Human rights groups proved multiple times the human rights violations of the multinational food service provider Sodexo. As a result, University of Washington students started lobbying the UW administration over eight months ago to cut their
contract with Sodexo. After much discussion and pleading, President Phyllis Wise told the students she no longer cared to speak of the matter. For two long months, the students demanding a contract-cut found it impossible to talk to their school’s president. Four weeks ago, they took dramatic action and occupied President Wise’s office in an attempt to reinstate conversation about ending the UW’s contract with human rights abusers. The attempt proved fruitless, and the students were arrested and removed from the premises. A week later, this same group occupied the UW’s athletic director’s office with the same result. At that rally and sit-in, I watched my friend Peter Gallagher put under arrest as I chanted raucously outside. These students organized one more sit-in before the end of the school year. This time, I joined them on the inside.
What started as promising discourse, has descended into a desperate clawing for a voice by the students at the UW. 23 on-campus organizations are collaborating and asking (begging) the administration to cut the contract. We occupied the office of admissions hoping to at least speak with one administrative leader on campus before the summer. We marched in and sat down silently waiting for the rally outside to arrive. Once the noisy rally showed up, we stayed loud, chanting until the last one of us was escorted from the premises. Though we did not get a meeting with the administration, we won yesterday, and we are winning.
You may want to ask—and I admit I asked myself this a few times—“ben adam, what were you doing there? Was it not a student protest?” Yes, this campaign belongs to the students. Nevertheless, the issue of abusive corporate interest rests on everyone’s shoulders. We live entrenched in the ignorance of the suffering of others. The next gadget, the newest TV show, accessible drugs (legal, illegal, and regulated), and an obsession with the pornographic seal us off into a totalitarian world consumed by the self in which we know nothing, at best, or we do not care, at worst, about the dehumanization stemming from our own lifestyles. For this, we pay a terrible price. Those of us who can no longer bear the debaucherous self-gratitude of capitalism and the correlating oppressions therein must face our own complicity in the whole program. When we face our own sins, we receive three paths toward redemption.
The most enticing desire for people facing their own participation in the crimes of the world is the hope of reform. Crudely put, they become the powerful in order to make
change. People love reformers. Reformers promise sanctification without revolution. All old structures and systems stay in place. Reform attempts to do what is right without questioning the system that led to the wrong. As a result, reformers ignite as burning flames with powerful moral certainty but eventually concede to the injustice inherent in their quest for power. Many end up committing similar or identical atrocities as the people they criticized on their way to authority. Additionally, self-righteousness clouds the rationale of reformers and convinces them that they know best therefore they belong in power. Ultimately, reform cannot bring redemption. Reform will not end the sins of the elite and our own facilitation of those crimes.
Another desirable route is retreat. Many people choose to run away from what they deem
immoral or corrupt. They form alternative communities as far away as possible from the rest of the world. Those who retreat puritanize themselves. Oftentimes, they demonize everyone outside their community and even people within their own community who do not think or behave exactly as they do. They become fascists, and herein lies the problem with retreat. First, it does nothing to actually end injustice. Retreat merely closes the blinds to the windows that look out at a world wrought with impunity. Second, retreat fails to address our own capacity for injustice. It wreaks of a self-righteousness in which those in retreat build themselves up as the only ones who are pure. Essentially, retreat trades the illusion of redemption for the long, difficult road toward moral behavior, toward justice and peace. The retreatists, unable to confront the unjust structures internalized within themselves, frequently rebuild and reconstitute the very world they fled.
Finally, the third path toward redemption lies in resistance. Resisters confront those in
power and demand change. While they believe firmly in their moral certitude, resisters do not fool themselves into believing that once in power they would act with perfect integrity. Normally, resisters work against power in all forms. Most importantly, resistance questions the very structures out of which injustice is exercised. Still, it neither naively believes it can change injustice by becoming the authority within it nor by exercising a puritanical authority from without. Resistance stands in stark contrast to reform and retreat. Unlike reform, resistance prevents people from entering and performing in the powerful hierarchies that exercise control; unlike retreat, resistance moves toward, in confrontation, rather than away, in resignation, from evil. The challenge of resistance resides in its challenge to oppression on all fronts, internally and externally. Through resistance we create autonomy by struggling against the oppression around us, but we also create solidarity by struggling against the injustice within us. Therefore, in and through resistance against power we find true community. The corrective of others curbs the oppressive potential within ourselves. By not fleeing from the true problems we face today (capitalism, patriarchy, militarism, religious fundamentalism, etc.) resistance as a posturing of life does not fall victim to the belief that we can cease all participation in all forms of oppression overnight. A life of resistance means a life of questioning the powers that be and responding to those powers with creative vitality and not piecemeal reform or purist self-righteousness.
By becoming resisters, we open the door for true redemption. We finally confront society’s crimes and the way in which we participate in them. We launch onto the difficult path of undoing oppression without retreat from or acceptance of the structures that birthed it. On the first of June 2011, 14 brave students from the University of Washington and I embarked on the journey toward resistance. People love reformers, they ignore retreaters, but they arrest resisters. That is the cost of being redeemed. In that arrest, I found redemption. Jesus knew that simple fact during his crucifixion; Paul knew it in his repeated arrests, beatings, and executions; and countless others have learned that lesson throughout history. Do you dare to learn that lesson, as well? Please, join us! There is nothing greater you can do!