Living the Story of Liberation in Our World Today
On February 23, our Executive Director Sister Mary Scullion of Philadelphia travelled to Tufts University in Boston to give the keynote address for the annual Merrin Moral Voices Lecture Series, sponsored by Tufts Hillel. Accompanying her on the trip were two members of the Project HOME community, Tanya Clanton and David Brown.
Here are excerpts of Sister Mary’s remarks.
When we celebrate our various faith traditions whether it is Passover or Christmas or Ramadan, we remember our core faith stories. Ultimately, it is one story, one tradition: It speaks to us of the urgency of justice, of compassion, love, and nonviolence as antidotes to the suffering and struggles of our world.
But this shared story actually continues to have sequels throughout history, even in our world today. In many ways, we are still in the throes of that story. In its deep wisdom, the Jewish tradition understands that the Passover is not just a story from thousands of years ago, but that the cry of the Israelites for deliverance from their oppressors is a story that is still being cried out today, from many corners of the globe. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center asserts, “In every generation, Pharaoh! In every generation, Freedom!” We know that freedom is not free and that each day we must work to advance justice and peace. We believe that the same God who heard the cry of the Israelite slaves, hears that cry again today, and we as God’s people hear that cry. It takes hard work, reflection on our faith and openness to God’s grace in our daily lives.
The theme you have chosen for this year’s Merrin Moral Voices program is homelessness. This is truly a social crisis that cried out for liberation. How do we retell and re-enact the story of God’s liberation in this contemporary version of oppression and bondage? What is our role, our story, in this quest for God’s liberation?
Homelessness is an extreme form of poverty. There have been serious efforts by our nation to address it, even in recent history. President Johnson’s War on Poverty, which may have had a mixed record, but parts of its legacy, including Medicaid and other programs, have been profoundly successful; or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, audacious call for a Poor Peoples Campaign, a dream that was stunted by his assassination. More recently, we recall the 1995 welfare reform effort, sparked by President Clinton’s pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” An initial broad-based plan to provide substantial supports and even subsidized employment to empower people making the transition from welfare to work BUT was ultimately shrunk to a policy that stressed time limits and rigid work requirements with minimal resources. What was touted as a progressive policy of “welfare to work” turned into a very desperate situation for many families, especially in the 2008 recession when jobs disappeared not only for the very poor but for many working families as well. For the very poor, with no safety net available, a near cashless society was born in the very bottom of the U.S. economic ladder.
In their book $2 a Day, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer pull the curtain back on a truly distressing reality: That millions of American families are in desperate economic straits, living on an average of $2 a day. In fact, the number of families who have functionally no income is increasing dramatically. The authors argue that since the 1995 welfare reform, in effect our national social safety net has been grossly shredded. What we are witnessing, they write, is “the rise of a new form of poverty that defies every assumption about economic, political, and social progress over the past three decades.
At least one positive and successful effort during this period was the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which supplements the wages of working low- and moderate-income families. It in effect rewarded those people for whom a job was helping them break the cycle of poverty. Originally a Republican idea born during the Ford Administration, the EITC has been one of the few anti-poverty efforts to enjoy bipartisan support. From Reagan to Obama, every President has supported critical expansions of the program.
But as Edin and Shaefer so powerfully document, there are still millions of Americans who can’t find work – and for them, there is practically no social support, no safety net.
Some statistics indicate that the U.S. economy is recovering from the Great Recession of a few years ago. But in fact, millions of middle-class Americans have never recovered, and have had to adapt to diminished economic circumstances, accepting lower-paying and less secure jobs. Those who had believed they were economically secure experienced what seemed unthinkable: foreclosure, job loss, dramatic down-sizing, and fear for the future. A great majority of the middle class have lost ground – and as always, the poorest among us are falling even further backwards – many into homelessness.
It is important that you find meaningful ways to work for justice. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel states…”morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse that evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
So - Register to vote. Get involved in the civic and social justice issues that feel strongly about. Learn more. Discuss and debate. Put what you are learning to work in the real world. Go the Project HOME website and/or any other advocacy website and sign up and take action on important issues. There are so many ways that you can make your voices heard.
Homelessness is symptomatic of other societal ills. So when you work to improve schools, you are working to end homelessness. When you advocate for living wages, you are working to end homelessness. And when you fight to make health care accessible to all, you working to end homelessness… other Pharaohs in our social systems tighten the grip of poverty for millions of our citizens: School systems in vulnerable communities that are under-resourced and underperforming, denying children the tools they need to forge a future for themselves. Rigid and impersonal bureaucracies that subject struggling people to further burdens. Lethal social attitudes that blame the poor and homeless, vilify the immigrant, and ostracize the other.
In this election year, we have the opportunity to engage in a significant national dialogue about these issues. Not only specific policies that can meet the needs of low-income and homeless Americans, but also serious and sustained reflection on who we are as a people and a nation. As more Americans experience genuine economic insecurity, we may recognize that we are closer than we think to the families who are struggling or those in shelter, or that person on the grate. Many people may be forced to realize that the American dream is not solely a matter of material comfort as the way to security or happiness. Passover lets us believe in a "Love that is stronger than death". That joy and fulfillment are found in the struggle to uphold human dignity and community.
We are called to take up our role in today’s sequel to the ancient story of liberation. The prophet Isaiah still challenges us to lose the chains of injustice; to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.”
“If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,” the prophet tells us, "I your God will guide you continually, and satisfy your desires with good things and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters shall not fail. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations. You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to dwell in."
We should seize this unique time in our history to evoke the core values of the Jewish tradition. The Torah and the prophets introduced to the world a radical new understanding of God – not a divine figure who blesses and upholds the emperors and Pharaohs and powerful of the world, but One who has a special love for the poor, the lowly, the widow and orphan and immigrant, one whose very character is expressed in liberating people from oppression and injustice. In 1972, Rabbi Heschel asked: “Who is a Jew?...A person who knows how to recall and to keep alive what is holy in our people’s past…”
So let us heed the words of the prophet Isaiah, of the prophet Dr. King, and of the prophets who speak to us from the streets: there is still work to do. There are still many hungry, naked, homeless, and afflicted in our community. The clenched fist still claims too many victims. Many are still oppressed by yokes that need to be broken. There is yet much to do to mend the breaches and repair the streets of our wounded community. “In every generation, Pharaoh. In every generation, Freedom.” We still long for fullness of God’s presence. Our light has started to rise, like the first glimmers of dawn, but the darkness still threatens. Our liberation is underway, and greater liberation awaits: may we have the courage, the persistence, and the passion to continue along this holy path. Believe and act with us that: None of us are home until all of us are home.