by Terry Messman
Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, has been a lifelong source of inspiration for James and Shelley Douglass, both in their nonviolent resistance to war and nuclear weapons, and also in their solidarity with poor and homeless people.
Day devoted her life to the works of mercy for the poorest of the poor, and often quoted Fyodor Dostoevsky on the high cost of living out the ideal of love in the real world. “As Dostoevsky said: ‘Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.’”
The same warning might be given to those who try to live out the ideal of nonviolence in action, since love and nonviolence are essentially one and the same. (One of Mohandas Gandhi’s descriptions of nonviolent resistance is “love-force.”)
Although it may be heartening to read about nonviolence in the lives of Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Dorothy Day, it is a more “harsh and dreadful” proposition to engage in actual resistance to a nuclear submarine capable of destroying hundreds of cities, and protected by the most powerful government in the world.
Instead of nonviolence in dreams, one faces nonviolence in handcuffs and jail cells, nonviolence sailing in the path of massive submarines, nonviolence on the tracks blockading “the train out of hell.”
By the early 1980s, Jim and Shelley Douglass and the members of Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action had created a highly visible campaign of resistance to the Trident nuclear submarine based at Bangor Naval Base near Seattle.
The Armageddon Express
Then, in December 1981, the Trident campaign took on an entirely new dimension when a reporter warned Jim Douglass that he had observed a train north of Seattle that looked like it was “carrying big-time weapons.”
The reporter added that the heavily armored, all-white train looked like “the train out of hell.” It wouldn’t be long before one newspaper would refer to it as the “Armageddon Express.”
After being alerted by the reporter, Jim went outside the house where he and Shelley lived next to the railroad tracks leading into the Bangor base, and saw the White Train coming down the tracks. He noticed that several cars had turrets where Department of Energy (DOE) guards could put guns through slits to defend the train.
The White Train became a new focus for Ground Zero’s resistance to nuclear weapons, as activists and train buffs discovered that the DOE utilized the train to ship nuclear weapons assembled at the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas, to the Bangor Naval Base and other military sites.
After mapping out the train routes, Ground Zero made connections with people in more than 250 towns along the hundreds of miles of railroad tracks traveled by the White Train. Residents in these towns began holding vigils on the tracks as the White Train roared by, and many were arrested on the tracks for blocking the trains and their deadly cargo.
White Night of Extinction
The White Train campaign became such a significant protest movement that it was featured in People magazine in May 1984. Not only was David Van Biema’s report surprisingly meaningful and largely sympathetic to the anti-nuclear movement, the headline was stirring: “Radical Catholic Jim Douglass Fights a Grass-Roots War Against a Train Full of Nuclear Weapons.”
For those who have never seen the gigantic Trident submarine, or witnessed the unsettling arrival of the White Train, Douglass gave as evocative a description of the nuclear train as I’ve ever heard.
“It was an awesome sight,” he said. “You feel the reality of an inconceivable kind of destruction. Anybody who sees this train experiences the evil of nuclear arms, because it looks like what it is carrying — a white night.”
The article in People captured the “harsh and dreadful” nature of love in confronting the nuclear arsenal. A White Train en route to a military base in Charleston, South Carolina, crossed the Mississippi River into Memphis, where 40 protesters watched the train, and eight more stood on the tracks to block it.
Biema reported: “As the train crossed the bridge, its whistle shrieked and its brakes screeched. Yards away, it seemed unable to stop. Seven of the demonstrators backed off, but Sister Christine Dobrowolski stood firm. Just 10 feet away, the train squealed to a halt. The group returned to the tracks to pray, and six were later arrested for criminal trespass.”
Sister Christine nearly gave her life in this vigil for peace. Love on the tracks was more costly than love in dreams.
Three years later, on Sept. 1, 1987, Brian Willson, a Vietnam veteran and antiwar protester, sat on the tracks at the Concord Naval Weapons Station in an effort to block trains carrying bombs and nuclear warheads.
A munitions train roared down the tracks, and instead of slowing down at the sight of nonviolent protesters, gathered speed and ran over Willson, severing his legs, fracturing his skull and spilling his blood on the tracks.
Willson recovered from this near-fatal collision and has continued to live out the ideals of nonviolence. In an interview, Douglass said that Willson showed great courage and added, “Brian’s pilgrimage is one of profound nonviolence. He continues on that journey today.”
