In many minds, Ithaca NY is a mythical place, intertwining academia and social activism and peppered with small town niceness. I grew up in a small rural town in Northern California, not only separated from Ithaca by distance but ideologically opposed both to academia in general and to social activism as communism. When I ended up in Ithaca for work, I was unaware of, well, anything about Ithaca. However, it wasn’t long before I learned of the Gradys, a family that exemplifies both the approachability and far reach typical of activism here. I knew Clare Grady from reading articles about her work and from a few brief interactions around town. After reading her sentencing statement this last Fall, I was struck. At the beginning of February, Clare began a 12 month prison sentence, for entering a Georgia naval base and symbolically damaging weapons systems in protest of nuclear armaments. Clare’s actions arise from deep listening in many communities, as she describes in her powerful sentencing statement (included at the end of this post). My initial response to Clare’s statement was discomfort. And, as I am learning more, this discomfort was signalling me to pay attention to something. I believe that “something” is guilt related to the ways I have been complicit with white supremacy and the patriarchy. My hope is that in sharing this discomfort, other white christian cis-women who read this will be able to see a path from complicity with systems of oppression to nurturing more complete communities through action.
I grew up in a very white town, going to a very white christian church. The church ladies were certainly very kind to me, but I often felt deeply alone at church functions. While the adults in my life were largely saying one thing about the teachings of Jesus, what I was learning from their actions was the opposite. I learned that color blindness was nice, that women obeyed (and ensured everyone else did too), and that people who were suffering likely needed elbow grease rather than a neighborly hand. In contrast, at the outset of Clare’s sentencing statement she describes how her love of the Bible compels her actions:
“7. I love the mission statement of Loaves and Fishes from Matthew 25. I especially hold the part that says, “whatsoever we do to the least, that we do to Jesus.” The Bible passage tells us a little about the least, that they are those without food, drink, clothes, those without health care, without welcome, and the imprisoned. I add to this list of the “least”, those who are being killed, ESPECIALLY THOSE BEING KILLED IN OUR NAME. Because, when we kill others and harm others, we do that to Jesus. I believe it is a Christian calling to withdraw consent, interrupt our consent, from killing in our name. To do so is an act of Love, an act of justice, a sacred act that brings us into right relationship with God and neighbor.”
In high school, I remember being upset by the fearlessness of some of the young women whom I argued with between classes. I was arguing for the death penalty and against abortion in the name of ‘goodness’. It took me many years before I understood that what upset me was being shown the cognitive dissonance in my thinking. These conversations brought to mind uncomfortable questions around the internalized rules of whiteness and the patriarchy and capitalism, and the ways in which I might be complicit in harming others. In Clare’s statement, again right at the beginning, she reminds us of our responsibility for one another.
“It is the consequence of my choice to join friends to undertake an action of sacramental, non-violent, symbolic, disarmament because the Trident at Kings Bay is killing and harming IN MY NAME. To be clear, these weapons are not private property. They belong to the people of the United States. They belong to me, to you, to us. These weapons kill and cause harm in our name, and with our money.”
Over slow decades, I have experienced increasing clarity in understanding the systems of oppression that remove from view harm being done in our name, and how community can exist in the absence of that harm. I have learned from SURJ to follow the teachings of the most impacted, and in Ella Baker’s life I’ve found an incredible guide in deep listening. Stephen Preskill of the University of New Mexico wrote about Ella Baker:
When asked by an interviewer to explain how you organize people, she said matter of factly that you don’t start with what you think. You start with what they think. She continued, ‘You start where the people are. Identification with people…If you talk down to people, they can sense it. They can feel it. And they know whether you are talking with them, or talking at them, or talking about them’
It is this sort of community building that is often used in quick slogans but is the slow work of a lifetime. Throughout Clare’s sentencing statement she references conversations and learning in her life that center the communities who were most impacted. Clare speaks to and urges us to also listen to experts on nuclear weapons policy, indigenous people whose lands and lives are harmed by mining and testing of nuclear weapons, survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people from the Marshall Islands, and Martin Luther King Jr., among others. It is through deep listening and organizing that we can speak with one another, form community, and take actions to reduce harm.
I still feel far from any sort of revelation or complete healing, but I now recognize that feeling of intimidation and unease, familiar from debates with my friends in high school, as a signpost toward a deeper understanding of a community where we all belong. There is however, incremental resolution of this discomfort, an ease that follows taking responsibility for the harm I cause, and joining in a deeper, more vulnerable, and real community.
It was that familiar feeling of discomfort that came up for me in reading Clare Grady’s sentencing statement. Her strength and conviction about the teachings of Jesus drew my attention towards the gaping chasms between what is often taught in white churches and the harm that is proliferated through christian legislation, charity, and evangelism. My understanding of the lesson of Jesus’ life: to build abundant community by deep listening and leaning into discomfort to better understand how to care for one another.
One day in Sunday School, my father drew a picture of a wall with a garden on one side and suffering on the other. He drew people climbing the wall, seeing the garden and not turning around. “Jesus,” he said, “saw the garden and went back to tell others about it”. As a child, I understood the lesson of kindness in the story. Now, I think that the wall represents all the ways in which we separate ourselves from one another, how we ‘don’t have time’ to understand the suffering of others, or the ways we invalidate trauma with stories of bootstraps. We can begin to take down the walls of oppression by simply listening to others’ experiences of harm, and as good folks (christian or not) taking action in community to reduce harm. Clare Grady’s deep listening and commitment to action are a wonderful example of how to do exactly that.
There is room for so much more connection, more love, and more discomfort. I would love to talk with you about what that might look like, or hear how my story might be similar or different from your own journey. You can leave comments here, or reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.