As I write this, we’re still in Eastertide – at Holy Family we’re still wishing each other “Happy Easter!” at the Kiss of Peace. Today Fr. Bob reminded us in the homily that resurrection is to “do the works” Jesus did – feeding the hungry, healing, crying out for justice. And of course, resurrection is also, paradoxically, to experience our own crucifixion.
This year it felt like Lent began early, in January, with the sentencing of the Transform Now Plowshares. These three folks, Greg Boertje-Obed, Sr. Megan Rice, and Michael Walli, had entered the high-security area at the Y12 facility where enriched uranium materials are stored at Oak Ridge, outside Knoxville, Tennessee. Against all expectation they were able to find their way through fences and security alarms as well as woods and snow, to pray and spray-paint words of peace on the buildings. Their action had to be Spirit-sheltered; as with so many such actions, things “just happened” to fall into place for this one. It took a long time for them to be sentenced, and their sentences – while not what they could have been – are tough. They have raised public awareness: nuclear weapons still exist. Our security is a myth. These are truths that the Empire wants hidden.
Here in Birmingham, that truth, of the existence of nuclear weapons, is hardly noticed. We have plenty of problems closer to home than Oak Ridge – 28% of our households live in poverty, our schools are failing, our public health hospital has been closed. Gun violence is rampant, people line up for blocks at food banks, utility bills go unpaid because there is no money. We have plenty of problems.
Some of us are doing better than others – our inner city is beginning to boom again, with condos and trendy coffee shops; neighborhoods are being fixed up, people are getting enthusiastic about the city. The downside, of course, is that poor folks get moved out – homeless folks get moved by punitive laws and hostile police; people who have cheap housing get moved when the rents go up.
The people of Birmingham, like people everywhere, carry the cross of social injustice. We were mindful of that on Good Friday when some of us walked the Stations of the Cross through downtown Birmingham. We meditated on some of the ways in which the Body of Christ suffers here and now through poverty, racism, lack of basic amenities like decent housing, transportation, health care. We remembered all those people who are in prison, a good portion of our population.
People tend to be somewhat hopeful around here, or at least active. There are groups working for better transportation and for just ownership and to save the public health hospital. There are groups working to transform food deserts and to improve schools.
Here at Mary’s House we provide hospitality for a very limited number of people. We get involved in buying groceries and bus passes and seeking out parenting classes, with community meal once a week, and check-in on Sunday, and whose turn is it to clean the bathroom anyhow? We try to help people be independent so they can take care of their own business; we try to keep us all sane in the process!
It’s easy to get so involved in the process that we forget the bigger picture. We try to improve bus service or food availability, to salvage TANF or food stamp monies, we work to put urban land into the hands of citizens instead of development corporations. We have to do those things, to care for the lives of the people with whom we share our city. It’s too easy – or maybe too tempting – to focus on these struggles and to miss the backdrop against which we act.
There are two realities that lurk just out of sight, haunting our efforts to build justice and sapping our enthusiasm for the struggle. These twin specters are issues so large, so frightening, that it’s much easier to ignore them than to confront them. The issues are climate change and nuclear weapons. Climate change is more newsworthy these days, with reports from the UN and now speeches from the President, so that we are more aware of this hovering menace. We are beginning to feel its effects as well, which makes it harder to ignore!
Nuclear weapons, however – nuclear war – are not covered in our media. The expansions at Y12 (Oak Ridge) and other build-ups of nuclear capabilities go unreported. The fact that we still have the ability to end all life on earth quickly, in fire, explosion, and radiation – do we ever think about that? Sometimes there’s talk about tactical nuclear weapons, and the nuclear option in the Middle East, or Korea, or some other hot spot. Do we remember the lessons some of us once learned, about the effects of one nuclear missile or bomb, the burns and radiation sickness, the spreading radioactivity, the uncontrollable effects of even one bomb? Do we draw a connection between using such a weapon and the radiation from Fukushima now found off the coast of California?
It’s tempting not to remember, or not to find out. People like Greg and Michael and Megan have to be sent to prison for intimidating lengths of time, so that the rest of us will keep not-thinking about these issues. Cover up the issues, shut away the protest, and keep on with business as usual for the arms corporations and the governments they finance. Lenten actions, and Lenten suffering like that of the Transform Now Plowshares, their families, communities, and friends, are offerings for the survival of the world and the inspiration of the rest of us. These actions are a form of the resurrection, as we heard in church this morning – the resurrection is walking the Way of Jesus. We are invited to join in that walk and to confront the lurking intimations of doom.
I think that when we ignore the threat posed to our lives and hopes by the presence of nuclear weapons we open ourselves to despair. Practical reasons to cut the arms budget are plentiful – we can fund weapons of mass destruction, or we can fund health care, food for the hungry, housing, education. A spiritual reason has to do with the death of hope in us as we refuse to face the existence of these weapons, and our responsibility for them. As long as they stand behind us, casting shadows, we are uneasy and fearful. If we turn to look at them – at how many we have and what they could do, and the purpose for which, even now, they’re being used – we begin to enter the realm of light and clarity. To go further, to take a portion of responsibility for their existence, is to claim some power. And to take action against them is to begin to walk the resurrection walk.
A couple of nights ago a group of us watched the documentary film, “Ghosts of Jeju” – about the history of Korea and the present-day conflict between the people of an island off the Korean coast, a people who have struggled for eight years against the governments of Korea and the United States. This small agricultural and fishing village is trying to preserve its ancient culture and its natural heritage, while the two powerful governments want to bulldoze the island for a new naval base, intended to keep China in check.
The people of Jeju and their supporters are tired, often imprisoned, sometimes downhearted, and yet in their struggle we can see the sense of resurrection joy. When people who are under the boot resist, resurrection happens. When people put themselves under the boot by joining the resistance, resurrection happens. Joy arrives. In a sense it doesn’t matter whether the immediate struggle is won or lost, because resurrection happens. It will go on happening wherever a struggle for justice is mounted in love — against the Keystone pipeline, the Trident submarines, the Y12 facility, for justice in Colombia, for Indigenous peoples’ rights – when we walk toward justice and peace, Lent happens, and it leads to resurrection.
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.