My stomach felt like an empty pit. There could not possibly have been anything left in the tank. I had already been on the toilet for 10 minutes, but I had not built up enough confidence to walk away. Diarrhea for reasons beyond our control is bad enough. This time it was, I admit, completely self-inflicted.
A few days earlier, I had started a bread-and-juice fast for the season of Lent. Three times a day, at normal meal times, I had a simple piece of bread (preferably multigrain, as my body begged for nutrients) and a glass of fruit juice. I was also drinking lots of water, and it was going straight through me. Fasting always sounds like a brilliant idea before… [This is the beginning of an essay recently published by America. Continue reading here.]
Originally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. He now is studying in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University. (Photo credit: www.jesuits.org)
“Eternal God…You know that these men have testified falsely against me. Would you let me die, though I am not guilty of all their malicious charges?”
This week the daily mass readings begin with the cry of Susannah, unjustly accused by corrupt officials, sentenced to death in the presence of the people. We read that God hears her. But Susannah is not saved by a bolt of lightning striking down her foes, or by being mysteriously transported to safety. God arouses the Holy Spirit stirring a “young lad,” Daniel, a witness in a crowd of impassive witnesses, and this small person shouts, “I will have no part in the death of this woman!”
People in the crowd are startled. Many had been grieved by the proceedings, but this was out of their hands, the elders, the leaders had decided. Yet here is this stirring, “What did you say?” they ask.
And Daniel says to the people, “Have you become fools, you Israelites, to condemn a daughter of Israel without due process and in the absence of clear evidence?”
In this story, the people respond, turning the tables by turning the accusers over for questioning. It is now they who must prove their case, which they fail to do. So Susannah is delivered, back to her family, and the accusers take her place in receiving the full penalty of the law.
I am struck by how clearly this story illustrates that God moves by moving people. Would this providential delivery have been possible had Daniel not responded to the spirit stirring him to speak? What if the people had not listened? What does all of this mean for us in our time?
Hearing this story for the first time, my thoughts immediately went to an outcry that is currently falling on deaf ears. There are 166 men being held at Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. They are held there without due process, accused in the absence of clear evidence. Their detention is indefinite, a torturous reality. Adding insult to injury, the sacred texts of these men of faith are being tampered with and desecrated, letters from their wives and children are censored or withheld. At Guantanamo, more men have died (9) than have been convicted of a crime (6). The men are experiencing a living death, confined to their tomb until the day that their corpse can be released to their family without fear that it will speak of what it has suffered.
Yet the men there are finding ways to cry out, to God, to their captors, to this crowd of people in the United States, to us. They are using the only tool they have left, their own body, hunger striking. They are not demanding release, only humane treatment, just procedures.
As a woman of faith, I sense the Holy Spirit seeking to arouse a voice in the crowd. We are given the example of Daniel for a reason. God desires compassion and justice and these divine gifts come through people who respond. But what can we do, when the prisoners are not standing directly before us, when the crowd is not crushing about us?
We can still adopt and adapt Daniel’s words, “I will have no part in the death of these men,” “Have we become fools, to condemn men without due process and in the absence of clear evidence?” And we can find the crowds to speak it to, and draw a crowd to speak it with us.
Witness Against Torture (WAT), a group of men and women from across the United States, has been seeking an end to indefinite detention, due process and resettlement for those detained, and the closure of Guantanamo Bay detention center since 2005. Together we are responding to the hunger strikes with tangible actions. Beginning March 24th (Holy Week, for those in the Catholic tradition) we will hold a seven day solidarity fast. Throughout that week we encourage people to call the White House; send letters to the prisoners acknowledging that they have been heard by the public, even if officials have yet to respond; join us for vigils (see witnesstorture.org to find out if there are any happening in your city, or start your own); participate in the fast for a day or more; spread the news in any way you can.
Adnan Latif, a Muslim man who, after eleven years of detention, died at Guantanamo wrote a poignant poem in which he asks, “Who will save the hunger striker?” He died, without ever having been proved guilty of “all their malicious charges.” How many deaths before the cry is heard?
I am in D.C. again, continuing the tradition of gathering each January with men and women of the community called Witness Against Torture. The group gathers each year, and works throughout the year, toward the closure of Guantanamo, appropriate legal trials for those detained, and freedom for those who are innocent. We gather out of love for one another and for those unjustly bound; we gather hoping that dreams of justice can be come reality.
In September 2012, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif – a Yemeni national who had been imprisoned in Guantanamo since 2002 – was found dead.. This man, cleared for release three times by the Bush Administration and again by the Obama Administration, was a poet, a son, a father. With hunger strikes, Adnan protested his unjust imprisonment. His actions led to brutal – and illegal – force feedings, beatings, and further mistreatment by the hands of his American captors. Below is a poem he wrote while living in the detention center:
Hunger Strike Poem
They are criminals, increasing their crimes.
They are criminals, claiming to be peace-loving.
They are criminals, torturing the hunger strikers.
They are artists of torture,
They are artists of pain and fatigue,
They are artists of insults and humiliation.
They are faithless—traitors and cowards—
They have surpassed devils with their criminal acts.
They do not respect the law,
They do not respect men,
They do not spare the elderly,
They do not spare the baby-toothed child.
