Imagine you’re in Starbucks sipping a $4 latte, and suddenly the joint is converged upon by a handsome preacher with bleached white hair, dressed in a white suit with an Anglican collar. The Rev. Billy, bullhorn in hand, tries to exorcise a demon from the Starbucks cash register, while a gospel choir sings in the background.
To see this true encounter on video, check out Rev. Billy’s “What Would Jesus Buy?” Web site (wwjbmovie.com). Billy Talen, a 47-year-old humorist and political activist whose movie and book, What Would Jesus Buy? has garnered worldwide acclaim, was at N.C. State University last week to preach his anti-corporate, anti-militarism message.
He sung a ballad that “we co-wrote with Jesus of Nazareth”: “Blessed are you, and blessed is the breadwinner sitting in his SUV with outsourced dreams in a traffic jam from Christmas hell.”
Although not a Christian (“I love Jesus, but Jesus wasn’t a Christian either.”), the Rev. Billy says Christians are flocking to his New York City-based Church of Stop Shopping because his message resonates with people looking to escape the consumer misery of traffic jams, cell phones, crowded big-box stores and malls.
Buying locally, holding yard sales, frequenting farmers’ markets and using Craig’s List are several ways consumers can stay off the highways and out of the malls this holiday season. “The best Christmas gift is something I already have,” the Rev. Billy said in an interview with the Indy at N.C. State’s Talley Student Center.
Due to American consumers’ fascination with “stuff,” public storage units have become a multibillion dollar industry in the United States. Nearly 10 percent of all American households use a self-storage space. “We’ve got more stuff in this country already purchased that we’re forgetting about it from just a few Christmases ago,” the Rev. Billy said. “We can’t remember what it was.”
Rather than citizens, Americans are consumers. There is 10 times more talking among people at farmers’ markets than in supermarkets, he said. “Consumerism is hushed,” he went on. “Citizens talk to each other.”
Americans were also consumers of the Iraq War, susceptible to the U.S. government’s marketing campaign that it would be quick and painless. “We bought that product, and we were being consumers at that time, and not citizens. Now, innocent people are dying every day, and we did that,” the Rev. Billy said. “We have an emergency here. We’re trying to figure out a way to go out into public space and shout, ‘Emergency,’ in which people get it; they get scared a little bit. This is a time of radical America. This is a time when we change things together.”
Local Political Prisoner Attacked, Undeterred
It wasn’t easy for Graymon Ward to tell his story. In October, Ward, who worships at West Raleigh Presbyterian Church, cried during a Carolina Interfaith Task Force on Central America retreat in Chapel Hill as he spoke publicly for the first time about his ordeal in the Vance County Jail.
Last January, Ward, 21, serenaded a federal magistrate before being sentenced to 30 days in jail for trespassing on Fort Benning to protest the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperationformerly the School of the Americas. One of 16 people arrested, Ward protested to close the school in Georgia that trains Latin American soldiers, many of whom have been implicated in human rights violations in their native countries. (Ward returned to the SOA protest last month, but was not arrested.)
Although Ward’s song was a light moment in U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth’s Georgia courtroom, his stay in the Vance County Jail last spring was terrifying. About 50 miles north of Raleigh, the Vance County Jail in Henderson contracts with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to hold federal inmates. While in the jail, Ward was attacked by three prisoners, including a man awaiting trial for murdering a relative, Ward said. Two inmates held Ward while the alleged murderer choked him and punched him in the chest and ribs. Ward said the attack was unprovoked. They left him unconscious lying on the floor.
Ward said the inmates urged him to fight back, but he told them he wouldn’t because he is a Christian pacifist. “I put my hands by my side and told them I wasn’t going to fight them,” Ward said.
Ward didn’t request medical attention for a sore neck and throat and a bruised chest and ribs. Jailers did allow Ward to be transferred to solitary confinement.
Ward said he was frightened that he might be killed, but he was also angry. “I was really just more frustrated that this was what they were doing, that it seemed so clear to me that we could be friends and that violence didn’t have to be the way to go,” he said. “In some ways I was thinking that this is the way that I’m going [to die].”
Attorney Robert Phares of Raleigh visited Ward in jail after the attack and took his deposition. Phares sent copies to Faircloth and the Bureau of Prisons.
“If anybody’s to blame here it’s the Bureau of Prisons,” Phares said. “The Bureau of Prisons contracts with the county, and they have a responsibility to make sure they’re putting them into a safe jail. The Vance County Jail mixes accused murderers waiting trial with people like Graymon who are serving 30-day misdemeanor sentences, and that’s not a good situation.”
Phares said he didn’t receive a reply from the BOP or Faircloth. Faircloth declined to be interviewed for this story.
Ward said the man who choked him later apologized, gave him three comic books and promised not to hurt him again.
“I think that really showed that me not fighting back actually had an effect on him,” Ward said. “I believe what I believe very strongly. I believe that our government shouldn’t train people in torture or target civilian populations. Doing hard time won’t deter me from those beliefs. If people don’t stand up to it then it won’t change.”
The common good
Can one person really make a difference? That was the question raised by peace and justice activist Marie Dennis in her Nov. 28 lecture, “Conscience and the Pursuit of the Common Good.”
Dennis, president of Pax Christi USA and director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, spoke at Raleigh’s Catholic Community of St. Francis.
As citizens look to the 2008 election, Dennis said, voters and candidates must address the world’s basic needs: peace, security, racial equality, economic well-being, a healthy environment and human dignity.
“Remember how, against all the rules, Jesus touched lepers, interacted with women, ate with sinners,” Dennis said. “His vision was of an inclusive community where all people were welcome at the table. He set out to make that real, and he was killed for it.”
The Scripture challenges Christians to “think beyond our own well being, to attend to the well being of the community; to make sure that everyone has a place at the table,” Dennis added. “The common good corresponds to the highest of human instincts, but it is a good that is very difficult to attain because it requires the constant ability and effort to seek the good of others as though it were one’s own good.”
Eighteen innocent men: 196 years in prison
“I spent 17 years in prison, 12 of them on death row,” Randy Steidl said at a recent gathering in Raleigh of death row exonerees. “If the State of Illinois would’ve had their way I’d be dead today.”
Steidl is one of 18 death-row prisoners who were sentenced to die despite being innocent. They spent a total of 196 years in various prisons.
Ronald Keine spent two years on New Mexico’s death row. “I want to thank God,” Keine said. “I believe that God probably put me through this ordeal so I can come out and do his work and tell people what happened to me. Every once in a while I run into a Christian that tells me they’re for the death penalty, and I look at this person standing in front of me and think, ‘There’s a person who, in the name of God, would have my life snuffed out: an innocent man.’”
The exonerees held a press conference at the N.C. General Assembly and were honored at People of Faith Against the Death Penalty’s annual banquet. “We are at a time of great hope. October was the first month in nearly three years in which there were no executions in the United States,” said Debbie Biesack, coordinator of the Wake County chapter of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. “I think it’s such a small miracle that not even in Texas could they manage to pull it off.
“In North Carolina we have a de facto moratorium,” she added, “but we cannot let our guard down, because there are people out there who want to start the death machine again.”
Upcoming dinner event
“Healing Circles: Restorative Justice and Traumatic Grief” will be presented by the Capital Restorative Justice Project, Project Compassion and the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, Saturday, Dec. 8, at 1 p.m. at Trinity United Methodist Church, 215 N. Church St., Durham. Suggested donation for attorneys and other advocates is $20. Family members of death-row inmates and murder victims are invited to attend free of charge.
For more information or to register online, visit www.capitalrestorativejustice.org.