FACE TO FAITH
DU brings peace group into region
S.J. Dahlman teaches communications and humanities at Milligan College. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It doesn’t seem like quaint, quiet Jonesborough should be included on any list with names like Bosnia, Colombia, Iraq and Afghanistan, but Tennessee’s oldest town shares this much with those embattled places: A group known as the Christian Peacemaker Team has worked in them all. CPT was organized in the mid-1980s as in an effort to “reduce violence and protect human rights in the world’s conflict zones,” according to its Web site (www.cpt.org). It sends groups, or delegations, to attempt to help communication, sometimes literally stepping between warring parties. Started in 1984 by three Christian “peace churches” — the Church of the Brethren, the Mennonite Church and the Quakers — it now draws support and members from a wide array of Christian groups. So why Jonesborough? The short answer is it’s the home of Aerojet Ordnance Tennessee, a self-described “industry leader in the design, development and production of specialty metal components for munitions, commercial products and sporting goods.” The longer answer is found in one particular metal component: depleted uranium. Depleted uranium, or DU, is what remains of natural uranium after it’s been processed for nuclear fuel or for use in nuclear weapons. DU is heavy and dense — 1.7 times denser than lead — and that makes it attractive to the military. Since the first Gulf War in 1991, the Army has used it to toughen tanks and add punch to artillery shells with DU “penetrators.” Not surprisingly, being a toxic heavy metal and slightly radioactive, DU is controversial enough for the United Nations to continue debating possible restrictions or bans. Because DU can be absorbed through water and food supplies or inhaled after it has been “aerosolized” in combat, critics say it carries long-term health risks in civilians and soldiers. The evidence for that is sketchy but growing. Just this week, the American Chemical Society published a study linking DU with genetic damage and lung cancer. CPT has sent a delegation of 16 volunteers to the area as part of a “Stop-DU” conference today at East Tennessee State University (10 a.m. until 4 p.m. in Rogers-Stout Hall), and to camp out near the Aerojet facility until May 27 as a sign of nonviolent protest. Cliff Kindy, a full-time volunteer from Indiana, is leading the CPT delegation. He’s traveled to hot spots around the world over the last decade, including three five-month visits to Iraq, one of them just before the 2003 American invasion. “That’s where we learned about DU and its impact on Iraqi civilians and U.S. military personnel,” he said this week. “We were in hospitals where parents had been exposed to DU in the first Gulf War. Babies were born later with all kinds of birth defects. Hospitals had never run into it.” The clinical jury is still out on whether DU causes such defects, but Kindy had no doubts. He came back and launched the Stop-DU campaign, and that’s when Aerojet got on his radar. “We’re here to raise awareness,” he said. “DU has been basically covered up, like Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. People don’t know about it.”
Linda Cutler, a spokesperson for GenCorp, Aerojet’s parent company, responded. “I certainly appreciate their point of view; that’s their right,” she said. “We are not the policymakers here. We are working for the Department of Defense. We are committed to operating a safe and clean facility.” While CPT finds common cause with other activists, Kindy, a member of the Brethren Church, said the group works with a motivation different from most. “For me, we put quite a focus on Jesus and his proclamation of the breaking in of the kingdom of God,” he said. “It’s the understanding that God created the earth and ‘it was good’ (quoting the book of Genesis).” So, he reasoned, anything that harms the environment or humans in “such a horrible way as DU” is not part of that good creation. “We have a responsibility to be part of a transformation,” he said. “It’s a questionable call to decide how that happens, but all traditions would point to that spirit of peace and justice as what God longs for, what God creates, what God develops through humanity. We don’t get there by doing the opposite or by refusing to participate now. We get there by reflecting what God is about.”