I was arrested earlier this week, and freely admit I was guilty as charged: second degree trespassing – remaining on the premises of another person after having been notified not to remain there by an “authorized person.” My fellow arrestees had some light-hearted banter during the hours we spent being processed about who really owns the General Assembly building in Raleigh and could we be charged for trespassing on a property that, in some sense, belonged to us as North Carolina citizens, but the realpolitik of the situation was that we were indeed trespassing.
We didn’t go to Raleigh to be arrested – each of us could have arranged that much closer to our homes. We went to draw attention to the urgent need to change the national moral narrative, to shift it out of the current channel of hateful and divisive diatribe that makes disposable objects of other people and into another channel, where we recognize each other as God’s beloved, and seek to see that the needs of all are respected and met.
Numerous Friends and strangers have thanked me for being arrested, said they were proud of me, or made other complimentary remarks. Interiorly, I feel that I haven’t done anything especially notable or worthy of praise. Like the servant in Luke 17:9, it seems to me that I’ve only done what God expects of human beings. If anything, I’ve been late in understanding and living up to the divine expectation.
I have for years been intentionally disconnected from the national political process, feeling that my participation would only serve to legitimate a fatally flawed and often corrupt system. I would undertake the Works of Mercy as an individual, and try to live an impeccable life as an individual and family member, and that would be enough. The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has changed my mind, and my heart. Reflecting on the opening verses of Isaiah 10, I see my relationship to those who issue edicts (executive orders) and statutes (federal law) differently. If I recuse myself from the struggle to eliminate systemic injustice in my nation, then Isaiah is speaking directly to me in those verses. Whatever I’ve done or think I’ve done for the most vulnerable among us has not been enough. Until I am standing with the poor, the weak, and the oppressed in their situation and working to lift the systemic burdens that weigh them down, it will never be enough. I must account for what I have failed to do as much as others must account for what they have done.
Being arrested this Monday was the first small down payment on the debt I owe to the poor, to those captive to systemic racism, to ecological devastation and the war economy. This is a movement, not a moment – it will take a long time to reach our goals, for me to pay off my debt of “benign neglect.” My arrest was just one pixel in a much larger project – but each pixel plays its part in creating the picture in its wholeness. Reflecting on this experience, I find myself agreeing with Henry David Thoreau. When he was released from imprisonment on charges of failing to pay taxes, he said that he did not regret the experience one bit: he only regretted that spirit that had kept him complying with the law for so long.