Perhaps you've seen the picture.
An elderly woman, her face dripping with milk, flanked by two men (one wearing some sort of gas mask) who support her by the arms as they make their way through a crowd at an Occupy demonstation in Seattle last week.
The photo was taken just moments after Seattle police reportedly sprayed the woman, 84-year-old Dorli Rainey, in the face with pepper spray.
The image, captured by Seattle Post-Intelligencer photographer Joshua Trujillo, quickly went viral via the Associated Press (See Trujillo's image HERE) and soon after commentators deemed the photograph "iconic" of the Occupy movement.
Jonathan Jones of the UK's Guardian newspaper called Rainey a "martyr" and even went so far as to compare the her post-pepper-spray photograph to classical images of Jesus Christ's passion.
I am not suggesting this lightly. The martyrdom in Seattle conforms, in Trujillo's photograph, to the deep religious roots of the idea of suffering for a cause. Rainey resembles a humiliated Christ in this picture. She is supported by two men, one on either side, who both lower their faces – one has his eyes closed in self-protection, the other wears defensive goggles – in what may be a sensible precaution to avoid getting sprayed themselves, but which also looks like a gesture of compassion, of quiet rage and dignified sorrow. It is at once a real moment – the men shielding their eyes while showing her hurt to the camera – and an image straight out of a Christian Renaissance painting.
The men look disconcertingly similar to the supporters of the dead Christ's tormented body in paintings such as Giovanni Bellini's The Dead Christ Supported by Angels. The Bellini painting is a great banner of emotion. Bellini depicts Christ nearly naked, his body frontal and wide, the expanse of his pale chest filling the painting with pity: in a similar way, the men supporting Rainey in this photograph frame her strong, striking face, which seems to grow to fill the scene with injured courage. The men display her political wounds just as Bellini's angels display the spear wound in Christ's side…. Not all martyrdoms result in death, so even from a pedantic standpoint, Rainey conforms to the tradition – the arrows that pierce Saint Sebastian in so many paintings did not kill him, for instance.
Rainey is quite a woman. Reared in Nazi-era Germany, she is well known around her adopted city of Seattle for her years of social justice activism. According to the Post-Intelligencer, Rainey even ran for mayor briefly in 2009, and was on her way to attend a city transportation department meeting when, as she was changing buses, she heard a swarm of helicopters over head, figured there was an Occupy demonstration near by and went to investigate.
Whether you agree with the ideology of the Occupy movement or not, Rainey is an inspiration. In an interview last week with Keith Olbermann (see above), the octogenarian activist said that she was energized by the pepper spraying incident and went on to give a shout out to the late Roman Catholic nun, Jackie Hudson (also a life-long peace activist who was arrested several times for protesting at nuclear arms sites), for inspiring her to keep fighting the good fight, even in the winter years of her life.
Rainey recalled Hudson's words of inspiration: "Whatever you do, take one more step out of your comfort zone."
"It's so easy to say, 'Well, I'm going to retire, I'm going to sit around and watch television or eat bon-bons," Rainey told Olbermann. "But somebody's got to keep them awake."
Rainey reminds me so much of the character Maude from the iconiclastic 1971 film Harold and Maude, where Ruth Gordon plays the 80-year-old love interest (and inspiration) of young Harold Chasen, played by Bud Cort.
Maude, aka Dame Marjorie Chardin, is an ethereal, sprightly woman with a youthfulness that belies her age. She wears her ginger hair in braids, lives in an old train car stuffed with memorabilia from her rich almost-80 years, and has a zest for life that is infectious — and desperately needed by morose Harold, a young man nearly paralyzed by a general malaise and fear of engaging fully with the troubled world around him.
In one of my favorite scenes, Maude talks about her years of activism when Harold asks about an old black umbrella kept among her various momentos.
MAUDE: That's just a relic. I found it when I was packing to come to America. It used to be my defence on picket lines and rallies and political meetings, being dragged off by the police and attacked by thugs.
HAROLD: What were you fighting for?
MAUDE: Big issues. Liberty, rights, justice. Kings died, kingdoms fell. I don't regret the kingdom. What sense in borders and nations and patriotism? But I miss the kings. When I was a little girl, I was taken to the palace in Vienna to a garden party. I can still see the sun shining, the parasols, the flashing uniforms of the young officers. I thought then that I would marry a soldier. Later on, Frederick would chide me about it. He was so serious. A doctor at the university... and in the government. But that was all before....
HAROLD: So ... you don't use the umbrella any more? No more revolts?
MAUDE: Yes. Every day...but... I don't need a defence any more, I embrace. Still fighting for the big issues but now in my small, individual way. Shall we have a song?
Rainey (and Maude) are marvelous examples of how to live life, embrace the joys and fight injustice — wherever we find it.
If you want to sing out, sing out. If you want to be free, be free....
Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl.