I’ve had a lot of memorable “firsts” in my life.
I remember my first dance. My first kiss. My first car. My first car crash. My first time snowboarding. My first open water dive. My first ride on a motorcycle. My first time swimming in the crater of an active volcano.
Having graduated from divinity school less than a month ago, I have spent some time reflecting on other important “firsts” I have experienced over the past three and a half years: The first time I felt affirmed in reading the Bible against the grain of popular interpretation. The first time I was able to see the God-breathed beauty of the messiness that is our sacred scripture, and our living tradition. The first time I felt my bones crushed by the responsibility of speaking a faithful word from the pulpit. The first time I spent the night in a hospital room, holding a woman’s hand as her beloved spouse passed completely into God’s care.
This week I added a new “first” to my memory. Like the dip in a West Javan volcano, it was an experience I never would have expected or gone looking for had the Spirit not brought me to the point where all I could do was jump in.
“Why did you decide to get arrested?” was the common refrain in the cafeteria under the North Carolina Legislative Building Monday night. The basement dinning room had been converted into a temporary holding area for most of the 151 alleged trespassers who had entered the atrium of the legislative building to pray, to stand together, and to speak out in opposition to the immoral policies being crafted — or at least rubber-stamped — under the roof of 16 W. Jones Street.
My reason for risking arrest by standing five-minutes too long in the stone lobby of our state house begins with the assertion that I am a Christian. Because I believe that Jesus Christ is the fullest expression of the character of God, I am convinced that God stands on the side of the poor, oppressed and marginalized. To say God stands on the side of the poor doesn’t mean God takes sides, but that in the process of realizing mishpat — justice which ensures every human has his or her needs met, is given freedom and opportunity, and is treated with the dignity deserved of a beloved child of God — the Holy Spirit blows from the ground up. God cares for and supports the oppressed and marginalized in such a deep and sacred way that Jesus says nations will be judged on the basis of how they treat the hungry, the thirsty, the migrants, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. There are no qualifiers here. “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” Jesus said, “You have done it for me.”
It was my Christian convictions which lead me to enter the General Assembly building Monday afternoon. I don’t mean to imply that all Christians need join me in the journey to the Wake County Detention Center. And I certainly am not seeking to exclude followers of other faith traditions, or no-faith, from continuing to be a vital part of this movement in North Carolina. I am saying that my worldview is fundamentally shaped by the belief that, through Jesus, God is at work bringing reconciliation and healing to the world. This means I understand working for reconciliation through justice as my calling, and I have tried — feebly, half-heartedly at times — to orient every aspect of my life around this conviction. I realize not everyone is interested in pursuing the common good, though. If you have a worldview that does not regard all people as inherently valuable, of infinite worth, and made in the very image of God, then what I did may not ever make sense in your eyes. I hope we can still be friends.
I entered the General Assembly as a citizen of North Carolina. I have spent most of my life in North Carolina. I love this state, this land, and these people. I would consider it a joy to raise my son in North Carolina. It grieves me, then, to see the officials elected to represent the people of our state passing laws which are designed to funnel more and more wealth to the very richest in society, while bleeding the working poor and middle class residents of the state to the point of delirium.
I entered the General Assembly building as the husband of a school teacher who has sacrificed to work in impoverished neighborhoods, giving hope to children who see little to hope for. I have grown tired of seeing teachers denigrated and mocked time and time again by the leaders of our state, who had the audacity to not only further cut teachers’ wages, but to call this pay cut a pay raise and assume the good people of North Carolina are too easily distracted to notice the difference. North Carolina continues to move closer to the very bottom of the barrel in per-student spending on public education. Bills are being passed now to pay teachers according to the test performance of their students — further penalizing teachers who chose to work in schools with little or no parent involvement and high frequencies of discipline issues, and discouraging middle and high school teachers from allowing under-performing students to participate in challenging but inspiring elective classes where they may have an opportunity to engage education in new, creative ways for the first time. In conjunction with this policy of adding unprecedented standards for evaluating the performance of public school teachers, legislators are trying to funnel public tax dollars out of public schools and into private schools where teachers are not required to be certified or evaluated, nor even to have earned a college degree. There seems to be no consistency to the legislative agenda, until one recognizes that this shuffle of public money to private schools intentionally creates a special loophole for big businesses to drastically reduce their corporate income tax.
