Spiritual Activism in a Time of War


I have spent much of my adult life working to change the conditions that create war. I never imagined that my husband would be fighting in one. He got the call in October 2003, and deployed to Iraq with the Washington Army National Guard in early 2004. By the time he left, I was already active in Military Families Speak Out (www.mfso.org), an organization that has been at the forefront of the efforts to end the war in Iraq. If ever there was an opportunity to turn swords into ploughshares, it’s now.

Over the past two years, I’ve made numerous visits to my Congressmen and Senators. So much so that two of them are now on my Christmas card mailing list. I’ve spoken at rallies and vigils and marches, presented petitions calling for an end to the war, and the return of our citizen soldiers. I rode on the northern route of the Bring Them Home Now bus tour, and met with Cindy Sheehan the day before she made a stand by sitting down outside the President’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.

I have conducted press conferences and hundreds of interviews, written letters to the Editor, Op Eds and articles. I have mourned, and meditated, and prayed, not always sure to whom. I have also made some new friends.

One of my friends told me, "I learned my brother was dead during a graduate seminar at Emory University when my mom called my cell phone, and said, He’s gone."

Ryan was killed on the 29th, four days after he should’ve been home. His sister, Brooke, saw President Bush speaking at a black-tie fundraiser, doing a comedy routine about the "missing" weapons of mass destruction. He was looking behind curtains and under tables, acting like he’s searching for hidden weapons, laughing as he did. His joke cost Brooke’s little brother his life.

When I asked my friend Bill Mitchell how he’d learned about his only boy’s death, he said, "A phone call. I got a phone call at home. They said it was a military representative, and they told me to stay home. They said they were sending some people over. And I knew. But I asked them, What for? What are they coming here for?

"She said, Sir, I cannot tell you. Just please stay there. Someone will be at your home shortly. And I was just yelling, I kept yelling, “Goddammit! You tell me now! You will tell me now! Is my son dead?”

"And she said, “Yes, sir, I’m sorry, sir.” I dropped the phone and fell on the floor. Remember that picture of the coffins that was in all the papers? I’m sure Mike was in one of them."

The same day
Casey Sheehan’s casket was almost certainly in the picture, too. He died on the same day, in the same place. His mom, Cindy, got the news of her son’s death while watching CNN. Like all of us with a soldier overseas, the Sheehan family has a love-hate relationship with the media coverage of the situation in Iraq.

It was the first Sunday in April, and her family was eating supper with the television tuned to the nightly news, which was covering the Sadr City attack. When the footage rolled, they watched, helpless and horrified, as their first-born died. A few hours later, three military officers at the front door confirmed his death.

Casey was buried 46 days before his 25th birthday, as his three younger siblings looked on. As Cindy Sheehan beat back the overwhelming urge to lay down in that grave with her boy. It’s a battle she fights every day.

Elaine Johnson fights that same fight, and I asked her how she was notified of her son’s death.

"I was at work, and my husband called. He said to come home. People were looking for me. Nobody would tell me what was going on. So I went home, not really thinking too much about it, I guess. I don’t really remember what happened afterward, but I do remember that I screamed when they told me, and my whole body gave out. I just fell down and sobbed. I stayed there for hours."

Notification of your child’s death seems to collapse the body as much as it does the heart. A friend of mine sold her house in the months after her son’s death, when the walls of her home seemed to be imploding with grief. When Carlos Arredondo was told that his beloved 20-year-old son, Lance Cpl. Alexander Arredondo, was dead, his grief exploded, and he went to the garage, got a can of gasoline, went to the Marine van outside and torched it and himself. Carlos joined the northern bus tour at the Amherst (MA) Commons, where more than a decade earlier, a Buddhist monk immolated himself in protest of the first Gulf War.

Dianna, another acquaintance I’ve made, told me about the young Marine wife who was having a party for her 3-year-old daughter. Right after singing Happy Birthday, she answered a knock on the door. Standing on her front step was the same Chaplain that had informed Dianna that her husband was dead.

Smoke from the candles was still wafting in the air when the young woman learned that her 24-year-old husband had been killed in the first days of the Fallujah offensive. His tour-of-duty was set to end in three weeks.

They come to induct the new Gold Star Families (those with an immediate family member KIA) between 6 in the morning and 10 at night. The United States Military Casualty Notification Office won’t tell you about the death of your loved one in the dark. Nearly 2,000 military families have been told, "We regret to inform you…." Many of the 80-plus people of Gold Star Families for Peace harbor a profound regret of their own: They knew the war in Iraq was wrong, and they did nothing. People who identify themselves as Christian or spiritual didn’t act to stop the bloodshed until after someone they loved was killed.

Founded in January of 2005, Gold Star Families for Peace (GSFP) is made up of families of soldiers who have died as a result of war (primarily, but not limited to the invasion/occupation of Iraq). Members are involved in protests and political actions, speaking out for peace in the hopes of "minimiz[ing] the human cost of this war, and to prevent other families from the pain we are feeling as the result of our losses." [www.gsfp.org]

Where were you?
I met with GSFP co-founder Cindy Sheehan, the California mom who wanted to know the Noble Cause that the President was referring to when he said, "The families of the fallen can be assured that they died for a noble cause."
What I wanted to know on August 5, the day before Cindy drove to Crawford, was, "Where were you two years ago?"

