1995 April – The Inside Word (Prison Writings)
Fr. Frank Cordaro
Call it an accident of history or divine intent, but the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration on the same day that the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan – August 6. The juxtaposition of these two events has challenged Catholic peacemakers ever since. I remember the challenge this date and these two events posed to Bishop Dingman when he was struggling with the issues of modern day peacemaking in the post-Hiroshima era. Provoked by the contrast between Hiroshima and Tabor (the mountain upon which the transfiguration is to have taken place), Bishop Dingman started writing a yearly pastoral letter in 1978. He used this occasion to raise faith questions regarding war and peace in our times. In his first letter he urged Catholics of the Des Moines Diocese to work for an end to the nuclear arms race and to “start at the parish level with persons talking about Hiroshima and its implications.” “The very existence of the human race is in jeopardy,” he wrote. “We must halt the arms race in the spirit of Tabor or proceed with the armaments race and face annihilation in the spirit of Hiroshima. ”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. And judging from the public discourse surrounding the proposed National Air and Space Museum’s display marking the event, few people seem interested in taking up Bishop Dingmans’ challenge to honestly and faithfully look at this tragic and horrible event from our nation’s history. Word from Washington, D.C. and the National Air and Space Museum is that the proposed Hiroshima display has been drastically reduced and diminished. Bowing to public pressure, mostly from veterans’ groups, the museum has scrapped its original plans for the display and instead will offer a token display to mark the event.
Donald Kaul said it best in his Feb. 8th Des Moines Register column regarding the successful effort to squelch the proposed Hiroshima display. “None of which can disguise the fact that the bombing of Hiroshima was a war crime. It killed at least 71,000 people, a great majority of them civilians and injured 68,000 more, a large number of whom died lingering deaths. Our own figures list 20,000 children among the dead and missing. I don’t know what you think a war crime is, but I’d say the incineration of 20,000 children falls well within that category.” “Having said that,” Kaul writes, “1 have to add this: I would have done the same thing. All modern warfare is essentially a war Crime, designed to inflict as much human misery as possible. If you’re squeamish about committing such acts, you shouldn’t go to war.” Kaul is being brutally honest about the facts and the nature of warfare. And he is being a “political realist” in his assessment of our government’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
It was just such brutal honesty that moved Bishop Dingman to seriously question the morality of modem warfare; especially our nation’s stockpiling and intent to use nuclear weapons. Unlike Donald Kaul, Bishop Dingman knew that Christians must go beyond the reasoning of the political realists of the world. The standards of the Gospel and the way of Jesus’ are much higher than the standards of the political realism that determines the fate of nations. The questions Bishop Dingman asked back in 1978 are still relevant today. Do we look back on the story of Jesus’ transfiguration as a faith event meant to give us the courage to follow in the footsteps of the suffering nonviolent Messiahship of Jesus, as Jesus’ disciples did? Or, do we ignore the transfigured Christ on Tabor and put our trust in the disfigured human legacy of Hiroshima by maintaining our nuclear weapon superiority and siding with the political realists of the world?
The Short Timers Blues
I’m well into the “short -timer’s blues” stage in my imprisonment. It happens during the last weeks of incarceration. Time seems to drag on and on at a snail’s pace. I’ve lost much of my energy to get things done. The good thing about this stage is that it can’t last forever even if it feels like it is. I’m also starting a transitional period of saying goodbyes to the friends I’ve made. And I keep thinking about the world I will soon by re-entering, which adds both excitement and anxiety. I’m looking forward to seeing family, friends, parishioners, and supporters upon my return. I’m also anxious about where I will be assigned in July. I’m up for a move and nothing has been decided yet. I will be released during Easter week. Being set free from prison fits well into the Easter season’s theme of new life and resurrection. I’m planning on celebrating my “mini” resurrection from prison throughout the whole Easter season, right up to Pentecost. Let the good times roll.
