St. Thomas More, facing death for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as head of the Church of England, resisted even his daughter’s pleading to “just go along.”
“Take this oath with your lips, but think otherwise in your heart,” she urged him.
Desmond Doss was equally stubborn when his fiancee visited him in a military jail, urging him to simply pretend to take training in the use of a rifle (at least in Mel Gibson’s telling of the story). The conscientious objector was so adamant about the immorality of using weapons that he wouldn’t even touch one.
Armando Valladares wasn’t being goaded on by a loved one to try to save himself by appearing to agree. But he did resist a simple solution, and paid a heavy price for it.
The Cuban dissident lost his liberty for 22 years, but preserved something far more valuable: his interior freedom. He could have avoided all the trouble by agreeing to merely say, “I’m with Fidel.”
“For me to say those words would have constituted a type of spiritual suicide,” he said earlier this year, when the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty awarded him its 2016 Canterbury Medal. “Even though my body was in prison and being tortured, my soul was free and it flourished. My jailers took everything away from me, but they could not take away my conscience or my faith.”
The life and suffering of Armando Valladares is in the spotlight in the wake of Fidel Castro’s death last week.
“When I was 23 years old I refused to do something that at the time seemed very small,” Valladares said. “I refused to say a few words, ‘I’m with Fidel.’ First I refused the sign on my desk at the postal office that said that, and after years of torture and watching many fellow fighters die, either in body or in spirit, I still refused to say those words.”
Valladares recalls hearing the gunshots of the firing squad taking the lives of fellow prisoners night after night. Eight of the 22 years he was confined he spent naked in dark solitary confinement. As some commentators and politicians sought ways to balance their statements upon Castro’s death, political columnist George Will cited Valladares’ experience: “Prison food was watery soup laced with glass, or dead rats, or cows’ intestines filled with feces, and Castro’s agents had special uses for the ditch filled with the sewage from 8,000 people,” Will wrote.
Valladares suffered beatings and was regularly doused with buckets of human excrement. He went on several hunger strikes, one of which left him wheelchair bound for years. His first book of poetry, published by his wife, Martha, after she smuggled his lines out of prison, some written with his own blood on onion skins, was titled From My Wheelchair.
Martha Valladares led an international campaign for her husband’s release, and Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. He was released in 1982 thanks to the intercession of French President Francois Mitterrand.
Valladares emigrated to the United States and devoted his life to the defense of human rights. He wrote a New York Times bestseller Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag. President Ronald Reagan appointed him Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, where he served from 1988-1990. During that time he focused the world’s attention on Castro’s human rights abuses and was able to bring an end to many.
In his speech at the Becket Fund dinner in May, he urged Americans to be vigilant of their freedom:
Even when we have nothing, each person and only that person possesses the key to his or her own conscience, his or her own sacred castle. In that respect, each of us, though we may not have an earthly castle or even a house, each of us is richer than a king or queen….
I am here to tell you that every little act counts. No man or woman is too small or simple to be called to bear witness to the truth. I’m here to remind you that each of you possesses great wealth in the sacred domain of your conscience. And I’m here to tell you that each of you is called to stay true. I am also here to tell you that when you make that choice, from that moment forward, even if you are naked, in solitary confinement for 8 years, you are never alone because God is there with you.
For many of you, particularly the young people, it may seem I come from a faraway land from a long time ago. Young friends, you may not be taken away at gunpoint, as I was for staying true to my conscience, but there are many other ways to take you away and to imprison your body and your mind. There are many ways you can be silenced, in your schools, your universities, in your workplace.
I warn you: Just as there is a very short distance between the US and Cuba, there is a very short distance between a democracy and a dictatorship where the government gets to decide what to do, how to think, and how to live. And sometimes your freedom is not taken away at gunpoint but instead it is done one piece of paper at a time, one seemingly meaningless rule at a time, one small silencing at a time. Never allow the government–or anyone else–to tell you what you can or cannot believe or what you can and cannot say or what your conscience tells you to have to do or not do.