On July 28, 2011, for half an hour under the great dome of the US Capitol, along with ten others (Methodists and Presbyterians, Mennonites and Roman Catholics, folk from the United Church of Christ and Interfaith Worker Justice, clergy and laity, women and men, African-Americans and Euro-Americans), I prayed, sang, and spoke out – and then was arrested -- on behalf of the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the squeezed middle-class, the victims of war, and the wounded Earth itself––against the travesty of Congressional and Presidential kowtowing to the hyper-wealthy and the largest corporations in the world.
I am joyful that Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, came to spend more than an hour with us and to speak in strong support of us, even though he could not himself take part in civil disobedience because he was committed to lead gatherings of Jewish leaders that afternoon. They themselves were coming to approach members of Congress on behalf of meeting the needs that Torah and all of Jewish experience teach us that governments need to meet.
And I am joyful that Rev. Bob Edgar, former six-term Congressman from Pennsylvania, former head of the National Council of Churches, a recipient of The Shalom Center’s “Prophetic Voices” honor, now head of Common Cause, invited us to gather. On 24 hours notice, eleven of us came prepared to be arrested; dozens more came to support and affirm our insistence that the present debates about the budget and the debt ignore the deepest teachings of our faith.
We gathered first at the Methodist Building, two blocks from the Capitol. As we prepared to leave, Bob Edgar invited me to send us forth in prayer. I said, “You Who taught us long ago that “Tzedek tzedek tirdof, Justice justice shall you seek,” and Who taught us that “justice” is mentioned twice to insist that we must use just means to seek just results -- May You fill us with courage and compassion as we go forth to use that form of action that is purest justice: nonviolence -- on behalf of those who most need justice.”
When we gathered under the Rotunda, welcomed by Congressman Rush Holt and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, we gathered in a tight circle to pray, to sing hymns, to speak our truths to the powerful, and to tell each other our stories about visiting the Rotunda, about encountering the Congress, about getting arrested.
I noticed that each of us chose hymns and songs with care to be inclusive of all our traditions -– “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me”; “We Shall Overcome”; “Down by the Riverside.”
You can see some brief videos and photos here:
New York Times, July 29, p. A12.
(Some of the photos and video show me in a wheel chair. Still a hangover from my auto crash two years ago: If I have to stand or walk for more than 20 minutes, my knee and back begin to ache. The Capitol Police were kind enough to bring me a wheel chair. I wore the Rainbow tallit that my mother, peace be upon her, embroidered for me on my 50th birthday. I have been arrested about a dozen times wearing it, and about ten times before – about as many times altogether, Phyllis says, as I have written books.)
The eleven of us were arrested at 1:30, charged with interrupting the flow of traffic in the US capital. In fact, the flow was interrupted only by the Capitol Police themselves, who cleared tourists and visitors from the great rotunda. We, gathered in a tight circle under that great dome, were no hindrance to those who watched and listened to us and then went their way to Congressional offices.
We were a hindrance to the legislators of both parties for carrying on the travesty of defining the great crisis before the United States as the national debt –
Not about millions deprived of jobs and despairing whether they could ever work again;
Not about the danger that the poor and senior citizens could be deprived of the payment of their Social Security pensions and their Medicare and Medicaid health needs;
Not about the rotting infrastructures of our water systems and sewers and railroads;
Not about the failing school systems and tuition raises making college impossible for large numbers of the middle class;
Not about the dead and maimed of unending, unwinnable wars, or the trillions spent to kill and destroy;
Not about the unprecedented droughts and unprecedented floods afflicting not only such faraway countries as Russia and Pakistan but increasingly, whole regions of the United States itself, as a result of the worsening climate crisis;
Not about any of these but about different ways of squeezing choking, drowning those governmental programs that could meet these needs.
Why? to reduce the federal debt swollen by senseless wars, by slashing the taxes of the hyper wealthy 2% of Americans, and by failing to tax the real incomes of great global corporations.
For me, this echoed the teaching of the Passover Seder that In every generation, a Pharaoh arises to oppress us – in this generation, Pharaoh in the form of the great corporations that have now bought most of Congress; and that In every generation, every human being must know that it is we, not our ancestors only, who must go forth to freedom.
When one policewoman read us the first of three warnings that must precede the arrest, I thanked her for their courtesy and then added – “As police officers, you must enforce the law. And you are also citizens, and I hope that you too will join us to speak on behalf of the hungry and the homeless, against those who now control this Capitol.”
And to all our readers -- May you do the same, in the Name of that Unity Who under many different names calls us to pursue justice by just means. Now more than ever: As the Hassidim teach, it is from the deepest dark that new light rises.
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