Friday, May 10, 2013

Why I Went to Jail

Dr. Rodney Sadler

This Monday I went to Raleigh with Rev. Nantambu, Dr. Wherry, and Rev. Herring to bear witness at the N.C. General Assembly that the policies that are being discussed in our state legislature are harmful to the poor, minorities, immigrants, the elderly, our children, and even our environment.  The single party control of our state legislature and governor’s house mean that policies that would normally be thwarted by the presence of other voices in debate are able sail through with minimal opposition.  It is for this reason that I went to lend voice to the concerns of those who are often voiceless, those who stand the risk of losing not only their access to unemployment benefits, to Medicaid, and to welfare if they need it, but who also may well be impeded from voting by voter ID laws and other requirements that would hamper voter participation.  In essence, those most vulnerable in our state might both lose access to the support system that could sustain them and the opportunity to vote to regain those rights.  

I was compelled to go by more than just the notion of justice, however.  I was also compelled to go because the policies of our legislature, some of which are well on their way to enactment, are an offense to God.  They are an offense because they violate the principles of ancient Hebrew Scriptures that posited the king (read government) was responsible to ensure that the rights of the poor, husbandless women, fatherless children, landless immigrants, the infirmed, and other socially vulnerable groups would be protected from the abuses of the powerful.  When the king (read government) failed to address these concerns, worse, when the king (read government) actively abused these groups, God called forth the prophets to bear witness to the will of the Lord and to remind the king of his (its) responsibility.  It was for this reason that I felt led to go; to go and lend my voice to the voice of Amos and Micah and Isaiah and Jeremiah…and Jesus.

We are at a point in time where our leaders have forgotten that their duty to lead is circumscribed by more than the dictates of party allegiance and party politics.  Good will and an eye toward protecting the interests of the socially vulnerable has been thrust aside by a seemingly predatory attitude that has placed the needs of many North Carolinians at risk.  This is particularly troubling when the vast majority of our legislators claim to be people of faith, beholden to the same obligations to those on the margins as were the kings of old.  They are reading the same sacred Scriptures that we read, yet they seem to have forgotten the call of the Lord on their lives.  It is to these sisters and brothers that I went to bear witness to the word of God, hoping to remind them that as people of faith, it is wrong to enact policies that hurt the “least of these” who are also children of God created in God’s image.  I went in Love to remind them of God’s concern for all people, hoping that maybe, just maybe they would alter their policies and remember their responsibility to civility.  My hope that this change in their hearts can happen remains!

It is in this regard that I write to you today, calling on you to go to Raleigh and bear witness at the State House next Monday, May 13th.  Your witness can come in the form of bearing a sign, speaking to an elected official, praying with a group of similarly concerned citizens, taking a parcel of letters to your representatives, singing a song; mine on Monday came in the form of getting arrested for civil disobedience.

This was a difficult choice for me to make for many reasons.  In part, it was difficult because I had never been arrested before.  I am a nearly 46 year old African American man who had never been handcuffed, fingerprinted, frisked, booked, mug-shotted, or locked behind bars (except by choice as a visitor to a prison).  I have worn this as a badge of honor and intended to maintain this streak for the rest of my life.  This avoidance of the criminal justice system really meant a great deal to me given the statistics related to black men and incarceration.  Further, I have an extreme aversion to being penned in in any way, so the thought of being forcibly locked behind bars was particularly repellant to me.  But Monday, I chose to allow myself to be arrested, anyhow.

I chose to be arrested because the issues at stake are too great to ignore.  I chose to be arrested because the impact of this legislation if allowed to pass could mean that our state would return to a state of affairs in our racial politics akin to the status quo of the 1950’s.  I chose to be arrested because those people most affected by these policies need willing advocates to speak up for them, with them.  I chose to be arrested because the world that the legislature is threatening to create is not the one I want to leave to my daughter…

So I am calling on you to go to Raleigh next Monday, May 13th and to find a way to bear witness.  Your witness may take the form of any of those forms of protest I suggested or may take another form.  Your witness may even be to join with me and the 50 or so others who have thus far been arrested.  If you choose this form of witness, I would encourage you to do so fully cognizant of what it could mean.  I would not want you to be unaware that it might require you to return to Raleigh, to perform community service, to stay away from the GA for a period, to sit in a holding area for a time, to endure the suffocating feeling of incarceration for a moment, to surrender your control of your own life for a few hours in the interest of serving God and others.  But if you choose this form of witness, I think it can be a worthwhile means of adding your voice to the growing chorus of those who are also bearing witness for God.
I was arrested with a group of wonderful and committed individuals from a range of different backgrounds.  Three were nationally renowned historians from Duke and UNC concerned about how pending legislation might impact the future of our state, one was a prominent UNC medical doctor concerned with the impact of legislation on healthcare for the poor, another was a lawyer concerned with the implications to taking away citizens’ rights, three were grannies concerned with the direction of our state on future generations, two were local presidents of NAACP chapters concerned with the impact of these proposed policies on minority communities, one was a veteran interested in protecting our state from enemies foreign and domestic, several were clergy who proclaimed that the proposed legislation violates the will of the Lord, some were just concern citizens with no titles or roles who needed to say a word, and one was even a student a week away from graduating from college concerned about his own future.  We were white and black and Asian and well-to-do and not-so-well-off and married and single and parents and grandparents and children.  While in the holding area we talked about history and theology and strategy and unity and even spent time networking and forging alliances across issues.  The experience was not a lonely one; instead it was from the moment of arrest to the moment of release a time spent in the fellowship of friends.
And when we went in, we were not alone; not only did we enter jail knowing that God went with us, we were also surrounded by a cloud of witnesses including lawyers, legal observers, news teams, film and audio documentarians, and a host of affiliated supporters who ensured that the legal proceedings took place without a hitch, that bail was available if necessary, that support was felt throughout our brief incarceration, and that a meal and car ride was ready for us when we were released.   All and all it was a well organized occasion that was choreographed to bring maximum attention to our efforts to bear witness while ensuring that we were safe and assured that we were not alone.
We were not alone.  I know this most of all because throughout that evening I could feel God’s hand upon me, calming me, encouraging me, comforting me, and empowering me to act with Love.  During that time I also heard God speaking to me as the words of Matthew 25:34-40 resounded in my ears:
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'
 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'
 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' (Mat 25:34-40 NRS)
These words reminded me that the way we treat “the least of these,” those who are hungry and thirsty (impoverished and unemployed), stranger (immigrant regardless of status), naked (most socially vulnerable), sick (in need of healthcare), and imprisoned (under the supervision of the criminal justice system) is the way that we would treat God if God were standing before us.  They also reminded me that our care for those members of our community in need is wholly consequential.  In the passage, the offer of eternal life was determined based upon whether one cared for the God in need incarnate in those people in need before us.  Whether or not we believe that such a weighty decision can rest on our actions, it is impossible not to look at such a passage and realize that what we do for or to the most socially vulnerable matters not only to them, not only to us; it matters to God! So I leave you with these words as I offer you the challenge to join us in Raleigh next Monday, May 13th to bear witness however you feel is right; “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Rodney Sadler is the Associate Professor of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary and a consultant to the Racial Reconciliation Ministry Team of CBFNC.

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