JANUARY 30, 2003
Mall Crowd: Then and Now
On Saturday, January 18, four members of our seminary community made the journey from Gettysburg's Seminary Ridge to Washington for the peace rally on the Capitol mall. It was a sunny, but very frigid day, yet our spirits were warmed by each other's company and by this gathering of thousands upon thousands of ordinary folks; all of us convinced that our government has not made a compelling case to depart from the American way which says, "we don't strike first." Neither my colleagues nor I pretend to have privileged perspectives or particular insight on matters political. But as theologians of the Church, we are called to ponder the way of the Prince of Peace and whether or not the plans for war against Iraq meet at least the age-old Christian criteria for a "just war." Having concluded that the evidence proffered thus far by the administration meets few if any of those benchmarks, I felt that joining in this call for continuing diplomatic efforts and respecting the ongoing Iraqi arms inspection process embraced by the U.N. and many of our allies was the right thing to do.
While I personally sat out the sit-ins and demonstrations of the 60's, I observed them from afar via television and magazines. Back then, the demonstrators were a motley mix with many motives. Probably the vast majority were sincere and earnest in opposing the Vietnam War, or insisting upon civil rights and dignity for our African-American sisters and brothers. But at least some were working out their adolescent authority issues; others as much in search of "free love" as freedom from war. Sadly, some demonstrations back then turned violent.
What I observed and experienced in D.C. on that cold day was a mood of serious citizenship exercised by a richly diverse cohort of the American citizenry. From the grandparent generation (lots of them/us) to the youthful Gen X and Gen Y crowd (lots of them too), there was a deadly seriousness of purpose in every face. To be sure, many other important issues were intermingled in the multiple brief speeches, but the central focus was on peace and respect for the collective judgment of the community of nations versus going it alone with a unilateral U.S. invasion of Iraq. While it was clear that for some in the crowd, George Bush can do no right, many probably shared a more balanced view of the administration and the complexity it faces in containing terrorism and appropriately holding accountable rogue states like Iraq and North Korea. We're just not convinced that now is the time of last resort when pre-emptive military action is justified.
So are demonstrations of the 00's different from those of the 60's and 70's in other ways as well? The transportation system, at least in Washington, D.C., makes things far easier than they were for the civil rights marchers and Vietnam-era protesters. Going downtown on the Metro system is a breeze and provides ready access for thousands of folks. The police seemed relaxed and even friendly, though one did seem taken aback when my kindly spouse thanked him for his Saturday service.
But perhaps the biggest difference of all in the modern demonstration is the omnipresence of cellular phones. People are constantly kneeling down in search of a quiet space for a check-in conversation with family members, friends, or fellow demonstrators across the mall or perhaps across the country. I pray that in such a well-connected world we can find a way to forge lasting global friendships that will render the word "enemy" obsolete.
The Reverend Michael Cooper-White is president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.