Tag Archive: justice

Why advent…and why maybe not. (maybe part of a series on liturgical seasons of resistance…or also maybe not)

I think it was the day after my father died, so almost exactly a year ago. With a lump in her throat, my mother said, “I might put out a few Christmas things this year, but I can’t put out anything that’s from the Advent box. I just think about your father making sure every year he didn’t get cheated out of an Advent tea if Christmas eve fell on a Sunday.”

Most liturgical traditions weren’t to be trusted in my mother’s Scottish Presbyterian upbringing: anything too liturgical was definitely Catholic, which was NOT Presbyterian. (For a very small country that loves their resistance stories so much, they seem to forget how much of their resistance was wrapped up in resisting the Church of England back when they were mostly Catholic.) 

So it was interesting that when my mother lost many of her family’s traditions upon being cut off by her parents for marrying my (brown) Hindu father, one of the family traditions that the three of us clung to even though it had no part in either of their histories was Advent. Not the historical Advent of fasting and penitence (don’t worry, I’m getting there) but the Advent of lighting candles, listening to Christmas music, and having finger sandwiches thick with margarine and filled with the special treat of tinned salmon, or homemade sausage rolls–greasy hot water pastry filled with tubed sausage meat and sliced into bite sized pieces, and tiny individual mince pies. (My mother grew up in post-war Britain. That’s pretty high end.)

It was a much beloved ritual my mother was stunned I didn’t keep rigorously myself when I moved out. (And when I had a partner, I did. And to this day, I try to host ONE advent tea a year if I can pull it off, to share the tradition as best I can as a childless single person whose family traditions will die with me.)


I’m an everything nerd, so it’s not surprising I turned out to be a liturgy nerd. I’m also a generalist–I’m too lazy to delve deep into any one subject, no matter how interesting. So over the years people who have learned this about me have performed the party trick of sharing little nuggets of history about Advent in particular, which I treat as valuable oral tradition and do not seek to debunk, because they are such good sermon fodder.

Over the years I’ve learned these things about Advent that may or may not be true; don’t take them away from me:

  • Advent was created as a season of penitence and fasting to provide dignity to people without resources. That was a lean season for serfs, and it sanctified–made holy– their struggle and demanded that those with more resources join their struggle if they wanted to see themselves as holy.
  • Advent was a six week season like Lent, offering mirrors of our journey and challenge as we approach the miraculous birth (and the hope of overcoming a tyrannical state) and our journey and challenge as we approach the devastation of death and then the miracle of new life (after the conquering of hell).
  • Gaudete Sunday/Rose Sunday/Joy Sunday (the pink candle, currently the third week of four Sundays, the other three being purple candles of royalty but also of deep reflection) was added because medieval folks would get so into the penitential aspect of Advent that by the Sunday before the Sunday before Christmas, people would be fainting from hunger in worship. (I know my Anglican friends will remind me every Sunday is meant to be a mini-Easter, but y’all know a Scottish Presbyterian by blood, no matter how liturgical, sees that as just cheating on the self-discipline.)

How is that not a SUPER COOL SEASON that we should all be totally digging? (OK, I get swept up in the hardcore bada**ery of folks in the medieval church, I admit.)


So here’s the thing. Every year in the US we get into lots of weird conversations and debates about whether the church is getting sucked into materialist culture by participating in Christmas before December 25. (It is.) We debate whether we should only sing Advent hymns (of which there are really only two that anyone knows–fight me) until Christmas Day, and then sing Christmas hymns until January 6, Epiphany, when everyone is sick to death of Christmas. (We should. And you don’t have to fight me cuz my mum will, every year. You’re good.)

I have friends who grew up in churches that don’t really have advent, who see it as very much a white thing or a mainline church thing or a Catholic thing. (They’re not necessarily wrong.) And yet as I’ve tried to practice Advent as faithfully as I practice Lent (which does end up getting a little too Catholic for my mother, no matter how hard she tries to overcome the sectarianism that damaged her homeland for hundreds of years), my relationship to Jesus and my political identity as a Christ-follower deepen. So I’m still fighting for it. Usually. Until this year.


