October 28, 2020 Editor

Writing Straight with Crooked Lines: A Memoir

Orbis Books, 2020, by Jim Forest

Reviewed by Ron Dart

Ron Dart, amongst many scholarly pursuits and prolific writing, is an enthusiastic mountaineer!

I first met Jim Forest in the mid-1980s when he was still general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) and I was on staff with Amnesty International. We met, initially, the old fashioned way (letter writing). Jim and I have stayed in touch since then. Jim and I, working for two different Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) in the area of peace and human rights, indeed, know what it means to be “Beggar-in Chief” (a chapter in Writing Straight with Crooked Lines). We are often expected to run like race horses yet fed like beggars. But, to the book. The mid-1980s signaled a significant shift in the Cold War, March 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party in the former USSR. Who would have guessed the changes in the USSR and religion in Russia (an important topic and life changer for Jim and his wife Nancy) with Gorbachev coming to power? Many are the chapters in this Memoir of Jim’s trips to Russia, Orthodoxy and Russian literature. Jim and I have had some lovely email correspondence recently of Boris Pasternak and Dr. Zhivago, 2020 being the 60th anniversary of Pasternak’s death. Interestingly, as Jim noted in his missive, when Nancy Reagan was in Russia with her husband, Ronald Reagan, she took the time to go to Pasternak’s grave. Jim sent Nancy Reagan a photograph of the grave and Nancy Reagan replied in a letter of gratitude. History is, indeed, replete with those small and often ignored acts of transcending the tribalism of ideological culture and political wars.    

Writing Straight with Crooked Lines, in the birthing chapters, dealt with Jim’s parents, parents immersed in Marxist thought and communism and in McCarthy era America, knowing the paid price for such commitments. There is a poignant sense that Jim was gifted with parents who knew the cost of standing by convictions, convictions perhaps naïve and misguided, yet faithful to a vision. It was this underlying experience that, perhaps, partially, explains Jim’s turn, post naval job, to a form of public Christian faith that was also very much about faithfulness to Christian convictions (Jim’s father and mother, although Marxist, were not anti-religious or anti-Christian). The turn by Jim in the early 1960s to work with the Catholic Worker and Dorothy Day certainly had left of centre tendencies, tendencies inherited from his parental past. Many of the initial chapters in A Memoir deal with Jim’s meandering journey (crooked yet moving in a discernable direction) to an Anglican then Roman Catholic ecclesiology with an engaged peace focus to it. Dorothy Day pointed the way, in time, to Thomas Merton (both significant models and mentors for Jim). Each of the insightful, fast-paced and anecdotal chapters in the autobiography are both a journey with Jim as he moves through time and history but also an overview of the terrain of the time, war and peace ever at odds.

I might add that most of the black-white photographs in the book are keepers not to miss.

The 1960s-1980s brought Jim into contact with some of those most committed to peace but peace in a just manner: Dan and Phil Berrigan, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, A.J. Muste, Joan Baez, Al Hassler, Jim Douglass, Adolfo Perez Esquival, Martin Luther King Jr. and many other women and men on the just peace train. The larger public and political issues of peace and unity, so the crooked lines go, took Jim to a variety of marriages that were not about peace but more discord and disunity, separations troubling and painful. It was the meeting with Nancy that brought, for Jim, solid and straight lines, a path to deeper life and love that shines clean and clear in A Memoir, in time, Nancy offering her kidney so Jim’s body could be more at peace.

The almost 70 short yet riveting chapters in this must-read of a beauty are more than worthy of multiple reads. Much is learned, of course, about Jim’s journey (and many of those he interacted with) but also the cost of being someone concerned for peace and acting on it. The transition of Jim-Nancy to the Orthodox church (given their trips to Russia in the Russian thaw) make for a window into the glasnost-perestroika years and, perhaps more importantly, dukhovnost (spiritual life of the people). It would have been interesting to hear Jim’s thoughts on Putin and the state of the Russian Orthodox Church these days. It was somewhat interesting how, in many ways, Henri Nouwen was a healing shepherd to Jim as he was living through a painful marriage crisis, and yet, when Jim/Nancy turned to the Orthodox Tradition,  Nouwen found such a move problematic. Jim’s reflections on this fuller ecclesiology are included in the autobiography with an oft-quoted passage by Merton on uniting the Eastern and Western forms of Christianity.