The tracks campaign continued into the late 1980s. Then, activists discovered a secret memo stating that the Department of Energy could no longer ship nuclear weapons on the White Train.
The reason given in the DOE memo was: “IN VIEW OF THE GROWING ANTI-NUCLEAR MOVEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES, WITH ITS APPARENT FOCUS ON THE WHITE DEATH TRAIN.”
The power of nonviolence had not stopped the nuclear arms race, but it had stopped the White Train in its tracks.
Prophetic Call to Resistance
When I was a journalism student in the late 1970s, my friends and I committed several acts of civil disobedience at the Rocky Flats plutonium trigger plant in Colorado and at Malmstrom Air Force Base, a command-and-control center for Minuteman missiles in Montana.
At that time, we read articles in peace journals and CoEvolution Quarterly that quoted Jim Douglass saying that movement activists needed to greatly deepen their acts of resistance in order to abolish nuclear weapons for the sake of humanity.
It was exactly the kind of prophetic call to action we had been waiting to hear, so when Ground Zero announced a large protest against the Trident submarine in the fall of 1979, my friends Karl Zanzig, David Armour and I answered the call.
At sunset on October 28, 1979, Karl, David and I climbed the fence, entered the Bangor naval base and walked inland to the place where nuclear warheads were stored in bunkers and guarded by Marines with shoot-to-kill orders. Just as we neared the bunkers, Marines drove up, pointed their rifles at us and arrested us.
I’ll never forget what happened next. As we were handcuffed and led away, three deer suddenly emerged from the trees and watched us as we were put in vehicles.
Three protesters were going to jail, but those three deer were free, and their freedom felt like nature’s consolation to us, or its solidarity. I realize that must sound sentimental, but all three of us felt that we had been blessed by the forests and the wild creatures who were threatened by those weapons no less than the people living in Kitsap County.
After being sentenced, Karl Zanzig and I spent several months in Boron federal prison with Jim Douglass. Karl went on to organize the “Silence One Silo” campaign and was arrested for sitting on the concrete lid of a nuclear missile silo in Montana.
A year after my release from prison in July 1981, Ground Zero put out a call for a boat blockade of the Trident submarine in the summer of 1982. I was attending seminary in Berkeley and my first wife, Darla Rucker, was a director of Livermore Action Group. We traveled to Ground Zero for the blockade and boarded a sailboat, the Lizard of Woz, with Jim Douglass and our fellow Spirit affinity group member Bruce Turner.
With 46 other Trident protesters, we faced years in prison and went through a heavy pre-emptive attack from Coast Guard ships on August 12, 1982.
I told the story of the boat blockade in the June 2015 issue of Street Spirit. What still needs to be said is the high degree of trust and respect Darla and I had for Jim and Shelley Douglass in order to risk our lives in this way. The risks that people faced while climbing fences into the Bangor base, sailing to block a nuclear submarine, and sitting on tracks to stop the White Train, reveal the respect that were felt by many activists for the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action.
A Theology of Revolution and Peace
Yet, as inspiring as these actions were, the theology I found in Douglass’s first three books left an even deeper mark. In recent months, as I’ve been re-reading The Nonviolent Cross, Resistance and Contemplation, and Lightning East to West, I’ve rediscovered how greatly these books influenced my spiritual and political values, and what a strong foundation for activism they have given.
The Nonviolent Cross, written in 1968, is subtitled “A Theology of Revolution and Peace.” Douglass presents a profound response to the anguish of the victims of the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the defenseless civilians exterminated by the Third Reich in the Auschwitz death camp and by the Allies in the firebombing of Dresden, and also reflects on the terrible suffering inflicted on the people of Vietnam.
The Nonviolent Cross is one of the most significant theological works on the great issues of war and peace, nuclear disarmament, resistance and revolution ever written. It offers a farsighted analysis of the ethical values underlying the just war tradition, the Christian perspective on peacemaking and Gandhian nonviolence.
But it is more than simply a fine work of theology. It is also a passionate call to resistance and revolution.
The Nonviolent Cross is the work of a Catholic theologian who had taught religion at Notre Dame, and worked closely with priests and archbishops, yet it was amazingly inclusive, open-minded and respectful of people from diverse faiths.
Douglass declared that Gandhi, a Hindu, was the greatest follower of Jesus in history, even though he obviously was not a Christian. He wrote with great admiration for the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi death camp for resisting Hitler. Douglass also showed great empathy and respect for agnostics and atheists who cannot accept religious dogma, yet who often show great integrity in their search for the truth.
