1995 March 26 – NEITHER MARTYR OR SLACKER (Prison Writings)
NEITHER MARTYR OR SLACKER: Just Trying To Be Fully Human and Christ Like
Typically, I hear two extreme reactions to my prison witness. One is from those who 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 capabilities. The others are those who dismiss my prison witness as self-indulgent. They see my prison witness as a way of shirking my priestly responsibilities. To them my time in prison is nothing more than an extended retreat at the taxpayers’ expense. There are shades of truth in both positions but neither comes close to the actual reality.
I readily admit that my going to prison is a sacrifice. However, it is no major heroic deed, especially ‘when set alongside far greater sacrifices made by countless other people of conscience who stand up against social injustice in this country and throughout the world. I am painfully aware that in many countries in the world today the peace and justice activities I have participated in would have gotten me killed long ago. Nor does my time in jail rank me higher (if ranking is what’s it all about) than some of the very good people I know right now in St. Patrick Parish whose lives and family struggles place them in far more difficult situations than me, which in my way of thinking, merits them heroic status far exceeding my own.
On the other hand, I am not on some ‘ego’ trip, doing just as I please to suit my own personal agenda. Though very much a personal choice, the factors that brought me to ‘cross the line’ at StratCom Headquarters at Offutt AFB last May and engage the justice system as I did at my trial in October are complex and multi-leveled. They are similar to the complex set of circumstances that contribute to my significant individual life choice. To understand them one would have to know something of my personal story and faith journey. It is my hope that over the last three years I have shared enough of my life story and faith journey with you so that you have some measure of understanding of my faith reasoning and point of view that lead me to keep crossing the line at Offutt.
Admittedly others of the same faith background do not share my perspective nor would they come to the same imperative to act as I have at Offutt. And that is okay. We are not all made the same. We do not all think alike nor do we all need act alike. We are however all called to be true to ourselves and the truths we have been given. That is what I believe I have done and why I am in this prison camp today.
As for shirking my responsibilities as a parish priest; like every Catholic Christian, my first and foremost responsibility is to be faithful to my Baptismal pledge to follow in the ways of Jesus. For me, my continued witnessing at Offutt is a fulfillment of my Baptismal pledge. To do otherwise would be to fail in the most basic level of being a Catholic Christian, a failure that would render me a less than suitable priest. I have always found it ironic that I am often put on the defensive by my fellow Catholic Christians about being a law breaker and going to jail for what I believe Jesus would have us do. Any fair reading of the New Testament would show that Jesus and his disciples were opposed for disregarding the laws of Judaism. They spent lots of time before judges and rulers while going to or from jail. For the Faith Communities of the New Testament going to jail was common fare, the rule not the exception.
As for being on an extended retreat at U. S. taxpayers’ expense, there is some truth to this claim. But first it must be remembered I did not come to this prison camp freely. A Federal Judge sent me here. I was transported here, handcuffed and shackled by two U. S. Marshals. I remain here under threat of additional prosecution and jail time. In short, this was not my idea. It was the Federal Government’s. ”
I readily admit as prison options go, doing a six-month sentence here at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp is a good deal. That is mostly because I could just as easily be doing my six-month sentence in a county jail. I’ve been in many county jails through the years. I did an entire six-month sentence in county jails. County jails are not fit places for human beings to live. Many are little more than dungeons, overcrowded, with poor food, and living conditions. They are unhealthy places to be for any extended length of time. I write this mindful that close to 500, 000 people are currently locked up in county jails, about 1/3 of the total imprisoned population in the U. S. A.
Perhaps because of this I have painted too rosy a picture of my stay here in Yankton and given people the wrong impression. Regardless of what this camp looks like from the outside, doing time here is no picnic. There are a whole lot of hurting, angry, depressed, and resentful people in this institution. Caught up as they are in the U. S. Justice System, many have been lied to, cheated on, and betrayed. Their lives and families disrupted and altered forever. Even more tragic, many have lied, cheated, and betrayed others in the long legal ordeal that landed them in this prison camp. Few inmates keep their integrity intact through this process and those who do get punished all the more by the federal government.
And over all this, the imprisoned believe the biggest liars, cheaters, and betrayers are in the U. S. Justice System. They are the ones who created, facilitate, and sustain this system of justice. Each day at this camp, inmates are reminded of this ugly reality in countless encounters with nitpicking petty rules and regulations unevenly enforced, telling them that they are not in control of their lives, that they are not free people, that they like society are being robbed every day they are kept here.
This, of course, is the point of view and perspective of convicted and imprisoned inmates. This all too negative assessment of our country’s justice system may not be to most peoples’ liking. It may not be the total truth. Still, it is the point of view held by some of the least in our midst, the people who experience our justice system most directly – the imprisoned.
From my reading of the Gospel, we are called to throw our lot in with the poor, the marginal, the outcast, and the oppressed. In the context that I find myself, this Gospel bias has meant that I stand with and take on the world view and perspective of the men with whom I share my imprisonment. Mine is not an unquestioning and uncritical adaptation of their point of view. It has been tested and measured by my own experiences of the justice system. But I have found no real evidence to discount this inmate perspective on our nation’s justice system. In fact, I have found it to be closer to the truth than most are willing to admit.
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 be a sign of Christ in this imprisoned community has had some success. It has also been a time for intensive self-examination and review. In the best of what a spiritual desert experience is supposed to be, I have taken some real hard looks at myself, my faith point of view, and my basic understanding of the world, the Gospel we profess, our Church, and my priesthood. After five months I have nothing earth-shaking to report. As in the past, much of what has happened to me on the inside will not make itself known until after I am set free. I do know that I have never gone to jail without in some way or fashion coming out of the experience with a deeper understanding of myself and what God expects of me. I have no reason to believe that this experience will be any different.
I neither see myself as any great martyr or slacker. I mostly see myself as being a person who is simply trying to be faithful to the challenge life has set before me, to be as fully human and Christ-like as I can. No more or no less than any Christian is called to be.
Fr. Frank Cordaro