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Bringing the Witness: An Interview with Christian Peace Activist Ken Freeland

By Jayson Whitehead
November 18, 2002

"Today I’m finding while there’s still some hard left political orientation among some protesters, there’s also an increasingly large [group of] religiously oriented protesters," says Ken Freeland. An antiwar activist since the Vietnam War, Freeland has always based his stance for peace on Christian beliefs. For him, Jesus Christ set the example. "He never took up a sword. He never threatened anybody with death," Freeland says. "He never suggested that the use of military violence or personal violence was appropriate."

Considering the hostile reaction the potential war on Iraq has already drawn, Freeland feels that the time is ripe for the largest antiwar movement he’s ever witnessed. "I’ve never seen a war where there was so much potential resistance to it as this one," he says. "You really can sense it."

When I spoke with him, Freeland was in Houston preparing to leave for Fort Benning, Georgia, where he will participate in the annual School of the Americas protest ( "We can usually count on about 10,000 people showing up every year," he says. "The main event is this annual invasion of the base where we’re told, ‘You cannot go past this point,’ and many of us do it. That’s our way of bringing the witness."

OldSpeak: I have been surprised by how many people have protested so far in America.

Freeland: Well, it’s been a real effort. You can imagine, after 9/11, what an uphill battle it’s been, because people are scared. They just think, "I don’t want to be seen as getting in the way of national security." Or being branded a terrorist. But I think we’ve established some space in which people feel they can protest, and that it is a right thing to do, and that it is an American right, to protest. We’re slowly building a movement here that is going to give vent to people’s frustration with the approach the government is taking toward these various issues. I think people know.

I’m telling you, I’ve been involved with this for about thirty years, and I’ve never seen a war where there was so much potential resistance to it as this one. You really can sense it. I can just tell by the honks we get on the street, and the number of people that flip us the bird. You just do that ratio, and it’s very high right now of people who give us the thumbs up. So that tells us something.

Do you think it’s because Americans feel a little more vulnerable, because 9/11 was so unprecedented?

Well, I think it works both ways. Because of the fact that we’ve realized now to a greater extent than in the past that we, too, are vulnerable. The sense of being able to fight aggressive wars with impunity has been damaged. Because of this new vulnerability, it’s like [our government has] to reassert that somehow we can go to war, and there won’t be any repercussions. But I don’t think everyone accepts that. I think people are saying, "Wait a minute, 3,000 Americans paid the price last time, what’s it going to be next time?"

Have you always been antiwar?

Since Vietnam. I wasn’t before Vietnam, but then I was pretty much a youngster when Vietnam came around.

What pushed you in that direction?

I think the reality that was facing me was the draft. I had to really make a decision there about whether or not this thing made any sense. I felt like it didn’t, but I didn’t have the information to know why it didn’t. And that led me to doing a whole lot of traveling around the country and just talking to different people and trying to get out of my little backwater. And learning about how imperialism works and how the government is actually using patriotism and all these other kinds of props in order to back up a drive for world hegemony and control over the resources and cheap labor and the political power of the less-developed world.

Once you understand it systematically, then it starts to make sense, but until you’ve grasped that, you get caught between your inculcated patriotism, so-called, which is actually nationalism as it turns out, and this sense of social responsibility that people keep throwing at you. And you think, "How is it responsible to kill people? How does that ultimately resolve itself?"

And it was a rediscovery of the core values of Christianity that enabled me to see that this whole thing was actually a subversion of the Christian ideal. Once I got that, it was much easier to maintain an opposition to the government orientation.

Could you explain how you see war being a subversion of the Christian ideal?

Sure, the basic Christian teachings are love your neighbor as yourself, love your enemy, do good to those that hurt you. All those are well-known parts of Christian teaching. Well, many people, I think even some people who support the war, do try to practice that on a personal level. But somehow there’s a disconnect when it comes to our nation’s foreign policy. You’ve read Mark Twain’s "War Prayer."

No, I haven’t.

You’ve got to read that. He’s saying that the other side of our prayer for victory is what we’re praying God will do to our enemies. We want them torn to shreds, we want blood and guts, and let’s make that part of our prayer, let’s be up front about it.

I think somehow there’s a disconnect, and what happens on the national political level we don’t feel moral responsibility for. That’s somehow away from our religion. Our religion’s responsibility only goes as far as our personal lives, in our neighborhood, in our church, and that’s it. But that can’t be true if the theory of democracy is correct, because we all own some of the moral responsibility for what our country does.

It seems like so many Christians voice their support for war.

I agree with that. I grew up in a church that did that. I grew up as a Roman Catholic, and in that church, at that time, the support for this kind of s*** was just taken for granted. Then when you’d go out into the foyer of the church, there’d be all these memorials to the people who had died in wars. And you kind of get the impression that this is part of the religion.

As the peace movement grew, people began reexamining the relationship between religion and war. There are still a few churches, the so-called Peace Churches, they’re the Quakers, the Mennonites, those churches. They’ve always been saying, "Wait a minute, this isn’t right, Christianity means peace." And they actually practice it on a personal level and insist on it on a political level. They’ve done that for centuries.

What about in the Bible when Jesus grabs the whip and turns over the money-changers’ tables?

