341: Obama Inauguration Is a Hub of Spiritual Hopes and Activism

e are moving with a new spirit.
    We are discouraged, but hopeful.
    Signs are everywhere that Americans will be drawing on deep spiritual reserves in this upcoming period of change in Washington D.C., still the greatest hub of power on the planet. Perhaps our hopes are too high — but for now, let’s focus on the hopes and the spiritual connections emerging all around us.
    Today, we have invited one person who’ll be involved in all of this emerging effort to share with us a ReadTheSpirit-style letter from one person to another. It’s a letter you, as you read this story today.
    The author is the Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann, who we asked to describe why he’s about to take spiritual action related to the inauguration.
    But, first, let me illustrate what I’m talking about when I say that we’re seeing spiritual movement in many places:

A NEW GOVERNMENT SALUTE: Even the U.S. government acknowledges that this is an exceptional spiritual milestone. The Library of Congress’ famous Folklife Center just announced that it is opening up a special collection of prayers and sermons related to the Obama transition. (The image at right here is from that famous collection, showing President Lincoln heading to his inauguration in 1861.)
    Now, the Library of Congress is opening its doors, inviting you to send in prayers and sermons from churches, synagogues, mosques and temples about this historic moment — spiritual materials that will be archived for posterity. We’ll tell you more about this effort over the next week or so, so stay tuned, but basically the Folklife Center welcomes these religious reflections from any congregation.

BLACK AIDS ACTIVISTS UNITE: Here’s a special salute to the Balm in Gilead organization, which focuses on HIV/AIDS education in the black community. The group is organizing an African American Church Inaugural Ball on January 18 in D.C. It’s a gala featuring top names in black churches. The group says Desmond Tutu is scheduled to show up from South Africa as well as a Who’s Who of American black-church leaders. The event ultimately benefits AIDS-awareness efforts within this community, where sometimes AIDS campaigners have faced serious challenges. To read more about this gala, visit the site for the event.

AN APPEAL ON POVERTY: Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A. plans to make its appeal to end poverty starting on January 15 in D.C. This is a newer coalition of major denominations, including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant representatives. In announcing their plan to make an appeal as part of the inaugural period, the group said: “In the midst of the worst economic crisis of our time, prominent U.S. church leaders from 36 communions comprised of 101 million members will call on President-elect Barack Obama to overcome the scandal of poverty in the United States.”

    OK — so that’s the Big Picture.
    Why does one person get involved?
    Here’s what Bill (at right below) has to say …

Why I Fast Against Torture
By Bill Wylie-Kellermann

    On Sunday, January 11, with a handful of friends in Detroit and upwards of forty in Washington D.C., I begin a nine-day juice fast in the name of closing Guantanamo and ending torture as a practice of U.S. policy. All of us intend to break fast on Inauguration Day, 2008, which will then initiate a 100-day presence at the White House imploring President Obama to swiftly enact his voiced intention to do both of those things.
    For me this fast is a moral witness, an intercession, a political demand, and an act of hope in the openings of the present moment. But above all it is an act of faith and discipleship.
    How is this a part of my faith? In many ways, but I’m thinking back today to the Christian holy week last year. On Maundy Thursday, a day when Christians recall Jesus’ Last Supper, I was incredibly moved to watch some students, my daughter Lydia among them, dress in orange jumpsuits (made notorious in this recent period as prison garb in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo) and lay prone on a busy Chicago sidewalk. Over them a description of “waterboarding,” a torture technique employed by the US, was read and enacted:
    A black head bag is held down or stretched tightly across the prisoner’s face by someone standing at their head while they are strapped down. As water is poured on the face and head the bag is tightened around the nose and mouth – keeping water somewhat out, but also air. The entire head, skin, becomes wet. The mind reacts to lack of light, disorientation, lack of air, wet fabric on the face – the prisoner becomes confused, can’t escape because of the bondage. It feels like you are drowning. There is also a lot of yelling, people demanding information, the water is cold, the bonds tight and the prisoner may be hit in the stomach or otherwise abused as well.

