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May / June 2005

Featured Story

Living in an Extraordinary Time

By Rabia Harris

With this issue, Richard Deats is retiring as editor-in-chief of Fellowship. Rabia Harris, interim editor, invited him to reflect on his long career.


You are practically an institution at FOR. Just how long have you been here, anyway?

Deats: I joined FOR on January 1, 1953 when I was a student at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. Muriel Lester, traveling secretary of the International FOR, had visited the campus during a time when the Cold War and the blacklisting by Senator Joseph McCarthy of supposed Communists had heightened the fears and paranoia of the country. Muriel spoke twice on campus—once on the world situation in the light of the Sermon on the Mount, and once on prayer. The combination of the inward journey and the outward journey she presented had an enormous impact on me, and I decided to join the FOR. I was an active member from that time on, as I became involved in peace and civil rights issues.

During the Vietnam war I was teaching at Union Theological Seminary in the Philippines and was part of antiwar activities in Southeast Asia, especially through FOR’s International Committee of Conscience on Vietnam. Out of that involvement, FOR invited me to join the staff in Nyack, New York. I did so in 1972. So I’ve been a staff member for thirty-three years, as director of interfaith activities, as executive secretary, and as editor of Fellowship magazine. That’s a long time—but not a record. John Nevin Sayre was on staff for fifty-two years!

Harris: How did you first get interested in nonviolence?

Deats: It goes back a long ways. As a child I was deeply impressed in Sunday school by a picture on the wall of Jesus surrounded by children representing the different races and nationalities of the world. This, along with the church school teachings of overcoming evil with good, of being a peacemaker and loving even your enemy, made me aware of the nonviolence that permeates the teachings of Jesus.

I also learned, in that Methodist Sunday school in Big Spring, Texas, that segregation and the racism that gave rise to it were a contradiction of Jesus’ teachings. I would later come to see war as another contradiction that should be opposed.

Along with my church’s teaching were the wider stirrings that were taking place in the world. The Gandhian movement in India and the spreading civil rights efforts in this country began to demonstrate the practical application of nonviolence. Commitment to peace was not just saying No (although that was important); it also led to nonviolent action for justice and peace.

There are many who say that “the Gospel is more than the Sermon on the Mount.” I agree—but what I have observed are Christian teaching and practice that are a good deal less than the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve never been convinced by those who march at the call of the nation to slaughter the enemy and lay waste their cities and countryside. At FOR I’ve met pacifists from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions, and I have discovered I had far more in common with them than with Christian apologists for war. As we find in I John 4:

    Let us love one another; for love is of God, and everyone that loves is born of God, and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love…. If we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.

Dr. King spoke of this kind of love as “the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.” I see this in the witness of persons like Gandhi and King, Muriel Lester and Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Desmond Tutu and Dorothy Day, Thich Nhat Hanh and Abraham Joshua Heschel, James Lawson and Hildegard Goss-Mayr.

Harris: What would you consider to be the highlights of your career?

Deats: What a privilege and challenge it has been to live in an era when nonviolence—“as old as the hills,” as Gandhi said—has spread across the world, influencing the destiny of individuals, nations, and peoples to overcome injustice and oppression nonviolently.

Certainly a highlight I look back upon is having been involved in the civil rights movement and having seen the end of Jim Crow, and then working with Coretta Scott King and serving on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday Commission. It was gratifying to be in the Rose Garden when President Reagan signed the bill making Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday. Reagan’s initial opposition to that bill was overcome by a determined movement all over the country—a lesson to remember.

From the mid-1970s on, I began leading workshops around the world in revolutionary and/or oppressive situations. One such was a trip to South Korea at the time of the Park dictatorship. Though I was followed by the Korean CIA through most of my visit, my hosts arranged for me to do unannounced nonviolence trainings and speak to various audiences. It was on that trip that I met with the Korean Gandhi, Quaker Ham Sok Hohn.

