Against the fall of night

What was the most shocking thing about the school shooting in California last week was that it really wasn’t shocking at all. Oh, the media made some half-hearted attempts to whip up a frenzy, but we’re now all used to occasional school massacres, like tornadoes in spring. We’ve got it down pat: CNN goes into its usual drill; the Old Three networks follow; videotape and crime-scene tape roll; “experts” are hauled before the cameras; the National Rifle Association and a gun-control supporter get equal time.

Naturally, it doesn’t mean a damn thing. What I found curiously annoying was some woman who said, “We are going to have to decide whether we love our guns or our children more.” I couldn’t tell whether she was an idiot or a hypocrite.

In any event, that argument was settled long ago. If there is anything certain in today’s America, it is that we love our guns more than our children. We would much rather distort the Constitution and put up with children shot to death every day and a Columbine every year than tolerate the slightest restriction on access to death cannons. And you can bet nothing is going to change under George W.

Last week I imagined a partial solution. Apparently, the gun 15-year-old Charlie Williams used to kill two classmates belonged to his father. Fine. Assuming the boy is convicted, how about executing his father with his own gun?

Hopefully, we’d even broadcast this on TV. We ought to do this, I thought, every time a child uses a parent’s weapon to kill. This probably wouldn’t threaten the national pathology of gun worship, but millions sick enough to have guns in the house might be motivated to spend a little energy to lock them up securely.

But later in the week, I realized I was wrong after I visited Jim Bristah, a man who has spent a whole life gently working to help make this world a better place, with scant notice and less credit. Best known these days as the founder of the Swords into Plowshares Peace Center and Gallery, he had been a conscientious objector in World War II, and was locked up for it. Actually, he had to work at getting sent to prison.

He was in training to be a minister, and was eligible for a deferment of the sort many of us hypocritically tried to get during Vietnam. But he felt that wasn’t fair, gave it up, and was sent to do service at a conscientious objector camp. He still felt he needed to live the courage of his convictions, so he deliberately went AWOL.

That landed him in federal prison for almost two years, in Milan. “You learn a lot about sociology and psychology in prison,” he chuckled. They sent him to the hole for protesting unfair treatment for other prisoners, but he survived.

He went on to become a Methodist minister, spending most of his career in a special assignment for social issues. He and his talented wife Jo, the daughter of missionaries in Burma, raised four daughters and fought the good fight in various ways.

“I was always interested in war and peace, racial justice and economic justice,” he said.

Bristah integrated his staff, and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Detroit, and was arrested again for demonstrating after his assassination. Later, he did what he could against the Vietnam War. When he retired as a minister, he got the inspiration to start an art gallery dedicated to peace. “I thought it was an idea whose time has come.”

He thinks this time is possibly the most dangerous we’ve ever known, in part because we think the nuclear threat has gone away. “Denial characterizes our leaders and most citizens,” he says. Eventually, “We either will wake up and reduce the nuclear threat, or some nuclear accident killing millions of people will wake up the world.”

Hard to deny, even while watching “Ally McBeal.” Jim is 82 now. Most of his friends know a sudden stroke last December knocked him to the sidelines. But his speech is back, he’s starting to move around, and he expects to be back at the gallery soon.

He’s got another project he’s excited about these days: Putting a special outdoor sculpture on the lawn on the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, to honor the one area in which this state has taught a moral lesson to the world.

“Michigan is the first and has the longest record of any English-speaking government of never having had the death penalty,” he said. That’s in spite of four times in which statewide votes were held on whether to establish state-sanctioned killing. Michigan always said no. Our last execution took place where the library now stands, in 1830, when Michigan was still a territory. One Stephen Simmons was hanged for killing his wife while drunk. While waiting to die, he sang a hymn that moved people.

“They had a whipping post at the foot of Woodward, and in disgust the crowd ripped it up and threw it into the Detroit River.” The times were a’changin’.

Bristah wants our record to stay unblemished. He’s working to raise $100,000 by Sept. 1 for the best “legacy of life” sculpture possible. (Those interested can contact the gallery at 33 E. Adams, Detroit 48226.)

But I found myself wondering: When the truth came out about how monstrous the Nazis had been, did he ever regret not fighting in that war? Not for a minute. “I can in no way imagine Jesus using a machine gun, much less an atom bomb,” he said. Trouble is, I can imagine what we might be without a few Jim Bristahs. That’s at least as scary.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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