Theologian In Residence 2020-01-18
Notes From the Road
By Theologian In Residence
Fanning the Flames
Holy Apostles reflection January 2020
What will unfold in the year ahead? For many the hope of easing into a new year with new habits and a fresh start has been rocky. Violence near and far has shaken us. Partisan politics are tense and bitter.
It would seem that unity is the answer. Calls have been made to quiet conflict, for all to get together and get along. And yet we are in times that call for taking sides. The obligations of love for one another can mean that we are in conflict and shouldn’t pretend that we are not.
But taking sides is not trolling on the internet. It is not yelling into our newspapers or at the TV. It is not arguing at the dinner table. Taking sides is standing with. Taking sides is sharing our own stories of struggle. Taking sides is showing up when the injustices of society are made plain.
Recently the United Methodist Church has proposed to split into two denominations, one moving towards greater inclusion of LGBTQ persons and one doubling down on their exclusion and rejection of the fullness of God’s creation. This is not the first time the Methodist Church took sides. In 1844 the Methodist Episcopal Church split over the question of slavery. One defender of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, preached that the “God-forsaken combination of Free-soilers, Black Republicans, and Abolitionists” were fanning “a flame of intense warfare upon the subject of slavery, which can result in no possible good to any one.” He was wrong that raising the subject of slavery was the source of conflict. Slavery itself was the problem, and fanning the flames against it was the solution.
Without shelter for the holidays, homeless mothers of Moms 4 Housing moved their children into and empty home in Oakland, California last November. By insisting that they and their children had a right to housing, they called attention to the reality that speculators intentionally keep large numbers of homes empty to increase their profits while homeless families are living in the streets. Moms 4 Housing argued in court that housing is a human right and filed a “right to possession” claim on the empty house. Courts were persuaded to defend the speculators and send the sherriff’s office to evict the families. The initial eviction attempt was thwarted by a large crowd of supporters standing with them. Before dawn on January 14 police returned with armored tanks, a police robot, and a swat team with AR-15 guns to arrest the moms and two supporters. The leaders of Moms 4 Housing point out that their fight wasn’t for that one particular house but to fan the flames of the contradiction that in Oakland there are four empty homes for every one homeless family.
That same day hundreds of people traveled from across New York state to Albany for the opening of the legislative session to say that universal healthcare must be a legislative priority this year in New York. Under the banner of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, we shared stories of how time and time again our system of for-profit health insurance has turned illness into a full-scale family crisis. Co-pays made care inaccessible. Long wait times for care led to job losses. Coverage denials ended in death. One father carried a photo of his son who died from being cut off of insurance and unable to afford life-saving medication. Even those with insurance have lost life savings battling the costs of cancer treatment.
Insurance companies and housing speculators have taken sides. They battle in the legislature and in the courts to defend the arrangements that build their wealth at the cost of our lives. And so the call to all get along can be disingenuous. Instead we should move from reaction to taking sides. Taking sides is the witness of those who stood outside the occupied home in Oakland. It is the witness of those who shared in the capital how their lives have been shortened by untreated illness and their savings lost to medical bills. And it is the witness of the Methodists standing together in the steadfast belief in the dignity of all persons, letting go of part of an institution--refusing to all just get along--when that no longer serves justice. Fanning the flames of dissatisfaction with injustice, all of these examples show faith and hope in eventual reconciliation in the service of human flourishing.
There are opportunities ahead in New York to stand with and take sides. The Kairos Center is hosting a day-long convening on Christian Nationalism on Saturday, January 25th in midtown, including an afternoon panel featuring Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, Rev. Dr. William Barber, former Apache Stronghold chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr, and Jeff Sharlet and Jeff Sharlet of Netflix’s The Family.
Artists and music makers will gather Saturday February 1 in midtown for Songs in the Key of Resistance, a cross-movement space for New Yorkers to create community through singing and support each other as we work for justice in our city.
And save the date for Saturday, June 20, 2020 and the Moral March on Washington, DC, a historic fanning of the flames.