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1-10-2004

"Pilgrimage Through a Burning World"


A Book Review by John Dear

“Pilgrimage Through a Burning World: Spiritual Practice and Nonviolent Protest at the Nevada Test Site” a new book by Ken Butigan (New York: State University of New York Press, 2003, paperback, 234 pages, $21.95) To order, go to: www.sunypress.edu or call 1-518-472-5000.)

“Look at the desert today,” Thomas Merton wrote in the early 1950s. “It is the birthplace of a new and terrible creation, the testing-ground of the power by which people seek to un-create what God has blessed.”

“The Nevada desert is the place of the greatest violence in the history of the world,” Archbishop Dom Helder Camara later said at an NDE event in 1991. “It must become the place of the greatest nonviolence.”

For twenty years, the Nevada Desert Experience has been bringing people of faith and conscience to the gates of nuclear testing to experiment with active nonviolence and help spark the disarmament of our world. Ken Butigan has produced a ground-breaking new book about the Nevada Desert Experience and our witness against nuclear weapons testing that I hope everyone who has ever been to NDE will buy, read and study.

“Pilgrimage Through a Burning World: Spiritual Practice and Nonviolent Protest at the Nevada Test Site” is much more than a history of our work for nuclear disarmament. It is a provocative analysis of every aspect of our witness, explaining everything from the roots of Christian desert spirituality to Gandhi’s method of satyagraha to offer a powerful reflection and new understanding about our effort for peace. In the process, Ken Butigan has articulated better than anyone I know what we are trying to do--not only our witness for peace, but the emergence of a new, contemporary desert spirituality that integrates religious ritual and political action in a public effort of truth-telling, active love and global disarmament.

Right from the start, Ken’s book surprised me. Instead of a history lesson, he wants to dig deeper into the underlying motivations, roots and spirituality at the heart of the Nevada Desert Experience.

In his preface, Ken outlines five theses for this great book, First that “NDE’s faith-based nonviolent action is not simply a form of narrowly defined ‘political protest’ or ‘religious witness’ but a contemporary spiritual practice that has engendered a new type of desert spirituality.”

Second that “this spiritual practice includes rituals and processes that constitute a form of ‘new asceticism,’ whose goal is not the disparagement of the body but the transformation of self and society.”

Third, that “NDE’s antinuclear asceticism stands in contrast to an institutionalized and internalized ‘nuclear asceticism.’ Fourth, that “just as nuclearism has relied on forms of national ritualization--including civil defense drills and many other forms of nuclear training--a key dimension of NDE’s antinuclear asceticism is a ritualization of the dynamics of active nonviolence.

Finally, Ken proposes that “NDE’s antinuclear desert spirituality can be fruitfully schematized as a contemporary adaptation of the ancient ascetical practice of the pilgrimage.” “Antinuclear pilgrims journeying to the Nevada Test Site have engaged in a pilgrimage of personal and social transformation,” Ken explains, “that has often been characterized by at least four simultaneous journeys: the journey to the physical terrain of the top-secret U.S. nuclear proving ground; the journey to a symbolic center of nuclear America; the journey to, and encounter with, the people managing and protecting the test site; and the journey to a renewed personal and communal vision, commitment, faith and engagement.”

“Pilgrimage Through a Burning World” reviews the story of the Nevada Test Site and our nuclear world; the first Lenten Desert Experience in 1982; the formation of the Nevada Desert Experience; the adaptation and creation of new “Stations of the Nuclear Cross at the Nevada Test Site”; the practice and theology of nonviolent civil disobedience at the test site; and finally the growing movement of “Antinuclear Pilgrimage.”

Throughout the book, we read excerpts, testimonies and letters from participants, testifying to their vision of peace, their reason for taking a stand and risking arrest in the desert, and the profound spiritual consequences of their antinuclear witness. When brought together like this, we realize that the work of the Nevada Desert Experience not only has born tremendous fruit right now, but that it has the potential to further transform the church, our nation and the world with steadfast, active, loving nonviolence.

In particular, I benefited from Ken’s careful study of active nonviolence and Gandhian satyagraha, his review of Franciscan and desert spiritualities, the stories of how NDE came to be, and various accounts of civil disobedience at the test site. This book renews my commitment to witness for peace in the desert.

Ken Butigan’s new book deserves serious study by all concerned activists, people of faith and conscience, scholars and church people. He has done a great service by helping us to reflect on the years of nonviolent action at the Nevada Test Site.

For the rest of our lives, we must continue to journey to the Nevada Test Site and demand its closing until all nuclear weapons and war itself are abolished. This book inspires us to go deeper into nonviolence and once again, make that holy pilgrimage of peace through our burning world into the Nevada Desert, with the hope and prayer that one day, the fire will be put out.

(For further information about the Nevada Desert Experience witness against nuclear weapons testing, see:
www.nevadadesertexperience.org)

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