~ Prison reflection from William “Bix” Bichsel, SJ

A Lenten Call:  Give Up Our Violence!

Note from Leonard Eiger, Disarm Now Plowshares: This is a reflection written over the course of two days by William “Bix” Bichsel, SJ during his 30-day stay in solitary confinement at the SeaTac Federal Detention Center. Bix began this reflection on Friday, February 3, 2012, the third day of his second (four day) fast, which was in solidarity with U.S. political prisoner Leonard Peltier.

As I rubbed my hand down the surface of my bony body, a thought came to me that I was sanding down my dry, itchy skin to be a parchment for things I would like to write down about proclaiming the Gospel – the Good News.

The things I want to relate come out of living in a 24 hour lock-down, single cell in a federal prison for 30 days. During 19 of those days I fasted from solid food and drank only water and 2 small cartons of milk a day. During 29 of those days I did not sleep a wink at night and lay awake scratching and itching and tensing my muscles and stretching to get a position to sleep. No sleep came. After the first sleepless nights I spent time thinking of projects to get involved in when I was released. Projects like helping Peter Roderick make Tacoma Avenue into a peace pole avenue; and helping Jose Mercado make the walls and sides of buildings on Tacoma Avenue into a mural walk of peace and resistance. Planning a family reunion took up most of one night. Then there was the thinking of how to enlist youth to help abolish nuclear weapons.

Within days it was apparent to me that I was not going to sleep at night at all. No matter how much anti itch cortisone and anti fungal cream I rubbed on my legs and body – nothing stopped the itch. After some days I realized that my world had been turned upside down. No sleep at night; very little during the day; liquid only nourishment; and yet I felt very sustained in the fasting and prayertime. I felt the presence of God and the companionship of Bro Jesus.

My decision not to cooperate with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) system was also a decision to enter more deeply into the resistance to the U.S. forces of death. This decision brought God’s joyful gift of freedom in which I hope to walk.

The freedom I felt and the long itchy, sleepless nights sonspired to lead me to consider how best in this age to proclaim God’s gift of joyful freedom , which comes in the following of Jesus. What I was asking myself was how do I preach or proclaim the Gospel – the Good News – in this post-Christian, self-indulgent, nuclear age. What is the message of the Gospel today?

I chose to use the Gospel of Mark as the framework of the Gospel that I would proclaim today. This is because Mark’s Gospel is short and strongly oriented to discipleship in the following of Jesus. Not that the other Gospel’s don’t point to discipleship – it’s just that Mark stresses it as the main underlying theme. What we are in dire need of is the following of Jesus in today’s world. I’ve been influenced in choosing Mark’s Gospel by the social and political commentary on Mark’s Gospel in Ched Myer’s book ”Binding the Strong Man.”

Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist in the wilderness preaching repentance and proclaiming that one mightier than him will come. Jesus shows up there and is baptized by John, and then is led by the spirit into the desert. After this, John is arrested and Jesus goes to Galilee to begin his ministry. He preaches: “the Kingdom of God is at hand… Repent” and believe in the Gospel – the Good News.”

Jesus; first and constant teaching is that the Kingdom of God is at hand. It is near – not down the road. It can happen now. “Believe the Gospel – the Good News.”

Believe that every human being is precious and will receive from the Earth’s bounty what is necessary for a full human life. Believe that human beings can live together and work out differences without weapons or violence. Believe that differences of people with varying religious faith traditions and nationalities and ethnicities are meant not to be threatening, but to be invitations to harmonious living. Believe that the bounty of the Earth is to be shared by all people – and that any system of exchange must be based on human need and not for profit. Believe we can hammer swords into plowshares. Believe we can love one another and that we are sons and daughters of a loving creator.

These are, in my words, some of the elements of the kingdom at hand, which Jesus was proclaiming. Following his proclamation that the kingdom is at hand, Jesus admonishes, “Repent!” What is there opposing the “breaking in of the Kingdom of God” of which his listeners were called to repent?

