The Red Balloon of Social Justice: Wisconsin One Year Later

By Phil Haslanger 2-14-2012
Red heart balloon. Image via Wylio,
Red heart balloon. Image via Wylio,

It was on Valentine’s Day just a year ago that a few hundred University of Wisconsin-Madison students carried heart-shaped balloons and “valentines” for Gov. Scott Walker that said, “Please don’t break our hearts.”

The governor, it turns out, was not in a romantic mood. He plunged right ahead with his just-announced plan to strip most public employee unions in Wisconsin of their collective bargaining rights.

But the spirit of that day — a bit of whimsy in the midst of outrage — swept through Wisconsin in the weeks after that, bringing hundreds of thousands of people to the streets of Madison and other cities all across the state to protest. The spirit of that day brought more than a million voters in Wisconsin to sign petitions to recall the governor, which will likely happen this summer.

Yet in the year since those first balloons were carried up to the governor’s office, Walker’s actions and his intransigence have broken many hearts in Wisconsin. The governor won – for the moment – his battle to strip public employees of their bargaining rights. The democratic process has been wounded by the way that was done. The animosity of the past year leaves little room for political valentines this year.

For people of faith committed to working for social justice, though, there was another spirit surging through the events of the past 12 months. The spirit of Amos calling for justice to roll like mighty waters, the spirit of Isaiah to make justice the measuring line, the spirit of Jesus’ mission to stand with the oppressed all were part of the spirit rising up from the huge crowds that gathered week after week in the Wisconsin cold and snow.

(As actor Brad Whitford, a Wisconsin native, reminded the crowd of tens of thousands gathered at the state Capitol on a snowy day in late February 2011, “Wisconsin is a stubborn constituency — we fish through ice.”)

At those rallies, voices of faith leaders joined with those of farmers who had traveled to Madison on tractors, firefighters who played bagpipes as they marched into the Capitol, the grandmothers with walkers and the students with iPhones tweeting out the call to protect the workers.

At one gathering of a few hundred church folks from around the state, Bruce Burnside, the Madison bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, told the crowd that they were called to “use our voices with a vocabulary of justice, a vocabulary of humility, a vocabulary of servanthood, a vocabulary of love – even for and precisely for the enemy, a vocabulary of courage, a vocabulary taught by God.”

That crowd listened to the bishop’s words and then marched to the Capitol to met with legislator after legislator.

Still, the Walker plan passed, union members took a hard hit in their take-home pay, the union organizations were gutted … and huge cuts were made to public schools, to health care for the poor. New voter ID laws in Wisconsin now are restricting access to vote. And the state is sharply divided, family members and friends still unable to talk politics in any civil way. Someone even stabbed one of the heart balloons at a sing-along in the Capitol Rotunda last summer.

Now we are at Valentine’s Day a year later. For many months last spring, a solitary red heart balloon floated just under the dome of the Capitol. It became a gentle symbol of this powerful people’s uprising.

The red heart balloon can serve as a reminder of how God’s Spirit blows whichever way it will, but that God’s Spirit is a spirit of justice and of compassion. As Bishop Burnside said, voices of faith need both a vocabulary of love and a vocabulary of justice as we move into the highly-charged months ahead.

In so many ways, our hearts have been broken. The process of healing includes justice as well as love, courage as well as compassion. The voices of faith need to be as ever present as that balloon that offered hope through so many months of effort to restore justice and the democratic spirit in Wisconsin.

Phil Haslanger is a pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis., just outside of Madison.

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