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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Billy King

Number 236: February 2016

[Returned to related issued on Nonviolence News]

Well, hopefully we have an end to weather which would make you think of building a Noah’s Ark. If people wanted evidence of global warming – well, we have had it in Ireland. Though it was a great story/image about the students in Fermanagh who turned their football field into a (kayak) water polo pitch seeing it was covered by a couple of feet of water - they went on to beat their teachers in a match.

The activist family
If you are a political or peace activist, how can you possibly combine that with family life or indeed any kind of reasonable social existence? People talk about the work/life balance but how can an activist, if they have a paying job or study they have to attend to, have a work/life/activism balance - this can be a real tight-rope walk. What suffers? Activism or family? Activism or friends?

This is, of course, putting certain choices very bluntly and directly. Hopefully our lives are more nuanced than that. There are various options. If you can afford not to work full time, or one adult member of a family not to work full time, that can release some time to be an activist. That may require a partner to be the main breadwinner, and you need a lot of goodwill, love and tolerance. Or you can choose a spartan lifestyle and, if you have the flexibility, work the minimum hours to get by. If both partners are activists then you can ‘take it in turns’ over the years to be the main activist (and possibly the main breadwinner) but that can be difficult too – who gets what and when? Not being afraid to be out of work for periods, if financially possible, can also release time but there can then be pressures from the powers that be to get a job, and loads of hoops you have to jump through. Other possibilities exist; early volunteering before establishing a career, early and active retirement, extended family or communal living of many different kinds, and so on.

One fascinating exploration of this area, both in terms of her own involvement in childrearing and an account of her childhood, is in Frida Berrigan’s book “It runs in the family – On being raised by radicals and growing into rebellious motherhood” (OR Books, 2014). Yes, perhaps you did recognise the name: Frida Berrigan is a daughter of Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister (and niece of Dan Berrigan). For some of us in Ireland there is the additional interest that Frida Berrigan’s partner is Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer (former intern at Glencree) who is a son of Joanne Sheehan, also known to some of us in Ireland and through WRL in the States and WRI (War Resisters’ International). But the book is of very considerable interest in this area without having any connections to those involved, and it is a good and easy read.

But none of what it covers is easy. Frida Berrigan certainly doesn’t make it look easy. But she does make it look possible. At every stage there are choices to be made and Frida Berrigan explores them openly and honestly, both in relation to her own upbringing and her young family, and covers times when she has got it wrong. Frida’s parents lived in a community named Jonah House which they set up and “My mom and dad estimated that they spent eleven years of their twenty-nine-year marriage separated by prison.” (p.2) This was for various nonviolent actions they were involved in, though, except for one time, they avoided both being in prison at the same time for the sake of their children.

One of the interesting contrasts which is explored in the book is the difference between being an activist in a large city and in a town/smaller location where people are much more likely to know you and interact with you in ordinary life. Also, if you live in a place which has a heavy economic dependency on the military-industrial complex then you need to find a non-judgemental way of relating and talking to people. Frida quotes her husband Patrick: “I never hid who I was or what I thought and believed. I worked really hard to find ways of communicating respectfully and nonjudgementally. I learned to focus on systems, not personalities. I would tell the other kids: ‘I am not against your dad the soldier; I am against the system that bombs cities and kills kids.....” (p.68)

There’s a great A J Muste story that is used (p.174); “There is the famous and somewhat apocryphal story about how pacifist A. J. Muste stood in front of the White House one night as part of a regular anti-war vigil when the rain and the cold kept everyone else away. He was completely alone. A reporter came up to him and asked how he could change the world with his solitary protest, Muste responded: ‘Oh no, I don’t do this to change the world: I do it so the world won’t change me.’ “

She also explores what can be violence in parenting, not just hitting children or calling them names but “Blame, retribution, shock tactics, yelling, disproportionate consequences, diffused anger, misplaced anger, and scary, out-of-control anger....” (p.83)

On nonviolence Frida Berrigan says “Nonviolence means more than not being violent. It means more than being meek and turning the other cheek. Being nonviolent means digging for the root causes of behaviours, policies, and attitudes. It means understanding, addressing, changing, resisting, and converting. All of that begins with asking why.” (p.159)

Anyway, it’s a fascinating glimpse into an activist’s real life, and one that may help us to reflect on our own. One other great reference (p.41) is to a model of intergenerational day care. “Toddlers and senior citizens at ONEgeneration Daycare outside of Los Angeles participate in painting, gardening and reading together. A New York Times article about the facility notes that ‘compared to their peers in traditional preschools, children in intergenerational daycare programs are more patient, express more empathy, exhibit more self-control, and have better manners.’ “ In a western world where generations are more and more split, it sounds a fascinating model.

Grossly offensive or just offensive
The trial of Pastor James McConnell in Belfast for remarks broadcast on the internet about Muslims and Islam in a sermon raises many issues, about religious bigotry, about freedom of speech, and about personal responsibility. In the event he was found not guilty, in early January 2016, of being ‘grossly offensive’ which was the legal threshold for sanctions, though the magistrate did label the remarks offensive.

