Tuesday, November 01, 2005

What Was Jim Corbett Talking About?

Civil Initiative

On beyond civil disobedience is civil initiative. I am going off of the work of Quaker theologian, activist, and goatherd, Jim Corbett here. His work on civil initiative is a True Thing, and I believe that it opens a way toward radical faithfulness in full communion. Problem is, it isn't easy to understand...

Basically, civil disobedience breaks the law, and civil initiative upholds the Law. (Corbett distinguishes between law as in statutes, and Law in a larger sense.) Let's look at civil disobedience as it is currently practiced:

Our classic civil disobedience scenario was acted out three years ago at Easter. There was a mass held at Lawrence Livermore Labratories, where weapons of mass destruction actually are being developed. The catholic church (in the non-brand name sense of catholic) came together that day. We did stations of the cross and the whole thing. Very radical, inclusive, political, diverse, etc. We worked our way from station to station until we were before the gate to the Lab.

Then we did the Elm Dance. Joanna and Fran Macy brought the Elm Dance back from their travels to be with the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. It is a Latvian song that became a song of the people affected by radiation poisoning. Joanna's website says, "...Especially in Novozybkov, the most contaminated of inhabited cities, the dance became an expression of the will to live." [Joanna Macy's work is another True Thing. Check it out. www.joannamacy.net]

The elm dance is also wonderfully centering. For my part, the ceremony leading up to the gate was causing me more and more nervousness and anxiety. Then, the elm dance utterly grounded me, put me in touch with the earth, and turned an eclectic group of activists into the body of Christ (or whatever metaphor works for you).

Then we lined up to be arrested. The police department brings out its new recruits for this annual ritual. The cadets need to have some exposure to "crowd control" tactics, etc., so they take them out to Livermore on Easter for the most calm, predictable, safe, choreographed mass arrest scenario to be found. The cadets are in full riot gear: helmet, baton, bullet proof vest, shin guards, elbow gaurds, polycarbonate sunglasses, mace, etc. Only the full-on cops had guns, though, because the cadets haven't been cleared to carry.

The activists form several rows. The ranking cop reads us a clear warning: If you step across the line, you will be arrested for trespassing, etc. The first row of folks steps right up to the line, pauses to pray or reflect, some on their knees before the gate, before the line of cops, like supplicants. Then they cross the line and are politely escorted to the waiting van, just as a diligent doorman would escort an old lady to a cab.

One of the old ladies in my Quaker meeting is two rows ahead of me. Little old Quaker ladies are made of iron and grace. She is a tall woman, thin to the point of gauntness. She stands straight as she approaches the gate. She is wearing a wide brimmed straw hat against the springtime sun, and it has a small sunflower in it. The sunflower being, of course, the symbol of nuclear disarmament. When she reaches the line, she is directly across from a police cadet who is a full head shorter than her, and easily twice as wide. The breeze stirs her gray hair. She is singing "I've got peace like a river..." The cop opposite her is sweating in a decidedly porcine manner, his baton held at the ready across his chest, plexiglass shield on his helmet pushed up. He looks like a beetle bug. I suddenly think, "Which of these people is afraid?" It isn't the tall old woman with the sunflower in her hat, singing as she steps across the line to be arrested. Its the man armed and armored so that his movements are awkward and his humanity virtually indiscernable. As the little man arrests the old Quaker lady, she puts her hand on his forearm, leans toward him, and says something that I don't hear. Very solicitously, he leads her over to the van, like the odd short boy with the most beautiful debutante at the cotillion...

I am near the front of the line now. My sweetheart stands to one side of me, and my stepmother on the other. Friends and friends are all around, singing, praising. At the line my stepmother kneels, but I cannot--it feels too much like an obiesance to the cops, or the military industrial building complex behind them. (HeHeHe. I never stop.) Then, as I step across the line in this totally predictable choreographed performance, the ballet suddenly turns into something more percussive--a samba perhaps, or capoeria even. A second cop comes up behind the guy I am across from, and instantly I am being frog marched off to be searched by these two cops--one has my right wrist (the one with the steel plate in it) in a pain hold, and the other has my left arm (the one where the shoulder got dislocated when the wrist got broken) twisted behind me. I am walking on my tiptoes. I am taken aside, my pockets gone through, jacket taken off, hat taken away, frisked thoroughly (wedding tackle included), and my ID checked all the way out. Remember now, that everyone else is getting the stroll to the van. Can you guess why Carl might be getting the VIP treatment?

