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
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
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
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
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
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
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!"