Being there.This is my friend and former roommate Christa. She was arrested yesterday in Washington, DC, along with 114 other people.
So what's she smiling about?
The thing is, Christa is one of those peaceniks who gets arrested on purpose. I know--didn't she get the memo that the Civil Rights movement ended decades ago?
Except that it didn't. Christa knows that in this country, justice has not yet rolled down like water, nor righteousness like a mighty stream. The fact is that lots of people in this country are still in chains, oppressed by poverty, denied the right to health care, food, and housing. The federal government could help to fix this. It could make some changes that favor poor folks. It can't solve all problems, of course, though it can try to solve a few. But it hasn't. It won't. To people like Christa, this is discouraging, but it's not an excuse to give up. You have to show up in spite of the odds. You have to keep telling the truth. You have to be present. You have to speak the prophetic "no," while pointing to God's emphatic "yes." Sometimes you have to do this while standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Yes, like most religious people, Christa just won't shut up about the good news. Good news as in, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18). Good news as in, "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty" (Luke 1:53-54). You can read some more of this type of good news in Christa's commentary about her arrest.
Don't misunderstand me: I don't think something like the recent budget cut-slash-tax break, which prompted this DC protest, is a cut and dried issue. I struggle with what we should expect from the government on behalf of the poor, for what exactly we should hold it responsible. I wince when the rhetoric of the Christian left comes across merely as a photographic negative of that of the Christian right; I do not expect the U.S. government to behave as though it were guided by biblical principals, and some of the Sojourners language can come across as imperialistic as Focus on the Family's. Christians should not be surprised when the government does things like, say, passing a budget that cuts taxes for those who need them least and cuts programs for those who need them most. That's par for the course.
But though I may quibble with the rhetoric (and, occasionally, its motivation), it's the showing up that gets me. It's the bearing witness. Speaking the no, pointing to yes. That matters.
I recently got an email from a friend of mine in a different part of the world. She lives and works in Darfur, Sudan. Up until a few weeks ago, her city wasn't the scariest in Sudan, although it's far more dangerous than anywhere I've ever been, and it's only becoming worse. My friend works there to foster education about gender and sexual violence. Women are frequently raped on their way to get wood for their stoves. It's happened to almost everyone my friend knows there. It's that kind of place. And now the civil war has spread into their backyards. Thousands of people have been killed, almost overnight. It's one of the most hopeless places on planet earth.
Yet this is what my friend had to say in her email:
"I wish I could tell you guys that we are making a difference. I wish that as humans we could truly do something to alleviate suffering on a permanent basis. I wish we could offer more than temporary alleviation.
"Yet for all the bad on both sides and despite all the mistakes that we make, agencies and the powers that be, I know that between being here and not being here, it is better to be present. At least the presence of the international community communicates to those innocent and caught in the middle that they are worthy of attention and assistance even if it is never quite enough.
"I think war is a great place to go if you need any convincing that there isn't a solution outside of Jesus. I don't mean that tritely or cynically. Even if the fighting stops here the hellacious leftovers will last generations. For every town you help another one gets burned down. For every child you feed at least two more die. You can't really stop evil. But I believe our victory lies in knowing that its hold is only on this world and not the one to come. And even though you can't necessarily stop evil on any kind of grand scale you can at least say, scream, shout out that it is wrong. That is why I am here – to say its wrong even if I can't stop it."
This friend won't shut up about the good news, either. Good news as in, "Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God's Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace" (Luke 1:78-79).
Sometimes showing up lands you in jail. Sometimes it lands you in the belly of hell on earth. Showing up is almost never as productive as you hope it will be, and it's usually rewarding only in the most painful, circuitous, internal way. It rarely counts in the economy of this world. But being there is not about making a difference, although we try in spite of everything, and we rejoice when we place even the tiniest chink in the armor of the enemy. The point is not how efficient the good news becomes when we tell it. The point is that we tell it at all.