Friday, April 27, 2012

Who is "We"?

In my writing, I use the word "we" quite frequently. I sometimes make statements about what "we" believe, and I ask questions that are for "us" to answer. Though I have known instinctively that there are times when it is appropriate to say "I" and other times when I feel it is right to say "we," I had not really thought about this distinction in a systematic way until recently.

Much of the conversation around my writing takes place on Facebook. One recent discussion of a post involved almost one hundred and fifty comments, and became a wide-ranging discussion about the nature of Truth and personal experience. Over the course of this conversation, it became clear that several individuals were offended by my use of the word "we." They did not agree with some of my statements, and they felt that I was attempting to speak for them. "Use 'I' statements," they insisted.

This exchange gave me an opportunity to reflect on why I use the word "we" at specific times, rather than couching all of my writings exclusively in the language of personal narrative. I have come to a deeper understanding of why I use the words that I do, and for this I am grateful.

It seems that some individuals - particularly Universalist Liberal Quakers - interpret my use of the word "we" to include them personally. When I say that "we believe thus and so," they feel affronted. How dare I speak for them? If you are one of these Friends, let me assure you: I do not presume to speak on your behalf.

The English language, like most European languages, has only one word for "we." It is an ambiguous word, because it does not indicate whether the addressee is included as subject. There are many languages in which there are two different words for "we." The first word means "we, including you." The second word means, "we, not including you." I find that those who are upset by my writing often assume that "we" includes them as the addressee.

I have realized that my writing often relies on this ambiguity. As a matter of fact, I do not want to make a firm decision about whether "we" includes the reader, or not. Instead, my use of the word "we" is meant to be invitational. The reader, I hope, will feel free to judge for herself whether or not she is included in this "we." At best, I am inviting others into an emerging community of those who are being saved by the love and justice of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though I am aware that many who read my blog may not yet wish to be a part of this particular community, I seek to leave the door open. "We" can include you, if you so choose.

I am clear, though, that I do not merely speak for myself. I speak out of a tradition, out of a community, and out of the worldwide Body of Christ. I am articulating a way of discipleship that is rooted in our (including you?) faith in Jesus as risen and present Lord and Teacher, Savior of the world. This is not something I made up. It is not merely my personal experience. I seek to express and embody the witness of the universal Church of Jesus Christ.

I get it wrong sometimes, without a doubt. And I rely upon my brothers and sisters in faith to correct me when I stumble. But this correction happens within a framework of love and trust in the risen and present Savior, to whom we (including you?) have dedicated our lives. It is because of what Jesus has done for us - because of his Holy Spirit - that we are able to care for one another, and to hold each another accountable.

If you have not had this experience of Jesus - if you have not been personally convinced of his love, presence and authority in your life - I hope that you will take my use of "we" as an invitation. Rather than a statement about your personal experience of God, it represents the witness of a confessing community that has taken refuge in Jesus. We (including you?) know from experience that he stands at the door and knocks, waiting to include us all in his unlimited life and beauty. More than anything, he wants to make us a part of his holy "we."

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Spirit of the One Percent

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. - Ephesians 6:12

Who is the One Percent, anyway? A recent article in the Washington Post sought to answer that question - not merely with statistics, but through interviews with DC-area folks who fall within the top 1% of the income range. In Washington, DC it takes an annual household income of $617,000 to qualify. With the charged debate taking place about income inequality and corporate power, the Post reports that, "Some local millionaires... feel unfairly targeted." One wealthy individual characterized the Occupy movement as being, “one class of people driving another class of people against them... That’s the most anti-American thing you can do.”

I do not really know what qualifies as "American" or "anti-American," nor am I sure that it matters. However, I do think it is worth asking another question: How does the langauge of 99% and 1% relate to our faith as followers of Jesus?

Does the language of 99% and 1% dehumanize the super-wealthy? It certainly seems to have that potential. During my involvement in the Occupy movement, I have heard people say hateful things about other groups of people - whether it be police, politicians or the One Percent. These expressions of hate and dismissal - treating others as irredeemable objects of frustration - are clearly out of line with my Christian faith. Jesus laid down his own life for those who hated and oppressed him, and as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am called to pray for those who persecute me.

