Conflict is inevitable. War is not.

Archive for the ‘Local Group Discussions’ Category

Book Discussion

Posted on: April 20th, 2015 by BWNWAdmin No Comments

Eugene has a Beyond War Book Group that meets monthly to evaluate books and create discussion questions to include in a Beyond War Reader’s Guide in order to help other Book Discussion Groups.

The Dandelion Insurrection by Rivera Sun

When Occupy Wall Street hit the news from Zucotti Park in September 2011, the media buzzed with the question, “What do they want?” By October, Occupy protests had taken place or were ongoing in over 951 cities worldwide. After the police dispersed the last iteration occupying public space, the question became “What had they achieved?” Even the most ardent detractors concede that the protestors had changed the conversation. The phrase “we are the 99%” entered the vernacular. The disparity between the wealthy 1% and rest of the country was openly discussed.

In her novel “The Dandelion Insurrection,” Rivera Sun borrows heavily from the Occupy Movement. The novel is set in a near future dystopia. The United States has become a police state run by corporations. Zadie and Charlie, the young revolutionaries actively organize against the vertically hierarchical systems of the repressive government and the resulting distributive injustice.

Zadie explains the real price of wealth. “Every time we idolize the wealthy and try to become rich like them, we’re perpetuating the suffering of billions. . .if people keep lusting after money and power, no amount of revolution is going to help us.” (p.68) She argues that democracy has always been a threat to elitist power structure and the government doesn’t really want an informed citizenry. They only want soldiers and consumers. Consumption had once described a deadly disease, but now it described a wasting of the soul. Zadie appeals to people to stop all forms of excessive consumption, to withdraw not only their worship of wealth, but also their approval of the wealthy.

Sun’s novel is laudable in its goals. However, the writing style is a distraction. It is fraught with an exhaustive overuse of action verbs and purple prose. A more serious criticism is that while espousing nonviolence, Sun poses enemies by dehumanizing the faceless men in power. In the book “The Nonviolence Handbook,” Nagler cautions that “The more you respect the humanity of your opponent, the more effectively you can oppose his or her injustice (p.15). . . all violence begins in the failure or refusal to recognize another as fully human.”(p.17) If Zadie and Charlie operated with this intention, they could more effectively amplify the change in consciousness that can change systems.

Reviewed by Dorothy Sampson

Book Discussion

Posted on: March 9th, 2015 by BWNWAdmin No Comments

Waging Peace by David Hartsough

David Hartsough was only fifteen when the FBI began a file on him.   At that age, he had organized a demonstration of kids at the Nike Missile site. If it is so that racism and bigotry are passed along to children with their pabulum, Hartsough’s story shows that compassion and empathy can also be imprinted.  His mother was a teacher who spent her summer vacations picketing a germ warfare plant. His father worked for the Quakers as the American Friends Service Committee’s college secretary. Following his parents’ model, David decided very early that he needed to do something with his life to challenge and change the terrible injustices in society.

Through his Dad’s work, David met many of the spiritual giants of the civil rights movements. Ralph Abernathy invited the Hartsoughs to visit him in Montgomery where they also met the twenty-six year old Martin Luther King. While they were there, Abernathy drove them around so they could see for themselves the total segregation of neighborhoods, churches, swimming pools and buses.

Inspired by this experience, David entered Howard University. He embraced the opportunity to join several black students in sit-ins at establishments that refused service to black people. He was twenty years old, sitting at the counter of the People’s Drug Store in Arlington Virginia, when a man with a knife in his hand threatened to kill him. “You Nigger lover. Get out of this store in two seconds or I’m going to stab this through your heart.” David said to his assailant, “Friend, do what you believe is right and I will still try to love you,” the man turned and walked away.

In that powerful moment, David understood viscerally that “a few people with some courage and commitment to nonviolence don’t have to just sit and curse and feel powerless when terrible things are happening. We can challenge and transform injustice, violence and oppression to achieve a more just society. We can change the course of history!”

