The Original 17 Step Journey: Step 5

With the Rev. Dr. Mel White

"You Are Under Arrest!"
On November 22, 1998, Martin Sheen, the actor-activist, led a march of 2,000 protestors onto the Ft. Benning military base near Columbus, Georgia. We were there to protest the "School of the Americas" — a training center for soldiers and policemen who use terror, torture, and death to keep corrupt Latin American regimes in power.

Every marcher carried a cross or a Star of David with the name of a victim killed by a graduate of the "SOA" (including Oscar Romero, the Arch-Bishop of El Salvador, gunned down while saying mass and the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter killed by "SOA" graduates on Nov 16, 1989).

First time marchers would be arrested and released with a fine. Second time marchers would spend six months in a federal penitentiary. The procession was led by 100 brave souls who had already served six months prison time and had returned to face that kind of suffering once again. They carried small caskets honoring children who had been murdered. The rest of us carried memorial crosses and Stars of David.

PFLAG parents, lesbians, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists marched alongside students, retirees, government officials, nuns, priests, and even a Catholic bishop, all willing to break the law and suffer the consequences to obey a greater law written in their hearts by their Creator.

"I come here in nonviolence to win my own freedom," Martin Sheen said to the rows of military police blocking our way. "I’m here to do what is asked by a loving God." Earlier, Martin addressed a crowd of 7,000 protestors. "Basic human rights are not given by the hand of any state but flow abundantly from the hand of our loving Creator." In this brief speech, Martin Sheen lays out three important "soul force" beliefs about the self.

(I.) "Basic human rights are not given by the hand of any state
but flow abundantly from the hand of our loving Creator."

As a monitor at the Forth Benning protest, I stood just a few feet from Sheen when he quoted these electrifying words. Marchers cheered. Tears formed in the eyes of those about to face another six months in prison. These words explained their sacrifice. They are the words of saints and martyrs from all faiths throughout the ages.

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson used similar words to begin the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…"

At the heart of "soul force" is the belief that justice and equality are the Creator’s dream for ALL Her children. This insight into the "will of God" permeates the teachings of Judaism and Christianity. The prophets and poets of all faith groups remind us that our Creator has written this law across the face of the universe. Gandhi and King proclaim it. God’s will is freedom and justice for all. And God’s will for us is to join in the struggle to see that God’s will is accomplished. (See texts below from the Jewish and Christian Testaments.)

(II.) "I’m here to do what is asked by a loving God."

Sheen, a committed Catholic peacemaker, made it plain to the reporters why he was about to break a law, trespass onto a military base, face arrest and prison. He was there because God had asked him to be there.

The human law that Martin Sheen was about to break protected an institution that trains men in the arts of injustice and death. It was a law that leads to hate. Sheen was loyal to God’s law, the law that leads to love. To see love conquer hate Sheen was willing to lead us towards the ranks of armed soldiers. He, too, was armed but with a small white cross bearing the name of a murdered Guatemalan child.

In 1930, Gandhi explained it this way. "The [followers of Soul Force] endeavor to meet and conquer hatred by love. They oppose the brute or physical force by Soul Force. They hold that loyalty to an earthly sovereign or an earthly constitution is subordinate to loyalty to God and to God’s Constitution."

In 1957 Dr, King wrote, "Man has a dual citizenry. He lives both in time and in eternity; both in heaven and on earth. But he owes his ultimate allegiance to God. It is this love for God and devotion to God’s will that casts out fear."

"Soul force" reminds us that we must decide whether to value what God values or to spend our lives on something less. We are called to join our Creator in the frontlines of the struggle to win liberty and justice for all. It is not enough to quote the Declaration of Independence or to cheer the noble insights of Martin Sheen, Gandhi or King. "Soul force" calls us to move beyond noble belief to courageous action. This may lead to temporary suffering and even to death, but something else happens as well.

(III.) "I come here in nonviolence to win my own freedom."

What do you think Sheen meant when he said those words?

Is he speaking about literal freedom? How could Sheen see himself as a victim of tyranny in Latin America? He is not in prison or under house arrest. How does this act of protest help him "win" his physical freedom when he is already free (especially when the act itself could result in six months imprisonment)?

Is he speaking about spiritual freedom? Sheen is a wealthy, powerful, famous man. How does this act of protest help Sheen win his spiritual freedom (especially when the act itself could result in the loss of wealth, power, and respect?)

Question (1) How does this act of nonviolent protest help Martin Sheen gain and protect his political freedom?

Question (2) How does this act of nonviolent protest help Martin Sheen gain and protect his spiritual freedom as well?

(Then copy and discuss with Partner)

Doing Justice Brings Personal Renewal
If this three-year study of Gandhi and King has taught me anything, it has taught me this: When we seek freedom for someone else, we find freedom for ourselves. When we finally make the decision to take a stand against oppression (or the rhetoric that leads to oppression) that stand itself leads us to spiritual renewal whether we win or we lose the battle.

Gandhi promised his volunteers that if they act to free themselves from injustice and oppression, that act itself will set them free. In your "soul force" quest for freedom you may be sent to prison, Gandhi warned them, but in the process of going to prison you will be set free.

We will find a way
After 2,000 of us crossed the line into Fort Benning, I waited with a group of protestors in wheel chairs who had been separated from the march by military personnel. "We can’t accommodate your arrest," a young colonel told the group, "and we have no way to provide you food or restroom facilities if you elect to remain."

