Invading the Senses

Shirley here.

What a day! What a day–what a weekend, a month. There is so much to celebrate on voting day. Full disclosure–I will cry tonight regardless of the results, for different reasons–but tears nonetheless. It’s an emotional thing (although I have to say filling out a paper ballot may be better in the long run, but it just doesn’t feel as significant as stepping into a voting booth). It’s a time when we actually see our neighbors. When do we do that in this rushed and temporary society? It’s a time when we willingly wait in line for hours, when our employers are okay that we’ve come in late, when companies proudly give us free stuff to exercise the right that should be the greatest reward of all. I live in North East DC, an area that was ravaged forty years ago by the riots and aftermath following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s pretty great to be two blocks away from H Street (one of the hardest hit areas) when voting in this election–with the first black presidential candidate from a major party on the ballot.

But this isn’t about politics.

Or maybe it is, because this is about the amazing discussions we’ve had this week (which were surely political–isn’t the very act of doing theater political?) both on Sunday, following the matinee of HONEY BROWN EYES; and Monday evening, following our DC theater community star-studded reading of THE CATONSVILLE NINE!

Sunday’s group was stunningly well-informed. William S. Cohen (currently Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Cohen Group, after serving as Secretary of Defense from 1997-2001, US Senator from 1979-1997, and US Congressman from 1973-1979) started off with the observation that HONEY BROWN EYES, “manages to put a very human face on warfare” which, he continued, is the only way we can prevent the “desensitization” that often happens when we only hear about war in terms of statistics and strategies.

Pastor John Wimberly addressed the desensitization that happens between people–neighbors in this case–that allows the atrocities we see in HONEY BROWN EYES to be committed in the first place. “The major gift of world religions” he explained, is the sense of inclusion it allows us knowing “we are all children of God. The flip side of that is what we saw today” religion (tied with ethnic identity in this case) pushing otherness to an extreme, the very opposite of what it should do.

Stephen Schwartz, Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, spoke of his time spent in Bosnia first as a journalist, supposedly obligated to objectivity. “But this was a story that required a moral stance“. He argued against the non-involvement of Europe, provocatively stating, “Europe was willing to let the Muslims suffer the same fate as the Jews“, and he defended the American goal of freedom over peace, versus what he deems the European goal of peace over freedom.

Secretary Cohen also included in the discussion the subject of genocide, reminding us that “Any place on the planet…has the potential for genocide“. He spoke of co-chairing The Genocide Prevention Task Force with Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, which aims to “generate practical recommendations to enhance the U.S. government’s capacity to respond to emerging threats of genocide and mass atrocities.” He also reminded us that the atrocities that took place in Bosnia were generated by both sides (in this case, EVERY side) present in the conflict–including against the Serbian-Bosnians.

It’s a point that touches a raw nerve with many of the people I’ve spoken to while working on this play, particularly (and understandably) with Bosnian Muslims. Schwartz countered that, while that might be true, the vast majority of the crimes were committed by Serbians and Serbian-Bosnians. Indeed according to the Crimes of War website, “In an exhaustive report to the United Nations, a special Commission of Experts, chaired by Cherif Bassiouni of DePaul University in Chicago, concluded that globally 90 percent of the crimes committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina were the responsibility of Serb extremists, 6 percent by Croat extremists, and 4 percent by Muslim extremists. These conform roughly to an assessment drafted by the American CIA.”

Cohen went on to challenge us to expand our sense of moral obligation regarding genocide to include countries and peoples that are less recognizable to us as Americans. Namely, to stop looking at what is happening in parts of Africa and shrugging it off with an “it’s not our problem“.

Finally, and in a fitting return to our original topic of discussion: The Role of the Pulpit in Prosecuting and Protesting War, Pastor Wimberly boldly stated, “If your Rabbi or Priest or Imam or Pastor gets up and says ‘We should go to war’–then you should walk out. That’s not our job…somebody (we) need to be asking (and discussing) the hard questions…” It’s bracing and refreshing to hear a clergyman so clearly state his willingness to discuss and engage in these kinds of conversations, while upholding the ethical stance that is a part of his faith. Which leads me to…


There were many remarkable things about Monday night’s reading. Firstly, when one and then another and then another of us admitted that we’d never heard of the Catonsville Nine–some were very young when it happened some were not yet born–but many of us learned about the event only when preparing for this reading (and are glad we did). Second, the wonderful work done by a stellar cast, with Jerry Whiddon and Michael Willis at the helm as Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and by a smart and thoughtful director, Rahaleh Nassri. Third, the discussion following, involving journalist Richard Byrne and Peace Activist Kathy Boylan, both of whom spent time with the Berrigan’s and were changed as a result.

Byrne talked about growing up in a Catholic family that was completely divided in its opinions about the Berrigan’s: on one side they believed that the church had no place in politics; while the other side felt that the church had a definite and undeniable moral obligation to get involved when something like the Vietnam War was ending lives around the globe. Given the opportunity to write an article for the Baltimore City Paper twenty-five years later looking at what happened with the Catinsville 9, Byrne jumped at the chance.

Wait. Let’s backtrack a bit. Do YOU know about The Catonsville Nine? Simply put, on May 17, 1968 nine men and women, all Catholic, entered the Selective Service Offices in Catonsville, MD, removed several hundred draft records, and burned them with homemade napalm to protest the war in Vietnam. Now you know.

Kathy Boylan was a young mother who heard a broadcast of the trial of the nine over the radio while she was home with her two children (a third on the way). As she so eloquently described, the broadcast “radically changed” her life. Daniel Berrigan writes towards the end of the play, “My senses had been invaded in a new way”. Kathy Boylan had her senses invaded by these new ideas, this radical approach to peace–and she had to react. She eventually chose to live her life as a full time peace activist–living in a community home with the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker’s Movement. She gave her life to her cause. And I can tell you–one cannot help but be inspired by her story, which she tells modestly and simply.

Towards the end of the talk Kathy Boylan asked the question, that IS the question. “How do we get ourselves ‘sick at heart’ enough to do something about this?” About the things that invade our senses: war, death, destruction beyond repair, burning cities and burning bodies?

Today, we vote. Tomorrow, and the next day, we try to do more.


One thought on “Invading the Senses

  1. Well, now that’s a pretty brilliant and comprehensive write-up. And on this glorious election night of hope and transformation, we look at our efforts to take a good hard look at the ravages of war, the blood on our human hands, and the responsibility we have to pursue peace and justice and we feel pretty proud of the art we’re presenting and the discussions we’re convening. Thanks, Shirley, for taking such great notes.

    Let’s hope we can get more and more folks to come to all our offerings for the duration of this now-hope-filled month of transforming the tough realities before us, on stage and in the world.

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