By any name, it's still war, pacifists say

September 24, 2001|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Elizabeth McAlister presses her hands together in an arch gripping her head as if in weary despair or sorrow and stares down at the wooden table in Jonah House.

"I am just burning inside right now because of the code name that has been attached to our response," she says. " `Infinite Justice,' " referring to the original title given to the U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Oh! Infinite Justice," she says in a kind of prolonged sigh.

Her cry echoes around the table among the half-dozen members of the Jonah House community in West Baltimore. They're all Catholic pacifists. They all profess belief in nonviolence. They've all been arrested demonstrating their faith and beliefs.

McAlister helped found this community nearly 30 years ago with her husband, Philip Berrigan, who is in prison now in the aftermath of an anti-war action. McAlister and Berrigan have been active in the Catholic Peace movement since before the Catonsville Nine protest, which he joined in 1968 during the Vietnam War.

"How can I as a human being, conscious of being a creature, conscious of my limitations, surrender that consciousness to a government that assumes that it has the right to infinite justice?" McAlister says, with righteous indignation.

"It doesn't," she says. "That belongs to God. And this government is not God. And George Bush is certainly not God. And that's idolatry, and I can't participate in that.

"Absolute idolatry," she says. "Infinite Justice! How dare they!"

Kristin Betts breathes an assent: "But it's not infinite justice. It's infinite vengeance."

At 26, she's the youngest at the table. Behind her, rain falls on an old cemetery on Moreland Avenue Jonah House residents tend in exchange for their living space.

"No human being," McAlister says, "in my limited understanding, can support that kind of hubris, that kind of assumption of divine retribution, which is God's not human's. And no nation that assumes that can stand."

She sounds like an angry Old Testament prophet.

"It's not anger," she says. "It's horror. It's absolute horror at the extent to which this country has gone to assume it's righteousness before God and the earth."

Someone in government seems to have agreed with her religious objections if not her indignation. The Pentagon abandoned the name Thursday in deference to Muslim beliefs that infinite justice only belongs to God.

Jonah House members have already joined Washington's Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in demonstrations at the Pentagon. They've also participated in the Friends' vigils in Baltimore. The Washington Catholic Workers have gone to the Pentagon about 7 a.m. nearly every Monday for 14 years. The reaction of Pentagon workers last week seemed to range from curiosity to hostility.

"It was pretty intense down there," Betts says. "A lot of people were really angry that we were there."

They were outside a parking lot at the Pentagon's south entrance. American Airlines Flight 77 had smashed into a northeast corner of the building only six days earlier, killing 189 people. About a dozen people at the vigil held placards with such traditional slogans as "War Is Not Healthy For Children" and "Our Prayer Is For A Disarmed World."

Carol Gilbert, a Dominican nun, described an encounter with a woman arriving for work.

"She came up to me and said, `I am a Christian, too,' " Gibert says. "She was a Baptist. I would say that she - as I think are many Americans - is torn between her faith - she does believe in the nonviolent Jesus - and nationalism. She is struggling very much and probably is leaning more toward nationalism."

Michelle Naar-Obed says they knew going to the Pentagon was going to be particularly difficult just after the attack.

"We just feel it's really important right now to have a voice of what I see as sanity and temperance," she says, "a voice that calls us to look at an alternative to the instinctual need to go back with revenge, to attack back with violence."

But they also felt compassion for the Pentagon employees. They brought flowers and a sympathy card for the victims along with their protest signs.

"I think that what we're saying is that all the deaths that happened on Tuesday were wrong and tragic," says Betts. "But that has to stop there. We feel like we're part of the world. We're brothers and sisters of the people in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we don't want to see them die either.

"I think that extra step is what causes rage in people. They would be happy if we had had a vigil and a prayer gathering simply because of the deaths in the Pentagon. That wouldn't create any rage. But it's asking that we not retaliate that is too much."

And around the table there's no lack of sympathy for the victims of Sept. 11.

"Since all this has happened, I feel like I'm in a state of weeping," says Ardeth Platte, 65, also a sister of the Dominican Order.

She raises another question: "What causes antipathy for all of us so deep that people would commit suicide and mass murder?"

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