Temporary Resurrection Zones

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.

– Revelation 21:1

We can’t create a world we haven’t yet imagined. Better if we’ve already tasted it.

– Beautiful Trouble[i]

At the Last Supper, with less than 24 hours to live, Jesus took the time to go around the room and wash the feet of every disciple. Then he asked all of them to do the same when he was gone. “You must wash each other’s feet,” he said. “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). He could have been speaking metaphorically. Maybe “wash each other’s feet” simply meant that they should always serve one another in loving humility.

But I suspect Jesus wanted them to repeat the footwashing not just as a reminder of his message, but because there is something you can only learn when you kneel at the foot of another, take their foot in your hands, and pour water over it. And there is something you can only know when you let someone kneel before you and minister to you as a living icon of Christ, who emptied himself and took the form of a slave.

Thankfully, the Church has preserved footwashing in its Holy Week rituals, and every year this archaic act, with its egalitarian model of mutual love, posits its quiet but tangible challenge to the social order. In our own time, Pope Francis has used the rite to embrace the marginalized, including prisoners, immigrants and Muslims. Church history abounds with similar examples.

In medieval England, some of the poor were invited into the Canterbury cloister every Maundy Thursday afternoon. Then the monks would make an entrance, each standing face to face with one of their impoverished guests. An eleventh-century text describes the remarkable scene:

Then the prior shall strike the board thrice at the abbot’s command,
and genuflecting and bowing down they shall adore Christ in the poor.

Once each monk had washed and dried the feet of the person before him, he bent to kiss each foot with extraordinary reverence. As C.S. Lewis once put it: Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses…for in him Christ is truly hidden.

One of my favorite footwashing stories took place in Madrid’s Royal Chapel in the mid-nineteenth century. The king and queen entered dressed in all their finery. Seated on two separate platforms were twelve poor men and twelve poor women, all of them old, dressed in fresh clothing provided by the monarchs. The king knelt to wash the men’s feet while the queen, adorned with white mantilla and diamond diadem, did the same for the women. And while the queen was washing one woman’s feet, her diamond bracelet slipped off her wrist into the basin of water. The poor woman reached down to retrieve it, and held it out to the queen. But the queen told her, “Keep it, hija mija; it is your luck.”[ii]

I don’t know what was in the queen’s heart at that moment, nor is there any record of the poor woman’s thoughts. The incident was only the briefest ripple on the placid surface of the status quo. The social order quickly resumed its accustomed injustice, and the queen probably had plenty of spare diamonds in her chamber. Her generous act may have been little more than a display of superior power and wealth.

Still, it was a tiny crack in the accustomed order, offering a glimpse of a better world beyond the consensus reality. Jesus knew what he was doing when he told us to keep washing each other’s feet. Rinse, repeat. Maybe someday the ritual’s radical implications will dawn on us and we’ll work to change the way we live together.

Activists have a term for what Jesus did in the footwashing: prefigurative Intervention. It is an action which dissents from the dominant order by showing a different way of being and relating. Beautiful Trouble, a handbook for creative activism (reviewed in my last post), describes it this way: “The goal of a prefigurative intervention is twofold: to offer a compelling glimpse of a possible, and better, future, and also––slyly or baldly––to point up the poverty of imagination of the world we actually do live in.”[iii]

Instead of a direct assault on the existing order, create an alternative experience attractive enough to lure people toward something better. This is the premise underlying the Eucharist, where an alternative world of welcome, inclusion, abundance and communion is proposed at least once a week around the world.

Hakim Bey, a Sufi poet, scholar, and “anarcho-immediatist,” has called for the creation of “temporary autonomous zones”–– “an eruption of free culture” where alternative futures may be experienced, if only briefly. Instead of simply waiting for large-scale historical change to arrive, why not create ephemeral spaces and moments where something different can be experienced? “Are we who live in the present doomed never to experience autonomy, never to stand for one moment on a bit of land ruled only by freedom?”[iv]

A simple example would be PARK(ing) Day, when people in American cities put enough coins in parking meters to buy curbside spaces for a day, turning them into a mini-park with a tiny pool, a little jazz lounge, or some other variation where people can discover a different way of inhabiting public space in a temporary respite from automobiles and bureaucratic planning. More elaborate and challenging “prefigurative interventions” were the famous encampments in Wall Street and Tahrir Square, enabling large numbers of people to imagine that another reality might be achievable.

As the writers of Beautiful Trouble make clear, the “idea is not to paint a pretty picture full of rainbows and unicorns, but to put forward a fragment of something visionary, desirable, and just beyond the realm of the possible––and in such a way that your action calls out the vested interests making it impossible.”[v]

One of my favorite examples is a series of intervention called “small gifts.”  The one described in Beautiful Trouble––“take what you need, give what you can”–– created a space for “conversation and generosity” in a busy shopping area. The three British artists who curated this action sought answers to the following questions:

What would our world look like if we exchanged gifts rather than money?
What is the value in speaking to strangers?
What if we focused on giving as much as we can rather than as little?

