Today I attended the Ash Wednesday Witness of Repentance at the White House.
This service called:
for repentance and conversion of ourselves, our society and our churches to the Gospel way of justice, nonviolence and a reverence for all life and creation. We call for an immediate end to U.S. warmaking in Afghanistan; that the U.S. halt all Drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere; and that Israel and the U.S. cease it military threats against Iran. We call for reparations to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; for total disarmament and the abolition of all nuclear and conventional weapons; an end to the U.S.-supported Israeli occupation of the West Bank; an end to torture and the closing of Guantanamo and Bagram U.S. military prisons and other military torture training centers like the SOA/WHINSEC; and an end to AFRICOM and the militarization of Africa. We call, too, for the repeal of the National Defense Authorization Act 2012 which allocates $662 billion for the Pentagon and codified into law indefinite detention for suspected terrorists and their supporters, both foreign and domestic. And we call for an end to corporate domination, justice for the poor and all immigrants, and for the conversion of our war-based economy to one centered on serving the common good, alleviating poverty, and protecting the environment.
Amen. Quite a laundry list, no? The service was powerful and very, very uncomfortable. My discomfort came from two places:
First, it was an unpleasant reminder of the great wrongs done in the name of a nation that is supposedly a beacon for justice and freedom. Specifically, our location in front of that building was a reminder that this evil continues to emanate outward from it despite having nice, liberal “folks” like the Obamas living there these days. It’s such a nice-looking building (despite the sharpshooters on top), and one that I can see while crossing the street in front of my home (about a mile away); it’s hard to imagine what really goes on there at the nerve center of a violent global empire that is so paranoid that it sometimes takes three (3!) identical Marine One helicopters to get Obama back from the airport (one decoy isn’t always enough – I have seen this with my own eyes).
Second, despite the power and usefulness of this vigil’s painful reminder, I couldn’t help but be discouraged by how it seemed to miss the point. It called for repentance from a great many awful symptoms of evil, but didn’t seem to approach the cause of that evil – that war is incredibly profitable for a lot of well-connected people, just as our collective poor health is profitable to other well-connected people. (And probably there is some overlap, since what better way to encourage poor health than through war?)
Anyone who thinks that electoral politics is going to change this dynamic is naive – we already elected a supposed progressive and look where it got us. We will never be offered a serious major-party candidate who is able to make any significant changes to the underlying power structure.
If it wasn’t already, this has been made abundantly clear through the rise of “super-PACs” that are highly influenced a single ultra-wealthy person (or couple) – five of whom have provided 1/4 of all money flowing through this thoroughly corrupt system – and have now eclipsed the power of the campaigns themselves. Obama made polite noises about eschewing this tool, but has more recently decided that the means justify the ends, even if those means further neutralize him as a serious voice for real change.
Until we can decouple profit from power, we’re going to get nowhere. Since Lent is about Jesus as well as repentance, I think it’s a good time to depart from my usual Old Testament focus, and issue a reminder that John the Baptist offered a very clear and specific set of instructions for repentance.
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:10-14)
Look it up if you don’t believe me. There’s nothing about war or brutality (although as today that part of the world faced plenty in the face of that era’s empire). There’s nothing about petitioning government. There’s certainly nothing about contraception.
There are two simple instructions: Share your surplus and don’t abuse your power.
So chew on that this Lenten season. As we head into another election season there will be a hysterical wave of propaganda that we should choose the lesser of evils, but remember that ALL of the major options are part of the evil system.
It’s high time we heed the lesson of Ezra, and begin to detach ourselves from our enslavement to the idea that asking the government for help will in any way solve the problems that really matter. One of the key lessons from this blog’s namesake is that community organizing got the goods where many years of begging government failed. The people struggled with a succession of kings for literally generations, and it was only when they finally turned their back on imperial power that they were able to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in 51 days.
So here’s an idea: Use Lent to fast from election news. This may not be appropriate if you are a Republican in a state with a primary coming up. But otherwise, the torturous ongoing struggle among a bunch rich men who are powerful corporate pawns really doesn’t matter. Your attention would be better devoted to the people around you.
The election will still be there when you break your fast. Perhaps you’ll see it with new eyes.