He has kept that faith, working for peace and justice for sixty years from the days of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, to protesting American involvement in suppressing the people of Central America, facing death squads in the Philippines, working for reconciliation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia, and opposing American wars in the Middle East.

His actions were always informed by his faith. David learned well the power of turning the other cheek if you also stood your ground. Two thousand years ago when a Roman soldier passed a Judean peasant, he could strike him with the back of his hand to knock him out of his way, a dismissive gesture.   But if the peasant stood his ground and turned his other cheek, the soldier would be forced to look him in the face in order to strike again. The soldier would be forced to see the humanity of the one he would subjugate. In this spirit of nonviolent resistance, David Hartsough has stood his ground and forced oppressors to look at what they were doing, to acknowledge the humanity of those they would dominate. He has stood his ground when it meant risking going to prison, physical pain, or even death. His courage inspires all who work for peace and justice.

Reviewed by Dorothy Sampson

Book Discussion

Posted on: December 14th, 2014 by BWNWAdmin No Comments

The Terrorist’s Son by Zak Ebrahim

Years after his father was imprisoned for life, Zak Ebrahim, as an advocate for peace, gave a speech in front of a couple hundred federal agents at the FBI headquarters in Philadelphia. After the talk, some agents formed a line to shake his hand.   One agent, a woman, who had been crying, took his hand.   She had worked on his father’s case. “I always wondered what happened to the children of El-Sayyid Nosair,” she said.

This brief book is the answer to that question.

The adult males in Zak’s life had modeled fanaticism, bigotry, and violence for him. He was only seven when his father assassinated the leader of the Jewish Defense League. Then while in prison, Nosair helped plan the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. By deciding that other people’s deaths were more important than his own family’s lives, he had condemned his wife and his children to poverty and shame, a miserable rootless existence. They had to pay the price for his crimes.

Just having survived the bullying and negative dogma of his childhood is an achievement, but Zak went further and redefined himself. He had a lesson in empathy when he tried bullying himself. He saw a look on the poor tormented kid’s face that he recognized viscerally and knew he could not do to others what had been done to him.

Through small opportunities to experience the world, as a Rhino Rally guide at a theme park and by watching John Stewart on TV, Zak realized he had been taught lies. He began taking every fundamentalist lie he had been told about people—about nations and wars and religions—and held it up to the light. Turning someone into a bigot is the first step in turning him into a terrorist. But as Zak learns, bigotry cannot survive experience, and having been victimized, he understood deeply how little the world needs more victims. And so the son of the infamous terrorist, El-Syyid Nosair, stopped taking his father’s calls from the prison in Illinois and began a new life, a life of empathy, peace, and nonviolence.

Reviewed by Dorothy Sampson

Book discussion

Posted on: October 15th, 2014 by BWNWAdmin 1 Comment

Conscience by Louisa Thomas

“I know what I know,” the lyric from the song by the same name echoes Norman Thomas’ understanding of conscience.  It was the heart of his pacifism and his dedication to social justice.  He believed that every person had a conscience –“a sense that he is more than a creature of instinct, an awareness of ultimate ethical ends.”  Everyone knows what is right, though not everyone is free to act on that knowledge.

Norman’s great-granddaughter, Louisa Thomas, uses her access as a member of the family to tell the story of how Norman’s conscience developed.  This is both a strength and a weakness in the book.   The details of Norman’s parents and grandparents lives in the early chapters delay the narrative of Norman’s own story, which is worth telling.   He ran for President six times on the Socialist ticket, but that was preceded by his stand for peace and civil liberties during World War I.  These extremely unpopular positions are the focus of the book and the author should have gotten there sooner.

Norman’s parents did not have the money to send their sons to Princeton.  When an uncle offered to pay Norman’s tuition, he entered Princeton as a sophomore on the condition of passing extra exams.   Though he was woefully underprepared, he graduated valedictorian.  Woodrow Wilson was the new president of Princeton, and Norman took every class from the popular lecturer that he could.   He idealized him.  This only increased his disillusionment years later when Wilson took the country into war.

Norman followed both his father and grandfather into the Presbyterian ministry, but he didn’t share their belief on the inerrancy of the scripture.  At his ordination test, conservatives on the panel pushed Norman for his interpretation of the literal factuality of the Bible.  He had to “deploy a little sophistry” to satisfy his questioners.  His answers disappointed his father, and, for opposite reasons, Norman felt his performance was not his most principled hour.  This was a milestone in the development of his conscience.   From then on, he aligned his words and actions with his beliefs.

Newly ordained, he left a promising position in an upscale Manhattan church for a new parish in East Harlem that served immigrants and presented enormous challenges.  During this period, Wilson was elected President of the United States. His presidency began with a series of reforms, and he was reelected with the slogan “He kept us out of war.”  To Norman’s disappointment, Wilson changed course shortly after his reelection and asked Congress for a Declaration of War in April 1917.

If Norman was not really successful as a missionary for the Presbyterian church, on the subject of the war, he was evangelical.  He was convinced that an ethical society could not emerge from the inferno of battle, and he believed that capitalism meant the “practical denial of brotherhood” in favor of greed and distrust with war the most horrific evidence that exploitation leads to violence.

Norman was not subject to the draft, but he supported his younger brother, Evan, a conscientious objector who was court-martialed, imprisoned, shackled, brutally force-fed, and finally sentenced to life in prison for refusing to eat.  Norman called attention to the injustice and absurdity of Evan’s penalty.  Yet while he championed Evan, he also maintained dialogue with and respect for his two brothers who had enlisted.  In our polarized times it’s a remarkable achievement that the Thomas brothers found ways to be true to themselves and to each other.

In a letter to Evan, Norman expressed his reasons for hope even in discouraging times.  ”I am still enough of an optimist about the universe to believe that truth, righteousness, reason, not as abstractions but as the expression of the deepest desires of living men and women, will ultimately triumph if we serve them with methods consistent with them and abandon the false and perilous maxim that the end justifies the means.”   In our own discouraging times of continuous war, Norman Thomas’ words offer hope to us also.

Dorothy Sampson



Book Discussion

Posted on: September 3rd, 2014 by BWNWAdmin No Comments

Eugene has a Beyond War Book Group that meets monthly to evaluate books and create discussion questions to include in a Beyond War Reader’s Guide in order to help other Book Discussion Groups.

 Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream Writings and Speeches edited by James M. Washington

After Martin Luther King, Jr., was called on to lead the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, he came into the national spotlight.  There were death threats and attempts to kill him.  Bombs were thrown onto the front porch of his home, and in September 1958, he was stabbed as he was signing his recently-published Montgomery story.  Severely wounded, King was rushed to Harlem Hospital.  The next day the New York Times reported that the blade had been on the edge of his aorta. Ten years later, King recalled a letter that had been sent to him as he recovered from the stabbing.  A ninth grader, a young white girl, wrote:  “I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died.  And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”  We should all be happy that he didn’t sneeze.  In the remaining ten years of his life, King changed America.  Through his leadership in nonviolent direct action, institutional racism was made illegal.

 Editor James M. Washington has titled the last selection of King’s speeches, “A Prophet Foresees the Future.” (p. 167). King’s ideas coalesced around the unifying principle of non-violent action.  Even though the Civil War had been fought a hundred years earlier to abolish slavery, southern U.S. social culture and institutions continued to claim that Negroes, former slaves, were less than human and deserved, even enjoyed, second-class status.  By the middle of the twentieth century, these systems and institutions that maintained segregation, inferior education, restricted voting rights, and poverty for blacks could no longer be ignored.

King was well educated and had a brilliant mind, versed in the writings of philosophers from Kant to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to the study of Jaspers, Heidegger and Sartre.  But first and foremost, he was a preacher.  He based his life on his Lord’s requirement for human behavior stated in Micah 6:8 “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness.”  King had a vision of the world built on justice and fairness, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low: the uneven ground shall become level and rough places plain” from Isaiah 40:4 to “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” from Amos 5:24. Drawing inspiration from the Old Testament prophets, King described a new interracial society based on freedom and justice for all.

