Choosing Jail: Experimenting With Redemptive Suffering

by Steve Clemens. June 11, 2012   Mennonista

It was in reading Mohandas Gandhi that I first learned about his “experiments with truth” – a term he used in perfecting the tactics of nonviolent resistance to the apartheid regime in South Africa and the British colonial occupation of his homeland of India. Martin Luther King Jr. took lessons from Gandhi’s campaigns in designing his own strategies to throw off the shackles of racial prejudice and legal discrimination. King used the term “redemptive suffering” drawing from his training as a Baptist minister and his understanding of the nonviolent response of Jesus to persecuting authorities.

Even though I’m now on the far side of 60, I feel I’m just a novice when it comes to creative nonviolence when I read the accounts of Gandhi, King, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, and many others. I’ve been arrested now more than 30 times; jailed more than 10 (for periods of a few hours up to six months). Some trials were before just a Judge, other times with a jury; some acquittals but more convictions. All of them learning experiences but I find each time I enter the courtroom, I find I have fewer expectations of “justice” from an entrenched system to is clearly in service to empire.

While the option of doing community service is definitely preferable to incarceration for most crimes that don’t involve violence, (especially having seen first-hand the dehumanization of most jails and prisons, even the “minimum security” Federal prison “camps”), it struck me that, for me – this time, I could experiment again by choosing the more difficult option.

To choose suffering over against retaliation or violence is what Martin King, Ralph Abernathy, and thousands of others (including my friend Marv Davidov) did during the Civil Rights struggle. While suffering in itself might be efficacious, publicly choosing to do so can hopefully encourage others to join the struggle. Thus, from King’s choice to remain in jail rather than seek to be released on bail, we were blessed with arguably one of the best treatises on nonviolent action in the form of King’s powerful “Letter From the Birmingham Jail.”

King’s choice to suffer in jail lent moral credibility to his letter to his critics – especially those who also wore clerical garb but chose a “go slow” strategy when it came to human rights for people of color. King not only chose suffering over retaliation but also over comfort and convenience. His friends argued that “you could do a lot more for the cause on the ‘outside’ rather than rotting in jail” but King understood the power of redemptive suffering as a way to move others.

So, it got me thinking as I prepared once again for trial on the charge of criminal trespass at Alliant Techsystems (ATK) – purveyor of death and destruction for corporate profit by making and selling landmines, cluster bombs, and depleted uranium munitions among other products designed to kill, maim, and dominate. Although I would defend our nonviolent actions on the basis of International Laws and Treaties, I knew there was a good chance our legal arguments would fall on deaf ears. If found guilty, should I request the likely consequence, community service, a “penalty” already offered us by the Prosecutor in exchange for giving up our rights to a jury trial and pleading “guilty” – or should I choose a path which might embrace some discomfort and suffering?

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My friends on the receiving end of ATK’s lethal products take daily risks. My friend and fellow peacemaker, Sami Rasouli, now back in his homeland of Iraq, has to ask whether or not to risk having another child with his wife Suaad, knowing that the contamination of Iraq by depleted uranium has caused birth defects and cancers to rise precipitously since 1991. How can I stand in solidarity with him?

My friend and member of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, Ali, must take risks every time he leads his donkeys into the mountainsides of the Bamiyan Province of Afghanistan to earn his living carrying water and firewood back to the village. He risks death or dismemberment from landmines, cluster bombs, or attacks from Apache helicopters or unmanned drones. How can I stand in solidarity with him?

I can choose to take a very modest amount of suffering and discomfort by going to jail in solidarity with them. Ten days of sleeping on a steel bunk with a pathetic 2” plastic-covered mattress and a clump of material called a pillow will be hard enough if I’m allowed a daily dose of ibuprofen to ease the aches but most jails deny the painkillers as a matter of course.

Physical separation from friends and family, missing the physical comforts of home, forgoing the autonomy of being able to choose what and when you eat, the lack of quiet – all of these may cause some “suffering” but pale in the face of what my friends must encounter without a 10-day release promise. There is some risk of assault by guards or other inmates, the physical humiliation of the strip-search, the gratuitous orders from guards just to remind you that you are not in control anymore.

But Jesus tells us in the Gospels, “Be not afraid, I go before you”, and, he does. Besides, I have a community on the outside to support and advocate on my behalf – something very few other prisoners have. I only have 10 days; my friend Mark just was sentenced to 4 months and another friend Brian will likely get 6 months for a recent nonviolent protest against drones at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri this spring. But we can offer up whatever we are able to risk and endure when we think of those on the receiving end of these illegal and indiscriminate weapons.

My suffering won’t in any way match theirs – but, when offered in solidarity, compassion, and hope, I pray it will help to begin the healing process that war is so bent on destroying. It’s been 10 years since my last incarceration at Hennepin County’s Adult Correction Facility, aka “the Workhouse”. It’s time to “experiment” again in the struggle for nonviolent change. I report to my jailers on June 26.


One Comment

  1. earning a prophet's wage June 18, 2012 at 10:42 PM

    Praying about this with you in Texas.

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