Nonviolence & The Judge by Sister Denise Laffen

“In the dictionary of satyagraha there is no enemy.”

- Mahatma Gandhi

“You might feel that you cannot find anything worthy or sacred in others. But that is not where you should be looking. If we cannot find the sacred within ourselves, we cannot find it anywhere else. This is the illness of the modern age. The illness of today is our incapacity of seeing the sacred within our own hearts and minds.

- The Most Venerable Nichidatsu Fujii,
Founder of Nipponzan Myohoji

Nonviolence & The Judge

Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo

On Monday afternoon, late in the day, I sat in the courtroom of U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Mallon Faircloth and though 2 or 3 hours is hardly enough time to get to know anyone, I feel I can say that Judge Faircloth is a patient man. And he is a good listener.

I mention these qualities first because when people I know talk about Judge Faircloth, they rarely start off with his attributes. That’s quite understandable. Judge Faircloth is responsible for sentencing more than 100 people to prison, probation and/or hefty fines for a simple act of civil disobedience during the annual School of Americas demonstrations. These good women and men have in broad daylight and full view of civil and military authorities stepped onto the base at Fort Benning. Using no stealth at all they cross because their conscience and faith will not let them abide a U.S. Army school that trains Latin American soldier in techniques of torture and interrogation. The law calls this act criminal trespass and sets a maximum sentence of six months incarceration. Many, many and too many have received the maximum for taking that extra step.

As I have said, Judge Faircloth is a patient man because in every single case he has listened while these women and men speak of the moral convictions that led them to “cross the line.” And in every case I saw, he sought to engage the defendant on some point he or she made in a statement to the court. Honestly, I sometimes found his observations pedantic, sometimes mean-spirited, other times quite logical and fair, even compassionate. Judge Faircloth is a mixed bag. But he is listening.

He listened to my friend, Julia Shideler, and that is the story I want to tell. I’m a little hesitant to begin because I know Julia will probably be uncomfortable with this story. It is funny that the telling of our good deeds can be as embarrassing as the telling of our bad ones. Perhaps even more so. But I do not tell this story for Julia’s sake. I tell it for all of us peace activists and advocates of nonviolence because for all our good intentions, we are frequently cynical about “the system.” And it was not until I saw Julia’s day in court that I understood, in a flash of painful self-recognition, how our cynicism, my cynicism, stunted our effectiveness as peacemakers.

But that is not all. On that day, February 10, 2003, I and others witnessed a miracle. Perhaps some of the others would not call it a miracle. But I have no doubt. For Julia’s words moved the judge off his bench of law and into the realm of justice, if only for a moment. And we witnesses of this momentous shift realized in our hearts that the divide of friend vs. foe is nothing but illusion, even if we understood only for a moment.

By the time Julia took the stand, it was close to 5 o’clock, either slightly before or after, I don’t remember which. A long day of testimony and strong emotions hung heavy in the air, making the narrow courtroom even more claustrophobic than its poor design would normally. This day, too, marked the beginning of the second week of such trials. Everyone was tired.

Despite the weariness, there was an expectant air. Julia had announced that if she should be found guilty, and there was no reason to expect she wouldn’t, that she would waive the right to “self-report,” meaning she would give up the option of going to a minimum-security federal prison. Instead she would be taken into custody immediately following the trial and taken to a county jail where she would spend her 90-day sentence. Her own words to the judge describe it best:

“…I will tonight be stripped of all my possessions, will stand naked and vulnerable before the guards and will rest my body in a cell just a few blocks away from here. I may or may not be transferred out.

“I’m a little nervous, to be honest. I’ve heard many horrible stories and facts about the dehumanizing and deplorable conditions of the county jails in Georgia. So I will pray for strength and compassion, for peace in my heart, and hope to emerge transformed. “I invite you (Judge Faircloth) to pray for us, too, to remember us as you rest in your comfortable bed at night. Will you wonder about whether we deserve the severity of your sentences or whether our system really works for true justice?”

Julia did not have to choose this path. She could “self-report” to a federal prison camp where the conditions are certainly not good but neither are they “deplorable” as she aptly described Georgia county jails. But at 24 years of age, Julia is strong in her body and in her faith. And I don’t mean she’s strong in faith “for her age.” She is strong for any age. Julia’s faith in her God strikes me as being so total and transcendent that she believes also in herself.

That, I believe, is why she chose this option. She knows she has the strength to withstand it and the faith to find God even within the worst of it. She had no real fear of it and so no reason not to choose it. The reason not to choose federal prison is because it is offered to her and to others simply because they are white and middle class, and Julia wants to unburden herself of this race-based privilege. These choices are not offered to poor, non-white people regardless of what charges they’ve been found guilty of.

Julia began her statement to the court by admitting she had done everything the prosecution charged:

“…I admit I willfully entered upon the army instillation at Ft. Benning. I was aware that by crossing that invisible line in the grass I would be subject to arrest and possibly face six months incarceration. I was aware that this petty offense is not petty at all. Neither does the government take this act lightly, nor do I. It stands for something much greater than you or me.”

She continued saying that while she had committed this act, yet she considered herself not guilty because she made a moral choice that she “discerned and deliberated (was) the will of God for me that day.”

“I think it’s very sad that the facts themselves, the circumstances of war and oppression and racism do not compel most people to respond with empathy and dedication to working for change. Many people want to live in a just society, but aren’t willing to make the sacrifices needed to overcome this evil among us. It’s analogous to repenting with words but not with deeds. We’ve been taught to accept this shameful state of affairs as inevitable, as beyond our capacity to change. We are a society plagued with apathy and complicity and it’s hard to convert our lifestyles.