     Thereafter, the victims were raised up from the walk, seated in a chair and their feet were washed while the description of the Last Supper was read from John’s gospel:
    Jesus, knowing that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from table, took off his outer robe; and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
    He came to Simon Peter who said to him, “Lord, are you going to was my feet?”
    Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
    Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
    Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only, but my hands and head.”

    In simple juxtaposition and contrast, the gospel exposes the power of death to which the nation has succumbed.
    But the gospel says more. As it happens we start this fast not only on the seventh anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo prison, but on the First Sunday After Epiphany, a Christian observance recalling The Baptism of the Lord. That event is so rich in meanings, but among them something so plain and simple: Jesus has thrown in with John the Baptist and his wilderness movement. He’s identified with a figure — John the Baptist — who will shortly be arrested and eventually killed by brutal dismemberment.
Invariably when Jesus speaks in the gospel of baptism, it is with respect to his own death, or in following him in that way. And let me be straightforward and frank about the “that:” Jesus’ execution is by public torture. His was an excruciating death, designed not for the extraction of information but for the control of occupied populations.
    The stark truth is this: Christians follow a victim of death by torture.
    That’s where I begin. Jesus suffering and death is an act of divine solidarity with all victims of torture in all times, and so, we rightly proclaim, an intercession for all of humanity everywhere and always.
    For me as a Christian, this fast is a simple act of intercession. As Bonhoeffer put it, to intercede is to feel another’s pain or need in such a way and so clearly that we pray their prayer, in their stead, on their behalf.

     Parallel to the fast’s intercession is its political demand. Here is how we name some of them:
•    Close the detention facilities at Guantánamo.
•    Permit, without political interference, the hearing of habeas petitions by current Guantánamo detainees.
•    Charge those against whom there is sufficient, credible evidence with a crime, and let the others go free, repatriating them to their country of origin or to countries where their safety from persecution can be guaranteed.
•    Scrap the current Military Commissions process for prosecution of Guantánamo inmates and move those accused of crimes into the federal justice system.
•    Ban all forms of psychological torture and do away with the exemption for the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program from laws barring the cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees.
•    End legal immunity for alleged U.S. torturers.
•    Close other U.S. detention centers worldwide that do not comply with international human rights standards, such as those at the U.S. Air Base at Bagram and at any remaining CIA “black” sites.
•    Allow and abide by meaningful international inspection and oversight of U.S. detention facilities.
•    Call for a rigorous inquiry, with subpoena powers, to determine the precise origins and evolution of the Bush administrations detention policies and hold architects of this system accountable.

    That is why I fast.
    Somber, yes. But we do not fast in despair. I forebear to even mention Gaza, but destructive forces are unfolding in many places that suggest moral collapse. The public sanction of administrative torture in violation of international law is a simple sign of that collapse.
    But our fast is an act of hope.
    A movement of the Spirit is stirring countless communities and deeds and visions and projects. I’m convinced we are looking at a moment of enormous possibility for social transformation. The election of Barak Obama by no means gathers it up or names it, but in my view he may well figure in the openings of the Spirit. With respect to torture he has said during his presidential campaign that he would close Guantanamo and end the US policy of torture. Needless to say the military and political powers by which he is surrounded will press him to stay the course of death.
    This fast is a moral appeal for him to simply do as he has said. To change direction.
    This is a prayer. Let it be part of the general uprising of hope.


    For details on the fast and 100 Days vigil in DC go to: http://www.100dayscampaign.org/
    Because ReadTheSpirit’s home office is in Michigan, we’ve got a good number of readers in that state. People interested in further information about actions, contact John Zettner at (313) 573-0052 or Gail Presbey at (313) 993-1124 or via email at [email protected].
    You can join with Bill Wylie-Kellermann and others for the following events: Public vigil January 20 4:30 p.m. on Jefferson in front of Hart Plaza in Detroit. Come as well to one of these presentations: Frida Berrigan (co-founder of Witness Against Torture and the 100 Days Campaign, and Senior Program Associate of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation) will speak at University of Detroit Mercy January 21 at 7 p.m. in the Life Sciences building, Room 113, and again January 22 2 p.m. She also will speak January 22 at 7 p.m. at St. Clare of Montefalco School, 1401 Whittier Road, Grosse Pointe Park.

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