Friday, March 11, 2011

A SENSE OF CONVICTION

“Peace is not merely a distant goal we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the end of the protracted civil war in Nicaragua, in 1990, I went to build houses with Habitat for Humanity in an upcountry village called Jinotega. The end of the war had been announced. Peace had been achieved. But as is often the case the end of hostilities does not always coincide neatly with such announcements. In the jungles around Jinotega there were snakes, jaguars, big spiders, armed Sandinistas, armed Contras, land mines, trip wires and so on. Oh, and it was rainy season.

Pat and Donna, the supervisors of the building site, never once used the word ‘nonviolence’ to describe how they conducted themselves in such an environment. I, having spent time in the US Army Infantry, would not have understood if they had. When soldiers in olive drab uniforms that lacked any kind of insignia or identification swept cautiously through the village armed and dangerous, I felt completely at a loss. Such men can do what they want.

In spite of the dangers, this young couple came and went as they pleased in their old Toyota Land Cruiser. Once, they said, they had taped ‘TV’ on the windows of the Toyota. When they were stopped, rebel soldiers assumed they were from American Television and let them go where they wanted without hassle. One day I had the opportunity to ride along with them to pick up supplies. By the time we were heading home it was growing dark. I was jammed in the back with the supplies so I did not at first see why they were slowing down and coming to a stop. When I did see, I felt the icy sweat of panic. “What’s going on?” I asked, though I had a pretty good idea.

Armed men were blocking the road with their vehicles. These men, too, had no insignia nor identification of any kind. When we came to a stop one of the men came around to the driver’s side window and demanded to know who we were. Pat told them. They ordered us out of the Toyota. The back of my scalp prickled as I clamored out of the back and was lined up at gun-point with the others. What should I do? What could I do?

The moment of death was at hand and yet Pat and Donna addressed the soldiers lovingly and with a great sense of calm. I could not believe how calm they were, in fact. Here we were lined up and for all any of us knew we might be dead bodies dragged off into the jungle in another minute. (Perhaps less than a minute). But they continued to respond in ways that showed a great deal of courage, and without the need for weapons of any kind. We were not killed. What did happen, however, was a profound shift in the way I saw my life. A shift in the way I view courage. A shift in everything.

When I returned home I began to study everything I could get my hands on about this nonviolent way. I read Gandhi and Jesus (in a new light), and Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others. After a time my wife and I swore an oath of nonviolence. We have not taken that oath lightly.

Now, what does any of this have to do with writing or great literature? (The title might lend a clue). Over this past year I have been writing a series of short stories based on the ideas of nonviolent direct action and the various movements of nonviolence in the world. The collection is due out in the Spring of 2012. Meanwhile, you might check out one - 'A Most Curious Activity' that has been published in the online literary journal 'The Smoking Poet'. See it for free at www.thesmokingpoet.net Click on Fiction3 or my name James D. Sanderson.

Return next week, same time and same station for Part II of ‘A Sense of Conviction’.

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