Fr Martin Newell: Following Christ to prison pt2.

On 21st August 2021, Fr Martin Newell spoke to CCA’s Saturday sessions for the second of two reflections on why prison time that results from direct action taken as a matter of conscience can be an experience of faithful Christian discipleship. We’re sharing the text of Martin’s talk here, with the recording of the event, and the rest of the conversation between XR and CCA activists with different experiences of short prison sentences, at the bottom of the text.

WHY RISK GOING TO PRISON?

I want to start with reading, and give you some time to reflect on, some of the ‘hard teachings’ of Jesus: teachings that some of us may identify with. Jesus was teaching at a time of emergency – the Jewish revolt against the Romans was brewing – so these words in particular speak to the time of Climate and Ecological Emergency we now live in.

MATTHEW CHAPTER 10: 34 – 36

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

“‘a man against his father,

a daughter against her mother,

a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—

a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

MATTHEW CHAPTER 18: 28 – 30

Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!” “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of Godwill fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

I quote these words because after I came out of prison after six months for my part in a Ploughshares action, I was asked more than once, including by someone from the Catholic parish I had been working, “How could you do that? What about your mum and dad? How must they feel?” The only thing that came to me were some of these words of Jesus from Matthew chapter 10. And I was also reminded of not just the call and challenge, but the promise, for “this age and… in the age to come”. And I do feel I have found many new sisters and brothers through all this too, as Jesus promised.

As we begin our time together now, let us listen to God speaking these words to us in our hearts, and thank God for them.

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I want to start this time by re-reading only a part of the reflection from the American Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, who spent a several years in prison for his part in the anti-Vietnam war and anti-nuclear weapons protests from the 60’s to the 80’s.

He was talking about peace and war. We are talking about what it takes to make peace with the planet, to stop the human race – that is to say, overwhelmingly the rich, however we define who the rich are – how do we stop the rich from making war on God’s Earth?

 DANIEL BERRIGAN

But what of the price of peace [with God’s Earth?] How many of us are so afflicted with the wasting disease of normalcy that, even as we declare for peace, our hands reach out with an instinctive spasm in the direction of our loved ones, of our comforts, our home, our security, our income, our future, our plans – that five-year plan of studies, that ten-year plan of professional status, that twenty-year plan of family growth and unity, that fifty-year plan of decent life and honourable natural demise.

“Of course, let us have peace,” we cry, “but at the same time let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact, let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor the disruption of ties.” And because we must encompass this and protect that, and because at all costs – at all costs – our hopes must march on schedule, and because it is unheard of that in the name of peace a sword should fall, disjoining that fine and cunning web that our lives have woven, because it is unheard of that good [people] should suffer injustice or families be sundered or good repute be lost – because of this we cry ‘peace, peace, and there is no peace’. “


There were some questions asked last week, which have guided what I am going to say now. One question was asking for “clarification of what are the positive results from going to prison”.

I could talk about this, and I will in a moment, but I think the first and most important thing to say is this: We all crave too much certainty about the effects of our actions. There are too many unknowns. And that is always and everywhere inevitable. No two situations, no two actions, or outcomes, are ever the same. This kind of thing is not ‘re-creatable’. It would be like asking a footballer to re-create a moment of genius during a match. Impossible.

Or, it would be a bit like a footballer asking the manager, “If I make this forward pass, or this run, or this cross – will it lead to a goal?” The true answer is: probably not, but it might. But what is certainly true, is that if you don’t make this pass, or this run, or this cross – if you play it safe, if you pass sideways or backwards, if all you, and the whole team, ever do is try to keep possession, we will never score a goal.

The second important things to say about this is that the main thing to get right – that has a ‘positive result’, whatever that may be – is the action that leads to it. That action has to be right, has to be the right thing to do – bearing in mind that in these situations, there is never only one right thing to do; there are always loads of options. (Although there are of course also plenty of wrong things to do as well!)

Perhaps you could say that there is a ‘multiplier effect’: For example, if the action has an impact of 2, and the punishment has an impact of 2, then 2 multiplied by 2 is then the strength of the ‘outcome’. So the ‘result’ is 4. If the action has an impact of 10, and the punishment for that action has an impact of 10, then the impact of the ‘result’ is 100.

But as I say, all this is unknown and unquantifiable. We cannot really predict these things in advance. It’s easy in hindsight to say, “That action was great, and that willingness to accept the punishment was powerful – I’d like to do that”. But it will never be the same again. We saw that with the power of the April 2019 Rebellion, and the rush of people to get involved afterwards, as it all looked so easy – and when it got hard and tough, most of those people melted away…

We have to be willing to take risks. Obviously calculated risks, but still, risks. We have to be willing to do something that is just right, to take a chance – like the football players, or a cricketer aiming for a six that might get them caught out. But if they never try, they will never win.

But yes, there are things that can be said about results. One very pragmatic thing that was said before XR started, was that some journalists were asked, “How many people in prison at once for a protest would it take to make it front page news?” Some said 50; some said 100, for example. So it could bring the issue of the climate and ecological emergency and our response, and the political questions around it, back to the front pages of the tabloids, onto the 5 minute news bulletins on commercial radio, and trending on social media.

