3 Moments on the Path to Passover: Meeting Bernie; Getting Arrested; Renewing Seder

Panel of clergy discussing "A Moral Economy" at "Breakfast with Bernie," Philadelphia April 2016

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    Blazing Light from the Burning Bush In Philadelphia, the azaleas are rising up against winter. See the attached photo of a blazing bush, a Burning Bush like the one that Moses saw, bearing the news that the Holy Voice called out:  “I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming.” All across America, the people are Becoming -- rising up against Pharaoh. Along that path of Arising during just the last two weeks, there have been three important occasions on which the work of The Shalom Center has been warmly recognized as important to that arising-of-the-people. Moving backward in time (it’s my favorite way of reading a book; end first): I. This past Thursday night, 24 hours before the first Passover Seder, I got a phone call inviting me to take part in a breakfast panel discussion on that Friday morning, the very next day,  with Senator Bernie Sandersat a mostly Black church in Philadelphia. Subject for the panel:  What is a “moral economy”?  My co-panelists: a Protestant minister, a Muslim imam, and the executive  of a multicongregational, multireligious activist coalition called P.O.W.E.R., focused on securing good jobs, good schools, and true justice in the “criminal justice” system – police, courts,  and prisons – for the Black and other poor communities in Philadelphia. Oy, gevalt!  --  How could I say No to the chance to speak with and bring The Shalom Center’s teachings -- not its endorsement, only our teachings ---to a major candidate for President? On the other hand, how could I abandon the work of preparing for Passover, cleaning out the breads and shreds of leavening that swell the foods? More poignant: The Hassidim teach that sweeping out the “leavening,” the “souring,” the chametz from our homes is not just a physical act. It is also a spiritual cleansing of our selves, sweeping away our swelled heads and our swollen egos. Was my taking part in this panel on “A Moral Economy” an act of liberation or one of swollen ego? After consultation with my beloved Rabbi Phyllis amidst mixed emotions on all sides,  I went. First a careful check of us all by the Secret Service. Then a smallish group of us  -- Philadelphia activists, the panelists,  some Bernie staff from other towns – met with him. I handed him the book Freedom Journeys on the Exodus that Phyllis and I wrote, and a DVD of the original Freedom Seder of 1969. I told him my grandfather had been a precinct captain for Eugene Debs almost a century ago, the last time a Democratic Socialist was a major candidate for President. He lit up –- there is a photo of Debs in his Senate office. A few people asked questions. One was a young woman who asked him to support a one-state solution merging Israel and Palestine, with human rights for all. Politely but firmly, he said he believes the only peaceful solution is for there to be two states, Palestine alongside Israel. Then to the larger meeting with hundreds of people. Our  moderator put a question to the panel (prefiguring the Questions that would arise at the Seder a dozen hours later): What is “social justice” for you? (See the panel in the attached photo.) When the mic came to me, I answered that now we must talk about “eco-social justice,” for the Earth and Humanity are too deeply interwoven for either to be addressed alone. There are two aspects to eco-social injustice: The injustice of stark poverty, and the injustice of huge wealth.

1) Climate crisis and global scorching press injustice upon us all, but first and worst upon the poor, where drought brings hunger to the poor and starvation to the hungry. 2) And the Injustice of Hyperwealth held by the few is most tyrannical and terrible when the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs buy with their money the political power to keep burning Mother Earth for the sake of their profits --  while humans and other life-forms die.

