Spiritual joy: John Griffith

Note: To read a KC Olive Branch interview with John Griffith, go here.

In July of 1942, John Griffith, the twenty year old son of a Methodist minister in North Carolina, was arrested by the FBI and taken to the county jail to await trial. Several weeks earlier John informed the Selective Service System that he would refuse to register for the military draft as required by federal law. In the months preceding his decision John did a great deal of reading and thinking, especially on the implications of Jesus’ teachings for war, and on nonviolent alternatives to war (which Gandhi was at that time demonstrating in India). He weighed a wide range of alternatives: perhaps enlisting in the Coast Guard (since that would presumably entail only defensive action), or serving as a medic in the military, or applying for alternative service as a conscientious objector to war, or simply refusing to register for the draft. In the end, convinced that “war is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus,” he decided that he must oppose war by refusing to cooperate with the Selective Service system. Having acted on this conviction, John recalls that on the day of his arrest, “when the steel doors clanged shut behind me, I felt peaceful and happy.” These words seem to exemplify Merton’s concept of spiritual joy.

Released on bail after his initial stay in the county jail, John went for a few days to a Methodist conference center in the mountains of North Carolina, and while there he experienced a kind of spiritual opening. In a letter he wrote later to his father he says, “I only know that something let loose inside me and that for the first time in months I knew what peace was.” John writes that he knew then “that I would not register under any imaginable circumstances. I felt then that I was at the place of personal commitment Gandhi asked of his followers, ‘When using non-violent resistance, state the minimum objective of your resistance and be prepared to die for it’.”

During his subsequent imprisonment, John showed this same level of commitment when faced with issues of integrity, such as his being assigned to a job involving the production of war materiel, and the demeaning or unjust treatment of prisoners by guards. Among the guards there were several, John says, “who seemed to feel it their patriotic duty to harass ‘draft dodgers’.” From time to time John and the other war resisters actively opposed prison policies or guard actions by using nonviolent tactics such as work strikes, non-compliance with rules and orders, and hunger strikes, knowing there would likely be consequences, sometimes including solitary confinement.

The first time John was sent to solitary confinement he encountered a windowless cell with a solid steel door in the basement of a prison building. There was no furniture (although “for eight hours at night the occupant of a solitary confinement cell was given a filthy, urine-stinking mattress along with a dirty army blanket”), and he subsisted on a diet of water and two slices of white bread a day. John’s father, who happened to visit him just after his first time in solitary confinement, wrote in his diary that John’s physical appearance was “shocking,” and added: “They have other ways to kill besides shooting.” But despite the physical duress, John seems to have born solitary confinement with equanimity, using the time “to exercise, recite Bible verses, sing songs, and meditate.” Although, as John notes, “the Hole” was known to cause “inmates to suffer minor nervous breakdowns” or even commit suicide, he was able to get through the experience “with a minimum of mental anxiety.” He recalls being “in great spirits” at the time of his father’s visit.

When John became eligible for parole after two years, he was told that a condition of his release was that he sign papers stating that he would obey all laws of the United States—which of course included the law requiring that he register for the draft. Although it put his release in jeopardy, John refused to sign the papers, and despite the threats of prison officials John was released anyway. However, several days after arriving at his parents’ home following his release, a parole officer appeared at the door. The officer presented John with a draft card and a document listing conditions of his parole and said if he didn’t accept them he would be arrested. John refused to accept the documents and told the officer “if he would just give me a few minutes to pack my toothbrush, razor and a few personal belongings I would be ready to go . . . But then the parole officer left. I never heard from another parole official.”

In the account of his experience, John wished to acknowledge that “what little I may have suffered in prison is totally insignificant” when compared with the totality of suffering experienced by millions during WWII. Yet it seems clear that John bore the measure of suffering with which he was entrusted with dignity and a peaceful heart.

[Source: John H. Griffith, “War Resistance in World War II,” in A Few Small Candles: War Resisters of World War II Tell Their Stories, Larry Gara & Lenna Mae Gara, eds. (Kent State University Press, 1999) pp. 98-129.]

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