Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Politics of Easter

On Good Friday for the last five years I have attended an ecumenical service/witness against gun violence sponsored by the interfaith gun violence prevention organization Heeding God’s Call. Five years ago, along with 11 others, I participated in a civil disobedience action against a gun shop known to be a major source of illegal guns used in crime. Starting that year Heeding God’s Call began holding Good Friday services that not only included Christians but also Muslims and Jews remembering the violent death of Jesus and linking it to the senselessness of gun violence in our city and country. This year the service was held in a park in West Philadelphia and 221 t-shirts draped on crosses were displayed representing the 221 victims of gun violence in Philadelphia during 2013. It was both a sad and moving spectacle.

Linking Good Friday with gun violence reminds me of the inherently political nature of the Good Friday-Easter celebration. While most churches emphasize the salvific nature of Jesus’ death on the cross, I have come to increasingly appreciate the way in which his death represents and binds him to the oppressed and suffering of the world. I am reminded that religio-political power structure of Jesus’ day (for there was no such thing as the separation of government from religion) sought to silence and marginalize him.  When that didn’t work they took to discrediting him, then threatening him and finally setting in motion the process that led to his death.  This year as I read the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the last days of Jesus life, I could not help but be struck by the way Jesus was regarded and treated by the power structures of his day….and how similar it was to what happens in our day. 

As we look around the world at despotic governments being challenged by movements for change in Syria, Ukraine, Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, we see similar patterns meant to immobilize would-be challenges to economic and political power. As we look at the machinations of the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun organizations, we see their manipulation of the facts, and the use of their vast resources to intimidate political leaders into silence. They dismiss gun violence prevention advocates as naïve, unpatriotic and unrealistic, in ways remarkably similar to the way the Pharisees sought to marginalize and discredit Jesus.

Yet, there is even a more personal, political dimension to this special day. The Brazilian educator and liberation thinker Paulo Freire said that people of privilege who seek to be aligned with the oppressed had to go thru what he called an “Easter experience” in order to be in true solidarity with the poor. Of this experience he wrote:

“Such an [Easter experience] implies a renunciation of myths that are dear to them: the myth of superiority, of their purity of soul, of their virtues, their wisdom, the myth that save the poor, the myth of the neutrality of the church, of theology of education, science, technology, the myth of their own impartiality. … This Easter, which results in the changing of consciousness, must be existentially experienced. The real Easter is not commemorative rhetoric. It is praxis; it is historical involvement.” (Politics of Education, p. 123).

The real Easter is praxis, historical involvement. The real Easter does not allow one to be removed from the struggles of history. The real Easter calls us to a choice to join with those who struggle.

As I listened to mothers and fathers at the Good Friday service share their grief at the loss of their children to gun violence, I was struck by the profound meaning of the cross that was challenging me to the side of the suffering and the oppressed. At the same time they shared their commitment to rid the streets of guns and to save other parents from the suffering they themselves must endure. The oppressed know Jesus because he shares their sorrow and struggle and if I am to know Jesus in any real way I must choose to join them. I must let go of my “myths“ of invincibility, of transcendence, of exceptionalism. Their pain must become my pain, their sorrow my sorrow, their struggle my struggle. I have to make a choice.

So I have come through this Good Friday-Easter commemoration with a renewed commitment to transformation and renunciation of privilege, and a desire to join those who know Jesus’ suffering because they suffer with him. However at the same time they know the resurrection of Jesus, because despite great tragedy and struggle they have a fire in their bones for change; like the women at the tomb they long to see a resurrection of hope in their community. I too want that fire; I too want a resurrection of hope; but to do so, I must make a choice. I must undergo an Easter experience again… and again… and again.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Supreme Court Shame

During the Civil Rights Movement, the court system, particularly the Supreme Court was regarded as the one branch of government that could largely be counted on to protect the rights of African-Americans when Congress and the Executive Branch were stymied by political concerns. Because of the Supreme Court schools were desegregated and basic rights were affirmed, even when lower courts at the municipal and state level ignored or shirked their responsibilities.

However, yesterday to its shame the Supreme Court affirmed and expanded the rights of wealthy individuals to unfairly influence the political system by removing all limits on the amount of money people can contribute to political campaigns. (Link to article here)  This follows the ”Citizens United” decision of 2010 , which deemed corporations to be legally considered “persons,” who then could contribute in an unrestricted way to political campaigns.  A political system that already was bought and sold to the highest bidder, now just came even more deeply entrenched in a system where the wealthy and the powerful get access that the rest of us do not.

For the last two weeks the Philadelphia Inquirer has run a special report focusing on an investigation of five local state legislators who were caught on tape receiving money or gifts from a paid informant. The value of the money or gifts was in the thousands of dollars. While I think that such actions should be brought to light, the irony was that the problem was not that they received these money and gifts; it was that they did not report them. That is, it’s okay for legislators to receive money as long as they make it known. In Sunday’s (March 30) paper just below the latest installment on this case, there was an article describing how in 2013 Comcast, one of Philadelphia’s largest employers, spent $18.8 million lobbying for its interests, and employing 107 lobbyists to do their bidding. Comcast was listed as only the seventh largest lobbying spender in the country, the largest being the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which spent $74.5 million on lobbying in 2013. This was all perfectly legal and does not include campaign contributions.( See article here) 

What is wrong with this picture? A few small time politicians take some small change and get smeared, but large corporations and wealthy individuals get to make their case in exchange for gifts and money. Now the Supreme Court has essentially blessed this process and said the sky is the limit.

We need to recognize that whatever we want to call our form of government, it is not democracy. Democracy by definition is a system that is rooted in the community and gives all persons, regardless of rank, wealth, or position, an equal voice in government. One way to view our history as a nation is to see it as a struggle to make the dream of democracy a reality for all: people of color, women, various racial/ethnic groups, the poor, and now undocumented immigrants. The slogan “One person, one vote” is the bedrock of democracy; all get a voice and no voice is of greater inherent value than another. If we are to reclaim our democracy, it must start by denouncing the lie that wealth gives one the right to greater influence, and by working to strengthen local communities and if necessary take to the streets to reject such efforts.

In Philadelphia, the interfaith network POWER is working with local unions and the City Council to pass a referendum on May 20 that would ensure that any company doing business with the city would pay its employees and subcontractors 1 ½ times the minimum wage, which at this time would mean the wage would be $10.88/hr. Fast food workers across the country have been advocating for a similar provision in their contracts.  The Immokalee Workers in Florida have been advocated for similar treatment among farmworkers. Already the corporations have pressed hard for such efforts to fail, threatening to cut jobs while fearing that their profits might not be as great. Ironically despite their rhetoric about jobs and profits they seem to have the money to put pressure on politicians. (Hmmm – ironic isn’t it?) What communities have is people. We are engaged in a war, and the issue of a living wage is only one battle in that war.

The Supreme Court’s decision has made clear that the government is up for sale. Those who believe in true democracy, and not the plutocracy we now call our government, must act with equal or even greater force.