At the same time, Jesus stood up against the predatory lenders of his day. He called out the abusive religious elites who lorded their status over others and took advantage of the poor. Jesus loved everyone he met - and he forgave those who were ready to receive forgiveness - but he did not give a free pass to those who neglected their responsibility to care for the needs of the poor. The truth is, those who had the most consistently rejected Jesus.

And yet, our struggle is not against the particular individuals that make up the wealthiest 1% of the United States. Demonizing other human beings and directing our anger at them does not address the underlying issues at work. Our fight is not with human beings, but with the dark forces that keep us all enmeshed in a system that develops our most twisted and selfish inclinations. Rather than choosing to hate the "one-percenters," we must recognize that the spirit of the One Percent is alive within all of us.

Much of the economic elite does not believe that they are that well-off.  Many interviewed by the Post, "were quick to point out that, in an area with the country’s eighth-highest cost of living, they didn’t have as much left over for luxuries as those in the 99 percent might imagine." One family described their lives as "typical, stereotypical... very normal, upper-middle-class..." Another interviewee said, "Once you pay for a house, a car and child care, it’s not that much money. ... [We] feel like regular middle class people." There are many, it seems, who are leading "very normal" lives in their "very normal" million-dollar homes.

When I read these interviews, I can barely contain my anger. How can they not see their own privilege? Do they not realize that most people in DC live on a tiny fraction of what they do? If their salaries feel like "not that much," imagine what the rest of us feel like in this economy! It is easy for me to feel infuriated at these clueless rich folks. Until I realize: I am just like them.

My wife and I share a personal automobile. We own a house with running water, electricity, heating and air. We have internet access in our home, and we never go hungry. We have both been nurtured by relatively stable families, and we have never experienced the threat of war. Still, with our combined income, we often feel like we are just barely scraping by. DC is indeed a very expensive place to live. And yet, especially by national standards, we are in a better financial situation than many.

And then I think of my trip to East Africa last summer. I think of the material deprivation of rural Kenya. I remember the dirt floors. I recall that most meals there are simply ugali (sort of like grits) and greens - you are lucky to get protein once a day. I think about how between the members of my nuclear family we probably own more books than the library of Friends Theological College, the premier Quaker seminary in East Africa.

One of those interviewed by the Washington Post said that he already drives a Jaguar, but he does not consider that a sign of true wealth. His dream is to be able to, "drive by the Ferrari store and say, ‘I want that red one,’ and just buy it.” When I first read this, the man's lack of perspective simply blew me away. How could he not see the obscenity of his greed?

But then, he became a mirror. How many times have I said to myself, "I wish I did not have to worry about money." Me, with my house and a personal automobile. Me, with clean water to drink and a refrigerator full of food. Me, with access to good hospitals and skilled surgeons. Me, a citizen of the wealthiest empire the world has ever known. How silly is that? I worry about money.

I believe in the struggle for economic justice and grassroots democracy represented by the Occupy movement. I believe that the corruption of the wealthiest elites must be exposed and challenged. I believe that the poor and middle classes  - the 99% - must join together to push for a moral economy. Yet, I also recognize that our problems run far deeper than the personal failings of the economic elite. We are all caught up together in this culture of self-centered greed.

How can we take responsibility for our own participation in a culture that worships money and cultivates fear of deprivation? How can we root ourselves in the Spirit that frees us from greed and pride, hunger and fear? As we work together to forge a moral economy rooted in our faith as friends of Jesus, can we confess our own need for changed hearts and lives?

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Fear of the Lord and the Comfort of the Holy Spirit

"Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, [the Church] increased in numbers." - Acts 9:31b

We read in Scripture that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." In this case, the word "fear" can be taken to mean holy awe - a recognition of God's majesty, power and beauty. This sense of awe relativizes all of our human plans, revealing in the light of God's glory how much we depend upon the continual grace of God. The fear of the Lord compels us to do things that we would normally avoid, to do work that exposes us to hardship, embarrassment and suffering. Strangely enough, this holy fear also gives us unearthly courage. Knowing that God alone is to be feared, we are freed from our terror of the many other authorities that demand our ultimate loyalty.

