Quiet Gestures, Heroic Acts: A Conversation with Robert Ellsberg

Subscribe to Monthly Review!

Robert Ellsberg is a well-known activist and author of numerous books, but most importantly, a tireless advocate for social justice and a witness to the lives of others whose integrity and purpose provide useful models.  His most recent book is Blessed Among All Women: Women Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for Our Times.  One of my favorite books of his is entitled All Saints, a series of daily reflections in which quite ordinary people with extraordinary courage, as well as some traditional saints canonized by the Church, are featured along with their biographies.  The conversation reported below is based on a series of exchanges from my home in Guadalajara, Jalisco, to his in Ossining, New York.

Q. Some of the younger readers of Monthly Review might be unaware of your background, Robert. I wonder if you could begin with your father’s important gesture which was instrumental in solidifying opposition to the war in Viet Nam.

A: In 1971, my father, Daniel Ellsberg, released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret history of the Vietnam War, to the New York Times and other newspapers.  For this he was arrested and put on trial, facing 115 years in prison.  Ultimately, the charges were dismissed when it came out that the White House had organized a team of secret operatives — the same Plumbers who were later arrested in the Watergate break-in — to spy on and discredit him.  This was the outcome of a long moral and political journey throughout the 1960s, during which time he had served in the Pentagon, in Vietnam, and at the Rand Corporation think-tank, as a government analyst.  He has described his evolution as moving from seeing Vietnam as a “problem to be solved,” to a “mistake to be ended,” and finally — after personally reading the Pentagon Papers, a chronicle of government lies and deception over several decades — as a “crime to be resisted.”  Another critical influence was the example of young draft resisters and activists schooled in the Gandhian tradition of “speaking truth to power.”  If these people were willing to risk prison for what they believed, he asked himself, “What could I do, if I were willing to go to prison?”  The result was the decision to copy the 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers and make them available to the public.

Q. Now you had to make a decision, too, about how you would deal with the war.  What did you decide?

A: As I had been growing up my father had been sharing with me books and writings by Gandhi, King, and Thoreau that had influenced him, and naturally this helped shape my own conscience.  For years I anticipated that my eighteenth birthday — when I would be required to register for the draft — would represent a great turning point.  When that day came, during my freshman year at college, I wrote a letter to the Selective Service System announcing my refusal to register.  By that time, 1973, the draft had been discontinued, although the war continued.  Nevertheless, not many people were paying much attention to these issues — at least not my friends and classmates.  They found it pretty hard to comprehend why I would be doing this.  Finally the prospect of going to jail forced some deeper soul-searching, and I decided, ultimately, that I wasn’t prepared to follow through on the consequences of this stance.  So I registered.  But at the same time I decided that college was not the place for me to pursue the moral questions that were troubling me.  So I dropped out of college.

Q. Then you ended up as editor of the Catholic Worker?

A: I went to the Catholic Worker in the summer of 1975, intending to stay for a few months.  I ended up staying for five years.  The Catholic Worker is a movement started by Dorothy Day in the 1930s.  She was a radical journalist who became a Catholic and then sought some way to integrate her faith and her commitment to social justice.  The Catholic Worker newspaper took a prophetic stance — denouncing war, injustice, and all the forces that oppress people, while also holding forth a positive vision of a society based on the example and message of Jesus.  The Catholic Workers live in community, embrace voluntary poverty, and serve the poor through the “works of mercy” — feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless — while also engaging in protest and direct action.  After a few months there, Dorothy asked me to become managing editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper.

Q. Could you tell us a bit about your impressions of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, with whom you were very close the last years of her life?

A: Dorothy was in her late seventies when I arrived, but she was still the most impressive person in any room.  She carried a deep authority.  While young people like myself might come to the Worker for a few months or a few years, this was someone who had been doing this for nearly fifty years: living among the poor, with virtually no privacy or personal possessions, offering her witness against war in season and out.  For most of her life she had operated on the margins of the church.  In the 1950s and early 1960s, when she was almost alone in protesting nuclear weapons, she was regarded by many as some kind of communist agent.  She was actually an incredibly balanced person with a tremendous sense of humor and a capacity to enjoy the small pleasures of life — a piece of fresh bread, the sight of the ocean, the opera on the radio, the good books that she loved.  Rather than despairing at all the terrible things in the world, she always saw signs of hope, and when you were with her she made it seem as if it would not be such a hard thing — in fact, it would be tremendous adventure — to be a better person.  She died in 1980 at the age of 83, a few months after I had returned to college.