Having left the Philippines during the Marcos dictatorship, I was invited back to help with the work Jean and Hildegard Goss-Mayr had started in aiding the nonviolent resistance movement against Marcos. Accompanied by Stefan Merken and a group of Union Seminary students and their faculty adviser, Hilario Gomez (a former student of mine who later became a bishop of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines), we met with groups throughout the island of Luzon. These efforts contributed to the People Power movement that nonviolently overthrew the Marcos government in 1986 and inspired nonviolent movements in Burma, China, Chile, and other places.

Hildegard and I subsequently facilitated workshops in Hong Kong and South Korea, as well as participating (with Jean Goss) in similar efforts in Bangladesh, and in the first nonviolence conference in the Soviet Union. This led to my taking FOR delegations back to Moscow and to Lithuania for the first nonviolence trainings in both places.

Also memorable were many trips to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, journeys of reconciliation in places where many had thought war between the communist world and the capitalist world was inevitable. The fright in those early trips changed increasingly to anticipation as grassroots diplomacy began to build up an almost irresistible tide of friendship between East and West. As we began to be able to bring Soviet citizens to this country, we found barriers melting and hopes for peace soaring. We lived the truth of what President Eisenhower had said: “Someday the people are going to want peace so much that governments are going to have to get out of the way and let them have it.”

While the PLO was based in Tunis, it issued an invitation to FOR. Gene Hoffman, Scott Kennedy, Karim Alkadhi and I spent five days there and got to talk seriously with Yassir Arafat about the growing worldwide relevance of revolutionary nonviolence. Subsequent trips to Israel and Palestine have sought to continue this dialogue.

Certainly another highlight was the invitation of the South Africa Council of Churches to Walter Wink and me to visit that country in 1987 and hold workshops with anti-apartheid activists. Coming at the time of a state of emergency called by the government, it was a moment of great difficulty for the movement there. But their determination was to lead to the collapse of the apartheid government’s racist policies.

Harris: Of the many situations with which you have been involved, which were most challenging? Which subjected your ideals to the most difficult tests?

Deats: I’d have to say that what has been most difficult and challenging over the years has been not only the reluctance but the opposition of the institutional church to the radical nature of Jesus’ message of love even for the enemy. To always be a minority voice is an ongoing test of one’s commitment.
On a biblical, theological, and historical level, of course, this opposition is not surprising. Religious institutions sink their roots deep in the culture and come to identify with “the principalities and powers.” Any challenge to the status quo is seen not only as disloyal but as probably heretical.

Harris: How do you see the evolution of FOR over the years? Is it the same as it was when you started, or has it become different, and if so, how?

Deats: First, the earliest opposition to war was principally saying No. The refusal to kill or to sanction hatred and violence were—and remain—indispensable to our message. But over the course of the 20th century, nonviolence became more and more central in our understanding of how you actually live out the pacifist commitment. The great impetus for this was the Gandhian movement, first in South Africa, then in India.

Gandhi experimented with nonviolence as a way of life and a strategy for change. This “experiment with Truth” as he called it has come to have an enormous impact all over the world as individuals and groups have struggled to overcome injustice and oppression and to build what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.” FOR has been fundamentally influenced by Gandhi’s experiments. Our current emphasis on nonviolence training grows out of this.

Secondly, I think a major development has been FOR’s having become an interfaith organization. Over the years and through many campaigns, FOR discovered nonviolent traditions in other faiths producing other peacemakers who shared its (initially Christian) opposition to war and violence. This led to FOR’s current mission statement, which says, “The Fellowship of Reconciliation seeks to replace violence, war, racism, and economic injustice with nonviolence, peace, and justice. We are an interfaith organization committed to active nonviolence as a transforming way of life and as a means of radical change. We educate, train, build coalitions, and engage in nonviolent and compassionate actions locally, nationally, and globally.” Rather than watering down faith and seeking the lowest common denominator, we have made an effort to work for peace out of the deepest impulses and insights of each faith tradition.

Thirdly, out of years of efforts to overcome the limits of leadership that was predominantly white, male, and heterosexual, we have made headway—but still have far to go—in developing a much more diverse staff, council, and membership in the FOR.