King believed the new society could be brought about by nonviolent action.  Unjust laws were out of harmony with the moral law of the universe, and something was going to give.  If the world were to be changed by violence, the aftermath would be bitterness and more violence.  But the aftermath of nonviolent change is reconciliation and the creation of a “beloved community.”  The process of nonviolent direct action creates crises, and establishes a creative tension to encourage a recalcitrant community to confront the issues.  By dramatizing the issues, the issues could no longer be ignored.

Conservative voices, including many white clergy, criticized King for pushing too fast.  In effect, they were encouraging Negroes to patiently accept injustice which they themselves did not have to endure.  King answers those critics in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail.  He was also denounced by more radical elements like those in the Black Power movement for not moving fast enough.  Yet King remained steadfast to his commitment to nonviolent direct action.  The Voting Rights Act, signed into law in 1965 is a result of his leadership.  There were race riots from Watts to Detroit in King’s lifetime, but his nonviolent confrontations saved America from an even greater bloodbath.

In 1967, King led an anti-Vietnam War demonstration and publicly made the connections between profit and capitalism and war.  He called for restructuring the whole American society.  Without systemic changes, the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”  These prophetic words were followed by King’s assassination a few months later.  James W. Douglas in his book “JFK and the Unspeakable” argues there was a direct connection between King’s anti-military and anti-capitalism stance and his killing.  After his death, the war in Vietnam dragged on.  The billions spent there choked off funds for the “Great Society” with its “War on Poverty.”  In many ways, we are still living in the aftermath of the great violence America perpetrated in Vietnam.  It left a legacy of bitterness and violence just as King predicted.

Dorothy Sampson


Book discussion

Posted on: July 10th, 2014 by Dorothy Sampson No Comments

Eugene has a Beyond War Book Group that meets monthly to evaluate books and create discussion questions to include in a Beyond War Reader’s Guide in order to help other Book Discussion Groups.

The Nonviolence Handbook, A Guide for Practical Action by Michael Nagler

Like a fish living in water and unaware of it, we are unmindful of the worldview we operate in. A consequence of the scientific revolution that began in the eighteenth century is a system of thinking that emphasizes materialism, separateness and competition. Violence is seen as the norm. This interpretation of the world is so prevailing that we are largely ignorant that it is a construct. Recently science has undergone a shift that supports Gandhi’s view that all life is connected and “nonviolence is the real law of our species.”

While we work to overcome the cultural lag in this understanding, Nagler’s book provides a primer on nonviolence. As the title states it is “a guide for practical action,” and more, because Nagler argues that nonviolence is not a tactic, rather it is a living power. There are many examples of nonviolence in practice from Gandhi to Martin Luther King to Mandela to Tim DeJesus, recently released from prison for his nonviolent activism to protect the environment

Disputes, whether in personal relations or over issues we hold dear – economic and social justice, protecting the environment, striving for a world beyond war – are not a zero-sum game. It is not a matter of “for me to win, you have to lose.” As long as we try never to humiliate or accept humiliation, we can shift the ground to problem solving, where everyone’s needs are met.

Nagler’s discussion is infused with optimism. He writes that a nonviolent act will always have a useful effect. Even when it appears to have failed “it operates under the surface and sets in motion forces which ultimately lead to a new equation.”

To express nonviolence, Gandhi coined the term “satyagraha” based on Sanscrit and meaning “clinging to truth.” “The world rests on the bedrock of satya or truth. Asatya, meaning untruth, also means nonexistent, and satya or truth also means that which is. If untruth does not so much as exist, its victory is out of the question. And truth being that which is, can never be destroyed.”

What a joyous thought! The words of Enya’s song come to mind, “What tho’ the tempest round me roars, I hear the truth it liveth. . . How can I keep from singing!”