My friends and I are what you might call “crispy.” We’ve called and mailed and protested and risked arrest and preached and marched and cried and vigiled and pilgrimaged til we have almost nothing left. We live in a nation that is caging babies and murdering sacred land. We live in a nation where hate crimes are on the rise and fascism is maybe creeping or maybe sauntering at this point. We live in a nation where everything tells us Black lives don’t matter but that saying Black lives DO matter makes us a threat to our government. We live in a nation where refugees are turned back to places we made dangerous and immigrants are deported but we continue to try to wipe out indigenous lives at the same time, reminding us that whiteness is the only real god we are meant to worship.

And so this year, I’ve been letting Christmas trickle in anywhere it needs to in communities that are impacted physically or psychically by this evil. I’ve been letting the already part of the Christmas miracle (God is always, already and not yet) show up as strongly as the not yet among my activist and organizer and care taker friends. I’ve started seeing this season as one long and well deserved Gaudete Sunday of joy after so many purple Sundays of hope, peace and love in the face of hopelessness, violence and hate.

I used to serve in a church where most of us didn’t have much, and I preached the importance of a season of Advent anticipation and even spiritual discipline and temperance in the face of American capitalist exploitation of our holiday for the sake of making a buck. I’m not sorry for that, and I’d also give anyone struggling a pass to let a little Christmas leak into Advent.

So maybe it doesn’t need to be a line in the sand, a bright line, a line of purple and pink candles against a line of green and red ones.

 

But here’s the thing, though.

How do we assess if we’re self-medicating, erasing, avoiding the realities of the biblical moment leading up to Christmas by skipping the critical part of the story?

What if the part about Mary exclaiming that her Son would tear down injustice and literally withhold food from those who had grown fat while others starved…what if that part is in the bible for the people who are comfortable to be awakened to their role in addressing their fellow human’s suffering, not just as an act of charity but as an act of systemic restructuring?

What if the season of Advent is about people with stuff having to do without, to literally feel what longing and absence and need are, to cultivate empathy, the way our Muslim siblings are supposed to feel deeper empathy for the poor during their fasting season of Ramadan?

What if Advent’s point right now is to wake us up and shake us loose from the illusion that democracy actually addresses the needs of the poorest, the darkest skinned, the longest on this land when it was designed for the wealthiest, the lightest skinned and the newest arrivals of a certain type?


I have some deeply liturgical friends who get mad at the Good Friday sermon that says “It may be Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” I remember getting mad at my congregation for not catching fire about the miracle of Moses and the liberation of Israel, and when I complained to a pastor who worshiped at the church when he wasn’t at his own, he said, “that’s because we know God liberated US right here just two hundred years ago so we don’t need to get excited about that,” and I got mad at HIM.

As I get older I am better at recognizing that for my siblings who are in an eternal advent, in the occupied Jerusalem before that liberator baby had been born, a little sneak peak of Christmas isn’t a sin.

I just don’t want Christmas to be an anesthetic to the fact that we are all living in occupied Jerusalem before that liberator baby has been born, and some of us who are wounded spiritually by the occupation (and ALL of us are wounded spiritually by it) still have some work to do to show up alongside the folks who are being wounded physically and psychically by that same occupation.

It’s why my friends created the now notorious “F*** this S***” advent devotional several years ago at the height of the Movement for Black Lives, to remind us that the prophets waiting for a better day used REALLY strong language to convey the urgency of the moment, the desperate need for a savior, the desperate need for us to do the WORK of preparation, to put aside politeness and civility and “decency” when those things are perpetuating violence.

So I guess, to use my long-forgotten theological ethics terminology, I’m trying to make the argument that the right to Christmas before December 25 feels to me to be situational.

