walter benjamin, solidarity, and my peace delegation

I spent my last semester at Union Theological Seminary thinking about the past. Ever since I learned, two years ago, about Walter Benjamin’s concept of the weak messianic force, I knew I wanted to write my thesis on it. The idea is mainly found in On the Concept of History. It outlines how a historical materialist reads and writes history, among other things, ‘happiness’. I was struck by the weak messianic force for a few reasons. First, it gives present humanity a way to redeem the (forgotten and oppressed) past through collectively remembering those on the margins. It’s kind of like a pre-People’s History of the United States. Second, I have been obsessed with weak thought (Vattimo and Caputo) for quite some time and it gave me a chance to re-read some of my favorite texts. Thirdly, Benjamin wrote this text merely months before he committed suicide. Meaning up until his death, he was thinking politically and theologically about how the world could be more just. I too hope that I will work for justice until my death. It’s through Benjamin that I have been more keenly aware of oppressed and forgotten peoples in the US: from Indigenous peoples to #BlackLivesMatter to immigrants.

As well, Benjamin haunts the way I view time. I continually ask myself whether I want to act in empty time or messianic time? Do I need that extra time in the morning to sleep or attend a Fight for $15 protest? Am I hanging out with those who will challenge me or with those who will push me to become a better Timothy? Now these choices are not always black and white, and sometimes I choose self care, which is all good and fine. I just don’t want to do it all the time.

Although I haven’t read enough Benjamin to know whether he writes on solidarity, I believe his goal for us in the present is to act in solidarity with forgotten and oppressed people. One of my favorite scenes in The Motorcycle Diaries happens near the end of the journey while Che and Alberto are at the Peruvian leper colony. They danced on the north side where the doctors and nuns reside and celebrated Che’s birthday. Che though did not want to end his celebration there, but swam across the Amazon River to the south side to be with those with leprosy. This was truly an act of solidarity. To side with and be with those whom society has deemed worthless, forgettable.

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For me this trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in many ways is about solidarity. To not allow US media outlets dictate how I perceive the Middle East. To travel and listen to those who have been forgotten, who are refugees in their own country. To give the Kurds other US faces to see than those behind military uniforms. Benjamin wrote that it’s important to not try to look into the future because at any moment the Messiah or revolution might break in.

May it be so and may the peacemakers be on the front lines.

overthinking my iraqi kurdistan delegation in hopes for transformation

Intrinsic to fundraising is how one sells it. This certainly was true when I told others about my upcoming delegation to Kurdistan with Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Either people have never heard of Kurdistan or understand it as being an ally for the US. I usually had to explain how Kurdistan is situated between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. That many Kurds are non-violently resisting against several opposing forces: the Turkish and Iraqi military,  Daesh/ISIL, and the US forces on the ground. Then, I’m usually asked, “Why do you care?” With urgent fervor, I respond by saying, “I’m going as a global citizen. I’m going because the voices of the poor and those acting nonviolently around the world are forcibly silenced. I’m going to come back and testify at the Presbyterian General Assembly to what I saw. To witness to their struggle for peace.” Usually at this point, I get a smirk and nod which fades deadpan. The conversation moves on.

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Self-reflecting on the upcoming delegation, a question keeps creeping into my mind: what if I go and I’m not transformed? That I come back to the States and I continue to live as if I had never left. Maybe it’s just those blasted Derridan ethics that continually haunt me, that says over and over, if you think you’re acting responsible, you’re edging on carelessness; if you’re not anxious, then you’re comfortable being apathetic; IF YOU’RE NOT STRUGGLING FOR PEACE, THEN THE WORLD WILL PERPETUALLY BE IN WAR. Honestly, these ethics are impossible. And that’s the point. Until heaven meets Earth, global utopia is more than farfetched, but that doesn’t mean I do nothing. All this overthinking has made me cautious about what I will bring with me. I want to be in the moment and least distracted.

For this delegation, I’m praying and hoping to be hospitable in action and in listening. I am not fully sure of what to expect. I’ve never been across the Atlantic or have even thought about going to the regions near Iraq or Turkey. I covet your prayers for our delegation that we may be faithful peace witnesses, nonviolent in speech and heart. I hoping for a safe journey, but not a comfortable one.

fellowshipping with socialists

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I first heard of the event, “Socialism from moment to movement,” when some Facebook friends clicked “interested” and it appeared on my timeline. I paid it no mind, but took a screenshot of it so I would be reminded of it every time I went through my photos. It was the day before the event that I decided to attend.

