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Cold War's end did not end threats to peace

NCR Staff

Conventional wisdom might hold that the end of the Cold War has left Christian pacifists with nothing to do. Nothing, that is, except publicize and protest continued U.S. nuclear arms development, deplore increased military spending in a time of social welfare cuts, work for increased nuclear disarmament, educate the public on the U.S. role as the world's leading arms dealer (almost 60 percent of all global sales), and, for the determined few, continue to enter military sites in an attempt to turn nuclear swords into plowshares. That's the agenda that peace activists say they face in "peace time."

If the agenda remains full, however, the emphasis is different and the issues more subtle. Those engaged in promoting nonviolence and peacemaking activities say the threats today may not be as openly terrifying as the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cold War, but they are just as real. The Cold War's demise, which accompanied the 1980s' collapse of the Soviet Union, left the United States as the sole global superpower -- pending China's decision to fill the vacuum. The resulting dramatic changes had an effect even on traditional Catholic "just war" doctrine, as Fr. J. Bryan Hehir (pronounced hair) explained at Georgetown University earlier this year (see accompanying story).

"It is true," said Elizabeth McAlister of the Jonah House community, located in Baltimore's inner city, "that in the minds of many people and in terms of any mass movement, the end of the Cold War has made a difference. You aren't getting the large numbers of people, yet the sword is still drawn, not sheathed and certainly not put aside.

"You can judge that," she said, "by the budget for the Pentagon, by the weapons systems constantly being created, by arms bazaars that happen on a regular basis."

During Easter Week, Jonah House members protested the arrival in Annapolis of the USS Maryland, a Trident-class nuclear submarine. "The irony -- get this -- the seamen were coming ashore to do community service," McAlister said, "when the greatest community service would be to sink the fool thing."

Three groups of students from three Midwestern colleges were at Jonah House that week to witness and to attend the community's Faith and Resistance retreat. McAlister and her husband, Philip Berrigan, have spent much of their lives protesting weapons of mass destruction and military policy. Each has repeatedly spent time in jail for acts of civil disobedience at military sites.

The Cold War's end markedly affected the work of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a Catholic Vietnam-era peace group founded in the 1960s. During the 1980s, FOR organized regular U.S.-U.S.S.R. reconciliation gatherings to foster understanding between the two countries. The 1990s required new priorities, said Richard Deats, FOR's communications director, who led 14 trips to the Soviet Union. A major emphasis for the past three years, he said, has been Bosnia. Because the education of most students there came to a standstill during the years of the fighting, FOR brought 200 young Bosnians to the United States to pursue college educations, a step toward creating a cadre of potential leaders.

Colman McCarthy, a peace educator and until recently a syndicated Washington Post columnist whose work appeared in NCR, said, "the Cold War's passing really has had no effect on the carnage of the world's hot wars. There are over 35 wars or conflicts raging in the world right now -- in Algeria, Rwanda, Indonesia, Angola. Most of these are civil wars no longer with invading armies, but there still are 40,000 people a month being killed."

It is a "little harder, without the Cold War's presence, to convince people there's still a need to create peace," said Nancy Small of Pax Christi USA in Erie, Pa. "That's until you look at the amount of money we put into maintaining our nuclear stockpile -- then it's clear that not a whole lot has changed. It is much more difficult to get people to see that with the continued U.S. development of newer, smaller nuclear weapons for the battlefield."

However, Small said, where Pax Christi's emphasis once was on nuclear weapons it is now on disarmament, demilitarization and reconciliation with justice. At the local level, where Pax Christi USA's 12,000 members work through more than 500 chapters, the major task is conflict management.

"The membership realizes that we cannot escape violence in this country," Small said, "and as violence moves closer and closer to homes in actual neighborhoods, they want to be working on something that is an alternative."

Catholic Worker managing editor Brian Harte commented that "pacifism is not so much about finding an answer. It's the continued application of the means." Spending, he agreed, is becoming the issue. "I don't see the peace movement having a much better lever than that."

Harte said some people might well ask "What the hell happened to the peace dividend?" -- the presumed financial benefits that would accrue from decreased military spending as the Cold War stopped.

He said that the Catholic Worker movement, which blends peacekeeping with its houses of hospitality, has never looked to the state as a cure-all.

Many people continue to look to Christian social justice activists for guidance. And for some Catholics peace work means pushing to change economic structures in developing countries.

"What we have been hearing repeatedly from missionaries is that the impact of financial institutions such as the World Bank and the [International Monetary Fund] is continually exacerbating the violence of poverty," said Maryknoll's peace and justice advocate Marie Dennis. "It intensifies the likelihood of migration and other pressures that contribute to violence in our world."

Dennis belongs to the Washington-based Religious Working Group. It coordinates from a faith perspective the efforts of religious communities and organizations to achieve economic structural adjustment and debt forgiveness for poor countries. "The real impetus for this coalition," said Dennis, "came from the citizens' groups, environmentalists, Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam and European agencies working in poor Third World countries in the South."

The Religious Working Group connects with such groups and has developed educational resources -- such as the Lenten pamphlet, "An Economic Way of the Cross" -- and has led public actions, including prayer vigils, outside the World Bank and International Monetary Fund during annual meetings.

"We want to remind institutions that these are moral issues and there is no economic system that is exempt from self-examination according to moral and ethical criteria," Dennis said.

National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 1997