One of the more compelling events in America's brief timeline likely wasn't taught in many high school history courses. While many of us may have forgotten about things like the Lusitania and Manifest Destiny, The Camden 28—which released to DVD last week after airing on PBS—tells of an historical event that may be completely unfamiliar to you. And it was an event driven in much part by the participants' Christian faith.
Anthony Giacchino's documentary exposes us to a moment we can all admire, and perhaps even secretly wish to have shared. In 1971, a group of 28 people—including four Catholic priests, one Lutheran minister, and 23 Catholic laypeople, ranging in age from 20 to 46—organized a break-in on Camden, New Jersey's Federal Building to destroy draft files, in hopes of wrenching an unjust system out of commission "in the name of that God whose name is peace."
The Camden 28 were members of what the media then called the "Catholic Left," one of the most persistent and inventive forces in the anti-war movement. Between 1967 and 1971, the Catholic Left raided over 30 draft boards and destroyed almost 1 million Selective Service documents, and the Camden 28 were seeking to continue those tactics in that summer of '71.
When one of the Camden 28's members, Bob Hardy, betrayed the group and served as an informant to the FBI, the group was caught in the act when they broke into the federal offices in the pre-dawn hours of August 22, 1971. The members were charged with a variety of felonies, including conspiracy to remove and destroy files, destruction of government property and undermining the Selective Service system—all punishable by up to 47 years in prison if convicted. Though offered a plea bargain reducing the charges to one misdemeanor apiece, the 28, in their zeal to make a point, rejected the offer and opted for a trial.
The result was a three-month trial in the spring of 1973 that, to a watching nation, essentially served as a referendum on the Vietnam War itself. Among other things, many of those who testified demanded that the government account for its actions (both in the war and in its rejection of domestic justice in urban slums). At the trial, Hardy (the FBI's informant) ended up testifying against the feds, noting they were so overzealous to nab the Camden 28 that the raid seemingly was orchestrated and funded by the FBI itself. The result: For the first time in five years of Vietnam war protests, a jury found the activists not guilty. All 28 were acquitted.
This documentary is comprised largely of personal interviews with participants as it traces the staging, execution, aftermath and conclusion of the draft board break-in. Father Michael Doyle is the frontrunner in these clips. In his thick Irish brogue, Doyle explains why they chose this particular action in this particular place: in a country fed up with Nixon and the war, pacifism was largely manifested in protest and burning draft cards. The initial group grew frustrated with the ultimate ineffectiveness of this and looked for bigger fish to fry: the original records in the draft board office.
Doyle's wide-eyed recollections, supplemented by quips from several other members, is spliced between black-and-white photos of the same men with bushier heads and more insistent peace signs. Each testimony bears with it a note of wishing, a sorrowful reverence to earlier energy. Eugene Dixon spits out his words as if he can't believe he'd done something so stupid and necessary before his glasses got so thick.
The story then takes us to a live reenaction and discussion of the trial. This includes one of the most poignant scenes in the film, in which Elizabeth Good laments the death of her son in the war. In a tone eerily similar to contemporary frustration with the conflict in Iraq, she asks "Did my son die in Vietnam for oil? Tin?" In a unique position of having one son killed in combat and another—Robert Good, who was then just 22—on trial for protesting the war that killed the first, she represents a voice of horrified reason. Snowy-headed, she bends over a script of her original testimony and reads in a crackling voice, "Not one of us raised our hands to do it. We left it up to these people, and now we're prosecuting them for it. God help us."
There are unmistakable parallels in The Camden 28 to our current political situation, and it provokes the Christian community to think critically about what action should be taken on behalf of our ideals. Of course, that depends on which ideals you claim to represent Christianity—and questions of what's the right thing to do in time of war have long dogged the church. The Camden 28 represents a viewpoint that Christianity would embrace pacifism, and the film's heroes inhabit lifestyles of peace, social change and work motivated by their understanding of faith and the words of Christ.
Perhaps we are surprised when activists, in the pursuit of peace, take such "militant" actions. We might think of pacifism as passive-ism, a gentle dislike of playground fights and naughty words, so it's a bit jarring when the work for peace disrupts the fabric of our social structure. This film argues that if we are to understand God, we need to know that he would die, and in fact has died for the widow and orphan and married and gorgeous and lazy and Baptist and poor and helplessly unaware.
The Camden 28 is Giacchino's first feature length documentary, and in some clips, it shows. One gets the idea that Giacchino is bent beside the camera with frantic gestures and cue cards in tow. He is so certain of his viewpoint that it feels less like a documentary than it does a plug for pacifism. Of course, it's also inspiring in a way you'd like a film to be. I don't usually finish an episode of Planet Earth with as acute a conviction for saving humanity as I did after watching The Camden 28 (except for the one about blue whales. That one was stirring.) The film presents its case with a warm smile at the pacifists.
It's not unbiased, but it is certainly worth the watch. The tireless efforts of activism in the not-so-distant past have cultivated nostalgia for courage, for words of justice, for the work of peace. There's a point in each film when the violin swells higher than the orchestra, and we know the hero has finally made a choice to be extraordinary. And such moments might just stir us to be extraordinary ourselves, in our own choices.
To learn more about the film, check out its official website.Discussion starters
- How does this film mirror tensions in our contemporary political climate? Does activism look similar today? What's a Christian's role, if any, in anti-war activism?
- Does aligning oneself with a particular group, like the Catholic Left, weaken one's ability to act without an agenda? Or, does the presence of a group supply accountability and structure necessary to act? Can the same question be asked of Christianity?
- This film celebrated a subversion of the justice system. Should our moral convictions take precedence over the law? To what extent?
- The Camden 28 paralleled the atrocities committed in Vietnam to the urban distress seen in the U.S., particularly in Camden. Do you think the government takes international action more seriously than domestic action? How should we as Christians respond?
- One of the turning points in the film recalled a decision to either forgive or reject a traitor. How does our faith dictate that choice? What is the difference between forgiveness and regained trust, and does our faith demand that we have both?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Camden 28 is not rated by the MPAA. It is mostly appropriate for audiences of all ages. There are a few disturbing war-time images for dramatic affect, and a few of those interviewed describe their actions with relish and a bit of colorful language. Nothing too shocking, but young children would likely be bored with its expository tone and political explanations. But there's good discussion fodder for mid-teens and up.
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