When you look up at the sky, what do you see? Meteorologists must see the presence or absence of clouds and the likelihood of precipitation. Astrologers probably think, “When are we finally going to rotate away from that sun so I can see stars?” Religious people often look up there and imagine God in Her heaven, wistfully, blissfully, earnestly, or desperately. I’m not sure what atheists see. Maybe they just say, ‘I’m glad I’m alive to look up at this sky.’ That’s close to what I was thinking on Saturday, January 21st when I was in our nation’s capitol for the Women’s March on Washington. I looked up to the sky and said, “I am glad I am here.” And just in case Mother God was listening, I said, “Thank you.”
When I first decided to march, it was to protest the election of a wannabe Emperor who has boasted about assaulting women and inspired millions to freely come out to express their inner bully and wide-spread bigotry. His character flaws and shocking mental health issues are too numerous to waste words here. As we got closer to the March day, I just wanted to make myself a better citizen. I traveled with three acquaintances whom I barely knew before the March and I now consider good friends. They stayed overnight at my house so we could make a 5:15 a.m. bus with as little pain as possible. The night before we all admitted to both hope and skepticism that the March would make a difference.
The March program opened with one of the most deeply spiritual expressions I’ve ever experienced – and please note here I’m a religion writer who has been in quite of few religious gatherings in my life. The program started with what the organizers called a “song” but I would call a chant or a musical prayer. If YouTube is correct, it was the Native American Norine Hill from #IndigenousWomenRise. I hope you will find a quiet place and click on this link. Please imagine yourself outdoors under an overcast sky with people in every direction, and even in the trees. Then listen. I don’t know if there were words, or what her intention was, but I heard a call to all of our souls, to rise to the greater good.
I don’t really like crowds. I like to be home where it’s quiet with my dog and cat at my side. It takes something to get me out, other than working for a living, of course. But the experience started much before daylight when three buses left from my small suburban community and joined 1,900 of them in the stadium parking lot. Then a very diverse river of people climbed stairs, walked to the Metro station, got in and out of subway cars, then inched out onto the street. All the while in the metro station there were sweeps of chants and a sort of woo-hoo kind of high musical sigh that was to your ears what the wave at a sports stadium would be for your eyes.
The YouTube video was shot close to where I was standing, which was blocks from the stage. You can see people actually climbed the tree to get a better look. This street was intended to be a route for the walking part of the March, but it was too crowded. After a couple hours of standing with a crowd pressing in, I got a little claustrophobic, so we inched our way from where the crowd was packed to an area where it was only slightly less packed behind the Smithsonian and toward the Mall. All the while, people were pouring in from every direction. We walked about 10 or 15 blocks to find something to eat. The whole time we were walking away from the stage, people from every direction were streaming in. While we ate lunch we watched the March on a muted CNN in the restaurant and realized that it so much bigger than we could comprehend at street level. When we went to return to the marching part of the March, it was everywhere. It was not just one street, but many streets, all filled with people marching. There were spontaneous chants to fun rhythms (picture Bill Murray in “Stripes”). The one I’m still chanting while I walk my dog is: “This is how democracy works!” Oh, yes it is.
It was difficult to hear all the speeches while we were there, so I’ve been listening online. (Thank you New York Times; link follows.) I was able to hear most of Gloria Steinem and some Michael Moore live, and they remain my favorites.
What was clear on Saturday, and is even more vivid listening online, is that the speakers were embracing multiple issues, not just their own agenda. The over-arching theme was democracy, tolerance, equity. These values were more powerful than the crowd’s clear disdain of the newly elected “Groper-in-chief,” (quoting Jane Fonda on Bill Maher’s show). In fact, much more potent than the mass dissatisfaction with the incoming president was the urgent need to put common values in place that assure people are treated fairly and have more equal opportunity.
It’s important to ask: What started all this? One idea, from one woman in Hawaii on Facebook. Her what-if/what-can-we-do moment launched an important action for millions that was not just an expression but a movement to a more engaged populace willing to work to keep democracy vital. One woman’s idea started this. As Steinem told us, “…370 marches in every state and on six continents…” Check out the New York Times article with photos from around the globe and highlights of signs and chants.
The United States is a secular democracy with a constitutional commitment to the separation of church and state. I remind you that it matters because while all religions are protected, it assures you can practice the one of your choosing, or none at all, without fear of imprisonment. The new president is threatening to require Muslims to register. With no exaggeration at all, this is not unlike what Hitler did to Jews before he started the genocide. It’s also a short walk from registry to rounding people up for camps like the Japanese in this country after Pearl Harbor. Make no mistake that the current governance threatens to take us into very dark times. Are you going quietly?
In spite of the efforts of the White House to make shameless bigotry and greed the new policy, Steinem tried to give us perspective and said, “I have been thinking about the use of a long life and one of them is that you remember when things were worse…This, [she waved her hand across the crowd] this is the upside of the downside. This is an outpouring of energy and true democracy like I have never seen in my very long life.” Right with you on that, Gloria.
Saturday’s global March proved that we don’t need laws or religion to guide us into a secular morality that can be embraced by diverse masses. Click on the link below and scan the list of speakers, most of whom mentioned other issues in their own speeches. And when is the last time you heard someone running for office even talk about the common good? Well, of course, we can thank Hillary for: “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.”
Rhea Suh, NRDC president said, “Each one of you is an individual that made a powerful decision – a choice to be here…because you believe in the fundamental principles that we matter…We are not helpless. We are still a democracy.” The March was a call to remember that democracy only thrives with engaged citizens, who are watching to assure the balance of power. Democracy also needs a free press to recognize and publicize corruption. Some work needs to be done there since they largely failed us in this last election cycle. But we need to do our part by buying newspapers and turning off fake news and reality TV. We need to demonstrate that as media consumers and citizens, we want more than unsubstantiated or un-investigated sound bites.
And, since this is a religion column, I am compelled to remind you that freedom of religion means you get to make your own choice and practice it as you want. If you want the government to impose your religion on others, then prepare yourself for the day when what they impose is not your religion. That said, if they really do impose a Muslim registry, I’m with Madeleine Albright and I’m signing-up as Muslim. -J.B.