Sanders instantly responded, “The rabbi is right!” and laid out a strong program to halt global scorching.  ^^^^^^^ II. One step backward in time: Last Monday morning,  I was arrested among about 250 others who gathered on the steps of the US Capitol to block the entrances. We were demanding that Congress pass laws renewing and strengthening the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and creating new ways of getting Hyperwealth out of our elections. An attached photo shows the front line of the March as we approached the Capitol. Just before this photo was taken by Lynne Iser, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling was in the front line, and Rabbi Julie Greenberg just behind. Together with Pat Carolan of the Franciscan Action Network, Mordechai had led prayers at the rally just before the March began. Looming behind the front line is Sen Jeff Merkle of Oregon. On the left of the line is Rev. William Barber, prophetic voice and extraordinary organizer, founder of Moral Monday  & head of North Carolina NAACP. Then, from Left to Right: Tefere Gebre, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. Chris Shelton, president of the Communications Workers of America Me. I am wearing sunglasses and the Rainbow tallit that my mother sewed for me for my 50th birthday, almost 33 years ago. It symbolized then and now (from the Torah’s story of the Flood) the commitment of the Holy Unity that breathes all life, to give us the wisdom to make sure that never again would the earth be drowned and all life be endangered. I have worn it into every one of my arrests since then. (You can see the Rainbow design better in the next photo, of my arrest.)   Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP.  Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace. Aaron Mair, president of the Sierra Club. The arrests were benign, as you can see from the photo  attached. Not even handcuffs, and we were soon released.   More dangerous than the arrests themselves was the almost total blank-out in the “mainstream” media of ten days in which there had been more than one thousand arrests at the Capitol, capped by an extraordinary coalition of labor, African-American, Hispanic, GLBTQ, earth-protective, and good-government / pro-democracy organizations. We share the conviction that the damage to democratic elections stands in the way of each of our distinctive concerns for a just and peaceful world of sustainable and shared abundance -- - and therefore must be opposed by all of us in unison. What does it mean that the media are blanking out these actions, even though they are led by an unprecedented array of leaders and their organizations – all in defense of the heart of democratic process? How do we break through that wall of silence? Should we have blocked the bridges to DC, brought the undemocratic government to a momentary halt as if we were a human snowstorm? Should we have gone on Pilgrimage inside the Capitol, doing our sit-down in a hundred different offices? Or ---- ?? III.  Backwards again in time: Ten days before Passover, the National Museum of American Jewish History held its fourth annual celebration of "The Freedom Seder Revisited.” As the author of the original Freedom Seder almost 50 years ago, I was invited to speak. I arrive to discover from the welcoming program booklet that the most important sponsor of "Freedom Seder Revisited” besides the Museum itself was PECO, the electric-power distribution company for Philadelphia. They buy electricity from various producers – mostly coal-burners – and deliver it to the city.  And I knew that EQAT, the Earth Quaker Action Team, has challenged PECO to begin transforming its business model. EQAT is urging PECO to finance a strong pro-solar, pro-job program in a starkly impoverished  North Philadelphia neighborhood. PECO would pay to hire and train disemployed workers to install solar collectors,  and would pay households to install them. The challenge, I know,  comes due in just a few weeks. The original Freedom Seder broke with frozen habit, in the Seder’s ritual form and in the content of its political challenge to the status quo. On this night of revisiting it, how do I challenge PECO into change rather than hostility? So this is what I said in my brief talk: In the original Exodus story, Pharaoh’s Daughter faced a moral choice when she saw the baby Moses floating in the Nile. (See a dreamy image of that moment in an attached photo.) She chose to step beyond her role as a highly privileged and powerful person. And the choice only began there. The ancient rabbis taught that Pharaoh’s daughter joined the Exodus along with the rag-tag runaway slaves – making up a “mixed multitude” that marched into the Wilderness. She was renamed “Bat-Yah,” not Pharaoh’s daughter but Daughter of the God Who breathes all life. So, I asked, would PECO change its life-path as Pharaoh’s Daughter did in the ancient story?

“Facing the moral challenge of a burning planet  —  of not just one baby but millions exposed to deadly danger – what will PECO do? “And what can we do to help PECO make the moral choice?"

When I finished, 300 people in the room cheered. Not for me, but for making the ancient story a Burning Bush to challenge the status quo of our own day. And a week later, on the Earth Day that cradled the first night of Passover,  I got a letter from PECO announcing they would be setting up a Solar Stakeholder Collaborative to advance local solar energy. Is Pharaoh’s Daughter ready to join the “mixed multitude” demanding change? We shall see. So as the blazing azaleas rise up against Winter, the People are rising as a new Burning Bush, to thaw a frozen status quo. We watch a great wave of young people calling for a “political revolution” through electoral politics. We watch a “fusion coalition” of well-established organizations stirred by diverse issues willing to join in being arrested to renew democracy. “Outsiders” jostling their way into the political system, to change it. “Insiders” jostling their way out of the penned-in rules, to be arrested. This “arising of the people” offers enormous hope – perhaps the only hope -- for the American and planetary future. I take joy in The Shalom Center's work in that arising. And that means YOU taking part in it. We can’t do this work, we can’t bring our insights to the whole range of change from sit-in campaigns to commemorative museums, we can’t send you innovative passages to insert into your Seder --unless you contribute to sustain our work. Please click on the “Sustain” button jon the Left margin of this age, and Contribute to join in the work.  


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