They leave us in prison for years, uncharged,
Because we are Muslims.
Where is the world to save us from torture?
Where is the world to save us from the fire and sadness?
Where is the world to save the hunger strikers?
But we are content, on the side of justice and right,
Worshipping the Almighty.
And our motto on this island is, salaam.
We entered singing at seven a.m.on Monday onto the designated protest grounds of the Pentagon Building. Early in the hour-long vigil I began to notice things. I noticed I was tired from waking at 5:30 a.m. I noticed my throat was irritated, but less so than yesterday. I noticed my wrists were feeling cramped from helping hold a large black canvas banner with white lettering, “Close Guantanamo.”
Behind me the names of detainees were being read with steady reverence, interspersed with a chorus of “Courage, Muslim Brother,” and poems composed by the detained men. I tried to focus on the names, on the distant, aching lives for which those names are a small symbol that we grasp. But I could not feel their presence this morning. Before me was a steady stream of men and women, so many, so varied, and I noticed that I had not been attending to their presence either, more absorbed in the looming building, our agenda, myself.
As a young child, I would avert my eyes from people’s faces. I suppose it stemmed from an anxiety of being seen, not looking was hiding. But instead of providing me a safe view, my hiding eyes hid others from me, and my world was very small. Gently, firmly, patiently, my parents taught me to expand that world. Taking my face in their hands, they taught me to make eye contact with them, then, gradually, to look to others who were speaking. I began to practice, to become attentive, to take people in and to give myself with a gaze.
High in the wide windows of the Pentagon, breaking dawn was being revealed. The sun began to shine behind us, police officers facing us donned sunglasses to shade their eyes, and I opened mine. Faces of every shade and shape passed by, old and young, in formal and casual and military attire. I was surprised at the diversity. Some looked toward us, seeming to read the signs, though their face offered no acknowledgement of our presence. Others turned their heads. Those who swerved to the far side of the walkway to avoid nearness put me in mind of passersby on a New York City sidewalk, afraid of the man on the corner who might laden them with unwanted coupons, the woman in the doorway asking for money. A few—pale, sharp-faced men with clipped gaits and military garb—looked toward us (though not at anyone in particular) with large, leering grins, sardonic and spiteful. I felt reflexively sick and chilled at the sight of these men. I saw them as disturbing, even disgusting, and I wanted them to be disgusted at themselves. And then I realized what I was doing. I was not looking at these people to see who they were, recognizing their humanity and wholeness. I was seeing them as I felt, worse than looking away, judging them from my small world.
Behind me, the program of readings continued and I heard the words of Luke Nephew’s poem, “There is a man under that hood…” His poem beautifully and concisely encapsulates the spirit of love, active-compassion, and respect for life that draws me to Witness Against Torture, and to the Catholic Worker; a spirit that I hope to embody. It is love, active-compassion, and respect for all lives –
Mr. President, I want you to know, that if it were you hooded and chained We would be standing right here, demanding the same basic human rights for you… If it were you facing indefinite detention Mr. Senator, We would march in these streets with your name on our backs We would fast In solidarity with your hunger strike, Mrs. Congresswoman Even while months of breathing through black cloth made you cough We would speak for you Mr. Newsman, Mrs. Citizen, we would be here for you… –knowing that individuals are more than the images we see, whether that image be a black hood, a white face, or our own face in the mirror.
During the Fasters Meeting after the vigil, Jules commented, “hearts and minds were hard to change there.” Each year that I come to D.C. with WAT, each day that I put on the hood, I am challenged with the recognition that I am still hiding, guarding myself with quick judgments of another that makes less of us both. I find that the one heart and mind I can know is my own, and it too needs changing, stretching; gently, firmly, patiently stretching and seeing that we are all far more expansive and complex than eyes can perceive. In this, community is both a comfort and a constant chastening. Ever revealing and reminding us of one another’s beautiful, bewildering, cruel and kind, fragile and sturdy, contradictory, mysterious being; and giving us the chance to practice again and again how to respond in love and truth.
laments stab while questions weigh on a helpless body
centuries later the crowds still scream crucify
My bones grind and stiffness sets into sore feet and knees.
prayers are uttered into Mary’s ear, as she knows
secrets of torture techniques told
“feels like drowning two hundred times.”
“hanging by wrists for hours, no sleep.”
My body shudders with shame.
trying to yell NO the over-used too old sign bares challenge:
let it close, it needs to end.
sorrow looks through cloth pores
there, no dignity
here, fashions rush by wasting fast food, texting into cellular phones
ignoring the pain of the ugly orange body
I don’t understand.
Yesterday, June 23, I vigiled with a few other members of Witness Against Torture on a sidewalk at a busy intersection in Chicago. I wore an orange jumpsuit and a black hood like the men who are imprisoned at Guantanamo. (I am the second person from the left in the photo above.) I stood as a reminder of what tax dollars still pay for. While I prayed in solidarity for all who suffer because of torture, others answered questions. And, at the same time, 15 protesters were arrested in Washington DC for disrupting the discussion on the defense bill in the House of Representatives. Today, the day after I had the intense experience of wearing that ugly outfit, Guantanamo is still open. I will never be the same because of what I felt inside that hood. My prayer and work for justice has deepened.