By Shea Howell

December 27, 2015

The 21st century is no longer young. Its contours are now clear. It is a time of extraordinary violence and brutality. Young people, entering the first stages of adulthood have spent most of their lives in a state of unending war. For most Americans that war has been in the background of daily life, behind the clatter of celebrity news, sports and non-sense journalism. Only acts of violence threatening this cocoon penetrate to remind us that every day our country is engaged in unimaginable military violence.

One of the clear costs of brutality is the death of imagination. The possibilities of creating peace through political will have almost disappeared from public discussions. Instead we are reminded of the intent of “enemies” to destroy us. We are told we are facing an endless war.

This is why we all need to be especially thankful this year to the activists who have forged a growing consciousness around Black Lives Matter. Their energy and imagination are forcing us to ask fundamental questions about what kind of country we are, what kind of people we are becoming.

Such moments invite us to think back to other times and places where people faced problems that seemed to defy solutions. In the last decades of the 20th Century the US faced an increasingly shifting world as Ronald Reagan attempted to accelerate military engagement throughout Central America and the Middle East. Responding to President Carter’s inability to use the military to free American hostages in Iran, Reagan began a systematic campaign to reassert American military might.

In response, people organized to create direct relationships outside of government. Drawing on cold war inspired people to people initiatives like US China, US Soviet Union Friendship Clubs, cultural exchanges created strong relationships with progressive forces in countries under threat of US military intervention.

Ultimately these efforts took the form of direct actions through Witness for Peace, where US citizens put their bodies into the conflicts of El Salvador and Nicaragua. The Pledge of Resistance warned Reagan that thousands of people would shut down the country by direct popular action if he invaded Nicaragua. The Sanctuary Movement brought victims of US violence to challenge people from pulpits and community centers. Here as publicly illegal people’s ambassadors, men and women told stories of their lives to help US citizens face what was being done in the name of “protecting democracy.”

In 1983, a US pilot, spying on Syria, was taken hostage. Reagan was increasingly threatening of military intervention. Without any diplomatic standing, Reverend Jesse Jackson pulled together a small group of civil rights leaders to go and personally negotiate for the release of Robert Goodman, Jr. Jackson repeated such initiatives in Iran in 1990 and in Serbia and Cuba.

Such actions remind us that while governments make war, people are capable of making peace. The idea that there is no other possibility than increased bombing and death will bring only more death and destruction to all of us.

But real peace is possible if we have the courage to confront the fundamental questions of how to live in a world based on justice. This means confronting the militarism, racism, and materialism that dominate our lives. As Dr. Martin Luther King challenged us a half century ago, it should be clear that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”