By Cara Diaconoff
The “renegade” Maryknoll priest and peace activist Blase Bonpane is a sort of Zelig of the major human-rights struggles of the last fifty-some years. His autobiography presents a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall view of the intersection of history with the daily life of humanitarian witness. Here are stories of organizing cursillos in the 1960s (Spanish for “short course”—communal retreats within the Catholic church) as part of the resistance to the repressive Guatemalan government, of leading teach-ins and demonstrations on California campuses against the Vietnam War, of braving arrests and violence as a leader and member of the International March for Peace in Central America in the mid-1980s, and of flying to Iraq with a peace delegation on the eve of the bombing in winter 1991.
In plain-spoken fashion—memories alternating with reflections on liberation theology, university pedagogy, and the wickedness of leaders both elected and self-elected—Dr. Bonpane, now eighty-two years old, tells the story of a life committed to principles of service, love, and justice. Since 1983, he has been dedicated to his work with the Office of the Americas, the nonprofit education and publishing organization he founded with his wife Theresa, and since 2000 he has been publishing book-length works of political theory and personal history. Imagine No Religion is the first of his books to gather together his whole life-story; it is his fourth title published by Red Hen Press.
At the end of the 1980s, Bonpane was aptly named “the most underrated humanist of the decade” by the Los Angeles Weekly. His is a highly familiar name in “radical”-left and peace-movement circles but, I dare say, is not especially recognizable beyond that tight-knit world. Imagine No Religion is a vital component of the historical record of the American peace movement, and Red Hen Press has done a great service in making it available for general perusal. The book is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of contemporary political activism, in the role of faith in political activism, and in American foreign policy generally.
Whether it will succeed in bringing widespread attention to Bonpane and his work seems more debatable. To put it politely, the book has not been edited for a mass audience. Paragraphs are not as coherent as they could be, and points of ambiguity—not to mention outright mechanical errors—occur regularly. It is hard not to wish that more care had been taken in copyediting, hard not to feel that this writer deserves far better. One feels that not only because he has accomplished so much in his life but also because he does show occasional flashes of literary style. From time to time, he will throw off a poetically acerbic aphorism like “The demon of patriotism was being whipped by the wimps of war,” or bring alive the atmosphere of a 1960s retreat with an image of himself “plunking the ukulele,” or evoke the feel of Baghdad before the war by describing a restaurant in which “fresh river fish is taken out of a tank, thrown on hot coals, and served with bread”—a meal, as he says, worthy of the breakfast Jesus prepared for his disciples.
In the end, though, Bonpane is not a literary author and probably not interested in being one. Even more, it is possible that the lack of heavy editing may serve the subject better than a smoother presentation could have done. In reading, one gets the sense that one is actually listening to him speak. He sets down his thoughts in the order they come to him, and so the reader is afforded a privileged view of a serious mind at work. Sometimes it is an agonized mind, as when the author struggles with his own propensity to hold in contempt the architects of America’s rapacious and ill-conceived wars—the arrogantly reckless figures of Nixon, Reagan, Colin Powell, the Bushes. Bonpane castigates himself: “I have been contemptuous of our government’s behavior, our elected officials and our business community. . . . According to some, contempt is simply a way of feeling superior to others. Well, isn’t this a spiritual problem? The old bromide, hate the sin and not the sinner, may apply here.” Yet he cannot rest. A handful of lines later he ends the paragraph and the chapter by asking whether Jesus, “our model person,” did not, after all, “express contempt openly and frequently.”
In short, he is never settled, never satisfied, never complacent. One senses that Bonpane will subject himself and the world around him to dialectical quizzing until his dying day. In our era of adulation of the slick and the clever, and in a culture that places so much value on simplistic messages delivered with maximum force, to encounter this sort of earnest uncertainty—this concern with fairness and with discovering the root of the matter (the etymological meaning of “radical,” as he reminds us)—is a beautiful thing. It is good to hear. Like the tent camps that have sprung up this fall in city parks all over the world, it gives hope that the language of justice is still legible, and audible.
Cara Diaconoff is the author of a story collection, Unmarriageable Daughters (Lewis-Clark Press, 2008) and two novels, I’ll Be a Stranger to You, (Outpost19 e-books, 2011), and Marian Hall, which is currently seeking publication. Her stories have appeared individually in Indiana Review, Other Voices, South Dakota Review, and descant; her work has won fellowships from the Indiana Arts Commission, the Utah Arts Council, and the MacDowell Colony. www.caradiaconoff.com.