The steel doors close with a soul-chilling clang. You are in jail, and you are afraid. You are pitched into a bizarre world of madness, hostility, and violence. And if you are a white person among a population of largely discarded people of color, you are in a world that has been turned upside down, where “white privilege” no longer exists. In fact, “white privilege” is a positive disadvantage if you happen to be among tough, tattooed inmates of color with 16-inch biceps and fists the size of Sunday hams.
In writing these letters I made a deliberate decision to speak truthfully, and the truth is that I was afraid. I did not want to pretend that I was heroic or virtuous. I think most people can
more easily identify with fear than heroism. I just did not feel heroic; I felt human, ulnerable, and afraid. I believe that is the quality that makes these “prison letters” so accessible.
Since then, I have been arrested more than forty times and spent a total of two years in jails and prisons, but I have never discarded the early trepidation that I felt that first time in jail. The dehumanizing, degrading experiences that I suffered the first time in jail have never left me. I have since kept all of those desolate prisoners who continue to suffer the experience
of jail and prison in my prayers.
They are the superfluous people, the abandoned people. When I go to jail I join with them in their suffering and I take with me, in my heart, all of the abandoned, suffering people from all the war-torn, refugee-driven, famine ridden, debt-burdened countries of the world, as well as from the tent bound streets of the skid row community of Los Angeles that I have served and fought for these last fifty years.
In retrospect I recognize that my first time in jail was an “easy victory.” We won over the harsh and cynical Judge. We defeated the Arms Expo that never returned to Anaheim, because we chased them to Wiesbaden Germany, where former Catholic Workers held civil
disobedience demonstrations that again sent them scurrying, this time to the Panama Canal Zone where they were under U.S. miltary protection. All because of the publicity surrounding our mere two months in the Orange County Jail. And serendipitously, it was in large part due to the cynical judge who said: “If you write me in 30 days saying that you won’t come back to protest next year, I will release you.”
There have been few such victories since then, perhaps because the focuses of our campaigns have been nuclear weapons. I have been arrested numerous times at the Nevada Nuclear Test site, cut the fence around the test site, done “back country actions” that delayed test flights of depleted uranium warhead missiles at Vandenberg A.F.B., for which I have spent cumulative months in federal prison—all without a victory.
But victory is not the purpose of our campaigns. I continue, with Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, of which I am a part, to believe in the Resurrection. I am a part of the Resurrection Community. I believe that each time
we serve a meal on Skid Row, that each time we stand on street corners protesting injustice, to the derision of passersby, that each time we go to jail to protest nuclear weapons or Arms
Conferences, we strike a blow for the Kingdom of God. We give witness that the power of the Resurrection is stronger than the power of death.
It may be delusional, as I have difficulty believing in the actual physical bodily resurrection. Like most 21st century skeptics, I have difficulty believing in such a preposterous phenomenon. But I believe in the Story. And the Story tells us that goodness, mercy, and justice will ultimately triumph over evil and inhumanity. I believe with Martin Luther King
that: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
I recently had the privilege of listening to a talk by Dr. Cornel West at Loyola Marymount University in which he spoke of the Joy of the Cross: “Thou shalt have no fear, rather be a corpse than a coward, rather be dead than afraid, that’s the tradition that kept black people going. Not just black people, oppressed people across the board, and the great Christian message is that we are tied to a power that says: Lo I will be with you as you bear witness, as you bear witness in your cruciform life, tied to the way of love, crushed by the dominant way of the world, but never eliminated, just like those drops of (blood)/love at the cross.”
Jesus said: “Whoever wishes to come after me must…pick up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). And like those black people, and “oppressed people across the board” I will hesitantly pick up the cross and join them and I will try to be without fear for I believe passionately and tenuously in the Resurrection.