The National Catholic Review

Why? That is a question I have been asked frequently lately. Why did Mike O’Grady, S.J., a member of our Claver Jesuit Community in Cincinnati, climb over the front gate at Fort Benning on Nov. 23, 2003, knowing that he would be arrested? People know that Mike was performing an act of civil disobedience—he was trying to say that our country should not sponsor any program like the School of the Americas, whose graduates have a long history of human rights abuses. Still, his colleagues at Working in Neighborhoods, a community organization, wonder, “Couldn’t he have done more good working on the projects here that are directly benefiting persons in need?” Mike’s parents struggled with a more personal question: “Why would our young, healthy son, who has so many gifts, just throw them away to sit in jail for three to six months?”

 

Because Mike had shared his faith history with the members of the Claver Community, we had time to ponder these questions, even before his arrest. To me the question became, how do you calculate the value of an action? As Americans, we are most aware of what Mike calls “utilitarian calculus.” We measure how good something is by numbers and efficiency. Brand X is better than Brand Y because you can clean more clothes for less money. Mike’s actions can never be understood on that basis. Instead, we need to view his actions from a completely different perspective and measure its value on a completely different scale, that of prophetic witness.

Prophets are always doing things that are hard for others to understand. Hosea felt called to marry a prostitute. Jeremiah was called to wear a rotted loincloth. Ezekiel acted out crazy mimes. And Jesus’ death on the cross was “to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the pagans, madness” (1 Cor 1:23).

Of course, the failure of others to understand some act does not make it prophetic. Prophetic witness must also point toward something greater. It must draw our attention to some aspect of God’s action in the world that others are missing.

An example of the something greater toward which the protests pointed was named in an open letter written in the name of the group of protestors of which Mike was a part. The letter states, “As Christians we hope and struggle for a world of justice and peace.” By engaging in acts of nonviolent, direct action, these prophets testified to their belief that the human race is learning to bring justice and peace nonviolently. They call us to look to other places around the world where justice has triumphed through nonviolent direct action. Places like India, Birmingham, South Africa, Poland and the Philippines. In those places, prophets like Gandhi, Parks, King, Mandela and Walesa pointed us toward a reality that could be only from God. And in the Philippines, it was not so much one individual, but rather “People Power” that made the difference. These modern-day prophets point to the same reality as Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares; nor shall they train for war again” (Is 2:4). This was unthinkable years ago, yet now it is no longer some far-off ideal. It is a reality that is beginning to take shape in our world today.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the entire world was rallying to support the United States. If we had had eyes to see, we could have cooperated with the great good that was building, but instead we resorted to violence. We did not recognize that “something greater” was possible, and as a result tens of millions filled city streets around the world, not in solidarity with the United States but in protest of our planned invasion of Iraq.

Another example of something greater toward which prophets pointed that weekend was what Catholic social teaching calls “human dignity”—the belief that every human being is created in God’s own image. Not only the 44 people who were arrested, but all 10,000 prophets present did this by chanting “Presente” in a solemn funeral procession each time the cantor sang the name and age of a person killed by graduates of the S.O.A. We sang this Spanish word because it signified that the spirit of each of these persons was very much present to us.

Some who defend the S.O.A. prefer to call these victims Communist sympathizers. Our chant witnessed to the fact that many were children, some 9 years old, some only 2 months old. Those who defend the S.O.A. say they are defending democracy. Our chant recalled Auxiliary Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera of Guatemala City, who was murdered for helping to publish accounts of torture and killings. Also killed was Jean Donovan, who committed the undemocratic act of caring for children. In all, the chanting of names went on for three hours, because graduates of the S.O.A. have killed thousands. The numbers of women, children and elderly who were killed were horrifying.

The response of the authorities was disappointing. Despite the fact that this protest has a consistent record of nonviolence for over 13 years, all the protesters were forced to submit to a search and pass through a metal detector in order to join the procession. Kathy Kelly, a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, was yelled at, roughed up and threatened. The soldiers cannot perceive God’s action of bringing about peace through justice and nonviolence, because they are taught to see us only as a threat.

The direct action of Mike and the others bore fruit in moving and motivating those present. I heard many shout, “Thank you,” to those being arrested. In a poem inspired by the protest, Mary Anne Reese, a friend and graduate school classmate of Mike’s, wrote, “They are offering themselves in sacrifice and suffering to point out the sins of the U.S. government.”

Their action also drew together a community of support. We all shared feelings of grief and loss in the wake of the arrest, and this moved us to a greater awareness of our need for God. Immediately after the van carrying Mike, Ben Jimenez, S.J., and Gary Ashbeck pulled away, Stephanie Beck-Borden (another friend and classmate of Mike’s) said, “I have never felt such a strong impulse in my adult life to get down on my knees and pray.” And so we did, right there by the gate. What we were facing could not even begin to be touched by human means.