I arrived 10 minutes early. For some reason I did not notice that it was an International Socialist Organization event. When I entered the room, a mid-50’s white woman cornered me and bombarded me with questions:

“What are you thinking about this election?”

“Do you consider yourself a leftist?”

“Would you like to join one of our book groups?”

I answered them as quickly as she asked them. Although, I felt like I was trying to impress her as if I had to show her that I was a card carrying Leftist. Around 7, I took my seat in an empty row. Shortly after, the room started to fill up. As I watched those who entered the room, my eye caught the moment when another white woman in her mid-50’s entered and spoke with the one I just talked to and I saw her point to me. The newly arrived woman then came and sat next to me. She too asked me several questions. These were more personal though. Like what I did for work and where I live. She seemed more interested in what I thought than the first woman. It wasn’t until 7:20 when the speaker finally gave her presentation. She offered an incredible historical overview of socialism in the US starting with the 1919 Strike in Seattle up through Occupy Wall Street and Bernie. I was hoping the talk was going to address how to harness the energy from the Bernie campaign and use it to empower the Left; instead, they called Bernie a totalitarian socialist. It felt like they were trying to split the already fractured and unorganized Left. We need to protect and watch each other’s backs, not to stab each other.

After the talk, there was an hour and a half for questions and responses. They were both done by audience members, which I liked that it wasn’t the speaker who had all the answers. The questions included “Who will pay for free healthcare?” “How can there be free tuition?” and “Do we really need Democracy; will it not always be tied to capitalism?” By the end of the hour, I heard so much proselytizing for socialism that I felt very uncomfortable. As well, as the event went on, the room kept getting warmer and I was ready to leave. The question session ended at 9:10pm. I tried to burst out of there, but before I could, I was handed a Socialist newspaper and a flier by one of the women I spoke with earlier.

I found the whole event overwhelming. There was not much room for political discourse, other than what they called ‘socialism from below.’ I came in not quite knowing what the event was about and left exhausted and sad for the state of Leftist discourse. I’ve never thought of myself as a socialist. For me, the language is too strong and I’d rather not have the State be our only overlord of Almighty Capital.

I’ll keep with the label anarchist or anarcho-communist, situating myself in a politic of community, autonomy-in-togetherness, and anti-capitalism: where we’re fighting for a world where everyone has a place to live and thrive. And sure, socialists have similar ends, but their means depend far too much on power-as-it-is rather than imagining new ways of being.

In general, the title “Socialism from moment to movement” was more of a history lesson than anything one can posit for the future. At one point the speaker said that we need to be ready for revolution at any moment and their reading groups and conferences are how we get prepared. Maybe that’s how one prepares intellectually and emotionally, but also we too need to prepare by getting to know our neighbors, their needs, and start living into the revolution here and now.

maundy thursday: last meals

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“No Seconds” by Henry Hargreaves

It might seem odd to discuss Death Row inmates’ last meals and the Last Supper, but I don’t find it much of a stretch. Here’s a few reasons why:

  • Jesus knew he would be killed in a few hours, as too those on Death Row.
  • Although it’s after this meal that Jesus will be sentenced to crucifixion. Those on Death Row are often convicted several years before they’re executed.
  • Death Row prisoners and Jesus are both executed by the State: Roman Crucifixion and US Execution.

Yet, it’s not just these similarities that I find compelling to think through last meals, it’s also in the Letter to the Hebrews that speaks of prisoners. It reads,

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (Heb. 13.3)

 Who would’ve ever thought the Bible could be so political?

The writer to the Hebrews writes that we should remember those in prison, as if we are there ourselves. Death row prisoners, whom our system of justice has declared not to be worthy of existence, are our sisters and brothers. Yet, often these prisoners do not dine with their families or friends, but by themselves with guards watching. Indeed, an isolating last meal.

But this was not so with Jesus’ Last Supper. It was also no da Vinci-like portrait. It would’ve been tense, chaotic, and absolutely un-chill. There would’ve been more than just his male disciples, but also women and children and probably even some animals. It was less cozy, and more like trying to find a seat at Starbucks during a rush. When you have to stand over by the sugar and straws waiting for someone to leave their spot. That’s the Last Supper.

