Drinking the John Lennon Kool-Aid
... It's Easy If You Try

By Merle Harton, Jr.

"You may say that I'm a dreamer / But I'm not the only one" - John Lennon (Imagine)

There is no doubt that America is a country completely out of balance. It's been tottering and tipping, first like a toddler and then like a drunk, but now it's ready to fall over and we can't be sure we'll be able to get it upright again.

I too mourned the death of John Lennon on December 8, 1980, but his murder, ironically a very American act, is now more an icon than a deed. Today we should weep less for the deed and more for the icon which is shown again and again throughout the US. This is not about guns, about war, about hatred, about "This-ism, that-ism"-it's about knowing real alternatives to resolving conflict. Such is the basis of international diplomacy; it's what takes place in labor-strike negotiations; it happens between married couples and between friends; sometimes it works well, sometimes not. What's most surprising is that it takes place at all, especially in an environment where it is not taught, where one has to learn it almost by accident.

The military way is the standard, not because it is the only thing that succeeds, but because we haven't learned the alternatives. In Chicago, ten percent of all public high school students are wearing a military uniform to school, and this number "is expected to rise as junior military reserve programs expand across the country now that a congressional cap of 3,500 units has been lifted from the nearly century-old scheme."[1] This phenomenon, thought to be a "militarization" of American education, is really part and parcel of a cultural expression of a country that has not been able to nurture the nonviolent substitutes.[2] Not simply was America born of war, but as a nation it has found within itself no other identity: it doesn't know any other way. The "militarization" of our high schools really begins with the common rivalry among the schools themselves, in the "militarization" of the sports programs. It is not competition-it is war, fighting, with winners, losers, anger and revenge. In September 2007, the University of Hawaii Warriors were penalized for performing an intimidating pregame Maori war dance called haka while the other football team, Louisiana Tech's Bulldogs, was still on the field.[3] The unrepentant Hawaii coach, June Jones, said his team would continue performing the "haka," although during the summer the team had altered the pregame chant from the New Zealand haka to something closer to a Hawaiian war chant.[4]

Any attempt to create a "peace" alternative within the public school system also faces resistance, although it seems that the complaint against the peace alternative is not against peace, but against the appearance of peace. Last year, in Maryland, a 17-year-old student at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High began a protest campaign against a Peace Studies course at the high school.[5] While the course is offered at seven other area high schools, this protest focused on the instructor's ideological slant: "The challenge by two students comes as universities and even some high schools across the country are under close scrutiny by a growing number of critics who believe that the U.S. education system is being hijacked by liberal activists." Here in Florida in November 2007, Cocoa Beach Jr/Sr High students who wore "peace shirts" were taunted and threatened:

Recently, sophomore Skylar Stains decided to hold Peace Shirt Thursdays at the school. Skylar and her friend, Lauren Lorraine, started wearing peace shirts and soon recruited more friends to wear them. Now, the "Peace Shirt Coalition" as they call themselves, has close to 30 students from all grades.

"We've worn handmade peace shirts every Thursday since the first week of school, without fail," Skylar said.

But what started out as a light-hearted gesture soon started to be taken out of context.
Students started approaching the group members, yelling obscene things at them, said Lauren.

"People just turned on us like that," she said. "At least 10 boys stood up and yelled things at me at once, and we couldn't even walk through the halls without a harsh comment being made."

The heckling began early in the school year, according to group members. They said they were putting small posters promoting peace on friends' lockers with their permission.

They thought it was OK, because the cheerleaders and football players had signs on theirs. Eventually, though, group members said they were told by the school's administration they could no longer hang up the posters.
"People tore them down and drew swastikas and 'white power' stuff on them," Lauren said.

Skylar had similar things written on her posters.

"Someone taped an 'I Love Bush' sign over my 'Wage Peace' sign," she said. "So I tore it down, threw it away, and the whole commons starting booing. I walk by later and find that someone has completely tore my sign down and placed an 'I Love America, Because America Loves War' sign up."

The issue isn't that "peace" is unpopular at these high schools: there is no substance to what is being presented here as "peace." It's mere image-wage-peace signs, headbands, handmade peace shirts, perhaps those ubiquitous fingers in a V-sign. And the opposite is the hand-painted Swastika, White-Power graffiti, voiced obscenities, Confederate shirts, and perhaps the single-finger insult. It's likely that these students can't give an account of what their respective "signs" actually signify for them. Two sophomores said that the Confederate shirts they wore in opposition to the peace students merely "express support for the troops in Iraq."

Violence in America, as with the American penchant for perpetrating violence in neighboring countries, is a social problem. As a social problem, it is a problem of education. If we are going to make any headway toward alternatives to violence, we first have to recognize that there really are alternative ways of resolving conflicts that do not require physical contact, let alone a violent end. This means acknowledging that plans to militarize our high schools will succeed in embracing violence as a favored strategy without at the same time edifying nonviolent alternatives to the very conflicts that have attracted the military solutions. If we teach only one way, surely we will get very good at doing it one way. Our soldiers may be more lethal, and more so at a younger age, but not at all possessed of a greater wisdom. If we want to have our students learn to think for themselves, we ought also to give them the thoughts that have worked in resolving conflicts without violence, without war, without torture, without failing to see our enemies as humans from another of life's many perspectives. In this we can pick any generation in American history because there isn't an American generation that has not lived through at least one national/international war/conflict.