Q: Was that the end of your involvement with the Catholic Worker?

A: I never again lived in a Catholic Worker community.  But in a mysterious way that early encounter with Dorothy Day turned out to be the true turning point in my life.  Virtually everything I have done since then has been an outgrowth of that encounter, beginning with my decision to become a Catholic; my work as an editor, which began shortly after Dorothy’s death, when I put together an anthology of her writings; my travels in Latin America to learn more about the changing role of the church as an advocate for social justice; my decision to study theology; and finally my work at Orbis Books, where I have continued to publish books that serve the same vision of radical Christian faith.  That connection continues to shape my life.  One of my current projects is editing Dorothy’s letters and journals, which only became available this past fall, twenty-five years after her death.

Q: How was your book All Saints related to this journey?

A: One of the things I picked up from Dorothy Day was a fascination with saints — not so much the plaster statues or images on holy cards, but the flesh and blood people of history who struggled to live out their faith in response to the challenges and needs of their time.  Dorothy had a tremendous devotion to figures like St. Francis and Joan of Arc. But at the Catholic Worker we also venerated a much wider list of holy people — beyond the official saints — including Gandhi, King, Thomas Merton, Oscar Romero, Tolstoy, and Mother Jones: people whose faith led them to challenge the system, and who often paid a price for following their consciences.  I wanted to write a book that would hold up this radically inclusive vision of holiness — or wholeness.  The result was All Saints, a book of 365 daily meditations on “saints, prophets, and witnesses for our time.”

Q. In your book All Saints, there was an interesting story about a man who refused to serve in the army during WW I and what happened to him.

A: Ben Salmon was a Catholic who refused to cooperate with the draft during World War I.  Although there were other conscientious objectors during WWI, this was a pretty unusual stance for a Catholic.  In fact, the general view in the church at that time was that a Catholic could not be a conscientious objector.  So he was reviled as a traitor by his neighbors and as a heretic by his fellow Catholics.  He was subjected to terrible abuse — including a sentence of death, commuted to life in prison.  He spent months in solitary confinement, then went on an indefinite hunger strike.  The authorities not only force-fed him, but they confined him to a hospital for the criminally insane.  While there, equipped with nothing but a Bible and the Catholic Encyclopedia, he managed to write a long book-length treatise defending his pacifism and criticizing the traditional “just war” teaching of the church — decades before any American theologian was prepared to touch that subject.  His moral clarity — under these extraordinary conditions — is incredible. Eventually, sometime after the end of the war, they kicked him out of prison.  But his health was broken and he didn’t live long.  In a way he is an American counterpart to one of my other heroes — Franz Jagerstatter, the solitary lay Catholic in Austria to be executed by the Nazis for refusing to serve in the army.  Like Salmon, he was all alone — acting against the advice of his priests and bishop.  I am drawn to stories of people like that who take a solitary stand with no hope of recognition or any prospect of “success.”

Q: Apart from traditional Catholic saints and those conscientious objectors you mentioned, who are some of the other witnesses in your book?

A: There are Galileo, Dom Helder Camara of Latin America, Dostoevsky, Anne Frank, J.S. Bach, Vincent van Gogh, Gustav Landauer — the German anarchist.  I have writers like Flannery O’Connor, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and William Blake.  Philosophers like Martin Buber and Kierkegaard.  There are peacemakers like A.J. Muste, Cesar Chavez, and of course Dorothy Day.

Q. I also was interested in other people you left out of your book but that I know you considered.  Dr. Victor Frankl was one.  His book Man’s Search for Meaning is very important, I think.

A: I confined my list to those who were deceased, and Frankl, at the time I was writing, was still alive.  However, I did discuss Frankl in my subsequent book, The Saints’ Guide to Happiness, in which I drew on the example of holy people to reflect on what it means to live a full and authentic life.  I drew on Frankl in a chapter called “Learning to Work,” which is about the question of vocation — the search for the distinct way to realize our mission and purpose in life.

