John Dear, SJ, has been arrested some 75 times in his quest for peace, this one last August in Washington, D.C., in front of the White House. He was taking part in a rally commemorating the tenth anniversary of the United Nations' establishment of sanctions against Iraq.
John Dear told the story.
He was in jail in North Carolina, April 27, 1994, awaiting sentencing for a civil disobedience action, and his Jesuit provincial superior, Fr. Edward Glynn, was visiting. They spoke by microphone through a glass wall. John, in his orange jump suit, with guards on either side, asked simply, "Ed, I really need to know: do you and the Society of Jesus still support me?"
Fr. Glynn sat back in his chair, put his hands up as if to frame John in a picture, and replied, "John, you're right where we want ya."
They both had a good laugh at that, but Dear knew then that the Jesuits were there for him.
Dear told the story during a homily he preached at the Eucharist at which he pronounced his final Jesuit vows. This event occurs in a Jesuit's life after long training, many years after his first vows at the end of novitiate. It has implications in canon law but more importantly is a final, definitive embracing of the Jesuit life.
This vow mass was on a hot, heavy, late-summer Saturday afternoon last September in New York. The bulk of St. Francis Xavier Church on Sixteenth Street dwarfed the community of Dear's family and friends who gathered with him. Industrial-strength fans chugged through the muggy air and dampered the voices of the readers and the celebrants. But no one cared about the heat or the noise. Final vows are about commitment, and commitment is a strong, clear voice.
We have chosen to say |
with the gift of our liberty
if necessary our lives:
the violence stops here
the death stops here
the suppression of the
truth stops here
this war stops here.
The jail visit Dear spoke about is very much part of his commitment. At 2 A.M. on December 7, 1993, he and three others walked over a downed fence onto the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. They picked their way through the dark woods, crossed a deep icy stream, and ducked away from guard patrols until they reached the floodlit fleet of F15 bombers engaged in war games preparing for possible bombing runs in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Acting out the prophecy of Isaiah, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares," the four approached one of the planes and began hammering on it. Guards, guns, arrest, jail, and trial followed in quick order. John's companions in this demonstration were Lynn Fredriksson, 30, an advocate for the homeless; Bruce Friedrich, 24, of a Catholic Worker community; and Philip Berrigan, 70, a peace activist of long standing and brother of fellow activist Dan Berrigan, SJ.
For Dear, this protest action and arrest grew out of a long commitment to nonviolence. In college at Duke University, he was known as a Catholic pacifist involved in issues of justice. After entering the Society of Jesus in 1982, his commitment to peace and justice grew ever more intense, and before pronouncing Jesuit vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience he and three companions pronounced a private vow of nonviolence. Visiting El Salvador in 1985, he saw how policies formulated and decisions made in Washington end up in poverty and violence in Central America. The injustice Dear witnessed compelled him into action. By his own estimate, he has been arrested "about 75 times."
Dear and others who use nonviolent protest to promote moral values find ample warrant in the Christian tradition. Jesus clearly defied civil and religious authorities of his day to preach God's reign. Peter and John did the same in the Acts of the Apostles, and when ordered to stop preaching they replied to the authorities: "We cannot promise to stop proclaiming what we have seen and heard." Countless saints have been imprisoned for their religious activities.
Speaking out for what is right does not have to mean defying the law, of course. Leaders in every religious tradition have done heroic work for issues of justice, peace, and life as circumstances, opportunities, and talents allowed without defying the law.
But some come to see the legal structures, accepted standards, approved behavior as supports for the acts and the systems of evil and find themselves impelled to defy them, inviting and accepting the consequences of their vision.
Daniel Berrigan, SJ, has been giving witness to gospel values through preaching, writing, and nonviolent protest for over 40 years; he speaks here in 1999 at the School of the Americas protests at Fort Benning, Georgia, on the anniversary of the killings in El Salvador.
Among Jesuits, the name Daniel Berrigan comes first to mind; in books of poetry and scriptural commentary, from platforms and picket lines and prison cells, for 40 years and more he has borne witness to his prophetic vision.
In his 1981 "interim biography" of Daniel Berrigan, Apologies, Good Friends, journalist John Deedy called the 1960s "the decade that made activist history" as civil rights and antiwar movements challenged American society. Berrigan had actually begun advocacy for poor African-Americans in Syracuse in 1958 while he worked at Le Moyne College. In 1964, as the violence in Vietnam was escalating, he helped found the Catholic Peace Fellowship and later the Clergy Concerned About Vietnam. His many peace activities outraged New York's Cardinal Spellman, a strong supporter of the military, and in 1965 Jesuit superiors sent Berrigan, then working for Jesuit Missions magazine, to Latin America. By now he had inspired many others to join in working for peace; his stay in South America simply broadened his experience of poverty and injustice and deepened his determination to fight them.
Dan Berrigan's work for peace led him to the Pentagon in October 1967. Refusing to leave at the appointed time, he and others were arrested. This was his first arrest. Six days later, his brother Phil and three others poured blood on draft files in a government office in Baltimore. And the following May, Dan and Phil and seven others took draft files from the Selective Service office in Catonsville, a Baltimore suburb, and burned them with homemade napalm in the parking lot. They had alerted the media to this event, wanting to make a very public point, and the story flashed around the country, outraging many, inspiring many too.
At a four-day trial in October 1968, the defendants were found guilty and given a range of prison sentences. Dan Berrigan's was three years. Free pending appeal, he decided not to surrender to authorities and went underground, appearing in print and on television for four months until the FBI finally trapped him on Block Island in Rhode Island in August 1969. He then began serving time in the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, until February 1972.
A play that Berrigan wrote while in prison, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, is a manifesto of nonviolent protest. One by one the characters, the nine defendants, explain their motivation.
The character of defendant David Darst states that their intention was "to raise a cry / an outcry / at what was clearly a crime / an unnecessary suffering / a clear and wanton slaughter." Another defendant, Thomas Lewis, explains the religious foundation of their action: "The spirit of the New Testament deals / with a man's response to other men / and with a law that overrides all laws / The one law / is the primary law of love and justice."
Daniel Berrigan's own character in the play protests that "A few men / must have a long view." About the need to take the risk of public action, he says, "The time is past when good men may be silent / when obedience / can segregate men from public risk / when the poor can die without defense." And accepting the risk of punishment, he explains, "We have chosen to say / with the gift of our liberty / if necessary our lives: / the violence stops here / the death stops here / the suppression of the truth stops here / this war stops here."
Other Jesuits followed the path of civil disobedience to protest the war in Vietnam. New York Jesuit Edward Murphy, for example, was arrested multiple times for his stands against the war. Joseph Mulligan of Detroit was one of the Chicago Fifteen, who burned draft records; he spent two years in the federal penitentiary in Sandstone, Minnesota, pursuing theology studies before ordination while serving time.
Simon Harak, SJ, works with Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign trying to end UN sanctions against Iraq and the devastation they are wreaking on the population of the country. Fr. Harak is among a number of members of the group who have traveled to Iraq to deliver medicine in defiance of State Department bans on travel to the country.
In the early 1970s, many Jesuits demonstrated support for Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers in California. Following a large protest in July 1973, eighteen Jesuits were arrested for trespassing and kept in jail for up to two weeks. In fact they were not trespassing but were demonstrating on public property; the arrests were seen simply as harassment.
Abortion is an issue that has been the focus of protest action by several Jesuits. Among them, in 1991, George Endal at age 89 was sentenced to fifteen days in jail for his part in a protest at an abortion clinic in Anchorage. Francis Hagerty received a six-month term in 1993 for a similar protest in Brookline, Massachusetts.
The killing of six Jesuits and two women in El Salvador in November 1989 ignited multiple protests. At a large prayer service at the federal office building in San Francisco on November 20, Jesuit leaders called for an end to U.S. government assistance to the regime in El Salvador, whose history of violence against its own people culminated in these killings. More than 150 Jesuits were among the demonstrators there, and 17 of them and 119 other participants were arrested for blocking the building. Six other Jesuits were arrested two weeks later at a protest in front of the White House in Washington.
For many, the goal of civil disobedience has generally broadened since the 1960s and 1970s from changing laws about segregation and voting rights, supporting migrant workers, or stopping the war in Vietnam. As Dear explained in his vow-mass homily, he stands "with Jesus . . . against this imperial culture of violence and war and injustice." This culture includes nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. It includes military-backed issues like the economic sanctions against Iraq that make real life unliveable for millions of innocents. It includes also the export of violence through arms sales and through the army's training foreign soldiers to fight for repressive regimes. And it includes life issues like abortion, AIDS research and treatment, and the death penalty.
Perceiving an intimate relationship between the many faces and forces of violence and death is Fr. William Bichsel, SJ. He was arrested first with other peace workers at a Trident submarine base in Bangor, Washington, in 1976, and later at the Bremerton Shipyards, and spent time in jail for his actions there. More recently he has been among those arrested at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the School of the Americas has trained leaders to fight Central America's guerilla wars (see related box story). He was sentenced two separate times, to four months and twelve months, for trespass at Ft. Benning.
Daily life for William Bichsel, SJ, involves parish ministry and work at a Catholic Worker community in Tacoma; his peace work, which has involved civil disobedience actions against Trident nuclear submarines, challenges a culture that sees violence and injustice as normal.
Bichsel's protest grew first from an intellectual conviction that things were wrong. "I saw that we are using our resources for destruction rather than for ongoing creation," he says. But when he crossed the fence into the Trident base, he saw pictures of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; "I already had intellectual conviction," he says; "but this hit my guts. There was no way I couldn't protest."
He speaks also of a family he knows in Tacoma who have a young son and of seeing how it might be if this family suffered as many do in war zones. "When I see him being macheted by people coming into a village, seeing people I know go through that, I couldn't not go forward."
Steve Kelly was among the Jesuits arrested in San Francisco after the El Salvador murders in 1989. For him too, this began a series of arrests in his work for justice. In 1992 he was doing pastoral work with campesinos in El Salvador; authorities arrested and deported him. In 1995, he and schoolteacher Susan Crane marked the anniversary of Hiroshima by hammering on nuclear devices at a Lockheed plant in California. In December 1999, demonstrating against U.S. military action with spent uranium ammunition in Iraq and Bosnia, he and three others, including Phil Berrigan, hammered on two A-10 Warthog planes at a base in Maryland. He is currently in prison for this action.
In prison, but not without hope that supports him and others. "Our hope is sustained despite the incessant conclusion of this system and the prevalence of its works," he writes. "Our hope drags us kicking and screaming into the fray to undergo sacrifices. Our hope stands in the face of the persistence of war, the inevitability of war for every generation."
Hope is crucial to surviving imprisonment and to keeping one's commitment intact. So is faith, and the prisoners of conscience talk frequently of how their faith helps make sense of their actions. That faith gets tested in the prison routine, where day after day insult, threat, boredom, and violence grind away at the most committed heart. It gets tested in periods of self-doubt, of regret for the pain one has caused to family, friends, and associates. But tested, it grows stronger.
Crucial too is the sense of support. Dear has written about the support of family and friends and the pain he felt when those he loves did not support him. But he felt real support in Glynn's visit and in his phone calls and public statements and in a letter from Superior General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. He felt it in visits and letters from other Jesuits and other peace workers; at the time of the trial, a public demonstration was expressing support for them. One of his brothers, Steven, visited him frequently, as did other family members.
Dear's parents found it excruciating at first to see their son jailed as a criminal, the pain compounded because the trial took place in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where the family had lived when John was young. And though they did not fully understand what he had done, they were always there to support him. Their resolve only intensified as the prosecutor and an FBI agent spoke hateful remarks about him, prompting them to begin speaking out.
The gospels live because they confront, they challenge, they demand commitment. Everyone who responds to them responds in a personal way. For many, this personal response helps make sense of life's big mysteries or peace with the surrounding culture's ambiguities. For a few, this personal response is a radical critique of the surrounding culture. These few can make others uncomfortable. That is the prophet's lot.
It comes down to commitment. Where does one's commitment lead? How does one's commitment change life's trajectory? Francis X. McAloon, a young Jesuit in theology studies who was arrested at the San Francisco prayer service in 1989, compared his arrest with pronouncing Jesuit vows: "Both were profound experiences of God's love, call, and mission. I approached civil disobedience with as much anxiety, excitement, and spiritual intensity as I did vows."
Dear was with McAloon that day in San Francisco, just as they had together taken the vow of nonviolence at the end of their novitiate. His commitment has led from early ideas of justice, to arrest and prison, to an altar in a steamy church in New York and final vows.
Near the end of the vow liturgy, Daniel Berrigan read a poem he wrote for the occasion. He described life on a high wire, seeking equilibrium in a brief, dangerous existence, "one foot firm / one in midair." He had walked the high wire himself and knew how risky that firm footing could feel. And he seemed pleased after years of witness to look at a younger companion in his commitment. "A few are skilled / breathtakingly," his poem goes on. Dear, on his own high wire, had learned his breathtaking skill from a master.
Fr. Edward Schmidt, SJ, is Company magazine's business manager.
See also an accompanying sidebar on Student Protestors