Updated: Jul 29, 2020
I loved my 5th grade teacher. Mrs. Nielsen was wonderfully creative: We learned about rocks by making pancakes, we learned about the solar system by building to-scale models down the hallway. I loved being in her class.
The same did not apply to our substitute teachers. And so, one morning she walked into class after a day off, and held up the report from the sub on our abysmal behavior the day before. She announced that we would be conducting a trial in our class, going through every student named in the report, which was most of us, weighing the evidence, and deciding on a punishment. We would select a jury (with replacements for all the jurors who would also be on trial), and we would vote on a Defense Attorney and Prosecutor.
As a talkative and extremely opinionated young man, I was voted in the role of Prosecutor.
So we went through every student in the class, putting them on trial. And one by one we turned on each other and denounced each other, a Stalinist kangaroo court shrunk to a small-town Kansas classroom. And then we decided on punishments.
This was the spring of 2003. The U.S. had just invaded Iraq. While the torture at Abu Ghraib and in other U.S.-run prisons in Iraq had not yet been made public, the media was already defending torture through shows like 24. Our jury deliberated, and decided that the most disruptive students deserved to have their chairs taken away and be forced to stand without break for the rest of the week. We as fifth graders decided to put our friends in what the CIA was calling “stress positions.” Without even being aware of it, we acted out U.S. imperialism’s regime of incarceration and torture on each other.
This weekend marks a high holiday in the United States. While many Mennonites and Anabaptists do celebrate July 4th, or at least enjoy fireworks and a chance to relax at the beach, many others “don’t really do” the holiday because it celebrates U.S. militarism and ignores the millions killed by U.S. bombs and guns. Many black Mennonites do not celebrate July 4th because it marks independence for propertied white men, not the black human beings who were their property.
Not celebrating is one thing, but untangling the ways we have been taught to enact the violence of Empire is a much trickier task. Empire makes its violence not only normal, but fun. It can make us play Prosecutor, hurt our friends, do violence to those we love and those we claim to love. It lives in our bodies, in our muscles, in our unconscious reactions.
Jesus came to demonstrate an alternative, not just to the particular Roman Empire of his time, but to the embodied practices of imperialism in all times. In today’s scripture, Jesus reminds us that to live in the Spirit, to be church together, is a whole-body experience: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” This brings to mind the words of Tada Hozumi:
“Why can’t white people dance?... [B]ecause white-ness is a traumatized state that is disconnected from the body…. This is why, when a white ally asks me about how they can best ally with POCs, my best advice is to come dance with us.”
Racism and empire don’t just negatively impact people racialized as white, of course. The powers and principalities of oppression work every day on every one of us to disconnect us from our bodies, to police our own bodies, to lock up our bodies. Honestly, all I need is a summer trip to the beach to remind me of all the ways I have internalized shame about my body.
I was led to this idea by my friend Belle Alvarez, who has tried more than once to get me to dance with her, to feel the discomfort and move through it. Belle is one person who has taught me that the freedom of the spirit is a full blown party, like Jesus says: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
Today, we hear the call of both wailing voices and beautiful music, pulling us into imagining the abolition of the systems of policing and prisons. As a church that stood for the abolition of slavery and the right of the enslaved to rise up in revolt back in 1688, we are called to stand in this tradition of present-day abolition. It is a tradition led by black women survivors of violence, striving to build a world where we do not dispose of each other, do not replicate the harm and violence that lives in our bodies and in our community stories. This new abolitionism invites us to create new ways of treating each other.
When we listen to and dance with the Spirit, moving together as a church, we can teach our bodies to practice the freedom that Jesus invites us into. We can begin to unlearn the violence of Imperialism and Incarceration, of disposing of each other and replicating harm. To worship together, to offer praise to the source of life, to call on divinity who offers an anti-militarist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist alternative, is to feel the freedom of the spirit aliv ein our bones. To feel the Holy One set us free from the violence that binds our bodies and imaginations. The Spirit is calling us to dance into a new way of freedom.
And so I’d like us to practice this, with help from Cana Berkey-Gerard.
Cana: Close your eyes. Gently become aware of your body. Notice your breath and where it is centered in your body; is it in your throat, chest, stomach, or somewhere else? As you become com
fortable with that awareness, start to reach out to the other parts of your body. Gently bring your awareness to your feet and legs. If there is tension there, gently release it. Now direct your breath and its energy into your feet and legs. Now shift your attention to your fingers, hands, and arms. Breathe into them. Continue your body scan, moving to each body part at your own pace. Release any tension in your body.
Now when you are ready, bring to mind your surroundings. What does the room around you look like? What can you hear? Who is in the room with you? After you have become aware of your surroundings, gently bring your attention back to your breath.
John: Pause for a second and bring to mind some of the suffering and oppression in our world. Trust yourself on how much or how little you want to feel this. Notice where in your body you feel this pain. Where don’t you feel it? How does the rest of your body respond to it?
Now direct your attention to the part of your body where the weight is the strongest. Now imagine that weight lifting, dissolving off of you. Let the feeling leave you completely. It may come slowly, but just be patient with yourself. How do you feel?
Now, when that weight is dissolved, imagine that part of your body filling with pure freedom. The essence of being free. Be gentle with yourself if it comes slowly. What does that pure freedom feel like in that one body part?
When you’re ready, let that feeling spread to other parts of your body. If that feels too hard or you’re not ready, just continue to focus on that point.
Cana: Invite yourself to change your posture - how do you sit or stand or lie down differently, in the body you have, if you are made of pure freedom?
Now notice how your body might move differently in a state of pure freedom. It could be standing up and walking around, it could be how your hands or feet move. Continue to let your body lead you.
If there are other people in the room, start to notice them. If you are alone, imagine one other person in your life joining you in the room. Notice that they are also made of pure freedom. How do bodies who are totally set free interact with each other?
John: Hold onto this feeling of freedom in your body for a bit longer. How might you hold onto this feeling as you go about your day? When you’re ready, open your eyes and return to this space.
Jesus says: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."
Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash