Civil Disobedience and Prison
Personal Reflections on “the Way of the Cross”
One night last week I went to a talk by Steve Baggarly, our resident peace felon, at Sacred Heart Church in the fashionable section of Ghent here in Norfolk, VA, USA. Steve is no stranger to Sacred Heart. He and his wife Kim have been cooking breakfasts for the homeless in the church kitchen for nearly two decades. Recently I went to a massive dinner in his honor there after he got out of a federal prison in West Virginia.
In his talk the other night Steve presented an overview of his experiences in that most recent imprisonment, an 8-month sentence for trespassing during a peaceful protest at a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility in Oakridge, TN.
When questioned, with no hesitation he said he’d do it again. I have trouble understanding that, but I believe his reasons for it are sound and right.
Steve and Kim are Catholic Workers. They run the Catholic Worker House in Norfolk and are the backbone of the peace movement here. Occasionally Steve gets arrested for something like trespassing on the property of one or another hallowed American military site. Then he goes to court and sometimes away to jail for awhile. In that sense he’s not like the rest of us in the peace and justice crowd who hang out with each other. But he and Kim are the ones who brought us together and who keep the faith pure.
The faith is Catholic, but certainly not everyone in the loosely knit network is Catholic or even religious. That, in a way, is remarkable. With little ideological divide, people of many faiths are connected in the seven cities of Hampton Roads—or eight, if you count Williamsburg—through a vision of world peace and justice, which, at its vital center here, is based in Roman Catholicism.
But Catholic Worker Roman Catholicism is not exactly the official brand. It compares more to what the first Christians were like, minus the fevered evangelism. It’s communal, it’s focused on service to the poor and destitute, it’s fiercely anti-war, and it’s entirely devoted to Jesus, the holy rebel, as its model of nonviolent behavior. Jesus calls his followers to take up the cross, Steve often says, and by courting arrest for illegally entering restricted government military installations to protest what goes on there, he is reminding us by example of Jesus’ teaching. He wants us to take it seriously, as he does.
In fact, he believes, it is a Christian’s duty to break federal laws, if that’s what it takes, to call attention to the evils of the U.S. military empire, which, in our name, voraciously consumes resources for defense that could better be used to heal the sick, feed and clothe the poor, and comfort the grieving, as Jesus commanded his followers to do. The best defense against an enemy, Steve might say, is charitable works.
And nothing could be less defensible than the continuing allocation of those resources to the perpetuation of nuclear weapons of mass destruction, which the U.S. government and the military industry conspire to demand and the vast majority of people obediently pay for.
It was interesting to me that among the people at Steve’s talk were few of those I’d met in my days of covering protests and marches for Port Folio Weekly, the local alternative newspaper (now defunct). Most of his audience seemed to be mid-life, progressive-minded, relatively devout Catholics interested in Steve’s perspective.
And he wasn’t just talking about reasons to resist U.S. war policies. In his chilling descriptions of life in the three different prisons where he was held—two of them county jails in Tennessee and Georgia—Steve also reminded us that thousands of poor souls are housed in these gulags, where the full dimension of the cruelty, bigotry, and injustice festering at the core of our society hits home most starkly
To experience that as a co-defendant, as Jesus did, is the way of the cross.
It’s also the point on which a whole lot of deep reflection is required of anyone who is interested in a better world—a world where, if people don’t exactly love each other—they at least honor the other’s right to exist.
On the other hand, without disparaging Steve’s stand in Oakridge and his subsequent heroic stoicism in bearing the absurd abuse of the bureaucratic state, there is the possibility of bringing a deeper layer of consciousness into the problem of establishing a better world
In covering the peace and justice activists in Hampton Roads from 1999 to 2009, I saw a lot of passion. Much of it was anger. Even Steve at times seemed angry to me. When I think of the reality of the U.S. Empire and the hypocrisy of its rulers—invoking Biblical morals as they kill, torture, and accumulate wealth—I become angry, too.
But if I turn East to Hinduism or Buddhism or the Tao, I’m relieved of that anger by the reminder that anger on the outside reflects anger on the inside. One must transform one’s anger into blessings for all sentient beings, including oneself. One must cultivate peaceful nonviolence. This requires a great deal of inner work—meditation, contemplation, introspection, study.
There may be no need to confront the Empire in order to change it. It may be possible to change the Empire by transforming one’s anger into empathy and compassion and practicing that day to day, moment to moment.
I’ve known Steve since 1999. I honor his path. But I wonder how ordinary Christians feel about their own commitment to the cross when they hear his story. Do they feel an urgency to find a way to stop the mindless waste, to flush out the systemic corruption and routine inhumanity practically institutionalized in global market society? I know I do.
The justice of Steve’s arguments are irrefutable, from a faith-based point of view. In the light of the life of Jesus, there is no way to excuse humanity for its wanton acts of mass murder and destruction across our planet, from ancient times to a climax of madness in our own. We may all, indeed, reap the whirlwind. Something major must change if we are even to survive as a species. Yet there are no signs that the “rough beast” the poet Yeats foresaw is likely to be turned back from its determination to dominate creation. Powerful forces stand in the way, backed by world-wide military might led by the United States and its far-reaching intelligence network.
So what would it take? A hundred thousand of us risking arrest to protest nuclear weapons? Maybe it will come to that. There are more people in jail now for civil disobedience than ever before, I’m told. Many are Catholic Workers. To committed pacifists, that’s progress.
But the Eastern gurus are right, too. If we want to change the world, we must first change ourselves. From our meditation cushions we can influence world events as powerfully as speaking truth to power in the streets. That’s because in the Eastern perspective thoughts and actions are not separate. Thoughts are actions occurring in the mind, and if they occur often and persistently enough they become actions in the world as well. Therefore, if thoughts are angry, actions have already happened and, if not interrupted—if allowed to feed on themselves in the kitchen of the mind—they erupt into manifested reality as well, causing suffering for self and others and adding fuel to the anger burning in the mind.
But if, tamed and managed by meditation, thoughts become peaceful, then peace in the world will eventually follow, for the world, most simply, is our mirror. Or, as the Beatles put it, “Your inside is out and your outside is in.”
This makes sense to me, which is why, I think, I’ve never been eager to court arrest for civil disobedience. I don’t know how Steve does it so serenely. But I’ve gotten clues from him and other Catholic Workers over the years that point to some possible explanations.
Foremost is the austerity of prison life, which they compare to a monastic existence allowing for spiritual practice and discipline. That’s attractive to those like Steve who have the temperament for it. Living inside the monastery offers a predictable stability hard to find in the hectic outside world with its overload of distractions.
Another is an alternative sense of manhood, beginning with the example of Jesus, who must have been one tough dude to live as a homeless wanderer and bear crucifixion with forgiveness in his heart. Jesus as manly man, as consummate spiritual warrior sacrificing the very life of his body to fulfill the commandments of God, appeals to a spiritually inclined youth, just as soldiering and adventurism and even the rough-and-tumble of competitive sports appeal to young men less spiritually inclined. When he was a boy, Steve has said, he wanted to be a soldier. In interviews with me both he and Kim have told me that part of their motivation in practicing civil disobedience is to share the sacrifice of military families, with Steve’s jail sentences the equivalent of deployments. They also seek solidarity with the disproportionately impoverished people of color who overcrowd American’s increasingly punitive and privatized jails and prisons.
But on one occasion, at his get-out-of-jail celebration that night at Sacred Heart, an intriguing sour note arose when Kim, from the sidelines as Steve spoke to the assembled, reminded him to thank all the people who looked after his kids while he was off doing his thing. Other comments from male Catholic Workers have come my way from time to time to suggest an oblique strain of what might be called sexism among those who, while admiring Dorothy Day as a saint, find the male role models in their ranks—the Berrigan brothers, for instance—most compelling. I myself, though not a Catholic Worker, found Ammon Hennacy more compelling than Dorothy Day when I met them in the late 1950s. Ammon was more colorful, more...well...manly.
Hennacy, in his autobiography The Book of Ammon, may state it most succinctly. He says he loved Dorothy Day, but, he goes on, after his first marriage ended in divorce he avoided getting tied down again because he didn’t want to be tamed by a woman. Interesting comment. He couldn’t hold to it, either, but later did remarry.
Nevertheless, getting away from the daily grind, including the wife and kids, may not be so great a sacrifice for a soldier of conscience. Not that wives may agree, left at home to run a family and a social mission with only volunteer support. But to maintain as followers of Christ under such tensions is part of the bargain. It’s built into the vows they take to each other and to God.
In the end, we all must make some commitment to how we’re going to handle our changing times. How many of us will go to jail? How many stay at home? How many become complicit with the inevitable backlash to enforce the laws and customs of more familiar times? How many try to tough it out or simply go with the flow?
How many will survive?
There’s no telling if those who follow the nonviolent path of peace and justice—the path of Jesus and Gandhi and Martin Luther King—are models of our future or fools on the path to nowhere. There have always been martyrs, it seems, but has the world truly changed?
On the other hand, we are all temporary residents of this planet, and what do we know of what’s before birth and after death? Yet, knowing so little, we tamper so much with what little we can grasp of the whole. As a civilization we are like the sorcerer’s apprentice who doesn’t know how to reverse the havoc he’s wrought in his ignorance of the bigger picture.
So one must do something, even though what little one can do seems futile compared to the enormity of the task before us—nothing less than to change human consciousness from spoiler to caretaker of the unique planet hosting our 3-D experience. Steve Baggarly admits he was sorely tested in his faith when he spent five months in a notorious southern jail, eating the same meals every day with nothing to do, not even a television to watch for distraction. And his only “crime” was to step over a line onto federal property where the next generation of nuclear weapons, among other more conventional delights, is being made ready for an eventuality that is unthinkable. Except a number of powerful people are thinking it.
So how do we confront this unbridled power and disarm it? I seek to disarm it in myself, which frankly is no small task, but I’ve got some years of practice behind me and find it gets easier. And I haven’t encountered too many situations in recent years which compelled me to confront institutional power directly. If ever I do, it may not go well. I may end up like Steve, in jail for refusing to comply with a brain-dead regulation. If that ever is the case, so be it. But it’s not something I’m ever likely to voluntarily court. I didn’t want to be a solider when I was a kid, I wanted to be a big-league baseball player or an actor starring in movies. That morphed in adulthood into poetry, theater, and journalism, with a full-time commitment to creating material of value while making a living doing it.
My cross to bear, then—at least so far—is the appearance of irrelevance. Perhaps it’s the same for Steve Baggarly on his cross. But what the hell? It just can’t be helped. We all are who we are and must do the best that we can.
In the Belly of the Beast, a two-booklet set of 77 articles which (except for one) were originally published in Port Folio Weekly between 1999 and 2008, gives a fuller picture of the peace movement in Hampton Roads and is also now available as a Thinking Dog Publication. Email me, Delaney, if you are interested.