How many of us know how to respond nonviolently (but not cowardly) to a bully? How many of us know how to teach others how to respond nonviolently (but not cowardly) to a bully? As Christians, the end of violence should be our first choice if we're going to pick our controversies, as our first choice for contentious disputation. This is something that will take us from the medieval mind-set, such as we find in the current Cheney-Bush administration, toward real civilization, realizing at least the kind of love for our neighbors required by our Lord Jesus. We can watch the Middle East joust with rocket launchers, but we're watching a pageant that isn't going to end, or it will end badly. Revenge and counter-revenge don't work. Humans should learn from the mistakes of other humans (and even from the mistakes animals make); doing what we know doesn't work has a name-we call it stupidity. Maybe it's true that you can't fix stupid, but you can at least prevent it.

Perhaps we should be ashamed to be learning this from the martial arts, but British fighter and teacher Geoff Thompson promotes just that very thing. In his book, The Art of Fighting Without Fighting (Summersdale, 2000) PDF, Thompson tells the story of a famous Japanese Aikido martial artist who spent his entire life studying his art but never had the chance to test it in a real fight:

The more he trained, the more his obsession for validation grew until one day, travelling home from work on a local commuter train, a potential situation did present itself-an overtly drunk and aggressive man boarded his train and almost immediately started verbally abusing the other passengers.

"This is it," the Aikido man thought to himself, "this is my chance to test my art."

He sat waiting for the abusive passenger to reach him. It was inevitable that he would: he was making his way down the carriage abusing everyone in his path. The drunk got closer and closer to the Aikido man, and the closer he got the louder and more aggressive he became. Most of the other passengers recoiled in fear of being attacked by the drunk. However, the Aikido man couldn't wait for his turn, so that he could prove to himself and everyone else, the effectiveness of his art. The drunk got closer and louder. The Aikido man made ready for the seemingly inevitable assault—he readied himself for a bloody encounter.

As the drunk was almost upon him he prepared to demonstrate his art in the ultimate arena, but before he could rise from his seat the passenger in front of him stood up and engaged the drunk jovially. "Hey man, what's up with you? I bet you've been drinking in the bar all day, haven't you? You look like a man with problems. Here, come and sit down with me, there's no need to be abusive. No one on this train wants to fight with you."

The Aikido man watched in awe as the passenger skilfully talked the drunken man down from his rage. Within minutes the drunk was pouring his heart out to the passenger about how his life had taken a downward turn and how he had fallen on hard times. It wasn't long before the drunk had tears streaming down his face. The Aikido man, somewhat ashamed thought to himself "That's Aikido!" He realised in that instant that the passenger with a comforting arm around the sobbing drunk was demonstrating Aikido, and all martial art, in it highest form.

Thompson has several short videos of his defense innovation called The Fence, a pre-fight technique allowing the person to control the distance between himself and a potential adversary. This is a very different sort of pre-emptive strike.

Peace is not a sign, not a slogan, not a playlist of songs. You can enjoy Lennon's "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance" all you want: you won't get any closer to it. Peace is an activity, and we don't know how to do it. Peace is a skill, and we aren't very good at it. Even our activist leaders don't know how to do it. In his current article on "How the Peace Movement Can Win" (The Nation, December 17, 2007), veteran activist Tom Hayden recommends just more of the same old, same old:

The peace movement can succeed only by applying people pressure against the pillars of the war policy-public opinion, military recruitment and an ample war budget-through marching, confronting military recruiters and civil disobedience. The pillars have been eroding since 2004. The tactics that are most likely to accelerate the process are greater efforts at persuading the ambivalent voters.[7]

What we need is not more parading, more wage-peace posters, more V-signs, more flowers. Imagine there's no heaven if you want to. What we need is a movement to provide real instruction in peaceful alternatives to conflict. A world that knows only war, shock-and-awe responses to aggression, belligerent forms of the haka, torture as a normal form of persuasion, and commercial trading of military armaments is a world thoroughly ill-equipped to walk its citizens down any other path. This is why Stanley Hauerwas could say, "I'm a pacifist because I'm a violent son of a bitch." Because Hauerwas understood the easy response of violence in himself, and therefore in others, he could appreciate the several alternatives to violence.[8] But these alternatives are not captured well (as if they ever were) in the image of hippie fashions.[9] In fact, the image is a stumbling block to the real task of the pacifist's ambition: to behave in such a way as to find and be a substitute for violence. Surely this means teaching others how diplomacy and nonviolent conflict abatement can be effective alternatives to all forms of war. As Christians, we can learn at least this much from our Lord.

1. "Military training program for teens expands in US,"AFP/, November 25, 2007.
2. Still I don't mean to diminish the value of the American Friends Service Committee's National Youth and Militarism Program.
3. "Hawaii must not perform 'haka' with other team on field," AP/, September 10, 2007. The UH Warriors are scheduled to fight the University of Georgia Bulldogs in the 2008 Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day in New Orleans, Louisiana.
4. "Warriors work on 'war chant' to replace haka," Honolulu Advertiser, August 18, 2007 .
5. "Students Call for Banning of Peace Studies Class," Washington Post, February 26, 2006.
6. "Students Wear Confederate Flag Shirts to Oppose Peace-Shirt Group," Local 6 News, November 20, 2007.
7. Compare Hayden's fairly worthless recommendations with the clear-headed strategies proposed by Scott Ritter in "A Call to Service," Truth.dig, July 31, 2007. Ritter, a US marine and chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq, writes more extensively about peace strategy in his new audio book, Waging Peace (Nation Books).
8. "'I'm a pacifist because I'm a violent son of a bitch.' A profile of Stanley Hauerwas." From The Progressive, April 1, 2003.
9. We would do well to heed the advice of network executive Jack Donaghy on NBC's 30 Rock, who said: "Never go with a hippie to a second location."

"Drinking the John Lennon Kool-Aid ... It's Easy If You Try"
From New Quaker Notebook (December 8, 2007)
Copyright © 2007 Merle Harton, Jr.  All rights reserved