Neither Martyr Nor Slacker
Typically I hear two extreme reactions to my prison witness. Some overstate the sacrifice. They equate my willingness to go to jail for what I believe as a heroic deed, something far beyond their own faith capa-bilities. Others dismiss my prison witness as self-indulgent. They claim that I’m shirking my priestly responsibilities and having an extended retreat at the taxpayers’ expense. Going to prison is a sacrifice, but no major heroic deed, especially when set a-longside far greater sacrifices made by oth-ers who stand up for injustice. I am painfully aware that in many countries people are killed for the kind of actions I’ve taken. In addition, some people in St. Patrick Parish have struggles that place them in far more difficult situations than I am in. In my way of thinking, this merits far more heroism than my own situation.
So while I’m not a martyr, I’m also not a slacker. My foremost responsibility is to be faithful to follow in the ways of Jesus. For me, my continued witnessing at Offutt AFB is a fulfillment of that pledge. To do other-wise would be to fail in the most basic level of being a Catholic Christian and render me a less than suitable priest. It is ironic that I am often put on the defensive about being a lawbreaker by fellow Catholic Christians. Jesus and his disciples often disregarded Judaic laws. For the faith communities of the New Testament, going to jail was common fare, the rule not the exception. I did not come to this prison camp freely. I was sent here by a federal judge. I was transported here, handcuffed and shackled. I remain here under threat of additional prosecution and jail time.
As prison options go, Yankton Federal Prison Camp is a good deal I just as easily could have been sent to a county jail. I once did an entire six-month sentence in county jails. They are not fit places for human beings to live. Many are noisy, overcrowd-ed dungeons with poor food. One third of the U.S. prisoners, close to 500,000 people, are in county jails. Perhaps, because of the contrast from county jails, I have painted too rosy of a picture of life at Yankton Prison Camp. Each day at this camp, inmates encounter nitpicky petty rules and regulations unevenly enforced which reminds them that they are not in control of their lives, they are not free people. Because of this, they view the justice system as unjust. The Gospel tells us we are to side with the poor, the outcast and the oppressed. . In this context of prison, I share the perspective of those very people and find it valid. Yet despite the negative and unfree environment (or maybe because of it), my spiritual life has flourished. My prayer life has deepened. My efforts to reach out and to be a sign of Christ here have had some success. I see myself neither as any great martyr or slacker. I mostly see myself as being a per-son trying to be faithful to the challenge to be as Christ-like as I can. No more or no less than any Christian is called to be.
Reflections on Palm Sunday
The greatness of Christianity 1ies in its being hated by the World~ not in its being con-vincing to it ” – Ignatius of Antioch
For all the spiritual importance we claim for Jesus’ mission, he played out his salvation drama in a social/political arena. This was especially true of his last days on earth. Each year during Jesus’ lifetime, the Jews use the Passover celebration to demonstrate their own desire to be free from the dreaded Roman occupation. Historians tell us that during this time extra Roman soldiers were sent to Jerusalem to help secure the city and to put down even the hint of Jewish unrest. So when Jesus and his disciples led their Palm Sunday street demonstration through the streets of Jerusalem and encouraged the crowds to hail Jesus as their King and Messiah, the political import was obvious. Soon after his Palm Sunday street demonstration, Jesus went to the temple and cleared out the moneychangers. By today’s standards the temple cleansing witness was an act of direct nonviolent civil disobedience. It is Jesus’ most militant symbolic direct action against the most powerful religious political institution in all of Israel, and it came at a very high price.
Scripture scholars tell us that based on these two events, the authorities decided to have Jesus arrested, tried and convicted of sedition and sentenced to death. Yet the Gospels claim that Jesus was completely innocent. How can this be true’? Jesus broke all kinds of laws throughout his public life. His innocence rests upon the divine truth that he embodied and proclaim-ed. God’s saving truth exposes all lies, those private and public, personal and social, from the highest to the lowest of places. A lot of people would just as soon not deal with the social and political content of Jesus’ message, much less entertain the thought that the Church ought to encourage the same nonviolent confrontational style that Jesus had. It would be much easier to keep religion out of politics altogether and make it a solely personal “God and I” kind of thing. But that would be doing a great disservice to our Christian vocation. Jesus was at odds with the rich and powerful in his society. Given the state of our world today, there is no real evidence that our relationship to the world in a public and