PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: CARRYING THE CROSS (2006)

This column was published in The River Reporter on 27 April 2006. 

As it happened, business brought me to the suburbs of Philadelphia on Good Friday. I realized that if I arranged my schedule right I could get to the Lockheed Martin offices in King of Prussia in time for the 29th annual Good Friday protest by the Brandywine Peace Community.

The Brandywine Peace Community, based in Swarthmore, PA, is one of a number of religion-based groups that have been practicing nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action for years. You don’t hear much about them, and they don’t seek a lot of publicity—but they have borne a constant and unwavering witness against war and militarism.

Lockheed Martin, of course, is the world’s largest weapons manufacturer, and one of the Iraq war’s main profiteers. In a strange yet somehow appropriate circumstance, their facility lies directly behind the enormous and glitzy King of Prussia Mall, across from an IMAX theatre.

The protest took the form of a Good Friday litany, with far-ranging commentary that powerfully linked the stations of the cross with the impact of military spending and the expansion of the American empire on human needs. A full account of the event, including the readings used in the litany, can be found at http://www.brandywinepeace.com/good%20friday%202006.html. Following are some quotes from that account, edited slightly, with my own observations thrown in.

“About 100 people participated under a cloudy day marked by periods of light rain… More than the usual number of Upper Merion police and police vans were present. …At the driveway entrance, there was an upright full-sized coffin … pictures of Iraqi children, [and] a large sign with the Lockheed Martin logo reading: ‘We’re making a killing!’” There was also a stack of smaller crosses. Each featured the names of one Iraqi and one American killed in the war, as well as one person identified as ‘a victim of poverty and the domestic-war economy.’ After each reading, someone carried one of the crosses into the driveway entrance.

“At the 12th station, ‘Jesus Dies on the Cross,’ a bell-intoned period of silence … ended with the broadcast of ‘Adagio for Strings,’ as those in the driveway laid their crosses down, and began a procession down the drive with a large cross overhead draped in purple and white cloth. …A solid line of Lockheed Martin security personnel prevented the procession from delivering the cross to Lockheed Martin as Upper Merion police surrounded and began arresting the kneeling activists. …The bearers of the large cross being held upright were among the last to be arrested and the last arrest was made with the security head of the Lockheed Martin complex holding the upright cross.”

The author then had to carry the cross across the driveway to where the other activists were waiting. (The symbolism would have made for a great photograph.) But the last arrest was of a young woman who had sat down in the driveway and refused to move, despite many requests from the officers. Finally, they lifted her up and placed her limp body in a police vehicle. Fittingly enough, this happened just as the final station, “Jesus is Laid in the Tomb,” was being read. (I asked an organizer later if this had been planned, but it wasn’t.)

The next Monday, in a hotel on my way back home, I stumbled on a showing of “The Passion of the Christ,” which I hadn’t seen before. As the camera lingered over the instruments of torture in the infamous scourging scene, I wondered how anyone who had seen the film could condone the use of torture in the War on Terror, or fail to think about Abu Ghraib. The Brandywine activists are correct in bringing these two things together, and in pointing unflinchingly to the cross of war that humanity still bears.

The Cooperage Song (Power of a Dream)

A song inspired by, and dedicated to, The Cooperage Project in Honesdale PA

D                            G
a hollow building is nothing but bricks
A
until someone fills it up
D
with people, sound and light
an old factory – who can say what it might be
it might become community
if you do it right

chorus:
anyone who says you can’t make something out of nothing
well they don’t understand the power of a dream
everybody knows that you can make things so much better
when you get people together
meet me at the Cooperage (la la la la…)

feed your body, feed your soul
learn a skill or play a role
you know the limit really is the sky
buy some greens or play some blues
hear from the past, taste something new
share the things that money just can’t buy

(chorus)

take a seat and take your time
we’ve got the coffee, bring some wine
dance and sing as we turn another page
the moment’s here for you to seize
build a barrelfull of memories…
let’s meet at the Cooperage (la la la la…)

final chorus:
anyone who says you can’t make something out of nothing
well they just don’t understand the power of a dream
we all know that we can make things so much better
when we bring it all together
meet me at the Cooperage
la la la la let’s meet at the Cooperage
la la la la welcome to the Cooperage

Hard Day at the Office (a story)

For some reason, I was unusually tired when I came out of Work today.

