Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Price of Dissent

Last month, I was arrested along with several of my colleagues as we sought to speak with Jamie Dimon before he testified to the Senate Banking Committee. We accompanied Deborah Harris, a DC homeowner who was unjustly foreclosed on by JP Morgan Chase, where Mr. Dimon serves as CEO and Chairman of the Board. We stood with her as she asked this powerful man a simple question: Why don't you face the people that you foreclosed on?

Jamie Dimon's answer was clear: Because you don't matter. Mr. Dimon never acknowledged Deborah's presence, and we were arrested and locked in jail for most of the day. We received a forceful response from those wealthy few who control our government and our economy: You will speak only when spoken to. You will learn who is in charge here.

This message continued to be delivered as we were arraigned at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on Tuesday morning. I was surprised by how much the court looked like TV courtrooms - think Judge Judy or The People's Court. The dominant image was a very large seal of the court, with flags - of the United States and the District of Columbia - on either side. These symbols of authority rested immediately behind the judge's seat, which sat far back, behind two long desks where about half a dozen clerks stood or sat, processing the perhaps fifty people being arraigned that morning.

The whole scene was purposefully crafted to elicit a feeling of reverence towards the authority of the court. The lawyers and those being arraigned sat in the forward part of the courtroom, on long, wooden benches that were very similar to pews in a church building. I leaned over to Deborah at one point and whispered, "I feel like we're in church." But I learned not to talk too much, as bailiffs regularly came by and sternly warned us not to speak or use our cell phones. Let all the earth keep silent before the authority of this court!

This sense of religiosity was no accident. When the judge entered the courtroom, one of the clerks pronounced a long string of official words, including, "God save the United States and this honorable court." This invocation of God's name - however shallow and formal - further emphasized to me the weight of the civil religion that permeated the court. Everything was mediated through ritual; all the details of the court's furnishings, layout, decorum and vocabulary evoked an atmosphere of solemn reverence. But who, or what, were we venerating?

I was not sure whether it was Law, or the State, or the Court, or some vague spirit of Authority that we were being not-so-subtly pressured to worship, but one thing was very clear to me: It was not God. One of the most disturbing things about our arraignment yesterday was this blasphemous liturgy of the State, whose message was clear and powerful: Submit. Fear. Forget who you are and become what we say you are.

It was essentially the same feeling that I got at the jailhouse last month. The point of the system is to instill order, always defined in the system's terms, regardless of the cost to human dignity. As we sat in our benches and were rebuked by the bailiffs for "talking too much," we got the message: While we were in that courtroom, we were to be in utter dread of Authority, totally attentive to its whims. Just like in the jailhouse, the physical and psychological space was purposefully engineered to break down individual identity and self-will, transferring all agency and power to the officialdom and bureaucracy of the court.

It is one thing to write about this environment, but it is another thing entirely to experience it first hand. I would not have imagined it to be so irresistible, so psychologically overwhelming; yet I found it extremely difficult to stay grounded in God and in my true identity as a child of the light. Having this personal experience of the terrifying power of the court system - with all its blasphemous ritual and pomp - I am beginning to understand how truly bold George Fox was when he dared to stand before a judge and admonish him to "quake before the power of the Lord." Fox knew better than anyone that the function of courts and judges and civil religion is not to tremble before the Lord, but to make others shake before human authority.

I was reminded of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, where Paul writes that there are indeed "many gods and many lords, yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist." There are powers and rulers and authorities in this world, and we must decide which authority we are to place ourselves under. Will it be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Or will it be some other authority?

The image of Christ as judge, holding court and delivering the ultimate verdict at the end of time, takes on new relevance for me now that I have experienced the dread of the human court system. For though human courts can be unjust, Christ rules with equity and impartiality; while human courts direct veneration and awe back to themselves, Jesus directs our attention, awe and worship back to the Father, our sovereign Creator.

I do not mean to suggest that human courts are essentially evil and should be done away with. Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans that all authorities that exist have been instituted by God. The courts of the United States can only exist because God has created Authority itself; human institutions are intended to reflect this authority, which God created as a servant for good. Unfortunately, this God-given authority that was created to preserve life in human community has been twisted and corrupted by human sin - both individual and collective.

There is no doubt in my mind that our court system is deeply affected by the distorting effects of sin. Worst of all, our human institutions of authority often play a role in sustaining the fruit of sin: violence, injustice, dehumanization and fear. Probably the clearest example of this is the way our legal system perpetuates systematic racial discrimination. Except for most of our group, who had been arrested for a political offense, all of the other people being arraigned yesterday were African-American. We got to hear quite a few of their arraignment proceedings before our turn came around, and the great majority of them were charged with drug possession. Observing this process, I was more convinced than ever that the Drug War is being used as a tool of oppression, and racial and class discrimination.

Even for a case like ours, which has nothing to do with drugs, all of us were required to submit to a drug test. This did not sound so bad, until I learned that the test involved urinating into a cup in a room full of mirrors while a man stood by, watching me. This was really unnerving, and I had to try a second time before I could bring myself to do it.

Even after all of this, our case is still pretty much up in the air. We have been ordered to stay away from the Dirksen Senate Office Building, and we were assigned a status hearing for Monday, August 13th. We will not know anything more until then. In the meantime, I would ask for your continued prayers. I find the uncertainty that comes with being caught up in this legal machine very stressful, and I need all the support I can get to stay grounded.

I am so grateful for everyone who has reached out and shown support since the arrest. This whole process has really taught me the meaning of the word solidarity. Imprisonment and court proceedings are a special kind of distress, and having my community behind me is so important. Thank you for all the love and support that you have shown me. This would all be much harder if I did not have you to lean on.

Let me close with George Fox's epistle #237:

Dear Friends and brethren,

The Lord is with you all everywhere, who suffer for his name and truth's sake,
in all your bonds and afflictions be of good comfort, for the Lord is with you;
neither be dismayed at your sufferings, for if you suffer, Christ suffers;
and if you are persecuted, it is Christ who is persecuted;
and if you are not visited, it is Christ who is not visited;
and if you are oppressed, it is he who is oppressed.
And he will lay no more upon you than you are able to bear. [...]
[Christ] has a fellow feeling with you all, in all your bonds and afflictions;
and Christ who suffers, will overcome all his enemies.
He reigns,
and they must be his footstool to stand upon.
And so, be of good faith, and be valiant for the truth upon the earth.

George Fox 


Robyn said...

With you in all ways prayer can support.
Community is the only true insurance

Marcelle Martin said...

Thanks, Micah, for standing with Deborah and others who have been foreclosed, and for this description of the atmosphere of worshop-of-the-court's-authority that is so palpable in the courtroom. My prayers are with you.

Raye said...

You are in my thoughts much of the time these days, Micah. Hope to see you soon.

forrest said...

A good (though challenging) place for meditation and prayer!

And as you say, far more educational than reading about courts at a safe distance.

Micah Bales said...

Thank you all so much for your prayers and support!

julielizabet said...

Excellent post, Micah. Not that our situations are similar to yours, but having been to municipal court now three times and county court once (and more to come), I know a little of what you're talking about when it comes to the courtroom itself and the stress it imposes. But I think I like this part best: "There are powers and rulers and authorities in this world, and we must decide which authority we are to place ourselves under. Will it be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Or will it be some other authority?" I couldn't agree more. What I'm relating with here is the fundamental knowledge you have, as I have also had with the whole St. Mary's ordeal, that there are times when God is specifically asking you to make a stand. Backing down is simply not an option.

Unknown said...

May we all grow in the ability to keep our hearts tuned into God.

Thanks, Micah, for sharing your experiences. They have fanned the flames of the Spirit in me.

No powers come into existence without God’s knowledge. Only he fully knows the intentions of those powers and can move us to make responses that further his plans for his creation.

Marshall Massey said...

...I found it extremely difficult to stay grounded in God and in my true identity as a child of the light.” Yes. And the fact that you say this, without being prompted, is very reassuring to me, because it declares that you are making the effort. My prayers are with you, Friend!

...I am beginning to understand how truly bold George Fox was....” Now, that is an interesting matter, and deserves a bit of further exploration.

As George Fox records in his Journal, he was led, at the very beginning of his public ministry, to take up a group of testimonies, such as the refusal to swear, the refusal to say “you” to an individual, and the refusal to post bond. What turned out to be significant about this group of testimonies — aside from the plain fact that they were the right things to do — was that they were guaranteed to (a) affront the privileged and self-important, (b) win the respect of people sincere about religion, and (c) provide a clear pointer to the sort of Christianity that had real integrity.

All those testimonies turned out to be exceedingly effective in the courtroom. The leading that provided Fox with those testimonies was thus, without a doubt, one of the greatest spiritual gifts he received; we would not have a living Quaker movement today if that gift had not been given!

Alas, the same testimonies are not so effective in courtrooms today, because the weasel-mind of worldliness has learned how to neutralize them (e.g., by offering us the choice to swear or affirm as if it were a matter of boring routine, and by perceiving “thee” to an individual as merely quaint). But I daresay that if we start with the same question that Fox seems to have started with — what practices that we take for granted are inconsistent with a Creation fully restored from sin? — we might yet be given testimonies of equal power.

I pray that we may given that new gift — you, and I, and all Friends who are sincere in their commitment to the path of Christ.

paula said...

Micah, my sense is that drug tests violate our religious beliefs. Our yea is yea, our nay is nay. A drug test states, "We don't believe you," just as requiring us to swear says we might lie.


Micah Bales said...

Marshall - I appreciate these observations, and I think that you pose some excellent areas for discernment.

It is easy to get fixated on the details of what our spiritual ancestors did in the past, but what does it look like to live into that same Life and Power today, in our present context?

Shannon said...

Dear Friend,

I found when I engaged in Civil Disobedience a few years ago it to be very important to my sanity to follow my leading to the letter to stand against the war in Iraq. If I had allowed my arrest to become me standing against my culture as a whole or our entire corrupt system of government I would never have been able to stay grounded in the spirit, because it would have become about me and my political opinions rather than following spirits leading. I am not greater than the system, or my culture but spirit
is. I experienced to change the system it must not be me standing in the way of an evil system but that of god within me, the rest of my body is more of a follower. And while you can put me in handcuffs, you cannot put that of god within me in handcuffs.

It sounds as if you are seeing many things that are wrong with the world and contrary to the spirit of Christ. My question for you is, what is Christ leading you to do friend? I am holding you in the light as you go through this process.

Thank you for your faithfulness to spirit and your willingness to follow your leadings into the belly of the beast.

Holding you in Christ's Love

Unknown said...

Micah. Peace be with you, messenger of the most high! Be encouraged! There are more with you than there are with those who 'seem' powerful. Truly. Tangeably. Warrior-spirits of light are NOT 'fairy tales.' May you percieve them going before you, preparing things; and be encouraged even more.

The questions, demands, and challenges that you servants bring towards the powers over our communities are 'ours' as well as yours. Just as a solitary 'prayer voice' is heard, but lifted by many hearts 'in agreement', so also we say in our hearts "God of Lovingkindness.. look on this work for you. Increase! may it be so! amen!"

We thank you Micah. The reporting of this work is a 'lasting work' in itself. I am comfortable sharing your reports because they are not so rife with the standard 'chants, rants, and rude, foolish, and counter-productive character assasinations' that pervade the expressions of those around me engaged in various 'battles'. This written report is already encouraging a humble and hardworking group named Chattanooga Organized for Action, whose ways and means are respectful and effective. I intercede for them and encourage them to 'stay alive' by staying 'spiritually minded'. Please continue to give updates.

I wish i could hire you a personal secretary and somebody to haul you around on the back of a custom tandem bike while you engage in your communications. You're a mighty valuable character, son. Work fresh! Keep your perspective.. (5-600 entire Quaker families in jail just in Bristol England alone in 1650 ..celebrate strange urination moments..) Joy moves the darkness back more than bitterness and complaints do. Youre in the BEST work. Congratulations.
Be the brightest light. David-Stephen