Blog Banner

The Price of Dissent

Last month, I was arrested along with several of my colleagues as we sought to speak with Jamie Dimon before he testified to the Senate Banking Committee. We accompanied Deborah Harris, a DC homeowner who was unjustly foreclosed on by JP Morgan Chase, where Mr. Dimon serves as CEO and Chairman of the Board. We stood with her as she asked this powerful man a simple question: Why don’t you face the people that you foreclosed on?

Jamie Dimon’s answer was clear: Because you don’t matter. Mr. Dimon never acknowledged Deborah’s presence, and we were arrested and locked in jail for most of the day. We received a forceful response from those wealthy few who control our government and our economy: You will speak only when spoken to. You will learn who is in charge here.

This message continued to be delivered as we were arraigned at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on Tuesday morning. I was surprised by how much the court looked like TV courtrooms – think Judge Judy or The People’s Court. The dominant image was a very large seal of the court, with flags – of the United States and the District of Columbia – on either side. These symbols of authority rested immediately behind the judge’s seat, which sat far back, behind two long desks where about half a dozen clerks stood or sat, processing the perhaps fifty people being arraigned that morning.

The whole scene was purposefully crafted to elicit a feeling of reverence towards the authority of the court. The lawyers and those being arraigned sat in the forward part of the courtroom, on long, wooden benches that were very similar to pews in a church building. I leaned over to Deborah at one point and whispered, “I feel like we’re in church.” But I learned not to talk too much, as bailiffs regularly came by and sternly warned us not to speak or use our cell phones. Let all the earth keep silent before the authority of this court!

This sense of religiosity was no accident. When the judge entered the courtroom, one of the clerks pronounced a long string of official words, including, “God save the United States and this honorable court.” This invocation of God’s name – however shallow and formal – further emphasized to me the weight of the civil religion that permeated the court. Everything was mediated through ritual; all the details of the court’s furnishings, layout, decorum and vocabulary evoked an atmosphere of solemn reverence. But who, or what, were we venerating?

I was not sure whether it was Law, or the State, or the Court, or some vague spirit of Authority that we were being not-so-subtly pressured to worship, but one thing was very clear to me: It was not God. One of the most disturbing things about our arraignment yesterday was this blasphemous liturgy of the State, whose message was clear and powerful: Submit. Fear. Forget who you are and become what we say you are.

It was essentially the same feeling that I got at the jailhouse last month. The point of the system is to instill order, always defined in the system’s terms, regardless of the cost to human dignity. As we sat in our benches and were rebuked by the bailiffs for “talking too much,” we got the message: While we were in that courtroom, we were to be in utter dread of Authority, totally attentive to its whims. Just like in the jailhouse, the physical and psychological space was purposefully engineered to break down individual identity and self-will, transferring all agency and power to the officialdom and bureaucracy of the court.

It is one thing to write about this environment, but it is another thing entirely to experience it first hand. I would not have imagined it to be so irresistible, so psychologically overwhelming; yet I found it extremely difficult to stay grounded in God and in my true identity as a child of the light. Having this personal experience of the terrifying power of the court system – with all its blasphemous ritual and pomp – I am beginning to understand how truly bold George Fox was when he dared to stand before a judge and admonish him to “quake before the power of the Lord.” Fox knew better than anyone that the function of courts and judges and civil religion is not to tremble before the Lord, but to make others shake before human authority.

I was reminded of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where Paul writes that there are indeed “many gods and many lords, yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” There are powers and rulers and authorities in this world, and we must decide which authority we are to place ourselves under. Will it be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Or will it be some other authority?

The image of Christ as judge, holding court and delivering the ultimate verdict at the end of time, takes on new relevance for me now that I have experienced the dread of the human court system. For though human courts can be unjust, Christ rules with equity and impartiality; while human courts direct veneration and awe back to themselves, Jesus directs our attention, awe and worship back to the Father, our sovereign Creator.

I do not mean to suggest that human courts are essentially evil and should be done away with. Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans that all authorities that exist have been instituted by God. The courts of the United States can only exist because God has created Authority itself; human institutions are intended to reflect this authority, which God created as a servant for good. Unfortunately, this God-given authority that was created to preserve life in human community has been twisted and corrupted by human sin – both individual and collective.

There is no doubt in my mind that our court system is deeply affected by the distorting effects of sin. Worst of all, our human institutions of authority often play a role in sustaining the fruit of sin: violence, injustice, dehumanization and fear. Probably the clearest example of this is the way our legal system perpetuates systematic racial discrimination. Except for most of our group, who had been arrested for a political offense, all of the other people being arraigned yesterday were African-American. We got to hear quite a few of their arraignment proceedings before our turn came around, and the great majority of them were charged with drug possession. Observing this process, I was more convinced than ever that the Drug War is being used as a tool of oppression, and racial and class discrimination.

Even for a case like ours, which has nothing to do with drugs, all of us were required to submit to a drug test. This did not sound so bad, until I learned that the test involved urinating into a cup in a room full of mirrors while a man stood by, watching me. This was really unnerving, and I had to try a second time before I could bring myself to do it.

Even after all of this, our case is still pretty much up in the air. We have been ordered to stay away from the Dirksen Senate Office Building, and we were assigned a status hearing for Monday, August 13th. We will not know anything more until then. In the meantime, I would ask for your continued prayers. I find the uncertainty that comes with being caught up in this legal machine very stressful, and I need all the support I can get to stay grounded.

I am so grateful for everyone who has reached out and shown support since the arrest. This whole process has really taught me the meaning of the word solidarity. Imprisonment and court proceedings are a special kind of distress, and having my community behind me is so important. Thank you for all the love and support that you have shown me. This would all be much harder if I did not have you to lean on.

Let me close with George Fox’s epistle #237:
Dear Friends and brethren,

The Lord is with you all everywhere, who suffer for his name and truth’s sake,
in all your bonds and afflictions be of good comfort, for the Lord is with you;
neither be dismayed at your sufferings, for if you suffer, Christ suffers;
and if you are persecuted, it is Christ who is persecuted;
and if you are not visited, it is Christ who is not visited;
and if you are oppressed, it is he who is oppressed.
And he will lay no more upon you than you are able to bear. […]
[Christ] has a fellow feeling with you all, in all your bonds and afflictions;
and Christ who suffers, will overcome all his enemies.
He reigns,
and they must be his footstool to stand upon.
And so, be of good faith, and be valiant for the truth upon the earth.

George Fox