My gauges indicate that I had been at Work for the usual nine-hour stint, and I took all my usual breaks, but still, somehow, when I was released and came back to myself at 1800 or so my physical body felt especially exhausted. I don’t remember many details of the day’s work, of course, no one ever does, but I didn’t recall anything standing out or being particularly different. I had slept well the night before, had my customary breakfast, tended to my various biological needs with no notable difficulties or discrepancies, and settled into Work as scheduled around 0845.

Going into Work state these days is somewhat like dreaming – you’re just there, thinking about things, and next thing you know, you’re somewhere else, maybe someone else, and you’re dealing with various situations, and things happen, and you deal with them, and then you’re awake again and you’re not quite sure what just happened or to whom but you’re back to where you were, and you are who you are, and you’re safe in your own little home space, and you know you don’t have to think about those things anymore because they weren’t exactly real.

Even if sometimes disturbing traces remain in your mind. They fade soon enough.

I read somewhere that Work state is related to what used to be called “flow” – back in the day, that was the term used for a rare frame of mind where one activity simply seemed to flow effortlessly into another, and tasks would get done, insights gained, goals met in an organic and naturally occurring way.

Back in the day you had to work pretty hard to get into that state, apparently. You had to be an athlete, or a dedicated artist, or some kind of academic. But then they figured out a few things about neurochemistry, and a few things about interfaces, and they made it easier and easier to attain. Now the technology barely requires conscious input on the part of a worker like myself. Sometimes decisions still have to be made based on subjective factors, I suppose, and the hardware and the software aren’t quite to that point yet. I guess when they do get there we won’t be needed at all, but I am not objecting.

Hey, it pays the bills.

From what I can recall, my job involves processing requests for goods, confirming deliveries, and following up on any delivery problems. I produce reports, I compile statistics, I look for trends. I say “I” but I should probably say “we,” since there are plenty of subroutines and applications and databases and programs that I can call upon, as well as actual human co-workers. I am part of a good team – we work together almost seamlessly, although we are physically quite distant from one another.

But today I am so tired. Emotionally and physically drained, and I don’t really know why. I just don’t remember. The reports show that today’s volume was a bit higher than average, but I seem to have managed the larger workload without any dent in my performance ratios – in fact, I see a commendation on my record from my supervisor, not a big deal, just a kind of “Attaboy, way to go!” encouragement, no raise or promotion or anything, mind you, but it is the kind of thing that will look good on my next performance review. Well, that all just means that I will sleep soundly again tonight.

I just wonder what “Hazardous Duty” means.

CONTROLLED DEMOLITION (1998)

(This essay was originally written in 1998. Thank goodness for the Wayback Machine.)

You’ve seen the pictures: one moment, there is a building, seeming solid and stable. Suddenly, flashes of light can be seen within the building, and puffs of smoke appear from its windows. The building seems to inhale for a moment, and then, as it exhales, it slowly folds in upon itself in a great cloud of dust and debris. The surrounding buildings are untouched, undamaged, except perhaps for a coating of dust.

It’s called “controlled demolition,” and the people who make it happen rely on a number of things:

  • An intimate knowledge of the structure to be brought down
  • Thorough understanding of the capabilities of their tools
  • Careful planning and consideration in the use of those tools
  • Absolute concern for the effects of their actions on the surrounding environment and the people within it.

Now consider the global society in which we live as a building of its own. Look at the conditions on the lower floors, where the air is fouled, the plumbing backed up, where children and old people sleep in hallways or closets. There has been a party going on in the penthouse for years, of course… but the partygoers are either unaware or uncaring about the conditions below them that make their party possible.