Q. In Frankl’s book he mentions that the “meaning of life” is not generic but particular.  We give our lives meaning by how we act.

A: I first encountered Frankl’s book when I was going through my soul-searching about the draft.  I was very struck by the insight that while we don’t have any control over the circumstances that confront us, we always have the freedom and the responsibility to shape our own response.  The “meaning of life” is not something that is given to us.  It is something we have to claim for ourselves.

Q. Malcolm X, who was transformed, converted, as he notes in his Autobiography, to a new way of life, was also considered as a candidate for your book?

A: I deeply regret not including Malcolm X in my book — he certainly belongs in that company.  I have been tremendously moved by the story of his life — his conversion in prison, his role as a fearless critic of racism and American imperialism, and his journey, ultimately, to a more universal perspective that could have joined people of all colors and faiths in the struggle for justice.  He is certainly someone, like Martin Luther King or Dorothy Day, who combined deep faith with a radical social stance.

Q. What William James called the “conversion experience” is very much a part of your life as well.  I think of you, John Henry Newman of course, but I also think of those who through Twelve Step recovery programs such as AA have had transformational spiritual experiences. . . .

A: When people think about “conversion” they usually have in mind the stories of people who have embraced a new religious faith, as I did in becoming a Catholic.  But conversion isn’t just about switching from one church or religion to another.  In a lot of cases it is about a life that suddenly comes into a new kind of focus — the discovery of what it is that gives your life meaning or coherence, that energizes and gives you a sense of mission.  There are of course famous stories of conversion, like St. Augustine, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Newman, or Malcolm X.  But it also describes what happened to St. Francis when he kissed a leper.  He was already a Catholic, but suddenly he found his life becoming reorganized around a completely new standard of values.  Some speak of a “conversion” in the life of Oscar Romero in the last three years of his life.  Something happened to this fairly traditional Salvadoran prelate after he was named Archbishop of San Salvador.  Within a relatively short time he was transformed into a courageous champion of the poor.  Can we speak of a “conversion” experience in the case of Mohandas Gandhi on the night when he was thrown off a train in South Africa for defying the racial codes and traveling in a first-class carriage?  In some cases conversion seems to occur in an instant.  But often it is a slow, ongoing process, by which people respond to the voice that seems to be calling them deeper into the implications of their faith and their vocation.  Mother Teresa was a nun for many years in her order when she one day experienced a call to leave her convent and devote herself to the poorest of the poor. Conversion in this sense is not switching from one faith to another.  Doubtless, the same principle applies to many people in A.A. or other 12-Step programs.  You could speak of my father’s “conversion” from an insider in the government, a dedicated “secret keeper,” who gradually responded to a sense of higher loyalty that forced him, in effect, to change sides.

Q. One of the tests of validity of a true spiritual experience, according to James, is that the person lives so differently that there is clear evidence of a force greater than his or her ego at work.  Could you address that?

A: In the examples I have cited it is clear that these people went on to live very differently.  But I think the change is not just evident in what they do but in their very being.  What we call conversion is often a matter of finding one’s true calling.  And when that happens, you often see a deep transformation.  Where before life was weighted by the burden of mediocrity, now it is illuminated by a burning fire.  Such people’s life and work assume a new shape, a vitality and energy that were previously absent.  This allows them to accomplish things and endure things that they never could have before.

Q. You had some experience in Latin America and I know that one of the saints in your book is Archbishop Romero who was murdered in El Salvador.

A: After graduating from college in 1982 I spent a year traveling in Latin America.  I was interested in learning about the changes going on in the Catholic Church, which was undergoing a kind of collective conversion experience — from a conservative bulwark of the status quo, to an increasingly courageous role as a voice for justice and human rights.  The roots of this lay in a famous meeting in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, where the bishops called on the church to adopt what came to be known as “a preferential option for the poor.”  This was expressed in many ways, including the immersion of priests and sisters in the world of the poor, the promotion of new lay ministries, the formation of small grassroots Christian communities in which people studied the Bible in light of the concrete conditions of their lives — all of this supported by a new “theology of liberation.”

