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.