In 1971, Commonweal published an interview with Sr. Elizabeth McAlister, co-founder of Jonah House in Baltimore and member of the "Harrisburg Seven" group of anti-war activists and clergy. She was a sister-in-law of the recently deceased Fr. Daniel Berrigan.
Harry J. Cargas: Who are you, who do you see yourself as being, particularly in reference to the Catholic Church?
Sister Elizabeth McAlister: Our effort, and specifically in answer to your question on my effort, has been really to deemphasize personalities. I would only be interested in answering that question from the basis of how the Gospels have formed my life or how I'm trying to allow them to form it or how we must respond to men in the way that Christ wanted us, really commanded us to respond to men.
HC: Which is consistent with your notion of viewing the war in human terms?
EM: That's right, in terms of men. But this is something all of us are obliged to do. At the same time we must seek to live in such a way that life itself becomes attractive to others, which I think is what the Gospels ask us to do, too. The Christian communities grew because people were amazed that Christians loved one another that they could manifest things like joy and hope at a time when joy and hope seemed to be totally unjustified. And that's our obligation now, too. They could live with a lot of simplicity and put value on the things that arc most valuable which I would say are human relationships, community, friendship which of course can only be preserved in the Lord.
HC: And yet, judging from something else I heard you say, you’re saying the way we live the Gospels is through crisis.
EM: This is something I'm still trying to work out . . . it’s been my experience that a friend in risk draws me into a situation of deeper risk and by my own risk others are drawn into it. But as I said, I didn't understand why that must be until someone pointed out to me the principle behind it. When you begin living this way, you begin to constitute a threat. It's really very strange, but you do. The early Christians constituted a threat to the powers, although they had nothing in terms of guns, position or the things that the world calls power. But there was something about the way they lived and the values that they tried to make live that threatened the existing structure, because the existing structure was based on the use of human beings rather than respect for human beings.
HC: What do you feel that you must do?
EM: Well, right now I must make the most of the situation that I'm in, that I've been placed in. Rather than look at this indictment as a tragedy, we must look on it as a means of giving greater visibility to the word we have heard. At the same time seek to maintain the sort of community relationships that we have had. This means not having it become some sort of political campaign but allowing it to be the human thing that it is and the sacred thing that it is.
HC: How are you making the most of your situation?
EM: Well, one thing that we've always considered very important is education, education of people to the realities around them. So we're continuing to do that. I would prefer to be able to spend more time with communities of people than to speak for an hour to a group and disappear. Because without some thrust within that community to follow up, it's ridiculous ever to do it. So I try to spend time with small communities and begin talking to them about their lives and inviting them to talk with one another about their lives and how they interact with one another and how they can best respond together to the word and to the world. That's what will create growth.
At the same time we are seeking to get together with the community that we are part of—the community under indictment, the community that has surrounded us as a support community—and let that be something other than an ad hoc group of people who are trying to raise money to get a defense off the ground. That's a long painful process because each of us has his or her ideas about how best to proceed. We've got to work that out collectively so that we can go into a trial as a community rather than as individuals at cross purposes with one another. That requires getting inside of one another and getting inside of the issues which we must direct our attention to. And then finding ways and means of—if you will—humanizing the trial situation as much as possible. It's a pretty inhuman scene but we’ve got to work with it and try to make the most of it.
HC: Let me pursue that "humanizing" a little bit. I gather that you are also interested in humanizing the church, specifically the American Catholic church. What's the need for that?
EM: I'm really not that much interested in the reform of the church structures just as I'm not that much interested in reform of government structures. I’m interested in communities and in the creation of communities that begin to live the way they would like to see all men live with one another. That's what we've been trying to do. That's what's most positive, I think, in what we have to offer. It's an alternative, it's a hope. The church will change to the extent that communities of this sort multiply and become the rule rather than the exception. Bishops and chancery officials will probably continue to act as bishop and chancery officials. Are they the people who will make a difference to the world? That's an open question, I guess. But I've never found administration on that level either interesting—in a Gospel senses—or free. To get inside that scene and to try to restructure institutions, I think, is too much like infighting and that's not where our work needs to be done.
