by Rosalie Bertell, Ph.D., GNSH
As I thought about what keeps us going when times get tough, and how we keep on working for a more just and humane world, what first flashed through my mind was the value of stories. How could we keep going without stories like David and Goliath? Robin Hood? Florence Nightingale? But as I probed a little deeper, I knew that stories alone could not keep us motivated and active in the face of corrupt government, massive greed, lies, disregard of human rights, the monopoly of violence and destruction of life itself.
[Such] Stories do provide some worthwhile goals and dreams of what could be. They nurture our perhaps irrational desires for a utopian life. However, it is the little things, wonderful synergies, amazing coincidences, and sudden discoveries of beauty that offer us daily nourishment. A morning sunrise can calm my soul and give me new energy for the day. The wonder of this amazing planet Earth and the knowledge that we are literally composed of stardust can erase petty complaints and grumbling. The eyes of a child can reduce me to tears and energize me for months.
In Japan, during the occupation after World War II, two grandmothers strongly objected to U.S. military presence and military exercises on the sacred mountain Fuji. The two women had a small camp at the foot of the mountain, and during military exercises they would pop up in front of the guns and cry: “Shame on you. You should go home to your Mother.” This so unnerved the young men that they could not fight. The police finally came, twelve men with shields and battle armor, to arrest the two old women. Even after the women left, the troops were spooked and could no longer desecrate the sacred mountain with their war games. Life is stronger than death.
Our society places its trust in the use of violence to protect possessions and political power. We could call these our society’s idols. Faith in weapons of mass destruction has produced such a pervasive toxic environment in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China that even the wealthy cannot always secure clean air, pure water and uncontaminated foods, and the poor often breathe, eat, and drink polluted contaminants daily. This realization has motivated me to work, for much of the past thirty-five years, challenging the decisions that cause environmental contamination of our planet. Of particular concern to me are the nuclear weapon and reactor technologies which claim to be “clean, safe and economic” while they release their invisible poison into air and water.
Sometimes nourishing stories come from your own family. Mother, a World War I newlywed, lived in an apartment in Northeast Washington D.C. She’d tell me how she soon noticed that black women, after working all day in white homes, would stand for an hour or more waiting for a bus to take them home. If there were only blacks at a corner, the buses did not stop. My mother went down every evening to stand with the black women so that the busses would stop - until the drivers got the point.
I remember my mother fixing supper when the word came that World War II was over. My brother and another boy ran to our Church and rang the bells for 15 minutes. Everyone was in the street singing and rejoicing: “the boys will be coming home.” My mother was stirring something in a big pot on the stove, and muttering to herself over and over: “They shouldn’t have done it. They shouldn’t have done it.” I didn’t really understand at the time, but she was referring to the atomic bomb, and it made a deep impression on my teenage mind. Some people are just in tune with the pain of the world.
Later, when I took on the nuclear establishment, that dramatic pot stirring gave me a sense of being right. Rational investigations and careful research into issues are important. But the strength to stand up to forces that claim superior wisdom and a national security mandate comes from deeper down, from the fertile field of our memories.
As we grow older, our own experiences become the fuel to fire our passion. We discover for ourselves that the Creator of our magnificent Earth is concerned about each individual. No parts of the Earth are “sacrifice areas.” No people are expendable. God even experiences joy at our small victories. The continuity of life, the call for making things better for the next and the next generations blots out all hesitation. To act becomes natural, and to not be able to act, a torment.
Yet when it comes to taking direct action against the atheistic idols of violence, I tend to be timid. The story of Moses at the Red Sea always helps. Moses had done extraordinary things to convince the Pharaoh to let his people go from the oppressive conditions of slavery in Egypt. He had called down plagues, pests and even predicted the death of the first-born sons of the Egyptians. Imagine his feelings when he had led his people out, and the angry army of the Pharaoh, men who had suffered the horrible loss of beloved children, was racing after them. Moses had women and children, undernourished former slaves and old people, not horses and chariots. They were stopped by the Red Sea. Would they all be slaughtered?
Moses did not trust in his extraordinary ability to negotiate freedom. Rather he courageously put his foot into the sea hoping for something to happen, believing that the God who had led him this far would “do something.” He was probably as amazed as the rest of the Israelites when the sea parted to let them through.[Image] Imagine them standing on dry land on the other side of the sea, and watching the sea close over the Pharaoh’s men and horses. That’s a happening to hold in your memory. It can carry you forward for forty years in the desert and nourish your children’s children for many generations.
Moses did not wait on the bank of the river, bemoaning his fate and fearing for his people. He did not rely on his own resource, friendship with Pharaoh or past accomplishments He knew that the true source of those events was not himself, but God. He did not attempt to negotiate with the angry military men. His plan was life oriented: to escape. He put his foot in the water with no assurance that this small act would have such a magnificent effect. I believe in significant actions, those that have totally out-of-proportion effects. Like breaking an icy silence between feuding parties, or embracing a young man who can’t cry. Like Gandhi, insisting that salt was a local economic right, or the hundreds of thousands of workers fighting for the justice of an eight-hour day, small acts can have disproportionate effects.
After his heroic leadership for forty years of a grumbling migrating people, Moses was not able to enter the Promised Land with them. So too, we do not need to enjoy the fruits of our longing, as we “see” them taking fruit in others who will come after us. We are part of a great chain of big-hearted people who care about the Earth, about the life that gives it fruitfulness, and about a world where rights would be respected, children cherished, and where peace would prevail. We have to be part of something larger than ourselves, because our dreams are often bigger than our lifetimes.
Religion has a profound effect on our staying power. In spite of natural timidity, I have always felt invincible before hostile forces precisely because I have been “redeemed”. This meant that I have all of the power I need to face down evil. I have the power, therefore, to choose life under any circumstances. Life is stronger than death, and we surely need to understand that redemption means that we are freed from the attraction and power of evil, free to choose life-giving options and life enhancing goals. Evil will not triumph unless we waste this power that we have of choosing life.
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