Close the School of the Americas: Sermon at the Ignatian Teach-in Mass, Columbus, Georgia

When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must
happen first, but it will not immediately be the end. Nation will rise against nation
and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines and
plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from
the sky. Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they
will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led
before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving
testimony. Remember you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself
will give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to
resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives and
friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of
my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you
will secure your lives. — Luke 21: 9-19
After meeting Ignacio Ellacuria and the Jesuits of El Salvador in 1985, I wondered for
a long time how can I live the Gospel of Jesus here in the empire, in this culture of
death? Is it possible to take another step into the Gospel, to risk oneís life, to give
oneís life to suffering humanity like the Jesuit martyrs and the saints of Central
America? Is it possible, in this culture of war and violence to love our enemies?
On December 7, 1993, with Philip Berrigan, Bruce Friedrich and Lynn Fredriksson, I
crossed the line onto the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, in Goldsboro, North
Carolina, at 4 a.m. right passed the sign which says Trespassers will be shot on
sight, up a bluff where we saw the whole air base before us, like 3 huge airports,
with thousands of soldiers and police officers milling around 75 huge F15 fighter
bombers, the cutting edge of the U.S. killing machine. These bombers can carry
nuclear weapons, were used to kill 75,000 Iraqi soldiers at the end of the Gulf war,
were on alert that night to bomb Bosnia and are being used in the war right now. We
were shocked because we suddenly realized that while we sleep tight, the war
machine barrels on full steam ahead.
We had spent months and years pondering the prophet Isaiah who said, ìSomeday
people are going to come along and beat their swords into plowshares,î and Jesus
who gave us that famous commandment ìLove your enemies, donít nuke ëem.î So,
we went up to one of the F15s and I took out a hammer and hammered on it, and I
felt like a cartoon character, shaking backwards from the plane, not putting a dent in
it. We were surrounded by five soldiers with machine guns aimed at us, and as the
spokesperson for the group, I took a deep breath and said, We are unarmed,
peaceful people; we mean you no harm; we are just here to dismantle this weapon
of death. I was hoping they were going to say: ìThank God youíre here. Of course,
come right ahead, why didnít we think of it!î But they pushed us on the ground and
as I lay there with machine guns touching my head, I thought of Ellacuria and the
Jesuit martyrs and realized, ìWow, you can live the Gospel of Jesus in this empire.î
For that action, my friends and I faced 20 years in prison and we found guilty of two
felony counts–destruction of government property and conspiracy to commit a
felony, and I spent 8 months in jail, 9 months under house arrest in the Jesuit
community, and 3 years on parole.
Jail was difficult. Phil and I were in a tiny cell, and we never left it except for a few
days to go to court. But, everyday we studied the scriptures, took wonder bread,
passed the grape juice, celebrated Eucharist, and felt the presence of the God of
peace, as if Jesus had been in the cell waiting for us, and we felt deeply blessed.
Before the action, I had gone to my Jesuit provincial, Fr. Ed Glynn, and gotten
permission to participate in the action. Then one day, after six months, he came to
visit me in jail. We were only allowed a ten minute visit, and I was brought out by
the guards, in my orange jump suit, and there was a glass partition and a
microphone between us, and we were making small talk, and I was very nervous,
and finally, I leaned forward and said, ìEd, I really need to know, do you still support
me?î He sat back, put his hands up as if to frame me in a picture and said, ìJohn,
youíre right where we want ya.î
Everything Jesus says in our Gospel tonight is true. Jesus says violence begets
violence, that a culture of violence is doomed to suffer the fruits of violence, that war
is not justified or blessed by God, and that the days are coming to Jerusalem when
not a stone will be left upon another stone, which is exactly what happened in the
year 70 A.D. when Jerusalem when completely destroyed by the Roman soldiers.