If that seems a little bit anarchistic, I’m sorry. But I think we’ve spent a lot of time trying to reform the church and in so doing have forgotten about the life and death issues that we (the church) should be involved in. I see more and more people leaving the church and I don’t think that makes any sense, frankly. What does make sense to me is to stay within it—to live as you feel church should be lived.
HC: Even if a bishop says you are no longer a member of the church, because of the way you are living?
EM: He doesn't have the moral authority, it seems to me, to say that to anyone. There's a very fine priest, Paul Mayer, who was an unindicted co-conspirator until the second indictment. He was a Benedictine monk and is now married and he's still a priest. In his own mind he's a priest. And in the mind of the community he serves and lives with, he's a priest. Whether the chancery office has him on their dockets or not doesn't make any difference to the service he performs with his people, with his community. That's where priesthood exists, on the level of service. Service to the Gospel and service to the world. He's probably been excommunicated, but what does that mean?
HC: What about you as a sister, now? What about radical sisterhood? We obviously have a certain image of the sister in this country and in the world. You and others are upsetting that image—“upsetting” is a neutral term here—you do this consciously. How do you react to this?
EM: My purpose is not upsetting images. If I do, it isn't conscious; it certainly is not my purpose. I think "images" go along with two other things: and those two other things are institutions and ideologies. These are three things that are really tools for thinking and they're important as such. Images, for example, spring from us and relate to us. And in that sense they're good. The problem is when images cease to serve people and begin to ride people.
Take a prosaic example of that. You've got the Kennedy image. What happens with an image like that is that it can force people to live up to certain public expectations so that they no longer have a life of their own. Jacqueline Kennedy broke the Kennedy image by marrying Aristotle Onassis. I think she has every right to assert her own life and to break that image. And whenever images begin riding us then we have a right to break those images for the sake of people. Christ broke images. He broke the image of what the Messiah was. Even John the Baptist found Jesus Christ not what he had "imaged" he would be. Thus John's consternation in prison: "Are you He who is to come or shall we look for another?" Jesus broke the Jewish people's image of what the Messiah was by the kind of life he lived, by the kind of death he died, by the "kingdom" he established. It wasn't the new Jerusalem they had expected it to be.
The second thing would be institutions. Institutions exist for man, to serve man. And institutions also have people within them. People can too frequently become slaves of the institutions rather than being served by the institutions. This is very, very true of a lot of our religious institutions. Part of the problem within many religious communities is that individuals were brought in for the sake of the institution and plugged into holes that needed to be filled without any sense of that individual and what he or she should be doing, what the Spirit was saying within that person. I’m not anti-institutional but I think we have to keep reasserting the fact that institutions must serve people and must constantly be turned over in order that they do so. You take an institution like our own government: Thomas Jefferson at the outset said that in order for democracy to exist it had to "be turned over" every fifteen years. That has never taken place. You have a President who takes an oath to uphold the Constitution and yet what our President is presently doing is upholding the existing institutions in government, not the Constitution. He's breaking the Constitution left, right, and center. So institutions would be the second factor.
The third is ideologies. And ideologies can be things that unite us or things that divide us. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul tells us that our war is not against things of this world but against Principalities and Powers, against ideologies. So to the extent that ideologies divide us we must overcome them and find that common meeting ground where we can work with others. Communism, Marxism, Christianity they are all ideologies. What are they all about? The words themselves divide us and create hate. But if we could pierce through them, we may find grounds for fruitful dialogue, for mutual effort, for love. All of these things are tools for thinking. If we can understand them as such we can use them to the extent that they're useful and discard them when they become a hindrance. We can broaden rather than narrow our spirit and thoughts.
HC: Do you have hope?
EM: Sure. And I mean that quite seriously. The hope is based in people and only in people. The hope is not in any particular system of government, any particular church style, any particular law. But it's a hope in man—in the basic goodness of man—but without being blind to the evil that's in us too. My one hope in the process, the trial, would be that we would be able to touch people and perhaps change some people—and grow ourselves, too.
HC: Dan Berrigan talks about community also, community of risk. You see yourself involved in this kind of thing, a community of risk.
HC: How have you found this personally? Has this been a holy experience for you?
