By Tommy Airey
Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.
In order to believe (Greek pistis), Thomas had to see and touch the brutal wounds inflicted by empire. Belief, for the first radical disciples, was far more than head knowledge. It was about what one pledged allegiance to, who one was willing to suffer and die for. Thomas wasn’t going down with some crazy-ass conspiracy theory about Jesus the tortured-and-crucified freedom fighter coming back from the dead.
Thomas had been scripted into The Ways of conventional wisdom: crucified messiahs are failures and their movements of liberation go to the grave with them. Fortunately, the risen Jesus didn’t hold Thomas’ unbelief (apistis) against him when he re-connected with him behind locked doors a whole faithless week later (John 20:26b):
Peace be with you.
Jesus models genuine compassion. He knew that Thomas needed to get more intimate with injustice and oppression in order to trust the vision of an alternative Way. This is how it is for most of us hurrying and hobbling after Jesus. And Jesus rolls with it. But the Gospel story also cues readers to a more transformative faith–trusting our Higher Power even when we cannot see and touch for ourselves (John 20:29):
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Thomas was poor and oppressed. He needed to see and touch the wounds of empire to be infused with hope for a bright tomorrow. However, those of us who have a semblance of privilege face the flip-side of faith: waking up to the fact that the dark yesterdays of racism, militarism and poverty persist today on the other side of the Civil Rights Movement and the first Black President. This is one of the reasons why, every Monday, I check in at the soup kitchen in the basement of the old Episcopal Church a stone’s throw from downtown Detroit.
A couple weeks ago I was serving coffee when one young man sarcastically announced, “Peace, love and handbills! An easy $25 walking down Easy Street!” A sixty-something gentleman with a neatly trimmed grey beard was posting up next to me. Shaking his head, he sighed and described the pre-dawn pickup. A half-dozen houseless men are shuttled out to a dark, distant Detroit neighborhood for four hours of door-to-door flyer drop-offs. The wage was anywhere between $20 to $40. Total.
Then, Sixty (not his real name) began his jeremiad. He told of the cop who follows him every morning while he walks to the bus stop from his new apartment in Melvindale, a suburb ten miles downriver from Detroit. He’s living “way out there” only because that’s where there was an opening to use his Section 8 voucher which covers all but $50 a month for his rent.
But here’s the rub: his only monthly “income” is the $192 on his bridge card, the state of Michigan’s euphemism for “food stamps.” He pays for his rent and cell phone with smoke and mirrors, his days divided between the soup kitchen and the church on Woodward where he can have access to a computer to apply for jobs.
On my drive home, I reflected on Sixty’s testimony and my mind drifted back to a neatly packaged piece that I posted on Inauguration Day 2017. My thesis way back then was that, in the age of Tr#*p, we must find ways to “communitize the news:”
A once-a-week gathering during happy hour, a member of our community researching and presenting a 15-30 minute report on what happened that week nationally/internationally, with a particular focus on the Administration, followed by Q and A and group dialogue, an intimate sharing of what shimmered—how we might individually and communally repent and resist.
I’m afraid we are in desperate need of something much more revolutionary. About seven or eight years ago, My friend Charles, an L.A.-based community organizer and Sunset Boulevard shaman, confided to me that once he had studied the system, there was no longer any need to “follow the news.” In fact, what we call “the news cycle” is just that—an endless cycle of symptomatic spectacles repeating over and over again.
The context of news events and personalities has remained the same over the decades and centuries—what Michelle Alexander calls a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions. It is a system cemented together by imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. What we have come to call “the news,” though, rarely digs to these roots. It covers the head aches and the nausea and the constipation, leaving the cancer diagnosis as the unspoken eight hundred pound gorilla in the room.
According to adrienne maree brown, people of faith and conscience are in dire need of “attention liberation,” a cease-and-desist on anything Tr#*p related. In her illuminating 2017 release Emergent Strategy, brown laments that most folks are mired in an analysis that is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Our effort is gravely sincere, trying as best we can to keep up with as much as we can. Instead, brown calls readers to a practice of consciousness-raising that is “a mile deep and an inch wide.” This frees us to focus both on (A) the fundamentals of the world we live in and (B) the Spirit we thrive on (part two of this post will home in on Spirit next month).
The fundamentals are The Ways that the tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions dehumanize us all:
- The Ways that, in both our policies and our psyches, what is White and what is Male continues to be revered and lorded over what is Not-White and what is Not-Male.
- The Ways that the powerful and the privileged (from pastors to Presidents) use bribery, abuse, silencing, manipulation, threats, deception and lies to keep everyone else powerless and in the dark.
- The Ways that the safety net for poor people has been cut (“welfare reform,” cutting jobs and “entitlements,” tuition increases) while the safety net for privileged people continues to be expanded (the War on Drugs, “law and order,” police, prisons, military, Homeland Security, the Border Wall).
- The Ways that low-income workers/consumers are exploited by “deregulating” the boot on their necks (abysmal minimum wages, stripping the right to unionize, predatory loans and check-cashing, unaffordable-and-unclean-water, affordable-but-unhealthy-food).
- The Ways that low-income, mostly Non-White citizens continue to have their voting rights stripped, blocked or uncounted (cutting precincts, closing early voting, ID requirements, stripping felons of the right to vote).
- The Ways the commons continue to be privatized (water, oil, shorelines, parks, libraries).
- The Ways that the U.S. government continues to invade, threaten and manipulate other countries into releasing precious resources to American corporations for cheap or for free (through both military and economic interventions).
- The Ways that patriotism and capitalism are default national religions.
- The Ways that celebrities and charismatic messiahs are incessantly offered up as our saviors.
- The Ways that Christian leaders—from Evangelical pastors to Catholic bishops—have supported The Ways through endorsement or silence.
Ironically, authentic faith implores us to expect that The Ways will continue indefinitely. Wishful thinking and blind optimism simply relegate us to an eternity on both the giving and receiving ends of destructive behavior. The Ways never learned to self-regulate. This reality requires that we take responsibility for ourselves. We make promises that only we can keep: to stop playing by the unjust and unspoken rules of The Ways. Our health and liberation require that we name The Ways and then resist them and rise above them.
Substituting “The Ways” for “The News” is far more than a head game. It is vital that we tend to the grief and anger that are welling up within us and embody the kind of transformative justice that we believe in. Many of us think we understand The Ways, but we fail to connect them to their role in what is happening to us, within us, through us, between us and all around us. The trauma of The Ways burdens our souls. We yearn for space to confess how we have become addicted to The Ways. But we lack the safety and support of a beloved community.
Confessionally, I fear being out of the loop, the only one at the so-called water cooler who didn’t hear about the latest shooting or the last one to know what “testilying” means. However, these can be opportunities to connect the dots in relationship. Instead of feeling shame, I can tap into my own natural curiosity and ask my dialogue partner questions about the latest manifestations of The Ways. Every conversation is an invitation to go deeper.
We don’t need to know everything. We need to know The Ways. We need to work at connecting the dots to our own lives and telling the truth about these realities wherever we find them. Only then can we organize to resist and rise above them. We might even play a vital role in transforming some of them.
Communitizing this practice is vital. But I have a deep sense that more is needed. There is something deeply personal involved here. Study. Prayer. Rigorous moral inventory. So that we can get free from The Ways. For our own liberation. But also so that we can be freer, fuller selves for our families, at our jobs, with our communities. As Dr. King warned, our victory over The Ways will not roll in on the wheels of inevitability. We must have a scouting report and a game plan. And we must carry it out.