I get that I’m fighting a losing battle. I’m not 100% sure it’s a battle that matters anywhere near as much as the work I get to do with congregations and nonprofits seeking to institutionalize anti-oppression practices into the lives of their organizations. That said, as a deeper and deeper proponent of nonviolence, I also find myself moving more and more towards spiritual discipline as the way to remain grounded in my work, my accountability and my relationship to the divine in hard times.


I haven’t asked but I think my mother’s putting out the advent wreath this year. I’m not sure she’ll make sausage rolls for one, but she’ll watch all of the Christmas choral concerts on PBS. It might still be too sad one year later for either of us to do the joy-filled advent rituals that made my father act delightfully like a child even in the years when he was working so hard and often ran a little short tempered.

And when she’s with me on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we’ll go to church and then to the Dickens Christmas Faire at the Cow Palace because I’m not an absolute purist either.

A friend made a beautiful argument for why we as progressive Christians should embrace Christmas the way it’s being practiced in the secular world. If we don’t reclaim Christmas as a season of all the beautiful values we believe Christmas to be, my friend argued, we’ve ceded ground and are letting the corporations and capitalist interests define it.

That’s cool. I’m just going to wait to reclaim it til December 25th. And in the mean time I’m pushing Advent HARD, just like Sysyphus with the boulder, December after December, a rock made out of hope and peace and joy and love and two other substances I don’t know because we’ve reduced it by two weeks.

If it’s any consolation, my mother’s rolling her eyes right along with you, as she hangs up her Christmas decorations, and as I do, too.

The case against “rent a collar:” religion and workers’ rights

Workers Prayer

Lord Jesus,

We offer you this day our works,

Our hopes and struggles,

Our joys and sorrows.

 

Give us and all workers of the world

The grace to work as you did

So that everything we do

May benefit our fellowmen and

Glorify GOD, our Father.

 

Your Kingdom come

Into all factories, farms, offices and into our homes.

 

Give us this day our daily bread,

May we receive it without envy or injustice

May those of us who, today, may be in danger of sin

Remain in Your grace, and

May those who died in labor’s field of honor rest in peace.

 

Teach us to be generous,

To serve you as you deserve to be served,

To give without counting the cost,

To fight without minding the wounds,

To work and pray as our right and duty, and

To spend our life without expecting any return

Other than the conviction that

We are doing Your holy will.

AMEN

–Associated Labor Unions, Manila, Phillipines

Union Prayer
Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Billy Bragg

I hear that prayer and praying
Will change this world around
I fold my hands I bow my head
I kneel down on the ground

I prayed and prayed by nite & day
And then I prayed some more
I prayed till my tongue was dry as dust
I prayed till my knees had sores.

Will prayer change shacks to decent homes?
Will prayer change sickness into health?
Will prayer change hate to works of love?
Will prayer get me my right to vote?

Will prayer give jobs at honest pay?
Will prayer bring stomach full of food?
Will prayer make rich treat poor folks right?
Will prayer take out the Ku Klux Klan?

Will prayer cut down the hoodlum bands?
Will prayer stop the lynchbug hands?
If all of these things my prayers can do,
I’ll pray till I am black and blue.

If prayer will bring us union love,
I’ll pray and pray and pray some more.
I’ll pray all day from door to door
And fall at nite to pray some more
My prayer with a union label.

When I worked in Congress, my boss was MUCH more comfortable in a union hall than in a church, and I think the labor leaders he worked with appreciated that.

I’m comfortable in both. And I remember how uncomfortable I made my boss during my interview when I told him that after working in Congress, I planned to go into the ministry. But I finally realize that my comfort in both the union hall (well, on the picket line) and in the church actually puts me in sync with a lot of the workers I’ve gotten to know over the years. It turns out they’re not just workers; they’re people, and often people of faith. And I think that matters as we reflect on the intersection of faith and labor.