EM: Absolutely and without qualification. I am part of a religious community, but I think I grew to understand better what community was about by being part of a so-called peace community—for want of a better name. And both that peace community and my religious community have been enriched by one another. The way in which you meet people in this sort of thing is a very different sort of touching. The things that are important in many other spheres just aren’t important here—where a person comes from, for example; what his parents do. What you share is a commitment and you both try to grow in that commitment. You share part and parcel of what is Eucharist—the breaking open of the word to try to find out what it means for you now, the breaking open of bread and sharing of that. Somehow, through this process, Eucharist becomes so much more meaningful and so much more necessary. We need Eucharist and we need to celebrate it, to get our direction from it.
HC: Does that make this then a specifically Catholic kind of thing?
EM: No, because Eucharist isn't a specifically Catholic kind of thing. Eucharist is something we share with every other religious denomination. And whether they believe in this as the real presence of Christ or not, they believe in this as a sacred and important act to engage in, whether they be Jewish or Muslim or some other denomination of Christianity. It's not specifically Catholic. And the word that we share is not always the New Testament. Of course, you can go into parallels that exist between the New Testament and Old Testament, and the other sacred writings. We've had long conversation with Eq [Eqbal Ahmad, Pakistani political scientist also indicted at Harrisburg) on parallels between the Muslim story of creation and our story of creation, the Muslim sense of God and our sense of God. What’s important, as I understand it, in Eucharist is the goal of the community, the community's call to Christ to be present within it, and his response to that call. Whether people believe he's in the bread or in the wine is not the thing that’s important. What's important is that they believe he is present with their community by virtue of their prayer.
HC: How accurately are you being portrayed to the public? In other words, the message I'm getting personally is "pacifistic." Yet the message we've been getting publicly is that there was an act that could be construed as a violent act that was being attributed to you in a planning stage. I want to ask some specifics which I’m not going to ask, but let me at least ask this: are you a pacifist? And what does that mean to you?
EM: I don't know what that means. That’s a kind of word game I think we could play. We could play another kind of word game which is "What’s violent and what’s non-violent?" I meet this all the time. People think destruction of selective service records is violent. I do not believe that's a violent act. I think that violence always has human dimension to it, either physical or psychological violence to another person. And that I couldn’t tolerate—in my own time and in my own place. But I'm in no position to dictate to another what course he must take. Is the taking up of arms in Columbia or Brazil violent? I'm not ready to say. And I'm not ready to judge those who feel that’s what they must do. Nor am I ready to say what they must do in the north of Ireland; or what the Vietnamese people themselves must do. Or even coming closer to home, what alternatives exist for black people in the ghettos. Personally I cannot imagine myself taking to arms but I'm not ready to close that book because I don't know the situation that I will later be in. I'm not prepared to prejudge that. There’s a principle I heard articulated once: "as much non-violence as is possible." And maybe that’s a good rule of thumb. If it is, it is only a good rule of thumb in the right hands. And who is to judge that?
I trust a dynamic within a community of serious people that will be able to make that judgment. I would not trust myself to make that judgment alone. But I would trust that dynamic in the context of prayer and serious weighing of issues. So what I would assert is the need to have a community of resistance that is free to weigh tactics, that is ready to deal with the idiosyncrasies of a particular individual within that community and to take time and patience to see what’s needed. In other words, you don't come to an idea and act on it. You take ideas, you take suggestions, you weigh them and you find out what is and what is not a good thing to do. It should also be said that as well as the idiosyncrasy of an individual in a group you have a time factor: the psychological factor of discouragement, of despair. And these are real. Discouragement and despair can lead people to entertain all sorts of things. But if they are part of an ongoing community, they will be able to go beyond that. They will not indulge in discouragement or despair or do the kind of acts that discouragement or despair suggests doing. They will gain a perspective. They will gain new hope. For us the perspective was that we were engaged in a long-haul process—a process that has to be begun over and over and over again. But for a government to take a particular moment out of context in a much longer dialogue is something else, something that they do by interfering in that dialogue and using that moment against the history without looking at the history.
Frequently you're called upon, at least I've been called upon, to comment on the acts of other people, specifically on the acts of Black Panthers. I wouldn't go further than to say I can understand the discouragement that would lead people to do things like those of which the Panthers have been accused—and fully understand it. In conversations with Black Panthers they sort of sit back and laugh at us and say "you'll learn. You'll learn. Violence is the thing." And all I could say to them, and I think all I could still say to them is "I hope you're wrong. I hope you're wrong."
[For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.]