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Can Religion be Transformative?
Can we Empower the 99%, Democratize the 1% ?
Plans are under way in Philadelphia & New York City for an action to “Join with Occupy: Celebrate Holy Week & Passover.” People of faith could undertake actions like it all across the country.
In Philadelphia, the initiating groups are shown on the graphic flyer. In New York, the initiating groups are The Shalom Center, Judson Memorial Church, Occupy Judaism, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice; Occupy Faith and Occupy Catholic have joined in the planning. . We do not see this action as a one-time event, but rather as one that can weave continuing connections among people across the old boundaries and weave new ways of thinking about the future of our traditions and communities.
First, our plans for the action itself; then, some thoughts on the history and theology beneath it.
This coming spring, Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday on April 1; the death-anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is on April 4 (and that date is also the anniversary of his profound speech at Riverside Church in NYC, 1967); Passover begins with the first Seder on the evening of Friday, April 6.
The week evokes memories and teachings about resistance to tyranny, racism, economic inequality, ecological disaster, and militarism. Remembering this past, we should renew our work to resist these evils in the present.
- So we are sharing a sketch of plans to observe Palm Sunday and a pre-Passover Freedom Seder with the intention of both naming the 1% — the Pharaohs & Caesars of today: illegitimate/ unaccountable power-holders — and empowering the 99% to face them and begin the healing of our society by transformative, spiritually rooted action.
Doing this before Passover and at the very beginning of Holy Week might (esp. if there is strong media coverage) encourage families and communities to address these questions in their regular congregational services during and after Holy Week and in their Passover Seders.
- For the NYC effort, there will be a special emphasis on oppressive debt: foreclosed homes, under-water homes, families mired in mortgages they cannot afford because of lost jobs, etc; student debt piled up to pay for tuition but stuck on people who now cannot get jobs to pay back the loans; debt we owe the plundered and polluted Earth; etc.
Other communities around the country could work on this effort in analogous but not identical ways. Each community could choose its own focus: for example, disemployment; worsening inequality of income and wealth; uncontrolled and growing corporate power; oppression of immigrants or of organized labor; wounding of the Earth (the Plagues); militarism; etc.
1. Beginning at 11 a.m. Psalm Sunday, April 1, traditional Palm Sunday service inside a church that has agreed to host this event, for about 1 hour. Then coffee and snacks, maybe outside.
2. Beginning about noon, the palm-bearing procession will go outdoors to visit what might be called “Pyramids of Power: The 1%.” In NYC, this will focus on places representing various forms of onerous debt. But each community could choose its own focus and the places appropriate to that focus. There could be drumming and chanting on the walk and an appropriate song at each place.
3. Return to church (or if there is a cluster of supportive congregations nearby, go to a supportive other church or synagogue). Welcome Table to register people, collect donations/fees, give name tags. People sit at tables of about eight, encouraged to meet each other and share conversation. Simple lunch based on foods of the poor: matzah, pita, rice, tortillas, raw veggies (carrots, celery, spring onion, tomatoes, water).
4. Freedom Seder. Build it around foods symbolic of the Seder but not in the classic order. First question: “Mah nishtanah? Why is this Seder different from all other Seders?” —- Invite answers from participants. “Because this Seder is about our lives today, not 3,000 years ago; because this Seder speaks from and for The 99% — of all religions, ethnic groups, colors … “ Questions & answers for this portion of the Seder could be done in Occupy “mic-check” style, with the community as a whole.
- Then shift into table-conversation mode. Invite various people at each table to do one each of the blessings for these diverse foods, each in the form and language the blessing-person feels appropriate. The seven foods are ordered so as to move from despair in slavery, step by step to joy and fulfillment in the Beloved Community:
- Scatter appropriate songs and some brief appropriate texts from the Passover Seder, the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels, the Quran, Native American teachings, MLKing, AJHeschel, Dorothy Day, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), etc. during the eating of some of these foods:
- a. Begin with Bitter Herb. Chunks of real horse-radish. Blessing. Question: Why do we eat bitter herbs? Answers from people who have suffered from the bitterness of oppression. Homeless person, disemployed person, college student or grad in deep debt but no job or prospect, sick person whose insurance company has been denying coverage or who can’t afford necessary meds, child with asthma from choking on gas fumes and coal smoke.
