a comprehensive resource center on campus for some of the 80,000 homeless people who live on the streets of Chicago.

A couple of days later I joined hundreds of people in the 32nd annual Good Friday Walk for Justice organized by the Eighth Day Center for Justice. This contemporary reenactment of the Stations of the Cross — Jesus’ walk to his execution — rolled through downtown Chicago on a sunny but blustery afternoon and dramatized issues of justice, including torture, environmental destruction, economic inequality, violence against women, drones, attacks on public school teachers and immigrant rights. In the time of Jesus, crucifixion was a political sentence meted out to rebels who resisted the Roman occupation, and the walk to this grisly death was a form of what theologian Ched Myers calls “the political theater of imperial triumph.” By moving from site to site — from Grant Park to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to the federal building — this “way of the cross” is transformed from an exercise in churchy piety to an engagement with contemporary empire and the crucifixion of people and the planet.

The next day, Occupy Chicago kicked off Occupy Spring, with neighborhood events throughout the city followed by a convergence at Butler Field in Grant Park, where a plethora of workshops and panels were held. I joined Mary Dean (Voices for Creative Nonviolence), Wade Hannon (War Resisters League), and Rosalie Riegle (The Catholic Worker) in a panel on nonviolent direct action, followed by an open-air nonviolent direct action training that I co-led with Marie Shebeck (White Rose Catholic Worker). The U.S. prepares for combat by holding war maneuvers; in contrast, we called our training “Justice and Peace Maneuvers.” We had very little time — barely 40 minutes — but we managed to engage in hassle lines (in which participants were, among other things, invited to share a one-sentence explanation for why they were taking action) and then a full-blown nonviolent civil resistance role-play focused on the upcoming NATO summit. And speaking of the May events here in Chicago, I finished off the week by facilitating a nonviolent action training for the Fellowship of Reconciliation chapter at DePaul devoted to preparing students and others for those demonstrations.

There is a growing movement for a more just and peaceful world, and this week I was given a renewed sense of this.

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