If you said, "Carl probably asked for it," you have extra homework. If you said, "Because Carl is a Beautiful Brown Brother," go to the head of the class. Now, this is a side issue about the civil disobedience thing, but the fact that it is so consistently practiced by middle class white people in the peace movement, is not without its implications.

I was totally calm during all this, remember. I had done the Elm Dance, was in touch with my God, felt the Earth beneath my feet. The cop holding my huge black Amish hat says, "Without us, you'd all be speaking Russian." I didn't laugh out loud, though I was amazed that he hadn't changed his tape to the Osama Bin Laden remix. Instead I said, "I know that that is your belief. My belief is that a world without war is possible." (Otro mundo es posible!) They bundled me off to the van then, without the pain hold. My sweetheart and my stepmom, both middle class white ladies (God bless them!) had both tried to wait for me, keep me in sight, make sure that I was o.k. They were outraged at my special treatment.

So, then to the chainlink holding cells built at Lawrence Livermore Labs just for this sort of event. And it is old homeweek! Oh, Quakers and Lefties from all over are getting together! The ceremony has impeded normal casual social interaction up until now, so it's "How are you?" "Has Dennis finished at Dartmouth?" "We were in Costa Rica last year and couldn't be here." "How is the new AFSC regional director working out?"

When we are taken a few at a time to be processed, folks are very solicitous, "Oh it's hot out here, why don't you go?" "Well, we are having a picnic at Aquatic Park with Helen's work, so it would be good for us to get home and prepare the salad, if you don't mind waiting?"

Catch and release. A ticket of some kind that says that they will inform you if you need to stand trial or something, for trespassing. Nobody gets trial. All charges dropped. There was a little suspense about this because of its being a post 9-11 event, but it is business as usual at the Lab.

In the car, I take off my coat. What is that terrible smell? It is fear sweat. While I was feeling all spiritually grounded, and emotionally supported by my community, and ideologically resolved for nuclear disarmament in my mind, my body was in full panic! There is nothing cakewalk about encountering cops or arrest, as far as my body is concerned. The thin veneer of civility that covers the totalitarian regime that we live under in the U.S. is something that I started to experiment with in first grade. As a person of color, the idea that the cops are the good guys is spurious to me, and ought to be to everyone. Of course, the cops may sometimes behave in an ethical and helpful manner; they may even protect and serve. It could happen. (One of my best friends is a cop. Really.) But what is abundantly clear is that they perform the function of jackbooted thugs of the police state much of the time, and that accountability is very poor indeed.

So, four themes there, just to recap. It's a little messy. First, earth spirituality in the form of the elm dance creating a sacred space for action. Second, old Quaker lady not scared, cop the very incarnation of fear. Third, race making different stakes for different people in the civil disobedience context. The main point for purposes of continuing the discussion of civil disobedience and civil initiative being: CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE BEING TOTALLY SYMBOLIC.

Note: Gandhi's civil disobedience was NEVER just symbolic. It was usually also symbolic. The Salt March, for instance, really did provide tax-free salt to Indians, which is essential for life in any hot climate. It was also deeply symbolic, with a protracted walk to the sea, informing the British government ahead of time, etc. When they were busted, the admitted that they were breaking the law, rather than insisting that they were upholding the law. Gandhi often insisted on conviction and incarceration. Practitioners of civil initiative claim to be enforcing the law, and therefor never plead guilty.

I have nothing against civil disobedience as Gandhi practiced it, or even as the Lawrence Livermore Labs scenario practiced it, but I want to point out that the Lab thing was just about 99% symbolic (what would we do if we were allowed onto the lot?), and Gandhi's more a 50-50%. Civil initiative strives to be more like 100% just living into the kin-dom of God...

We were cited for trespassing. Nobody really wants to make a case that the Lawrence Livermore Lab should not be allowed to control who is or is not allowed on their property. This is not the point of law that we want to take a stand on, but it is the law that we broke. Our action was symbolic. In much the same way, when the U.S. started to bomb Iraq, the elders in my meeting, along with many members of the Nevada City community, sat down in the middle of Broad Street. They don't have a beef with Broad Street, traffic codes, Nevada City, Nevada City cops, the tourist industry, or Cathy Wilson, single mom, desperately trying to get her kid to daycare on time so that she won't be late to work and lose the only source of income she has, who has too may worries of her own to be overly concerned about some foreign war, and here downtown Nevada City is a total snarl because some folks are blocking the road on purpose!