Likewise Jesus says to us, ìUnless you repent of the culture of violence and adopt
the way of nonviolence, your violence, wars, nuclear weapons, sanctions, terrorist
schools and bombings will enrage the world and lead others to destroy you. What
goes around comes around. You reap what you sow. The means are the ends. So
stop your wars and your violence and start sowing seeds of nonviolence. Follow me
and get with the program.î
ìThey will seize you and persecute you, and hand you over to the religious
authorities and to prisons, and you will be led before the rulers, but this will be the
time for you to give your testimony. Do not be afraid. Do not prepare your defense,î
he says, ìfor I will give you a wisdom in speaking. You will be hated, but not a hair
on your head will be destroyed and your perseverance, your faithfulness to the life of
nonviolence, to the faith that does justice, to the God of peace, will secure your
So, when our trial came up in North Carolina, we decided to take Jesusí advice, and
we walked into court by ourselves without any lawyers to give testimony to Jesus
and the Gospel of nonviolence. And we found on the desk an in limine motion, signed
by the Judge and the Prosecutor, which said, ìIn order to have a fair trial, you
cannot mention any of the following items–the US military; international law; the
Nuremberg principles; the necessity defense, the US government; the crimes
committed by the Seymour Johnson Air Force base; U.S. foreign or domestic
policies; the bible, theology, philosophy, divine law, or God. Other than that you can
say whatever you want; itës a free country.î We realized then how the courts are the
flipside of our wars and nuclear arsenal; they legalize our violence. We stood up and
said, ìWeíre here to speak out against U.S. nuclear weapons and war making, on
behalf of God and Godís law of nonviolence,î and the judge yelled at us, declared a
mistrial, and gave us several more months in contempt of court.
Months went by and we had four separate trials and I was called as a witness during
Phil Berriganís trial, and I was on the witness stand, with the judge on one side and
the jury on the other, in a packed courthouse, and I was asked, what did you see on
December 7th, and I said, ìI saw Philip Berrigan stand up for the human race, and
point the way out of our madness by beginning the process of disarmament and
helping us to become a people of peace,î and the judge started yelling, ìYou canít
say that, strike that from the record.î
Then, the prosecutor stood up and shouted, ìWho drove the car?î I said we take
responsibility for our own actions; but the judge ordered the jury out, and said I had
to tell who drove the car that day. He was trying to widen the conspiracy against
these Catholic Christians, so under duress I found myself saying, ìOk, Iíll tell.î And
the jury was ordered in, and my friends in the peace movement were sinking in their
seats, and the prosecutor demanded, ìWho drove the car that morning?î and I said,
ìThank you for pushing me to the truth of our action, and the truth is, we were
driven to the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, by the HOLY SPIRIT!î
The room exploded and the judge started screaming, ìYou canít say that, strike that
from the record. Off with his head.î That was the end of my day in court.
Jesus is telling us in the Gospel tonight, ìYes, the world is full of wars and atrocities
and nuclear weapons and the Pentagon and the School of the Americas, and your job
is to speak out against all of this violence, to say, Stop the bombings, stop the wars,
dismantle all these weapons of mass destruction, close the School of the Americas,
feed the children and the refugees, lift the sanctions on Iraq and the debt, bring
justice for the poor of the earth and do all this in the name of the God of peace.
It will be hard. People will get mad at you, hate you, arrest you, jail you, maybe
even kill you, like they killed Dr. King and the martyrs of Latin America.
But do not be afraid. Keep walking the road to peace. Keep speaking the words of
peace. Keep praying to the God of peace.
Tonight our Gospel asks us: How are you being faithful to the nonviolent Jesus and
his commandment to love your enemies? How are you giving testimony to Jesus and
his life of nonviolence, justice and compassion toward every human being? How do
you plan to persevere in the Gospel journey to nonviolence and the God of peace?
How willing are you to do this tomorrow and for the rest of your lives, to accompany
Jesus as he carries his cross in the nonviolent struggle for justice?
All of you are doing these great Gospel deeds, so the good news tonight, as we
gather at the table and break the bread of hope and drink from the cup of life, we
can rejoice and be glad because even if we are hated or persecuted for calling for the
closing of the School of the Americas, for an end to the bombings and the wars and
nuclear weapons and poverty and injustice, even if we get arrested and jailed and
even killed, we know that the reign of God is at hand; that death does not get the
last word; that the sun of justice will dawn; that we are headed toward resurrection;
that our God is a God of peace and we can be people of peace and nonviolence; that
we can and will love our enemies, come what may; that we will follow Jesus on the
road of nonviolence; that war will be abolished and our swords will be beaten into
plowshares and every tear will be wiped away; that our hearts are burning with
hope; that yes, all will be well, all will be well, that, thanks be to God, we are greatly