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Men in groups/Gis and Promise Keepers

November 05, 1997

Up until now, I haven't wanted to write about the religious group known as the Promise Keepers. Everything that could be said, has been said, or so it seemed. Syndicated columnists have rightly knocked the hysterical rant of NOW's Patricia Ireland, who looks at PK members' pledges to be better men and family members and sees a plot to restore a patriarchal family order in America.

That's not going to happen. Just because some PK leaders may have political plans or more ambitious designs for the movement doesn't mean members will follow like sheep. Lewis Farrakhan got a million black men to come to Washington, D.C., but I'll bet that most came for the camraderie and didn't buy his strange claims about numerological repression.

No, this is America. Even if a few get sucked into a cult that promises adherents a trip to heaven in a spaceship, most citizens will remain as independent in their thinking as columnist James J. Kilpatrick. He ignored many ministers' calls to boycott a movie called the "Last Temptation of Christ" because he wanted to judge for himself what all the shouting was about.

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So what can the movement do? I thought about that as I noted the approach of Veterans Day, and the fact that my father has now been dead for nine years.

There was no politer, less egotistical man on this earth than my father. Compared to some of the belt-wielding tyrants in our old neighborhood, he was a pacifist. And yet before I was born he went to war in the South Pacific, his bad eyes and rail-thin body landing him in a construction unit.

He didn't tell many war stories, but in the one I remember, one of his buddies was standing watch at the edge of a dark jungle, when he heard what sounded like a footstep.

"Who goes there?" he hollered, and when there was no answer, he fired in the direction of the noise.

The next sentry, hearing the shot (and probably the scurrying of animals that had been startled by it) began to imagine he heard footsteps too, and when his challenge wasn't answered, he also began firing.

Soon, all over the island, sentries were firing at imagined enemies, at least until an old sergeant came out and called for a cease fire. The story summed up perfectly the combination of fear and tedium these soldiers faced every day. Despite that, they accomplished something, because they worked together.

Now there is no war, and for some, the absence of a great cause can make life tedious and increase the temptation to engage in forbidden activities in an attempt to feel more alive. And up until now, those who avoided temptation couldn't seek any credit for doing so without risking ridicule. Not long ago, comedian Chris Rock ragged on athletes who said they'd never gotten involved in drugs and criminal activity, saying "What do they want, a cookie?"

Maybe not a cookie, but something like congratulation for doing a good job. The veterans I know don't actively seek recognition for their service, but they appreciate it when it's given. If PK members can reinforce each other's positive lifestyles, why not?

But there is more that they can do. During their recent trip to a rally in Washington, D.C., a group of PK members spent some of their time renovating a shabby public schoolhouse. Surely, in every community, there is an equivalent project. Perhaps it won't involve a hammer and nails, but something like reading one-to-one, with a class of elementary school children, something members can look back on with satisfaction and pride instead of shame.

When my father came back from the South Pacific, they tell me he was a changed man. From a unit of boisterous, boastful Texans, he learned to work with just about anybody and he learned to work with his hands.

After four years in the jungle, he sat at the dinner table with my grandfather, who had refused to watch this Catholic wed his daughter, with a new certainty that being snubbed by one's father-in-law wasn't the worst thing that could happen in this world.

The other promise PK seems to hold is the possibility that, like the military, its members will be a mix of races and creeds. Brotherhood is something that needs to be worked on more than one week a year. But whether it will be or not depends on whether PK members can pull together in the cause, in the absence of a war or a drill sergeant to force them to do so.

Bob Maginnis is Herald-Mail's editorial page editor.

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