CPT did an action in Douglas when I was there that involved painting crosses on the wall that the Border Patrol put up to keep "illegals" out of the U.S. I don't have any objection to this per se, but I don't really have an issue with the government's right to not have its property defaced either.

In "Sanctuary on the Faultline" Corbett points out that, "When the state violates human rights, protest and petition usually substitute for civil initiative." It is the protest and petition that I am tired of. Note, that I do not say that I am ideologically opposed to them. I think that they are fine--writing letters to your congressperson asking them to do the right thing is a fine activity. Marching up and down at some ANSWER sponsored march for peace is a fine thing to do. Still, one has to grin wryly when one hears the Mother Jones quote, "If voting could change anything, it would be illegal."

It is in the word 'substitute' that I find my issue. Protest and petition are poor substitutes for civil initiative. It is the difference between asking and telling, if you will. If we are protesting and beseeching in conjunction with civil initiative, fine, but without the "being church" of civil initiative, we are firmly in the realm of the symbolic, the indirect, the hopeless rubric of expecting the government to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. There ain't no God in there, at least not the God I'm willing to worship. Are we called to remedial charity, or preventative justice?

If you answered, "Both," read on:

Where remedial charity and preventative justice come together is in civil initiative. When we give food and water, and maybe even transport to the desperate migrante in the Arizona desert, we are being church. Clearly, it is the simplest act of charity to share water in a desert--that is a form of communion that transcends all religious boundaries, and even species boundaries. (I love that scene in "The Lighthorsemen" movie where one soldier says "to hell with orders," and takes off his Aussie slouch hat, pours his canteen into it, and waters his horse, even though he knows that he is risking his own life to do it. Then the whole line follows suit--a communion of man and beast.)

Giving water in the desert is an act of charity, clearly. However, is also part of a movement towards preventative justice. Communion transcends the distinction, but the distinction is still worth consideration. In the dialogue between civil society and the legal statutes that uphold it, it is important to practice the Law. The law codifies social contracts, not the other way round. In the 1980's when Central American refugees were coming over the border from Mexico to the U.S., there was an agreement that our country would never send political refugees at risk of persecution back to their countries, but we did it all the time. The men and women, and religious communities that harbored these people were therefore UPHOLDING the Law. You dig? In the Arizona desert, where over 280 people died of hyperthermia (opposite of hypothermia, though that happens too) last year, those who provide respite and medical care to God's children in distress are upholding the Law. Here is a place to test the laws, to further the dialogue between civil society and the statutes that govern it. The magistrate does not bear his sword in vane, but perhaps the sword can be used as it is in Tibetan Buddhism, to slice through the bonds of ignorance, greed and delusion, instead of persecuting the poor.

There are two young activists who are engaged in this dialogue process. They were working with an organization called "No Mas Muertes" this summer. On July 9, 2005 two No More Deaths volunteers, Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss, were arrested by the United States Border Patrol while medically evacuating 3 people in distress from the desert near Arivaca, Arizona. Their trial date was set for December. You can find out more at www.nomoredeaths.org. You can help by writing:
U.S. Attorney Paul K. Chariton
District of Arizona
Two Renaissance Square
40 North Central, Ste. 1200
Phoenix, AZ 85004-4408

The activists are furthering the dialogue, but the dialogue itself is what is essential. In all likelihood the activists will be given a slap on the wrist if convicted, but, if these two are convicted for giving medical aid to God's children in distress, the implication will be that private citizens in AZ are supposed to be able to tell what a person's migration status is by looking at them (Big Brother is deputizing you), and the effect of that will be for people not to give aid to anyone. The very principle of communion is on trial. What sort of world do we want to live in?

