Letter to Editor re Sunrise - 3/15/89

A young man pursuing lofty ideals calls himself Sunrise Spiritual Harmony. His mother and birth certificate identify him as Stephen Semple. Ideally, Sunrise tries to "live a life which does not harm people or the environment," hoping "to affect the world in the most positive and helpful way.

Practically, in Sunrise's view, "I promote non-violence in Lafayette Park (Peace Park), where I spend most of my time at my signs during a 24-hour peace and anti-war vigil. This method of communication has proven itself to be the only effective way of conveying my message which I have discovered. Although I would prefer to be living in the woods, my religion requires that I evangelize."

Because Sunrise spends most of his time conveying his message in Lafayette Park, he was prosecuted for "camping."

Mr. Henry Hunter, a federal probation officer, described the activity which led to Sunrise's imprisonment as "living by biblical principles & emulating the life of Christ."

U.S. District Court Judge Charles Richey once suggested that Sunrise "may have been engaged in one of the noblest ventures of human kind." United States v. Harmony, USDC Cr. 87-61. He then sentenced Sunrise to 50 days in federal prison.

Immediately upon release last spring, Sunrise returned to his signs. Again the prosecutors moved in, criminalizing the acts of living by biblical principles and emulating the life of Christ. The new "camping" charge was brought before U.S. District Court Judge Louis Oberdorfer.

In a memorandum filed on December 8, 1988 Judge Oberdorfer said S.S. Harmony "and others who are maintaining vigils in Lafayette Park may be eccentric. But they have stood up day and night for their beliefs in spite of repeated arrests and convictions and the dangers encountered when sleeping unprotected from the weather and other perils that lurk in the middle of a city at night. Their protests have been peaceful. They are not venal criminals, and the application of criminal sanctions to them puts strain on the criminal justice system.... The justification for condemning and punishing a peaceful protester like defendant is not immediately apparent..." United States v. Harmony, USDC CR 88-235. He then convicted Sunrise of camping.

Judge Oberdorfer never determined whether the beliefs for which Sunrise has stood up day and night were reasonable or unreasonable, logical or illogical, practical or impractical. In the end, Judge Oberdorfer decided to sentence Sunrise to thirty days in jail, without disturbing questions of substance

What is good, what is evil? What is practical, what is impractical? What is sane, what is insane? Is it better to justify persecuting a disciple of Christ by calling him a "camper," or to seek behind the disciple's appearance to discover whether there is any substance to his words?

Is prejudice any more than judgment on the outward appearance of things?

Is this a Christian nation?

The Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, so we hear, passed a death sentence on Salman Rushdie, for "blasphemy." Many of those who clamor for Mr. Rushdie's blood have never looked beyond the cover of his book. Many westerners think that Mr. Rushdie was exercising and expressing thought and belief.

If western civilization does exist, is it more than respect for the "individual"? Individual freedom to believe, to live one's belief, and express one's belief, by what other ideal can western nations justify killing in the act of war?

Trend setters are, necessarily, ahead of their time. Frequently those with less foresight do not appreciate the vision of prophets until later. For example, when the Ayatollah of Iran began sentencing people to death for dealing in narcotics many observers in the occidental world criticized that "cure" as "uncivilized." Today, as President Bush promotes the death penalty for people dealing in narcotics, we can see that the Ayatollah was merely ahead of his time.

"In Germany they first came for (the gypsies, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a gypsy. Then they came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me - and by that time no one was left to speak up."

Pastor Martin Niemoller