Unlike fear of human rulers, the fear of God does not diminish us. On the contrary, living in the fear of the Lord empowers us to grow to our greatest potential. As the writer of Acts observed, the early Church lived in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit. The holy awe that we experience as we stand before the Creator of the cosmos results not in the destruction of the self, but in transformation and fulfillment. When we truly experience who God is, we are compelled to lead lives of boldness, embracing the fear of God as the antidote to the many fears that the world seeks to impose on us.

In the fear of the Lord, we find true love - which casts out all human fear. The world's fear has to do with punishment, but the fear of the God is grounded in unconditional love and reconciliation. When we allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, we discover that Christ's leadership is qualitatively different from that of the rulers of this world. As Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans, "all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God." Rather than becoming God's slaves, we become his children! "For you did not receive a Spirit of fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, 'Abba!' Father, it is that very Spirit bearing witness that we are children of God..."

Knowing that we stand together before an infinitely powerful, majestically beautiful God, can we live together in the fear that casts out all fear? Knowing that we are children of the promise, submitting ourselves to God's loving care and guidance, will we embrace lives that cast aside all timidity and cringing before the twisted powers that govern our society? Living in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit, we will receive the courage to embody God's justice, mercy and healing power?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Occupy Zombie

I recently came across a blog post entitled, "Why I'm Not on the Occupy Band Wagon." The writer - who appears to be a Boomer - has a very unfavorable impression of the Occupy movement. Basically, that occupiers are young folks who have "gambled" on education and now, having lost the bet, want somebody else to foot the bill for their wreckless accumulation of debt. This is familiar. Since the beginning of the Occupy movement, we have been smeared as spoiled, entitled young people who are protesting because they want a free lunch. "Why don't these kids get jobs and stop complaining so much?"

I have no patience for this. The idea that the Occupy movement is fueled primarily by adolescent angst and middle-class entitlement is unfair, even if there is some hint of truth in the charge. The assertion that occupiers should "just get a job" and "take responsibility" is absurd. Most of the original occupiers (myself included) have jobs. The Occupy movement was launched by many of the best and brightest of our generation - erudite and highly motivated individuals who under normal circumstances would be leaders in both for-profit and non-profit sectors.

But there is not room for us. Because the economy is severely constricted and the Boomers have made poor choices and are now unable to retire, we Millenials face a job market that presents many of us with only three options: Working jobs that we are over-qualified for and which do not pay a living wage; going back to school, accumlating more debt while we ride out the recession; or living with our parents and working unpaid internships, in the hope that this might lead to something better. The very idea of Boomers scolding us on our entitlement, on our bad choices, when they are the ones who have tanked our economy and mortgaged our future for their short-sighted addiction to luxury, is sickening. After decades of frivilous materialism comes the final insult: many Boomers are projecting their own sins onto their children.

The idea that the Occupy movement represents adolescent posturing and entitlement is ludicrous. Though there is plenty of adolescence and posturing on display in this, as in any grassroots movement, the foundation of Occupy is our heartfelt desire to see the restoration of American democracy. Rather than hand over all our power to multinational corporations and the wealthiest .01%, we long to see ordinary people empowered to make decisions for our local communities, cities and regions. Rather than see our political system reflect a cynical "Pepsi versus Coke" fundraising campaign, we desire a renewed political landscape where the common good trumps the perogative of the super-rich, where ordinary people have as much say as Rupert Murdoch, Warren Buffett or the Koch brothers.

Which brings me to the matter that really concerns me. Rather than buying into the hedonism and selfishness of which we are commonly accused, I fear that we are being seduced in the opposite direction. In our desire to make a positive impact in the national discourse, I percieve that Occupy is being absorbed into a partisan agenda that is more concerned about Democrat Party victory in the Red vs. Blue culture wars than it is about challenging corporate power and the politics of raw greed.

In the early days of the Occupy movement, we clearly rejected the unholy matrimony of state and corporate power. We called out both Democrats and Republicans, exposing the ways in which both parties were corrupted by the unbridled influence of the big banks, big oil, multinationals and a small elite of super-rich individuals. The Occupy movement was fiercely non-partisan. Sure, we were against the Republican Party - but we had no love for Obama or the Democrats. We wanted fundamental change - truly grassroots democracy - not to be ruled by a slightly more benevolent wing of the wealthy elite.

