Don’t call me a saint

Brian Terrell (WNV/Jo Larmore)

Usually the guests at Emmaus House are strangers. They come from across the U.S. to visit friends and family who are incarcerated in one of the four correctional facilities that surround the town of Yankton, S.D. And the Catholic Workers who live there, two blocks from the banks of the Missouri River, welcome them with characteristic warmth and hospitality.

On the night of November 29, however, the crowd at Emmaus House consisted entirely of old friends. Perhaps 20 people, most of them seasoned activists, gathered around the dining room table, sharing steaming bowls of chili and stories of campaigns old and new. The hot topic of the evening was the Obama administration’s ongoing drone wars in Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

These guests had also come from across the U.S. to visit a friend in prison — or rather, to visit him for his final supper as a free man. They were there to honor their friend, the Iowa peace activist, Catholic Worker and soon-to-be federal prisoner Brian Terrell.

Brian was arrested for civil disobedience on April 15 of this year when he, Mark Kennedy and Ron Faust attempted to deliver an indictment to Brigadier General Scott A. Vander Hamm at Whiteman Air Force Base near Kansas City. In their indictment they charged the general, his soldiers and President Obama himself with “extrajudicial killings, violation of due process, wars of aggression, violation of national sovereignty, and the killing of innocent civilians.”

The Obama administration’s drone wars have killed at least 2,586 people since Obama took office, and they violate U.S. and international law. Brian’s attempt to bring these facts to the attention of the 20th Reconnaissance Squadron, the drone ground control station at Whiteman, earned him six months in federal prison, the maximum sentence. He was in Yankton to report to Yankton Federal Prison Camp on November 30.

From his demeanor on Thursday night, though, you would never guess that Brian was soon to be a captive of the U.S. government. With his shock of wavy grey hair, his big bearded smile and his jovial manner, he didn’t look like a condemned man, or a revolutionary for that matter. I asked him over ice cream if the prospect of half a year in a federal prison camp made him anxious. He seemed remarkably unfazed.

“I was more worried about the 10 days I spent in jail in New York,” he said, where he faced trial for another drone protest last year. “They had the television on 24 hours a day. You couldn’t hear yourself think. A camp is different. I’ll have time to read here, time to pray.”

His response reminds me of the words of the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day: “One of the peculiar enjoyments I got out of jail was in being on the other side for a change.” She would have approved, I have no doubt, of Brian’s actions: Day first went to jail as a suffragette in 1917 and kept right on going until her last arrest at a United Farm Workers demonstration in 1973.

After dinner, Brian’s wife Betsy broke out her battered guitar, and I volunteered to help Michael, one of the resident Catholic Workers, in cleaning up the kitchen. As we chatted, it came up that by sheer coincidence, Brian’s last night of freedom just happened to be the anniversary of Day’s death.

As the strains of a Woody Guthrie tune drifted in from the sitting room, I asked Michael, a self-described anarchist, what he thought of the push for Day’s canonization, which has gained traction in recent months.

“I’m against it,” he said, immediately and unequivocally. “I don’t want the bishops writing her hagiography.”

There has long been a movement to canonize Dorothy Day. But it is only recently that her cause has been embraced by some of America’s most prominent conservative bishops, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. Dolan is best known for his criticism of the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate and for his outspoken opposition to gay marriage — hardly what one would expect in a standard-bearer for Dorothy Day.

That’s because Cardinal Dolan doesn’t like to talk about Day’s pacifism, her dalliances with communism or her multiple arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience. He prefers to dwell on her opposition to abortion and her distrust of the state as “inherently totalitarian.”

In much the same way that Martin Luther King, Jr., the radical pacifist, has been replaced in the public imagination by the sanitized civil rights hero, it seems that Cardinal Dolan wants to replace the real Dorothy Day with a whitewashed version more amenable to his politics.

Day’s own response to calls for her canonization is instructive: “Don’t trivialize me by trying to make me a saint.”

When we turn people into saints, we transform them into mythical figures, superheroes of sorts, almost fictional characters. We forget (or choose to ignore) that we are capable of the same great things. Or worse, we use their sainthood as an excuse not to try. Gandhi fought his entire life against the honorific “Mahatma” for this very reason. He didn’t want to be mistaken for anything other than what he was: just another person, doing his best to embody peace in the world.

That’s what Brian Terrell was trying to do at Whiteman Air Force Base last April. And as I hugged him goodnight and promised to write, I am reminded that he is no saint. He is, like Gandhi, like Dorothy Day, just another person, doing his best to live peace in the world. When we canonize (literally or figuratively) those who put their lives and freedom on the line for their beliefs, we risk reducing them to a flat caricature of themselves, turning them into idols to be admired but not emulated. And what we need right now is emulation, not just admiration.

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