So, this is my civil initiative exploration at the current time. It is pretty confusing to me, so if it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to you, it's probably my fault. Go read Jim Corbett's book, Goatwalking, and see if you can explain it better. Meanwhile, what does civil initiative look like if we take it out of its native Arizona? Should we take it out of Arizona, or start the Quaker Worker House right in Douglas, where some border activists feel a hospitality house is needed, never ask for people's citizenship status, but just provide hospitality, washing sore, blistered feet, as Jesus taught us to do, until we get taken to jail, as Gandhi taught us to do? Of course, these things are only possible in the context of covenant community. For more on that, read Jim Corbett's "Leadings" or "The Sanctuary Church" or Lloyd Lee Wilson's "Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order," or Patricia Loring's second (someday third) books on "Listening Spirituality." [Disclaimer: if you are a Quaker because you like hanging out with like-minded individuals who vote like you do and because you think that Quakerism is an anything goes religion where nothing hard will be asked of you, don't read any of the books I mentioned. They will destroy your illusion. If, however, you like Quakerism, but wonder where the rigor is, the spiritual communion, and the radical witness that is our legacy, I am inviting you, as many elders, notably Bob Schmitt, invited me to do, to take this trip. It's a scarey conversion experience, however--you may embark on a journey strange and wonderful, difficult and rewarding beyond all expectation. Swell music.]

Lesson One: A solitary Quaker is an oxymoron.


Anonymous Robin M. said...

Wilt thou elaborate?

7:36 AM, November 01, 2005  
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9:21 AM, November 05, 2005  
Blogger earthfreak said...

Hi Carl

I finally have found enough time to read through this.

But don't feel like I have adequate time to respond.

You put a few things into words that I have been struggling with - particularly the idea of remedial charity and preventative justice, and of being called as a quaker to do hard work,

right now I guess I am just sitting with it all - but I will check out Corbett, thanks for introducing me!

10:32 AM, November 08, 2005  
Blogger Jennifer C. said...

Okay, so you had to know I would respond to this one.

1) Even though I'm white, I've been around enough to know that cops are not the bastions of right and justice we'd hope they would be. Jason calls them lying jackbooted predators. I'm not sure I'd go that far in every case, but it is unfortunately true more often than we'd like it to be.

2) One thing that has occurred to me, though I'm not sure how to do it (or really, even how to properly phrase it), is to find a way to visibly demonstrate that the law, as it is, creates results we consider unjust. To display the results of these laws to the public in a way that creates in the general society of our nation an unease--those people broke the law, but it was the law, and not they, who were wrong. I think that without engendering a deep-seated conviction that what is going on in society is utterly wrong, we'll remain a bunch of crazies who throw fake blood on stuff and get randomly arrested, but we won't lead to actual change. The law, as a reflection of our societal conscience needs to change. Our actions need to be directed at making that occur, somehow.

Just some thoughts.

8:53 PM, November 08, 2005  
Anonymous lamplight walker said...

First entry read and surprisingly, I have no words of argument with what you say. Maybe I have to let it sink in first to find the argument. Maybe,I just agree with your observations and reflections. I look forward to reading more in time.

3:45 PM, November 11, 2005  
Anonymous Peacewoman 62 said...

Thanks for the pointer to your blog. This entry was so well-written, informative, and it was definitely uncomfortably challenging. That's a good thing.

7:33 PM, March 09, 2006  
Blogger Carl Magruder said...

Well, Peacewoman, it is always gratifying to know that I have in some way been uncomfortably challenging. I think that is what I'm really good at. Still, a Peacewoman must more or less have it all together as far as living for Peace!

8:43 PM, March 09, 2006  
Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Friend, I'm glad to see you raising up the distinction between ceremonial breakings of the law and real upholdings of the Law. It's important.

Thinking about it, one can easily see that Gandhi's Salt March, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Birmingham protests, were all quite plainly not just breakings of the law, but also and more importantly, upholdings of the Law. And one can see that their power derived, not from the mere fact that the law was broken, but from the fact that the law was broken in order to uphold the Law.

The protest you described, on the other hand, was not very plainly an upholding of the Law. It was certainly intended to be an upholding of the Law, but it failed to uphold the Law in any concrete way, the way that Gandhi's Salt March and the Montgomery bus boycott did. It didn't concretely right a physical wrong done to the downtrodden; nor did it concretely interfere with the doing of a wrong. And thus (unfortunately!) it failed to convey the message that it was upholding the Law, either to the law enforcers, or to any significant body of onlookers.

Well, if you haven't already begun doing so, I'd invite you to consider "witness", in the prophetic sense of the term, as a concept to be placed alongside "civil initiatives" and "upholding the Law".