Q. This included the Maryknoll sisters who were murdered in El Salvador?

A: The four churchwomen who died in El Salvador in 1980 were among the many thousands of Christians — mostly lay people, but also priests, sisters, and even bishops like Oscar Romero — who were arrested, tortured, disappeared, or murdered by death squads and military governments throughout Latin America.  Two of the four churchwomen killed in El Salvador were Maryknoll Sisters.  We just commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of their deaths.  The night before they were murdered, one of them quoted the words of Archbishop Romero: “Those who are committed to the poor must risk the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, to be tortured, to be captive, and to be found dead.”  These sisters were not “political activists.”  They were following in a very traditional path of discipleship and service to the poor.  But in those times that was enough to label them as subversives.

Q. As a worker in Latin America, I am struck by the withdrawal of the hierarchical Church from the life of the people.  Then, the putting to silence of liberation theologians, the condemnation of the movement as Marxist by Cardinal Ratzinger, who is now our Pope, and the appointments of conservative bishops in the region.  Does this cause you concern?

A: My experience in Latin America led eventually to my coming to work at Orbis Books, the publishing arm of Maryknoll.  Orbis was founded to amplify theological voices of Christians in the third world.  Practically speaking, in the early days this meant mostly publishing Latin American liberation theology.  When I arrived in 1987 liberation theology was under fire not just from the death squads — one of our authors, Ignacio Ellacuria, was one of the Jesuits murdered by the Salvadoran military in 1989 — but also from conservative forces in the church.  Cardinal Ratzinger’s office issued a critical judgment on liberation theology; many of our authors were under investigation, and at least one, Leonardo Boff, was formally silenced.  In the following years these conservative forces were largely successful in neutralizing the progressive movements in the church.  Liberation theology was tagged as a kind of “Marxist” theology, although it was based fundamentally in the message of Jesus and the biblical prophets.

Q. It’s interesting how words like socialist, leftist, Marxist and so on have been used as clubs to beat down any progressive ideas here in Latin America.

A: As Dom Helder Camara, the prophetic archbishop in Brazil, said, “When I feed the poor they call me a saint.  When I ask why there are so many poor they call me a Marxist.”

Q. What do you see as hopeful when you look at Latin America today?

A: When I look back over the past twenty years there have been many discouraging moments.  But one also has to acknowledge tremendous progress in a number of areas. Human rights abuses continue, but it is a far cry from the genocidal atrocities in Guatemala and El Salvador.  Throughout South America military governments have given way to formal democracies.  In Chile, Pinochet has been arrested, and a socialist woman — a former political prisoner — has been elected president.  In Bolivia a populist Indian has been elected president. It remains to be seen just what kind of scope they will have to pursue an independent course.  But one must not fail to celebrate small victories.

Q. One of the things that has struck me about your work and that of others I admire is the concept of service.  Marge Piercy has a poem called “To Be of Use” which she says is the highest calling for her.

A: My life as an editor doesn’t much reflect the life of direct service and activism that was part of my life at the Catholic Worker.  But I believe that the work of peacemaking is not just for professional “activists.”  We need peace activists; but we also need peace educators, peace doctors, peace lawyers.  And I try to see my work as an editor as a kind of service to the principles I believe in, producing books that make a difference.  And part of that, for me, involves telling the stories of those people of conscience who put their faith and convictions on the line.  Last year we published a biography of Father Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest, who has been imprisoned repeatedly for his part in the campaign to expose and close the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas.  We have published new work by Daniel Berrigan, and other books on globalization, torture, and the death penalty.  One of my proudest projects was Sister Dianna Ortiz‘s The Blindfold’s Eyes, the story of an American nun who was tortured in Guatemala, and her campaign to seek the truth and justice.

Q. Do you see any of your contemporaries besides the Dalai Lama who might be in a Volume Two of your All Saints?

A: Last year I published a book on women saints, Blessed Among All Women, which included a number of women who died since the publication of All Saints, including the peace activist Eileen Egan, and the radical theologian, Dorothee Soelle.  But one of the things I hope to accomplish is to make people more aware of the presence of “holy” people among us.  “Saints” are not just people of long ago — they are people we can recognize, people who remind us of God, who challenge us to be better, braver, more loving.  Among living people I would certainly include the Dalai Lama, the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, Daniel Berrigan, liberation theologians like Jon Sobrino and Gustavo Gutierrez, Desmond Tutu from South Africa, as well as Nelson Mandela.  As Dorothy Day used to say, all those who work for peace, who serve the poor, or the cause of justice, are serving God, whether they realize it or not.

