John Stratton passed away at home on Sunday. I knew John to be a deeply generous soul with an enormous heart mostly in his work as a local leader in the cause of nonviolence. I’m honored to have succeeded him in leading an organization he founded, the Ashland Center for Nonviolence. While there will no doubt be a lot of tributes to John in the coming days, I wanted to reflect on what I learned from him about peace.
John didn’t just wish for peace. He was committed to making it happen locally and was flat-out mad at the fact that American society seems to resort to violence so quickly. At the same time, John didn’t think of himself as a pacifist, but as a skeptic. He was especially skeptical of either/or thinking that ruled out creative approaches to resolving conflict without violence. He could also be skeptical of religious people if he sensed rigidity. It occurs to me that my own brand of Christian pacifism might have struck him as somewhat rigid too. John was adept at looking for different, untried ways, which I observed in him on many occasions, but presumably on none so critical and sustained as his recent illness. (I hesitate to “use” John’s illness as an “illustration” for what are probably obvious reasons. Yet if dying well is really about living well, we should take notice of how others and ourselves do both.)
John suffered from cancer for well over two years. His cancer, like all cancer, was violent in a fairly straightforward sense. But I don’t think he wanted to think of it that way. During this time, I saw John developing a kind of spiritual discipline. He would refer to the cancer as “Charlie” and I was impressed by how he strove to incorporate Charlie into his life. I never asked whether Charlie was meant to be like American soldiers’ references to the Viet Cong, but that’s what I thought of. Yet while they were at war with Charlie, John tried to find ways of living with him—unwelcome and unpleasant as Charlie was.
Our rhetoric about disease is shot through with militarism: there is a “war” on cancer, people and drugs “fight” and “battle” disease, we try to “kill” it through the defensive army of white blood cells. These metaphors, though, are sometimes extremely interesting: cancer in particular isn’t actually a foreign invader; it’s our own cells. Anyway, I admired the way that John sought to live with Charlie even though, in the end, Charlie took his life. He knew and taught us to appreciate that there’s more to life than winning through vanquishing. Even with that approach, we won’t stave off death for very long.
I’m struck that this is an extremely difficult road to walk and John walked it better than most. He resisted thinking of Charlie as the enemy. This embodies the deepest display of peace that I know: “Bless those who curse you.” It is active and in no way passive; it’s neither resignation nor defeatism. John knew and taught that nonviolence wasn’t about doing nothing in the face of violence and injustice—I think this is why he didn’t like the language of pacifism, which can simply sound so passive. But he also knew and taught that neither does nonviolence just oppose and resist what violence does, only through nonviolent means. He liked to highlight that the Ashland Center for Nonviolence doesn’t hyphenate the word “nonviolence”—he wanted to communicate that this is a positive way of being, a creative energy that always looks for a better way. John constantly asked how we can enrich the conversations that have gotten into ruts and how we can mix up the binary approaches and try something new. The trouble is that nonviolence can sometimes look like resignation if one is only looking for the same old approaches. “Living with” can sound a lot like rolling over.
John knew better, though. I’m pretty sure there are times when John thought my approach to nonviolence sounded defeatist. I would say things like “peace must be dared,” believing that in a violent world, being committed to nonviolence will put you so at odds with the prevailing ways that you’re bound to suffer for it. John would counter by saying that we usually don’t really know what might come from widespread commitments to nonviolence. (And, anyway, perhaps that’s what it means to really dare peace.) We try peace for five minutes, he’d say, and when it doesn’t seem to be working, we take up arms as we always have; things go back to “normal.” I learned from John to challenge this “normal” way of being in creative ways and I came to realize I can be guilty of normalizing, expecting, and taking for granted opposition, even when it is my own opposition to violence.
A few years ago, John arranged for a group of us to meet with our congressman with the goal of trying to persuade him that diplomacy and non-lethal problem-solving was a good idea. John felt strongly that the U.S. should get more creative in its dealings with Syria and ISIS and loved to talk about the times in history when finding alternatives to war have really paid off. “War is not inevitable,” he liked to point out. We only think it is because we’ve made such a habit out of war that we can’t imagine life without it. I admit I had my doubts that the congressman would see things our way, but I went along anyway. In the end, I’m pretty sure we didn’t change his mind, but this was John (who surely had his own doubts) trying something that seemed impossible and not being willing to give up in advance of trying.
John taught me that peace is like that. It’s not just that we need to give peace a chance because it might surprise us. It’s also that we might surprise ourselves if we can only get out of the ruts that make violence seem inevitable or, on the other hand, that keep us from imagining the potential difference that nonviolence might make because we’ve already believed that violence is the norm.
Who would have thought there are different and better ways of being peaceable in a violent world? John sure did. Blessed peacemaker.
Craig Hovey succeeded John Stratton as executive director of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence in 2014.