Escape at Dannemora

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

A Leg up on the FBI

It happened on Block Island, RI years ago on the driveway of William (“Bill”) Stringfellow and Anthony Towne’s home, the temporary home of fugitive war protester Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J.ap_7307250162_271648b88100da8bfbf05ff0fe92116d-nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

As the FBI loaded Dan into the back  of the squad car, Marmaduke, the canine member of the household, walked to the passenger side of the vehicle, and – as if on behalf of Bill and Anthony and all things just – lifted his left leg on the front passenger side tire.

“It was,” said Bill, a theologian as well as Father Berrigan’s lawyer, “an act of God.”

maxresdefaultNoting the FBI Director’s selective decisions that may affect the outcome of the 2016 national election, I lift my glass to Mamaduke, the latter day biblical prophet, for getting a leg up on the FBI.

`- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 3, 2016

The FBI and Marmaduk

As the FBI was placing the newly arrested Father Daniel Kerrigan, S.J. in the back seat of the FBI SUV, Marmaduke, the canine member of the William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne household on Block Island, walked to the passenger side of the vehicle, and – as if on behalf of Bill and Anthony and all things just – lifted his left leg on the front passenger side tire.

It was, said Bill, an act of God.

On this day, I join Marmaduke, the latter day prophet. Noting the FBI Director’s meddling in this year’s election campaign, I lift my glass to Mamaduke, the latter day prophet, and my leg to the FBI.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 3, 2016

“Making America ‘Great’ Again!”

Donald Trump’s refrain begs for interpretation. What does he mean by ‘great’? Is there a synonym for ‘great’ in Trump’s speech and demeanor?

“Make America the BULLY again!”

Mr. Trump – Mr. You’re Fired! – acts like a bully and talks like a bully. “We’re going to make America great again! You’re going to love it!”

Need we say more? Yes, we do. Because people are falling for it.

imposters-of-godImagine the voice of William Stringfellow coming from the same stage as Mr. Trump:

“The sheer arrogance of the idolatrous claims of nations, perhaps especially those possessed of enormous economic and military strength, is so starling that the fascination of men (sic) with idolatry can be explained in no other conceivable manner than as moral insanity….

“More than one President of the United States, not to mention other lesser orators, have propounded, with sober face, the theme that America’s extraordinary power evidences an erstwhile holy dispensation and constitutes God’s partisanship for American dominance in the world.”- William Stringfellow, Imposters of God: Inquiries Into Favorite Idols, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006. [Imposters for God was original written as a confirmation curriculum for confirmands in the Episcopal Church in America.]

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian minister, Chaska, MN, Feb. 27

Quote Me: More than Words

“The characteristic place to find Christians is among their enemies. The first place to look for Christ is in Hell.” – William Stringfellow (1928–1985), author, My People Is the Enemy.

WIPFSTOCK_TemplateThese aren’t just words. After Harvard Law School, Constitutional attorney Bill Stringfellow moved into an East Harlem tenement apartment on the block the New York Times then called the “worst” in the city, turning down lucrative NYC corporate law firm job offers. The first of his many books, My People Is the Enemy – a theological reflection on racism and poverty in America- opens with an unusual sentence:

“The stairway smelled of piss.”

All these years later, Stringfellow’s words sound strange to many Christians and non-Christians alike who see the Christian life as the search for moral purity and the climb into a Hell-free afterlife. You want to meet Christ? According to the author of An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, Christ will meet you from among your enemies and in the Hell of human suffering racism and wealth create.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 27, 2016

Another Use for Vaseline in 2016

Three gifts are mentioned in the story of the Three Kings, aka the Wise men, and the Magi: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Moments ago, on Epiphany, three seminary friends arrived at Steve and Nadja Shoemaker’s home on the prairie near Urbana, Illinois. It’d be a stretch to call Harry, Bob, and Don the Three Kings or the Wise Men. More like three wise guys, not from the East, but from the West and North – Corsicana, Texas; Prescott, Arizona; and Highland Park, Illinois – bringing a lighter touch to Steve, the patient with the terminal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Harry, the musician among them, will lead them in his own freshly-written lyrics to the tune of the Epiphany hymn “We Three Kings” – a trio of bass and baritone voices – bringing laughter to the room Kay and I can hear all the way in Minnesota.

