Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Persecution in the Land of the Free 

Conscientious Objector is Tortured and Killed for Refusing to Fight in WWI
from The Bruderhof Community

On (or about) this day in 1918, Joseph Hofer, a Hutterite conscientious objector to military service, after weeks of torture, starvation and inhumane imprisonment, died in Leavenworth prison.

"They were handcuffed to the cellhouse bars, eight hours a day for two weeks. They were put with their arms up like this, so’s they had to stand on their toes or those cuffs would cut their wrists. Can’t nobody stay on their toes eight hours. Pretty soon their fingers would start to swell up. They’d turn blue and crack open and the blood would run down their arms... Now I don’t claim a thing for myself – but them fellas never lifted a gun in their lives. You couldn’t find any braver in my book."
Joe Kenehan (in John Sayles’ film "Matewan")

Of all the accounts of Christians who have refused to serve in the military as a matter of conscience and religious conviction, there are few more harrowing than this story of four Hutterite men during World War I. Imprisoned on California's Alcatraz Island during the summer of 1918, they were later transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where two of them died later the same year. But first, a little background.

The Hutterites are descendants of a radical movement of Tirolean peasants who broke away from the Catholic Church in the 1530s and settled in Moravia and Hungary, where they gained renown for their self-sufficient communities but were ruthlessly persecuted on account of their stubborn insistence on obeying God rather than the dicates of the Establishment.

As pacifists, they refused to fight in any war, to hold public office, or to take oaths. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they were martyred by the thousands, but by the nineteenth century had emigrated to Russia, where they lived peacefully until the late 1800s. At that time, their special exemption from military duty was repealed, and they were given six years to tie up affairs and leave the country. Howard Moore (who met the four men while imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth) writes:
"What could be more natural than that their leaders should look to America, the land of the free, a land that had been founded on the principle of individual liberty of conscience, a land settled by men who had fled from the four corners of the earth to escape religious persecution and, having settled, still welcomed all who wished to come to this continent to practice, free from persecution, their religious faith?"

By 1874, most of the Hutterites had moved to South Dakota and begun new communities, or “colonies.” For forty-five years they lived in relative peace. But that peace was shattered by Wilson’s Conscription Act, and by the summer of 1918, four Hutterites living in South Dakota had been drafted into the Army against their will.

Joseph, Michael, and David Hofer were brothers. Together with a brother-in-law, Jacob Wipf, they were ordered to report to Camp Lewis, Washington, on May 25. Because they objected to military service on grounds of conscience, however, they refused to cooperate with even the basic induction procedures, and were thus considered to be military prisoners subject to military discipline.

Persecution began immediately. Already on the train ride to the camp, another group of young men on their way to induction had grabbed the four Hutterites and tried to cut off their hair and their beards. Upon arrival, they refused to promise obedience to military commands, to stand in formation, or to put on the uniforms given to them. For this, they were thrown into a “guardhouse,” where they were kept for two months before being court-martialed and sentenced to thirty-seven years in military prison.

Following their court-martial they were transferred, with hands and feet shackled, to Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. There they were forcibly stripped and commanded to dress in military uniforms. When they refused, they were taken to a dungeon where water trickled down the slimy walls and out over the bare rock floor. The darkness, cold, and stench were overpowering. Their uniforms were thrown down next to them, and they were told: “If you don’t give in, you’ll stay here till you die, like the four we dragged out of here yesterday!”

Shivering in their underwear, the prisoners were forced to sleep on the cold, damp floor without blankets. During the first four-and-a-half days, they were given nothing to eat and received only a half glass of water every twenty-four hours. Then, for the next two days, their hands were chained to iron rods above their heads so that their feet barely touched the floor. They were beaten with sticks, and Michael passed out. All the same, they were separated from one another so as to prevent communication; David later heard Jacob crying out: “Oh, have mercy, almighty God!”

When the men were brought up from the dungeon into a yard containing other prisoners, they had severe eczema and scurvy and had been badly bitten by insects; their arms were so swollen that they were unable to put on their coats. Altogether, they had not eaten for six days. They were finally fed but then were returned to their cells and locked in for twenty-four hours a day, apart from a single hour on Sundays when they were allowed to stand in the courtyard under heavy guard.

They endured this treatment for four months until they were chained once again for the four-day journey east to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. They arrived in Kansas at eleven o’clock at night and were driven through the streets like pigs, prodded by shouting guards with open bayonets; they fumbled to retain the Bible, bag, and pair of shoes each had been given to hold in his manacled hands.

After being forced to run uphill to the prison gates, they were made to undress in the raw winter air and kept waiting, soaked in sweat, for their prison garb to be brought out. For two hours they shivered naked in the wind; by the time their clothes arrived, around 1:30 a.m., they were chilled to the bone.

At 5:00 a.m. they were brought outside again and forced to stand in the cold wind. Joseph and Michael collapsed in pain and were taken to the infirmary. Jacob and David stood fast but refused to join a work detail and so were put in solitary confinement. Their hands were stretched through iron bars and chained together, and they were forced to stand in this position for nine hours each day, with only bread and water for nourishment. After two weeks, they began to receive occasional meals.

Jacob Wipf managed to send a telegram to their wives, and they traveled immediately to Leavenworth. They started out from their homes at night, leaving their small children behind them. But a railroad agent mistakenly gave them tickets to the wrong station, causing a delay of an entire day, so that when the women finally arrived at Leavenworth around 11:00 p.m., they found their husbands close to death and barely able to speak. By the following morning, Joseph Hofer was dead. (Some sources record his death as November 28, 1918; others as November 30 of that year.)

