Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Really Bad Friday

Good Friday, the Christian holiday with the searingly ironic name, is a theatrical affair in my church. We sit in an ever-darkening sanctuary, reading aloud the story of how a political radical, a teacher, and a pacifist in an age of empire got caught between his enemies and the state, faced a show trial, and then a grisly torture death. Crucifixion was a punishment Rome regularly used against political foes as well as petty criminals. It always flummoxes me when Christians emphasize the exceptionalism of Jesus’s crucifixion. In fact, it was a common-as-dirt strategy used by the empire to publicly humiliate challengers. Much like lynching, it instilled fear, divided communities, and drew crowds.
So on Good Friday, we tell the story of one particular crucifixion that happened during one particular Passover. It includes the shame of those whom fear overwhelmed into betrayal; those who traded their decency for the illusion of more power and safety; those who abused their offices and those who encouraged them to do so; and those left to watch it all through their tears, feeling helpless before the military regime now occupying their home. This is our liturgy, from the Greek leitourgia, which means public service. We tell stories in public as a public service. Stories that remind us just how terrible people can be when they are anxious about their place in the power structure. Good Friday stories are not about winning; they are about loss, division, scapegoating, and being driven by fear. And as we tell them, the lights go out. First those already dimmed overhead; then, one by one, the candles; then the last pillar, the Christ candle, marched out by a somber priest who slams the back door so hard it makes everyone jump. But this is not a drill. It is not a rehearsal. It is happening.
I haven’t blogged since right before the election (“Dear …..”), my 11th-hour reach across the aisle bid to consider relationships beyond the blue and red feed. See how well that worked? After, when I tried to write, my pen only poured out anger and pain until the ink gathered into pools of despair. I didn’t know what to do, but I was pretty sure we didn’t need any more of that on the interwebs. Besides, I didn’t know what story to tell, or how to make sense of the story I found myself in. The Friday after the election at the grocery store, I felt like I was in a zombie movie. To each face I wondered “are you…?” Would you hurt me for your gain? Lock me up? Betray? Exterminate? Crucify? I was a stranger in my own country, living in occupied territory. I stumbled through 2016, alternately cursing my naiveté and hoping I’d wake up from the nightmare. I found little things: a “Nevertheless, She Persisted” t-shirt; an “I Can’t Keep Quiet” pickup choir; de rigueur FaceBook venting; my students, who give me hope every day; putting my representatives on speed dial. I changed grocery stores and now make a point of small talk and hugging cashiers. Then, I threw myself into making a play (already on the schedule when Meryl told us what to do with our broken hearts). For me, it was equal parts research, escape, survival, therapy, and public service. The Busy Body, a 1709 comedy by the now mostly unknown Susanna Centlivre, gave us all some desperately needed laughs, many at the expense of Sir Francis Gripe, a grabby, greedy, oversexed old man with big hair. Sometimes, history falls in your lap. It was glorious.
But sometimes, the story gets dark, and you can’t just ignore it. People and reefs and species die and they don’t come back from the dead. This year, for me, Easter, particularly in its commercialized, pastel, sticky-sweet form, feels too much like what Deitrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, distracting us with an empty “It’s phenomenal; you’re going to love it.” Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis a month before their regime fell, believed in resurrection and the power of Easter, but I think this year he’d be on my side. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still holding out for rebirth, spring, new life. But the darkness around us is deep.
 After Jesus was on the cross but not yet dead, the same mob that had just colluded with the authorities to get him up there wanted to make a correction. They asked Pilate to change the sign above his head (allegedly written in 3 languages) from “king of the Jews” to “He who said he was king of the Jews.” Pilate’s reply, “what I have written, I have written,” was both nonchalant and exactly to the point. You see, Pilate didn’t give a shit about what they wanted because he didn’t have to. The Romans already controlled the discourse: what got written, which bodies lived or died, which would suffer and which would luxuriate. They were the champions of law and order, the leaders of Western civilization, and they made the rules. Jerusalem was their town now, and they didn’t have to put up with some radical riling up the masses. They could just crucify him and shut him up. It was all perfectly legal, a trial and everything. Besides, no one will ever remember, and his rattled, loser followers will never get their story together.
The scale of the struggle over who tells the American story is overwhelming, more than any one person can manage, so I’m focusing on the stories about higher education, vouchers, and education funding. The carefully scripted and stoked rage at government in general and public education in particular (“broken,” “crooks,” “failing”) was crafted by those in power who do not want people to ask too many questions. A well-educated electorate might begin to parse their news sources and notice how they’re being played by a system fed (for now) by low wages and crushing personal debt; by oil executives looking at profits over public welfare; or by powerful insurance companies whose incentive is money, not healing. Those with less or a lesser education also tend not to vote. Civics at the high school level, dubbed the “quiet crisis in education” by the not-exactly-liberal Sandra Day O’Connor, has been all but ignored; consider whose interests this neglect and cynicism serves. Furthermore, if you twist the story of America to say that corporations are people, and that their rights are violated by campaign finance reform, environmental protections, or banking regulations; that American values are only those of capital and that greed is good; that immigrants and poor people are the problem; if you make the bottom line sacred and self-evident, you might get people to identify with the empire and betray themselves and their children’s futures. In this landscape, racism, misogyny, and homophobia are easy triggers, and scapegoats are plentiful. Who wants to be identified with weakness, especially when the powerful mock it? By contrast, an education broadens views, recovers disappeared histories, encourages empathy, and fosters critical thinking in ways that are inconvenient for those in power. The history of slavery in the U.S; the scientific reality of melting ice caps; the alarming consolidation of wealth in the hands of the very few—these stories may not serve the current empire, but they are true and the fight to tell them is coming to a school board or legislature near you. You better get down there. This is not a drill.

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