Trusting God to Do Abundantly More Through Us Than We Can Do For Ourselves
Reverend Dr. J. Herbert NelsonDirector, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness
July 28, 2011
Today, I was arrested in the Capitol Rotunda while kneeling in prayer with colleagues from several Washington offices that are primarily affiliated through interfaith justice work. These persons are Jim Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church; Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Shalom Center, Philadelphia, PA; Rev. Jennifer Butler, Executive Director, Faith and Public Life; Rev. Paul Sherry, Director, Washington Office, Interfaith Worker Justice, and Past President, United Church of Christ; Rev. Michael Livingston, Past President, National Council of Churches of Christ (USA); Sandy Sorenson, Director, Washington Office, United Church of Christ; Martin Shupack, Director of Advocacy, Church World Service; Jordan Blevins, Director of Peace Witness Ministries, Church of the Brethren; Bob Edgar, President, Common Cause and former General Secretary, National Council of Churches of Christ (USA).
I am writing this statement to explain why non-violent civil disobedience was a necessary action to pursue at this time. I pray that through this writing, we who are committed to faith traditions will renew our call to community-building, so that all people are embraced irrespective of individual differences. It is time for faith communities to pursue a more excellent way, by demonstrating concerns through deliberate and direct actions regarding the upcoming Congressional budget discussions.
The Absence of Hope
On Monday, July 25th, I was saddened to hear both President Obama and House Speaker Boehner offer a bleak outlook regarding potential default on the nation’s debt and downgrading of the national credit rating. It was apparent that both men were distressed about the economic havoc that would occur if this issue was not resolved by August 2, 2011. Along with other Americans, I can see, hear, and share the frustration in the debate among politicians in Washington.
On Tuesday, I accompanied the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reverend Gradye Parsons, and a group of other religious leaders and Heads of Communion, to meetings with both Republican and Democratic Congressional leadership. We had meetings with staff in the offices of House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. We also met in person with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Assistant Leader James Clyburn. All of these meetings left the impression of bleak and uncertain prospects for reaching an agreement over the debt ceiling. They left us with almost no hope that such an agreement would protect the most vulnerable in society from a disproportionate share of the fiscal sacrifice. When asked, “How does the outcome look?” one senior staff member responded, “I don’t know, but it will be bad. No matter what the decision, it will be bad. We just don’t know how bad it will be.”
After we finished our meetings, we gathered to debrief in a solemn and defeated atmosphere. We discussed the need for the faith community to continue responding in a significant way to this crisis, which is not only fiscal, but also moral. The interfaith advocacy community in DC has been organizing for several months, and even years, around issues of just and compassionate federal budget decisions. In the past month, we have been holding daily prayer vigils across the street from the U.S. Capitol Building, in front of the United Methodist Building (where many of our offices are located). As our campaign to address the crisis this summer took shape, one opportunity for public witness that was suggested repeatedly was an action of non-violent civil disobedience. We share a belief that after exhausting all other avenues of persuasion and witness, civil disobedience is a necessary and appropriate way to demonstrate our concern and raise the voice of the faith community in this debate. Yesterday, we prayed together and each shared where his or her personal decision of conscience would lead. We agreed to support one another no matter our personal decision.
Today we were guilty of one charge…the promotion of social righteousness. Our nation is in a political morass. Elected officials in Washington seem unable to work together for the good of all people in the U.S. and across the globe. Our communal well-being is compromised by the self-interest of our political leaders. I am convinced that this is not the fault of any one political party. Too many congresspersons of all parties are trapped where commitment to the common good is diminished for the sake of personal gain and the seduction of power. Simply put, these men and women are conduits for corporate power and many vacillate between God and mammon.
In this process, the American people and others all over the world are left to suffer and fight over the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table, while corporations and wealthy people are protected by tax loopholes. The middle class is eroding and the rolls of poverty and joblessness are expanding. Grandparents who live on fixed incomes are paying mortgages for their children and private education for their grandchildren. Foreclosures are continuing and homelessness is reaching unbelievable numbers as many who were once considered middle class are now homeless or one paycheck away from living on the streets. Those who were once generous givers to our ministries of mercy now come to us seeking the assistance they used to be able to fund. The Prophet Isaiah calls us to be “restorers of the streets to live”: a direct challenge to employ a theology that turns powers and principalities on their heads for the liberation of God’s people.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
-- Isaiah 58:9b-12
My call to be arrested is united with a challenge to break through the mess of political spin and sound bites that inflame the U.S. electorate without informing it. Church leaders cannot stand idly by while our congregants lose their homes, withdraw their children from college because financial aid is cut, live in fear that their social security checks will not be delivered, search fruitlessly for jobs to support their families, and watch their children grow up uneducated and without opportunity.
