Author's note: My 90th birthday will be June 8, 2013. Should I call it a lifetime experience? I'm in pretty good shape. A retired Episcopal priest (ordained in 1955) I remain very active, spending quality timel offering spiritual direction to a fine mix of people and continuing my lifetime of writing. My ears perked up when the thought surfaced that I might write quite personally about a few crucial American religious moments in which I'd particiipated.
As an activist, I remember th old era with some terror and sadness. There were utterly threatening moments when there seemed no realistic basis for any kind of immediate hope in such areas as gender and racial equality, health care, environmental survival or name your own need touching your own life.
When either I didn't understand what was going on, or else understood and disagreed, often I asked if anybody was listening. Did anyone honestly care?
In late 1969 the war in Vietnam stretched on. Bombing and casualties continued unabashed in fury. Many of us sought nonviolent ways to make our commitment to peace known to a wider public. So one morning in Washington, D.C., some 40 women and men related to the Episcopal Peace Fellowship entered the Pentagon for the purpose of conducting a Peace Mass in onle of its corridors.
I was designated to preach a brief homily inl the eucharist. Just after I began, however, an arresting officer's words set up an antiphonal response that was magnified by a bullhorn: "You are under arrest." The charge was "disturbing the peace," which, in a certain sense, we certainly did.
Riding to jail in a police wagon, we sought to raise our spirits by singing "We Shall Overcome" and "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." Rising to the occasion, we shared our stories amid prayers and good natured laughter. Something happened: We formed a natural community. Actually, ours was a spontaneous attempt to "do somethinlg positive" in a genuine spirit of peacemaking. While our act of disobedience may not have changed many people in the Pentagon, it certainly changed us. We were acting on our conscience.
The next step for us was the negative one of entering a gloomy, depersonalized jail cell. Immediately one felt isolated, cut off from society. Yes, one seemed marked in a specifically derogatory way, held up to misunderstanding or ridicule or some angry rejection. Obviously some critics would label one "unpatriotic." The police vehicle carrying us to jail had driven near the Nixon White House. I realized that President Nixon held views about the war that were different from ours. So did a number of public figures including, for example, evangelist Billy Graham. The fact that we were standing in a jail cell because of our deep religious beliefs, while someone like Dr. Graham could walk on a welcome mat into the White House exercising his own religious beliefs, caused me to wonder. I asked myself: How long, O Lord, must there be such a double standard "moralilty"? A so-called politically motivated morality that seemingly did not honor -- or leave space for -- nonviolenlt dissent.
I believe a highly significant part of my being an American is my freedom to protest actively and nonviolently when I completely honestlly disagree with the momentary course of events. Therefore, I feel called to be an active American. It was in this spirit that I watched President Obama make his past-midnight TV address accepting the mantle of leadership for another four years as President of the United States.
I sincerely welcomed his wake up call. I ask him to keep the White House open to dissenting views. No more jail cells as pay back for difffering spiritual views. Let's keep religion free.