Friday, May 25, 2012

Dinner with Jesus and the CEO

The communion table is the ultimate Christian dinner table.
Wait, is that a can of Red Bull? (Photo by Tom Gaulke)
A few weeks ago I participated in a workshop at the Chicago Temple called “Resetting the Table”. It opened with a theological reflection from a professor at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in which our 21st century American society was compared to sitting down around a table for dinner. The professor posed 5 questions:
·         Who gets to sit at the table?
·         How are the seats arranged?
·         Do the elements served nourish the body?
·         What bonds are formed around the table?
·         And in whose name is the meal blessed?

Considering that I live in a co-op with seven roommates, these questions have quite direct implications on how I eat my kale and pasta at night.

The other important consideration is that this symposium took place only two weeks before NATO came to Chicago and in the middle of a national effort to get into shareholder meetings of the country’s largest companies. And about a week after the United Methodist Church General Conference.

Generally, I like to like to imagine that people get an equal shot to come to the dinner table; that no one has a more important seat than another; that the meal will help keep me healthy; that I become closer to the folks slurping soup around me; and we bless the meal in the name of God, our Creator and Redeemer. I like to think that generally our democratic systems in government, corporations, and churches run this way, too, though maybe in more secular terms for government and in corporations.

But that’s not the way it often works. Here’s an example.

On May 23 the CME Group, also known as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, held its shareholders’ meeting at the iconic Chicago Board of Trade building. To give you an idea of how important that is, Forbes Magazine called CME one of "the four companies that control the 140 companies that own everything.”  Corporations are ultimately accountable to the shareholders that own the corporation’s stock, so this was a big deal.

Last year CME Group threatened to leave the state of Illinois unless it received a billion dollars in tax breaks over the next 15 years. Illinois was and is facing record budget deficits, and now the state legislature is looking to cut $1.6 billion dollars of funding for health care for the poorest people in Illinois. Despite this fact, the legislature gave in to the CME’s demands and Illinois residents will pay the ransom for years to come.

That meal is poison for a state with the third-highest home foreclosure rate in the United States. How were the seats around that decision-making table set? In whose name was that meal blessed?

We live in a world where many, many people only have access to the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table. People of color, people without proper immigration documents, people with felony convictions, people who are attracted to the folks of the same sex, perpetually can’t eat at this dinner table. In fact, very few of us can eat at that dinner table.

Stamp on the hand of a friend who entered
the CME Group shareholder meeting. 
(Photo by Joe Hopkins)
Several people I know tried to go to the dinner table at the CME’s shareholder meeting. They had to show that they had shares of stock, and then their hands were stamped to show that they had only one share. When they asked the CEO about how nourishing the elements are for the people of Illinois, they were rebuffed. It was clear in whose name the meal was blessed.

I know that many people are debating the role of public protests this spring. Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement have people talking about it. When is it okay to set up tents in a public park? Is it out of order to keep singing in the middle of General Conference?

Jesus talked a lot about the dinner table, in fact a lot more than he did about homosexuality. And when Jesus talked about the dinner table, he included the despised people who normally would never eat with a CEO or a defense minister. And Jesus even deliberately disobeyed the rules during dinner.

Dear friends, let’s look at our dinner tables. Who gets to eat there? How are the seats arranged? Is the food good to eat? Are we becoming closer together as children of God? Do we take God’s name seriously when we say grace? I think we will find heartbreaking answers to these questions if we answer them honestly.

However, I know that the Spirit of God moves around the dinner table. The doors will burst open, and it won’t even matter what language you speak or what your immigration status is or what crime you were convicted for or who you have sex with. God is so much bigger than all of that.

And when you feel that Spirit whip around in tongues of fire, how will you respond?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Overcoming the American Undercaste

I caught up with the rather ragged band of walkers in front of a McDonalds in the Chicago suburb of Homewood. I learned that the stop was unplanned—the planned rest stop was at a Walmart a mile further south—but kids stopped to use the public bathroom anyway. It was starting to get chilly, so I was glad that I had brought my fleece jacket. Sunset was less than 2 hours away, and it was going to get colder before I left.

One of the marchers receives treatment for
 foot blisters.
The procession had started the previous day, March 30, in the Little Village neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago. They had garnered some media attention at a press conference where they decried current immigration enforcement practices and demanded that the construction of a new detention center in Crete, Illinois halt. Their procession wouldn’t stop until April 1 at the gates of the construction site, about 30 miles away. I walked with them for only a few hours on Saturday, so I didn’t have the bleeding blisters that I saw on some of the walkers.

It is a difficult but perhaps also a hopeful time for immigrants and their allies. The Obama administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than any other American executive, but opponents still claim that current federal law is soft on illegal immigration. The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments for and against Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, called SB1070, and we should know their decision in June. A little ironically, we have also learned that a majority of babies born in the United States today are non-white, with Latinos coming in second after the white plurality.

I feel that we as a country are coming to a tipping point. With Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, more and more people are becoming aware of enforcement policies that are harming people of color. Public outcry is growing against the privatization of prisons and detention centers, like the one that may still be built in Crete, IL. Awareness of economic disparities is at a generational high due to the continued effects of the Great Recession and the Occupy movement.

Picture drawn by child of a deported immigrant, exhibited at
"Locked Out" conference at University of Illinois-Chicago
on April 5.
In my work with the Interfaith Worker Justice Worker CenterNetwork, worker advocates constantly find that one of workers’ greatest fears is that if they report abuses on the job, they will be fired, deported, and separated from their families. Many employers intentionally hire undocumented workers for the reason that they will not complain when they are paid well below minimum wage, not receive overtime pay, or report injuries that would require workers’ compensation. It is often a business decision that helps the company’s bottom line but keeps workers in a distinct undercaste.

This undercaste is growing in the United States. Not only does it include undocumented immigrants, but African Americans who are targeted by unnecessary drug laws and enforcement are perpetually funneled there as well. Like undocumented immigrants, convicted felons also must endure all sorts of abuses at work because of legal discriminatory employment practices. That is to say, convicted felons will take and keep jobs where they are regularly underpaid and abused because they still have to pay their bills.

How can people who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, who weekly and sometimes daily confess their dependence on divine grace, support this 21st century caste system? Is there such a profound disconnect between our pews and the prisons where societal debtors are kept out of view? Are we so deluded in our visions of the American Dream that we fall into the trap of the goats of Matthew 25?

Sisters and brother, we must open our eyes. Look around and you’ll see groups like the walkers who held mass at the gates of the Crete detention center. That group included students, Teamsters, an Episcopal priest, a few anarchists, and members of local congregations. What keeps us from walking with them?

In the words of the prophet Isaiah and as Jesus of Nazareth repeated, this is the year of the Lord’s favor. Let us proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18). In the Spirit of the Easter resurrection and the upcoming Pentecost, let us move our deadened feet and open our dumb mouths.

Walkers going south on Halsted Street.