Such an overwhelming accumulation of force arrayed against us should have driven us to despair. But these courageous acts of civil disobedience gave us hope. So did singing together at Mass, praying together in smaller gatherings and strategizing about legislative action. We can rightly describe all of these as prophetic acts.

Some might not understand how we can believe that so few people with so little money stand a chance against a vast array of resources and power. But the prophets point us toward “something greater.” In 1998 a bill to close the school was defeated by only 11 votes (201 to 212). In 1999 an amendment to an appropriations bill won (230 to 197) and cut the school’s budget by 10 percent. A bill to shut down the school already has, as of this writing, 101 co-sponsors.

It might be hard to measure the impact of Mike’s action, but it has affected the prayer, the hope and the imagination of many in a positive way. Such is the work of prophets.

J. Timothy Hipskind, S.J., works with Charis Ministries (a young adult retreat program), with Communities United for Action and Mother of Christ Catholic Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Comments

Robert E. McNulty | 5/8/2004 - 11:09pm
Let us assume that the former School of the Americas should be closed. How can this be accomplished in a representative democracy?

The President could close it as commander-in-chief and I am sure his authority would be sustained. Neither President Clinton nor President Bush chose to do so.

Congress could close it by the power of the purse in a few months but has not chosen to do so.

What are those who have chosen to break the law at Ft.Benning doing? I so not see them pursuing either of the above courses. In fact the second in command of a Jesuit University traveled all across the country to be at Ft. Benning. On any given weekend, within 60 miles of his residence he could have seen not one, but two U.S. Senators and presented his case and learned their positions.

It appears that these protestors are opposed to our system and are unwilling to participate in our political processes.

Just in passing, I might point out that two years ago a friend of mine visited El Salvador with her family for the first time in 20 years. While the protestors protest, democracy has come to central and South America.

Paul W. Comiskey | 2/9/2007 - 1:09pm
The words of National Public Radio’s Carl Castle, piercing the morning darkness, are a vivid memory: “Six Roman Catholic Jesuit priests were killed in El Salvador.”

It was Nov. 16, 1989. It seems that not long after that the School of the Americas became a kind of Megan’s law for American Jesuits, their students and extended family. The notion emerged that if this school could be abolished, some good could come from these tragic deaths. I have been personally invited on several occasions to attend the protests, but troubling questions remain. I was, therefore, interested to read “Why Did He Do It?” by J. Timothy Hipskind, S.J. (4/2).

Nations need an army to defend borders and assure security. A well-trained corps of officers can assure civilian rule, respect for human rights and necessary security for democratic institutions to function. A school that aims at these goals would seem to be a good idea. This is particularly true for nations where military overthrow of the government is always a looming threat.

Has the School of the Americas trained military officers to be a band of thugs killing innocent citizens? Does it destroy respect for democratic institutions and rule of law? Is it a co-conspirator in acts of murder and assassination? Does it teach techniques for doing these things? If the answer is yes, the school needs to be closed and its founders and operatives need to be prosecuted.

As a criminal defense lawyer for 28 years, I have always demanded proof of wrongdoing. I have seen countless acts of evil and treachery done by members of my government on all levels. I am willing to accept the proof if it is presented. On the other hand, if evidence is not presented, the School of the Americas looks like a scapegoat for terrible evil acts, and the credibility of very rational and intelligent people is at risk. Maybe the demand should be for investigation instead of closure. If the school is guilty of doing the things it is accused of having done, then appropriate accountability should follow. If the School of the Americas is being used as a symbol, then that should be stated. If it is doing good work it should be supported.

Robert E. McNulty | 5/8/2004 - 11:09pm
Let us assume that the former School of the Americas should be closed. How can this be accomplished in a representative democracy?

The President could close it as commander-in-chief and I am sure his authority would be sustained. Neither President Clinton nor President Bush chose to do so.

Congress could close it by the power of the purse in a few months but has not chosen to do so.

What are those who have chosen to break the law at Ft.Benning doing? I so not see them pursuing either of the above courses. In fact the second in command of a Jesuit University traveled all across the country to be at Ft. Benning. On any given weekend, within 60 miles of his residence he could have seen not one, but two U.S. Senators and presented his case and learned their positions.

It appears that these protestors are opposed to our system and are unwilling to participate in our political processes.

Just in passing, I might point out that two years ago a friend of mine visited El Salvador with her family for the first time in 20 years. While the protestors protest, democracy has come to central and South America.