The Letter to the Hebrews was written decades after the Last Supper, but speaks to the heart of the Gospel, which was found that night:

To Be There.

Be there for those who have their voice actively silenced.

Be there for Death Row prisoners, no matter what the courts have said they have done.

Be there in prayer.

Be there in letters.

Be there at the table.

Be there just as Christ

who goes before us,

behind us,

and with us.

Amen.

 

a people’s history of prayer: elizabeth thunderbird haile

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“O God the Creator,” a hymn by Elizabeth Haile, Shinnecock, and Cecil Corbett, Nez Perce/Choctaw

O God the Creator, the Three in One
The Creator of Earth and moon and sun
You have loved and protected us since time first begun
And we’re brothers and sisters in God’s love, in God’s love.
And we’re brothers and sisters in God’s love.

For the Earth is our Mother, where all things grow
And her valleys are green where the waters flow
Gentle deer and the eagle and the mighty buffalo
And we’re brothers and sisters in God’s love, in God’s love
And we’re brothers and sisters in God’s love

We are one in the Spirit, in the great mystery
Walk together in beauty as we dwell in harmony
Bringing all of God’s children into one community.
And we’re brothers and sisters in God’s love, in God’s love
And we’re brothers and sisters in God’s love.

Send a sense of Your presence as we seek leadership
Pray that God will join us in our vision quest
Welcome God to come into our hearts as our guest
And we’re brothers and sisters in God’s love, in God’s love
And we’re brothers and sisters in God’s love.

“O God the Creator” was co-written by Elizabeth Thunderbird Haile, a Shinnecock Elder, in 1977. The song describes the Earth as our Mother, the Spirit as bringing all God’s children into one community, and asks God to join our vision quest. It was written to be sung to the melody of “They’ll Know We are Christians By Our Love,” which was composed by a Catholic priest, Peter R. Scholtes. He wrote it as an ecumenical civil rights song in 1968. When Haileasked to use the melody, Scholtes denied her. It wasn’t until 1989 when Joy Patterson wrote the tune KASTAAK to accompany these epic words. This hymn can be found in the New Century Hymnal and the Presbyterian Hymnal: hymns, songs, and spiritual songs (sadly it did not transfer to the newest Presbyterian Hymnal, Glory to God).

You can learn more about Elizabeth Thunderbird Haile here.

a people’s history of prayer: gwendolyn brooks

A People'sHistory of Prayer
The Preacher Ruminates Behind the Sermon

I think it must be lonely to be God. 
Nobody loves a master. No. Despite 
The bright hosannas, bright dear-Lords, and bright 
Determined reverence of Sunday eyes. 

Picture Jehovah striding through the hall 
Of His importance, creatures running out 
From servant-corners to acclaim, to shout 
Appreciation of His merit’s glare. 

But who walks with Him?—dares to take His arm, 
To clap Him on the shoulder, tweak His ear, 
Buy Him a Coca-Cola or a beer, 
Pooh-pooh His politics, call Him a fool? 

Perhaps—who knows?—He tires of looking down. 
Those eyes are never lifted. Never straight. 
Perhaps sometimes He tires of being great 
In solitude. Without a hand to hold.

a people’s history of prayer: james baldwin

People's History

 

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Lord,
            when you send the rain,
            think about it, please,
            a little?
     Do
            not get carried away
            by the sound of falling water,
            the marvelous light
            on the falling water.
        I
            am beneath that water.
            It falls with great force
            and the light
Blinds
            me to the light.

 

Playing by Ear, Praying for Rain: The Poetry of James Baldwin

James Baldwin, poet? But of course.

Bearing the Silence: On James Baldwin and Prayer

 

 

a people’s history of prayer: an introduction

A People'sHistoryof Prayer

 

Ever since I first heard of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, I have been fascinated with the series. Most recently I read An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Her thoughtful prose and love for the subject has filled me with such intrigue and sorrow for all the ways we have and continue to displace and oppress Native Americans. I highly recommend it to raise one’s social consciousness.

This semester our chapel staff at Union Theological Seminary suggested the theme of prayer. Immediately, A People’s History of Prayer came to mind. I decided to take it on, in which I will, as Walter Benjamin famously wrote, “brush history against the grain” and mine for forgotten/neglected prayers, poems, and/or pleas of the people.

I hope for this project to be weekly, sometimes with commentary and other times just their prayers.

