Escape at Dannemora

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Watching the first episode of Showtime’s new series Escape at Dannemora was a de ja vu experience. The small town of Dannemora, tucked away in the far northeast corner of New York State, had been invisible to the public eye until June 6, 2015 when two inmates escaped from the town’s principal employer, the state penitentiary, Clinton Correctional Facility.

Clinton_correctional_facility,_Dannemora,_NY,_2007

Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannamora, NY

How I learned of Martin Sostre

It was during the weekly Wednesday evening programs and visits with inmates at Dannemora that I learned about the case of Martin Gonzalez Sostre. Martin, who had owned and operated a radical black liberation bookstore in Buffalo, NY, insisted on his innocence, claiming he was a prisoner of conscience framed by a police set-up. Before his transfer to Dannemora from Attica, Martin he had filed and won the human rights court case — Sostre v. Rockefeller — that ruled against the routine practice of rectal searches following prisoner visitations with family and friends. Transferred from Attica to “New York’s Siberia” Dannemora, Martin continued to refuse all visitations. He was held in solitary confinement without access to anyone beyond the prison walls. A campaign for Martin’s release and pardon was happening without the benefit of direct access to Martin.

Martin Sostre and the Book of Revelation

No book of Christian scripture is more egregiously abused than the last book in the New Testament. The Apocalypse of John (Book of Revelation) is read as though it were a palm reader or a crystal ball. It wasn’t. Its author was a prisoner of conscience held by the Roman Empire on the Isle of Patmos. It was then, and is now, a work of social criticism expressed in the strange apocalyptic literary genre of its time. It’s not about the future. It’s about now.

The new series on the escape from Dannemora takes me back to my time with the inmates and guards within the prison walls, and the published sermon that came from that experience. Below are excerpts from the sermon at the Gunnison Memorial Chapel of St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York inspired by a prisoner of conscience named Martin Sostre and a fresh reading of The Book of Revelation through the eyes of the oppressed. The sermon “Worship and Resistance: the Exercise of Freedom,” was published soon after by The Christian Century (March, 1974).

“Worship and Resistance” links the case of Martin Gonzalez Sostre’s imprisonment in solitary confinement at Clinton Correctional Facility with the witness of faith by the prisoner of conscience in his own kind of solitary confinement on the Isle of Patmos. Dannemora is its own kind of island, known by inmates across the State of New York Correctional System, as “New York’s Siberia” — “the Hell Hole” of the New York prison system.

Excerpts from “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom”

“Incarcerated on the Aegean Island of Patmos, a penal settlement of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D., was a political prisoner named John. He wrote a political-religious manifesto declaring open resistance to the Roman Empire. The Revelation to John – the Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible – is the earliest extant Christian tract deliberately and openly directed against the pretensions of the world’s greatest power. In the Revelation to John, resistance to Roman power and authority is so inextricably bound together with worship of God that they constitute two sides of the same coin. Worship and resistance are the twin sides of faith’s freedom to celebrate God’s gift of life. The unity of resistance and worship is expressed with notable clarity in the passage where the fall of mighty Babylon occasions a celebration in heaven. The destruction of Babylon is joined to the salvation of the world itself and is the sign of God’s power and righteous rule over the nations. Only those who profit by Babylon’s wealth, power and injustice have reason to mourn her fall, while those who have ‘come out of her’ – who have disentangled themselves from her oppression, corruption and imperial claims – have cause to worship and sing joyful hymns of praise.”

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William Stringfellow

William Stringfellow

“Babylon is the state or nation in its presumption to be God. Babylon is any state, nation, or constellation of principalities and powers, which attempts to rule as final judge of persons and nations. Babylon is any such power – in any time or place – which makes its people subjects, calling them into idolatry of the nations, and any state or nation that persecutes its prophets of righteousness, peace and justice while rewarding the aggressive supporters and the silent ones who acquiesce. America is Babylon.” –William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land.

“Envision once more a visit to Clinton Correctional Facility. Remember the disorienting sensation of having left everything familiar on the other side of the wall, the feeling of walking out of a real world into a nightmare, the shock induced by the size of the walls and the presence of the guards – strange and terrifying.

“But the closer one gets to the prison reality, the more one comes to realize that it is not so strange, that it is simply a more exaggerated and visible form of our own everyday reality in the face of death. Here on the outside, the walls are not visible, but they are much higher. Out here the guards do not stand poised with machine guns, but they are real and far more powerful – the guards our own fears provide.”
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“Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…’” (Rev. 18:4 RSV).

Meeting Martin Face-to-Face

Martin Sostre

Martin Gonzalez Sostre

Sometime following the sermon at Gunnison Memorial Chapel, a Dannemora guard informed us during the Wednesday visits with prisoners that Martin had been transferred temporarily to the Federal Detention Center in lower Manhattan, NYC, as a witness in someone else’s trial.  Unlike the state system, there are no body searches after visitations in the federal system. Martin would be free to accept visitors.