Yet, today I perceive that we are at risk of losing the guileless integrity and fierce independence that made us such a terror to the status quo. With every day that passes, Occupy becomes ever more wedded to the institutional Left - the Democrat Party and their "progressive" allies. With organizations like MoveOn sponsoring the 99% Spring, the Occupy movement is poised to become a tool for Obama's reelection campaign. Six months ago, there was real hope that occupiers might find common cause with the grassroots, human base of the Tea Party (as opposed to the corporate-funded front organizations that now pass themselves off as a grassroots movement). Today, that seems unlikely, as Occupy becomes increasingly wedded to the failed dogma of the institutional Left, complete with uncritical support for the Democrat Party and its electoral aims.

All this leaves me wondering: Is it too late for Occupy? Is the movement, in fact, dead? Just as the Tea Party has long been a coopted pawn of the anarcho-capitalist Koch brothers, is the Occupy movement inevitably falling into the orbit of the corporate paternalism of the Democrat Party? Worse than simply being dead, is Occupy becoming a zombie, play-acting at life, but in reality only serving as a puppet for another set of elite interests?

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Burdens We Cannot Carry

It would be fair to say I have a lot of balls in the air. In addition to the work I do for Earlham School of Religion, I am involved in planting a new Quaker Meeting, doing foreclosure resistance with Occupy Our Homes DC, organizing with Occupy Faith and Occupy Church, and meeting various responsibilities within the wider Quaker community. Recently, I realized that each week I probably spend about twenty hours in meetings across the city - not including the time it takes to commute between them! Add to this all of the one-on-one appointments and out-of-town trips that I take, and just building and maintaining relationships has become a full-time job.

I have heard that Martin Luther once said, "I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer." I see the truth of this. Though I do not yet spend three hours a day in prayer, as the intensity of my daily schedule grows, so too does my need for time alone with God. Without a steady discipline of waiting worship, song, Scripture and writing - without taking time each day to focus only on Christ and his will for me - I would be lost in a flood of anxiety.

I know that I am not the first one to experience this. Examining Scripture, it seems that this type of daily discernment has been going on since the beginning of the Church. I find this passage from Acts 6:1-4 particularly striking:

Now, during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word." (Acts 6:1-4)

There was so much work to do within the early Christian community that the original twelve apostles were unable to keep up. There were thousands of people living in intentional community with needs to be met. The demands of logistics were clearly enormous, and yet just twelve men were being expected to carry the entire burden. Clearly, something was wrong with this picture!

It would be silly to pretend that I have as much on my plate as the twelve apostles did. Nevertheless, I do draw inspiration from the example that they set. They saw clearly that they were not capable of fulfilling every role within the community, and they had the wisdom invite the gifts that were present in the rest of the Church. There was no way that the twelve could manage the logistical needs of the burgeoning community in Jerusalem while at the same time preaching the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the city and the region. The apostles were clear that God was calling them to focus on sharing the gospel, and they had the foresight and humility to say, "We cannot do everything. We need help."

As my life fills with increasing responsibilities, I am routinely called to take a step back, humble myself in prayer, and ask God what it is precisely that I am called to do. There is usually just a small cluster of tasks that God is directing me to at any given time. By grounding myself in a daily practice of seeking God in prayer, submitting myself to the guidance of the Spirit, I am able to lay down everything except that particular handful of tasks that God is calling me to.

When I trust in Christ's guidance, he preserves me from burn-out. He gives me the strength and energy I need for the work he has called me to. Equally important, God gives me the opportunity to empower others to live into their own particular callings. When I try to do everything, I often get in the way of others, taking over where they should be leading. By faithfully attending to the particular role that God has assigned me in this moment, I can create space for others to exercise their gifts, as well.

How do you balance the many demands of work and social responsibilities? What is the place of prayer, study and reflection in your daily life? How have you learned to say "yes" to the service that God is calling you to, while encouraging others to pick up the pieces that you cannot carry?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Ordinary Faithfulness - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #41

Dear friends,

With spring in full bloom, this past month has felt alive with possibility - and with work! Exhilaration and exhaustion alternate as I seek to be faithful in my ministry with Capitol Hill Friends and to get equipped for my work within a grassroots movement for economic justice. While there are many challenges, the overall direction of the last month has been positive. I continue to find way opening for Spirit-led service within the Religious Society of Friends and in the wider community.

