It has been a week. On Monday, I joined a beautiful cross section of folks from the Poor People’s Campaign in a morning of preparation and then a rally on the Capitol grounds. Around 3pm about 60 of us processed in silence to the Capitol visitor’s center. We entered the rotunda to demand that Congress take action on voter suppression, one of the many outgrowths of systemic racism. We were not allowed to deliver our demands to the Senate or the House so we stood, some kneeled, in the historic, hallowed hall as we prayed and sang. The prayers rang out for a few minutes before the Capital Police gave three warnings and then began arresting people for “Crowding, Obstructing or Incommoding.” We were escorted, sans handcuffs, to the elevators, then out to the shady terrace of the Capitol where we waited to receive our citations.
On Friday morning, I returned to the Hill and sat in Senator Cardin’s office with a group of eight Sanctuary DMV folks. We were there for almost an hour – without incident. We were waiting to talk with a staffer about the case of Prince Gbohoutou, who ICE attempted to deport the previous evening. This time there was no singing or audible praying, though we were on cell phones and talking animatedly as we planned strategies for next steps with Prince’s attorney.
While there were some improvisational moments, pleading for justice on Capital Hill in the 21st century is generally a well choreographed drama. The woman in the parable Jesus tells may be less predictable but the writer of Luke says there is a point: Jesus told the disciples a parable on the necessity of praying always and not losing heart.
I am accustomed to Jesus telling a parable and then looking around at the disciples for the possible meaning while they look back at him dumbfounded. Here the writer leads with an interpretation of the parable. It is curious. I wonder what it means that the writer feels the need to be explicit with the meaning of this parable. I wonder if we understand what the writer wants us to understand.
This parable of the persistent widowed woman sounds similar to the instruction from Paul in I Thess (5:17): pray without ceasing. Prayer is often understood as words spoken to God or listening for God – alone or with other people. But this woman doesn’t seem to be praying in any of those ways. The widowed woman is not a “prayer warrior” that remains quietly in her prayer closet with God. She prays with her feet. She seems to be praying more like the late Father Bill Callahan described in his book, Noisy Contemplation:
The dream of noisy contemplation is to sustain people as loving human beings during the long and arduous work of justice and peacemaking. Jesus prayed throughout a busy, ‘activist’ ministry. He encourages us to do likewise.
The woman pleads with the judge who has the power to make decisions that affect not just her spiritual life but her ability to experience fullness of life. She is noisy and persistent and advocates for justice for herself. She does not stop until she gets what she needs: justice in an unjust situation.
We don’t get many details about how this woman goes about pushing for justice. In fact, in this telling, we learn more about the unjust judge than we do the woman. And isn’t that the way, those with little power are often invisible and those who hold the power can be seen from a distance.
We are told the unjust judge does not “fear” God or people. I used to wonder how a judge without respect for people or the law could end up in this position, being a judge. Now neuroscience is proving that when one is in a position of power it is easy, in fact almost inevitable, that one will lose empathy, will no longer fear God or people. https://www.npr.org/2013/08/10/210686255/a-sense-of-power-can-do-a-number-on-your-brain We don’t know why yet, but Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, says “What we’re finding is power diminishes all varieties of empathy.”
Perhaps the judge did not start out disregarding others and God but after some years as a judge, he has become hardened. The old saying turns out to be true that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
We also learn from neuroscience that we can re-learn empathy. Perhaps this is what the woman is doing for the judge. She is not only wearing him down, she is helping to retrain his brain to care about people and, we hope, care about God and the law. We don’t know how long the woman persists, how long it takes to retrain the brain of one who is no longer empathetic. But she persists until she is no longer invisible and cannot be ignored by the judge. She is committed to finding fullness of life for herself and she will not stop until she receives it.
Maybe I have been a pastor too long and the power is affecting my own empathic abilities. It is easy for me to see this noisy widowed woman as a nuisance. If she would just play by the rules and respect the law, like the rest of us, she wouldn’t have the problems she claims to have.
Then this week I spent time with Shaniece, the wife of Prince Gbohoutou, who in effect has been made a widow by the policies of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Shaniece is seeking justice and she will not stop until she receives it. (Shaniece and Prince are eager to have their story told if it will help him be released from detention so I share it on their behalf today.)
