When Conscience Leads To Prison

Some peace activists engage in civil disobedience and end up serving long prison terms. What compels someone to do this, and how do the consequences affect their family members and community members on the outside? Rosalie G. Riegle, a professor emerita in English at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan and co-founder of two Catholic Worker houses, tackles these questions in a pair of unparalleled oral histories of faith-based war resistance over the last 60 years. Doing Time for Peace: Resistance, Family, and Community (Vanderbilt University Press, 2013) focuses on families and communities, while Crossing the Line: Nonviolent Resisters Speak Out for Peace (Wipf and Stock, 2013) offers a historical narrative of faith-based war resistance beginning with World War II. I reviewed the books for The Catholic Worker newspaper, which continues to be sold for only a penny a copy! Through the generosity of the Catholic Worker houses in New York City, the review is also available here…for free!



For those committed to protesting a war—or all wars—there are many available means for voicing dissent. Some organize mass rallies, write letters to the editor, or make phone calls to members of Congress. Others, however, feel compelled to risk much more. They use their bodies to resist war by engaging in acts of civil disobedience that could result in arrest and even jail or prison.

Rosalie Riegle, as a grandmother, decided to cross this line. She walked onto Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, knelt down, said an Our Father, and refused to leave when asked. Following a bench trial, she received a fine, but she had faced a possible sentence of six months in prison. This experience raised questions for Riegle, an oral historian who had already completed two previous projects: Voices from the Catholic Worker (Temple University, 1993) and Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her (Orbis, 2003). She wanted to learn why some peace activists decided to risk imprisonment, and how it affected not only them but their families and communities.

To find answers to these questions, Riegle undertook a monumental project. Beginning in 2004 she interviewed 173 faith-based war resisters who have engaged in civil disobedience and often landed in jail or prison because of it. Following nearly a decade of work, Riegle now offers us two unparalleled accounts of faith-based war resistance—mostly but not exclusively in the United States—over the last sixty years: Doing Time for Peace, which focuses on families and communities, and Crossing the Line, which traces war resistance beginning with World War II.

Riegle, who raised four daughters and co-founded two Catholic Worker houses in Saginaw, Michigan, interviewed many Catholic Workers for the project. She also utilized the Catholic Worker tradition of a roundtable discussion or “clarification of thought” as a way to organize some of her storytelling.

The resistance actions described in these volumes involve a range of seriousness and risk-taking. In December 1980, the late Peter DeMott, during an otherwise routine protest in a Groton, Connecticut shipyard, seized the opportunity to jump into an empty security van with keys it in, and he repeatedly rammed it into a Trident submarine. It was a one-person Plowshares action. In less dramatic scenarios, resisters trespass onto a military base and wait to be arrested. Sometimes the only consequence is a “ban and bar” letter.

Other resistance actions become legendary among activists for their comedic value. Frank Cordaro, a longtime Catholic Worker in Des Moines, Iowa, tells the story of being invited (against all odds!) to the White House in 1979. President Carter gave a speech on the SALT II treaty, and Cordaro sat only fifteen feet in front of the podium. He planned to scatter ashes to represent the dead from a nuclear first strike. When the president was introduced, and everyone sat down, Cordaro moved into the center aisle. He reached for the ashes, but they had become condensed with moisture, and they fell to the ground like clumps of clay. As this unfolded, he pants started to fall down, and everyone laughed at him. The action did not go as planned, but Cordaro still managed to make the front page of a couple major newspapers the next day, claiming that the prophet Isaiah “never got that kind of exposure.” Pun intended?

In the preface for Doing Time, Riegle openly laments the lack of media coverage for resistance actions today and expresses her hope that readers of the book will see that “resistance is a normal and necessary response in today’s perilous world.” In the Prologue to Crossing the Line, Riegle explains that she came to the interviews “with a mission—that by listening to people and then bringing their words to print, I might be able to nudge readers to question, as I did, their own attitudes and actions. And who knows? Perhaps to cross lines of their own.”

Riegle endorses war resistance through these stories, and she undoubtedly admires and celebrates those she interviews, but these books are not hagiography. Riegle asks some tough questions, and the resisters respond with honest stories about the many challenges, difficulties, and tensions of resistance work. “I listen to learn,” Riegle writes, and she invites readers to do the same.

The primary focus of Doing Time was learning how prison affected those family members and community members on the outside. Barb Kass of Luck, Wisconsin, explained concisely: “The person at home [also] does the time. Absolutely.” Resisters and their family members described how long periods of separation can test a marriage and sometimes result in a painful divorce. Resisters with young children also have to face the implications of leaving their children behind. How would the resister cope with the separation, how would it affect the children, and what kind of responsibilities are left to the spouse or community?

Riegle asked several resisters if they had any regrets. The vast majority did not, but Darla Bradley, who participated in the Silo Plowshares at age 22, said she would not do it again. Plowshares actions are misunderstood as a symbol, she explained. “If we really want to have an impact, we have to be better at communicating what we do to an indifferent majority,” she said. “We have to build human connections. We have to help people see the faces of those who are suffering and not isolate ourselves.”

Resistance communities also faced internal challenges of injustice. Some resisters described the presence of sexism within the ranks. When a group of women organized a women-only draft board action in Manhattan in 1969, they encountered a lot of opposition from within the movement. Maggie Geddes, one of the planners, told a story about an early gathering of draft board people in which “a woman was laughed at for just trying to get a word in. It happened all the time.”

While some resisters have lived their entire adult lives as committed members of the peace movement, others have experienced irreparably fractured relationships and therefore left. “Sometimes the rhetoric of our nonviolence has a kind of perfection that our relationships don’t have,” explained Stephen Kobasa of New Haven, Connecticut. “Some people who were involved in the movement at some point no longer are, because they were burnt so badly.”

In each book Riegle uses interludes between some of the chapters to raise important questions, offer critical analysis, make deeper connections or feature a minority view on a given topic. These interludes allow for discourse on contentious issues like property destruction, the use of religious symbolism in a pluralistic movement and society, and the repetitious nature of some actions with seemingly little effect. These alternative voices, some of the most important in Riegle’s two volumes, offer a great service to the resistance community.

In one interlude on the Plowshares movement, Jim Forest expresses his admiration for Plowshares activists, which include many of his friends, but he also critiques some elements of the movement. He questions the use of slogans like “act of disarmament” because, for him, “disarmament is when a person who has a weapon puts it away, gets rid of it, melts it down.” Forest emphasizes the importance of changing a person’s desire to have a gun. “How do we become a converted people?” he asks. Forest also criticizes the Plowshares movement for being weapon-centered rather than relationship-centered. “We knew much more about missiles and airplanes and numbers of megatons…than we do about our enemy,” he says.

The interview with Robert Ellsberg, former editor of The Catholic Worker and current editor of Orbis Books, is a particular treat for the reader of Doing Time. Ellsberg is at his best—reflective, interesting, candid and insightful. “I believe very much in the power of civil disobedience,” he explained. “But looking back on it, perhaps I was a little bit too self-righteous about that kind of thing and had a tendency to think things like, ‘If you’re really committed, you’ll go to jail.’” He went on to explain, “As my life gets longer, these experiences become a small part of the whole picture. I’m reluctant to overdramatize it or make it seem especially heroic.” Riegle writes that the wide range of experiences among resisters begs for “more analysis, more introspection, more searching for the right way.” The reader is invited into this journey.

Riegle said she wanted to know why people like her—white, middle-class, and college educated—were willing to risk arrest and prison for what they believed. She relied on a network of personal relationships to identify people to interview for the project. In a movement that has struggled with sexism, Riegle succeeds in featuring female voices. The resisters also represent a range of religious backgrounds, but there is little racial diversity. I am not sure why. Are whites disproportionately represented among faith-based war resisters in the United States (and if so, why?), or did Riegle miss an opportunity to highlight a broader participation in the movement?

Doing Time for Peace and Crossing the Line are for students of history, social movements and religion, for those who have participated in civil disobedience, their family and friends, and those considering civil disobedience for the first time. These volumes have the power to inform and inspire the next generation of peace activists searching for faithful and effective responses to the challenges of militarism and war in the 21st century.

In the final chapter of Doing Time, Riegle interviews activists who have engaged in civil disobedience in the years following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2002. Ana Grady Flores, a third-generation activist, was arrested at a Marine recruiting center in upstate New York in 2002 during the run-up to the Iraq War. She was only sixteen. She told Riegle she was not afraid of getting arrested, but sad. “Because my family has been doing this and now it’s my turn—my generation’s turn—to shoulder it, to be the ones who protest.”

Luke Hansen, S.J., is an associate editor of America. This review appeared in the August-September 2013 issue of The Catholic Worker (36 East First Street, New York, NY 10003).

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Beth Cioffoletti
5 years 4 months ago
Knowing families that have been torn apart and broken through the prison experience, I am reluctant to embrace it as an expression of my faith. It is people of color who know this brutality most intimately so I'm not surprised that they are least likely to want to "do time" for an act of resistance. And yet I can't forget a sermon of William Stringfellow: "Jesus as a Criminal". The sermon starts off with the statement: "It is unambiguous in each of the gospel accounts that Jesus Christ was a criminal." While Jesus was considered to be a criminal most tend to think that Jesus wasn't really a criminal. Jesus was innocent and he was crucified because of a miscarriage of justice. It was all just a big mistake. Stringfellow pushes back and says, no, Jesus was actually a criminal. Jesus was--really, truly--a political threat and a disturber of the peace. Consequently, the civil and religious authorities did exactly the right thing. Jesus was a criminal. Stringfellow's point in all this isn't so much to highlight Jesus's guilt as to highlight the guilt of the political and legal system. When the legal and political system find the innocent to be guilty then something has gone very wrong.


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