-Reviewed by Dorothy Sampson

Book discussion

Posted on: June 25th, 2014 by BWNWAdmin No Comments

Knowing Mandela  by John Carlin

For journalists accustomed to the difference between the projected image of public figures and the real person, skepticism is their default. John Carlin was the South African correspondent for the London Independent from 1990 – 1995.   He hears Nelson Mandela at the first press conference after his release from prison, talking “so soberly yet so sunnily.”  When the conference was over, the journalists responded with a “long burst of spontaneous, heartfelt applause,” something Carlin had never seen before or again in 30 years of reporting.   Somehow, Mandela had hypnotized them “into forgetting we were working journalists, making a mockery of our pretensions of objectivity.”  How does a man, who has spent twenty-seven years in prison on political charges, come out without a trace of bitterness or the desire for vengeance? Was Mandela genuine or was he putting on an act?  Was Carlin, along with many others, taken in?  These are the questions Carlin sets out to answer.

Sentenced to life in prison in 1964, Mandela not only achieved his freedom, but also the freedom of his country from apartheid.  “He redeemed black South Afrikaners from tyranny and white South Africa from its sins.” He had become “quite possibly the most unanimously admired head of state in history.”

How did this happen?  Mandela understood the humanness of his enemies and accepted them.  While in prison, he learned Afrikaans, the oppressor’s language and then studied Afrikaans history.  In that way, he was able to internalize their fears and hopes and communicate that understanding to them.  From his jailer, who became a life-long friend, to the Queen of England, who he called by her first name and was perhaps the only person to do so, Mandela saw people as people, no matter their status or title.

He was also shrewd and tough-minded.  He knew vengeance would have a back-lash.  Violence promotes more violence so he chose a different course and appointed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which offered amnesty to apartheid-era wrongdoers in exchange for confession of crimes.  “He had fixed values: justice, equality, respect for all.  He had a defined objective: to overthrow apartheid and establish in his country a system of one person, one vote.  And he had a clear vision, after coming out of prison, of how to get there: by reconciling old enemies and forging a lasting peace between them.”

Seeking an answer to his questions, Carlin asks Archbishop Tutu about Mandela’s actions.  “Is it spontaneous?  Is it calculated?”  Tutu’s answer was “Yes and no.”

– Reviewed by Dorothy Sampson


Book Discussion

Posted on: March 26th, 2014 by Dorothy Sampson No Comments

What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?  by David Harris-Gershon

A few months after the start of World War I, On Christmas Day 1914, the German and British troops spontaneously stopped shooting at each other.  They crossed through the barbed wire separating their positions and met on the ground between to play soccer, share photos and sing carols together.  It is a remarkable story.  The generals were not amused.  They knew that when a warrior begins to see the enemy as a human being, he begins to hesitate.  He is no longer fit for battle.  Indeed, after the troops were reprimanded, some of the men had to be pulled off the front line, because they could no longer kill as they were ordered to.

I thought of this story when I read David Harris-Gershon’s memoir, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?  David and Jamie,  newlyweds, moved to Jerusalem full of hope.  Their adventure and dreams were shattered when a bomb exploded in the cafeteria at Hebrew University.  By a quirk of fate, Jaime, though severely injured, was spared but two close friends sitting beside her were killed.

The story continues as David tries to come to terms with what has happened. With the help of therapy, Jamie works through her trauma, but David’s healing stalls.  He cannot accept that a human being would do what the terrorist did to another human being. Between an inability to breathe regularly, compulsive behavior and insomnia, he begins studying every news article of the attack.  In one account, he reads that the Hamas bomber, Mohammad Odeh, expressed remorse, a small glimpse that the bomber is more than just a monster. This sets David on a search to understand the history of the two peoples, the cultural framework that cultivates such hatred.  In his study, he acknowledges that Palestinians as well as Jews have suffered and admits his own attitudes, suspicions, and distrust are complicit in the divide that leads to violence.  He resolves to meet the bomber, the man, face to face.  But, like the WWI generals who won’t permit fraternizing, the Israeli government has many strategies to prevent such an encounter of reconciliation.  David settles for a meeting with the Odeh family, whom he finds to be good and kind and he states “their talk was good.” It is a remarkable story.

