“Do not be afraid, for behold, I proclaim to you Good News of great joy that will be for all these people. For today in the city of David a Savior has been born for you, who is Messiah and Lord.” Luke 2:10-11
One of the blessings that comes from living at the Catholic Worker is that it tends to make one scarcely able to take up any moral or ethical or political question of the times without putting a specific human face on it. For instance, whenever I hear people talking about the so-called “crisis” of “illegal immigration” these days, I think of a guy named Pedro. He’s fifty-something, from Colombia as I recall, and when the federal enforcement branch of Homeland Security came into New Haven over the summer and started conducting raids on people’s homes and workplaces- eventually seizing over 30 members of families in our community and locking them up in federal prisons- he came to stay with us because he was afraid to go home. Pedro is a painter- of houses, not portraits- and general handyman who has been working hard and making a home and building relationships in this city for well more than a decade. But then immigration suddenly became the fodder for cable news talkies and congressional debate. New Haven took the bold step of becoming the first city in the nation to allow all its residents the opportunity to secure a municipal I.D. card. The federal government decided to retaliate… and Pedro needed a place to hide. While he was here, our five-year-old Isaiah took a real shine to him. Despite the language barrier, Rene found a kindred soul with whom he could engage questions ranging from politics, to physics, to whether or not the Apollo moon landing back in 1968 was in fact a hoax. It was clear, though that Pedro was not going to be able to find his comfort zone again, and after a few weeks he left the state to start over somewhere else. Watching him amble down the front steps and onto the sidewalk, alone, I tried to imagine what it must be like to have every thing and every relationship and every plan for today and tomorrow conditioned by the possibility of suddenly being declared unwelcome. And the whole encounter, just like so many others over the course of the past thirteen years, left me absolutely unable and unwilling ever again to be “fair and balanced” about this “issue” of immigration.
The scripture readings during Advent are a good reminder that the image of justice that we see at most courthouses throughout this country- the statue of a blindfolded lady holding a balance scale- most certainly did not come from the Bible! The God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ, is a God who takes sides. God stands with the poor, the prisoner, the “illegal” and the subversive, and with a finger firmly pressed down on the scale. Nowhere is this more evident than in the accounts of Jesus’ birth, with the Holy Family being identified among the homeless, the undocumented immigrants, the hunted and the exiles, and Herod confounded in his attempts to find the child and destroy him. But we tend to miss much in these readings by not understanding- as the early christian communities certainly did- the intentional use of subversive language that they contain. The words “Savior” and “Lord”, for example, were hardly invented by the early Church. They were stolen. These were the very monickers reserved exclusively for Ceasar- even appearing with his face on the Roman currency- until they were expropriated by the resurrection communities and used to identify Jesus of Nazareth. “Gospel”, or “Good News”, was commonly understood as the latest reports from the frontier, the sound-bites about conquest and annexation of other lands and peoples by the Roman military apparatus. Luke’s good news for “all the people” was not a reference to the socially or politically connected, nor to the financiers of the Pax Romana; it meant glad tidings for the poor, the invaded, the alien and the occupied. The good news for them was the birth of a disarmed, homeless, exiled illegal alien Savior, whose “peace that the world cannot give” was poised to turn Rome on its head.
I remember being in Chile in the mid-1980’s, during the Pinochet dictatorship, and visiting a soup kitchen in a large poblacion (slum) on the outskirts of Santiago. In reality, it was nothing like our soup kitchens here. Everyone was poor, there was no outside help coming from the government or private sector, and very little available from the churches. The food was provided by each family bringing something from the little they had. From this, everyone was able to eat from a huge common pot, and thus have at least one square meal a day. This experience deeply moved me, with its obvious resemblances to the Gospel stories of Jesus feeding the five thousand from the few loaves and fishes. But as I hung around awhile and talked with some of the people there, it began to dawn on me that something even more remarkable was going on. In a nation that had succumbed a decade earlier to the brutality of a paranoid dictator who had shut down the congress, imposed martial law, closed the universities, massacred civilians and empowered the secret police to torture and disappear people at will; here in the poblaciones the new Chile was being imagined, discussed and birthed. The poor were not only getting fed. They were getting organized. Expelled students and fired professors had set up underground universities. Relatives of the disappeared were uniting with church-based human rights ministries to demand information from the government on their loved ones. The neighborhood people were learning to govern themselves and become self-sufficient communities, all around a common table where everyone came to be fed. And it seemed like everyone was talking about God and politics in the same breath! Looking back, this was probably the first moment that I began to understand that feeding the hungry could be, and perhaps should be, a subversive act.
I think this must be what the neighborhood that Jesus was born into looked like, with everyone being thrown together in Bethlehem because of an arbitrary decree from a paranoid dictator called Caesar Augustus, who demanded they all return to the town of their birth to be counted. This must have been a severe hardship on the poor, traveling such distances and with no guarantee of lodging or food upon arrival. And then the massacre of the Holy Innocents, another spasm of violence from a government obsessed with ego and control. How could those people have survived at all if they did not come together and build a dream of a future? And in the end it was the birth of a child in their midst that became for them the “Good News” that changed everything.
The more our own nation deepens its long-standing (though increasingly less veiled) foray into fascism and empire- through unchecked militarization and war without end, secrecy and impunity, corporate control of government, mass-incarceration, indiscriminate surveillance and legalized torture- the more urgent it becomes to understand ourselves as living in a context that bears striking similarities to that of Christ and the early Church, or even to that of Chile in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There is a growing consensus among many that the United States has already undergone a coup. That is, the legal apparatus has already been put into place- through the USA Patriot Act, The Military Commissions Act and the presidential use of signing statements to nullify congressionally ratified law- that will enable this or the next president to suspend whatever remains of the democratic process in this country permanently, and essentially outlaw all dissent. (Daniel Ellsberg has a chilling take on this, called “A Coup Has Occurred”, which can be found at http://www.consortiumnews.com.) According to this line of thinking, the only thing that’s needed is another 9/11-like event, which could in fact be produced by following through on the threat to invade Iran.
Currently we are giving food and a sense of community to upwards of thirty people, three times daily. Increasingly, though, it feels like we are operating in the shadow of an empire that is losing its stability, and even at times its grip on reality. Last week I went on trial in North Carolina, where with six other Catholic Workers and friends I was found guilty of tresspassing onto the grounds of Blackwater Worldwide and dramatizing the September 16th massacre of 17 civilians in Iraq. A jail sentence is on hold, pending appeal. Blessed with the gift of being back on Rosette Street for the Holidays, I can’t help but think that there is a great storm coming, and that we are somewhat less than fully prepared. It is a good time to get close to the Gospel, to read and eat and sleep and live and dream it, today. Because tomorrow, I think, we will be called forward to much more risky and subversive acts of faith; we will have to give flesh to the hope that is in us.