In Jail, Keeping Watch

John Dear, S.J., Philip Berrigan, Lynn Fredriksson, and Bruce Friedrich are currently being held in the Chowan County Jail in Edenton, North Carolina, for their Pax Christi-Spirit of Life Plowshares action in December 1993. They were convicted in four separate court appearances in mid-April, one of which involved a jury taking just six minutes to return a guilty verdict. They are to be sentenced on July 5.

John’s hand-written article arrived in our office with a note of explanation. Apologizing first for writing in pencil (they are only allowed to write with 1 1/2-inch pencil stubs), he went on to say that the judge in their case had issued an order prohibiting them from mentioning 13 items in their trials, including the U.S. government, military, or foreign policy, war, nuclear weapons, God, religious principles, international law, and Nuremberg principles. On the other hand, John wrote, their chief jailer has become a friend, and he has ordered and is reading their books. —The Editors

Each morning here in jail, my friends and I begin our day by opening the Bible. We read a passage from Mark’s gospel and then spend hours discussing and applying it to these violent times.

The Jesus we encounter in our Bible study sessions summons us to prayer, faith, and nonviolent resistance: "Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid" (Mark 6:50). Deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow me (8:34). "Everything is possible to one who has faith" (9:23). "Have faith in God" (11:22). And in Gethsemane, "Remain here and keep watch....Watch and pray" (14:34, 38).

Watch and pray! What better place to keep watch and pray in a time of war and nuclear weapons than here in this North Carolina jail? In its essence, prayer is a request for a deepening of faith. Faith in God requires nonviolent resistance to the oppressive, war-making state. Prayer, faith, and resistance are the essential ingredients of Christian discipleship.

That is precisely our goal here—to follow Jesus. For six months, we prayed and reflected. Then on December 7, 1993, Philip Berrigan, Lynn Fredriksson, Bruce Friedrich, and I walked on to the Seymour Johnson Air Force war base near Goldsboro, North Carolina, and hammered on an F15E nuclear bomber (which had killed thousands of Iraqis during the Gulf war, stands alert to bomb Bosnians, and carries nuclear weapons). We now face up to 10 years in prison.

Though Lynn is not a Christian, Phil, Bruce, and I were trying to take Jesus seriously, to practice gospel nonviolence, to resist the murderous system to the point of the cross. We were trying to obey God’s central commands: "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13). "Beat swords into plowshares" (Isaiah 2:4). "Love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44).

It’s not easy being in jail, just as it was not easy to walk on to the war base and disarm those demonic weapons. These days of resistance and contemplation call upon every ounce of our Christianity—faith, hope, love, nonviolence, truth, trust, powerlessness, voluntary poverty, humility, and perseverance.

BEING IN JAIL is a profound experience of God, like the Plowshares action itself. After our Bible study, we take a piece of Wonder Bread and break it. We pass a cup of grape juice and drink it. We stand for the Lord’s Prayer and exchange a sign of peace. In our midst, we feel the risen Christ who offers his love, shows us his wounds, shares his peace, breathes upon us his Spirit, and tells us, "I am with you."

We try to "keep watch" with the nonviolent, resisting Christ, to share the Spirit of peace, to continue our resistance to the state, to stand in solidarity with prisoners (nearly all African Americans), to be like Christ. We try to be people of contemplative prayer, nonviolent resisters.

Gandhi writes that "the real road to happiness lies in going to jail and undergoing sufferings and privations for one’s country and religion." In the same spirit, Martin Luther King Jr. told a packed Detroit stadium in 1963 that Christians who go to jail for acts of nonviolent resistance to injustice "transform those dark dungeons of despair into havens of hope and harmony." When asked what is needed to end our country’s lust for war, Dorothy Day spoke right to the point: "Fill the jails," she said.

Right now, here in jail, we keep watch and pray. We stand in witness against the imperial powers of death. In the process, we receive new life. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—cast into the fiery furnace for refusing to worship the empire’s idols (Daniel 3:1-28)—we are blessed.

Come, join us.

JOHN DEAR, S.J., is a peace activist and the author, most recently, of The God of Peace: Toward a Theology of Nonviolence (Orbis Books, 1994).

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