And part of what I would say about that is: it is about the power of voluntary suffering, of sacrifice, for the sake of love. Which of course is something very much tied in with our faith, with my understanding of the cross of Jesus and how it brings conversion. Because conversion is what need above all – both an ecological conversion, and a political one, in the broadest possible sense of the word ‘political’ (I don’t mean ‘party political’).

There’s a story about Henry David Thoreau, who wrote “On Civil Disobedience”, getting on for a couple of hundred years ago. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau, who was in jail for refusing to pay the ‘poll tax’ that might be used to pay for the American war on Mexico. Emerson asked Thoreau why he was there. Thoreau purportedly responded: “Why are you not here?”

Thoreau’s answer puts me in mind of the words of early 20th century radical Eugene Debs who said, “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” 

Do we feel that same sense of solidarity, of communion – of union with all who suffer, including all God’s creatures and all life on God’s Earth – as expressed also by Jesus when he said,Whatever you do to the least of these [who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, in prison, etc.] you do to me”? I believe Jesus was serious when he uttered those words.

Thoreau’s position, his argument, was that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that they have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. He applied that to the US war on Mexico. Do we apply that to the war on God’s Earth and God’s poor?

To take the most extreme example: do you think it was appropriate for Christians to just continue on with their lives as if nothing was happening, unwilling to take risks with their comforts, freedom and lives during the Nazi era in Germany, as most of them did? Would it have been enough, morally, just to verbally express their dismay? Are we not bound by our faith to live by our conscience, and to be conscientious objectors to the war on God’s Earth, in actual fact of the way we live our lives, in a way that actually, really, costs us something? Are we actually willing to pay the ‘cost of discipleship’, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words? Or do we still prefer cheap grace?

In Christian Climate Acton, we always used to talk about ‘action commensurate with the seriousness of the situation’. Now what does that look like? How serious do you think the situation is that we are in, with fires seemingly burning all across Europe, not to mention all the other disasters that are happening and are coming?

I would ask, what kind of political change do you think is necessary to achieve the change that is needed? I would argue that, at the very least, it is a massive political earthquake, probably beyond anything that has been seen in the West since 1945. Now what is going to create that? How is God going to be able to bring about that kind of change? Do you think that kind of change, in a good direction, has ever happened without a lot of people being willing to put their freedom, their reputation, even their lives, on the line? I’m absolutely sure it hasn’t. So if we want God to act, if we want to bring about that change, are we willing to act? Are we willing to pray for the courage to act? Are we willing to look at what changes we might need to make in our lives to give us enough free space to act?

There was a second question that was asked last week. It was to do with the process of discernment or deciding whether it’s right for any given person to go to prison – are there circumstances in which it might not be a good idea?

In terms of who it would not be a good idea for, I would think it is generally not a good idea for those with mental health issues to go to prison. Although that might depend on your definition of ‘mental health issues’. Having said that, this becomes more of an issue when the time in prison gets longer, and if you are going to be on your own. A couple of weeks, together with others in a group, is not so difficult. As long as things on the outside are not too much of a worry at the time, relationships with friends, family, those close to you or dependent on you.

On the other hand, there are certain groups of people who in reality have more freedom to risk going to prison. And so in my mind have more obligation to consider and discern whether they should do this, whether God is calling them to act in this way. Security of home, and of work or income is a factor. Those who are retired and in reasonably good health, for example. Especially those who own their own home without a mortgage. They have nothing to lose. Younger adults, who have yet to start a family, and so are without dependants in that way. Clergy, and members of Religious Orders, who have almost total security of job and home. In those cases, if anyone was to challenge you about getting arrested or going to prison, all you have to do is quote the biblical precedents and the life of Jesus. This kind of security is one reason why some people have always looked for life in community, or to build a deeper sense of sharing of economic resources, to enable more people to take such risks.

Generally, you have to look at things like how important is the cause to you and others, what are you really risking, who is dependent – really dependent – on you. Obviously situations like homelessness, or other big shocks in life would make it more difficult to contemplate or cope with. Understandably other factors come in – Black people for example could easily feel they are at a disadvantage for all the reasons to do with racism that have been well discussed in recent years.

If you have decided to do an action, it would of course be entirely reasonable to pull out if someone close to you dies, close enough say to have a serious emotional impact on you, and/or on others very close to you. Or if you or others that close to you are diagnosed with a serious illness, like cancer, for example.

The key question for discernment is to do with the action: is this what is needed right now? Is this what God is calling me to do? I don’t know if people are aware of methods of discernment in general – like the Ignatian methods of discerning good and evil spirits.

There are of course people who are totally committed, who are more effective in being on the outside, and there are many – even most – times when it is more important to be on the outside. We’re not talking about spending our whole lives in prison, just the willingness to risk some time there.

A third area of questions last week were in the areas of what is prison really like in everyday life? Is it really dreary day in day out etc.? I won’t go into that myself now, but bring in others who are here and refer you to the resources and online events that XR have been producing.

If you want to hear the rest of the conversation in which other XR and CCA rebels share their experiences of short prison sentences, you can watch the recording below. Start 17 minutes in for the rest of the conversation (YouTube should offer subtitles).

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