Police horns blast out their first, second, and third warnings. Officers mounted on horses appear like giants out of the crowd pushing past the bright pink banner on which is written “Peace on Earth.” Radio and television reporters swarm on every side with heavy cameras and microphones, threatening to crush those of us kneeling in prayer on the sidewalk in front of the White House.
I’m in a very mixed crowd of protesters on the verge of being arrested. We are a teeming mass of pentecostals, pacifists, and pagans; Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis, and Katrina evacuees; anarchists, Gold Star moms, hip-hop preachers, and war vets. We are “rabble” in the ancient sense of the word—a “tumultuous crowd.” We are the “scraped together masses” of Numbers 11:4; the “mixed multitude” described in Exodus 12:38. And we are roused.
While our placards demand an immediate end to the Iraq war, I realize that the hunger present here is much deeper and wider than a simple political message. These are people straining toward liberation. In the midst of the chaos I keep thinking, “They are yearning to be free.”
BY THE END of that September day in 2005, I was one of 370 people arrested for not dispersing when our permit to demonstrate was revoked. Many of us spent about 10 hours handcuffed, waiting to be processed. Everyone was given the option of either a court appearance or a $75 fine. My arrest slip identified my “property” as a Bible, a set of keys, and shoelaces. All were returned to me intact.
In a slight digression, let me say that the three officers handling my group had all been to Iraq as military reserves, civilian police, or private security. Their stances on the war ranged from being against it to being for it, and one said she had no opinion. We had lively conversations with them. Also, I later learned that the handcuffs with which we became so intimate that day were Double Cuff ™ disposables—the same type of handcuffs seen detaining tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The are made by Monadnock, part of the Armor Holdings Aerospace and Defense Group, which is “a top supplier of human safety and survival systems to all branches of the U.S. military and major aerospace and defense prime contractors.”
It is always intensely clarifying to study scripture while surrounded by police armed with Tasers, pepper spray, steel-tipped batons, and semi-automatic hand guns. The verses practically leap off the page. St. Paul did his best epistle writing from the seaside stone fortress in Caesarea, and Martin Luther King Jr. set a nation afire with his scribblings from Birmingham’s central lockup. With my knees aching from kneeling, wrists bruised from handcuffs, and the terror that accompanies giving over power to another, I understood more clearly the psalmist who cried from his prison hole, “all my bones are out of joint; my heart is become like wax…” (22:14).
In the teeming chaos of my companion protesters, I also tasted what it means to set the stage, like Moses did, for God’s redemption of an unfit people; to prepare for the exodus of the unworthy and bring them out of Egypt’s empire. The “rabble” on the White House sidewalk were soaked in suffering and sin. The suffering of mothers who have lost sons in Iraq and Afghanistan; veterans with post-traumatic stress; and homeless hurricane evacuees with absolutely nothing left. The sin of those who have let go their faith and the hypocrisy of those who claim peace, yet feel justified in demeaning anyone who disagrees with them. Are these the ones God will redeem?
According to scripture, the answer is yes. God sees something in this mixed multitude worthy of salvation. The act of asserting our responsibility and relationship to a situation of oppression (as now exists in Iraq and is the current manifestation of American empire at home and abroad), “makes possible a future politics that otherwise might become lost in a bottomless sense of victimization and despair,” writes Lawrence Weschler in Calamities of Exile. It creates emotional and spiritual space where it is possible for God to enter.
These 370 people, though inarticulate when it comes to claiming salvation history, lean and strain toward freedom. “Pharaoh’s monologue against life,” writes Torah scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, “is challenged by the unheard word of God, working through unconscious flesh.” In the “unconscious flesh” of this rabble, I believe God finds something to work with.
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.