Sunday, November 22, 2009

Truth and Dare

Here's this morning's homily, and here's one of the photos Gary took at the Yale demonstration. During the peace at church today, one of our older parishioners walked up to me, shaking her head, and said, "New Haven! I lived for a few years on Orange Street."

"Really? I lived on Orange Street, too!"

She shuddered and said, "It was an . . . interesting place." And I suspect that she lived on a much better stretch of that road than I did. A friend who lived in a rather dodgy neighborhood in Manhattan, and who drove me back to New Haven one weekend, looked around my block and said, "Why aren't they giving you hazard pay for living here?"

When we first moved to Reno, I met someone who'd been at nursing school at Yale the precise three years I was in residence there. At the time, New Haven had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country, and the nursing students helped turn this around by organizing post-partum home visits. The woman who told me this said, "I stopped doing it when we were caught in the middle of a drive-by shooting. My colleagues looked down on me for no longer supporting the cause, but I was too scared."

I should add that Yale grad students are, as far as I know, still trying to unionize, all these years later. I should also add, in the spirit of honesty, that several of my fellow GESO members accused me of rank cowardice and moral failure because, about a week before I turned in my dissertation, I wouldn't sign a letter censuring my dissertation advisor for blackballing activist students on the job market: my own sense of self-preservation took over (and as it turned out, the letter was never sent anyway).

Yale. The place was ugly all around, and brought out the worst in almost everybody. (For a wonderful anti-Yale rant that very much mirrors my own experience, check out pages 76 and 77 of Jane Tompkins' A Life in School.) The undergrads I knew were very happy there, but they lived in gated residential communities.

The Gospel is John 18:33-37.


On this, the last Sunday of the church year -- the last Sunday before Advent, when we prepare both for Jesus’s first coming and for his second -- we honor Christ the King. In this morning’s reading, though, we see Jesus side-stepping the question of whether he’s a king at all.

As a threat to the religious establishment of his day, and to the Roman occupation, Jesus knows that if he claims kingship, he will be condemned as a heretic and a traitor. His followers have betrayed and abandoned him. While he has foreseen that he must die, he is no more eager for that outcome than any of us would be. He has prayed in the garden of for that cup to pass from him. And so, when Pilate asks him bluntly, “So you are a king?” Jesus says, “You say that I am a king.” King is other people’s word for him, not his own.

He goes on, though, to say something just as threatening, if not more so. “For this I was born . . . to testify to the truth.” People who tell the truth are dangerous, because others might listen to them and decide to act on those truths. This is why those who speak truth to power are so often silenced by any means necessary. It’s why writers and intellectuals are so often imprisoned by dictators. It’s why prophets in every generation -- people as diverse as first-century apostle Saint Stephen, civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and openly gay politician Harvey Milk -- have so often been assassinated. Telling the truth about oppression, any oppression, is inherently activist, inherently radical.

In one of her books, writer Anne Lamott quotes a set of rules for life: 1. Show up. 2. Pay attention. 3. Tell the truth, and 4. Don’t be attached to the consequences. Not being attached to the consequences sometimes means being willing to pay a high price.

What does all of this have to do with kingship? After all, we don’t automatically, or even easily, associate monarchy with truth-telling. My husband and I have been watching the Showtime series The Tudors, and while historical accuracy isn’t the show’s strong suit, I suspect that Henry VIII was nearly as willing to deceive both others and himself in real life as he is in the show. This may give us pause, since our Episcopal Church is one of the indirect outcomes of his machinations. Nonetheless, while we don’t necessarily expect truth from kings and other earthly officials, we want it. We yearn for leaders who will both tell us bracing truths and take the risk of acting on them. And as a result, we recognize truth-tellers, and truth-doers, as kingly, even if the prevailing powers don’t recognize their royalty or, worse, punish them for it.

One of the messages of this morning’s Gospel is that Jesus is only our king, only our Lord, if we recognize and claim him as such. This goes along with the maxim that we can’t truly call ourselves Christians unless other people have called us Christian first, unless we have made our Christian beliefs so visible that other people naturally recognize whose truth we follow.