Writing Straight with Crooked Lines comes to an apt and fitting close with Jim tipping his grateful hat (replete with photographs) to his mentors: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, Daniel Berrigan, Henri Nouwen and Al Hassler-Joan Baez (certainly high level worthies of the 20th-21st centuries peace movements and various types of activism). The final photo (peace fingers held in a joyful way and full face smiles) is fittingly of Jim and Nancy (his decades-long wife who has brought him much peace and many a straight line) on, appropriately, the feast of St. Martha.

Ron Dart             

Please click on: Writing Straight


  1. [1]Please look at several articles as well on American/Western will to world domination by clicking on "Selected Articles: Western Aggression Backed by Western Media”. The series of articles is introduced thus:
    The Western allies never run dry of resources to support their global war of terror and aggression, ostensibly an integral part of their foreign policy. They dynamically legislate laws lest the people awaken. They have the unbending support of the corporate media, which skilfully distorts reality. When will they ever back down from their destructive quest for colonies? Read our selection below.
  2. [2]It continued:
    ‘For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians – in some cases torturing and mutilating them - in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public,’ the newspaper said, at other points describing the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians. ‘Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers,’ The Blade said. ‘Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed - their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings.”   The New York Times confirmed the claimed accuracy of the stories by contacting several of those interviewed.  It reported: “But they wanted to make another point: that Tiger Force had not been a ‘rogue’ unit. Its members had done only what they were told, and their superiors knew what they were doing. “Burning huts and villages, shooting civilians and throwing grenades into protective shelters were common tactics for American ground forces throughout Vietnam, they said. That contention is backed up by accounts of journalists, historians and disillusioned troops… ‘Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go,’ [one veteran] said in a recent telephone interview. ‘It was that kind of war, a frontless war of great frustration. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.’ Current likely Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry was also quoted giving evidence before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.  He reported that American soldiers in Vietnam had “raped, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country. Nicholas Turse [later author of: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam], a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, has been studying government archives and said they were filled with accounts of similar atrocities. ''I stumbled across the incidents The Blade reported,'' Mr. Turse said by telephone. ''I read through that case a year, year and a half ago, and it really didn't stand out. There was nothing that made it stand out from anything else. That's the scary thing. It was just one of hundreds.'' Yet there were few prosecutions.
  3. [3]Historian John Coatsworth in The Cambridge History of the Cold War noted:
    Between 1960, by which time the Soviets had dismantled Stalin's gulags, and the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. In other words, from 1960 to 1990, the Soviet bloc as a whole was less repressive, measured in terms of human victims, than many individual Latin American countries [under direct sway of US Empire] ("The Cold War in Central America", pp. 216 - 221).
    What was true for Latin America was true for around the world: massive human rights abuses, assassinations, regime changes of democratically elected governments, etc., etc., etc. orchestrated by US Empire. Yet Americans invariably have wanted it both ways: to be seen as the exemplary "City on A Hill" that upholds universal human rights and democracy, while operating a brutal Empire directly contrary to all such elevated values, and a concomitant rapacious Empire market economy that takes no prisoners. This began of course even before the founding of the United States of America and continued apace, in its mass slaughter and dispossession of indigenous peoples, in its brutal system of slavery on which its obscene wealth in the textile industry in the first place was built. "The Land of the Free" conceit was a sustained con job on the part of America's leaders. It was also apotheosis of hypocrisy. American exceptionalism was/is true in one respect only: it was brutal like no other Empire in its eventual global reach.
  4. [5]
  5. [4] The highlighted article about renowned whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg points to again what is utterly chilling, horror-filled, exponentially beyond immoral, American (hence the world's) reality: "Daniel Ellsberg: U.S. Military Planned First Strike On Every City In Russia and China … and Gave Many Low-Level Field Commanders the Power to Push the Button". [5]He has since written The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Of it we read:
