Isaiah 58 and the Fast for DC Statehood

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By Jeremy John, originally published on glassdimly.com.
Isaiah 58:3-24 “Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

What is it that God requires of us? Not just a fast from food with prayer. Not just “a day to humble oneself,” God is asking for the fast that moves beyond prayer and the negation of food to reform our economic relationships of injustice, to undo the cords of oppression, and to move into relationship with the homeless poor. Sounds a bit like the Occupy movement, doesn’t it?

In DC, you feel inequality and segregation deeply. If you don’t feel it, try riding the bus. On the bus, you will find many people without homes or jobs, people crushed in the grip of a deep poverty. If you walk around downtown, even in the dead of winter, you see homeless folks bundled in enclaves, and over warm grates. DC has a serious problem, a problem more grave than any other place I’ve lived in the US. And here, amongst the marbled monuments to liberty and democracy, amongst the brusque hill staffers with suits and briefcases, the inequality is striking.

Today I am fasting for DC budget autonomy and voter rights. Why am I doing this? And, if you are not from DC, why should you care? We know that God cares deeply about social inequality and poverty. I am doing this small thing because I believe that social justice begins with a personal transformation and moves outwards, transforming relationships with family, neighbors, and the world. We start with what is closest to us. I am starting with DC.

But what about you?

DC’s statehood would require a full Congressional vote in House and Senate, as well as ratification by 38 states. Without the support of the rest of the country, DC will not become a state. So, please, take some time to sign this petition.

I am not the only person who has fasted for DC statehood. I am participating in a rolling, fifty-day fast inspired by the powerful witness of hunger strikers Adrian Parsons, Sam Jewler, and Kelly Mears, who fasted for 25, 11, and 8 days respectively. I am doing a very small thing compared to them. I hope, in a small way, that I can inspire you to do something equally small in your own life.

In fact, DC ranks third, nationally, for cities (above 100,000 souls) with the greatest inequality.

According to one statistics site, “In 2010, 8.5% of non-Hispanic white District residents lived in poverty. The poverty rate for black residents was more than three times greater — 27.1%. The rate for Hispanic residents was nearly double the non-white Hispanic rate — 14.7%.” (source)

I believe that we are unable to overcome poverty in Washington DC in part because we are held hostage by a Congress that can scarcely make up its mind to tie its shoes each morning.

Let me unpack that. In DC, our budget is 100% controlled by Congress. All of our laws are reviewed by Congress. And in DC, we do not have representation in the House or Senate.

I have come to believe that the best way to break the bonds of oppression is democracy, giving people equal voice at the table, and just as God poured out the Holy Spirit without regard for rank, gender, or age, I believe that God inspires us to an egalitarian vision for society, where, because all people are created equal, we are able to stand on equal terms before our government. Just as all people are capable of prophecy, so all people are capable of participating in governance.

Race and ethnicity (2010)
Map of race and ethnicity in Washington, D.C.
 
African American 50.7%
 
White 38.5%
 
Hispanic 9.1%
 
Asian 3.5%
 
Other 4.1%
Source: Wikipedia

The District of Colombia, by population, is majority African-American city. In a world where race is still a determinant of poverty, I believe that we could begin to address the problems of poverty and economic inequality if we were allowed to vote, and to control our own budget.

But DC does not have this voice, and because of this, inequality runs rampant. We are stymied by a Congress that cannot even pass its own budget. How can we possibly be creative stewards of our tax money, investing in our people with job creation programs or homeless shelters that can help people get back on their feet (a hard enough project for a state with full budgetary autonomy) when our budget must be ratified by Congress?

For example, a politically polarized Congress blocked a needle-exchange program for ten years, and now, in DC, we have a 3% HIV epidemic, while 1% is a “generalized and severe” epidemic. In a state of crisis, people who are not from DC, are not affected by DC’s problems, and do not answer to DC residents, are making decisions about how to spend local DC tax dollars.

Democracy is not a totalizing solution. In even the best democracies, majorities can decide to oppress minorities. Sometimes worse, a democratic system can be gridlocked by a failure to decide, and in the failure to govern, arbitrary power brokers fill the void.

But I do believe that democracy lays the groundwork for justice, and, when certain people are excluded from the process, they are are more easily oppressed and exploited by those processes.

That’s why I urge you to sign the petition for DC Statehood and join my in my prayers and the actions of the valiant hunger strikers who risked their health and safety, with your small action.

How can you, in your own life, move beyond fasting to the transformation of your personal and economic relationships? Is there a political cause you believe in, which is at the root of the poverty around you? How can you be in relation with the homeless poor?