Earlier this month, Stephen Kobasa, who was an English teacher at Kolbe Cathedral High School in Bridgeport, CT., was dismissed for refusing to fly a US flag in his classroom. Actually, it’s not that he refused–he did offer a compromise whereby his homeroom students could recite the morning pledge to the flag and then he would put the flag away for the day. The Catholic diocese refused this compromise, choosing instead to dismiss Kobasa from his job. A man in his late fifties, Kobasa has taught school for twenty-five years. I read of his dismissal in the Boston Globe and contacted him to see if he wanted to conduct an interview. Although he was busy, he said yes and we carried out the following conversation via email.
Ron: Hi, Stephen. Was the firing a surprise or was there a series of events that led you to believe you would be fired unless you backed completely down?
Stephen: The fact that I am surprised by anything is some slight evidence that I have not become completely cynical about these matters, but even that low threshold is being tested dramatically by recent events. There is a history to this, although I can only speculate on what motivated the decision made by diocesan authorities. Instead of retelling the story to myself, I am hoping that this account that Matthew Rothschild has posted on the website of The Progressive will help to answer your basic factual questions. You could then ask
further concerning any missing details…
Ron: Why do you think the diocese is so adamant about the flag being flown in its schools’ classrooms?
Stephen: As to the motivation of the school and Church officials who were involved…from the start they treated it – publicly, at least – as an issue of authority. They never offered any justification for the policy outside of that. Some friends have speculated that the severity of the punishment suggests that this particular issue was being used as a cover for some greater discontent on the part of the authorities. I have no evidence to suggest that such was the case. On the other hand, this challenge clearly upset them to a degree which suggests that the nature of the offense was crucial, and that it was not a matter of disobedience, but of the flag. The Church has clearly compromised itself in its relationship to the secular state…as the current government has laid claim to religion as a justification of its outrages, so too the churches have taken on the sanctification of state policies which run counter to the Christian gospel as a way of gaining privilege and authority. But the prophetic role that the Christian community should play has been abandoned.
Ron: I notice that you are a peace activist who has been involved in opposing the existence of the Trident submarine (which carry nuclear missiles) base in Connecticut. How long have you been involved in this and other activities against war? Have you brought your moral opposition to the ravages of modern war into your classroom? If so, how have your students responded over the years?
Stephen: An activist as long as I have been a teacher…longer, if one counts my declaration as a conscientious objector in 1967 and what followed from that. But while I have never imposed acceptance of my work upon students and colleagues, I have always be clear about why I did what I did. What I think I always wanted to give my students was a lesson against hypocrisy.
One cannot read Macbeth without thinking constantly of the world we inhabit at the moment…as one character says, “where to do harm is often laudable; to do good sometime accounted dangerous folly.” And my students…not all of them…but some…have responded to the opportunity to connect literature to their own discovery of moral values. And a teacher cannot always [predict which of his or her charges will be most affected. I was in a New London, CT courtroom on trial for an act of civil disobedience some years ago…if you had asked me at that time for the names of the two students least likely to be there to support me, those would have been the very ones I saw sitting behind me when I turned in my chair. Those are the mysteries of education…I am content with them.
Ron: I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic schools for four years. One of the oddities I recall was how every morning we would say a couple prayers and then pledge to the flag. As I began to understand the Ten Commandments better, I always wondered how this saluting the flag jibed with the first which says not to worship idols–which is what the flag seems to be. Any thoughts on this?
Stephen: “…as the flag SEEMS to be”? As Hamlet says..”nay it is. I know not seems.”…Idolatry is the only word that applies here. If there is a way that I have failed in regard to this issue, it was in creating a sanctuary for my own conscience in the classroom…reflecting Thoreau’s position of at least removing oneself from blame as an individual, even if there was no possibility of correcting the injustice itself. But I think that a believing Christian cannot be satisfied with that option…my objection should apply to all flags in all classrooms in schools which purport to be Christian.And it goes further, because the witness of Jesus is to erase all boundaries that create distinctions of status and encourage violence in defense
Ron: There is a tradition of Catholic peace activism–the Berrigan Brothers come immediately to my mind, as do the St. Patrick’s Day Four up in Binghamton, NY, who threw blood on recruiting offices to protest the Iraq war. How do you see your actions in light of this
Stephen: Let me confess at the outset that I have been blessed to know all of those whom you refer to in your question…along with Sister Ardeth Platte, whom my family and I visit at the Federal Penitentiary in Danbury, CT where she is serving a three year sentence for her act of conscience. So…whatever challenges this decision faces us with I must keep them in perspective…we are surrounded by a loving community…able to provide for our needs…others have suffered far more for their conscience’ sake than we ever will. but still…Phil Berrigan was smiling the last time I saw him before his death; I would like to think that he would smile at me now for having done as I have.
Ron: It is my understanding that the late Pope John Paul and the current pope believe that the war on Iraq is not a just war, according to the Catholic doctrines regarding such things. Does this seem contradictory in relation to your dismissal?
Stephen: Yes. Especially since it has been reported to me that William Lori, the current Bishop of Bridgeport who declined to respond to my letter explaining my position, has made a similar judgment on the Iraq War. How he reconciles that with his apparent uncritical fealty to the flag of the United States I cannot say.
Ron: What are your plans now that you don’t currently have a job? More antiwar activism?
Stephen: The folksinger Charlie King has written lyrics the meditate on the distinctions among job, work and life. My goal has always been to keep the three as closely related as I can, without allowing my life to be limited to only one of the others. In any case…although I do not have a job at the moment, my work goes on….and I look to find employment that will allow me to expand that work…in Colombia solidarity, towards abolition of the death penalty and in opposition to nuclear weapons, all motivated by the obligations of my Christian faith. I imagine that my future lies outside the conventional boundaries of teaching. My wife Anne and I are trying to celebrate this as an opportunity for me to discover something new…even at this later point in my life.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org