Isaiah is right, “The Lord will guide you always.” However, we are required to put some feet on our prayers. We must move toward building a world that represents the will of God for our lives. At this time, it will take extraordinary faith, courage, and resilience to transform this broken political machinery. However, the greatest challenge is rediscovering as a nation the true virtues of government of the people, by the people and for the people.
My prayer is that others will take on leadership roles in their local communities to challenge the fallen structures of our day. Our challenge begins by rethinking and discerning our call. Church leaders are called to a public witness. Therefore, as we encounter a Congress that is unwilling to compromise for the good of the nation, let us not despair, but remember our mission, which our Savior makes clear at the very beginning of his ministry:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
The Spirit Must Outweigh the Risk
On several occasions, it has occurred to me that I have only been on the job for fourteen months. I have asked myself, ‘what might happen to me if I am arrested at this tender moment in my tenure as Director of Public Witness for the PC(USA)?’. All who care for their families and themselves want a certain amount of security in life. However, it is impossible to feel secure when fear grips our souls and paralyzes us in moments of challenge and controversy. Jesus prayed until he perspired while coping with the cup that was his burden for the Lord. However, He resolved that doing the will of God was far greater than anything else that he could experience – even unto death. And, he was right! Resurrection is greater. I am sure that many do not understand my actions.
My travels throughout the denomination, to approximately 25 Presbyteries in 14 months, have shown me disconnects in two places -- between Presbyterians and the historic role of our history, theology, and activism with regards to faith and politics; and the biblical connection between the prophets’ and Jesus’ impact on the political sphere of their day.
On Presbyterians, faith and politics:
John Calvin, founder of the Presbyterianism, was a staunch believer that the Church had a responsibility, on behalf of the governed, to assist government to become what God required it to be. He believed that governmental authority was not subject to the Church per se, but certainly subject to God’s Will on behalf of the people. Therefore, the Church had a responsibility to provide guidance to political leaders and structures in an effort to assist them in the implementation of Godly leadership. For Calvin, church attendance by political leaders was not enough. Political leaders needed to reflect the love of God for the people of God given the gravity of their office and responsibility.
On the prophets’ and Jesus’ role in the political sphere:
The prophets spoke truth in love to power. “Thus says the Lord” was their mantra. God’s people were called to return to the precepts of God for the purpose of living lives that were worthy of God’s acceptance. Generations later, Jesus faced the cross at Calvary in an effort to be responsive to the will of God in his life. He died a political death because his message was not only spiritual, but also political, and because a vacillating political leader chose to wash his hands in order to conceal his internal shame for putting to death our Savior, who was innocent of wrongdoing. Both the Old and New Testaments speak loudly to the commitment and consequences that derive from prophetic work. It seems that the Bible continually reminds us that misunderstandings and hardships come when we fully immerse ourselves in the work of faith.
I am not sure what will come out of these actions of civil disobedience, but it is clear that conversations will emerge. I am convinced that when the alarm is sounded, urgency is created and a Word from the Lord can be given new clarity. I want to suggest that even as you are reading this paper, the process is already beginning. Truly, the risk is great with regard to public opinion and even my standing in the church.
However, I wonder what would have happened to us if Jesus had worried so much about his standing, public perception, and even his own life. I wonder what would have happened if both Luther and Calvin had turned away from the pursuit of reforming the church at a time when her soul was dying. I wonder what would have happened if Eugene Carson Blake, Dr. King, and my own father (who was a Presbyterian pastor) had decided to turn back from their commitments to the civil rights movement. I wonder what would have happened if Lois Stair, Lawrence Bottoms, Clinton Marsh, Thelma Adair, Fahed Abu-Akel, Rick Ufford-Chase, Bruce Reyes Chow, Cindy Bolbach and Linda Valentine had failed to challenge our denomination to grow toward accepting leaders of different genders, races, ethnic backgrounds, age categories, and lay and clergy status in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I am sure each one of these persons was told that the time is not right. However, when we encounter a centering moment that brings us into deep deliberation with the Almighty, our conviction to something far greater than ourselves has the capacity to take us places that we can only explain in terms beyond our own power. I am convinced that this is why the Apostle Paul declared an unusual freedom, even while in jail, to implement the Lord’s will. He wrote “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
I encourage you to risk your life as we battle to reclaim the integrity of our political process and decision-making on behalf of the people of God. This is not a call towards greater dominance and control of other nations, but rather a call to work with the poor, dismantle the root causes of poverty, and build up a new middle class. This call requires that we commit to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness for the entire world, through governmental policies that promote the common good and loving our global neighbors. The challenge and the call now is to repair the breach in our covenant with God, while challenging our communities and this nation to become first in love. Our policies and practices must be consistent with this vision to reclaim the moral authority of our nation and world.
As religious leaders, we cannot stand idly by and watch while the mandate of our gospel – to love our neighbors – is trampled by a selfish few. I do recognize the potential fallout from this action and I am trusting God to do abundantly more for this situation through me and the others who are making this sacrifice than we can do ourselves.