They set up a dining table and chairs in a busy shopping area, and made one hundred tiny envelopes containing a one-pound coin, a written question, and an invitation to use the coin to make, find or buy something to bring back to the table. Then the artists began to offer the envelopes to passersby. Anyone who accepted an envelope became part of the conversation. And if they then used their coin to bring something back to the table, they were asked to share the question in their envelope to prompt conversation with those already there. And all were welcome to share in whatever was on the table at the moment.

“Give what you can, take what you need” gift envelope with pound note (Photo by Rani Shah)

This improvised sharing of food, conversation and gift-giving not only created community in a place of alienation and anonymity, it stimulated rich exchanges about “generosity, value and ownership” while avoiding the divisiveness of overt political discourse.[vi] It was also, I would suggest, an enacted parable of the heavenly banquet.

The Church is always wondering how to do its work in the world. It’s not enough to stay within our walls and hope the world drops by from time to time. We need to take our gifts into the wider community, to make prefigurative interventions in intentional and creative ways. Some churches do “Ashes To Go,” anointing busy urbanites on street corners and transit stations on Ash Wednesday. Others offer to wash the feet of strangers on Maundy Thursday, or celebrate the eucharist in parks with the homeless. Some join forces with community leaders and organizers to serve the poor, alleviate hunger and homelessness, and advocate for political change and economic justice.

These are all really great ministries, but I hope we will also be inspired to go beyond what we already know and do, to invent a whole multitude of imaginative and alluring ways to interrupt the blind sufferings of history with temporary resurrection zones and divine interventions. We need both to learn from and collaborate with the artists and creatives who are already out there ahead of us, announcing in their own diverse idioms that God’s future is not only on its way, it might already be available in the here and now.

Related posts 

Unsilent Night: An Advent Revelation

“Delightful! Wonderful! Incomparable!” – Thoughts about Holy Spaces

[i] Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, “Assembled” by Andrew Boyd with Dave Oswald Mitchell (New York/London: OR Books, 2016), 84

[ii] James Monti, The Week of Salvation: History and Traditions of Holy Week (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1993)

[iii] Beautiful Trouble, 82

[iv] ibid., 270

[v] ibid., 83

[vi] ibid., 360-63

Beautiful Trouble: A How-to Book for Creative Resistance

Occupy Los Angeles, October 2011 (Jim Friedrich)

Revolutionaries practice without safety nets. Our laboratory is the world around us––the streets, the Internet, the airwaves, our own hearts, as well as the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens. We experiment, we fail, we change things up, we try again, maybe this time a little less disastrously, a little more beautifully––until we win. Always we learn. Case studies are where we learn what we’ve learned.[i]

– Andrew Boyd & Dave Oswald Mitchell

The Empire is striking back––fueled by hate, greed and stupendous unreason, it careens toward authoritarianism, war and perhaps even planetary suicide. This is no time to stand idly by, muttering “It can’t happen here” as a consoling charm against apocalypse. It is happening here, and we need to resist with all our hearts and mind and strength.

There are countless ways to resist evil and promote the common good, but if you want to do it with some creativity and imagination, get a copy of Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution (New York & London: OR Books, 2016). “Assembled” by Andrew Boyd with Dave Oswald Mitchell, it is a 460-page handbook packed with smart tactics, hard-won ideas, and fascinating case studies to illumine and inspire every inventive activist. Along with other recent documentations, Artists Reclaim the Commons (2013)[ii] and Truth Is Concrete (2014),[iii] it is an invaluable primer in creative activism.

“We’re building rhizomatic [non-hierarchical] movements,” write the authors, “marked by creativity, humor, networked intelligence, technological sophistication, a profoundly participatory ethic and the courage to risk it all for a livable future.”[iv] Some of the tactics are indeed high risk, like hanging a banner from a construction crane at the WTO “Battle in Seattle” in 1999, or disrupting an illegal auction of public lands to oil interests by outbidding everyone with no intention of paying (the “bidder” got two years in prison, but the lands were saved).

Seattle (Advent 1999)

But there are plenty of actions which risk neither body nor freedom yet still make a vivid point. During the Iraq war, a woman arranged a row of shoes outside her New York senator’s office with names of Iraqi civilians killed. She invited passersby to “walk in their shoes.” Meanwhile, veterans on the West Coast set up a field of white crosses on Santa Monica beach every Sunday–– one for every soldier killed.

Somewhat edgier was a guerilla theater interruption of a UC Berkeley lecture by UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, during the 1980s when the U.S. was training and supporting Central American death squads. Masked men shouting in Spanish came down the aisles, dragging students (also actors) screaming from their seats, and taking them away to meet their fate. The stunned audience was then showered with leaflets explaining the educational purpose of this disturbing dramatization of American foreign policy.