As a “man of the cloth” it fell to me to attempt a face-to-face visit on behalf of the committee working for Martin’s release. I drove the eight hours to lower Manhattan,  put on my clerical collar and presented myself to the kindly woman at the Detention Center reception desk as Martin’s pastor, hoping that 1) the prison officials would be unaware that Martin was not a Christian, and 2) Martin himself would accept the visitation from a complete stranger who claimed to be his pastor. A description of the experience just before the face-to-face visit appeared previously on Views from the Edge. Click “Robert” Who? for that part of the story.

The Release of Martin Sostre

In December 1973 Amnesty International put Sostre on its “prisoner of conscience” list, stating: “We became convinced that Martin Sostre has been the victim of an international miscarriage of justice because of his political beliefs . . . not for his crimes.” In addition to numerous defense committees in New York State, a Committee to Free Martin Sostre, made up of prominent citizens, joined in an effort to publicize Sostre’s case and petition the New York Governor Hugh Carey for his release. On December 7, 1975, Russian Nobel Peace Laureate Andrei Sakharov added his name to the clemency appeal. Governor Carey granted Sostre clemency on Christmas Eve of 1975; Sostre was released from prison in February 1976. Governor Carey eventually issued a pardon. — Wikipedia.

Worship and resistance are two sides of the same coin.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 16, 2018

What the Book of Revelation was REALLY about

No book has been more abused and abusive than the Book of Revelation.

Gunnison Memorial Chapel, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY

Gunnison Memorial Chapel, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY

Martin Ramirez Sostre. inmate held in solitary confinement, later pardoned.

Martin Ramirez Sostre. inmate held in solitary confinement, later granted clemency by NY Gov. Carey..

Below are excerpts from a sermon preached at the Gunnison Memorial Chapel of St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY inspired by Martin Sostre and re-reading the Book of Revelation. The sermon was published by The Christian Century (March, 1974).

The first half of the “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom” introduces the hearer/ reader to the case of Martin Sostre’s resistance as a political prisoner incarcerated in solitary confinement at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY, known as “New York’s Siberia” or, as the inmates refer to it, “the Hell Hole of the New York Prison system”.

It was during my weekly Wednesday evening program and visits with prisoners there that I learned about the case of Martin Sostre, held in solitary confinement in resistance to dehumanizing prison practices, and joined the campaign for his pardon.

Excerpts from “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom:

“Incarcerated on the Aegean Island of Patmos, a penal settlement of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D., was a political prisoner named John. He wrote a political-religious manifesto declaring open resistance to the Roman Empire. The Revelation to John – the Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible – is the earliest extant Christian tract deliberately and openly directed against the pretensions of the world’s greatest power. In the Revelation to John, resistance to Roman power and authority is so inextricably bound together with worship of God that they constitute two sides of the same coin. Worship and resistance are the twin sides of faith’s freedom to celebrate God’s gift of life. The unity of resistance and worship is expressed with notable clarity in the passage where the fall of mighty Babylon occasions a celebration in heaven. The destruction of Babylon is joined to the salvation of the world itself and is the sign of God’s power and righteous rule over the nations. Only those who profit by Babylon’s wealth, power and injustice have reason to mourn her fall, while those who have ‘come out of her’ – who have disentangled themselves from her oppression, corruption and imperial claims – have cause to worship God and sing joyful hymns of praise.”

….

“Babylon is the state or nation in its presumption to be God. Babylon is any state, nation, or constellation of principalities and powers, which attempts to rule as final judge of persons and nations. Babylon is any such power – in any time or place – which makes its people subjects, calling them into idolatry of the nations, and any state or nation that persecutes its prophets of righteousness, peace and justice while rewarding the aggressive supporters and the silent ones who acquiesce. America is Babylon.”

….

“Envision once more a visit to Clinton Correctional Facility. Remember the disorienting sensation of having left everything familiar on the other side of the wall, the feeling of walking out of a real world into a nightmare, the shock induced by the size of the walls and the presence of the guards – strange and terrifying.

“But the closer one gets to the prison reality, the more one comes to realize that it is not so strange, that it is simply a more exaggerated and visible form of our own everyday reality in the face of death. Here on the outside, the walls are not visible, but they are much higher. Out here the guards do not stand poised with machine guns, but they are real and far more powerful – the guards our own fears provide.”
….
“Then I heard another voice from heaven ssying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…’” (Rev. 18:4 RSV).

