The banner read: “If Herod had drones, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph would have been incinerated!” On Friday, December 23, 2016, our Nativity tableau stood at the entrance to Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Mattydale, New York, near Syracuse. Soon my three friends and I were arrested, handcuffed, and driven to a nearby police station. The genesis for this action began mid-October 2016 at Albany (N.Y.) Meeting—or perhaps in 1660, when Friends issued the Declaration to Charles II that became one of the most important statements about our peace testimony:
We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever; and this is our testimony to the whole world. The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.
On Sunday, October 16, 2016, the silence is calming at Albany Meeting, yet I remain deeply distressed over my inability to communicate effectively about the drone assassination program conducted by President Barack Obama and the U.S. government. I ask into the silence, who or what do Americans still care about? My words have failed to convey the devastation and horror in the Middle East. While several meeting members actively work to address these concerns, many do not, and I am met with a shrug of the shoulders, a disempowered indifference, and a turning away. How do we make a difference when the terror and death is 5,000 miles away and out of sight? Why don’t the children of Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan strongly matter to many Americans? What can I do to motivate the Religious Society of Friends nationwide to express their opposition to war and to affirm and strongly insist on peace? The need is truly urgent at this time.
My focus deepens, and then, unexpectedly, the silence opens. I am given a highly energized vision of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (very much like a traditional Nativity scene), shimmering and outlined in light. The energy is startling. I am left in a state of euphoria, bordering on manic. America still cares about Jesus and Mary and Joseph. Then suddenly I see them standing in front of a military base.
After meeting, I share my vision with two respected Quakers. What would they think of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph blocking the gates of an air force base? Would this be effective in communicating my distress over the drone assassination program? Would it motivate others to take constructive action, asking their representatives and government to end this egregious program? Both agreed the vision had potential. I next talked with a Catholic priest. The concept of the holy family is deeply centered in the Roman Catholic tradition. He too thought the action was a good idea; clearly, though, it would take the support of others.
Currently drone strikes primarily target Muslims and people of color. When standing against drone assassinations, we are opposing the murder of innocents.
Why am I so concerned with drones and drone attacks? Our corporate media grossly underreports the wars our government is waging across the world. The extent of terror and death we are raining down on the Middle East is mostly unknown to U.S. citizens. In a recent article by Medea Benjamin, published in the Guardian, we learned that the U.S. government dropped a minimum of 26,171 bombs in 2016:
This means that every day last year, the U.S. military blasted combatants or civilians overseas with 72 bombs; that’s three bombs every hour, 24 hours a day. While most of these air attacks were in Syria and Iraq, U.S. bombs also rained down on people in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan.
Many of these attacks are carried out by drones. Many of those killed in drone attacks are innocent children, women, and men. A November 24, 2014 Guardian article titled “41 men targeted but 1,147 people killed“ also serves to illustrate the extraordinary deception and dishonesty behind the term “collateral damage” when it is euphemistically used to mean “dead civilians.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported:
from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562–3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474–881 were civilians, including 176 children.
Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s first national security advisor (fired after only 24 days), developed a particularly murderous program. It was based on the monitoring of cell phone metadata. Links among cell phones were used to identify possible insurgents, but did not identify the actual person or people. Drone warfare has evolved to the point that many of the people being killed do not know they are potential targets. When the targets are identified by metadata, drone operators with the U.S. Air Force or Central Intelligence Agency often do not know who they are killing or why these people are being killed. This is clearly insane.
Currently drone strikes primarily target Muslims and people of color. When standing against drone assassinations, we are opposing the murder of innocents—children, women and men, and people of color—and we are standing against Islamophobia.
On November 19, 2016, the Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars unexpectedly met at the Ithaca (N.Y.) meetinghouse. I smiled at the coincidence as I explained to my activist community that the proposed Nativity-scene action was inspired by an epiphany I experienced in worship at Albany Meeting. Quite clearly for myself, I knew these to be marching orders from God. Jokingly I said, better to end up in “the belly of the beast”—referring to possible jail time—than to end up in the belly of a whale.
Our group was composed of deeply committed activists from many faith traditions, including Catholic Workers, and some quite secular folks listened attentively while I presented my vision. While not exactly a clearness committee, our gathering served a similar purpose. Questions were asked and suggestions were made as the proposed action was examined for its helpfulness in affirming life and love, and in awakening consciousness to the criminal conduct of our government.