Yeah, that’s one of the famous counterarguments that Jesus endorses violence. But he also says, "He that lives by the sword, shall die by the sword." And he never took up a sword. He never threatened anybody with death. He never suggested that the use of military violence or personal violence was appropriate. The deal with the whips, it’s not real clear how symbolic it was, and how serious it was. Obviously he chased those people out, he did it forcefully, but it’s not real clear to what extent he was actually physically threatening people. To me, I look at that and say, "Well, maybe he just had his moment, too, okay?"

We recently ran an article on peace activist A. J. Muste. He spoke of a tension between his Christianity and Marxism, and I wondered if you’ve encountered that in your own experiences?

Sure, initially I encountered a lot of it. There seemed to me a lot of dissonance, and I didn’t know what to do with that. Some people, when they get to that point, either choose Christianity and reject Marxism or choose Marxism and reject Christianity. What I was able to do, by the grace of God, was to learn about Christian Socialism, which is not a very well understood historical current, but it is a well-established one, historically. Right after the French Revolution in 1848, this Anglican priest and several Anglican thinkers formulated this theory of Christian Socialism. In fact, it was established enough that Karl Marx found a need in the Communist Manifesto to put it down, because it was different than what he wanted to do. He called it the "heart-burnings of aristocrats," but that’s his little one-liner that doesn’t really address what it’s about.

But, in fact, it did develop the idea of cooperative ownership of industry and invested in experiments to help working people own their own industries, because it saw that this was a contradiction. The contradiction was that the capitalist class was exploiting the working class, driving them into penury, and that this was an un-Christian thing. It actually led to a social order that was not consonant with the Gospels. So, therefore, there was a need to correct it, and this was their approach to correcting it. Well, it actually ended up being a fairly frustrating experiment, and toward the end of its life, they put most of their energy into developing a workingman’s college to teach the working people of London that wanted it to become more educated so that they could more responsibly manage enterprises. That’s sort of where it ended up.

Actually, the movement and its influence persisted almost up until the First World War, not just there, but also in this country. There was a Christian Socialist movement in the United States also, which is not very well mentioned in our history.

Today I’m finding while there’s still some hard left political orientation among some protesters, there’s also an increasingly large [group of] religiously oriented protesters. Here in Houston, the Houston Peace and Justice Center organized a press conference of leaders from various mainstream denominations to denounce Bush’s war policy, and they did. We had somebody from the Catholics, from the Methodists, the Episcopalians, the Unitarians, and of course, the Peace churches. And in front of the media, they denounced it. You wouldn’t have found that in the beginning of the Vietnam War, especially not before the Vietnam War. So here we are, before this Iraq war, and people are denouncing it already, on a religious basis. Everybody but the Fundamentalists, [but] I consider them not Christian. They’re really not applying their Christianity to their politics at all. They’re doing something else, and it’s scary, because a lot of them are actually Zionists, and openly so. But I definitely see all that as a significant difference, and a source of hope.

How do you keep from being hopeless at times, and are you hopeless at times?

The answer to the second [part] is yes. I have really reached the point, honestly, in the last year, on a couple of different occasions where I just really started feeling pretty hopeless, because there is so little response to the urgency … because it’s clear to me what Bush is planning. It’s very obvious. He’s not just joking around. He wants to take over Iraq, put it under military dictatorship, and sequester the oil for the purposes of American control, for the American corporations’ control, and he will do it at whatever cost to Iraqi lives.

And some of ours, too.

Oh, yeah. This time around, it’s going to be some of ours, because now they’re talking about hundreds of thousands of ground troops, and the Iraqis are not going to open up the door and say, "Come on in." This is going to be blood and guts, and there are going to be body bags. But the whole point here is lives are going to be expended for the sake of material acquisition, and I can’t understand why more people don’t want to see that and understand it and respond to it and say "no."

It’s very frustrating to always be on the bottom end of it, because their side has all the money, all the media, all the political power. And all we’ve got is the truth. After a while, it begins to feel pretty feeble, because people don’t respond to the truth when all this other s*** is coming at them. The media is very effective at giving people a sense of, "Well, the debate’s between whether we should invade Iraq now, or whether we should wait two months." That’s the whole of the debate, and people don’t say, "Wait a minute, how come I can’t say, ‘Why are going to invade in the first place, and what is the reason for this?’" It’s just real frustrating, and you can only do so much with so little.

Can peaceful protest make a change?

Well, it can if it’s massive, number one. I believe the Vietnam protests helped. I know that there are some theories that it was just the body bags and the duration of the war, and the protests didn’t mean anything, but my belief is that it actually did make a big difference, and I think it mainly made a difference because the mainstream of America became affected at a certain point.

At a certain point, we crossed a threshold, where people by and large didn’t trust the government. They knew the government was lying, and that the truth had to be found somewhere else. The government had essentially been discredited.

I think we need to get back to that point quickly. People need to understand that the same thing’s happening, we’re being lied to again, and we’re about to take more innocent lives on the basis of a false promise. I just don’t know how quickly we can do it. How many years did it take during Vietnam … it took about five before it got to the point where people were actually beginning to relate to it. I don’t want to wait that long this time, even though I know Bush has long-term plans for Iraq. I want it to happen soon enough that we can stop it, rather than having to wait until there’s so many innocent lives lost, and then say, "Oh yeah, I remember, this is that old government lying bulls***." That’s my frustration–I just don’t know how to expedite that process.