Peacemaker Profiles #1
Barbara Deming was major force for peace and justice. A writer, feminist, peace and civil rights activist, Deming was born in New York City on 23 July 1917 and died in Sugarloaf Key, Florida, on 2 August 1984. Born into a Quaker family and educated in Quaker schools, Deming was nevertheless reticent about her own faith and, although she never rejected or distanced herself from the Friends/Quakers, neither was she regularly present in Meeting life. She studied literature and theater at Bennington College in Vermont.
The early part of Deming’s adult life was spent pursuing her life as a writer and poet and, although interesting in itself, need not concern us here. Apparently during much of this time she was skeptical at least of some aspects of her Quaker heritage, because it was only after reading Gandhi’s writings and traveling to India in the late 1950s that she began to identify herself as a pacifist. Yet, it was her trip to Cuba in 1960 and a personal encounter with Fidel Castro that pushed her toward both journalism and nonviolent activism. Her discovery that Castro was a flawed and autocratic leader, but also genuinely concerned for economic justice for the poor and not the pure incarnation of evil that the U.S. government claimed, led Deming to become very critical of America’s Cold War policies. Although one would never know it from the denunciations of her by the U.S. establishment, Deming was far from blind to the evils of Communist militarism and autocracy, but she knew that this did not justify a national policy of nuclear build up, assassination attempts on Castro, funding for right wing dictators and other abusers of human rights. Deming came to see that U.S. hatred of Communism threatened to make it into a mirror-image of Communism’s worst evils — a danger that is rapidly returning in our day of hatred toward international terrorism.
Deming’s subsequent nonviolent activism ranged from fasting for the abolition of the CIA in 1961 to numerous arrests and imprisonments for anti-war and civil rights protests involving civil disobedience. In 1964, Deming joined the Walk for Peace from Quebec to Washington, D.C., to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Walkers were arrested in Albany, Georgia for attempting to walk through town as an interracial group. Prison Notes, written during Barbara’s month in Albany jail, was published in 1966. It is widely regarded as one of the classic prison narratives.
During the so-called Vietnam War (the war actually encompassed much of Southeast Asia), Deming traveled to North Vietnam with three other women in order to be both a peaceful witness and a journalist seeking more accurate information than available in the U.S. mainstream media. She returned home and spoke and wrote widely of her experiences with North Vietnamese villagers during U.S. bombing raids.
Deming’s best known essay is easily, “On Revolution and Equilibrium,” published in 1968 in the Left-pacifist journal Liberation. It articulates her argument for nonviolence, deliberately using as a counterpoint The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon which argues that the oppressed must use violence in their liberation struggles for their own psychological health. “On Revolution and Equilibrium” is an essay that everyone interested in peacemaking and social justice should read. It is as important as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,” or his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, or his essay, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.” It ranks with Muriel Lester’s “No Moratorium on the Sermon on the Mount,” Dave Dellinger’s Revolutionary Nonviolence, Dorothy Day’s “Of Justice and Breadlines,” and “We Go on Record,” or Thomas Merton’s “Nonviolence and the Christian Conscience.” Only a few book-length works surpass this essay by Deming in articulating the call to active, nonviolent struggle for social justice. That it is better known by “secular” pacifists than by Christian peacemakers is to our shame.
Seriously injured in an auto accident in 1971, Deming struggled with ill health for the rest of her life. She turned to letter writing as a form of activism and became an influential voice in the emerging “Second Wave” American feminist movement of the 1970s. Although she had known herself to be a lesbian since the age of 16, Deming “came out” publicly in 1973 and worked to integrate pacifism/nonviolence into the new movement for gay and lesbian rights. I realize that this aspect of Deming’s life will be controversial for some readers of this column. Christian peace folk are as divided over issues surrounding sexual orientation as society and church as a whole. Although I, myself, have come to believe that sexual orientation is morally neutral and that the church should revise its moral theology to treat same-sex monogamy as morally equivalent to heterosexual marriage, that is a very controversial viewpoint and one that I will not argue now since my focus is elsewhere. I would ask readers that disagree and uphold the traditional Christian sexual ethic of either celibate singleness or monogamous heterosexual marriage to do two things: First, do not dismiss the witness of Barbara Deming in other areas because of your disagreements with her sexual orientation and commitment any more than you would dismiss the entire witness of Martin Luther King, Jr., after discovering his many adulterous affairs. Second, whatever Christian pacifists say about the place of non-celibate gays and lesbians in the church, at a minimum our faith should commit us to vigorous defense of their civil and human rights in society. Discriminating in jobs or health insurance or housing, etc., on the basis of disagreements over sexual lifestyles confuses issues of purity with issues of public justice. Discrimination in the latter area cannot be tolerated by followers of the nonviolent Christ since such discrimination is itself inherently violent.
In 1983, Deming was one of 54 women arrested at the Seneca Women’s Peace Encampment in upstate New York. Marines attempted to break up the action by force, but the women formed a circle on the ground, giving the double message, “We are no threat to you, but we will not be bullied; we will not be bullied, but we are no threat to you.” The women remained nonviolent in spite of jeers from the crown with horrible messages like, “All you gals need is a little rape!” Judith McDaniel, executor of the Barbara Deming archives, sums up the meaning of Deming’s lifework. Deming “was to highlight for us the connection between issues of oppression.” Most of Deming’s writings are out of print, but one can still find We Are All Part of One Another: A Barbara Deming Reader, ed. Jane Meyerding (New Society Publishers, 1984).