Group discernment was quite important. Was this truly a leading, or was my mental health suspect? Had my ego unwisely exceeded all of its previously held boundaries, or was this a genuine leading? As these categories are not mutually exclusive, I knew this examination to be vital. If this was truly Spirit-led, a consensus would be reached and the needed resources would be provided to carry this vision through to completion.
I had written an imaginary press release titled: “Nativity Pageant Arrested: Police arrest Joseph, Mary, and some shepherds. Angels escape by air.” Everyone seemed quite delighted by the whimsical nature and the blending of reality and surrealism in this press release. Perhaps we were all crazy, yet the Spirit clearly moved through us. We reached consensus to move ahead.
The suicide epidemic among veterans illustrates the great burden carried by the taking of human life. They too need our love and deep concern.
One of the truly touching and deeply beautiful things about being in community with committed activists is that many of them are far more courageous and fully aware of the sanctity of life and God’s love than am I. Their acceptance of this vision and their willingness to risk arrest and imprisonment to stand against the murderous wrongdoings of drone assassinations was deeply moving. Unlike much of mainstream America, they fully understood that we cannot solve our problems by killing each other with drones. They could not abide murder and readily understand the wisdom of Dorothy Day:
Over and over again, men had to disobey lawful authority to follow the voice of their conscience. This obedience to God and disobedience to the State has over and over again happened through history. It is time again to cry out against our “leaders,” to question whether or not, since it is not for us to say that they are evil men, they are sane men.
Much work had to be accomplished in a very short time. Given that this action would take place just before Christmas and that many were already obligated to celebrate Christmas with family and friends, it would be difficult to find enough people prepared and willing, if necessary, to spend Christmas in jail. However, we were on our way. A graphic design artist volunteered to develop the Nativity scene backdrop. Someone offered to provide some Nativity scene costumes and help make adjustments. Another member of our group volunteered a place to assemble in Syracuse not far from Hancock Air Field. A videographer from Albany volunteered to come and film the action.
Our messaging was still needed, but one deeply faithful woman insisted it would come at the right time. Just a few days before the action, two strongly inspired statements (which worked well tangentially) were suggested by group members. One banner read: “If Herod Had Drones, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph Would Have Been Incinerated!” The second said: “Whatsoever You Do To The Least, You Do To Me!” Five people were willing to take unknown risks.
As a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, I understand how misguided military actions can be as well as the burden carried afterward by veterans. When my military brothers and sisters awaken from the nightmare of combat, they will come to the realization that they have been frequently lied to and misled. When we see our brothers and sisters doing wrong, it is our responsibility to tell them. The suicide epidemic among veterans illustrates the great burden carried by the taking of human life. They too need our love and deep concern.
December 22, 2016, brought together our group, the needed costumes, and artwork. We were under a fair amount of stress, considering whether to carry identification and whether to post bail, if required. Some thought it would be a more effective protest if we spent Christmas in jail. Others did not, and we decided to carry identification. Effective media is always a concern when mainstream corporate news is one of the largest purveyors of fake news.
The four of us willing to risk arrest ranged in age from a youthful 68 to a young 79. Mary, the oldest of our group, was glowing and radiant with a special light and serenity. Our fifth volunteer had caught the flu and was not able of join us.
Friday, December 23, we arrived at the gate of Hancock Air Field and quickly assembled the Nativity scene. Mary, baby Jesus, Joseph, a shepherd, and a king formed our living Nativity tableau. Soon the police arrived. We explained that we were legally obligated by the Nuremberg tribunals, the United Nations Charter, and the U.S. Constitution to report the criminal wrongdoings of our government to the government. We were there to uphold the law, using lawful civil resistance. We asked the police to intervene and stop the war crimes being committed on the base behind us.
The four of us were arrested and each charged with two counts of disorderly conduct: one count of the obstruction of governmental administration and one trespass charge. If convicted on all counts, we each could face up to a year in prison.
The sole reason for our action was to stop the drone assassination program. It serves no one’s interest and is making our country less safe and more violent. We are also asking the Religious Society of Friends to once again step forward (like John Woolman did with slavery) to work to end the drone assassination killing, and to uphold our long-cherished peace testimony. God still speaks to the Quakers, but are we truly listening and acting on behalf of peace?