Mennonites across Canada and the U.S. met on November 28 to plan days of action regarding the war between Israel and Hamas. Some of us may be wondering if we can or should participate. Is it the right thing to do?
That was the question J.R. Burkholder asked himself in 1985 before he committed an act of civil disobedience to show solidarity with people suffering in Nicaragua owing to U.S. policies.
In 1986, as editor of the Dallas Peace Times, I asked Burkholder, who was a long-time professor at Goshen College and founder of the Dallas Peace Center, to write about his decision to put his body on the line for peace. This was his reflection on that decision.
On June 12, 1985, I spent a night in jail for the first time in my life.
I was arrested, with 29 others, for refusing to leave the South Bend, Ind., Office of Representative John Hiler after an all-day sit-in protesting the congressman’s vote favoring aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. The next day we were charged and released; four months later, after expensive preparations for a trial, the charges were dropped.
I’ve been asked many times, “Why did you do it?” I’ve asked myself that question even more often. After some 30 years of reading, observing and teaching nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience, I had finally crossed the line from spectator to actor.
Why? To answer honestly requires revealing a bit of my own life story.
In the long term, the logic of this action follows from the commitment I made to Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, when I was baptized as a Christian over 40 years ago.
That vow was refocused when I was commissioned to the Christian ministry in 1954 and began three years of missionary service in Brazil. In my responsibilities over the years since then as a minister, educator and social change agent, I have endeavoured, however imperfectly, to work on behalf of the poor and oppressed of the world in the spirit and manner of Jesus.
Among the many things I learned in Brazil, two in particular have shaped my life.
One was the exposure to what we have come to call the “Third World”— millions of people living in poverty and despair, a situation often sustained and aggravated by oppressive and unjust governments. Further, I discovered I could not always trust my own government’s motives or its truthfulness in foreign policy matters.
More specifically, my act of civil disobedience was simply an effort to fulfill a promise I made to my Christian brothers and sisters in Nicaragua when I visited there in 1984. I heard many tragic stories of Contra atrocities and saw impressive evidence of U.S.-funded violence against civilians, to say nothing about the hardship and social disruption that American policies were causing.
I pledged then to do everything in my power to stop the killing which my government was supporting.
I tried for many months to communicate my concerns by whatever means possible: through numerous public speeches, articles and editorials, letters and visits to Mr. Hiler and other congressmen.
For me, this was not a normal legislative issue, but a life and death matter for thousands of Nicaraguan civilians with whom I had promised to stand in Christian solidarity.
As noted, I have been a long-time student of nonviolent direct action. Over the years, I have often stood on the sidelines as protestors were arrested. I’ve been proud to have supported many friends who committed civil disobedience for a worthy cause. But I always found some kind of excuse or rationalization to avoid taking the plunge myself.
Last year I ran out of excuses. I had been in Nicaragua. I had signed the Pledge of Resistance. Now it was my time to act. So I became one of more than 1,500 persons who were arrested at about 50 locations.
Such arrests, of course, are not an end in themselves. They make sense only as a part of a coordinated effort to call attention to the illegal and immoral actions of the U.S. government. They stand in a long tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience in this country, from the anti-slavery Underground Railroad to the freedom and civil rights movement to the Vietnam War protests.
History shows that time and again the people’s moral insight is ahead of a ruling administration that continues with wrong-headed policies.
So, what did this action accomplish? I recognize that all the arrests did not make much difference. In the short run, the public impact may even be counterproductive. Certainly, in the year since then the whole Central American situation has deteriorated and violence has escalated.
But there are times when one has to simply act in faith, to be willing to risk arrest, fines and imprisonment in an expression of solidarity with suffering brothers and sisters. After all, we spent just one night in jail. The price they are paying is much higher.
There is, moreover, something wonderfully educational about “doing time.” When the cell doors are locked, and you know your freedom is severely limited, even for just a few hours, you begin to understand the experience of the multitudes of prisoners in the world.
The Christian calling is to stand with those who live in pain, in hunger, in fear and in prison. If we believe in a God of justice and truth, we must continue to act in faith that the way of peace—God’s Kingdom—will eventually triumph.
J.R. Burkholder died in 2019. This reflection originally appeared the Dallas Peace Times, Vol. 1 No. 9, 1986.
Read Ellene Miller’s story about the civil disobedience action at John Hiler’s office where J.R. Burkholder was arrested.