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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Tools of change

During this year’s commemoration of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one event focused on civil disobedience as a tool of social change. The program planners scheduled it because we had as a guest throughout the four days Greg Boertje-Obed, who has made such actions a major focus of his life.

I wrote about Greg in my final column of 2014. He was then in federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, serving 62 months for taking part in the nonviolent witness against nuclear weapons at the Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge on July 28, 2012. He’s out now because a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the sabotage charge on which he and his two codefendants had been convicted, as well as “degrading” government property, was a misapplication of the sabotage statute and ordered their release for time served on the less serious charge.

Greg has been part of the Plowshares movement since 1985 (“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” — Isaiah 2:4). He told us that Plowshares uses the term “civil resistance,” not “civil disobedience,” because they maintain that building and deploying nuclear weapons for possible use is a war crime under international law and that the Nuremberg Principles, which the U.S. created after World War II to hold Germans accountable for participating in war crimes, say it’s an individual’s duty to oppose such crimes.

No one would argue that massive and sustained nonviolent defiance of oppressive laws, such as practiced by Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, is ineffective. The discussion in Medford Saturday focused on actions such as Greg’s that involve small numbers of people witnessing against realities about which most people seem unconcerned. What do they accomplish, and is it worth the personal sacrifice? These are appropriate questions.

One response is that we are called to witness to our beliefs in disregard of our effectiveness; it’s a spiritual practice. Greg said Dan and Phil Berrigan, two of his mentors, held this view. Others, including me, value the personal witness but don’t think it’s a sufficient motive. We also regard civil disobedience as one tool among many for social change work. Which means that planning for actions must be strategic (Gandhi and King were brilliant strategists). One should set goals, calculate outcomes and try to control them as much as possible.

But in either case, one acts in the faith that rightly intentioned, intellectually and morally informed witness will bear fruit in ways that cannot be foreseen. The message will get out, consciences will be stirred, others will be emboldened to act in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise. How could Greg know, when he risked his life at Oak Ridge in 2012, that so many people in Southern Oregon and northern California would hear him on Jefferson Exchange in 2016? How could Jesus know, when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, what he would come to mean after his execution? There’s a prophetic aspect to all spiritually motivated civil disobedience.

Biblical prophecy isn’t as much about seeing into the future as distinguishing between what is living and what is dead in the present. This nation is full of death. The commemoration highlighted the morbidity of our ongoing commitment to nuclear weapons. But death takes many other forms, especially abuse of the environment. Our time is short. Let us prepare ourselves.

Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.