Monday, July 1, 2013

Keep Your Hand On The Plow

I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all
oppression and shame;

I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with
themselves, remorseful after deeds done;

I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying,
neglected, gaunt, desperate;

I see the wife misused by her husband—I see the treacherous
of young women;

I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted
to be
hid—I see these sights on the earth;

I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny—I see martyrs and

I observe a famine at sea—I observe the sailors casting lots who

shall be kill'd, to preserve the lives of the rest;

I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons
laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;

All these—All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look

out upon,

See, hear, and am silent.[1]

“See, hear, and am silent,” writes the poet, Walt Whitman. Sometimes, mute witness is all we can muster in the moment.  Suffering can reduce us to silence.  But while silence may be our first response, it cannot be the last.  Eventually, we have to follow Jesus and set our face toward Jerusalem.

Jesus was no stranger to the suffering endured by Whitman’s “laborers, the poor, and . . . negroes, and the like.”   He was intimately familiar with the lives of the outcast and forgotten people of the world.   He created a movement embracing a politics of mercy and justice.  He called it “the Kingdom of God,” saying it was coming soon to a town near you.  

Jesus invited people to join this movement with a clear-eyed understanding that it would not be easy.  He told his followers to let the dead bury the dead.  Sustaining kingdom movements requires us to be willing to let go of the past, no longer defined by the limited and limiting identities we have internalized.  We cannot rest on partial successes, or be paralyzed by crushing defeats.  Let the dead bury the dead.  The past is past.   Keep your eye on the prize of God’s promised future.

Jerusalem – Montgomery – Selma – Tiananmen Square – Cairo – Washington – Wall Street:  following Jesus sets us on a direct course of nonviolent confrontation with the centers of power that oppress God’s people and destroy God’s creation.  We will be tempted to turn back, to settle for less, to lose our life by trying to save it:  But there is too much at stake to waver.  Thus, Jesus’ stern words, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  The plowman who looks back soon loses control of the oxen, and ends up butchering the field rather than preparing furrows for planting.  His work yields nothing. 

When he spoke this aphorism, Jesus may well have had in mind the story of Elisha’s call to follow Elijah.  When he heard the call of the prophet, Elisha was tempted to check-in with mom and dead, make sure no bridges were burned, hedge his bets.  But at Elijah’s taunt, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” Elisha slaughtered the oxen on the spot and cooked them using his plow for fuel.  He destroyed any possibility of going back to his old way of life, and made of his sacrifice an offering to feed the people of his community.  The prophetic call requires total commitment, because that is the only way to follow Jesus through the cross to new life.

Mahalia Jackson gave voice to this truth for the Civil Rights Movement singing,

When I get to heaven, gonna sing and shout,
Be nobody there to put me out. 
Keep your hand on the plow, hold on. 

I know my robe’s gonna fit me well,
I tried it on at the gates of Hell. 
Keep your hand on the plow, hold on. 

If God’s will were already done on earth as it is in heaven, we wouldn’t need kingdom movements.  The robes of righteousness are fitted at the gates of Hell:  in places like Camden, NJ.

Whitman’s poem may well have been prophetic.  Whitman spent the last twelve years of his life in Camden and is buried there.  Once a dynamic industrial city, Camden is now the poorest city in the United States and is usually ranked as one of the most dangerous.  The per capita income is $11,967.  Nearly 40% of its residents live below the poverty line.[2] 

The level of corruption and brutal police repression in Camden is on the order of a despotic third world regime.  A harbinger of the corporate surveillance state, 75% of the city budget is spent on police and fire departments.  The library closed due to lack of funds.   Aside from the thriving drug trade, the main economic activity is the riverfront’s trash burning, sewage treatment, and scrap metal plants. 

Among industrialized nations, the U.S. has the highest rate of poverty, the greatest inequality of incomes, the lowest government spending on social programs as a percentage of GDP, and the highest level military spending.  25% of the world’s prison inmates are incarcerated in the U.S., including one-third of all adult African-American men.  Today, more African-Americans are subject to correctional control through prison, probation, or parole than were enslaved a decade before the Civil War. The Civil Rights movement was a legal victory (with an emphasis on was in light of the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act) but never attained the goal of economic equality.

Camden is terrifying microcosm of the future of postindustrial America, providing a stark contrast to the promised kingdom of God.   But even here, the Jesus movement is alive and well.  Father Michael Doyle, the priest at Camden’s Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, is trying on his robe at the gates of hell.

Father Doyle was one of the Camden 28, a group of left-wing Catholics and anti-War activists raided the local draft board in 1971 and destroyed all the A-1 draft registrations in protest against the Vietnam War.  The group was arrested but acquitted due to the role of an FBI informant in setting up the operation.  Father Doyle lost his teaching job and was transferred to Sacred Heart in 1974.

Since then, Father Doyle has kept his hand on the plow.   When the Diocese tried to close Sacred Heart School, Father Doyle secured donations to keep the school functioning in a community where 46% of students never finish high school.  He helped found Heart of Camden, which has renovated hundreds of homes, and his parish oversees a second hand clothing store, a greenhouse and community gardens.

Father Doyle describes Camden as “a casualty of capitalism.  It’s what falls off the truck, and can’t bet back on the truck.”[3]  “America has decided to concentrate its poor.  It does not have a welcome for the poor outside of these places.  A very high wall surrounds Camden.  It is an economic wall.  You can’t get over it.”  When asked how he maintains hope, he replied, “I say hope is the best four letter word in the English language.  I have hope in the little bit done well.   I like what Dostoyevsky would say. . . that three things will save the world:  Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And if the first two fail, Beauty will do it.  I would like to be dedicated to bringing a little bit of Beauty to Camden.”[4]

Today, many of us are celebrating marriage equality in California, a major milestone on the road to human rights for LGBT people.  And we should give joy its full due in the flowering of this little bit of Beauty in California.   But we must remember that there are 37 states were same-sex couples still cannot marry, and 76 countries where homosexuality is criminalized; four of which impose the death penalty as punishment. Celebrate, yes, but keep your hand on the plow.

Today, many of us are grieving the setback to voting rights for people of color in this country.  Several states and counties are already moving quickly, enacting laws to limit access to the ballot.  It is the last gasp of white supremacy trying to retain control in the face of demographic realities.  So, grieve, yes, but keep your hand on the plow. 

John Howard Yoder wrote that

“Jesus was not just a moralist whose teachings had some political implications; he was not primarily a teacher of spirituality whose public ministry unfortunately was seen in a political light; he was not just a sacrificial lamb preparing for his immolation, or a God-Man whose divine status calls us to disregard his humanity.  Jesus was, in his divinely mandated . . . prophethood, priesthood, and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and therefore political relationships.  His baptism is inauguration and his cross is the culmination of that new regime in which his disciples are called to share . . . a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life.”[5]

Heard the voice of Jesus say
Come unto me, I am the way.
Keep your hand on the plow, hold on.

When my way get dark as night,
I know the Lord will be my light,
Keep your hand on the plow, hold on.

Hold on
Hold on
Keep your hand on the plow, hold on.

[1] Walt Whitman, “I sit and look out” in Leaves of Grass.
[2] The following description of Camden and U.S. rankings is from Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (New York:  Nation Books, 2012), pp. XIV – XV, 61-113.
[3] Hedges & Stacco, p. 76.
[5] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eardmens, 1994), pp. 52-53.

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