Of course, there are all kinds of definitions of Christianity, some of them directly at odds. Some versions of Christianity delight in welcome, while others insist on exclusion. This leaves non-Christian onlookers very understandably confused. All any of us can do is to show up, pay attention, act on the truth as we understand it, and not be attached to the consequences. Discipleship calls us to be both truth-tellers and truth-doers. Sometimes it demands a high price of us. And it calls us to honor those who have paid such prices themselves.

My first brush with genuine activism came when I was in graduate school at Yale. Yale is a rich, powerful, mostly white institution in the middle of New Haven, Connecticut: a poor, troubled, largely non-white city. The University has a long history of terrible labor relations. When I was there in the early nineties, the administration’s attitude to both students and workers seemed to be, “You should feel honored just to set foot here. You have no right to complain about anything.”

Yale teaching assistants –- the graduate students who did the bulk of undergraduate teaching -– were paid less than Yale’s own estimate of the cost of living for nine months for one person in New Haven. Yale’s housing was more expensive than city housing, although living in town literally involved taking your life in your hands whenever you went outside after dark. An undergraduate who’d ventured off-campus was fatally shot while I was there; a six-year-old girl was killed by a bullet going through the back of a schoolbus, and there were gang shootouts on the courthouse steps a block from my apartment. Meanwhile, Yale charged its grad students hefty fees for health insurance –- although university employees who worked the same number of hours got free insurance –- didn’t offer us a grievance procedure, and required us to complete our degrees on schedules often impossible for those who had to work extra jobs to make ends meet.

So we tried to form a union. Two existing unions, the ones for clerical workers and maintenance workers, teamed up with us to lend financial and practical support. Both unions had extensive experience with the Yale administration and had gone on strike many times. The clerical workers were mostly white. The maintenance workers mostly weren’t. Most of the clerical workers commuted in from the suburbs. Most of the maintenance workers were local.

One of our early attempts at activism involved a lunchtime walk-out. Grad students -– again, mostly white, and mostly middle class or better -- gathered on a sidewalk, chanting slogans and waving signs that said, “Prestige won’t pay my rent.” While our professors considered us ungrateful and rolled their eyes at our theatrics, none of us, at that point, were in danger of any reprisal. That changed several years later, when professors deliberately sabotaged the hiring prospects of activist students on the job market. Meanwhile, the Yale administration had warned the other two unions that if they joined the walk-out, if they showed solidarity with us, they would lose their jobs.

My friends and I marched up and down the sidewalk, waving our signs. My husband was there taking pictures. I felt more than a little ridiculous. I was acutely aware of how many onlookers thought we were preposterously privileged spoiled brats. Some undergrads walked past and jeered; professors hurried by, scowling, unwilling to meet our eyes.

And then, down the street, we heard the sound of many people walking in unison. Tramp tramp tramp. The steps sounded in time. Tramp tramp tramp. We gathered along the curb and peered down the road, only to see the maintenance workers -- mostly older black men who would be very hard put to find other legal jobs in New Haven -- marching to join us, proudly wearing their janitors’ uniforms and waving signs supporting our demands for fairer treatment.

They were witnessing to the truth as they understood it, and they were risking a very high price to do so. My eyes filled with tears when I saw them. I wanted to kneel. They were true kings. I saw Christ that day, long before I ever dreamed of attending church.

I believe they wound up keeping their jobs. They had marched out together, and Yale couldn’t afford to fire all of its janitors. The strategy of solidarity worked.

In this morning’s Gospel, though, Jesus is alone, in front of Pilate. His followers have fled, terrified, to save their own lives. Ultimately, Jesus forgives them, and us. But his story forces us to ask difficult questions. Who is our king? What truths do we speak and serve? Can those around us recognize our loyalties in our behavior? And if the prevailing powers try to silence those who speak the truths we cherish, what will we do? Will we run the other way, or will we march, regardless of the consequences, to join them?

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