Many years ago, a similar thing happened in New York City where Episcopal lay theologian William (Bill) Stringfellow was in Surgical Intensive Care following near fatal pancreatic surgery.

Entering the room following the surgery, Stringfellow’s close friend Bishop James A. Pike exclaimed, “Well, I’m a bishop. I should do something!” He promptly disappeared. Moments later he returned with Bill’s attending nurse and a large bottle of petroleum jelly. He consecrated the jelly, declaring to the nurse with typical Pike humor that “this substance has now been set apart for uses other than those ordinary and familiar for Vaseline.”

“Taking a thumbful of this freshly made urgent, he came to the bedside and anointed me,” wrote Stringfellow, “signing my forehead with the cross, and saying:

“‘I anoint you in the name of God; beseeching the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all your pain and sickness of body being put to flight, the blessing of health may be restored to you. Amen.'” [William Stringfellow, A Second Birthday, Doubleday & Company, 1970]

The bishop’s prayer of unction for the sick was near verbatim from The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

When the surgeon told the patient that his recovery was spectacular, Stringfellow replied, “That doesn’t surprise me at all. I was anointed by Bishop Pike! – what else would you expect?”

This Day of Epiphany, I hope the Three Wise Men, Steve and Nadja may enjoy the same fellowship, humor, and prayer all these years later. They bring no gold, frankincense or myrrh, but everyone in the Urbana gathering tonight knows that when the end is in sight, only the frankincense, the myrrh, and telling stories only dear friends call tell are appropriate. The third gift – gold – no longer matters, if it ever did!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Epiphany, Jan. 6, 2016

 

Being Human – nothing more, nothing less

The ISIL fundamentalist extremists who terrorized Paris, San Bernardino, Beirut, and elsewhere in the name of God believe in an eternal reward for sacrificing themselves for a holy cause. Though it may seem strange to many of us in the West, they share two beliefs widely held by others who are not terrorists:

  1. God (Allah, in Arabic) is a being — the Supreme Being, but ‘a being’ nonetheless.
  2. Death is not the end of mortal life; we are destined for immortality – Heaven or Hell, eternal states of bliss or punishment.

It’s not just the jihadists who deny our mortality, our perishable nature within the order of Nature.

In Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry, philosopher of religion Willem Zuurdeeg wrote:

“Threatened by nonbeing, by chaos, and meaninglessness, man looks for a foothold in the Imperishable.”

The “soldiers of the caliphate” are young. Paradoxically, as hideous, grotesque, and deranged as their thinking is, their massacres are performed in the name of an ideal. They are idealists claiming “a foothold in the Imperishable”.

Seeking to rid the world of evil, they succumb to evil. In the name of heaven and the Imperishable, they create hell on earth.

But what if God is not a being? What if, as Paul Tillich argued, God does not “exist” as a thing or person exists, but instead is Being-Itself or the Ground of Being or the God above god?

What if we are mortal? What if death is the end, not a doorway to heavenly reward or eternal punishment? What if no St. Peter stands at the pearly gates to separate sheep and goats? What if no vestal virgins are waiting? What if life and death are what they seem?

John Lennon’s “Imagine” strikes a chord in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Mali. Imagine there’s no religion. But imagining won’t erase the problem of religion or the anxiety endemic to the human condition. We are suckers for certainty desiring the end of complexity and ambiguity.

“Finitude,” wrote Paul Tillich, “means having no definite place; it means having to lose every place finally, and with it, to lose being itself.”  [Systematic Theology, Vol. I., p. 195, University of Chicago Press]

The appeal of fundamentalist certainty, whatever its form, is the promise of a secure foothold, place in immortality – a purpose bigger than life itself, the escape from ambiguity.

