For a precariously woven community of more than twenty thousand, the blizzard kept us from unraveling into violent chaos. Weeks before, a call had gone out: chaplains were needed to serve military veterans coming to the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota, who were bringing with them the things veterans carry. Those of us who said yes and came as a part of the chaplain team at Standing Rock may have stumbled into something important – something this nation may urgently need in the days to come.
The organizers of “Veterans Standing for Standing Rock” originally thought such an invitation might attract a few hundred. Final estimates were close to 4,000. Veterans came for different reasons, traveling from all regions of the nation, representing all generations of war-fighters, and all branches of the Armed Services. Their mission was to protect the Water Protectors – the persistent and revolving community here since April. They had endured the onslaughts of water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures, rubber-bullets, tear gas, arrests and hospitalizations. What began and continued as a protective presence led by American Indian tribal community leaders grew to gathering of 25,000 on a bitterly cold weekend in December.
The swell of numbers overwhelmed the infrastructure, and conditions were hectic. And then surprising news began to spread: the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) easement would be denied and legal barriers would obstruct further construction and drilling. Most of the pipeline already complete, this stretch of sacred land, the last piece of puzzle, was now out of reach. There was cause to celebrate and to exercise cautious optimism for a battle victory in the midst of the much larger war against environmental destruction and climate change.
However, many veterans remained dogmatically suspicious, disbelieving that anything good could come from government negotiations. Confusion threatened the peaceful tone. Thousands of veterans had rallied to the challenge: be ready to get hurt while protecting the Water Protectors. Veterans, because of their military training, came remembering the feeling of adrenaline pumping through one’s body during conflict. While committed in principle to remaining nonviolent, the crowds of veterans were jacked-up, on edge, and ready for confrontation. One retired combat medic steamed to me, “I didn’t bring forty pounds of medical equipment, to not do anything with it.” The conditions were ripe for mob action, the result of which would have likely been detrimental to the short- and long-term efforts of the Water Protectors.
When the news came Sunday afternoon that the DAPL easement had been denied, it was clear by Monday morning that things were far from resolved. One faction went one way, participating in a highly-media-covered apology ceremony for the centuries of military violence against indigenous communities. While this ritual act was meaningful to some, and struck a powerful chord with those viewing it from afar, the event included only a small portion of the overall numbers of veterans present at Standing Rock.
Back at camp, an alternate demonstrative action was envisioned: a march of solidarity to the edge of the bridge that had long served as the barrier between protectors and police. But who was to lead, who was giving orders? In a leadership vacuum arose factions of impassioned pleas and calls for dramatic confrontational actions. Back and forth it went: “Listen to the elders.” “Push until they stop us.” This easy victory of the denied easement generated unrest. Could there be heroism without blood?
I grew up at peace demonstrations, my small body navigating the throngs of anxious adults shouting, singing, praying, and getting arrested. This spectacle became normal in my young imagination. This is what people of faith do. This is how they show their faith: not in a church, but on the streets. This was the religiosity of my childhood and youth, but somewhere in my young adulthood, I found myself increasingly fatigued with the rhetoric, the moral judgments, chiding condescensions, and dehumanizing of those on the other side. I kept hearing us say, “Thank you God for not making us like these deplorables” (Luke 18:11).
And so, I went another way. Betraying the cultural values and habits of my peace church upbringing and bringing shame to those who loved me, I began to seek out those enemies. Not in the spirit of argument, not to change minds, but to listen and possibly understand who these enemies are, and how their humanness has been hidden from my eyes. My life and my faith have been transformed by accompanying military service members as a chaplain, those sick and injured in hospital beds, and those in uniform stateside and abroad.
As each morning began at Standing Rock, the plan of the day was an open book. Sunday was supposed to be a day of preparation for war, and turned into an armistice, needing a de-escalation of hostility. Monday promised to begin a new chapter of life in the camp, and then refused to enter that reality peacefully. “You all are talking too much. Let’s go” were the final words spoken before a faction of veterans, laden with riot gear, headed for the road to the bridge. We had no way of knowing what was next, but another chaplain and I moved with them with the countenance of prayer.
As we walked down the road, I became aware of the multitude of persons present in this movement. Indigenous peoples from around the world, clergy persons, peace activists, of all ages, races, and creeds – and these many veterans marching alongside them, most of whom had never been to a demonstration, nor identified as activists. And me, right there with them, a peace activist kid from Berkeley, California, a military veteran, a seminary professor. But what I needed to be was a chaplain: one willing to listen to a member of the security forces on the other side of that bridge just as surely as listen to a member of this march; one willing to suspend moral judgments long enough to compassionately hear the rage, fear, disgust, disillusionment, and alienation that haunt the soul; one willing to stand in between warring worlds of “us vs. them” until relational healing becomes possible.
Without the blizzard arrival, we might still be battling today. There were enough warriors ready for violence. There was enough longing, and contempt, and adrenaline to carry us into battle, but the heat of the emotions that carried us toward that bridge cooled in the unrelenting frigid gale of the storm. We stopped as one at the edge of the bridge, and stood together in solidarity in the midst of the storm. A few days later most of us were heading home.
Today, many of us wonder at what awaits us in the coming months and years. Surveillance, registries, deportations, internments, more and more violence. Standing Rock is a case study that must provoke reflection and challenge our imaginations, for such actions and such gatherings may soon become the norm for many of us – what people of faith need to do in increasing numbers and with increasing resolve.
But there may also be a need for a third way of active and direct participation, as chaplains available and trustworthy for both sides bent in struggle. Such chaplains, like those of us who traveled to Standing Rock, will be a different sort of community of faithful resistance, willing to stand between divided worlds, willing to disrupt the rhetoric and behavior stemming from “us vs. them.” They are not neutral, because they stand for something, a way that refuses to deny or diminish the worth and dignity of ALL involved. They are standing at a distance, confessing with humility, and asking for mercy (Luke 18:13).