How to live with the adjective inconsequential?
That’s the way John Berger posed the question as I sat with his book a couple of days ago in the coffee shop waiting for time to start my after school job. He was talking about the role of the artist and writer in the face of the violence which has dominated our world for centuries. What good does it do to write poetry and sing songs and make whatever art we can to wage peace and speak truth to power when the someday when we shall overcome never gets any closer on the calendar?
So one asks oneself: Do words count? And there must sometimes come back a reply like this: Words here are like stones put into pockets of roped prisoners before they are thrown into a river. (79)
The news talked this morning about a couple of cities, including nearby Charlotte, where the last of the Occupy campers were being evicted by police. The tone of the newscasters came across as one of the now-we-can-be-done-with-that variety. The criticism has been that the folks who lived in our parks for so long weren’t focused enough and didn’t know what they were protesting for, but I think that criticism misses the point. As Berger continues,
One protests because not to protest would be too humiliating, too diminishing, too deadly. One protests in order to save the present moment, whatever the future holds. To protest is to refuse being reduced to a zero and to an enforced silence. Therefore, at the very moment a protest is made, if it is made, there is a small victory. (79)
Though I was miles away from any of the camps, I was encouraged by those who took to the streets and the parks because they reminded me to not give into my cynicism. I have allowed the political process in this country to reduce me to feeling like a zero. I have let myself believe that the lobbyists have had the last word by buying off our alleged leaders leaving me, well, inconsequential.
And I’m not sure I’m wrong. The truth is the One Percent have most of the money and the power and they continue to tilt the game their way. The truth is, as John Stewart commented the other night on The Daily Show, “the poor have shitty lobbyists.” The truth is the candidates will spend enough money on their campaigns to fully fund Head Start programs across the country but will instead waste the cash on the political equivalent of a playground fight. Yet, the protestors in the park call me to a different view, as does John Berger. They call me to ask a better question:
How to live with the adjective inconsequential?
The adjective is temporal. Perhaps a possible and adequate response is spatial? To go closer and closer to what is being redeemed from the present within the hearts of those who refuse the present’s logic. A storyteller can sometimes do this.
The refusal of the protesters then becomes the feral cry, the rage, the humour, the illumination of the women, men, and children in a story. Narrative is another way of making a moment indelible, for stories when heard stop the unilinear flow of time and render the adjective inconsequential meaningless. (80)
As I hear the feral cry of the Occupy-ers, I wonder where are the feral Faithful? The voices crying in the wildnerness, “Prepare ye, the way of the Lord”? For those who have been called to proclaim liberty to the captives, we have been far too silent. Or, at least, I have.
Last week, I had the honor of going with Ginger to the annual meeting of Durham Congregations In Action where Ginger was installed as president for the coming year. DCIA is a strong voice of protest and promise in Durham and I’m proud of both Ginger and the group. The keynote speaker was William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, another essential voice of faithful protest and hope in our state. He spoke with the power and poetry of a prophet, and asked a good question of his own:
Do you know who you are?
At the close of the service, Ginger was called to offer the benediction. She asked us to turn and face each other from either side of the hall and then each side took turns asking the other, “Do you know who you are?” with as much attitude as we could muster. We volleyed the question back and forth four or five times, the emphasis changing as we spoke:
Do you KNOW who you are?
Do YOU know who you are?
Do you know who YOU are?
I know who I want to be. I know, most days, what story I want to write with my life and I far too often let myself forget and fall prey to feeling inconsequential. I know it is far easier to define myself as not being one of those whose actions I hold in contempt than it is to define myself and tell my story. Jesus knew what he was doing in calling us to love our enemies because that love takes away any chance of using them as fuel for our arrogance and righteous indignation. The real story is there is no Us and Them, only Us. In that context, do I know who I am?
To you Occupy-ers, I’m sorry I am late to the game as far as speaking up and offering an encouraging word. You are speaking truth to power because you are telling a story: your story, our story. Perhaps parable would be a better word because, like the ones Jesus told, the point is not that easy to figure out yet there’s something in there worth digging for. What you are doing reminds me of words that matter from one of my favorite stories, King Lear:
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. (V,iii,322-323)
Words count. Actions matters. Faith works.