By Norman Lowry, Prisoner of Conscience
The May, 2012 edition of PeaceSigns included an account by Berry Friesen of the sentencing of Norman Lowry to 1-7 years in Pennsylvania state prison for criminal trespass at the Armed Forces Recruiting Center in Lancaster PA. Over a period of 28 month prior to his sentencing, Lowry on three occasions had protested the making of war by the U.S. military by interfering with the Center’s recruitment efforts. He is currently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution near Dallas, PA. His Conscience Behind Bars: The Prison Letters of Norman Lowry was published by Lulu in December, 2012. This is letter #6.
“You can kill us but you cannot hurt us.” Justin Martyr
Genuinely conscience-driven success is always accompanied by human loneliness. Sound wisdom demands a counting of such inherent cost prior to initiating the risk-filled steps needed to achieve success.
Prison is a most lonely place, humanly speaking! It is an utter sewer, a privately constructed hell, filled to overflowing with the battered and bruised, most of who cannot even begin to imagine a way to find release from its vice-like grasp.
My choice to seek entry into this sewer and hell was not some shallow, spur-of-the-moment decision. Even after making the decision to do so, I knew that it was not a process to rush into without ample preparation.
Fear of pain and of possible suffering or abuse were non-issues as I have faced plenty of those demons. Concern over what others would think of me caused no anxiety as long ago I pretty much ceased being a crowd-follower or people-pleaser.
At issue was the fact that I was going to have to face the emptiness of human loneliness – the inherent lack of readily available intimacy via human interaction that I had painstakingly learned to engage in and enjoy in the world outside of the prison environment. From my many years of interactions with former inmates and from extensive reading of case studies, I had a fairly good concept of what awaited me. I simply knew that I needed to ensure my readiness to face and engage this sure eventuality.
For wisdom, I went to God, to my wise people (mentors), and to contemplatives (Morton Kelsey, Henri Nouwen, dear Mother Teresa, the Berrigans, St. Francis, St. Catherine, Gandhi, Dr. King, Rachel Corrie and others).
From God I learned to base my identity only in what he thinks of me, to seek Christ-likeness as my only quality standard, to value and practice searching and fearless self-evaluation, and to be totally accountable to God and to wise others for all thoughts, actions, feelings and physiology.
From my wise ones, I learned the value of being transparent and vulnerable, allowing others – even my enemies – to speak into my life. I learned how to define, create and operate within a safe, healing environment. I learned the value of active participation in relational conflict resolution, based in an honest evaluation of what is in the best interests of others. And I learned to hold loosely all relation-ships, allowing others to leave me, just as freely as they accepted my invitation to enter my life.
From contemplatives I learned how the quiet of solitude allows us to know God and how we are perfectly loved and invited to love in return. This always drives us back to our neighbor (both friend and foe) and always drives us back to God, who is true and eternal intimacy.
Properly prepared and armed with God’s absolute peace, utter contentment and the promise of reasonable happiness, I engaged in civil disobedience and have never looked back. As with other moments of my crazy life, God designed this moment in prison for me. Notwithstanding my human loneliness (and there are often dark days), I am right where I desire to be.
In the first chapter of my investment as a prisoner of conscience, mostly served in the Lancaster PA County Prison, I was surrounded by many of the precious ones with whom I had worked during my days of employment at Lancaster’s Water Street rescue mission. These reconnections were most inspiring and provided continuing sustenance during a time when human loneliness and the abuse of inmates was so pervasive.
The loss of regular contact with family, friends and mentors was more than made up for by God’s unexpected gifting of Jack and Felice Cohen-Joppa, editors of the activist online periodical, The Nuclear Resister. This serendipitous contact was accompanied by letters of encouragement and inspiration from all corners of the world, including new friends and mentors from the Lancaster area’s faith/peace community.
Who is the one against who not even the gates of hell can prevail?
Chapter two of my investment as a prisoner of conscience within the state prison system is already providing to be more oppressive, most evidently in its passive aggression. It will be most interesting to see God’s loving plan for this chapter as it continues to unfold. The inherent human loneliness is more pervasive here yet God’s utter peace and contentment remains and is as sure as he is steadfast!