Prophets in the Halls of Power

I spent a long morning in the state capitol this week, lobbying for Medicaid expansion.  It was a new experience for me.  I’m still deliberating on the things I learned there.

A large confederation of clergy, healthcare reformers, and concerned citizens converged on the capitol building to lobby for Medicaid expansion.  We ringed the second floor hallways where legislators enter the senate chamber and we held up small signs supporting expansion.  This was lobbying, not protesting – no chanting, no blocking doorways, no performances.  Just quiet informational presence, as quiet as a couple of hundred people can be.

Legislators and staffers streamed by us either mildly amused or mildly irritated, but none of them seemed impressed.  Rather, there was an air of smugness about them, and I suspected that we lobbyist were not being taken seriously.  Apparently, the decision on expansion was already in; they just needed the formality of a vote on the floor to kill it properly.

As I stood there holding my sign, I thought about how prophets in the Bible were not welcomed by the people targeted for God’s message.  We were no more welcomed in my capitol than Paul and Silas were in Thessalonica.  What bothered me then, and what bothers me still, was the disregard I saw for the plight of the poor in the halls of power; that, and the disregard both sides have for each other.

One of the young organizers gathered seven of us into a lobby team which was to meet a state senator in the hallway and explain to him/her why we were there.  He came out of chambers to meet with us, and I cringed in embarrassment within the first few second of our meeting – I was the only white male in our group of seven, and I was the first and only person he shook hands with.  The other six people, all women and mostly black, he simply nodded towards in greeting.  Then he turned to listen to me first.  Like much of the rest of the place, he was the personification of white male privilege and, consciously or unconsciously, he was playing it out strongly.

I told him why I was there and why Medicaid expansion was a good idea; he listened politely but was as silent as a stone, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with me.  One of the women told her story and why he should support expansion, and she got the same reaction as I did: polite and unresponsive.

But when the young organizer cited some stats on how many people in his district was uninsured and how at-risk some of the sickest were, he quietly handed her head back to her on a platter: he disputed her numbers and accused them of being false, and then lectured her that there is no reason for anyone in the state to be at-risk, as it is against the law to deny anyone healthcare who presents themselves at a hospital.  His opinion about her position bordered on disgust.

At this point, one of the women in our group backed up and walked off, raising her hands over her head as if to say, “I am done here!”  The young organizer realized that our brief meeting with the senator was over, so she thanked him for his time.  He nodded once and returned to chambers.

Throughout the day I witnessed a significant amount of contempt on the part of all parties involved for one another; the senator was not an aberration.  Contempt flowed ankle-deep in the halls of the capitol building.  The woman who had removed herself from our chat with the senator railed openly in the hallways for the rest of the morning, barking “I hate these politicians!  I hate all politicians!  They’re a bunch of thieves!”  She was making sure that the constant stream of legislators and staffers that flowed up and down the hallways heard her contempt of their profession and them personally.

I wondered how effective my presence was there as I witnessed for the poor, the weak, and the sick.  The senator tolerated me and the other witnesses for the poor, but he was openly hostile to the young organizer and her efforts.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta said that Christ asks us to be faithful, not necessarily successful, and I take great comfort in that.  But I still wonder how we can ever move forward together in this country.

I hear from friends and acquaintances that some parishioners’ wallets are closing up as people like me appear in the capitol seeking to expand Medicaid or march in the streets for police reform.  Some other parishioners are going elsewhere to worship.  They adamantly disagree with these two positions, and consider the stance of some of the clergy of the church to be wrong-headed, disrespectful, and dangerous.  I know some of these dissenting people, and they are good people, but they are in profound disagreement with much of the leadership of the church.  If such extreme disagreements can’t be reconciled in the Body of Christ itself, how much more difficult will it be to reconcile them in the so-called secular world?

Speaking prophetically has a price, and that price can be a loss of community.  What is one person’s prophet may be another person’s pain in the neck; what strikes me as a moral imperative strikes another as wrongheaded, if not downright immoral.  How can we move forward in this climate?  Is it possible, or impossible?  How can we exist as a community?  What would Jesus do?  That last question no longer seems trite to me.

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