Prince is an asylum seeker from the Central African Republic (C.A.R.) who has been living in the U.S. for the past 12 years since he was brought here as a 14-year-old. Prince is eligible for DACA, is married to a U.S. citizen, and has built a career as an artist. Prince voluntarily appeared for his check-in on April 19, with his wife and two Sanctuary DMV accompaniers. Instead of a regular check-in, Prince was taken into custody and detained at a local detention center in Glen Burnie. On Thursday, May 24, he was told to get ready to go. He thought he was finally being released. Instead two Baltimore ICE agents – without notifying his attorney, or his wife – took Prince from the Glen Burnie jai to the main ICE office in Baltimore. From there they placed Prince in five-point shackles and drove him to JFK airport in New York. ICE planned to put him on a 9pm flight to Morocco on the way to the C.A.R.
Prince repeatedly and continuously expressed his fear of returning to C.A.R., the country from which his deceased father had sought asylum and where his mother had been murdered by government officials. At JFK, the two Baltimore ICE agents who had driven Prince from Maryland called four to five additional agents to forcibly remove Prince from the van and into the airport. ICE agents beat his legs with nightsticks when he did not exit the vehicle. At the plane, Prince again expressed his fear to return to C.A.R. The flight attendant heard this and informed the captain. The captain told ICE they would not take Prince on the plane.
Thanks to Prince’s courageous actions and the captain’s refusal to be complicit in a deportation, ICE was forced to abandon their attempt to remove him. They drove him back to Maryland, this time to the Frederick County Adult Detention Center, where he is being held now.
The unjust judge says the woman is too noisy, too emotional, is wearing him out. The judge would like to stay in the comfort of the facts and thinking “objectively.” The woman wears him out with her persistent refusal to be invisible. She wears him out as she advocates for herself and the justice she seeks. She wears the judge out because he has lost his ability to hear her with empathy.
If I did not understand the persistent widowed woman before, after visiting three congressional offices with Shaniece and a group from Sanctuary DMV, I now have a small understanding. Yes, facts are important to present. And persistently telling the story of injustice, from the heart, is essential. There are people who work for congress that care. They are ready to hear difficult stories, and they can be empathetic. Senator Van Hollen is starting to speak out on behalf of Prince. Senator Cardin and Rep. Brown’s offices are also responding by contacting ICE. And there are people, like the ICE agent we heard about, who told our congressional staffer when he called on the phone, to stop being so emotional and just write a letter – without all the emotion.
Another thing I learned this week is that injustice is too big to bear alone. We should not, and can not, let “widowed women” speak in isolation to unjust judges and unjust systems. In the parable, the widowed woman seems to be doing her noisy contemplation in isolation. Thankfully, Prince was not alone this week. He was his own fierce self-advocate and he knew that he had Shaniece raising the alarm. In noisy contemplation, we all have roles to play in make the invisible visible.
– Prince advocated for himself.
– Shaniece called ICE as well as Sanctuary DMV.
– Sanctuary DMV activated its list of volunteers and people called congressional offices.
– By the time the team arrived to visit the “electeds,” (I learned a new word this week,) congressional staffers said their phones were ringing off the hook.
– And because Prince continued to speak about his fear of being killed if he was returned to the CAR, the flight attendant and captain of the plane said, “We will not be complicit in this injustice.”
On Friday, when Shaniece was able to visit Prince in detention in Frederick County, she described him as “downtrodden.” After she told him of the many people that are working to get him released, it seemed to buoy his spirits.
Incidentally, there was another person with Prince in the van who was to be deported last Thursday evening. That person was alone. They did not advocate for themselves and were resigned to the inevitable. They boarded the plane at JFK in New York without incident and are no longer in the US.
I continue to wonder about this parable. Is it really about non-stop praying as the writer of Luke insists? I hope our God is not like the unjust and corrupt judge. Perhaps the parable is less about private prayer and more about the noisy contemplation we do together as we work for justice. And I am coming to believe that in our noisy contemplation, we help others find their connection back to humanity and to God. Our faithfulness to justice and the God of justice calls to the hearts of those who have become isolated, have lost their empathy, even as they have found themselves in positions of power. “When the Promised One comes, will faith be found anywhere on earth?” (Luke 18)
All of this said, I am taking a week off, taking some sabbath time, from the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. And I invite you to join me on June 3 at the Capitol for a rally and, if you feel so led, in civil disobedience – or as the Campaign calls it “non-violent moral fusion direct action.” Do watch the list serve and Facebook for ways you might be part of the next efforts to get Prince released from detention in the coming days. Sanctuary DMV is launching a national campaign today.
I am thankful to be part of a community that partners together, as Luke says, by “praying always and not losing heart.”
Jesus engaged in noisy contemplation and so can we. (Callahan)