“The Foolishness of Solidarity”
Well. This is a decidedly un-Anglican scene in the Gospel of John. We do not have a reasonable, diplomatic messiah who calmly considers all sides and then sits down to pen a strongly-worded letter of complaint to the temple authorities. We have an angry rural peasant messiah who tears up the marketplace. This is not a flowery, metaphorical whip of cords or turning over of tables. It’s more like a riot. How embarrassing.
Some of you probably remember the first Zapatista uprising in Mexico in 1994. Just in case you don’t: the Zapatistas are an organization of rural, poor, Mayan indigenous communities—mainly located in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico. They refer to themselves as an army of national liberation. Mostly they are armed with sticks and stones. They make no apologies for this, telling the world: “We didn’t go to war to kill or be killed. We went to war in order to be heard.” On January 1st of 1994, in resistance to the Mexican government signing the economic death warrant of every poor rural Mexican farmer via the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Zapatistas seized municipal buildings throughout Chiapas. They broke into the jail and set the prisoners free. They destroyed buildings belonging to the police and military. They tore up the marketplace. It was a scene quite comparable to what we read in John’s gospel today, with Jesus’ flagrant acts of property damage. Within days, the Mexican army forced them out. They retreated to the mountains.
They are still there.
They are still at work, lifting their voices and defending their lives as rural poor Mayans. Very shortly, in just a week or two, some of their friends will be here in Seattle. The Zapatistas have cast their lot with the families of the forty-three students from a rural teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa, Mexico who have been “disappeared” by the Mexican government—a punishment on those students for seeking equal access to teaching jobs. The official investigation into the whereabouts of these students has led to the discovery of five mass graves. Forensic testing has revealed that none of these graves even belong to the forty-three students.
There is a reason that the Zapatistas and their friends have long understood the Day of the Dead as their high holy day.
One of them, Marcos, once said, “In the mountains of Chiapas, death was a part of daily life. It was as common as rain or sunshine. People here coexist with death, with the death of their own, especially the little ones. Paradoxically, death begins to shed its tragic cloak. Death becomes a daily fact. It loses its sacredness. You see it as… as someone you sit down with at the table, like an old acquaintance. You don’t lose your fear of death, but you become familiar with her. She becomes your equal. Death, which is so close, so near, so possible, is less terrifying for us than for others. So, going out and fighting and perhaps meeting death is not as terrible as it seems. For us, at least. In fact, what surprises and amazes us is life itself. The hope of a better life.”*
Lent is an important corrective to any theology that ignores or downplays the mud-and-blood materiality of death. Bodies die and rot. We are afraid of this fact. We’ve built an entire society and economy on hiding death away, cleaning it up, and distancing ourselves from the people nearest to it: the old, the sick, the poor. That denial has made us incredibly dangerous—especially for the oppressed, especially for the earth. Observing a season of ashes and dust helps us build some muscle and resistance to this death-denying culture. It’s forty days a year of training for death by saying, “Look: death in and of herself is necessary and good. Here is what she looks like, sounds like, smells like. Get to know death. Become her friend. Learn to recognize her at her best so that you can wake up to all the ways we have profaned her and abused her.” We put the resurrection and the starry heavens on hold during Lent for a reason: people already love to talk about that stuff. Those things are pretty, and abstract, and easier in contrast to our messy bodies and our messy creation—both of which desperately need our attention. The stars and the heavens can fend for themselves. We get the rest of the liturgical year to swoon over them. Dust and death get their own special season during Lent on the basis of our preferential option for the poor.
We draw near to death in Lent in order to understand that we, too, will die. By extension our disciplines are meant to show us that we, too, may become sick and we, too, may become poor. In this sense, Lent is for us to learn that charity will not save us—only solidarity will save us.
Whatever is good for the sick is good for our whole society.
Whenever we honor the poor, we honor all of us.
Where the earth is cherished, our own bodies are cherished.
Whoever tenderly embraces the dead holds us all.
This is foolishness to the powers and principalities of our world. I think it’s what Paul is getting at in 1st Corinthians, about the cross destroying “the wisdom of the wise.” We hear in so many places that only the rich can save the poor. That only those with fancy degrees can help the dropouts and the illiterate. Yet here we are, on the corner of 47th and Brooklyn, telling the world it was a state-executed homeless Palestinian peasant who saved us all. To a city building luxury condos while families with infants spend the winter sleeping in tents, we say “Whoever is most likely to die first, that one speaks and acts with the authority of the Lord.” In the midst of a culture distracting itself from death with every anti-aging pill and potion imaginable, we gather here week after week to proclaim nobody gets through this life without tasting death—not even God.
Where is death close to you? Do you care for a loved one whose time is near? Are you struggling to meet basic needs—housing, health care, safety from violence? Does your job put you in touch with mortality? Do you live with depression, despair, or a habit of self-harm that keeps death in the back of your mind? Bring all of those things here, to us, in this place. Always for us as Christians, but especially during Lent, your particular nearness to death grants you an authority which your family in Christ and the rest of the world is called to see and respect. Stand in that authority. Claim it. We need to hear you.
Because, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” Probably out making another million dollar sound-bite for the evening news. They take care of themselves. It is on us to cleanse the temple. It is on us to take care of our own.
*From the documentary film A Place Called Chiapas (quote starts at 1:25:00).