Harris: How have your own views changed?

Deats: Working with, and getting to know, people of other faith traditions is an ongoing challenge, both humbling and bracing. While still deeply committed to Jesus Christ, I have learned so much, and continue to learn much, from those on a different faith journey. In such a diverse world, can we do otherwise?

I think another major change has been a heightened awareness of the environmental crisis. While this is not new, the urgency is now inescapably upon us. Opposition to global warming in not just an option, but a necessity. The peace and environmental movements should be much more consciously allied in protecting the earth and humanity from the violent direction of US foreign and domestic policies. Our current situation is best described by Dietrich Bonhoffer’s image of being on a train heading toward Hell.

Harris: Many people feel that to live in accordance with an ideal requires personal sacrifice. How has your lifetime commitment to nonviolence affected your private life?

Deats: I often think of an American nurse in Asia who was working in a leprosarium. A visitor said to her, “I wouldn’t do this for a million dollars.”

“Neither would I,” said the nurse.

In our money-driven society, many people link fulfillment to income. But I cannot think of a more fulfilling life than having the privilege of working for a nonviolent future. To get paid for that—even if it isn’t very much!—is incomparable.

I am blessed in the fact that my wife Jan’s great commitment to music is every bit as consuming as is my commitment to peace. Our challenge is to keep our relationship strong in the midst of our vocational callings.

Harris: What has been most fun?

Deats: Gandhi said, “If I didn’t have a sense of humor I would long ago have committed suicide.” I have found that one of the characteristics of many social change movements is their sense of humor and of finding joy even in the midst of appalling situations. I have seen this especially in the civil rights movement and in the movements in South Africa and the Philippines.

Cardinal Jaime Sin was head of the Catholic Church in the Philippines during the Marcos dictatorship. The cardinal’s finally turning against the dictatorship was of enormous importance in the People Power movement, leading to the joke that the reason Marcos was defeated was that he was “without Sin.” Others said, “Marcos had the guns but Cory Aquino had the nuns.”

When the apartheid government sprayed purple water on demonstrators in Capetown, Tutu and others found a new motto: “The purple shall govern!” At a rally in Philadelphia, Mississippi following the brutal killing of Goodman, Cheyney, and Schwerner, King called on Abernathy to pray before a crowd of hostile whites that included the local sheriff. Afterwards someone asked King why he didn’t lead the prayer. “In that crowd, I wasn’t about to close my eyes!” said King, to the guffaws of his friends, who were accustomed to the humorous banter that pervaded the movement.

This is why I wrote the book How to Keep Laughing Even Though You’ve Considered All the Facts. I thought it would be an encouragement to people struggling against enormous odds to make this a better world. As Texan Molly Ivins reminds us, “So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. ‘Cause you don’t always win. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.”

Harris: What is your take on the world situation? Are you hopeful in the short run, or only in the long run?

Deats: That’s really a tough question. To look at current policies is to wonder if human beings have a death wish. Our assault on the earth for short-term financial gain remains thoroughly in the saddle in this country. Decades of important environmental achievements are being undone by the Bush administration and its policies favoring the richest and most predatory segments of our country. Rather than throwing his disgraceful presidency out of office, voters were swayed by lies, by smoke and mirrors, returning him to another four-year term.

I am reminded of the words of Joan of Arc in George Bernard Shaw’s play St. Joan. “Some people see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’”

Harris: What do you see as the next steps in your life’s journey?

Deats: Well, I am in good health and still full of dreams and energy and hope. Jan and I will continue to live in Nyack near three of our four children and their children—as well as our first great-grandchild.
In the immediate future I want to go through my journals and projects and do some writing, including a few more books perhaps. I look forward to gardening and playing the clarinet in a concert band. And I’ll be open to some speaking and preaching, as well as perhaps a peace project or two.

Harris: Is there anything you’d particularly like to tell our readers?

Deats: The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” I think of our readers and members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation as part of this saving remnant who, in season and out, witness to the power of truth and love to overcome all falsehood and hatred and, in so doing, reconstitute the world.


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