    Shortlisted for the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist for the California Book Award in Nonfiction The San Francisco Chronicle's Best of 2017 List In These Times “Best Books of 2017” Huffington Post's Ten Excellent December Books List LitHub's “Five Books Making News This Week” From the legendary whistle-blower who revealed the Pentagon Papers, an eyewitness exposé of the dangers of America's Top Secret, seventy-year-long nuclear policy that continues to this day. Here, for the first time, former high-level defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg reveals his shocking firsthand account of America's nuclear program in the 1960s. From the remotest air bases in the Pacific Command, where he discovered that the authority to initiate use of nuclear weapons was widely delegated, to the secret plans for general nuclear war under Eisenhower, which, if executed, would cause the near-extinction of humanity, Ellsberg shows that the legacy of this most dangerous arms buildup in the history of civilization--and its proposed renewal under the Trump administration--threatens our very survival. No other insider with high-level access has written so candidly of the nuclear strategy of the late Eisenhower and early Kennedy years, and nothing has fundamentally changed since that era.
  6. [6]A classic instance of this aligning with "just war" is the United States' "war on drugs" as subset of "war on crime", while at the same time the CIA was a major worldwide drug dealer in league with other drug cartels -- all done to enhance American Empire during the Cold War -- and continues to the present. The four-part series mentioned below connects American Empire drug dealing to the current War on Terror, in particular in Afghanistan. This of course is colossal hypocrisy as well. Worse: the series posits American federal government administrations over many decades as the Ultimate Drug Cartel, with Blacks, Latinos, and generally the poor directly being knowingly poisoned en masse. Then they have been primary targets of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and thereby become victims of America's too often savage prison system that oppresses and brutalizes them all over again... See: "The War on Drugs Is a Failure, So [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions Is All for It". A citation from the article reads:
    In June [2017], the History Channel aired a four-part documentary series called America’s War on Drugs.” The series asserts that the war on drugs was actually a war of drugs—and that the CIA was essentially a partner in spreading drugs and drug use. The series follows how the U.S. intelligence agency, in an obsession with fighting communism, allied itself with U.S. organized crime and foreign drug traffickers and includes firsthand accounts from many involved. In an interview with Truthdig columnist Sonali Kolhatkar on her radio program “Rising Up With Sonali,” the series’ executive producer, Anthony Lappé, explains why the CIA got involved:
    It’s actually a pretty mind-blowing story when you look at the extent to which the CIA was involved with drug traffickers and drug trafficking throughout the Cold War. … If you look at Cold War policy against the Soviet Union, we were locked in a global battle for supremacy, where we have lots of proxy wars going on. … We needed to team up with local allies, and often the local allies we were teaming up with were people who had access to guns, who had access to underground networks, to help us fight the perceived threat of communism. There are actually a lot of similarities between what drug traffickers do and what the CIA does.
    Lappé elaborates by saying the hypocrisy of the war on drugs has been evident from the start: Secret CIA experiments with LSD helped fuel the counterculture movement, leading to President Richard Nixon’s crackdown and declaration of the war on drugs. The series also explores the CIA’s role in the rise of crack cocaine in poor black communities and a secret island “cocaine base.” In addition the documentary makes the connection between the war on drugs, the war on terror and the transformation of Afghanistan into a narco state and contends that American intervention in Mexico helped give clout to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the super cartels, making it easier to send drugs across American borders. Watch Kolhatkar’s full interview with Lappé by clicking here. Please also see the now classic: The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, by noted American historian Alfred McCoy. Of it we read:
    The first book to prove CIA and U.S. government complicity in global drug trafficking, The Politics of Heroin includes meticulous documentation of dishonesty and dirty dealings at the highest levels from the Cold War until today. Maintaining a global perspective, this groundbreaking study details the mechanics of drug trafficking in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Central America. New chapters detail U.S. involvement in the narcotics trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan before and after the fall of the Taliban, and how U.S. drug policy in Central America and Colombia has increased the global supply of illicit drugs.
    To be noted as well is Johann Hari's Chasing The Scream, which tells the tragic tale of America's long-standing offensive against drugs, and the way to end such a war worldwide -- that several nations are successfully embracing.


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

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