The archetypal act of witness was Nathan's witness to David, described in II Samuel 12. Nathan wasn't just protesting, and he certainly wasn't breaking the law. He was not in a position to uphold the Law concretely, so he took a different tack: he spoke to awaken the consciousness of God in David's heart.

This, I think, might well have been what that ceremonial act of protest you participated in was originally intended to do, too. But somewhere along the line, the participants forgot, or failed to ever learn, how to do it.

The early Sanctuary movement, which Jim Corbett helped to found, managed to do witness very effectively, by being in-your-face about what it was doing for the refugees in a fairly Christlike manner. It modelled "what would Jesus do about the refugees?" where the refugees' antagonists could not ignore the modelling. That was fine witness!

Giving water and shelter to the folks crossing the border today may or may not be witness. It is true charity whether it is witness or not. But it is only witness if the consciousness of God in others is somehow awakened.

I believe that our Society contains a fairly significant percentage of members who feel called by God to bear witness, in that same prophetic sense, but don't really know how or where to start.

It heartens me to see you chewing on this problem. I wish you every success.

5:58 AM, April 07, 2006  
Blogger Carl Magruder said...

I am a great admirer of the tradition of Witness. It seems to me to encompass very well what our duty as people of faith is; adherence to Truth, compassion, speaking truth to power, and willingness to serve/risk. I know that this was what John Woolman did with slaveholders, because it is often reported (albeit by J.W.) that they were grateful for his laboring with them, which they would not have been if he had merely castigated them, or not spoken with care for their spiritual well-being.

It also helps me to understand and support your witness walk this summer. I was put into a deep discernment about travel to Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting, despite the fact that I have done so much discernment about personal mobility already. What I got out was not letting the left hand know what the right was doing, and not putting on a long face when fasting, but going about cheerfully--in other words, not making a show of my exercise in piety. I don't think that this is relevant to your endeavor, by the way, but more of a comment on where I am in my development as a minister. For you this has the stamp of leading, for me to do it would be theatre. Instead, the message was to travel no more righteously than I usually do--by bicycle and public transport (Amtrak). While travelling in the steerage and by pedal power are humble enough means of getting around, they are not a pilgrimage, as your odyssey is, a witness that speaks to that of God in others. Perhaps I will be led to that someday when I am ready. Meanwhile, I support your calling, and appreciate your taking time to comment on my writings here.

For years I felt that the kernal of my ministry was to help Friends and others to understand that peace and social justice could in no way be seperated from ecological integrity. When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a woman for planting trees, essentially, I realized that this truth was alive and well and gaining understanding. Nonetheless, I think that FLGBTQC concerns and environment are not linked in a way that is obvious to many (population?), and I appreciate your bringing them together so clearly as part of maintaining the beloved community. Shalom, gospel order, an Earth Restored.

Is there some way I can support you in your endeavor? I find that it is inspiring and hopeful to me...

9:48 AM, April 10, 2006  
Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Dear Carl,

I'm gratified to see that we're so near to one another in our thinking about witness. I totally agree that there is an important distinction between witness and theater, and that the former must not be allowed to degenerate into the latter. Public prayer as theater rather than witness upsets me, too.

The clarity you've been displaying here, regarding the differences between right social action and wrong social action, right witness and wrong theater, feels pretty wonderful to me. I feel confident that it will flower into something very, very good in your own path and practice, in the proper time.

Since you ask, at the moment, the help I need regarding my proposed walk is a matter of:

1) Funds. I need $11,000 for this project. Thanks to the kindness and generosity of Friends throughout the U.S. I have approximately $6,000 so far. My family's financial position is perilous in the extreme, so I can't come up with the remainder out of my own pocket. Contributions can be sent to my monthly meeting, which is overseeing this project.


2) Introductions to meetings and (especially) churches along the way. The purpose of my journey is discernment, prior to my talk to Baltimore Yearly Meeting; I need help drawing the hearts of the Friends I hope to meet with, into the discernment process. If you can open any doors in this matter, please talk to me!


3) Logistical. I would be profoundly grateful for Spirit-led companions for various parts of my journey. If you or anyone, you know feels drawn to this, you (or he/she) should contact me, and also talk to your monthly meeting about it.

I can be reached by e-mail at: mmassey at earthwitness dot org.

All the best --

7:24 AM, April 14, 2006  

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