It’s afternoon at Mary’s House, the day after Thanksgiving. Our guests are out – Ashley, who is just 21, has gone with her two girls to sign the lease on an apartment. She is packing and expects to be moving out on December 1st. She will be living with her baby’s father, who has begun a new and better job as a warehouseman after working for WalMart for over a year.
Bernice, who has just begun receiving Social Security, is also out. She stayed with a friend over the holidays, and drove around distributing turkeys from their church like Lady Bountiful. She will probably be home tonight, and spend the weekend recuperating from all her activity. She will also be packing, having found an apartment for the first of the month.
Being able to share food is one of the joys of Mary’s House too, and thanks to a couple of parishes we were able to share bags of groceries, and even a ham and a turkey. In about two weeks we’ll be distributing toys and clothing as part of Angel Tree programs – another happy time.
When Ashley and Bernice move out, the house will be quiet and empty. Our third room is already vacant, its occupant having moved in with a friend a couple of weeks ago. Now we are preparing for our Advent Retreat, this year with Dr. Vincent Harding. Mary’s House will provide beds and some quiet space for a few folks during the retreat, and after that we will take our yearly break for rest & rehab – rest for us, and rehab for the house. I’m looking forward to a quiet Advent after the excitement of the retreat, with some time to reflect on the ideas Vincent shares.
Alabama is preparing now for winter – our first freeze is on the way. I pulled some old drop cloths out of the shed to put over the gerbera daisies so they’ll last for a while. We will go around and lock all the windows, creating an airtight seal, and we’ll all wear lots of clothes because we keep the house chilly to save money on gas.
Right now the house smells wonderful because the tenth pan of retreat lasagna is almost ready to come out of the oven. I’m in my favorite chair, and our two parrots are napping on their cages. Jackson, our hospitality dog, is snoozing on his pad, worn out from cleaning all the cottage cheese containers as I emptied them. The never ending chore list is over on the desk, waiting further action, but for now there’s time to be quiet and mull over the last few weeks, a busy and sometimes noisy time.
As I go about the business of the house, I’ve been thinking over the results of the election two weeks ago. I have major reservations about President Obama’s policies in a number of areas, yet I am very glad that he won. I think his victory sends a message about the direction in which people want to move, whatever his actual policies will do. In general people seemed to be voting for inclusion, help for those who need it, and a sense of the common good. I find that hopeful even when I doubt that the current policies will lead to those ends.
We actually watched the election results for a while – we have a working tv at the Tracks House, where Jim writes. I was struck by the contrast between the two campaigns. The network we watched had a split-screen setup, which showed the Romney and the Obama election night gatherings side by side. What a difference – the Romney campaign group seemed to be totally white (and older); the Obama group was a wonderful mix of everybody, a colorful blend of “all of us”. You didn’t really need to read all the analysis of the election after seeing that.
I’ve been watching the PBS series “Eyes On the Prize” over the last month – it’s in our library system and easy to check out. Vincent Harding, our retreat leader, was an advisor to the series. Out of that experience he wrote a book, Hope and History (Orbis) which I’ve also been reading. The combination of Dr. Harding’s book, the filmed history, the movie “Lincoln” – which we saw on our anniversary – and the election – made a deep impression on me. It said that we are part of a struggle that began long ago and will continue into the future. Those of us who worked for justice in the 50’s and 60’s, in however small a way, were building toward today. And those of us who are working today are building toward a future that we can hardly imagine.
There are huge questions unanswered by this election. As Bill Quigley rightly pointed out in his PCUSA blog, major issues were never addressed. No one mentioned the death penalty. No one seriously mentioned global warming. They both supported nuclear power; no one mentioned nuclear weapons. No one questioned government violation of our civil liberties, or Guantanamo. No one mentioned the high rate of incarceration, especially of men of color. No one talked about a just wage. They did argue about abortion, but not in a way that would allow any kind of progress on that issue. Worst of all, both candidates agreed on drone warfare and all that goes with it. The good feelings generated by that multi-hued crowd must give way to a sense of work to be done. There is a huge amount of work to be done!
One of the frustrations of this election campaign was that basic questions could not be raised in a way that was heard by the public. The Democrats and Republicans are enough alike on most basic issues that only minor adjustments hinge on the election. Those minor adjustments are crucial in many ways, but the big issues of empire, world domination, greed, control – those never get raised because both parties agree on them. Some third parties work to ask those questions, but they are not given a voice in the public forum.
The questions we are facing as we become conscious of ourselves as a multi-hued nation are the same questions that faced the Civil Rights movement and the feminist movement: are we struggling for a piece of the pie, or are we making a whole new pie? Do we want an empire in which we all share in exploiting the rest of the world? Or do we want to work for a world where no one is exploited?
As we have seen already, when oppressed people take power in an oppressive system, they become oppressors. Margaret Thatcher, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton – women and people of color can internalize the values of empire just as efficiently as white men can. Indeed, we have all internalized those values, even those of us who struggle against them. With the election now in our past, we go back to every-day living in this empire. Our efforts to ask the deeper questions must continue, be more reflective, and cost more.
Continue, because we are only scratching the surface; be more reflective, because we need both to find the roots of empire within ourselves and to raise the question of empire in ways that can be heard; cost more, because questioning the status quo is not popular, and empires don’t just give up their power. If we were to be at all successful at proposing an alternative kind of nation/people, we can assume that it would be a dangerous proposition.
Post-election, moving into Advent – now is a good time to reflect on the stable where our faith was born. From the very beginning, the birth of an alternative to empire was threatened by the powers. Ultimately Jesus’ nonviolent, revolutionary Way of living brought him to the cross. Will we take some steps along that road?
Shelley Douglass is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. She is the hospitaller at Mary’s House Catholic Worker in Birmingham, a member of Holy Family Parish, and active especially against war and the death penalty.