“The waters that divide us, unite us.”
~U.S. Navy Memorial
The immersion group set sail on the treacherous waters of Capitol Hill today, meeting with staffers for Senators Mike Lee (Republican, Utah) and Cory Booker (Democrat, New Jersey) to discuss health care and criminal justice policy.
We waded into those waters just yesterday when we met with Congresswoman Barbara Lee. I left our brief encounter with her feeling moved by her graciousness, but unsettled. I told my classmate Tara about my unease and she nodded in agreement.
“The environment is strange. Everybody is wearing suits like body armor,” Tara said.
I marched onto Capitol Hill today with a dress and pearls as my armor and a story as my sword.
The formula for advocacy on Capitol Hill is simple and straightforward: one person does an introduction, a few people tell personal stories and ask questions, and a final person asks how to follow up. We practiced our speeches, did our homework, and wrote down key facts. I was ready to fight with Cory Booker’s staffer on criminal justice policy.
We met with the staffer, a nervous-looking young man, in the hallway outside of Senator Booker’s office. We had him surrounded and were ready to fire our stories at him once we were given the command by our introducer, Carla Halyard.
“…We have some questions to discuss with you on the issue of criminal justice…” Carla said.
“I am the health care person, not the criminal justice person,” the staffer said with wide eyes.
I fired anyway. I used my father’s story of incarceration, drug use, and mental illness to illustrate how policies on harm reduction and incarceration of the mentally ill need to be created or reformed. Senator Booker’s REDEEM Act, which addresses criminal justice issues, does not specifically address the issues I raised.
My story bounced off the staffer’s bulletproof suit. He nodded along with me as I spoke and then said, “Senator Booker is 100% behind you on this,” before moving on to the next bullet he had to deflect.
Earlier today at Senator Mike Lee’s office, it happened to my classmates, but now that it had happened to me, I felt violated. The criminal justice person showed up later in the conversation, but that same sense of untouchability remained.
I discussed this feeling of violation at dinner tonight and my classmate Susan responded, “I bet they are hearing stories all the time on the Hill. I know that if I had to listen to these stories all day, I would be a wreck that night! I get the sense that they keep their hearts at a safe distance. They’re able to listen intently to what we say, but they don’t connect.”
After today’s events, I am left wondering whether I had committed an act of violence by attempting to get the staffer to empathize with and feel pain for my father, who was oppressed by our justice system. Naturally, the staffer responded with an equally powerful weapon: dehumanization. He refused to recognize the humanity in my story.
I disagree with philosopher Immanuel Kant on many things, but he got one thing in ethics right: never use a person as a means to an end. That was exactly what I was doing when I was talking to the staffer about criminal justice reform. Though my intentions were good, I was using the staffer as a means to achieve my end of criminal justice reform.
No wonder Americans feel like their government is growing farther and farther apart from them—the government is feeling less human and more like a machine. This is why we as faith leaders have a responsibility to demechanize politics—because we have the unique ability to see the sacred in everything.
Here on Capitol Hill, I hear the word, “relationships,” a lot, which is something my class was not able to create with a brief chat in the hallway of the senate building. Philosopher Martin Buber would say that currently, our relationship with the government is “I/It.” We see the government as a separate object that we either use or experience. We need to be creating “I/Thou” relationships in which the other is not separated by boundaries. These relationships bring us to God.
The stormy waters of politics may be what divides our nation today, but the waters also unite us. Calm waters are possible—I see it in the bipartisan work Mike Lee and Cory Booker are doing, but we have a long way to sail until we see sun.