His wife Maria was told his body had already been placed in the coffin and could no longer be viewed, but she was persistent and pushed past the guards to the commanding officer, pleading for permission to see her husband once more. Her request was granted, but she was not prepared for what she found: through her tears, she suddenly realized that the lifeless body of her beloved husband had been dressed in military uniform. Joseph had been faithful to the last, and now he was mocked in death.

Michael Hofer died only days later, on December 2. At the insistence of his father, who successfully persuaded the commanding officer, he was wearing his own clothes. Immediately following Michael’s death, David Hofer was brought back to his cell and chained to the bars, unable to wipe away the tears that streamed down his face for the whole day.

The next morning, with the help of a willing guard, David relayed a message to the commanding officer, requesting that he might be placed in a cell closer to Jacob Wipf. The guard returned an hour later and told David to pack up his things for immediate release. David was at first incredulous, but left a brief message for Jacob and prepared to go.

It is not clear what prompted this unexpected and sudden release, but it is probable that rumors of his brothers’ deaths were beginning to leak out, and the prison was worried that they would become martyrs in the public eye. Soon after, on December 6, 1918, the Secretary of War issued an order prohibiting handcuffing, chaining, and the otherwise brutal punishment of military prisoners – a token political gesture to counteract the case’s growing negative publicity.

In reality, Jacob’s battle continued. When two Hutterites visited him at Leavenworth five days later, they found him in solitary confinement, his hands still chained to the iron bars for nine hours a day. He was still receiving a diet of bread and water and sleeping on a concrete floor, although he had been given several blankets. In a message sent home to his family, he wrote:
Sometimes I envy the three who have already been delivered from their pain. Then I think: why is the hand of the Lord so heavy upon me? I have always tried to be faithful and hardworking and hardly ever made any trouble... Why must only I continue to suffer? But then there is joy, too, so that I could weep for joy when I think that the Lord considers me worthy to suffer a little for his sake. And I have to confess that, compared with our previous experiences, the life here is like in a palace.

Considering that the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, it is hard to believe that the chaining of military prisoners was only stopped on December 12. The prisoners were given planks on which to sleep, and conditions gradually improved as the War Department continued to receive petitions on the men’s behalf. Jacob Wipf remained behind bars for four more months and was finally released on April 13, 1919, after being hospitalized for a brief illness. But the deaths of the two Hofer brothers could not be so easily forgotten, and by the end of the year, the great majority of Hutterite colonies had emigrated to Canada to escape further persecution – including vandalism by their neighbors because of their refusal to buy war bonds.

(Illustrations: Don Peters)
reprinted from www.bruderhof.com

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Long Way From Revolt? 

Even the blind can see that economic progress entails the oppression and murder of thousands – that big business rules by sheer power and deceit... A capitalistic society can be maintained only by lies. But we are a long way from revolt. Most pious and even many working people think, “Rich and poor have to be.” They ignore the fact that it is impossible to amass any kind of fortune without cheating, without depriving and hurting others and destroying their lives. They fail to realize that, concentrated in a few hands, big business can steer hundreds of thousands toward certain ruin through unemployment. Why do these facts remain hidden from us? Only because we ourselves are also under the rule of the god who blinds us, which is mammon.

-Eberhard Arnold, founder of the Bruderhof communities, in a public lecture in 1923


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Earliest Christian Church Found in Israeli Prison 

Where It Belongs

Over the weekend, workers at an Israeli prison camp holding primarily Palestinian prisoners of conscience reported (CNEWS) (BBC) finding of what may be the oldest Christian church in Israel. Most impressive was the surprisingly well-preserved mosaic flooring featuring both text and sacred symbolic images.

Speculations immediately began, with glee, about the potential tourist draw of such a site, and if the site is authenticated the prison will likely be moved. "If it's between a prison and a church, I would like a church," said Joe Zias, an anthropologist and a former curator with the Israeli Antiquities Authorities. "You can put a prison anywhere."

Significantly, the dig has involved the efforts of more than 60 prisoners at the camp near Megiddo.

What better place for a Christian church than in prison, and who better to reveal it to the world than prisoners of an occupying power.

A religion founded by a man whose life and career was built on resistance to "powers and principalities", by a man who preached peace for the downtrodden and freedom for the captive, and spent his last days imprisoned by the Powers of his time and was even executed for his resistance, by a man who lived in vociferous solidarity with people disempowered and victimized by an oppressive occupying force - what better testament to its roots than being discovered by prisoners right under their feet.

The real estate of Jesus and his disciples - location, location, location - is within the menacing and guarded walls of a prison. The hands that reveal the oldest roots of our faith are shackled and jailed.

How faithfully the symbolic and real location of this oldest Christian edifice in the Holy Land fulfills the life and mission of its sacred leader and the principles he offered his disciples: faithful resistance to powers and principalities, freedom for the captive, and liberation to the slave.

I say don't move the prison or the church. If pilgrims must come, let them enter the gates under guard. If resistance makes prisoners anywhere, we Christians must join them everywhere. If, indeed, one can put a prison anywhere - that's a good sign where our church should be.

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Friday, November 04, 2005

How Unnaturally They Are Separated 

Everywhere in these days people have, in their mockery, ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible state of affairs must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. It will be the spirit of the time, and people will marvel that they have sat so long in darkness without seeing the light... But, until then, we must keep the banner flying. Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his conduct seems to be crazy, a man must set an example, and so draw other souls out of their solitude, and spur them to some act of brotherly love, that the great idea may not die.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, "The Brothers Karamazov"

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Full Speed Astern 

C. S. Lewis

Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement. He is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realizing that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor - that is the only way out of a hole. This process of surrender - this movement full speed astern - is repentance.

Why inner renewal won't come about without personal upheaval. (From the Bruderhof Communities)

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