When faith is ill-conceived as acting to end the ambiguities represented by the enemies of God, instead of as coping with life’s inherent ambiguities, we create what we seeks to escape. We create a foothold in what will not hold.

What if to be human is not to escape mortality, but to embrace it thankfully and to live courageously within the boundaries of time, of mortal flesh filled with the Eternal in the midst of time?

“Being holy . . . does not mean being perfect but being whole; it does not mean being exceptionally religious or being religious at all; it means being liberated from religiosity and religious pietism of any sort; it does not mean being morally better, it means being exemplary; it does not mean being godly, but rather being truly human.” ― William Stringfellow, A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings.

 

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 9, 2016

Sermon: Christus Victor: the Harrower of Hell

Video

My memory played a trick on me. The title of Richard Beck’s book is The Slavery of Death. I picked up the book in a bookstore to find that Beck is heavily influenced by William Stringfellow and Ernest Becker, two writers who have heavily influenced my developing view of life and death. It was Beck’s contrast between the Western Church’s accent on sin and the Eastern Church’s accent on death – or the fear of death – that brought the “Aha!” for this preacher.

Remembering Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell

Will Campbell (1924-2013) is unforgettable. Beyond unusual, he was idiosyncratic. In death, he calls us to the deeper selves we so easily lose.

Will Campbell was that rare person of integrity who seemed to fulfill the hard calling described once by his friend William Stringfellow – “to be the same person everywhere all the time” – and his different places still blow the mind.

He was idiosyncratic. Who else would or could march at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, once the law was changed, turn his ministry to sipping whiskey with the Good Ol’ Boys on the front porches of the Ku Klux Klan?

Campbell was a son of the Deep South, a white Southern Baptist preacher raised in Mississippi, who betrayed his white privilege as a matter of Gospel discipleship. He became one of the closest friends of the youth Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that led the charge for Civil Rights in America. He was trusted that much.

His life was threatened repeatedly. He gained national prominence as a field worker for the Department of Racial and Cultural Relations of the National Council of Churches, the nation’s largest ecumenical council that suffered heavy criticism from anti-civil rights forces across the country, but especially in the Deep South. The National Council of Churches and Will Campbell were to their critics what the KKK was to those who worked to eliminate segregation in America.

When the nine black school children walked through hostile crowds to integrate the public school system in Little Rock, Arkansas, Will Campbell was one of four people at their side.

He became Director of the Committee of Southern Churchman, a position he used to promote racial reconciliation, his vocation until the day he died.

With the passage of the Civil Right Act, the man who spent his ministry to help win freedom for blacks did something no one could have imagined. He chose to re-direct his ministry to the new lepers of society, the defeated hooded enemies of integration, the Ku Klux Klan.

No one but Will Campbell would have done this, and few others could have done this. But he did. He became known as the chaplain to the KKK. Campbell wrote in Brother to a Dragonfly, one of 26 publications that bear his name:

“I had become a doctrinaire social activist without consciously choosing to be. And I would continue to be some kind of social activist. But there was a decided difference. Because from that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”

Will Campbell was not a hater. He was a reconciler who loved people. All kinds and conditions of people, even his ‘enemies’. He was the same person everywhere all the time.

He confused his critics – first the Right and then the Left – by insisting that his soul did not belong to any team – racial, political, religious, cultural. It belonged to the Kingdom of God. There was only one team, and that was the family of ALL God’s children everywhere. Compassion came first in his hierarchy of values. Compassion led him to campaign for justice in the Civil Rights Movement, and compassion led him to sip whiskey with the cross-burners in the rocking chairs on their front porches. His was a ministry of reconciliation, a living, idiosyncratic expression a bold declaration of the biblical gospel that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own Self.

The notice of Will’s death (June 3, 2013) at the age of 88 in Nashville, Tennessee reminded me of just how hard it is to be a disciple of Jesus, how hard it is to love my neighbor as myself, especially when the neighbor is the enemy of my own claims to righteousness. Would that all of us were as idiosyncratic as Will.