Q. This is a secular magazine so I don’t want to dwell too much on religious issues (the public gets enough of that from the present administration) and too often religion is about orthodoxy, not spirituality.  But St. Therese — if you could speak about her as a woman — a person who encouraged the “quiet gesture” we mentioned earlier, or “the little way” as she calls it, because it has an existential and social dimension.

A: St. Therese was a French nun who spent her short life in a Carmelite convent in Lisieux.  She died very young in 1897 at the age of 24.  And yet she quickly became one of the most popular saints of modern times.  This came about because of the publication of her autobiography, in which she described the spiritual path she called “the little way.”  She believed that every small everyday event in our lives could become an arena for heroism as long as we perform it in love and in the presence of God.  This sounds like a simple thing — and in a way, it is, until you try to practice it.  Every day provides occasions to exercise patience, forgiveness, courage.  And this path is available to everyone, no matter what our circumstances.  Therese was Dorothy Day’s favorite saint.  She even wrote a book about her.  Dorothy wanted to explore the social implications of this message.  It meant that every action or prayer or gesture for peace might have consequences in the spiritual realm far beyond anything we can foresee or imagine.  It is sort of like the “butterfly effect” — the idea that the beating of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon may send out ripples that result in a typhoon across world.  There is a kind of moral or spiritual law of cause and effect.  We have to do what seems right and good, regardless of whether this is likely to produce any immediate visible effects.

Q. You said that when your father read your book, he was intrigued by the idea that the saints were imperfect people.  There is a book called the Spirituality of Imperfection which embraces this idea.  The author suggests that it is our imperfection, ultimately, which gives us the humility to allow spiritual growth to take place.

A: I think that is very true.  I am trying to subvert the notion that saints are “perfect” people who never had any faults, doubts, or weaknesses.  If that were true then I don’t think they would be much use to us.  But “holiness” is not some goal that we achieve, after which we are “finished.”  It is more like a path that we walk, a path that leads us by degrees to our true, best selves.  On this path we are never finished.  Some of the people I have included had very visible weaknesses — like Oscar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved hundreds of Jewish workers from extermination by the Nazis.  In terms of conventional morality, he was a drunkard, a philanderer, a gambler — not to mention a war profiteer.  And yet somehow, from out of his morally complicated character he found the resources to perform a gesture of supreme good, when so many other “good” people fell by the wayside.  People may believe that only extraordinary people can perform heroic actions.  But we are all capable of more than we know.

Q. This last question is a difficult one to formulate but I hope you’ll find a way to address it anyway.  You write of Dorothy Day and how when she was a child she read the stories of the saints and how they fed the hungry and so on, and she asked: “Why didn’t the saints try to change the social order?  Not just minister to the slaves, but to end slavery?”  I think that somewhere in her question might be our challenge to ourselves and our children today, no?  That maybe it’s not enough to just help out on the soup line, we’ve really got to work to change the way things are.

A: In that story in Dorothy’s autobiography she is explaining why, as a college student, she drifted away from Christianity.  And yet, without knowing it, she was also describing the challenge of her life — to create a new model of holiness.  We are familiar with holy people like Mother Teresa of Calcutta who exemplify the practice of charity.  But Dorothy Day, by joining the practice of charity with the struggle for justice, represented a new type of spirituality.  Holiness — call it what you will, Enlightenment, Compassionate Awareness, Wisdom — is not something we grasp for ourselves.  The people I admire, like Thomas Merton, Romero, Martin Luther King, emptied themselves of a spurious “holiness” that separated them from the concerns of the world.  As they grew closer to God they grew in compassion and solidarity with a wounded world.  Simone Weil said it is not enough to have saints, but we must have the saints necessary for the present moment.  That kind of holiness, I think, is one that joins the mystical and the prophetic.  That was the kind of stance that allowed Dorothy Day to feed hungry people on the soup line while at the same time working for a world in which there would not be so many hungry people.

Michael Hogan is the author of The Irish Soldiers of Mexico, Los Soldados Irlandeses de Mexico, Molly Malone and the San Patricios, Making Our Own Rules, Mexican Mornings: Essays South of the Border, and Imperfect Geographies.