Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Liberation of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a tricky holiday. Established by a war-time president, then propped up with historically inaccurate legends, and now largely overlooked by retailers, how should we view Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving can be especially problematic for folks who are not part of the privileged Anglo heritage. Not only is turkey and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce very foreign, but the legends of pilgrims and Native Americans sitting together seem to mock their day-to-day experience. Their schools and neighborhoods get routinely and often systematically neglected. Their employers keep them guessing if they will have a job tomorrow. Many live in fear that they or their loved ones will be captured by police and deported.

And even giving thanks can seem more like a distraction than a joyful holiday practice. I recall a quote from Eugen V. Debs, the great labor organizer of the late 19th century, “Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.” After all, in using the language of the Occupy movement, the 1% wants the 99% to thank them for their jobs and the way that they keep money flowing in our economy, and thus it is a regressive ploy to blind the suffering masses of their plight.

Yeah, so happy freakin’ Thanksgiving. Now let’s get out the Festivus stick and get to the feats of strength.

That kind of attitude just doesn’t sit well with me. Of course, coming from an Anglo-American background, I can identify with the happy-go-lucky sentiment of the Thanksgiving legend, however blatantly false and pernicious it may be. But the point is that we move beyond the bitterness of oppression. Paolo Freire pointed out that we cannot allow oppression to continue its cycle; we must break free from it.

I believe that giving thanks can help us break free from oppression.

Really, thankfulness can be liberatory. I think back to the things that I was thankful for in my elementary school classes where we acted out the Thanksgiving legend. My classmates and I rarely said material things. We talked about family, friends, and security—maybe not in those terms, but it was what we meant.
I recall my favorite Thanksgiving tradition. My grandmother always brings mincemeat pie to remind her and the entire family about how people provide for each other in times of need. It’s about what we could call agape, or unconditional love. It’s about grace.

In recognizing grace in our lives, we break free from the material hells that so many people inhabit. We are no longer cogs in a machine that simply increases the bottom line of a corporation, but we are also agents overflowing with the energy that comes from grace. That energy flows into all sorts of things that affirm our vitality—art, music, athletics, academics, family—and these things are naturally liberatory.

So whether you carve the Tom turkey on Thursday or protest its imperialist implications, remember to give thanks.

The gates of liberation are opened by the keys of thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Carwashero Takes the People's Mic

The power of the Occupy movements all over the country and across the world is that the microphone is taken away from the 1% plutocrats and then given to the folks who have such little means to tell their story. The beauty of the “people’s microphone”, the method of sound amplification via dozens of people repeating what the speakers is saying, is that the crowd recognizes everyone’s right to their voice. That power and that beauty is humbling yet empowering.

Now let’s give the people’s mic to a carwashero.

On Tuesday afternoon car wash workers in the Chicago Southwest Side neighborhood of Little Village took that people’s mic and told their story. They worked for 12-hour days in all sorts of Chicago weather with little or no safety equipment, receiving abuse after indignity from their boss.

And then they didn’t even receive actual wages for their work. Their employer distributed only the tips that the workers received for their labor, resulting in some days of only $40 for a 12-hour day. That, dear friends, is the story of wage theft.

This story isn’t only true because it happened to these car wash workers. It’s true because it happens every day all over the United States, in urban landscapes and rural communities alike. In a landmark study of wage theft in America’s three largest cities, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, researchers showed that workers lost more than $56.4 million per week.[i] This money is taken from the most vulnerable workers in our country, where the difference between making rent, putting food on the table, and providing medicine for one’s children is a matter of hours of pay.
Worker advocates call wage theft the crime epidemic that no one talks about, and that falls right into the Occupy narrative. The rich, powerful, and connected in our society try very hard to make sure that the vast majority of people not only accept these abuses but are thankful that folks have degrading, subsistence-level jobs. However, low-wage workers are finding a way to tell their side of the story.

Workers’ centers and their union allies act as a sort of people’s mic for low-wage and immigrant workers to make sure people hear about they experience every day. While the 1% tries to divide and demonize the lower strata of workers, workers’ centers unite and affirm the humanity carwarsheros and other low-wage workers.

I personally had the privilege of acting as a person’s mic at the protest on Tuesday, translating for a worker named Martín. Just like other workers I’ve met while serving as a missionary with the national group Interfaith Worker Justice, Martín understood how powerful his voice can be when other workers and advocates stand with him and amplify his voice for the world to hear.

So, on a day when Occupy movements affirm their power to speak with a prophet’s voice, let’s give that people’s mic to a carwashero and occupy together.

[i] Berhardt, A., Milkman, R., Theodor, N., et al. 2010. Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations in Employment and Labor Law in America’s Cities. Chicago: Center for Urban Economic Development, Uinveristy of Illinois at Chicago, New York: National Employment Law Project, Los Angeles: UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Radical Reconciliation

The building was dwarfed by the skyscrapers that surrounded it. Down in the Financial District of New York City, the John Street Church seemed like a real-life anachronism tucked into the canyons created by the towers looming dozens of floors into the mid-Atlantic sky. It had a humble, wooden sign that protruded in a way that seemed better suited for a British pub than a house of worship amongst the temples of capital. But there it was, housing the oldest Methodist congregation in the United States
I visited John Street Church with my US-2 peers on Thursday night of our mid-term training. The seven of us young adults came from a variety of locations—Detroit, Fargo, Honolulu—and we had spent the day deconstructing the factors that drive contemporary mass migration, speaking on a panel across from the United Nations, and visiting a community organization based in East Harlem. It was already a full day, crisscrossing the island of Manhattan, but we had yet to go to visit Occupy Wall Street that night. So we stopped at John Street Church.

We ate dinner in the basement of the church, which also served as a small museum with artifacts from early American Methodism, including the earliest known portrait of John Wesley. As we munched on Cuban cuisine from just around the corner, Pastor Jason described the relationship that had developed between the 256-year-old congregation and the protestors at Zuccotti Park only a few blocks away. The congregation was a mix of young adults working downtown and homeless folks who tried to scrape by on the streets, of left-wingers who went to every General Assembly at Occupy Wall Street and protectors of the 1%’s wealth. In this mix, what were the Methodists on John Street to do?

As a self-proclaimed radical who was arrested a week prior for refusing to vacate Grant Park as part of Occupy Chicago, I wanted to hear Pastor Jason talk about how bold the church was. Certainly the body of Christ proclaimed a new day of liberation of poor and opened the doors to the Occupiers! Actually…no, not exactly. The John Street congregation decided to use their unique location to proclaim another Christian principle: reconciliation.

Pastor Jason explained that it is clear in the scriptures that Jesus came to proclaim liberation to not only the 99% but the 100%. The one time that Jesus himself used the 99 vs. 1 dichotomy (Matt. 18: 10-14), the special preference goes to the 1. While Jesus taught crowds in ways similar to teach-ins held around the United States at various Occupy movements, Jesus was not really a populist. After all, the crowds wanted to seize him and dispose of his revolution as often as they wanted to make him king.

That’s the funny thing about this grace thing—it’s free to everyone. Yes, the prophets and Jesus showed that God has a special preference for the despised and marginalized of the world, however Jesus also showed that grace is for everyone. At the point when Jesus could have utilized the crowd best—the triumphant entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate on Palm Sunday—Jesus immediately left the city after clearing the temple of the corrupt money-changers.

There was no populist Occupy Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. After all, Jerusalem was already occupied by the Roman legions.

The experience of grace that leads to true metanoia, or what we might call repentance, can occur in all people. Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, but Jesus didn’t say that the poor would just walk through either. There is no cheap grace—not for Wall Street, not for Liberty Park (as the Occupiers call Zuccotti Park), not for the neglected ghettos of South Side Chicago, not for the expanses of farms of the Midwest. Grace is terribly and awfully expensive.
And so we proclaim Christ crucified. We do not pay for grace ourselves, but God gives grace by shedding the life-blood of Christ, the begotten Son of God. The payment is wretchedly ugly and ignoble and undignified. It probably looked something like the slow death of Muammar Qaddafi, except Jesus wasn’t hiding when his persecutors captured him.

So what does this have to say about Occupy Wall Street and the Church? I think it says that we still have a lot to learn about this grace thing. It is not summed up in chant-able verses glorifying the 99%. It is not found in leftist ideologies that claim to redistribute the ill-gotten wealth of the bourgeoisie to the wretched of the earth. Grace is found solely in the cross.

So while I will continue to support the Occupy movement, especially in Chicago, I go knowing that my ultimate concern (in the words of Paul Tillich) is with my Lord and God. And that may just lead back to a South Side holding cell (but hopefully not until after my hearing on Nov. 21st). Or it may lead to sharing the Elements with a hedge-fund manager because he needs that grace just as much as I do.

That is radical reconciliation.