In Search of True Nonviolence: Reflections from a jail cell

Courtesy of

by Chris Haw

As I write this, I have just spent a week in the Philadelphia Federal Detention Center. My legal conflict dates back to the invasion of Iraq. The day the war started, I joined over 100 individuals on the stoop of the Philadelphia federal building. We sat in silent protest of the war. The pouring rain was cold as we huddled in ardent mourning for international struggle and certain death.


After a few court dates, a speech to the judge, and a kiss goodbye to my wife who was also being jailed I finally made it to my cell. There I took the opportunity to pray, think, read, and consider what is going on in the world  especially with the U.S. military action in Iraq. I loved immersing myself in the four Gospels. From that time, and from the spiritual crucible of a post-9/11 world, I have been hounding Jesus for a political vision. That vision was clarified while in my cell.


The "right-ness" of my arrest is not the most important thing for me now. In fact, some of us in our arrest group have had conversations about how "civil disobedience" may be worthless if it is not direct. By direct I mean breaking the law by doing something everybody should have the right to do. For example, during the Civil Rights movement, people sat at diner seats and were arrested; Gandhian revolutionaries made their own salt and were arrested. Everybody ought to be able to do those things and they are worth doing in the face of opposition. However, does sitting in front of a building have that same effect? Gandhi said you must look like your solution for the world, and I am open to the possibility that my arrest didn't look like the justice-filled shalom I envision.


One action that did inspire me was when three of my friends went to Iraq to care for people who had been bombed by bringing medicines and love to hospitals. Was their action more direct than my protest, and more loving? We were all "anti-war" in a way, but our levels of engagement were different. The love that was shared between them and the endangered Iraqi civilians comes back to me in "now-eternal" stories. They cared for grieving families, helped children through the pain of bomb-shrapnel, and survived a car crash with the help of fatigued (and under-resourced) Iraqi doctors. I too have stories, but of a different sort. I told my arresting officer, through tears, as he walked me away in cuffs, that we loved not just the Iraqis but him too. (He said he understood.) The only other chances I took to spread love which is the goal, I suppose were in speaking truth to the judge about my arrest and having a generous attitude toward my jailers. Looking at the whole picture, my friends' action strikes me as more effective and constructive.


Thus, through theology and conversation, I had effectively burst my bubble of pride that my jail time was an "injustice" and my sentence a martyrdom. That took away some of the fuel for the fire that some protesters may experience in jail. I was not necessarily there to "engage the system" of prison injustice. I was not there to "transform that jail from a dungeon of shame into a haven of freedom and unity" (MLK). I did however, have a few chances to look prison role-playing straight in the face. I looked kindly into the eyes of the officer who made a threatening remark to me. For some reason, I was able to look over the heart-violence that must have overtaken him while playing the role of warden. As he looked smugly down at me, I was praying, "Father, forgive him. He doesn't know what he's doing."


I was able to make sense of my jail time near the end of the week as I read an old article by Jim Douglas entitled, "Civil Disobedience as Prayer." He recalled T.S. Eliot who showed us that the greatest treason of all is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. And what exactly was my good reason for being in jail? Protesting the war? No, I was obstructing a building. Opposing the system? That is too vague and broad to be meaningful. Jim helped me clarify: We all belong in jail, and we go there to pray. Jim's answer didn't immediately make sense to me. But I tried to hear out his argument.


Jim writes, "We who see ourselves as peacemakers  and don't we all? We would be deeply shocked if we could see the extent to which we act personally for war, not only in our more obvious faults, but even in our very peacemaking." Even though I may be a disciple of Jesus, I am not innocent. A zealous impulse is still in me, which contains some violent urges. My compulsion to assert my "pure conscience" over that "evil state" reveals my pride; my nonviolence can be just a cover-up of my true violence. The violence of heart which lead us to the Iraq war is the same violence embedded in my own heart: "as we are, so is the nuclear state," Douglas says. He might add to the state "our enemies, our corporations, our jail keepers" just to be fair.


Jail was a place to consider my heart and pray for true nonviolence. Douglas would insist that you promote peace not by your ambiguous relation to the "state," but by how we make friends with our opponents and enemies, in the midst of prayerful civil disobedience. No one is exempt from our call to relational love, including wardens and officers. I am happy that I managed somewhat to retain that connection with the police, the judge, and my jail keepers, despite my ambivalence toward the right-ness of my arrest.


Having now been released into the "free world," I can talk with the seventh grade students I teach at Sacred Heart Elementary School in Camden in a new way. They questioned me relentlessly for 30 minutes: "Why didn't you run away? Would you do it again? Did you vote? What is protesting?" When I asked my priest Michael Doyle for the week off, he responded, "Of course! You are doing it for the kids!" By talking to the kids about nonviolence, not with an air of superiority over the state but with humble repentance, I identify myself as "the alien and stranger in this land." My peculiarity can then point to Jesus Christ. My prayer in jail can remain constant as I continue to address brothers and sisters who are curious about peace. For I connect with them, not as a purist standing for a cause, but as a fellow person who is praying for the kingdom to come.


Chris Haw is a part of the Camden Community House in Camden, NJ, a house devoted to hospitality, simplicity, and gardening. He and his wife, Cassie, both work at the local Sacred Heart Elementary School. This essay appears in the debut issue of THE ENCLAVE, a quarterly journal expressing a diversity of Christian voices. For copies and subscriptions, contact Chris Petersen at or tel. 215.222.3322.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

You May Also Want to Read

Comment policy: ESA represents a wide variety of understandings and practices surrounding our shared Christian faith. The purpose of the ESA blog is to facilitate loving conversation; please know that individual authors do not speak for ESA as a whole. Even if you don\'t see yourself or your experience reflected in something you read here, we invite you to experience it anyway, and see if God can meet you there. What can take away from considering this point of view? What might you add? The comments section below is where you can share the answers to those questions, if you feel so moved. Please express your thoughts in ways that are constructive, purposeful, and respectful. Give those you disagree with the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are neither idiots nor evil. Name-calling, sweeping condemnations, and any other comments that suggest you have forgotten that we are all children of God will be deleted. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.