Advent 3: Boldness In Numbers

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,

    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11)

At this time of year, as many of us are traveling for the holidays, “Be safe!” is a common utterance from well-intentioned loved ones. Even if it’s just routine well-wishes, I appreciate the sentiment – especially having grown up in the fifth-snowiest community in the United States, where failing to “be safe” can land you upside-down in a ditch in an I-90 whiteout.

My colleague and Pacific School of Religion seminarian Caiti Hamilton. She, I, and more than a dozen of our fellow religious leaders were arrested in Berkeley, CA for protesting for racial justice on Monday, 12/8. (Photograph by Lacey Hunter.)

I also appreciated hearing it from my circle of care this past Monday night (12/8), as I set out with a contingent of seminarians and religious leaders from the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) to join the protests for racial justice raging in Berkeley and Oakland. Previous nights had seen protesters tear-gassed by riot gear-clad police, store windows smashed in, friends and colleagues physically brutalized with billy-clubs. Sensing the grief and the rage in the air, called by the words of the Prophet Isaiah to “bring good news to the oppressed,” we religious leaders went out, not to internally police so-called “violent” protesters, but to march alongside our fellow Berkeleyites in compassionate witness. “Clothed in garments of salvation”–that is to say, robes and stoles, obvious clerical garb–ours was a ministry of accompaniment, of standing with the people, especially people of color, and, God willing, helping to infuse a spirit of hope and peace by our presence. Knowing that our ministry called us to the front lines of whatever action took place that night, I could certainly understand why folks would urge us to “be safe out there.”

As I reflect on Isaiah’s prophetic call, however, I’m becoming more and more convinced that now is not the time to be safe. I will never forget standing five feet from an advancing riot line, arms linked with fellow seminarians, as police forced us off I-80 (which we had shut down through our action) and into a parking lot. I will never forget singing hymns and protest songs and Christmas carols for four hours straight to keep spirits high as the police slowly arrested, one by one, more than 200 protesters. I will never forget policemen shedding tears as we sang “Amazing Grace” so that their commanding officers had to replace them in the riot line. There was nothing particularly safe about what we did Monday night.

Indeed, our culture is unhealthily fixated on safety. This isn’t directed against the many friends and family who expressed their hopes for my safety on Monday – they were genuinely concerned for my well-being, a concern I appreciate from the bottom of my heart. But for those of us who are the beneficiaries of years, decades, centuries of racial and economic privilege, our “safety” often depends on the maintenance of an unjust status quo. The streets may not have been an entirely safe place for me Monday night; but that is decidedly not my usual experience. I needed that experience of unsafeness to jar me out of my privileged complacency.

My friend and fellow Graduate Theological Union seminarian Amanda Weatherspoon leads one of the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests in Berkeley, CA. (Photographer unknown.)

By contrast, the streets of this country are never safe for my brothers and sisters of color, as the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner demonstrate only too clearly. I may have gotten arrested, but I know that, because of my race and my socioeconomic background, I had little more to fear than a night in jail and a fine. Compare that to the Black organizers of many of these demonstrations, for whom taking part in a completely legal protest, let alone civil disobedience, poses a clear and present danger to their bodies and their livelihoods to which my inconveniencing at the hands of police on Monday night cannot begin to compare. For me, getting arrested while declaring that #BlackLivesMatter is the very least I can do to act in solidarity with those who are consistently told–by people like me–that their lives don’t matter.

My actions don’t make me some kind of hero – far from it. At the end of the day, this movement is not about me. Nor is taking to the streets the only way to act in solidarity. For me, the unsung heroes of Monday night’s protests were the supporters who met us outside Santa Rita Jail in Pleasanton on Tuesday morning. This past week has been finals week for GTU seminarians. The friends who made the long drive out and waited for hours on end until every protester had been released surely had other things to do: papers to write, exams to study for, final projects to polish off. As students, the safe thing to do would have been to stay home, to keep to schedule and judiciously budget their time. But they were there with food and hugs and car seats and phone calls to lawyers, sacrificing their precious study time for the sake of the Beloved Community. There are many ways to live into Isaiah’s prophetic call to to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.”

However we respond to that call, however, the call itself is inherently risky. It requires us to risk our comfort, our complacency, sometimes our bodies and our lives, in order to become the people God knows we can be together. There’s safety in numbers, they say. But I believe that, at this historic moment, we are being challenged to find boldness in numbers: standing, marching, working together for justice until we can truly say that #AllLivesMatter, and not have those words ring as hollow mockery in the ears of our brothers and sisters who are told, day in and day out, that their lives do not in fact matter.

I saw such boldness on the streets of Berkeley Monday night, and on the streets of Oakland and Washington, D.C. and New York City and many other cities across the United States as demonstrations for racial justice have continued unabated this past week. It gives me hope that someday soon, “as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” May it be so.

Amen. –Tom

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