Some of you have contacted me after seeing news of my arrest for a nonviolent action around the water shutoffs here in Detroit. While I am touched by your concern, I implore you to reserve your support for those being affected by the shutoffs and your own generation, which, unless things change, is on track to inherit a commodified world in which beauty, nature, life itself will be sold off to the lowest corporate bidder, an affront to all that is good, decent and human.
The action in which I and several others engaged was only a small gesture of loving resistance, a humble offering of our own bodies against the dehumanizing and democracy-crushing effects of life under Detroit’s state-appointed emergency manager. Pope Paul VI once said the world needs witnesses more than it needs teachers, and in times like these, to be a teacher may mean to move the classroom to the street in order to bear witness to the grave injustices that are harming our neighbors.
The glaring disparity between the rich and the poor in Detroit and the breathtaking rapidity with which that gap is widening is downright biblical. With its adult sandboxes, whimsically painted street-side pianos, and upscale lofts, downtown Detroit has become a glittering playground for the pioneers of the “new” Detroit while blocks away, children are unable to brush their teeth or flush their toilets.
To put it plainly, this is sin. “I was thirsty, and you … shut off my water.”
While I know that for some of you, the image of one of your teachers being led off in handcuffs is jarring, you should not be surprised. As discussed in class, we plant our feet on the good soil of a biblical tradition and body of social teachings that demand justice and a preferential option for the poor. If we fail to incarnate these teachings, they remain dry as dust. How can we study the prophets, the Gospels, the encyclicals, and the saints and not act? As it has been said, “To know and not to do is not yet to know.”
After witnessing home after home being shut off in the early-morning hours where contractors mark their work with a bold streak of blue spray paint (an action that suggests a sort of reverse Passover ritual), after listening to stories of people trying to stave off the inevitable (life is always complicated when money is tight), and after stuffing towelettes into baggies for elders to use as bathing kits, I had to act.
When I joined others in blocking the contracted shutoff trucks from leaving that morning, I acted as a mother, teacher and follower of Jesus, conscious of the privilege I carry, a privilege not afforded those who are so often casualties of a soul-numbing legal system that discriminates against the poor and people of color.
In light of those whose very existence in the face of brutal and unrelenting injustice is a daily act of resistance, our action was a mere crumb, a tiny ripple, an embarrassingly small gesture of solidarity. A way of trying to bring some decency and order to a disordered situation.
Ironically, we were arrested for disorderly conduct, an interesting charge for a teacher whose daily life of bells, schedules, and respectful classroom conversation is predicated on good order. There is another kind of order, however, that throughout history has been used to keep the boots of brutes and empires on the backs of people, especially the poor and vulnerable.
This was the so-called order of the day that prompted the prophets to raise their voices to the high heavens over the ruthless exploitation of widows and orphans and the oppressive order of the day that compelled Jesus to turn over tables in the temple.
And this is the gut-wrenching, heartbreaking order of the day here in Detroit, where tens of thousands of people are having their water shut off despite the protestations of local citizens, nurses from around the country, the United Nations, and people of goodwill from around the globe.
No, if anything is disorderly, it is an imposed system of governance that is disenfranchising citizens (especially in African-American communities), uprooting the poor and working class, privatizing the commons, and denying babies and elders the human right to water.
In biblical terms, the disorder of the present moment can best be understood as an aggressive assault by the powers and principalities, rapacious (dare I say demonic) economic and social forces that are crushing the poor in gross violation of the law of love articulated in Matthew 25 and the beatitudes.
This is a time for both lamentation and action. A time to wage love, as the mother of Detroit’s water movement, Charity Hicks, counseled, with all the courage and compassion we can muster.
There is much more I want to say, but when I see you in class in a few weeks, we will discuss these things.
You are scholars — do the research and then take to heart the words of Pope Francis who rails against the idolatry of money, the “new tyranny,” as he calls it.
When we get back to school, we will sit quietly with Francis’ question: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” One of the first things we’ll do upon our return is discuss the core principle of Catholic social teaching — the dignity of the human person — something worth pondering in times such as these.
For now, turn your attention to those around you and your own future. Know that there are elders in the community who have given their lives to this struggle for a very long time and come to this sacred work with hard-fought wisdom. Listen to them. Respect them. Learn from them. Stand in solidarity with the good and graced work already going on.
Study the historical context of the present moment, do social analysis in concert with others, and then decide where to place your feet.
Jesus chose to stand with the least among us. Where will you choose to stand?
What will you do to bring good order to a disordered world that needs you to wage love with everything you’ve got?
Letter originally posted on the National Catholic Reporter.