Making the invisible visible is one of the key principles of art activism. Bring an issue home, tell its story, put a face on it. When Occidental Petroleum threatened to displace indigenous people in the Peruvian jungle, some of those people were brought to the U.S. to speak out. The issue quickly turned from generic opposition to Big Oil to a very personal story of people defending their homes. When Kodak was secretly dumping toxic waste into a river, Greenpeace rigged a public fountain where the disgusting waste bubbled up where all could see. To heighten awareness of climate change, environmentalists staged a mock-drowning of a “polar bear” in the fountain at the Department of the Interior.

Humor is a key weapon of resistance. Power loses authority when it is laughed at, and humor wins more allies than anger. On the 20th anniversary of Dow Chemical’s deadly toxic spill in Bhopal, India, a group called The Yes Men, posing as Dow executives, made a fictitious announcement that the corporation would pay financial reparations to the victims. When actual Dow executives had to publicly reassure stockholders that it would not in fact be doing what was right and just, the laugh was not on their side (though, sadly, their stock went back up––but that only made a salient point about our economic system!)

In 2003, 70 clowns from the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army advanced on a police line at a British antiwar demonstration. The police were laughing too hard to stop them. When some arrests were finally made, news footage of clowns being crammed into a police van begged the question, “What did the clowns do wrong?” The “powers” lost ground that day. As the Psalm says, “The Lord has them in derision.”

In Rhode Island, the local HUD office refused to consider an affordable daycare center for a low-income housing project. The tenants petitioned and picketed to no avail. In a brilliant stroke, they decided to make the HUD office itself into a daycare operation. They brought children, song books, toys, cribs, and a table for changing diapers, and stayed the whole day. The point was made, rather amusingly, and they got their center.

The numerous case studies in Beautiful Trouble will inspire and provoke your political imagination, but the book also provides a wealth of practical wisdom––tactics, principles and theory––to build on what has already been learned.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will” (Frederick Douglass). Choose your target wisely. Make sure it’s someone who actually holds the power to meet your demands. Pick an issue big enough to matter and small enough to win. Put your target into a “decision dilemma,” where they only have a bad choice or a worse one.

Kill them with kindness. Laugh, sing, dance, clown, hug. Disarm with charm. Be the good ones, win the sympathy of your audience (which includes witnesses via the media). Humanize the situation, make unlikely allies, don’t write anyone off, seek common ground. Use the power of attraction. Design your actions to maximize participation and get spectators involved.

“If you don’t have a strategy, you’re part of someone else’s strategy”(Alvin Toffler). Reframe the narrative, unmask hidden cultural, political and economic assumptions, refute alternative facts, tell a better, truer story. Reappropriate the artifacts of popular media and give them new connotations, as Occupy Wall Street did by projecting a “bat signal” (in Batman, a sign of both distress and promise), shining “99%” in a large circle of light high on a wall above the demonstration.

“Success means going from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm” (Winston Churchill). Nourish group solidarity. Avoid burnout. Maintain nonviolent and non-oppressive discipline. Have fun. Minimize disappointment by knowing the difference between concrete actions with measurable results, and communicative actions which are more symbolic, amplifying a message without necessarily attaining a particular objective.

Show, don’t tell. Be visual. Don’t preach. Create actions which explain themselves. Use powerful metaphors. And keep the rules as simple and open-ended as possible. Occupy Wall Street began with this terse but intriguing instruction: September 17. Wall Street. Bring tent. 

As a person of faith, I especially encourage the communities of God’s friends to dig into this book in a study group setting. Activist art has strong biblical roots in the performance art of Jesus and the prophets, and people of faith distressed by current events would do well to engage with, learn from, and contribute to the beautiful trouble currently being made on the world’s behalf.

The opening epigraph for the book, a manifesto by radical theater visionary Judith Malina, sounds the call to action with compelling clarity. Pass it on:

The role of the artist in the social structure follows the need of the changing times ––
In time of social stasis: to activate.
In time of germination: to invent fertile new forms
In time of revolution: to extend the possibilities of peace and liberty
In time of violence: to make peace
In time of despair: to give hope
In time of silence: to sing out[v]

 

 

 Related posts:

Insurrectionary Imagination and the Art of Resistance

Unsilent Night: An Advent Revelation

[i] Andrew Boyd with Dave Oswald Mitchell, Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution (New York & London: OR Books, 2016)

[ii] ed. Glenn Harper and Twylene Moyer, Artists Reclaim the Commons: New Works/New Territories/New Publics (Hamilton, NJ: isc Press, 2013)

[iii] ed. Steirischer Herbst & Florian Malzacher, Truth Is Concrete (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014)

[iv] Beautiful Trouble, 2

[v] Judith Malina, The Work of an Anarchist Thinker, q. in Beautiful Trouble, vi