Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011

May We Always "Hold Each Other's Arms Up"

by Ched Myers

This year marks my thirty-fifth in faith-based movements for justice and peace. Over that time, like Michael Lerner and others at Tikkun, I've seen and been part of so many movements, campaigns, and communities representing efforts small and large to heal the world and to resist injustice and violence. I've had the privilege of working with a kaleidoscope of issues from local to global: disarmament, economic justice, labor justice, decolonization, indigenous sovereignty, homelessness, urban ministry, community organizing, gang diversion, immigrant rights, hospice, food justice, water rights, environmental protection, fair housing, literacy, solidarity, inclusion -- not to mention all the relational work that glues together (or doesn't) such work. It all flows by my memory like Siddhartha's river.

Yet it seems like there is more to do than ever. So I was struck a few weeks ago that the Church's lectionary lessons concerned persistence. Frankly, the Christian lectionary is rarely as coherent in its choice of readings as it was on October 17. Both the Hebrew Bible and Second Testament gospel readings reminded us that the struggle for God's justice and peace is not a sprint, but a marathon, and we are exhorted to hang in there for the long haul.

Exodus 17:8-13 is a venerable old tale, if not a nonviolent one. Freshly liberated by YHWH (with an assist from nature) from Pharaoh's imperial straightjacket, Moses and his refugee community have commenced their wilderness sojourn. In Exodus 16-17 they are taught primal lessons of subsistence gathering and dependence upon God's creation (those "bread and water miracles" are in fact old Bedouin survival strategies).

Amid these trials comes the first resistance to their journey outside Egypt, as Israel is attacked by Amalekites (Exodus 17:8), a contemporaneous nomadic tribe of raiders that was presumably far more adept at desert skirmishing than the Israelites. This commences the first of what will be innumerable battles with various inhospitable groups in the course of Israel's liberation struggle, as recounted in the Torah. But this is also the first of many military parodies in the biblical narrative, full of enchantment and humor. This suggests that this is an archetypal story that seeks to teach something much deeper than armed struggle.

Moses stands over the combatants on a hill, magical staff in hand. Whenever his arms are raised, the battle goes Israel's way, but whenever he tires and lets his arms fall, it goes to the Amalekites (Ex 17:8-11). Seeing this, Moses's compañeros figure out a way to keep his arms high, propping him up on either side (vv. 12f). It is a beautiful old story about holding each other upright through the wearying, endless battles for justice.

Now as a pacifist I prefer to re-imagine this Moses story in terms of the image at left. That's Art Gish of Christian Peacemaker Teams, when he was based in Al Khalil (Hebron) in the West Bank in 2003. Gish, a veteran Church of the Brethren activist, lived up to the CPT's slogan "Getting in the Way" when he faced an Israeli tank in an effort to prevent it from destroying a market in Hebron's Old City. This photo became famous when it was distributed by the Associated Press around the world.

It's appropriate to think of Gish, not only because he looks like Moses, but because he passed away in a tragic accident this year. (Read the memorial article here.) It is up to us now to keep our arms raised to prevent injustice. Because let's be clear: though we strive to embrace nonviolence, we are nevertheless still fighting Moses's war against all the forces that would cut short divinely-commissioned journeys of liberation.

This old story reminds us of our vocation to keep each other's arms up -- to resist "compassion fatigue," burnout, and all the other things that wear us down in this long struggle. And that echoes the first lesson I learned in the movement, back in 1976, when I was "apprenticing" at the Jonah House peace community in Baltimore under Liz McAlister and Phil Berrigan. Their row house in the ghetto was pretty sparse in terms of interior decorating, but the message on one old faded and torn poster on the first floor wall burned itself into my consciousness: "The most apostolic duty of all is to keep one another's courage up."

Luke 18:1-8 is perhaps Jesus's clearest example of persistence in the work of advocacy for justice. This parable -- set as usual in the real world of Palestinian village life -- couldn't be more poignant (18:2f). Widow vs. judge is a classic mismatch between the vulnerable and the powerful, hearkening back to the archetypal struggle between the Hebrew midwives and Pharaoh's house in Exodus 1. We are told that this jurist could care less "about God or humans"; what kind of a system appoints such leaders, we might wonder? Yet this woman eventually wears him down because he is afraid that in the end she might "give him a black eye" (the literal meaning of the Greek hupōpiazē in v. 5). In other words, justice does not trickle down; it only comes when those at the grassroots, through sheer persistence, make it politically impossible for oppressors not to give in.

This is the story of the Mothers of the Disappeared in Latin America, or of Women in Black in Palestine/Israel. It is an old script, from Harriet Tubman to Mother Jones, from Dorothy Day to Fannie Lou Hamer, and from Julia Esquivel to Dolores Huerta -- women forever making up the backbone of movements for change. The widow in Jesus's parable represents every powerful sister through the ages, famous or forgotten, who holds up the arms of humanity by insisting on equal rights and an end to war, by defending the vulnerable, and by comforting the afflicted.

Jesus's parable offers a dialectical picture of the world at once sobering and stubbornly hopeful. On one hand, justice requires from us an unwavering commitment to unceasing advocacy for what's right. On the other hand, Jesus insists that the true Judge is both attentive and active (18:7). As Dr. King assured us, the universe really does "bend toward justice."

But the moral of this parable calls us abruptly to account: "Will the Human One find this type of faith on earth?" (18:8). It is a query that hangs over our religious communities in every age. Will we persist in our advocacy for justice and in our conviction that such work is not in vain -- despite the depressing evidence of history?

The readings that Sunday were welcome and necessary, inviting us to persist in the great Vigil for justice. So let us keep each other's arms and courage up. And let us continue to cry out on behalf of all those who suffer the indignities of injustice and violence. In the words of the great South African song "Bambelela," may we never, never, never, never, never give up!

Ched Myers is an activist theologian working with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in southern California (www.bcm-net.org). His books include Ambassadors of Reconciliation on restorative justice and peacemaking (Orbis, 2009). Learn more at www.chedmyers.org.  

Source Citation: Myers, Ched. 2011. May We Always “Hold Each Other’s Arms Up.” Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.  

tags: Activism, Christianity, Rethinking Religion  
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