 

 

 

st. paul armed with a black bandana and a chant

 

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“There is a perfect likeness between the Christian and the anarchist: their object, their instinct, points, only toward destruction.” (The Antichrist, Nietzsche, 168)

My first major protest was against the G20, which was hosted in Pittsburgh during the fall of 2009. My friends and I borrowed my hall mate’s car and drove from Philly at 5am. We specifically went to this protest because it was not permitted by the city. It was truly an anarchist march. My group dressed in black, but had colorful bandanas just in case we separated. Standing in the park, waiting for the protest to begin, several reporters came and asked us why we opposed the G20. Our talking points were:

  • it was undemocratic for a few people to decide the fate for whole populations,
  • it was hierarchical in that only the powerful ones have a voice, and
  • the poor and the Earth are the ones who will suffer the most out of these deals.

I carried a black flag for the duration of the protest. Sound cannons and smoke bombs were used to hinder us. Eventually, my group left the protest once the riot police started shooting rubber bullets. I believe Paul would’ve been there with us, wearing all black, waving a black flag, and chanting “The people united will never be defeated!”


Perhaps a battlesquare for our situation would pin statists (those who support the State) against anarchists (anti-hierarchical, anti-oppression, anti-State), but this is hard to comprehend when their narratives run completely opposite. As well, it would be difficult to have any kind of reconciliation or compromise to bring together the statist and the anarchist. This would turn into a perverse version of socialism, where little states would own capital. Thus, it would have to be something beyond the battle square and not the two combing of the narratives.

Here Paul helps us: For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another (Galatians 5:13, NRSV).

Paul uses the oppressive form of slavery to conceptualize freedom. This version of Paul’s freedom has resonance with the anarchist form of reciprocal freedom. In the States, we have a rhetoric of negative freedom, a freedom-from being told to do something. This is why talk-radio can spew such racist, sexist, and oppressive rhetoric. Colloquially, the quote “Don’t tread on me” sums up the States’ version of freedom. Then, there’s positive freedom, freedom-to do what one wants. While Paul may seem closer to this idea, it still holds in utmost regard the autonomous individual. This is reflected in “My body, choice.” Finally, and most importantly, is reciprocal freedom, freedom-with others. I am not free unless you are free. This is not about self-policing one’s language and actions, but through listening, caring, and becoming a slave to one another.

The opening quote from Nietzsche is absolutely essential: Christianity and anarchism’s end goal is destruction. This destruction though is about changing the-world-as-it-is and not its obliteration. Capitalists and corporations are the ones already destroying the Earth through their horrible business practices. Paul wants to see change in the world through reciprocal love and compassion.

One of my favorite anarcho-folk-punk bands, Wingnut Dishwasher’s Union, spells this form of freedom as slavery to one another in their song “My idea of fun.

live as you make it up cause we’re enough
you’ll never go without cause we’re enough
we’ll buy a house cause we’re enough
we’ll grow some food cause we’re enough

We’re slaves to one another in love and not because we have an ethical duty to do so. At the G20 protest, reciprocal freedom abounded. Protestors gave a hand to those who had fallen behind. Anarchist medics aided those with smoke in their eyes. I saw God’s realm on those Pittsburgh streets and I believe Paul would’ve stood hand-in-hand with us pronouncing Another World is Possible.

christmas on the margins

Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. Christ’s place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. Christ is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst … With these Christ conceals himself, in these he hides himself, for whom there is no room.

– Thomas Merton

 
The manger scene was never meant to only be lifted up as a story of humble beginnings. The Christmas story is about survival under an Empire. Mary and Joseph could not find a room because they did not fit anywhere else but in a barn. And I wonder how many other people, not including the animals, were present for Jesus’ birth. How many others were displaced on that holy night? And how many people continue to be displaced today through climate change, governments abusing their citizens, and the long arms of global capitalism forcing whole societies to be reconfigured under its gaze?

This Christmas I am praying for Syrian and all refugees that they may find a safe place to reside.

I am praying for those caught up in the prison industrial complex that we can begin to abolish prisons in 2016.

I am praying for immigrants everywhere that they might start again wherever their destination.

I am praying for those struggling for another world, where black lives matter, where direct democracy reigns, and the Earth is treated with dignity that I too may be part of the struggle.

I pray for the poor and the poor in spirit that they may find communities of love and resistance.

May you encounter the manger scenes that surround you everyday and be transformed by them.