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2014-01-01 issue:

Why I became a peace activist

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by Daniel Riehl

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My father voted for president only once, was fooled and never again voted in a political election. A wise decision.

He had voted for Woodrow Wilson because he promised to keep the United States out of the war in Europe, but after his election he led our nation into what became known as World War I which then led to World War II and then the Cold War. Since then we have been in seemingly endless conflicts.

This author joined seven other individuals from Pilgrims Mennonite in Akron, Pa., at the School of the Americas Watch protest at the gates of Ft. Benning, Ga., November 2013. From left, in back: Daniel Riehl, Barry Kreider, Lara Miller, Elizabeth Derstine, Anya Kreider and Karina Kreider. In the middle: Father Roy and Marie Riehl. Erika Kreider is in the front. Photo provided.

Much more recently, many people saw a lot of hope in Barack Obama, as he spoke nice words and promised many things.

In addition, he is African-American and we as a nation which had practiced racism for so long needed to undue our wrongs towards African-Americans. 

But Obama actually did just the opposite of what he had promised to the disappointment of many.

Again, my father was proven correct. Have you ever heard the question, "How do you know when a politician is lying?" Answer: "As soon as you see their lips moving." There is a lot of truth in that humor.

As the years go by I've become ever more appreciative of my upbringing. My parents and significant others in my childhood and youth instilled in me a very strong sense of fairness, justice and honesty. 

In the summers of 1943 to 1944, my father and two uncles employed German Prisoners of War in their tomato fields. They were housed in a camp in Reading, Pa., and we could communicate with them in Pennsylvania Dutch, became friends with them and often would give them extra food to supplement their prison diet. 

One day I invited one of the prisoners into our living room to play a game of ping pong which he did but he was afraid the guard would see him so we played only one game. 

We were friends not enemies. We had fun. After the war there were visits and correspondence across the ocean between the former prisoners and ourselves.

I remember Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, very well—days of infamy, when we incinerated hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

We were told that it was necessary to save hundreds of thousands of American lives and to shorten the war. Much later, I learned those were heinous and abominable lies.

Our government had been lying to us before that and ever since. I now believe that no war our country has ever fought was ever necessary, not even the revolutionary war. 

This idea is expressed in a book entitled The Missing Peace written by a Mennonite and a Quaker. This opinion is shared by many other authors.

For some 70 years the colonial Pennsylvania government was in the hands of Quakers and Mennonites and the Native Americans were treated justly, and anyone regardless of religion was welcomed into the colony.

This was in contrast to other regions in colonial America where those not adhering to the official faith were discriminated against and even persecuted.

Over the years of our Republic (now world empire), our government has invented enemies to scare us with, spreading hate and cowing us into being willing to go to war so a president can be reelected (don't change horses in midstream), and even worse, so war profiteers can get very rich. 

General Smedley Butler said after 33 years as a marine, "War is a racket. The few profit and the many pay." 

He finally realized that he had not been fighting for democracy or freedom but for the enrichment of wealthy corporations who took advantage of people in other countries as well as caused impoverishment of our own citizens. 

Butler said, "There is money to be made in every peasant killed and every village that is destroyed."

I think that in every country most people regardless of creed, religion or race are mostly peace loving but their governments can use propaganda to make their people hate and kill the government's "enemies." 

Herman Goring, Hitler's propaganda minister said, "Naturally the common people don't want war ... in no country under any kind of government or creed ..." but "the people can always be brought to do the bidding of the leaders... all you have to do is to tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

Do you remember the frequent repetition of the run up to the Iraq war?

"Don't wait for a mushroom cloud to be the smoking gun." George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and others were heard to say this repeatedly on the news media. But Iraq had no ability to attack the United States and did not have weapons of mass destruction.

And now we have been hearing the same kind of baloney about Iran.

Unfortunately, I believed the baloney way too long even knowing I shouldn't have. 