The Kingdom preached by Jesus could not come into existence through violence of any reliance on might making it right! The ingrained notion of human beings that retaliation is natural and justified leads to an ever recycling of violence. When the end is a great good – like the freedom of some people – but the action done to achieve the end is violent, then the result is redemptive violence, in which violence is concealed in lamb’s clothing.

The call to repent is to confront and do away with the violence within us. It is a call to change our learned responses of violence to responses that call for our consciences, our intellect, and our imagination to work together for a peaceful solution. Repent and learn the way of nonviolence.

It is in our nonviolence that we begin to resist those forces of death, which hinder the Kingdom of God from happening. Our call to nonviolence in following Jesus is to engage and resist those forces of death that are like rivers of molten lava pouring down the mountainside. What are those forces today?

These forces today in the U.S.A. are theories and practices of domination through military control of other nations and peoples for the economic, political, social, and military advantage of the U.S.A. These forces include war making and a national budget that feeds the war making machine and starves its people. As the military and war making budget increases the culture of war perpetuates itself. The production of weapon systems is part of the sources of death that destroy the possibility of the Kingdom. Through its nuclear weapon superiority the U.S., as the superpower, pushes around and threatens other nations. These weapons are the sign of the ultimate hopelessness of human beings to be able to live together and help each other thrive. In such a system of violence, drone warfare, weapons production, military and defense budgets, border fences, the death penalty, abortion, torture, rendition all thrive.

In this system of death there are those persons and institutions that rise to the top of the influence, wealth and power grid, and control the flow of death down the mountainside. These controlling agents are the corporations, their congressional puppets, and highly influential people. It is the few who own and control the wealth and production in the U.S. They have control of the legislative, administrative and judicial branches of our government. The possibility of “seeking redress of grievances: as guaranteed by the First Amendment is closed. Only the power of nonviolent resistance can change this denial of peoples’ rights.

But to repent of our violence is also to call for our human efforts to live together as a global community. It is up to us to explore and support efforts of people of different religious and faith traditions and ethnicities how to live and thrive together. The call of the Kingdom would encourage and support a national and global concentration on food and agricultural production that would place human need as the priority, and profit to be used only to insure food and agricultural production for every global citizen. Work and farm cooperatives would be encouraged.

Education would be open and available to all. The possibility of growth and reaching the highest human potential in learning would be open to all seeking higher education. In such and age of cooperation the gifts and talents of every human being could shine out in global splendor.

Employment would be constant and growing, which the Kingdom of God would call for in healing and caring for every acre of God’s creation. Just the need to develop energy from solar, wind, tidal and geothermal sources other than oil, coal and gas can mean and bring about countless numbers of jobs. The need for environmental healing and repair of the land, water and atmosphere of our Earth and nation is tremendous, and requires employment. Labor unions would be encouraged to bring workers closer together to form relationships and to ensure the right of collective bargaining and to nonviolent strike if that is necessary.

Military training would phase out and be replaced by service corps volunteers who serve their nation in combating the effects of storms, earthquakes, fires, floods and other acts of nature.

I think in this age the call of the Gospel is a deep call to conscience to resist the forces of death and violence that are melting away the foundation of the Kingdom. To preach the Good News that the Kingdom is at hand means a venture in faith that God will do what God said he would do. “They Kingdom come on Earth – as in Heaven” if we on our part resist by word and deed the forces of violence. These forces are legion, but we must also name and identify them; e.g. war, drone attacks, torture, nuclear weapons, weapon production, corporations taking over the three branches of government, military budget, lack of health care and employment and education, etc. While resisting the violent forces we must remember to encourage and cultivate those signs of human life and cooperation.

In following Mark’s Gospel it is important to see how Jesus first calls his disciples to follow him, and after being with them he says to pick up the cross and follow me. As we know, it led Jesus to the grave. At the graveside, at the conclusion of Mark’s Gospel (Mk 16:1-8) the women are fearful and unable to speak. The angel in the tomb tells them to tell Peter and disciples that Jesus has gone before them into Galilee and that’s where they will find him.

If we want to continue the story and preach the Gospel in our time we must take over from Jesus in Galilee and take on his spirit so that the Good News is proclaimed out of our voices in this violent age.