 

The relationship between organized labor and labor-friendly religious leaders has been an awkward one for as long as I’ve known about it, and I think there might be a few reasons for that:

  • Our perceptions of each other limit our capacity to support each other. We think of them as no-holds-barred anything-goes ends-justifies-means folks, and they think of us as not understanding how much is at stake, being dreamers instead of realists and not being particularly good strategists. Both of us might be a little right.
  • We’re both used to be treated with authority and being heard, so it is less than comfortable for either of us when the other group expects at least as much (and usually more of) the same courtesy.
  • Many high level labor leaders are not convinced that religious leaders bring anything to the movement other than symbolically blessing what labor has already put in the works.
  • Many clergy are squeamish not about the goals or even the tactics of a given labor campaign but get squeamish about dehumanizing the opposition (which frankly can be the most uplifting and energizing part of a labor rally), and sometimes that single thing stops them from participating more fully in the work of solidarity.

The biggest tension in the movement is around what clergy petulantly refer to as “rent-a-collar,” by which they mean they have no voice in the process of the movement or the strategy or the goal setting; they’re called the night before to show up at a rally to offer a prayer.

Clergy often resent this because they feel a little used. But the truth is, I’m not sure that most labor leaders see us as bringing much to the table—in the work, those who bring financial resources and people power make a campaign successful, and that’s not always the faith community.

At the Interfaith Worker Justice conference I attended this week, I’ve met people from organizations across the country who really are bringing “faith people power” to campaigns and as a result ending up with a seat at the table. I’m also meeting faith organizers who brought the people power and still got left out of the decision-making process because at the last moment labor leaders got anxious that pie-in-the-sky religious leaders would ruin a compromise bill by holding out for something better. I’ve even met a faith-student-community organizer who connected workers into a union through his work with faith leaders and then found out that the union wasn’t ready to go to bat for the particular workers who had joined the union. (And while my stories are focused on the faith community, I suspect my friends in labor could point to times the faith community sold out or abandoned or just messed up campaigns over the years.)

Our relationship, labor and faith, is a mixed bag.

 

There’s something I’ve begun to reflect on deeply, though, of late. I think there’s something the faith community brings to the workers that labor leadership doesn’t always recognize, and I want to tell a story and then share what I think it’s about.

I spoke at a fast food workers’ rally a month ago. A labor leader translated for me—most of the workers were primarily Spanish speakers. She was fierce and amazing and led chants and actually got us enthusiastic even though we had been up since 4 or 5.

I told the story of Passover. When she got to that word in her translation, she said, “I don’t know that word.” Five people at the front said, “Pascua.” I continued with my story and said something about Pharaoh. She paused in the translation, and even before she could ask, fifteen people stage whispered“faraón.”

 

She didn’t know the story of Passover. It did not carry power for her. It did not inspire her.

But the workers knew the story of Passover. They knew what it meant to be Israelites working hard for an Egyptian overlord, and when they looked like they might be a threat, their work was made even harder.

And the workers knew how that story ends. It ends with liberation by a God who cares about their conditions and their families and their dignity.

Plus, she might not have known why it was really funny for me to say that Ronald McDonald reminded me of Pharaoh, but they sure did.

 

We share a common story of hope, one that touches the most intimate parts of our personal struggles in life and can also offer us support and courage in the larger battles we have to face; even a struggle against a global corporation that has no desire to keep its workers happy and healthy members of the community at virtually no expense to the corporation.

The labor leader doing translation for me is heroic. She puts in work hours that would put me in the hospital. She stands with workers in scary times. She wants nothing in this world more than to see them paid what they are worth (although she’ll have to settle for $15 and a union).

Her union is also amazing in that they are pouring so much of their limited resources and limited people power into supporting workers who are not currently dues-paying union members and very possibly never will be. Obviously the union hopes that will change, but they’re investing themselves in this campaign with the awareness that it probably won’t, and they’re standing up for non-unionized workers anyhow, because who else will stand with them? The unions I work with are embattled and struggling against great odds they’ve struggled against since they were founded. The power of the union is more faithful and hopeful than that of most churches, and it often embodies the kind of community we in the faith community only talk about.

