A peace activist with a monastic temperament: Remembering Jim Forest

The demise of Thich Nhat Hanh on Friday got here lower than two weeks after the demise of his pal and fellow stalwart within the worldwide peace motion, Jim Forest. Each males performed vital roles within the motion throughout and after the Vietnam Conflict, Nhat Hanh as a Buddhist monk and Forest via quite a few antiwar initiatives. A cofounder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, Forest additionally labored with the Worldwide Fellowship of Reconciliation, finally turning into the Secretary Normal of the group, a job that took him to the Netherlands, the place he died within the city of Alkmaar on Jan. 13.

Amongst his many printed works have been biographies of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Daniel Berrigan, all three of whom he knew effectively; different books included a memoir of his time touring with Thich Nhat Hanh, a information to praying with icons, reflections on peacemaking and way more. Close to the top of his life, Forest introduced his biographer’s pen to the topic of his personal intriguing and eventful life, and in 2020 printed a memoir, Writing Straight with Crooked Strains.

Robert Ellsberg on Jim Forest: “Jim’s personal life integrated the teachings of his nice mentors, and thru his writing he provided a necessary guidebook for future generations.”

In a assessment of the guide for America, Ryan Di Corpo wrote that “it’s Forest’s personal fascinating life, bolstered by his affiliation with a colourful forged of radical characters, that makes this autobiography an engrossing learn. It features as each a private historical past and a snapshot of a tumultuous period in American society—the Nineteen Sixties—when Forest solidified his opposition to unjust struggle and his religion in lively nonviolence.”

Born to atheist mother and father who have been lively members of the Communist Celebration in New York Metropolis in 1941, Forest was baptized an Episcopalian at 10; he later turned Catholic, then was obtained into the Russian Orthodox Church alongside together with his spouse Nancy in 1988. He enlisted within the Navy whereas nonetheless a teen, however the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 rattled his conscience, and Forest sought to be discharged as a conscientious objector. Quickly after, Dorothy Day requested him to grow to be the managing editor of The Catholic Employee newspaper.

Via Day, Forest turned acquainted with Daniel Berrigan and Thomas Merton, with whom he started corresponding in 1962. Merton’s famed “Letter to a Younger Activist” is a part of a correspondence with Forest. In November 1964, Forest co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship “to prepare Catholic opposition to the Vietnam Conflict…and to make recognized the truth that conscientious objection to struggle was an possibility not just for these in pacifist church buildings reminiscent of Quakers and Mennonites however for Catholics as effectively.” Merton joined the group’s board of sponsors. In 1968, Forest was arrested for breaking into authorities places of work and burning draft playing cards as a part of the “Milwaukee Fourteen,” and served a 12 months in jail.

“I’m not by nature an activist,” Jim Forest as soon as wrote. “Maybe there’s something of Thomas Merton’s monastic temperament in me.”

At one level within the guide, Forest recounts a humorous second when somebody warned the folks singer and peace activist Joan Baez that Forest could be a C.I.A. agant. “Jim Forest is way too good—and far too disorganized—to work for the C.I.A.,” Baez responded.

Regardless of Forest’s lifelong involvement with non secular peace organizations and his acts of nonviolent resistance, Di Corpo famous that Forest didn’t contemplate himself a peace activist. “The issue is that I’m not by nature an activist,” Forest wrote. “Maybe there’s something of Thomas Merton’s monastic temperament in me.” Forest additionally averted non secular labels, describing himself not as a Christian, however fairly as one “trying to grow to be a Christian.”

That emphasis on “turning into,” Di Corpo wrote, is a helpful hermeneutical key to the guide, “which portrays a person transferring ever towards one thing, turning into somebody new via interactions together with his associates, his mentors and his religion.”

Forest wrote for America this previous Could, reflecting on his friendship with Daniel Berrigan as a part of a collection of recollections America printed on the five-year anniversary of Berrigan’s demise. His 2017 biography of Berrigan, At Play within the Lions’ Den, was reviewed for America by Diane Scharper, who famous how invaluable Forest’s private relationship with Berrigan was to the success of the biography, together with a whole lot of pictures and passages taken from Berrigan’s articles, poems, essays, performs and letters, lots of them private and revelatory of the person behind the general public picture.

“Some critics have prompt that Berrigan threw away a prestigious profession as a Catholic author whose work was on a par with Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton to jot down in opposition to struggle,” Scharper wrote. “However on this insightful and galvanizing biography, Forest means that Daniel Berrigan lived his poems, that his metaphors turned stepping stones (and rocks) on the tough path he selected.”

The majority of Forest’s writings have been printed by Orbis Books, whose writer and editor in chief, Robert Ellsberg, shared a 50-year friendship with Forest. (Full disclosure: I labored from 2012 to 2017 as an editor at Orbis). Ellsberg had this to say about his longtime pal:

For Jim, peacemaking was not primarily a political stance of being ‘anti-war’—however a deep non secular calling, rooted within the Sermon on the Mount: one rung on what he known as in one in every of his books ‘The Ladder of the Beatitudes.’ It’s vital that lots of his most vital books have been biographies of individuals whose dedication to peace was built-in right into a constant lifestyle, not merely marked by demonstrations, slogans and civil disobedience, but in addition by planting seeds of compassion and transformation. Jim’s personal life integrated the teachings of his nice mentors, and thru his writing he provided a necessary guidebook for future generations.


On this area each week, America options critiques of and literary commentary on one specific author or group of writers (each new and outdated; our archives span greater than a century), in addition to poetry and different choices from America Media. We hope this can give us an opportunity to supply you extra in-depth protection of our literary choices. It additionally permits us to alert digital subscribers to a few of our on-line content material that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Different Catholic E book Membership columns:

Joan Didion: A chronicler of recent life’s horrors and consolations

John Updike: Suspicious of Santa, however keen on Christ

Wendell Berry: the cranky farmer, poet and essayist you simply can’t ignore


Completely happy studying!

James T. Keane