These last few months, I have developed many new relationships and have begun work with others to build organization and make practical gains for justice. My most energetic involvement continues to be with Occupy Our Homes DC, as we work to promote a society in which individuals and families are able to secure decent, affordable housing - a society in which the big banks are not permitted to throw honest, hard-working people out of their homes.

We won our first victory in late February, when we worked with Bertina Jones - an accountant and grandmother - to obtain a loan modification, despite the fact that Freddie Mac and Bank of America were dead set on kicking her out of her house. After raising public awareness of the issues - and the fact that Bank of America's dealings with Bertina were probably illegal - the two giant banks backed down, and the foreclosure on Bertina's home has been reversed.

Last week, we won another victory when we worked with DC tenant Dawn Butler to help her stay in her home, despite an imminent threat of eviction. Dawn's landlord had been foreclosed on some time ago, but in DC tenants have the right of first refusal - if they want to buy the house they live in, they are first in line. Unfortunately, JP Morgan Chase calculated that they could make more money by throwing Dawn out on the street. Apparently breaking the law and manipulating the courts, JP Morgan Chase had successfully obtained an eviction order. The US Marshalls were on their way, literally to throw Dawn's belongings out on the street.

Fortunately, we at Occupy Our Homes were able to mobilize very quickly, blockading Dawn's house while she went down to the courthouse to seek a stay of eviction. The courts had ignored her request before, but now they knew that the community was ready to stand in the way of eviction. We would not go quietly. With the pressure on, the judge granted Dawn a stay of eviction until her next court date, later this month. We feel confident that Dawn has a strong legal case, and will eventually be able to purchase her home. But we intend to keep the spotlight on until we know for sure.

Behind these exciting actions lies an increasing depth of organization. Much of my time has been taken up this past month with committee meetings, telephone calls, and outreach to the wider community. One of the most exciting ways that I have been able to reach out more broadly has been to get involved in a weekly pastors' breakfast, attended mostly (though not exclusively) by African-American ministers. It is a time for these pastors to come together, support one another in prayer, sermon and song, and to share their thoughts with one another about the latest happenings in the city. It is a real blessing for me to be able to take part in this gathering, and I am grateful for the opportunity to connect with so many seasoned leaders from the African-American Church here in DC.

My work in the wider community is complimented by an ever-deepening involvement in the ministry of Capitol Hill Friends. I have felt blessed this past month by regular mid-week meetings of the members. We gather to check in, do business, and support one another spiritually. It is a vital time for me to touch base and hear how the Lord is speaking to us in our individual lives, as well as in our shared ministry.

This past weekend, we held our Spring Retreat in Barnesville, Ohio, together with Friends from Detroit and Philadelphia. This is our third retreat since Capitol Hill Friends and New City Friends formed a network of mutual care and accountability. The gathering included not only members of our two groups, but also a like-minded friend from Philadelphia. We hope that as this network continues to evolve it will be a source of strength and encouragement for many local Meetings, as well as individuals who would benefit from the support and care that our network can provide.

It felt good to have our retreat in Barnesville. Roughly equidistant from DC and Detroit, Barnesville is also the hometown of Ohio Yearly Meeting, and functions as a sort of "Mecca" for Christ-centered, unprogrammed Quakers. Both New City Friends and Capitol Hill Friends have had significant involvement with Ohio Yearly Meeting, and our faith and practice is deeply influenced by their witness. It felt somehow right to me that we root our new Christian community in the same physical space as the ancient Ohio Yearly Meeting. It is my prayer that our emerging network will absorb many of the valuable traits of our Conservative kin, even as we seek to be faithful to the distinct call that God has for us as fellowship.

Life is vibrant for me right now, alive with an immediacy and urgency that feels both pregnant with possibility and grounded in responsibility. I find myself being called into new, risky action - both within the Quaker community, and in my work for economic justice. At the same time, I am pulled into a deep grounding in place and community. I feel increasingly accountable to Capitol Hill Friends, and to our wider network, and I am settling into a long-term commitment to a new neighborhood and community here in DC.

I never expected radical faithfulness to look so... Ordinary. I used to think that "freedom" meant not being constrained by anything but immediate, fiery revelation from God. I am beginning to see that what faithfulness looks like in my life right now is quite different from that romantic vision. Rather than becoming less entangled in the world, God is calling me to engage deeply in this human existence. I am to build a house and dwell in it; to plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

God calls me to show my commitment not by freeing myself from the conditions of everyday life, but instead by entering more deeply into them. Rather than taking me out of the world, Christ is guiding me into a life of deeper, inextricable involvement. Jesus challenges me to be part of not only a city on a hill, but also a city in the trenches. I feel God calling me to a witness that is anything but aloof - one that is revealed in its profound identification with the daily struggles of the human community.

The daily grind of ordinary faithfulness is harder to talk about than the exhilaration of big actions or gatherings. It is easy for me envision the Kingdom of God as existing in a daring, decisive moment - heroic, charged, picturesque bursts of clarity, beauty and power. Such moments do exist, and it is a blessing when they occur. Nevertheless, the foundation of all God's work is steady, hidden faithfulness in ordinary time. I pray for the Holy Spirit to teach me humility and singleness of vision to dwell in the divine ordinary, to embrace the simple pains, pleasures, duties and delights of life - all to the glory of God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

May his life and presence be with each of you, today and always.

Micah Bales

Friday, April 06, 2012

Resurrection Without the Cross is Dead

Yesterday morning, when I opened my inbox, one email jumped out at me. It was from YouVersion, an online Bible service that I am using to read the One Year Bible on my smartphone. The subject line declared in large, bold letters: "He Is Risen!"

This struck me as a bit premature. It was Maundy Thursday, the day when the Christian community remembers the Last Supper, Jesus' anguished hours praying in the garden of Gesthemane, and his midnight betrayal by Judas and arrest by the religious authorities. On Maundy Thursday, we remember that the Way of Jesus exposes us to persecution and betrayal.

Of course, that is not the part of the story that motivates me. I am not seeking to be abused and betrayed, let down by my best friends and hunted by those in power. I may recognize the necessity of suffering, but by no means do I seek it out. I think most of us gravitate towards the triumphant victory and joy of Jesus' resurrection. Victory is energizing, and we want to be victorious people.

Without the resurrection, of course, the suffering and death of Jesus would lose its meaning. If Jesus was only crucified, but not raised, then we have no hope. The resurrection gives meaning to everything that comes before and goes after it. The resurrection is a resounding statement of God's love for and solidarity with the human family. It represents God's ultimate "Yes" to humanity, bearing our burdens and overcoming them through love.

And yet, without Jesus' ministry and prophetic witness, without his suffering and death, the resurrection is stripped of its power. The joy of Easter without the tears of betrayal and the agony of the cross is a perversion of the Good News. The heart of the gospel is that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has fully identified with humanity, taking on our suffering, our burdens, our sin. By becoming a human being, by teaching and healing us, and by taking all our hate and violence upon himself, Jesus shows us how much God loves us - enough to suffer and die for those who hate him.

There is a temptation to ignore the incredible love that Jesus demonstrated on the cross. The cross is painful, it is messy, it convicts us of the ways that we continue to crucify Jesus through our participation in a corrupt economic and social order. The cross reminds us that we ourselves are responsible.

If we celebrate the resurrection without remembering the cross, we deny the incarnation. The greatest mystery and joy of the Christian faith is not the mere fact that Jesus rose from the dead. It is that he became one of us, experienced our suffering and died for us - at our hands, no less - so that we might be transformed and healed.

Today is Good Friday, the day when the Christian community remembers Jesus' torture and execution at the hands of the imperial and religious authorities. As we remember the price that Jesus paid to liberate us from bondage, let us also remember that we continue to live in a world where the innocent are crushed by the religious and imperial authorities. Let us examine our own hearts to see where our responsibility lies. Are we like the crowd that screamed, "crucify, crucify!"? Or perhaps we are like the disciples, who scattered and hid when persecution came.

This Good Friday, can we resist the temptation to fast-foward to Easter? Will we choose to see the suffering of the world, and the way that God suffers with us? Can we witness God's love for us in the cross? Let us make the time to remember the agony of the cross, and to reflect on the consequences of love in a broken world. When we embrace the work of the cross, walking with Jesus in his work of reconciliation, we will be able to say with all our hearts, "He is risen indeed!"

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Another Victory for Occupy Our Homes DC

On Sunday night, I got a call from one of my fellow organizers at Occupy Our Homes DC, who had just gotten out of a meeting with Dawn Butler, a local DC resident. US Marshalls would be showing up at her house early the next morning, and they planned to evict her. Some of our organizers had gathered information on the case, consulted legal counsel and met with the tenant in person. We made the determination that Occupy Our Homes DC should act immediately to prevent the eviction.

If carried out, this eviction would not simply be unfair - it would be illegal. In the District of Columbia, tenants have the right of first refusal when their landlords are foreclosed upon. That is to say, tenants have the legal right to buy the foreclosed property if they so desire. Yet, despite the fact that the law makes provision for Dawn to buy the home that she had lived in for years, JP Morgan Chase determined that it would be be more profitable to evict her and sell her residence to someone else. As so often seems to be the case in these situations, the pursuit of maximal profit trumped everything - even the rule of law.

Though we had less than twenty four hours' notice, we decided that Occupy Our Homes DC could play an important role in helping to turn the tide in this case. We sent out the word: If you can make it, be at Dawn Butler's house at 9:00 on Monday morning. It could make the difference between her being able to stay in her home, or being thrown out on the street.

I knew I had to be present for the eviction defense, regardless of the day or the hour - but I was skeptical that we would be able to turn out enough people on twelve hours' notice to effectively make a stand when the US Marshalls arrived. I was astonished the when I showed up the next morning to find a dozen folks already assembled. By nine 'o clock, there were perhaps thirty or forty of us present, with huge signs, two sound systems, and a readiness to stand in the way if the Marshalls insisted on throwing Dawn out of her house.

A little before nine, the movers showed up. It was a vanload of mostly African American men, whose job it was to haul out the belongings of those who were being evicted. I talked with some of these guys, and they told me that they often evict multiple houses a day. Some of them seemed sympathetic to Dawn and the unfair treatment she was receiving, though others avoided eye contact. What a lousy job, I thought. It must be terribly demoralizing to spend your days throwing people out of their homes! Many of them probably had few options and were doing what they felt they had to do to get by. At the same time, I wondered where personal responsibility came in. As a result of this experience, would any of them conclude that they could not longer participate in these evictions?

Fortunately, we were not forced to directly challenge either the US Marshalls or the movers. At around ten 'o clock, we got word that Dawn had secured a stay of eviction from the judge, allowing her to remain in her home until the next court hearing, later this month. This was a huge victory, allowing her to mount her legal case - which is a strong one - and hopefully be able to purchase her home.

Dawn told us later that the people at court knew that Occupy Our Homes DC was mounting resistance to the eviction, and that she got much better treatment by the court than she ever had before. Before, the court treated her as just another number; but now the courts and JP Morgan Chase know that Dawn has growing community support behind her. If they want to kick Dawn out of her house, they will face a serious public relations battle - one that will expose their immoral and illegal actions.

This rampant illegality is what really astonishes me. For better or worse, I expected big banks to be involved in unethical business practices. That seems par for the course in our economic system, which values maximum profit over all other considerations. But I never imagined how brazenly the biggest banks are engaging in outright illegal activity, nor how the court system goes right along with it! Occupy Our Homes DC will continue to work with residents of the DC metro area to expose these systematic unjust and illegal practices.

There are thousands of families being left destitute by predatory lenders, and we know that we can only help a few. Yet, we hope that those we are able to partner with will be transformed by the experience. Our goal is to empower grassroots leadership to arise in the community and challenge the grip of the big banks. We are learning that we do not have to accept the unjust status quo. We are discovering that we have the power to resist the abuses of the big banks and the corrupt court system. We are beginning to empower our local communities and economies, putting our money where our hearts are.

The work of Occupy Our Homes DC is important, but it is nothing compared to the power that will be unleashed if we unlock the leadership potential of ordinary Americans. We are looking for ways to empower our local communities, working to find shared solutions to the challenges we face. One thing is clear: We can no longer rely on big banks, big business or big government to solve our dilemmas.

Does this resonate with you? Are you involved in similar efforts in another city? What are other ways that you think we can be involved in empowering ordinary folks to do extraordinary things, living into the dream of participatory, grassroots democracy?