Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper is Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City and author of 30 books, including recently-published Grace at Table: Small Spiritual Solutions to Large Material Problems, Solving Everything.
Since state legislators were taken over by the Koch brothers, many progressive clergy have spent our entire discretionary accounts on travel to our state capitals. We attend on behalf of equal marriage or the living wage or campaign finance reform or low wage workers or to resist fracking. We epitomize that famous word for today’s progressives, “Intersectionality.” While trying to be faithful, we are, also, in the great words of Joseph Sittler, “macerated” by our citizen involvements.
An experiment is occurring in North Carolina to de-macerate and reunite our spiritual souls with our political bodies. Instead of episodic lobbying, on Moral Mondays, clergy visit with their representatives as chaplains. They change the language from the pragmatics of the political to the hope of our God. They pass through the wilderness of the secular and its optimism and arrive at the land of hope. They talk about the downtrodden in meaningful ways with state legislators and by doing so, take off some of their own boot. Instead of being “rentaclergies” for statewide organizations, they name their own agenda, in their own language, at their own time. They even develop relationships with state legislators over time so that when they have to sit in at the rep’s office they know him or her by name. Non-violent civil disobedience is so much better that way.
You may think that North Carolina is so forlorn that it needs special tactics. But don’t forget what happened in Wisconsin or Springfield, Illinois or Tallahassee, Florida or Albany, New York. In each of these places clergy were macerated and their expense accounts were depleted and they had to speak in a foreign tongue.
Many also lost their own hope in trying to talk to their legislators. Consider what one clergy person in Florida said about his state legislature: “I once referred to a past Legislature as a festival of whores, which in retrospect was a vile insult to the world’s oldest profession. Today’s lackluster assemblage in Tallahassee is possibly the worst in modern times, and cannot fairly be compared to anything except a rodeo of phonies and pimps. It’s impossible to remember a governor and lawmakers who were more virulently anti-consumer and more slavishly submissive to big business.”
Some of us have lost hope and some have gained our hope. I remember one conversation with the chief staffer for the swing vote that took the matter over the top. While we were fussing with our talking points, he asked for a moment of confidentiality. He was a 38-year-old practicing Catholic, father of two. He asked, “Will I go to hell if I advocate gay marriage?” He wasn’t kidding. I couldn’t help myself quip, “You’ll probably go to hell if you don’t.” My partners in maceration kicked me under the table, went on to have a beautiful theological discussion, and the Senator swung. What if legislators were hungry for some accompaniment, while we were droning on with our talking points?
I happen not to think that clergy are as important to state wide battles as many do. We are overrated and too many of us read our own press releases and imagine we are doing more than we are. Still, and nevertheless, delivering moral and spiritual messages to state legislatures in light of the gospel and Torah and Quran matters deeply. Best we deliver our messages in a language we can understand.
What is wrong with Moral Mondays as a unifying tactic? Many clergy take their days off on that day. Some legislatures aren’t open on Mondays. The point is less that Moral Mondays is perfect than that it is a whole lot better than what we are doing now. And Moral Tuesday might be just as good. The point is to change the language and speak in terms that hungry legislators can understand. The point is to stay in role and not go mucking around in a political or economic pragmatism, which we do not understand. The point is to get the boot off the poor.