Nonviolent Tactics: Some Reservations about Plowshares

by Jim Forest

Photograph of the Milwaukee 14 courtesy Jim Forest; details at the end of the article.

Editor’s Preface: Tactics define a protest, whether violent or nonviolent. They have been and are a matter of controversy and heated discussion within movements, as in the recent Occupy. Indeed, some would define nonviolence as a tactic, a definition not accepted by all. In the Catonsville Nine and the Milwaukee 14 protests the burning of draft files was seen by some as a justified means towards ending the Vietnam War, while others such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton saw it, at the very least, as a dangerous blurring of the line between violence and nonviolence. Jim Forest is here adding his word to this debate. We have also posted other articles concerning the definition of nonviolent tactics, especially Dorothy Day’s famous article, “Dan Berrigan in Rochester”, and the book review at this link of a recent history of the Catonsville Nine, which quotes Merton’s famous warning. JG

I was one of the Milwaukee 14, a group that burned draft records in 1968. This was the action that followed the Catonsville Nine. The discussion of Plowshares-style property damage and destruction in the November issue of The Catholic Agitator really got me thinking. One of the essential elements in property destruction actions is secrecy. If you tell them you’re coming, they won’t let you in. It’s that simple. The only way around it is to take pains not to be expected. You are obliged to be secretive. There are events in life where secrecy is necessary, even contexts in which life-saving actions are difficult or even impossible unless there is secrecy. For example here in Holland, my home since 1977, you had to be highly secretive about the people you were hiding during the period of German occupation.

My guess is that even in circumstances where the only way to save life and struggle against evil powers is to live and operate in secrecy, everyone pays a price. What I noticed in the resistance groups I was a part of during the last five or six years of the Vietnam War was how much suspicion there was within the groups. Inevitably there were worries about FBI infiltrators. So time and again the question was, “Is so-and-so for real? Can so-and-so be trusted?” Various people were suspected of working for the FBI. Some were forced out of the groups they were a part of. (I still correspond with one of these, a guy who was very embittered by the experience and in whom the residual scars remain visible.)

Eventually, in courtrooms, it became absolutely clear who the actual informers were. Personally, I don’t recall the people suspected of spying ever having been the right people. Ironically, sometimes it was people who had been trusted the most who turned out to be helping the FBI. (Think of Boyd Douglas, mailman for Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister, in the Harrisburg case.)

So we are talking about forms of action in which secrecy is a given and about the suspicion that secrecy, of its nature, generates, and the possibility, even likelihood, that considerable interpersonal damage may be the consequence of misdirected suspicion. This ought to make us very careful about getting involved in actions where secrecy is essential.

To plan actions of this type requires secrecy — and that in turn inspires distrust and suspicion. Also, some of the actions that followed the “hit and stay” sort that I took part in made me question what we had done. We stood around and took full public responsibility for what we did, welcoming the trial and whatever consequences came our way. Later draft board actions tended to become “hit and run” actions done anonymously. From my point of view what we had started gradually devolved into a form of politically motivated vandalism, albeit for praiseworthy purposes.

Another issue that must be considered: Things rarely go as planned. In the case of the Milwaukee action, I am still troubled by the cleaning woman — an elderly Ukrainian refugee — who discovered us inside the draft board emptying files and wanted to call the police. Two members of the group gently but firmly restrained her. She became hysterical. What if we had caused her to have a heart attack? What if she had died?

Another problem that increasingly bothered me was the way in which people were at times manipulated — “guilt-tripped” was the term in those days — into taking part in high-risk actions. This is not only a problem of actions aimed at property destruction but just about any acts of civil disobedience. Any group involved in trying to get other people to take part in anything is going to have to struggle with the temptation to become manipulative. For one thing we had people who tended to talk about actions in which there was a likelihood of long prison sentences as being “Serious.” As in: “Are you ready to take part in a Serious action?” One felt the capital S in the way such questions were asked. Anything that didn’t involve imprisonable risks was less than serious if not inconsequential. Individual conscience was being pushed to the sidelines.

As I see it, we are in the permanently awkward position of having to work out within ourselves who we are, and what God calls us to do with our unique mixture of gifts and tendencies. This involves ongoing struggle with not only demands that governments may make but also our peers and heroes, and that last part is often even more difficult. The most important thing I can possibly do is what God leads me to, which may seem unimportant to others, even to those whom I most admire. But if I do otherwise, however useless or irrelevant or unimportant or meager it seems, I am leaving my conscience behind.

The shaping of one’s conscience is about as hard a piece of work as I can think of. It’s the search for one’s real identity, finding out who we really are. It’s finding out what it would be like to fully recover ourselves as being made in the image and likeness of God.

A question raised by all this is, of course, what do we make of Jesus throwing the moneychangers out of the Temple? Is this a model of Christian resistance to militarism? In this regard, the question for Catholic Workers isn’t what anyone else might have thought, or is thinking now, but what does it mean to follow Jesus?

It is a lightning-like event in Christ’s life: turning over the tables of commerce in a place of worship and using a whip to drive away the moneychangers. If the story does nothing else, it should at least shave away the sugar-coating that often gets put on Jesus. The Lamb of God breathed fire.

Yet it’s striking to notice that Jesus didn’t enter the armories of the Roman occupiers or their collaborators. He didn’t even disarm his own disciples. At the time Jesus was arrested, Peter had a sword. Jesus healed the injury Peter caused and told his followers that, whoever takes up the sword will die by the sword. (I suppose Peter intended to strike a deadly blow in Jesus’s defense, but all he did was chop off an ear; it seems Peter wasn’t very skilled in handling weapons. In the gospels we hear no more of Peter’s using a weapon. He seems to have thrown away his sword that night and never got another.)

The point is that Jesus didn’t force Peter or anyone to be disarmed.

At present there is no military draft — thus no more occasion to destroy draft records. Instead a Plowshares Movement  has emerged aimed at damaging weapons, especially weapons of mass destruction. Some of these actions have helped raise awareness and important questions. Yet I wonder if the damage caused makes it any more likely that the people who make the weapons or want them are brought closer to disarmament by their action? I can imagine that if I had a gun and someone damaged it or stole it from me, I would be inclined to get another and maybe even two. I think I might become more suspicious, more afraid, more dependent on police and armies.

I understand that for those now in prison for Plowshares actions, raising such questions probably makes for hard reading. I can recall writing to Dorothy from prison, taking issue with her criticisms of draft record burning. I didn’t change her mind, but it was always clear that she had a profound sympathy for what motivated people like me, which centered on saving lives. The disagreements she expressed never made any of us feel rejected. In any event very little we do is beyond criticism. Much good often comes from actions that are far from perfect.

A NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPH: The image at the top is courtesy Jim Forest, who has provided the names of those depicted as follows: “The Milwaukee 14 burning draft records 24 September 1968; from left to right: reporter from Milwaukee Journal whose name I forget, Jerry Gardner, Bob Graf, Jim Forest, Fr. Larry Rosebaugh, Brother Basil O’Leary, Rev. John Higgenbotham, Donald Cotton, Fr. James Harney, Fr. Alfred Janicke, Fred Ogile, Michael Cullen, Fr. Tony Mullaney, Fr. Robert Cunnane and Doug Marvy.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Forest wrote this (February 12, 1993) as a response to queries from the Los Angeles Catholic Worker about nonviolent tactics. Since the early 1960s Forest has been one of the foremost leaders in the peace and nonviolent movements. He was the editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper, and cofounder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship; Vietnam program coordinator for Fellowship of Reconciliation, and editor of Fellowship magazine; secretary general of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation; and more recently founder and director of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of the Orthodox journal, Communion. His many books include All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day and Living with Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton. His most recent book is The Root of War Is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers, which we shall be reviewing shortly. Please see his Author Archives page for other of his articles posted here, via the link at the top of the page, or visit his own website at this link.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi