I was arrested protesting Trump’s border policies. The Gospel calls us to do more.
We prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries as 70 of us were arrested at the Russell Senate Office Building last Thursday for protesting the detention of immigrant children at the border. The decisions that allow their detention, their being torn from families and left in crowded facilities without access to a shower, are indeed a sorrowful mystery. But what I saw as my hands were locked tightly into wasted-plastic zip-tie handcuffs was a Luminous Mystery.
As I stood in the building’s rotunda with lights streaming from high windows and saw rows of Catholics around me and above on a balcony, I felt the presence of the Communion of Saints. It was not unlike sitting in church, where layers of saints and angels are depicted around us. We stood in a threshold, a liminal space where the demands of the Gospel were felt and where the vast difference between the reign of God and the reign of principalities was clear.
What I saw as my hands were locked tightly into wasted-plastic zip-tie handcuffs was a Luminous Mystery.
Across the rotunda was a young Dominican sister dressed in white. Next to her, an old Franciscan Friar in brown. Connecting us were many others: sisters, laypeople, priests, young and old, black and white. They were praying, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death,” as I was told, “You are under arrest.”
“So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God,” St. Paul wrote the Corinthians.
I caught a glimpse of such ambassadoring as I sat next to Kathy Boylan, from the D.C. Catholic Worker, while we were processed by the U.S. Capitol Police. “We need a contact person,” she was told. “All of my ‘contact people’ are in here with me,” she replied. She lives in a house with other Christians who were called to bring their bodies to the diplomacy table between heaven and earth. They see little room for compromise, think nary of success, but are hellbent on fidelity. They try as they can to implore the world to join them in “putting off the old ways” and “putting on Christ.”
Putting off the old ways and imploring reconciliation does not always require that one be arrested. It does require something dramatically different than what the world offers. The witness of people like Kathy, who lives in voluntary poverty and was quick to tell me all the ways I can fight nuclear proliferation, abortion, white nationalism and war, taught me once again that the Christian life asks a lot.
We are called to stand in the threshold between the church and the world and expose policies for which Christian consent is impossible.
This is why Catholics have always been engaged in such acts of resistance: to illuminate the incompatibility between the Gospel and tragedies like those Kathy encouraged me to oppose. We have also, it should be noted, been guilty of supporting such things.
I am under no illusion that being arrested while praying the rosary in an air-conditioned building in Washington will free immigrant children from detention. It should not receive more attention than the hundreds of Catholics at the border providing direct service to migrants fleeing violence. I am, however, under the illusion—or, rather, illumination—that we are called to stand in the threshold between the church and the world and expose policies for which Christian consent is impossible.
The action we took in Washington was a symbolic one. Nevertheless, it was sincere resistance to a state that enforces such horrific treatment of children. I chose to be arrested because what is being done to children in this country, born and unborn, is suffocating the soul of the Body of Christ. We placed our bodies in the rub between the Gospel and the state to remind ourselves that we will not blend in or be identified with these practices, that something else is demanded from us.
The fantasy that the Gospel is business as usual
I cheat the Gospel everyday. I fail to really love my enemies, fail to give from my poverty and not my surplus, fail to practice hospitality or take the lowest place, fail to love others as myself, fail to love God with my whole heart.
It can be easy for us Americans to live in the fantasy that the Gospel means convenience, business as usual. But where it concerns eternity, the Gospel means conversion, inconvenience; it means business not as usual. It means a new life marked by reckless love; it means mercy.
I chose to be arrested because what is being done to children in this country, born and unborn, is suffocating the soul of the Body of Christ.
Living up to that is hard. It can seem irrational to expect such conversion in ourselves and from our communities. Dorothy Day wrote, “I know it seems foolish to try to be so Christlike—but God says we can.”
Is it foolish to ask the United States to try to be Christlike?
In a letter to young Jesuits written on the feast of St. Ignatius in 1971, Father Daniel Berrigan wrote, “You know too that the old comfortable arrangements between church and state are helpless to generate newness…. The peace of Christ, it goes without saying, is not won by such complicity. That way of peace is something else; necessarily a humiliated via crucis today—no less than in the year of our Lord.”
After one set of handcuffs was removed from my wrists, and every part of me had been patted down by some officer searching for who knows what, I was brought to another line for a new set of handcuffs. Behind me came strolling a short, 80-something Dominican sister in a T-shirt that read, “Be Peace.” She smiled, saying, “Billy, it does give you some small sense of how Jesus was treated, humiliated.” She spoke not with anger or sorrow but with gratitude. She then told me of once reading the Acts of the Apostles all through the night in a jail with feces and bugs covering the floor. She was in the slammer for protesting nuclear weapons.
She told a group of us later that evening: In every age, God sends us opportunities to live the Gospel and to grow in holiness.
The introit to an early morning prayer with her and a few other Dominicans, Franciscans and other holy laypeople before last week’s action was: “We adore you Most Holy Lord Jesus Christ, here and in churches throughout the world, and we praise you because by your cross you have redeemed the world.”
This continues to be my prayer: That Jesus be praised and that in the form of immigrant children at the southern border, he be released from detention into the custody of families or shelters with adequate supplies and conditions suitable to the dignity of sanctity.
Christ gave us a luminous mystery that does not offer security but salvation. It will arrest us in our comfort and complicity. His is a mystery that offers a new framework of reality where power is found in weakness, triumph seen in service and primacy grasped in surrender. As such, he decided to be detained in our bodies as bread.
So Dan Berrigan wrote:
Why do you stand? they were asked, and
Why do you walk?
Because of the children, they said, and
Because of the heart, and
Because of the bread.
Is the heart’s beat
And the children born
And the risen bread.