Armando Valladares wrote poetry in his blood. He did this because he would not write what was demanded of him: “I’m with Fidel.”
Because Valladares refused to sign on to the Communist agenda, he was imprisoned by the Castro regime for 22 years. For eight of those years he was forced to sit naked in a cell, in inhumane conditions — at times without water, without facilities.
And yet, he declares that he is “an ordinary man.” His advice, which he himself followed no matter what was done to him, is: “Never compromise. Never allow government or anyone else to tell you what you can and cannot believe.”
He explains: “My story is proof that a small act of defiance can mean everything for the friends of liberty. They did not keep me in jail for 22 years because my refusal to say three words meant nothing. In reality those three words meant everything.”
Receiving the Canterbury Medal from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty last Thursday, he explained that “even though my body was tortured, my soul was free.” He said: “They couldn’t take away my conscience and my faith.” It was clear that he has enjoyed a freedom not all of us experience, having chosen that which was most important to him, his very identity as a son of God.
His story is not some tale from history, but an open wound, still, for the people of Cuba, who still live under the Castros. Had Valladares simply said, “I’m with Fidel,” he would have been released from prison, he recalls. But to do so — especially after watching the executions that were regular occurrences — would have been “spiritual suicide.”
Valladares went on to praise the Little Sisters of the Poor for standing up for religious liberty here in the United States in the face of the Obama administration’s mandate that health insurance must cover abortion drugs, contraception, and female sterilization. For the Little Sisters to buy into that mandate would make them complicit in something that goes against their beliefs about human life.
The Little Sisters of the Poor, Valladares said, “are rich in that they live out their conscience, which no government bureaucrat can invade.” He went on: “They know what my body knows after 22 years of cruel torture: that if they sign the form, the government demands they will be violating their conscience and would commit spiritual suicide. If they did this they would forfeit the true and only wealth they have in abandoning the castle of their consciences.”
He “saluted” them “for their seemingly small act of defiance.”
Valladares himself was saluted that same night by Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate who survived a Nazi concentration camp. Reflecting on the Holocaust, Wiesel said: “It could have not happened.”
It could have not happened. People could have spoken out. People knew. But the people who died were only numbers to some of those who knew, he said.
#share#I recently spent some times with Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean priest from Iraq who pleaded with Americans to be a voice for his people, who had fled their homes in Mosul 18 months ago, targeted by genocidal ISIS fighters. Thinking of Father Bazi as I listened to Wiesel, I found it hard not to cry. There was the terrible possibility of history repeating itself.
And Wiesel bridged geographic gaps by warning: It’s little things sometimes that begin the erosion of liberty. It’s the toleration of seemingly little encroachments, seemingly little evils we look away from that opens the door to bigger ones.
If we are not good stewards of the liberty we have, we betray those who would give their lives for that liberty.
We live in a culture with a lot of differences — different opinions, different understandings, different struggles. In very many cases, these are deeply personal and give rise to passion. Being in the room with Wiesel and Valladares puts things in perspective. It shows us that we really have little right to despair. In fact, despair, along with apathy and indifference — and anger — may be our worst enemies right about now in American history.
As he bestowed the Canterbury Medal, memorializing Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket’s own “heroic” death for religious liberty, Becket Fund president Bill Mumma said, “We bridge differences by celebrating courage.” Courage, he said, “allows us to see our enemies as not strong but brittle.” He also said: “Religious liberty is only secure when society values religion and treasures freedom.”
People like Valladares, Wiesel, and Father Bazi embody courage and radiate the calm that comes with bearing wisdom in your very body — accepting the scars of brutal reality, choosing the good, and never buying into delusions that might make for a more comfortable life. “Even though my body was in prison and being tortured,” Valladares said, “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.”
Conscience and faith — these things matter. They make for a culture and a country where people make sacrifices for one another, where they stand up for one another when there is persecution and suffering, where they talk about truth with love. Conscience and faith breed courage.
“Religious liberty is only secure when society values religion and treasures freedom,” Mumma said. Do we value and treasure these? It’s a question we answer by how we respond to encroachments big and small. And by our choices of whom and what we celebrate and whether we tell the truth.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of NRO. She is co-author of the updated How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice. This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.