– Reviewed by Dorothy Sampson

Book Group Discussion

Posted on: January 27th, 2014 by BWNWAdmin No Comments

Posted by Dorothy Sampson:

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer (1948)

When Norman Mailer titled his book The Naked and the Dead, he was not just describing bodies on the field of battle.   He exposes and leaves naked the feelings, the needs, the suffering and the motives of the men in his story.  The system they are trapped in kills their humanity.  If they survive, they may be breathing, but an essential part of their humanness is dead.  Mailer, who was a rifleman in the Philippines in World War II, has written a compelling classic that leaves no doubt about what war is to the men who fight it.

Mailer’s description of the war experience of this marine platoon is unflinching.  For the men who do the fighting, the emotions range from distaste to horror, from anxiety to panic, from anger to hate, and every negative feeling in between.  There is no joy and little kindness in their role.  They slog through mud, wade through rivers, sweat in the heat, shiver in the rain, inch along narrow ledges with sheer drops down the mountain, and contend with insects and reptiles.  Moments of terror while reconnoitering a path through enemy lines punctuate the tedium and hard labor of cutting a trail through the jungle.  Their rations as they march are the unappealing contents of cans they carry in their heavy packs.  They are at the bottom of a top down organization.  They obey their orders because they understand the power of those above to punish them.  This engenders their hatred of their fellows, their leaders, and the system.

General Cummings uses the men as he would pawns on a chessboard.  He was determined that they were going to learn “if he had to rub their noses in the dirt that the line of their least discomfort lay in winning the campaign.” Lieutenant Hearn tells him, “You’re up so damn high you don’t see anything at all.  The moral calculus on anything is too involved ever to be able decently to make a decision.” That doesn’t stop Cummings from making decisions including sending Hearn and the recon platoon on the patrol that results in the cheeky lieutenant’s death. The final irony of the story is that the patrol contributes nothing to the success of the campaign.  It only demonstrates the General’s power over his men.  As he says, “There’s one thing about power.  It can flow only from the top down.”

This type of top-down, vertical structure predominates in history. In Mailer’s novel, we see the devastation this organizing principal causes to the human spirit and to the hope of a peaceful world.  There are alternatives to the top-down principle.  Our last BW book selection, “Walk Out, Walk On” offered another possibility in its description of social groups organized horizontally with the focus on restoring agency to the individual and through them to the local community.  Isn’t it time for us to reject a domination society and work together toward a better future than death and violence?

-Reviewed by Dorothy Sampson

Book Group Discussions

Posted on: November 10th, 2013 by BWNWAdmin No Comments

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

The book  group read the fiction book Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko in October. Here is Dorothy Sampson’s review of the book. You are invited to join in on this discussion.

Along with an opposable thumb, a defining characteristic of a human is story.  We listen to stories about ourselves, about what we have done, and our place in the world, and we tell stories to ourselves.  For the young Native American, Tayo, in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel “Ceremony”, the stories nearly took away his will to live.  Because he was a “half-breed” and the circumstances of parentage, he was already burdened with the story of his unworthiness when  he went off to fight in the Pacific during World War II.  The guilt of being unable to save his cousin, who, when they signed up together, called Tayo his brother for the first time, added to his story of unworthiness and shame.  The recurring stories and images of the horrors of the jungle fighting and then captivity under the Japanese nearly destroyed him.

But there is another story at work in the novel.  It is of healing and finally redemption when Tayo immerses himself in the traditions and stories of the Laguna Peublo, his people, and designs his own ceremony to affirm the value of all life and his own in particular.

Silko’s novel is a story to remind us of the fragility and vulnerability of being human and how war can destroy not only life but also the essence of what makes us human.