Cast Off the Stupor of Indifference
Today I want to focus on the people of Egypt -- those million or more who have gathered in Tahrir Square, both as a united, insistent, revolutionary body, and as individuals -- professors and bakers and housewives and lawyers. Each protester is unique and each one is fashioned in the image of God. They have awakened from the oppression their modern pharaoh imposed upon them.
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They stand in a great line of nonviolent revolutionaries, stretching back in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to those who dared to cross the Red Sea. Suddenly, people who have seemed to be in a literal stupor, unable to chart their futures in the iron maze of "stability," come alive, are intelligent, and able to debate and plan and create community as the Iron Guards of "order" defect and disappear -- this is happening now for the people of Egypt ...
- as did the people of East Germany and all Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989;
- as did the students and workers of the nation-wide uprising in France in May 1968;
- as did the black communities and their white allies in America in the early 1960s;
- as did the auto workers of Michigan in 1937 who took over the auto plants, refusing to be disemployed or dislodged and winning the right to organize;
- as did India in 1930 when Gandhi led an illegal campaign to make salt from the sea without paying the British tax on salt.
There is a softer kind of stupor in America these days. We face these crises with a stupor: droughts that follow the heating of our planet, droughts that burned wheat crops in Russia last summer, sent wheat prices sharply higher, and took food from the mouths of Tunisian and Egyptian workers -- whose revolt is rooted in the global scorching that we Americans shrug off.
We face with a stupor the shoveling of $1 trillion dollars worth of human ingenuity and labor, the shoveling and shriveling of blood and limbs, of the shattered minds and souls of Americans and Iraqis and Afghans, into the trash heaps of illegitimate and unwinnable wars.
We face with a stupor the despair of 15 million Americans who are officially counted among the disemployed -- and another 5 million who are not even counted because they have given up looking for jobs.
"Disemployed" -- my computer software puts a red line under the letters, telling me that's not even a word. But these people are not "unemployed," as if they had accidentally stubbed a toe on the way to work. They have been disemployed by decisions of those who hold power in our society, who have used their power to grasp even more power by dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into election campaigns, who have used their power to win obscene tax cuts so as to put even more money into buying more power to keep the disemployed in their despair -- and all of us in stupor.
We do not need to be stupid. Like the Egyptians in Tahrir Square, we can awaken.
In mid-April, Jews will celebrate the Passover, when their stories teach that Pharaoh fell and Miriam led the people in songs of jubilation. Christians will celebrate Palm Sunday, Black Friday, and Easter Sunday, when their stories tell them that a courageous few faced Caesar, and that life, renewed and resurrected, transcended death and torture.
Can these celebrations leap off the pages of prayer books to become sparks of change? Where, three months from now, could bands of the disemployed celebrate by reentering their work places and demand to be paid for their work? -- laid-off firefighters reentering the fire houses, laid-off teachers creating Freedom Schools like those in Mississippi in 1964 to teach the truth and end the stupor of their students, laid-off nurses demanding that the wars end and the money be rechanneled so hospitals can serve the sick instead of warehousing the overflowing supply of brain-injured veterans.
Where, in the week before Palm Sunday and Passover, could multi-religious folk picket the banks that are funding Old King Coal, that Lethal Old Soul, and demand that the investment money be rechanneled to wind and solar power instead?
What spark of bold intelligence, like Rosa Parks' refusal in Montgomery, will against all expectations, light the fire of love against the flames of destruction and the darkness of despair?
Uprisings, whether in ancient or in modern Egypt, are not fulfilled by overthrowing pharaohs. There needs to be a "Sinai" and perhaps many years of troubled experiment and exploration in the wilderness -- a working out of new forms of community.
In our world, that community must be broader and deeper than we have ever known. It must take seriously that YHWH Echad, the Breath of Life, is one: that a coal plant belching CO2 in Pennsylvania creates a drought and fires in Russia that create a dearth of wheat and bread in Egypt that fills Tahrir Square and scares a president in Washington.
Cast off the stupor. Create community.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center, co-author of The Tent of Abraham, and author of Godwrestling -- Round 2, Down-to-Earth Judaism, and a dozen other books on Jewish thought and practice, as well as books on U.S. public policy. The Shalom Center voices a new prophetic agenda in Jewish, multireligious, and American life. Click here to receive the weekly online Shalom Report.