America as Babylon

THE BACK STORY: Introduction to Martin Gonzalez Sostre

It was during our weekly Wednesday evening program with prisoners in Dannemora, NY  that I first learned about the case of Martin Gonzalez Sostre, held in solitary confinement in resistance to dehumanizing prison practices, and joined the campaign for his release.

A year later at the Gunnison Memorial Chapel of St. Lawrence University I delivered a sermon inspired by a fresh reading of the Book of Revelation and what I had learned about Martin. The sermon – “Worship and Resistance: the Exercise of Freedom” – was  published by The Christian Century in March, 1974.

The first half of the “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom” introduces the hearer/ reader to 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”.

THE CONTINUING STORY: resistance as worship

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 saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…’” (Rev. 18:4 RSV).


I see more clearly now what I took into the pulpit at St. Lawrence in 1974, magnified a thousand times over in the name of a false patriotism that turns love of country into worship of America. “We’re going to make America great again!”

In the Book of Revelation Babylon is the mythic city that dehumanizes its people, the “bad” city (to use a favorite word of our current president) which people of faith and conscience are called to resist. Worship requires it. Without resistance, worship is dead. So is the U.S. Constitution and a democratic republic.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 1, 2017

“Robert” who?


2002 Portrait of Martn Sostre by Jerry Rice

Ordinarily we meet people face-to-face with a handshake. Sometimes we “meet” them over the phone. Sometimes we meet “friends” on FaceBook.

This is a tale of a different kind of meeting with a man named Martin and another man named Robert who seemed to know me, though I’d never heard of him and never heard from him again.

I met Martin Gonzalez Sostre face-to-face after a guard at Clinton Correctional Facility at Dannemora, New York confided that the internationally famous prisoner-rights advocate held in perpetual solitary confinement beyond the reach of visitors was being transferred temporarily the next day to the Federal Detention Center in Lower Manhattan (NYC) for purposes of testifying as a witness in another prisoner’s trial.


Two days later I make the eight-hour drive from our home in Canton, NY to New York City, unsure whether Martin will agree to see a stranger – an unknown Presbyterian minister coming to visit his Anarchist Muslim parishioner!

Entering the newly-opened Metropolitan Corrections Center, it feels like stepping into a different world.  At the reception desk, the clerk asks my business.

“I’m here to visit Martin Gonzalez Sostre.”

“Do you have an appointment?” “No.” “What’s your relation to the inmate?” Pointing to the clerical collar I’ve worn for just this reason, I answer, “I’m his pastor.” My heart leaps and my stomach does a flip-flop. What if Martin doesn’t play the game? What if he says he doesn’t have a pastor, that he’s a Muslim, and that whoever it is in the waiting room is a fraud? What happens then?


Before going to the Federal Detention Center I had stopped by the NYC office of New York United Ministries in Higher Education (NY/UMHE) to say hello to three campus ministry colleagues in New York City. I had never been to their office before.

While visiting with Dave in Dave’s office, the receptionist spoke through the intercom. “There’s a call on line 2 for Gordon Stewart.”

“There can’t be,” I said. “No one knows I’m here.” “Well, the call’s for you. They asked for you by name.”

I took the call, thinking perhaps my family was trying to reach me about a family emergency, hoping against hope that my colleagues at the NY/UMHE office might have some contact with me. It wasn’t my family.

“This is Robert ________. I’m calling to ask your help. I’m calling from Riker’s Island . . . . ”

My mind quickly becomes an atom smasher. No one knows I’m here. I’ve never stepped foot in this office. How does an inmate at Riker’s Island know I’m here? How does he know to call this number? How does he know my name? How does anyone know I’m here? Who’s playing with my head and why?

“Robert” is calling me – an unknown campus minister from Northern New York – for legal assistance?


By the time I arrive at the Federal Detention Center, I’m more than a little anxious; the possibility that Martin might reject the visitation increases it.

They lead me into the prisoner visitation room – a long hall of small booths with glass between the visitors and the inmates in front of them and glass on either side of the booth that separates adjacent visitors while allowing the guards full visibility of every interaction.

I take my seat in the visitation booth and wait. One by one the inmates descend a metal staircase to my far left. How will I know Martin? I know him by reputation only as a man with a sense of dignity, but I’ve never seen a picture. How will he know me?  He doesn’t know me. How will he know which visitor is his? I hope the clerical collar is enough.

A man comes down the stairs. His posture is erect. His head shaved. This is a man of self-respect. His appearance resolute. His eyes searching. When he sees the collar, he makes his way down the corridor to the glass booth. He looks me in the eye, smiles broadly, and   puts his right hand up to the glass! I place my left hand against the glass to “meet” his, a different kind of handshake.

He picks up the phone. I pick up mine. “How you doing, brother!” he says. “Thanks for coming. Everything we say here is monitored. . . . It’s so good to see my pastor!” We both smile, acknowledging the coded communication. I bring him greetings from the group in Northern New York who are working publicly for his release by the Governor. We talk about his well-being, his hopes, and whatever messages he wants carried back to his other unknown and un-named friends. The visit is short. When the time is up, he puts his hand up again on the glass. I follow his lead. “Keep the faith,” he says, with a smile. “We will. I promise. Peace!”

Sostre remained in prison until his sentence was commuted in 1975 by Governor Hugh Carey amidst political pressure from Amnesty International and dozens of Martin Sostre Defense Committees throughout the country. Of all Sostre’s contributions to the prisoners’ rights movement – establishing the constitutional rights of prisoners, fighting for access to legal materials, and establishing unions and advocating a minimum wage – his greatest contribution was to understand the relationship between state repression and prisoner radicalism. As he wrote following the Attica Uprising in 1971: “If Attica fell to us in a matter of hours despite it being your most secure maximum security prison-fortress equipped with your latest repressive technology, so shall fall all your fortresses, inside and out. Revolutionary spirit conquers all obstacles.”13


During the eight hour drive home from the visit with Martin, I sensed again that there was a very thin line between the maximum security prison-fortress equipped with its latest technology and the one outside the walls.

Dannemora prison

Dannemora, New York, home of Clinton Correctional Facility

Martin was transferred back to Dennemora and solitary confinement. He kept the faith inside. His Defense Committee kept the faith outside.

I never learned who “Robert” was. But I learned that “Robert” is never far away from the telephone. Nor is the dignity and courage of Martin. In the surveillance society, only fear commits us to solitary confinement; courage releases us.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 1, 2017 (April Fools Day) – no joke!

Yesterday’s NYT reports a class action law suit on behalf of three death row prisoners at Angola State Prison in Louisiana that would overturn the state’s solitary confinement practices as cruel and unusual punishment.