The Last of the Just
In this Street Spirit interview, when asked what book had inspired him the most in his life, Douglass named The Last of the Just by André Schwarz-Bart. Asked why this book has such deep meaning, he replied, “Because of the evil he was dealing with: the Holocaust. And the depth of the response to it from the heart of a Jewish man — Ernie Levy in the book — who walked the path of the just person and took on the suffering of the world. For me, he became a figure like Jesus.”
The Last of the Just is an eloquent and anguished account of centuries of persecution, pogroms, and massacres that Jewish people suffered at the hands of so-called Christian nations from the time of the Crusades to the death camps at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Treblinka.
In real life, the parents of André Schwarz-Bart were deported to Auschwitz and murdered in the Nazi concentration camp. In the tremendously moving final pages of The Last of the Just, the novel’s hero Ernie Levy is exterminated with cyanide gas in Auschwitz, along with countless Jewish children and adults.
The Last of the Just was of such paramount importance to Douglass that he devoted an entire chapter to it in The Nonviolent Cross. He unflinchingly confronted Catholic and Christian churches for centuries of anti-Semitism that laid the foundations for the Third Reich’s genocide.
Yet it is not only the violence and prejudice of the past that concerns him. It is also the present and the future.
In The Nonviolent Cross, Douglass asks these piercing questions: “Why has it been so necessary to defend what men call Christianity at every step of the way with weapons of a constantly increasing barbarity? If Christians are truly repentant for their deep involvement in the Third Reich’s policy of genocide, why then are they today so solidly in support of thermonuclear genocide?”
Criticizing Vatican II for not going nearly far enough in confessing the guilt of Christendom for its long history of anti-Semitic prejudice, Douglass reminds us that Jesus himself was a Jew, just like all those persecuted in Christian nations over the centuries. As André Schwarz-Bart writes, Jesus was “a simple Jew like Golda’s father, a merciful man and gentle.”
Douglass includes a haunting quotation from The Last of the Just on the dedication page of The Nonviolent Cross: “The Christians say they love Christ, but I think they hate him without knowing it. So they take the cross by the other end and make a sword out of it and strike us with it.”
Those who read his Street Spirit interview to its end will learn of Douglass’s peace marches and arrests in the Middle East, and will find that he is critical not only of the U.S. wars against Iraq, but also of Israel’s nuclear weapons and its oppression of the Palestinian people. The role of the peacemaker and the justice seeker is to resist any nation, whatever faith it may or may not profess, that wages unjust wars, stores nuclear weapons and commits acts of violence against civilians.
The Lamed Vav
Everett Gendler, an American rabbi who was deeply involved in the civil rights movement and in the Jewish Peace Fellowship, wrote of Douglass’s chapter on The Last of the Just: “Is there anywhere so moving or profound an appreciation of The Last of the Just? … I was so stirred that I was moved to include nearly all of it in our Yom Kippur service at the Jewish Center of Princeton, and I still find it one of the most affecting essays I have ever read.”
To this day, Douglass continues to ponder the deep meaning of the novel’s characterization of Ernie Levy as one of the Lamed Vav, the fabled 36 just and righteous people of Hebrew tradition.
The compassion of the Lamed Vav is essential for the life of humanity to continue, even though, according to this mystical teaching, the identities of the Lamed Vav are hidden from the world and may be unknown even to themselves.
Yet, for the sake of these 36 humble and hidden givers of justice and compassion, God preserves the world, even in the face of its cruelty, violence and injustice.
What can this mean for people who seek peace and justice, people who offer sanctuary to the homeless and food to the hungry?
Perhaps it means this: Whenever we make even a humble effort to seek peace or give mercy and compassion, more may depend on our work than we will ever know. It may be terribly important to not give up on our work for peace and justice.
It may be hidden from us, but in the long run, simple acts of kindness and compassion may matter more to humanity than we can possibly imagine.
*** *** *** *** *** *** ***
Life at Ground Zero of the Nuclear Arms Race
Blockading the ‘White Train of Death’
Street Spirit Interview with Jim Douglass (Part 1)
Street Spirit Interview with Jim Douglass (Part 2)
The Acts of Resistance and the Works of Mercy (Part 3)
Gandhi’s Vision of Nonviolence: Holding Firm to Truth (Part 4)