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Jail Witness
Reflection on Jail Witness by Phil Berrigan

N.B.  Let's begin by saying that jail is the bottom line.  Most American peace people never come to grips with that.  As we know, this attitude arises from idolatry, an ignorance of demonic activity in superpowers and major institutions, a superficial grasp of nonviolence; from willingness to offer excuses for the system; from ignorance of its lying and murderous character; from lack of vision as to the new society that needs building; from lifestyle and some of its corollaries, like security, career, income, future, etc.

2.  All of us would agree that no one belongs in jail; the State has no authority to deprive a human being of physical liberty.  How does one square this with jail as the bottom line?  If nobody belongs in jail, we don't belong in jail.  This becomes true only in an ideal order of things.  But, even there, we must win our freedom, and the means to freedom is suffering servanthood.  The Cross always becomes central, and it entails offering our physical liberty, even our lives, if necessary.  History proves this very emphatically:  justice comes from nonviolent resistance at the hellholes, in courts, and in prisons.  No other way.  The disciple defends the victim, and the State, intent only on victimizing, makes the disciple an outlaw.

I. A. The Acts of the Apostles: In nearly every chapter we have a record of harassment, ostracism, torture, flogging, imprisonment, and execution.  Like Christ, the disciples preached and lived a new way of justice, peace, love, freedom.  The status quo, the Powers, the pharaohs found this intolerable and threatening.  Therefore:

Chap. 4:  John and Peter are arrested and charged not to speak in Jesus' Name.
Chap. 5:  Unnamed Christians are arrested and some flogged.
Chap. 6-7:  Stephen is stoned and murdered.
Chap. 8:  Wholesale persecution of Christians under Saul's leadership.
Chap. 9:  Paul is lowered in a basket against a plot to kill him.
Chap. 12:  John and Peter are arrested again; James is executed.
Chap. 14:  Paul is stoned and dragged from the city.
Chap. 16:  Paul and Silas are arrested, beaten, and put in stocks..
Chap. 17:  Paul and Silas driven from Thessalonica to Berea.
Chap. 18:  Paul arrested in Corinth.
Chap. l9:  The idol makers in Ephesus rise up against Paul.
Chap. 21:  Paul is arrested in Jerusalem and held for 2 years.
Chap. 26:  Paul is sent to Rome as a prisoner.

   B.  Many of the N.T. letters were written in prison.  John, the author of Revelation, wrote it as a prisoner at Patmos.

   C.  Thus goes our tradition.  It aims at the centrality of "Thou shalt not kill! - a commandment upon which everything in the moral universe depends.  Love inspires this commandment.  Which is to say, unless one draws the line on killing - the unborn, prisoners, the elderly - everyone - then every other moral act is subverted, compromised, even nullified.  Moral ambivalence on killing certainly assaults the image of God and the creation of God in other human beings.  But, more directly, it is an attack upon Christ who is brother to all sisters and brothers, who took our nature, who became us.

       When one resists the State's right to kill, whether in war or in capital punishment, one subverts, threatens, and declares doomed  the State itself.  The State, through its functionaries, will then protect itself and put you out of business.  That usually means jail.

       l. Hearts, minds
      2. Continuity
      3. Conduct in jail

II.  Appears there's a continuity between resistance, action, court, and jail.  The last two, of course, have to do with reaction, consequence - deterrents that people do not carry out their moral and political responsibilities.

    A.  In many cases all are resistance settings - obviously, doing the witness - but there is more obscurity about court and jail.

    B.  In court, and before the burlesque of a "fair trial," one faces not only the crystallization of the imperial society but also the imperial judgment on disobedience.  Both must be resisted.  One resists by facing it with truth and fortitude;  the weapons have already been exposed by Plowshares; now the courts, which legalized the weapons, must be exposed also.  One does that by insisting n the moral/political/historical/truly legal (God's law) "why"?  By insisting also on the sovereignty of God's law and any decent human legal derivative.  An example: Nuremberg's insistence that underlings are legally bound to resist immoral  orders is a human, legal derivative.

    C.  In jail the resistance takes a different form, continuing the appeal to hearts, minds, consciences that began with the action.  This takes 2 forms that occur to me: first, a powerless identification with the powerless, with prisoners, with the poor.  And service to them.  "I'm one of you; I'm with you!" - that sort of thing.  The second  is an extra-institutional appeal to the wider public: "I've risked my life and donated my physical freedom for very good reasons.  Look at them!  And do more than look at them.  Do something nonviolent against  the imperial crimes.  This appeal from  jail is extremely powerful, necessary for the building of any movement for justice and peace.  It built the Church; it built the movement in India, here during the Vietnam war; it built resistance dozens of times in the course of American history.

    D.  What do we have to offer in all this?  Certainly, our love/justice, our sacrifices, anguish, loneliness, tears, our nonviolent truth, our Suffering Servanthood.  Gandhi states that these are the realities that have being, life, substance.   While the things we oppose are non-life, non-being, delusions, chimera.

III.  Conduct in jail - the jail witness

    A.  There we are a testimony against them, even if everyone outside forgets us.  Our presence is a living testimony against the criminality in high places.  This (possibly) releases abroad an expose: They will imprison and kill the innocent to be able to continue their crimes.  Imprisonment presents inescapable questions like this one:  "I know this person - Why are they locking her up?  What are they doing?  What are they hiding?"  Questions that otherwise would  not surface.

    B.  Deeper still and more importantly, the Holy Spirit can use the embodiment of truth and justice  in the jail witness in God's mysterious ways.  I don't know if we look upon it just this way, but we often chain the Holy Spirit from redemptive activity by our unwillingness to be faithful, by our cowardice in the expression of public truth.  On the other hand, when we act truly as defenders and rescuers of the victims, and are imprisoned in consequence, we literally free the Holy Spirit.

    C.  In any case, the spirit in the courtroom and the spirit in prison is simply this: What is the spirit of the action?  In jail, one must translate that, to transform that ugly, despairing scene.  Again, service must be the norm - service through damage to the hell weapons; service of a myopic and fearful public in the courtroom; service of prisoners and the wider public in jail.  And Scripture must provide the clarity and strength to do this.

    D.  A firm, flexible, nonviolent regimen should prompt one as soon as the longer term stuff is faced.  Prayer and meditation is essential, with others if that's possible, through Bible study.  Good  reading becomes very helpful; correspondence (Every prisoner of conscience should seriously embark on this.); writing for newspapers and journals, working on a diary, a journal, a book. (I personally think far too little of this is done by our friends.)  All this is somewhat apart from the service to other prisoners who are literally the least of Christ's sisters/brothers (Elmer at Graterford) : listening, writing letters, getting prisoners medical help, legal briefs, securing legal help, tutoring, passing on books, even playing cards, chess, checkers, or bridge once in a while.  And, especially studying the Bible with them, so that you can help a moral rebirth.

   E.  In jail, none of us need feel captive to stagnation, boredom, self pity, feelings  of discouragement and uselessness.  We must say often to ourselves, and believe it to conviction: "This is the best place in the world for me.  I can do no better work than this!"