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The Price of Dissent

Thursday, May 1st 2008

Maria Browning, Nashville Scene

In November 2003, Don Beisswenger took a few unauthorized steps onto the grounds of Fort Benning, the U.S. Army base outside Columbus, Ga. The retired Vanderbilt Divinity School professor was participating in an annual protest against the School of the Americas, a program notorious for training members of military death squads in Latin America. For his completely harmless act of civil disobedience, Beisswenger, age 73, was fined $1,000 and sentenced to six months in federal prison. Locked Up is a memoir of his time in jail, but it’s also a statement of faith by a self-described “post-Holocaust Christian” who embraces Martin Luther King’s belief that “non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”

Politically active Christians on the far right get all the attention these days, whether they’re raging against abortion and gay marriage, or getting caught in hypocritical escapades. Such Christians don’t put themselves at odds with state power, at home or abroad. On the contrary, they expect it to advance their agenda.

Don Beisswenger is one of many equally passionate Christians who see challenging government injustice and abuse of power as a spiritual duty. For them, protest and civil disobedience are acts of faith, an effort “to obey God rather than human beings.” Seen in this context, the School of the Americas—known in Latin America as La Escuela de Asesinos (School of Assassins) because so many of its graduates have been involved in political killings and mass murders—represents precisely the kind of state-sanctioned evil that Jesus taught his followers to oppose. Before reporting to prison, Beisswenger wrote to friends that he welcomed his sentence and the attendant publicity as an opportunity to speak out “against the dark side” of U.S. history.

Beisswenger’s protest arose from a sense of outrage, but Locked Up is remarkably free of defiance or anger. Beisswenger comes across as vulnerable, anxious and, as he puts it, “perplexed” by his confinement. Although he had been arrested at a previous protest, the relatively lengthy prison term was a surprise. His age and uncertain health were concerns, and he feared the loss of daily contact with his family and friends. Nothing in his life had prepared him for such isolation. As he describes his largely futile attempts to connect with fellow inmates, it seems his fear was justified. “When I have tried to move toward deeper relationships,” he writes in a journal entry three weeks before his release, “I have been ignored or slighted.” It seems a naive complaint, and yet it’s a measure of Beisswenger’s honesty that he admits to being disappointed by the exclusion.

The loneliness sends him into periodic bouts of depression, but he’s more disturbed by the authoritarian nature of prison life. The inmates’ racism and misogyny trouble him, but it’s the prison staff who inspire his resentment and fear. “Disrespect for inmates is standard procedure,” he writes, and his age and status don’t spare him the routine humiliation of a guard snooping through his papers, or of being berated by a clerk. He finds the regulations baffling in their absurdity: His blank journals are confiscated, forcing him to keep his diary in address books. One of his visitors is turned away for wearing sandals instead of conventional shoes. He and his roommate are forced to live in a hallway for weeks because Beisswenger’s desk was cluttered and there was dust on a windowsill.

It all seems trivial enough—the Manchester, Ky., facility is hardly Abu Ghraib—but the ever-present threat of being reprimanded and punished infects all the inmates with “a constant state of uneasiness” that wears the men down and robs them of any ability to trust each other. Beisswenger describes the pathology fostered by arbitrary authority: “Much of life in prison is shaped by the need not to reveal oneself, to beware of snitches or threats, to be tough so as not to be threatened. The violence in prison is created in part by inmates but also by the prison’s structure, which relies on power and threat to maintain order. Disrespect creates more disrespect. Anger, which provokes actions that are seen as threatening, results in greater reliance on orders, rules and threats.”

It’s a vicious cycle that Beisswenger sees mirrored in American foreign policy: “As a nation, we cope with violence against us by retaliating with greater violence. Our national resources are devoted to military solutions. We do not focus on building up life, much less our common life.”

Beisswenger’s answer to the dehumanizing effects of prison is a dogged faith in God, and in the love of other people. Many of his journal entries close with a prayer of thanks for divine grace, and for the community that sustains him with expressions of support. Whatever his uncertainties about his role among the inmates, he never wavers in his belief that his choice to face prison is a powerful Christian witness. He makes numerous references to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian who opposed the Nazis and was ultimately hanged for conspiring to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s willingness to defy power and conventional law in pursuit of a greater good is clearly an inspiration for Beisswenger.

Readers looking for lengthy political musings or inspired anti-government rants won’t find them in Locked Up. Likewise, Christian readers who want searching explorations of faith or easy evangelism will be disappointed. Beisswenger’s faith is rock solid, but he has no interest in converting his audience, and his politics are about action, not talk. The book is essentially a confession, a very personal account of one man’s time of trial and how he met it with both joy and fear.


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