- b. Green vegetables, dipped in salt water. Blessing. Question: Why do we eat these greens, and why do we dip them in salt water? Answers from an urban farmer, an eco-activist, an anti-fracking activist, people at the tables: Spring & the sprouting of new life; Life begins in the salty oceans, salty tears of sorrow for the wounded waters and the wounded Earth.
- c. Blood-red beet. Blessing. Question: Why do we eat this blood-red beet? Answer: to remember the sacrifices, deaths, and woundings of those who have struggled for justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. Quotes from Dr. King. — Invite other names.
- d. Matzah: Blessing. Question: Why do we eat this pressed-down bread? Answers: Bread of the pressed-down poor, bread of oppression, also the bread of liberation. Answers from people who are working on food justice, working for remission of international debt of poorest nations (Jubilee USA), people at the tables.
- e. Cup of wine or grape juice: Blessing. Question: Why do we drink this fruit of the vine? Answers: From people at the tables. Because grapes grow not alone but in clusters, and we must work for freedom and justice and peace not separately but in clusters. Because the fermentation that is sour can bring forth a deeper sweetness, and the sour times we have lived through can give birth to deeper sweetness….
- f. Orange. Blessing. Question. Why do we eat an orange? Answers: The orange was first used because it had NOT been on the traditional Seder plate. Making present what had been left out was first intended to affirm lesbians who had been left out of the revcognized community; then all the marginalized of society. Also, because the orange contains seeds — the next generation.
- g. Charoset( mixture of chopped nuts, raisins, chopped apples, pears, dried apricots, cinnamon, nutmeg, wine or grape juice). Blessing. Question: Why do we eat charoset?
- Answer: Because the Song of Songs contains its delicious “recipe,” and so it embodies the Song — when all human beings and all the Earth will make up the Beloved Community.
- h. Close with songs in English, Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic.
Are there churches and synagogues around the country that will become the centers of such an event on April 1? Or perhaps on April 3 or 4, focusing more on Dr. King?
We hope that the immediate impact of this specific action will be to empower and strengthen the disempowered 99% of our society, and to help dissolve the overweening power of the 1% and their giant corporations — the Pharaohs and Caesars of our day. We hope to do this by evoking the soul-force (satyagraha, often mislabeled “nonviolence”) that is implicit in our religious traditions, and bringing them into active public reality again.
At the immediate level, this means birthing networks for further action that bring together people of different religious communities to highlight specific injustices and empower certain transformations, using some transmuted forms and teachings out of our ancient traditions.
More deeply, beneath the specific event and specific hopes, is the question: Can our ancient wisdoms in fact speak powerfully to the future? Can our synagogues, churches, mosques draw on what we have learned across millennia not as a dusty archive but as a treasury of tools?
To do that, we will need to set aside some aspects of the past in order to address a world quite different from the one in which our sacred texts came forth. Yet the sacred texts have much to teach us. By going back, we can choose to go forward. The sacred spiral.
All humankind and all the other life-forms of our planet are now experiencing a multidimensional earthquake (economic, ecological, military, technological, familial, sexual, educational — all!
- There are three possible responses:
Ignoring the earthquake, getting smashed by its shaking, falling, erupting;
Desperately trying to find something immovable from the past to anchor ourselves. This response becomes “religious restoration,” what we usually call right-wing Judaism, right-wing Christianity, right-wing Islam, etc. It often leads to coercive efforts to enforce the “past.”
or Learning to dance in an earthquake, which is very hard — but life-giving.
This specific action to “Occupy Holy Week, Occupy Passover” is an attempt to dance in the midst of our world-wide earthquake.
* Rabbi Waskow is director of The Shalom Center and the author of the original Freedom Seder (1969), the 40th-anniversary Interfaith Freedom Seder for the Earth, and twenty-some books on public policy, Jewish thought and practice, and relations among the Abrahamic communities. His most recent book, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman, is Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness across Millennia (Jewish Lights, 2011).