There are those of us, within the Green movement and elsewhere, who believe that this structure is inherently unsustainable — that at some time, it must collapse under its own weight. But what should we do? If we simply sit back and wait for the collapse, countless numbers of innocent beings will suffer needlessly. If, on the other hand, we just bring in the bulldozers and knock it over (the approach that was advocated by quite a few during the 1960’s), we will still cause unnecessary suffering – and be left with a bigger mess than we began with.

It seems to me that the task before the Greens and their allies is multifold.  Here is what must be done:

  1. Construct alternate structures.
  2. Help people become aware that alternatives are both necessary and possible.
  3. Enable as many as people as possible to make the transition.
  4. Then — and only then — bring the structure down, in as controlled and deliberate a manner as possible.

The first two steps are being done, to some degree.  Many individuals and groups are building alternative institutions, and the awareness of their existence is growing.  But we are nowhere near the point where large-scale transitions are possible.  In the meantime, there are other things to be done.  Within this metaphor, for example, electoral and legislative activity are attempts to temporarily shore up parts of the structure, to try to stave off the collapse until the other parts of the work can be completed.  This is not trivial work, it is not a waste of time, it must be done — but we must not deceive ourselves that electoral or legislative successes in and of themselves are the goal.  Rather, they are only one part of a much larger work.

THE WANNABE SUPERVILLAIN’S LAMENT

Someday when I control the world from my atomic easy chair
I’ll search around the world for you but won’t find you anywhere
I’ll send out drones to bring you home but my search will be in vain
And I’ll have to use my own mind control ray to get you out of my brain

CHORUS
I’ve got submarines that roam the seas
I’ve got satellites above
But I can’t devise the fiendish plot
That will bring me back your love

I’d love to share my secret lair on that remote volcanic isle
But I’d give it all up in a minute just to see you smile
Yes I’m the mind that lurks behind a dozen vast conspiracies
But it only takes one look from you to drive me to my knees

CHORUS

My fingers are in everything, but I can’t get you in my arms
I manipulate the world interest rate but can’t interest you in my charms
Yes I might hold total control of the whole economy
But you control my very soul & you’re just not impressed with me

CHORUS

THE EXISTENTIALIST GAZELLE (A Fable)

THE EXISTENTIALIST GAZELLE 
(A Fable in the Manner of Bierce)

Having thought things through, an Existentialist Gazelle approached a Lion.

The Lion, who was resting in the shade, roused himself from his near-slumber. He was surprised to see the Existentialist Gazelle standing in front of him.

“What can I do for you?” said the Lion politely, for he was a Noble Beast.

“I’m here to be eaten,” said the Existential Gazelle.

“I beg your pardon?” said the Lion.

“I’m here to be eaten,” the Existential Gazelle repeated. “I know it is my eventual fate to be your prey. I accept this, but frankly the waiting is causing me great anxiety. I would rather take command of my destiny, and so here I am.”

“But I just ate your cousin a couple of days ago,” said the Lion. “I’m not hungry yet.”

The Existential Gazelle had nothing to say.

“And besides,” the Lion continued, “I can think of nothing more unappetizing than killing someone who isn’t running away from me as fast as they possibly can. The hunt is the best part of the experience. Now please, return to your herd and let me resume my nap. I suggest you focus on enjoying each moment, and stop worrying so much about the future. It will come soon enough.”

The Existential Gazelle bowed his head in respect, for he saw the wisdom in the Lion’s words. He backed away slowly, and then turned and bounded quickly across the veldt.

The Lion’s stomach grumbled, and he rose to his feet.

“Ah, now, that’s more like it,” he said to himself. And took off in pursuit.

THE SONGS OF BLIND PEANUT NICHOLSON

Just to make a canonical list for further reference… These are the country songs written by my distant cousin, Blind Peanut Nicholson of Possum Claw, Arkansas… We might be able to look forward to some kind of output from the man one of these days…

  1. Trouble, Trouble, Trouble
  2. I Must Be The One That’s Dead
  3. De Facto Divorce
  4. If You’d Been Thinkin’ What I’ve Been Thinkin’ (You’d be Drinkin’ Too)
  5. Never Go Down to the River (With the One You Love)
  6. Who Are You (And What Have You Done With My Wife)