The alarm went off at three. It seemed like I had hardly gotten to sleep. But Washington is a pretty fair hike from New Jersey, and Barbara and I – together with two dear friends – needed to be on the National Mall by ten. The Women’s March on Washington was waiting for us.
We could tell something special was brewing even before we crossed into Delaware. Every rest stop in New Jersey was packed with buses. Inside, women sporting pink knit hats were everywhere. Long lines of women snaked slowly into the women’s bathrooms – and the men’s as well. I learned, to my sorrow, that there would not be any real men’s rooms between New York and Washington.
By sunrise, we reached the northernmost station of the DC Metro rail system – usually a quiet spot with plenty of parking. We managed to find one of the remaining spaces for the car, and then squeezed into the station to find a sea of humanity slowly inching toward the dozen-odd ticket machines. Packed trains, packed sidewalks, packed avenues. Crowds everywhere. Smiles everywhere. The air bristling with excitement.
The members of our little band were Christians. Christian creation-care advocates for that matter. Coming out of our environmental silo to stand in solidarity with women who had endured a level of misogyny not seen in my lifetime.
We thought that we would be treated to a day full of “women’s issues.” So imagine our surprise as speakers and musicians raised their voices for vilified Muslims, immigrant families fearing being torn apart, the mothers of unarmed young black men gunned down by police. They spoke for climate change action. They spoke for sick people faced with losing their health care.
And, yes, they spoke for gender equity, equal pay, family leave, and access to women’s reproductive services. In my experience, when we come alongside the marginalized, we don’t get to pick and choose from an ideological menu. We had to be prepared to offer solidarity to those raising their voices against the darkness that threatens to engulf their lives – without adding all of our qualifications.
So where was Jesus Christ in all this? As a Christian, I wondered, as I prayed my way up Independence Avenue, where I would see his loving hand at work. We knew of nuns and friars who would be there. We heard some from the podium, in fact. But as we marched toward the Capitol, I looked around me for people of faith. Did God send more than than a few of us into this unnumbered throng?
Suddenly, up ahead I spied a cluster of banners with bible verses on them. Christians! Yes! And they even had their own loudspeaker system! But as we drew nearer, I caught my breath. Something was horribly wrong.
“Murderers!” “Shame on you!” “Murderers!” the loudspeaker thundered. The hateful speech was matched by their banners, now in full view. “Black Lives Matter Are Thugs.” “AIDS: Cure or Judgment?” “Got AIDS?” We hurried on past. We didn’t know what to say. We were ashamed.
The loudspeaker of hate kept going for hours. We could hear it blocks away, despite a crowd around us estimated at more than a half million souls. Around this pocket of condemnation, six or seven concentric circles of women had formed, chanting their own responses: “Love Trumps Hate!” “Black Lives Matter!” “God is Love!” It seems they spent their entire day in an uneven struggle to match amplified vituperation from the handful of religious prosecutors.
I’m afraid that this was what hundreds of thousands got to see of the Prince of Peace that day. This was their image of the Friend of Sinners – sinners like us. Screaming epithets at women marching for their vision of a better world.
No doubt, there were thousands of faithful Christians among our fellow marchers, acting in faith without religious display. But what might the non-Christian world have gleaned about Jesus at the march? Or at least, what did they learn about the kind of people they would have to become, should they ever decide to follow him?
I think that they would be surprised, if they ever read the biblical accounts of the real Jesus. The real Jesus defined his mission in the first sermon he ever preached. “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,” he began, “to preach good news to the poor.” The poor would be Jesus’ people. But he added more: freedom for prisoners; sight for the blind; and release for the oppressed. The poor, the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed. Care for them would be the marks of his mission. (Luke 4:14-21)
After an election campaign that gave center stage to the darkest impulses of the American soul, I had hoped our presence would accomplish something redemptive. The women marching around me had endured a season stained by racism, xenophobia, sexual assault, lust and lechery, demonization of the press, military jingoism, torture, hatred of sojourners and a parallel universe of imaginary facts.
And we had hoped in some small way to offer the tiniest dose of healing to a world of people who can no longer recognize Jesus – Jesus of the losers, Jesus of the refugees, of the hungry, the sick and the abused.
Did we hope for too much? Maybe we did. But I cannot stop hoping.