She paused, dropped her gaze, and said, "I was one of the Americans asleep at the wheel, and I got a horrible wake-up call."

Didn’t the spiritual community refer to 9/11 as a wake-up call for the nation?

It’s time for all of us to ask ourselves not only, "Where were you two years ago?" but, more importantly, "Where are you NOW?"

What are you doing, now, to act on what you know? What are you doing, NOW, that engages your spiritual values in the public realm?

I’ve been involved in what’s termed the New Age community for the past decade or so, and for the most part, what that’s meant is buying books, channeled readings and seminars. It’s been countless conversations about the inner child and abundance, healing sessions and past life regressions and the steps for attracting our soul mate. I am not diminishing the possibility of the Cultural Creatives for changing the world, WE are.

A surface-level spiritual makeover that is primarily focused on the personal and the material cannot address the deep challenges of our times. Engaged spirituality, or spiritual activism, a combination of prayer and meditation, work, and social and political activity, can.

Engaged spirituality entails two distinct, yet ultimately intertwined, activities. The first, which the New Age community has done exceedingly well, is to connect with those resources that provide spiritual sustenance. The second, which we have yet to really consider, is to engage with the world via acts of compassion and justice, service and citizenship. These four universally held values (there are at least a dozen) are found in virtually all spiritual teachings and traditions. But it’s not sufficient to say we hold certain values, we must live them, for "faith without works is dead." (James 2:14-26)

Prayer and meditation, two of the cornerstones of faith, are necessary practices, but they are not enough, as every great spiritual teacher and social activist has shown us. The activists prayed, and the preachers acted: Gandhi, Chief Seattle, Dorothy Day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Thich Nhat Hanh – and Jesus, one of the original radical political protesters.

We must reframe the perception that the spiritual life is comprised mostly, or exclusively, of things like contemplation, study and prayer. Thomas Merton, an activist monk, cautioned against "diddl[ing] around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues." Authentic spiritual life necessitates movement in the world, which includes the demanding, often chaotic, activities of protest, writing about and speaking out for peace and justice, and tendering mercy, care and compassion to all whom we encounter, but particularly those in need.

If your neighbor were hungry, would you pray for them, feed them, or help them find work? The solution is a trinity. God did not create the problems we are facing; we did, albeit from a very low vibrational frequency.

Given the amount of time – and dollars – that so many of us have spent cleansing and healing and toning to raise our frequencies, shouldn’t we be bringing that new resonance to the world? And wouldn’t now be better than later?

Remembering its heart
A little more than a year ago, a massive earthquake and the ensuing tsunami killed at least 160,000 people in Southeast Asia, and donations and assistance began to pour into that corner of the world. Much like the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, national boundaries dissolved, and humanity lost its mind (in the best possible way) and remembered its heart. After initially designating $35 million for relief assistance, President Bush increased the amount tenfold when members of the media and world leaders opined about the lack of generosity from the wealthiest nation on the planet. A nation that is spending more than $177 million a day to wage war in Iraq.

Less than two months ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated America’s Gulf region. The initial shock and horror felt in the aftermath of the record-breaking tropical storm was quickly translated into compassionate action to heal the wounded, recover the several thousand dead, and relieve the suffering of millions. People were talking about the horribly inadequate evacuation systems, the failure of the levees, the loss of life, and the devastation of the natural landscape. Some asked how God could allow it to happen, others wanted to know why more wasn’t done to warn people or somehow prevent it. The destructive forces of nature dismay us, yet man-made destruction continues.

The combined soldier and civilian casualties in Iraq will surpass 170,000 sometime this year, according to the most conservative estimates. Hundreds of thousands have been wounded or permanently disabled, and millions of Iraqis are without homes or jobs, engaged in a daily struggle for food and water.

The country’s landscape has been irrevocably changed by bombs and poisoned by depleted uranium, and I suspect the before-and-after photos of Fallujah and Louisiana have much in common. Yet no one speaks of the dead in the Gulf of Mexico as collateral damage. Because that’s a tragedy; this is war.

If we have a spiritual, moral and humanitarian mandate to alleviate suffering, then surely we are ordained not to inflict it. And those of us in the Christian and spiritual communities belie our faith when we do not speak, and act, and work for change.

Empty Boots and Baby Shoes

I am so tired of standing at memorials for soldiers;
tired of weeping for the victims of this war.  
I am tired of watching parents plant crosses for their dead children,
day after day after godforsaken day.  

I am tired of placing flowers in empty boots and baby shoes;
of the way my body shakes at the first readings
of the names that were added to the casualty count this week.  

What’s wearing me out is bearing witness to this war.
This foreverness of death, and the unrelenting loss.  

It drains my spirit to meet the widow’s eyes;
to watch the fathers falter, falling to their knees.
Christ, that makes me weak.

To stand at the lip of the mouth of a grave that will never get enough
catching mothers tears, a nation driving by the dead, is exhausting to my soul.

I am deathly tired today.

Copyright © 2005 Stacy Bannerman. All rights reserved.

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Stacy Bannerman
Stacy Bannerman is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) and on the Advisory Board of Military Families Speak Out (www.mfso.org). Her book, When the War Came Home: The Inside Story of Citizen Soldiers and the Families Left Behind, will be released by Continuum Publishing in 2006. Her husband deployed to Iraq with the Army National Guard 81st Brigade in March 2004, and returned home in March 2005.


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