I entered the General Assembly building as the father of a 3-year-old who I hope comes of age in a society that doesn’t have the highest income inequality in the developed world — where special laws have been passed to reduce the taxes of the 23 wealthiest citizens of our state, and then compensate for the drop in revenue by slapping an eight percent tax on food, taxing prescription drugs, and hurting consumers and small-business owners by taxing basic services like haircuts and oil changes which were previously untaxed. As Rev. Barber said before we went in, “This isn’t my granddaddy’s Republican Party.”
While my convictions put me looking for the movement of God’s Spirit among the poor and excluded, it seems very clear that lawmakers in my state are working hard to guarantee the privileged remain privileged, the rich grow richer, and small business owners, middle class Americans, the working poor and poorer continue to prop up the opulence of the empire. So I went to be heard.
I attended the organizing meeting at Martin Street Baptist Church, where the few hesitancies I still held on to were washed away. The first speaker to address those gathered offered a prayer and reminded us that while we must protest unjust policies and immoral actions, we were not gathered to attack people or demonize those who disagree with us. “We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness and spiritual powers of evil…” The government leaders pushing for these changes we are willing to go to jail to oppose are themselves beloved children of God; ones with whom we ultimately desire reconciliation, but not without justice.
We moved into the legislative building, two-by-two, and gathered around the central atrium that serves as a foyer to the house and senate chambers. Palatial brass doors on either side of the atrium that lead into the respective chambers were shut tight, so we circled the room to wait. A prayer was offered, and we began to address our grievances with any who would listen. One speaker was given the floor at a time, and asked to keep remarks to around a minute and a half to allow as many people as possible an opportunity to speak. Between each address, a different clergy person offered a prayer, then the next speaker took the stand and began. This continued for about 30 minutes, at which point General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver announced that we had five minutes to disperse or face arrest. Some left. I decided to stay, as I hadn’t yet had an opportunity to share my concerns.
The arrest process was painless — except for my shoulders, which began to throb after three hours with my arms bound behind my back. Officers were professional and courteous. Some even offered us blessings as we were escorted to the cafeteria to await transport to the jail. I was in the last bus to leave, and among the last to be released. I had a wonderful time getting to know some of the people who had come together to take a stand for justice. There were college professors, retired school teachers, doctors, nurses, business owners, farmers, Christian and Jewish clergy and laity, atheists, grandmas and grandpas. Nearly everyone I met was being arrested for the very first time. These are not die-hard activist moving from cause to cause. These are proud North Carolinians who are shocked and dismayed at what is happening to the state they love, and who couldn’t sit on the sidelines any more.
In the opening chapters of the book of Isaiah, the prophet addresses the leaders of his society who have neglected their special calling to care for those on the margins. “Stop bringing worthless offerings…Your hands are stained with blood!” the prophet cries out. But it is not too late to change. Isaiah keeps hope alive, for a time, and continues:
“Learn to do good.
Help the oppressed;
Defend the orphan;
Plead for the widow.”
Isaiah’s message, like so many prophet’s, fell largely on deaf ears. In North Carolina today, too many are held in the oppressive snares of generational poverty by unjust economic policies which ensure the rich get wealthier while the poor get tired. Too many children are orphaned by the big business of mass-incarceration which keeps poor men, especially men of color, in a revolving door path into jail, out into a world where they have no opportunities, and back in again. Too many are being kept on the margins of society by a bleeding education system which doesn’t have resources to help students realize any vision of life beyond their crime-ridden neighborhood. You wouldn’t believe how many adolescents and teenagers in Eastern North Carolina have never seen the Atlantic Ocean with their own eyes. A panorama of the sea is as impossible to comprehend without first-hand experience as a vision of life where education leads to success, children don’t go to bed hungry and parents don’t spend as much time in jail as at home.
“Your hands are stained with blood.
Wash! Be Clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.
Put an end to such evil; Learn to do good.
Seek justice: Help the oppressed; Defend the orphan; Plead for the widow.
Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD.
Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.”