To mark the third anniversary of the war in Iraq, my children and I went to two different peace gatherings. One made us feel hopeful and empowered. The other just made us cold and cranky. I think the peace movement needs to pay attention to the difference.
The first rally was a raucous gathering along a busy but narrow street, a stone’s throw from our US Senator’s house. There were plenty of signs with print large enough to be read from the passing cars, which honked their support throughout the rally. There was a bull horn, and the young man who wielded it made a point of giving the children a chance to lead the crowd with their own cheers. The presence of children was the best part of the rally from my nine-year-old daughter’s perspective. She and a friend shouted “1-2-3-4, we don’t want your oil war” until they were both happily hoarse. They stumbled home an hour later feeling important from getting all those people to honk near the senator’s house.
The second gathering was farther from home, which somehow seems symbolic. Instead of targeting a politician who is at least somewhat sensitive to public opinion, we met outside the grounds of Lockheed Martin, the arms manufacturer—arguably more powerful than the senator, but also more impervious. Our group was also near a shopping mall, so we got a lot of traffic, but we didn’t engage them, which was the first thing my children noticed. Instead of asking passing cars to honk, this gathering met in a silent circle, facing away from the wider world, which we didn’t seem to want to engage. For one thing, our signs had print too small to be easily read by the passing drivers. We were preaching to ourselves, not anyone else.
Let me hasten to say that I love these people who have demonstrated outside the weapons plant every week for years. They are religiously motivated peace activists, many of them Quakers, just like me. I understand that bearing witness is its own calling, regardless of whether or not the witness is effective in the world’s terms. But after three years of war, I’m tired of witnessing just to be faithful. I want to actually make a difference. Just as important, I want my children to feel they are making a difference.
My kids hated the silent vigil, and not just because it was silent. They are Quakers, after all, and know how to be quiet. They just didn’t get the point of standing in a circle on a windy corner of the suburbs. We lasted about twenty minutes, then went to the mall for pizza and bourbon chicken.
Reflecting on it later, I realized other differences between the gatherings. At the first rally, we talked as we held our signs. We spread information and built community. And the community of people who gathered included young and old, black and white, Christians, Muslims, Jews, communists, college students, and at least one military mother. A person with a clip board asked for my e-mail address to make sure I’d know about future rallies. At the second event, in contrast, everyone was white, and the average age was about sixty. No one talked, so no one got our contact information. Trying to get new recruits didn’t seem to be the point.
But it is the point for me. I want my children to feel that witnessing for peace matters. It’s not just a matter of making ourselves feel better. It’s a matter of making the world better. Maybe honking in front of the senator’s house doesn’t make much difference to the people of Iraq, but at least it got on TV. At least the neighbors and the people who drove by that day know that the anti-war movement is not dead or mute. At least the senator knows that his constituents are paying attention, and we know where he lives.