Lyndon Johnson, the domino theory that if we don't rescue SouthVietnam the whole surrounding area would fall to the communists. President Johnson staged a false flag incident in the Gulf of Tonkin in the run-up to that war. 

The result was the death of 3.4 million Vietnamese and 58,000 U.S. soldiers. Reagan was involved in the Iran-Contra war in Nicaragua that resulted in the death of 30,000 peasants. 

In the Nixon/Kissinger years, the CIA coordinated the assassination of democratically-elected Salvador Allende in Chile followed by the cruel Pinochet regime which we supported. 

The CIA has coordinated death squads in Latin America. George H. W. Bush fought wars in Latin America against the "communists" which were "threatening" to take over that continent.

But about 15 years ago my thinking began to change. Now I am very much ashamed of not speaking up for the 500,000 Iraqi kids who died during the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations in the 1990s. They died for lack of food and proper medical treatment which we kept from them because of the sanctions we imposed on that country.

The experience that really turned me around was a course I attended, called "Latin American Cultures" at West Chester (Pa.) University over a decade ago taught by Erminio Braidotti, who after three years of training as a Jesuit priest was asked to leave Latin America because of his radical campaigning for the poor and indigenous peoples.

Braidotti taught the class with film clips and videos, including one about Archbishop Oscar Romero who bravely and fearlessly spoke up for the poor and persecuted people of El Salvador before and at the beginning of their civil war. 

George Herbert Walker Bush supported the Salvadoran government by training their soldiers at the the School of the Americas (now called Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) and by sending them guns and money with which they suppressed and slaughtered their own people. Monsignor Romero's Sunday sermons broadcast the news of the atrocities that the Salvadoran peasants had to endure. 

His sermons became very popular with the poor. The good Archbishop was murdered by a government thug just a day or two after his Sunday sermon when he preached to the troops (they all had radios) to lay down their guns and for God's sake stop killing their fellow countrymen.

Braidotti showed films about pre-Castro Cuba where the poor had been exploited by wealthy international companies such as the United Fruit Company.

We had a film about a good plantation owner in the Philippines who gave his workers decent wages, health care and education (built a medical clinic and school on his own property for his workers) and also gave them a share of the profits. 

He was the only plantation owner in the region who felt comfortable about staying at his plantation overnight and didn't need to go back to town to a safer environment to sleep. His business was as profitable as any.

To make a long story short, I came to the place where I thought it is my highest Christian duty to speak out against our unjust, immoral and criminal wars and against the government-imposed social injustices in our own country.

I believe that war is by far the worst scourge of mankind and the worst sin anyone can commit.

I believe my own faith has become much stronger. I have a worthwhile purpose in life.

Learning about the massacres of peaceful indigenous peoples and poor peasants in Latin America as well as the frightful consequences of our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and other countries and our drone attacks on civilians in Pakistan, Somali, Yemen and elsewhere, brings the words of Christ much closer to me. 

In Matthew 25 and also in Revelation, Jesus says, "In as much as ye have done it onto one of the least of these my brethren, ye do it unto me." Also the epistles of John make it very clear if we don't love our brothers, we can't love God. 

I take this to mean any man or woman in the world because we are all creatures of God for whom Christ died so they might live.

If we don't grieve for the hundreds of Afghan babies and toddlers who freeze to death in the winters because our war drove their families from their homes in Kabul and into the snow-decked hills, of what good is our grieving for Christ on the cross which is celebrated every year and in many churches every Good Friday?

I believe that the only way we can see God or Christ in this life is in the eyes of others, especially the marginalized, the poor and mistreated humans. By loving these people and speaking up for them including the victims of our own government in our own and other countries we express love for Christ. I see no other way.

A quick comment: How can anyone accept the fact that the man currently in the White House in Washington D.C. pours over a list of names of "terrorists" and picks out people to be murdered by drone attack?

My dad, believe me, was right and I for a long time was wrong.


Daniel Riehl is a member of Pilgrim's Mennonite Church in Akron, Pa.

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