“For those who thirst for justice, this climate of increasing injustice can lead us to frustration and despair, or to a deepening of our personal commitment, sacrificing our pleasures and privileges to help our neighbors wake up. We cross not only for ourselves, but for those around us. We cross with a belief that nothing is inevitable.”

That last emphasis is mine. And I call attention to it because this faith sets Julia apart. And while she did not realize it at the time, these words were also prophetic in her particular case before Judge Faircloth.

We call one segment of the peace movement “faith-based,” to distinguish it, I suppose, from the anarchists. We members of the self-identified “faith base,” however, are as caught up in our distrust of the system as our anarchist sisters and brothers and our talk is just as dismally concerned with the failure of politics and courts. In Julia’s case, she disarmed “the system” by recognizing that any system includes people all of whom can respond, if they allow it, to the Holy Spirit, or satyagraha or the Buddha nature within, however you want to call it. In addressing the judge she said:

“In the funeral procession that commemorates the victims of countless massacres and assassinations, we cross onto what we consider to be sacred ground. And for disobeying this law … you’ve convicted and incarcerated over a hundred women and men. Many of them are wonderful citizens, people cherished by their communities all across the United States. When these people are hauled off in shackles to suffer the dehumanizing conditions of our jails and prisons – all for their peaceful and well-intentioned violations – it shocks people deeply, like a ripple across the water. That you would sentence elderly nuns to prison camps, where they endure some of the most appalling living conditions in the US, it enrages people. And in that first moment of shock, when that sickening feeling stirs in their guts, their disgust and disenchantment with our system rises. Leaving a taste of that bitter irony born of injustice. …This trial, absurd and surreal as it may feel, is essential. Your response, Judge Faircloth, is instrumental. Please don’t interpret this as disrespect. I believe that you are a faithful man, devoted to justice as you see it, and believe in upholding the laws of this country. I do respect that. I also believe that you pray daily, as I do, ‘Our Father in heaven, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ And as I see it, it’s all about discerning God’s Will in our lives and following it. I pray that you discern God’s Will before sentencing us, and as a judge, that you don’t feel like a disempowered pawn in this political system.

“It may sound strange, but I think it’s possible that God has willed these harsh sentences. Not because we personally deserve this punishment, but in order to transform and redeem this suffering.”

Julia knew and stated before the court that these sentences, though harsh, pale in comparison to the suffering of Latin Americans under U.S. policy, carried out, in part, by graduates of the School of Americas (now called Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). But she recognized that in both cases it was the same abuse of power at work. And she was able to simultaneously judge the judge for handing down these harsh sentences and absolve him with the statement that it is, perhaps, the will of God. “Maybe you’ll be relieved, as I am, that suffering can transform the souls of those who believe in grace. It’s the refining fire that tests our faith. Your honor, I will gladly accept what you decide. I rest my case.”

I will never know what Judge Faircloth heard in Julia’s statement. But there is no doubt he heard something. Following Julia’s statement, he tried to make a few comments but would start a thought, pause, then change to another subject entirely. He seemed at a loss for words. When he asked if she had a job, Julia responded that she had quit it in December in anticipation of her incarceration.

“Well, you’re going to be disappointed,” Judge Faircloth said. He would not send her to prison. “Twelve months probation.” Pause. “Suspended.” Another pause. “No fine.”

“She got nothing!” I thought. And then, as if to make it real because it seemed so very unreal, I turned to Brother Utsumi beside me and said the same words out loud, “She got nothing!”

Of course, now in more sober reflection, I understand a suspended sentence is something, though it inflicts no hardship on Julia at all unless she crosses onto Fort Benning within the next year. But it is a sentence that is completely out of character for Judge Faircloth. According to his latest pattern, anyone pleading not guilty who is under 70 years of age goes to jail. Probation, in Julia’s case, would have been a radical enough departure to shock us out of our cynicism. To suspend the sentence gave it the mark of a miracle.

I wish I could report that the power of Julia’s faith and nonviolent witness radicalized Judge Faircloth and he immediately suspended all sentences and ordered the U.S. Army to establish a Truth commission to investigate SOA/WHISC. But there is no happily-ever-after ending to tell. The next day he resumed his bench of law, sending more people to jail, even sentencing some crossing for the first time to six months. But I have no doubt he heard something on that Monday, late in the afternoon. And so did I.

For me, Julia’s words and demeanor in the courtroom were a revelation. I have seen nonviolence used and taught in the peace movement as a tactic. But that day in court I was the first time I saw nonviolence as a living force, a beating heart, a light which casts no shadow. I believe that Julia never saw Judge Faircloth as an enemy or as a representative of the system but simply as a human being with as much potential as she has to do the will of God. She believed that even before he passed his sentence.

As for Judge Faircloth, some have wondered if the judge, knowing Julia had prepared herself completely for jail time, wanted to punish her in a new way by denying the martyrdom of incarceration. Julia does not believe this and neither do I. If we do not believe a human heart beats in the breast of Judge Faircloth then we might as well pack our bags, go home and never show up at the gates of Fort Benning again. I wonder if we, the so-called faith-base, do not believe in the power of conversion because we never plumbed the depths of our own divine nature. Julia knows her own holiness. And she saw the same in Judge Faircloth. I, for one, am a believer.

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