A commentary will follow soon on my experience of visiting Martin during the time he was transferred to the Federal Detention Center in NYC where he was held as a witness in someone else’s trial. Prior to that visit, none of us in Northern New York had been able to meet with Martin because of his refusal to see visitors on the principle that the rectal “searches” required before and after visits violated his human rights.

NY Governor Carey eventually issued a pardon.

You don’t get to have a non-Jewish Jesus

Gordon C. Stewart     Feb. 14, 2012

“Who was Jesus?” I asked the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had rung the doorbell. Through the upstairs window where I do my writing, I had seen the van pull over across the street and empty out. I thought perhaps there was a family gathering next door until two of them walked up the drive way.

An email response to “Whitney Houston, the Leper, and You” (posted below) reminded me of the conversation that ensued. Here’s the email from Ann in Texas:

“So nice to hear from you and feel your energy out there flushing out injustice and ranging around in the ‘big ideas,’ and formative experiences. Bravo!  Passion writes action… and here’s mine… an odd reaction, I’m sure, but to the leper story, and the overturning of the tables and all the examples we use to cast aspersions on ancient Judaism that help perpetuate in my mind a subtle continuing contemporary anti-Judaism and the continuing need for an Israel that has morphed into “pants” to small to hold it.  Now there’s a view from the edge!”

I share Ann’s concern. I hold my breath every time I preach or write on texts like this, painfully aware of the anti-Semitism that continues in subtle and not-so-subtle forms.

When the Jehovah’s Witness rang the doorbell, I was deep into writing a sermon on planetary stewardship and sustainability in the wake of the B.P. oil “spill” – Deep Water Horizon blow out in the Gulf of Mexico.

The dogs were barking up a storm at the two men standing on their porch. I went down, answered the door, and stepped outside to meet them.

They were kind and gentle people. They wanted me to know that the world was coming to an end. “Yes, I know,” I said, “what do you fellas think about the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico?” They preferred to talk about Jehovah, the Book of Revelation, the end of the world… and Jesus.

“Okay, let’s talk about that. “Who was Jesus?”

“He was the Son of God.”

“And who was the Son of God?”

“Jesus Christ.”

“And who was Jesus Christ?  Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It’s a title. So who was Jesus?”

“The Son of God, Jesus Christ.”

“Let me ask it differently. Who was Jesus of Nazareth?’ Who were his people and what was Jesus’ religion?

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Jesus was a real man, in real time. He lived in a particular time and place. Jesus didn’t suddenly plop down out of the sky. So who was Jesus of Nazareth?

“He was the Messiah, the Christ. He came to bring the new Covenant.”

“And what about the first covenant? What was Jesus’ religion?

“He was a Christian,” they said.

“Jesus was a Christian?! You can’t follow yourself. A Christian is someone who follows the Christ.  Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew. And he’ll always be a Jew. You don’t get to make him up like that. We can’t create Jesus in our own image. You don’t get to have a non-Jewish Jesus!”

We talked then about Jesus and the Book of Revelation. We discussed the fact that the Book of Revelation is a literary genre of the first century called “apocalyptic” that was peculiar to that time; that it was written by a disciple of Jesus held prisoner by the Roman Empire on the Isle of Patmos, who was denouncing the imperial claims of the Roman Empire, and proclaiming its end in bizaare images of Jewish Scripture (in Danile and Ezekiel). The Book of Revelation wasn’t, as so many think today, a book of predictions about the future or the end of the world.

“You’ve thought about this a lot,” said one of the men. “You really seem to have spent a lot of time studying this.”

I thanked him for the compliment and responded that although I’ve been thinking about these matters all my life, I still know very little.

At the end of the 45-minute conversation, I told them how much I respected their commitment to their beliefs and their sacrifices of time and money. I took their literature and invited them to think about what Jesus would have us do about the crabs, the oysters, and the oil-soaked birds drowning in oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

If we were all as committed to the healing of the planet and to the care of the poor as my visitors were that day to spreading their message with urgency, the world would be a better place.

Those of us who carry the name “Christian” don’t get to have a Jesus who is a Christian. The only Jesus we get to have was and always will be the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth, whose people have been crucified many times by the anti-Semitic pogroms of those who claim to follow him.

The Jesus who heals the leper also tells the leper to “go and show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing….” Jesus is telling the man to practice his Jewish tradition, but Christian interpreters typically fail to notice the startling clarity of Jesus’ Jewishness. Likewise, any reading that begins with the assumption that Jesus was a Christian mistakes Jesus’  turning over of the money-changers’ tables in the temple as his rejection of Jewish faith and practices rather than the deepest affirmation of the Jewish covenant by which he lived. In faithfulness to the covenant, he protested the abuse of the covenant by the religious leaders of his time who had forsaken their high calling by collaborating with and cozying up to the Roman economic and military powers that occupied Jerusalem – just like today.

Thank you, Ann, for the email that reminded me.