I felt so proud of the older (my age) women and men in their wheelchairs who refused to budge. We all got teary when hundreds of other marchers, realizing our dilemma, returned to take their stand with us. How ironic that even in protest and arrest these men and women in wheelchairs would have to face discrimination.

This was the ninth year of faithful protest organized by the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest. What began in 1991 with a handful of peacemakers willing to risk fine and arrest to protest the school of the Americas, had swelled in 1998 to a crowd of 7,000 supporters and 2,000 willing to "cross the line."

This year, the U.S. Army tried a new tactic to undermine the power of this mass "soul force" action. They handed each of us a letter from the Command Provost Marshall. It read: "Your entry onto the Fort Benning Military Reservation to protest against the U.S. Army School of the Americas has resulted in your apprehension for Criminal Trespass. WHOEVER reenters or is found within any such reservation after having been removed therefrom shall be fined not more than $5,000 or imprisoned not more than six months, or both." After receiving the letter we were loaded into busses and driven to a public park where we were released.

Before crossing the line, Martin Sheen told a reporter, "I don’t know what effect this [protest march] will have. I can’t tell you what the result is going to be; even on myself I can’t tell. All I can hope for is that I am faithfully following the call of Jesus, who calls us to nonviolence, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, and to set the captives free."

I am hoping and praying that this eight week "Journey into Soulforce" will help us find a way to end the false and inflammatory rhetoric of Jerry Falwell and the other primary sources of misinformation about God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered children. I’m hoping and praying that you will join us in that task. But like Martin Sheen, I can’t tell you in advance what is going to happen. I can only hope that somehow in being faithful to our Creator’s call "to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly" we will find a way. Love to you all,

I am not recruiting for the School of the America’s Watch. I am using their example to make several points. First, it takes courage to do justice. Second, they built an air-tight case against the SOA before risking their lives to oppose it.

In Step #7 we will begin to build a similar case against the false and inflammatory rhetoric of Jerry Falwell. Go to or to Call his 800 line. Write for information. Begin your own case to illustrate his misinformation campaign.

The "soul force" case against the School of the Americas
According to the New York Times (9/28/96)
the 60,000 graduates of the School of the Americas include:
Panama’s drug-dealing dictator, Manuel Noriega;
Roberto D’Aubuisson, the man behind El Salvador’s death squads;
19 Salvadorans linked to the murders of six Jesuit priests;
six Peruvian officers involved in the killings of nine students and a college professor; Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez of Guatemala, who covered up the murder of an American innkeeper and condoned the killing of a captive guerilla married to an American lawyer.According to the United Nation’s Truth Commission Report, March 15, 1993, The School of the Americas also graduated
2 or 3 cited for the assassination of Archbishop Romero;
3 or 5 cited for the murder of the US church women fraternal workers;
10 or 12 cited for the El Mozote massacre; 19 or 26 cited for the Jesuit massacre.
A State Terrorism in Columbia1993 report includes
3 SOA graduates cited for the Trujillo "chainsaw" massacres of 107 villagers
9 cited for Segovia, Colombia, massacre of 43, including children
8 cited for Uraba, Colombia, massacre of 20 striking banana workers
For information contact Rev. Roy Bourgois or School of the America’s Watch

Biblical texts that help make clear the Creator’s will for people of faith.

Isaiah 1:10-18 "What good are your sacrifices to me? I am tired of your offerings. Incense is an abomination to me. I am offended by the noise of your solemn assemblies. When you lift your hands, I will hide my eyes from you. When you make many prayers, I will not hear, for your hands are full of blood. Wash. Make yourself clean. Quit doing evil and learn to do good. What is good? Seek justice. Relieve the oppressed. Care for children without fathers and women without husbands. Come now and let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow."

Hosea 6: 4-6 "What shall I do unto thee, O Judah? Your goodness is as a morning dew that disappears with the first light…I desired mercy, and not sacrifice. I wanted you to know me, not bring burnt offerings unto me."

Amos 5:21-24 "I hate, I despise your feast days. I will not smell the incense in your holy assemblies. Though you bring me offerings, I will not accept them. Shut up your noisy singing. I will not listen to the music of your orchestras and choirs. Instead, let justice run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream."

Micah 6:8 "What kind of worship does God want from me? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn child as an offering for my sin? No! This is what the Lord requires: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."

Jeremiah 7:22-23 "In the days I rescued your fathers out of Egypt, I didn’t ask for burnt offerings or sacrifices; but this thing I commanded them: Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people: and walk in the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you…(23:5) "Behold, the days come that I will raise up a king who shall execute righteousness & justice in the earth. In that day you’ll be saved."

Isaiah 58:6ff "What kind of fast do I want from you? …to let the oppressed go free, to give bread to the hungry, to house the homeless in your own dwellings, to cloth the naked. Then shall thy light break forth as the morning & thy health spring forth speedily."

Jesus in Matthew 23:23 "Too bad for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You know how to tithe the spices in your gardens, but you have neglected the weightier matters of the Law: Justice, Mercy, and Good faith. Those you should have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! Straining out gnats and swallowing camels."

Jesus in Mark 11:42 "Woe to you Pharisees for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God…"

Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 "I was hungry, and you gave me meat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. Naked, and you clothed me. Sick, and you visited me. In prison, and you came unto me. Enter into your reward. For when you did it unto the least of these my sisters and brothers, you did it unto me."

NEXT: Step 6

Mel White and Gary Nixon, Partners in Soulforce, Inc.
P.O. Box 4467, Laguna Beach, CA. 92652.
Fax: (949) 455-0959

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