Using the term ‘heathen’ by Christians is offensive but in this neck of the woods it tends to be an old Christendom-type term for non-Christians; derogatory yes, offensive yes, but underneath the pastor was simply saying Muslims are not Christians. This is hardly a world-shattering conclusion to make, even if he used offensive terms. However I should point out that some dictionaries define a ‘heathen’ as someone who does not belong to the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam; by this definition, the pastor is wrong, Muslims cannot be defined as ‘heathen’. Incidentally ‘Pagan’ can mean to imply a polytheistic religious belief so if he had used this term he would also have been at least partly wrong (he didn’t use it).

He did however say Islam was “satanic”, i.e. of ‘Satan’, the devil. This and his comment about Islam being “a doctrine spawned in hell” is a product of the pastor’s ignorance. If he knew anything about religious history he should know that Islam grew out of some of the same conditions as Judaism and Christianity, indeed was partly an Arab response to the perceived need for such a monotheistic religion and morality system, and Islam recognises, and builds on, Jewish and Christian prophets. To say it was ‘spawned in hell’ could mean that this label is extended to Judaism and Christianity as well – hardly something that the pastor would want to do.

If the law judges Pastor McConnell free to speak his bigotry and ignorance, common sense and an awareness of the sensitivities and proclivities in Northern Ireland should have warned him otherwise. ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me’ may be true but words can be used to cause sticks and stones, and much worse, to be used – you just need to look at Ian Paisley’s career of egging on perpetrators in the Troubles to realise this. Effectively calling Muslims ‘the spawn of the devil’ (even if he was saying it was Islam itself was ‘spawned in hell’ and, on acquittal, that it was only their theology he was against) was unwise, hateful, and had the possibility of spurring hearers on to violent action against Muslims.

The law is the law, good, bad or indifferent. Personal responsibility is another matter. If Pastor McConnell believes in love, and the founder of the religion he adheres to had something to say about that, then he could have found out a bit more about Islam before he opened his mouth, and, if he still chose to speak, spoken in a rather different way. He did say on his acquittal that he loved Muslims; if he did or does then it certainly did not guide his initial words on the matter.

Matters à Rising
Well, it is the centenary of 1916 and thus of the Easter Rising as well as the Battle of the Somme. A great opportunity to pick your myth and run with it (‘pick a myth’ rather than the old ‘pick and mix’). There has been some serious ‘discussion’ of the Rising, e.g. in the letters pages of the Irish Times, I say ‘discussion’ in inverted commas because on an issue like this you wonder how much people are listening to each other. Analysis of ‘just war theory’ in relation to the Rising would clearly indicate, no, it wasn’t justified, even in the limited terms of this approach stemming from mainstream Christian thinking. Home Rule was on the statute books too but what did that mean, and what would be honoured after the war in the face of unionist military resistance? Would partition have happened anyway (likely I think). Would it have led to ‘the freedom to achieve freedom’ without the bloodshed, division and hate which ensued, and, indeed, the same level of subsequent entrenchment North and South? Big ‘what ifs’ but ones which we do need to grapple with.

And of course justification after the event (sanctified by the new state in the 26 counties) was a gift to republican militarists/paramilitarists come the lead in to what became The Troubles from 1969-1970 onwards. The ends justifying the means combined with the possibility (certainty in closed thinking) of post-hoc sanctification was a heady mix. I often return to one of the most effective actions of the Irish nationalist struggle of the early 20th Century which was completely nonviolent; the transfer by republican MPs elected in 1919 of allegiance from Westminster to the first Dáil in Dublin. There were other such nonviolent possibilities although most people did not see them.

I remember being at my Protestant secondary school in Northern Ireland around 1970 and, clearly not identifying with British war making and the First World War, being asked by a teacher did I then identify with the 1916 Rising? I also answered in the negative to that. Today I can still say, no, I don’t identify with it but I do recognise the idealism of some of the leaders, and I do identify with some of the Proclamation, especially ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’, but their ideology of elitism and militarism, nah, not at all – ‘blood sacrifice’ may not have been a part of the ideology of many of them but I wouldn’t go for that either. Living for Ireland (whatever part you belong to or identify with) is the important part, not dying for Ireland.

In Northern Ireland the Battle of the Somme is just as myth-laden as the 1916 Rising. Yes, there was a huge sacrifice of men but the idea that because loyalist Prods were killed in droves means Britain should be beholden to them is a bit of a non sequitur, particularly when many Irish Catholics and nationalists were also hoping to get into Britain’s good books by fighting, and often dying, for that cause. Something had to give. The iconography of the First World War and the Somme has been taken on by loyalists, partly as a token of the debt they see Britain owing them. It may count for something but in the world of realpolitik not so very much though nevertheless it is a key part of loyalist self image.

- - -

That’s me for now. It has been a mild winter but spring does not beckon yet despite St Brigid’s Day (1st February) being traditionally the start of Spring in Ireland – a bit of daft labelling I reckon. But the days can be seen to be getting a bit longer and that always feels good. See you soon, Billy.

Who is Billy King?
A long, long time ago, in a more innocent age (just talking about myself you understand), there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train' and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor around with you).

Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little about horses even if someone with a similar name is found astride them on gable ends around certain parts of Norn Iron).

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