But the moral of the story is this: The union leaders may not find comfort and inspiration in their shared struggle with bible characters, but the underpaid fast food workers knew that story better than I do, and in two languages. And in that lies a connection.

There is something about the power generated between faithful workers and labor-loving religious leaders that feels different than anything else, because it allows all of us to bring our whole selves into the fight.

Many of the “rank and file” members of unions, many of the low-wage workers who have not yet been unionized, are deeply faithful people. And some of them attend churches with pastors and priests and imams who won’t stand with them when they’re being mistreated because those religious leaders want to avoid “politics” (except the politics of respectability). That is wounding to a person of faith; it can even cause a crisis of faith. So when a different religious leader shows up and lets them know that their commitment to justice IS part of their relationship with God, redemption and healing can occur.

 

I have seen religious leaders contribute to the strategy of a campaign. I have seen religious leaders strengthen coalitions and hold them together when tension mounted. I have seen religious leaders get better conditions in an agreement from politicians than labor would have gotten sheerly because those politicians had been shamed into being their better selves. So I think there are a lot of reasons for labor and religion to work together better; I think we bring a lot to the larger work for justice and equity.

One of the most prophetic workers/leaders I know, walking with me from a 6AM rally to a 9AM action.

But there’s one particular and yet incredibly ephemeral reason for us to be plugged into campaigns over the long term: we share a story with workers who face fatigue and a lack of institutional support. When they feel beaten up in their private lives, they pray and read scripture and turn to God. When they feel beaten up in their work for justice, they should have the same outlet. And on a good day, a courageous pastor or priest or imam can bring that opportunity to a fellow sister or brother in the faith.

Ekklesia: Are you just somebody that I used to know?

Is Christian Privilege killing the church?

At what some of my colleagues saw as the breaking point of Occupy Oakland, January 28, 2012, one of my friends said, “Ah, Occupy Oakland, now you’re just somebody that I used to know.” For a lot of folks committed to seeing a justice-filled peace in Oakland, Occupy was a roller coaster of deep love, deep pride and deep disappointment. On January 28, we witnessed some of the most awful police actions of a months-long movement riddled with awful police actions, but it was also a reminder, as another friend of mine pointed out, that OO suffered due to a lack of intentional non-violent commitment and also intentional non-violent strategy.

(I later spoke on a panel with Erica Chenoweth, whose book “Why Civil Resistence Works” showed quantifiably how nonviolence is strategically more effective in creating lasting change at the national level when used consistently within a movement. If you don’t want to read a very dense book, she sums it up in 12 minutes in her now famous Ted Talk. A number of OO folks that day wrestled with the elitism that often shows up in accusations against people who participate in property damage or violence and also the fact that OO’s “diversity of tactics” strategy reduced safety particularly for people of color who were less likely to engage in the movement, among other complex issues.)

Long story short, the Gotye song captured a feeling about Occupy Oakland among some of us movement types: we loved you, we gave ourselves to you, you broke our heart; now you’re just somebody that we used to know. (Two years later, I believe the Occupy movement had a lot to do with creating space in the public discourse for addressing wealth inequality in America, the fast food and WalMart workers’ movements, and the gap between poor working people and the ultra-rich. However, I still regret that Occupy Oakland didn’t become the unifying strategic nonviolent movement that our city needed and deserved.)

 

All of this is a long prelude to my reflections on the church today. Occupy Oakland was a flash in the pan compared to my relationship with the church. I have loved Jesus like he was my best friend since I was three. When I was in fourth grade, my mother and the church’s Christian ed director said that when I grew up, I would either be a nun or a Jesus freak. Church folks have loved me and nurtured me and cultivated me for leadership. When I moved to a new school, my church youth group loved and supported me when I would have otherwise felt incredibly awkward and alone.

The church did such a good job of this love and nurture that I eventually followed my calling to become an ordained pastor. So why do I sometimes feel like the church is just somebody that I used to know? (more…)