…The leaders offered a refrain Cesar and Dolores heard many times: The grower lobby that dominated state politics, the Legislature, and governor was so powerful, these Latino leaders declared, it couldn’t be beaten. Cesar and Dolores silently listened while they explained why the fast and efforts by farm workers would be fruitless.
“No, no se puede!” (“No, no it can’t be done”), they kept repeating in Spanish.
Then Dolores responded, “Si, si se puede!” (“Yes, yes, it can be done”).
Yesterday we celebrated the birthday of Cesar Chavez. It was also the day when we remember, in the Christian tradition, Holy Tuesday – the day Jesus was questioned by religious authorities.
It may sound strange, but Jesus’ exchange with the religious leaders and Cesar Chavez’ relentless hope are much connected.
In Luke 20 we see that the establishment of the time, the religious leaders and teachers, ask Jesus “by what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus addresses these questions in an interesting manner – he refers back to John’s Baptism and asks if it was a heavenly or an earthly one.
At the root of this exchange we find two elements. One is the question of how does change happen.
And, undergirding it all, is the question regarding the nature of power.
By whose power can change happen?
These questions were as urgent then as they are today, because Jesus’ ministry unfolded under conditions similar to ours. He lived under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. This empire, as any other, could not survive by any other means than the creation of an underclass that was economically exploited.
Much like today, in Jesus’ time, there was an oppressive system, an impoverished people, and a religio-political ideology that helped sustain and validate the status quo.
Today, we have an oppressive system that benefits the 1% at an obscenely disproportionate rate. We have an underclass of migrant workers in the US and abroad sustaining such economy, and a religio-political ideology of “American Exceptionalism” that on the one hand validates our way of life, and on the other, paradoxically, tells us to focus not on the things of this world, but on Jesus—and not just any Jesus, but a white-european, santa-clausified Jesus who will help you find a parking spot at the mall.
But then Jesus says something else. He is asked whether we should pay taxes (you know, just to see how communist Jesus was). He says, “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s.”
Jesus here seems to imply that there are two orders: Caesar’s and God’s; the order of the Empire and the order of the Kingdom.
March 31st is the day we celebrate a different “Cesar”: Cesar Chavez.
Cesar Chavez was the co-founder, with Dolores Huerta, of the National Farm Workers Association. He was known for his convictions, among them, the use of nonviolent resistance. He was a union organizer who called the public’s attention to the exploitation of farm workers through pilgrimages, worker’s strikes, boycotts, and hunger strikes, which he intentionally called fasts.
Chavez and Huerta spent their entire lives devoted to change, and looking at power with a clinical eye.
Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta coined the phrase that became the motto of the farm worker’s movement: Sí Se Puede, or Yes, we can—a principle that inspires the accomplishment of goals even if we face insurmountable situations… If you work in social justice, you know the feeling.
Sí se puede, then, represents a relentless belief that things are possible even when the odds are completely against us. It is the bold eschatology of the Christian hope taken to the streets.
Cesar and Dolores believed that the most powerless people could transform their lives if enough of them worked together. This unity of numbers rests in a conviction that we are the body of Christ. We are called to be God’s hands; to act on her behalf.
Speaking of Power, Cesar Chavez said that we build power “not in the prestige of your group, but on how many actual bodies you have with you and how many bodies can be united.”
As the body of Christ, we are on the hook to come together to follow the Head—united. But how do we do that?
Father Ross, Chavez’ mentor, observed that Cesar’s talent rested on important qualities in him: An understanding of the nature of power, and a sense of urgency.
I want to propose that we, as a church, have much to learn from Chavez in this front. We do not understand power, and we lack a sense of urgency.
We don’t understand power because we think that we don’t have it. We do not believe in the things we can accomplish if we come together as the body of Christ.
This is a deathly cocktail when combined with our lacking sense of urgency, which we escape either because we are comfortable, or because we have internalized oppression deeply enough to believe the oppressor.
Reading about Chavez, it called my attention that right after his wedding, he and his wife moved to a town called “Sal Si Puedes” (literally, Get out of there while you can).
I believe the body of Christ today, lives in Sal Si Puedes. When faced with injustice we get out of the scene while we can; before we have to sacrifice, or before we care deeply enough to get our hearts broken and jaded.
But as the Church, we are not called to live in Sal Si Puedes, but in the eschatological imagination of “Sí se puede!”
We are called to live out the foolish hope of the good news of the gospel that are actually good news for the poor and the oppressed.
Bruegemann tells us:
Hope is not a passive reliance upon God. Hope is a human act of commitment to and investment in the future. Hope is an act of human courage that refuses to cherish the present too much or be reduced to despair by present circumstance.
But that sureness about God’s large resolve is not just an assurance; it is a summons. It is a summons to risky investment that the world thinks is foolish. It follows that now is the time for yielding justice, for foolish forgiveness, for outrageous generosity, for elaborate hospitality. None of these acts can come from fear, anxiety, or despair. But they are all acts that evoke new futures that the fearful think are impossible.
Hope in the end is a contradiction of the dominant version of reality; it subverts the dominant version of fear, anxiety, despair, and violence. The capacity for such contradiction is at the heart of Christian faith.
Today, migrant families live under a ridiculous oppressive system. A year after the hunger striker at the NWDC, its leaders are receiving the worst retaliation for their courage. Cipriano was deported, Paulino is about to be deported, and Ramon is still detained.
What are we going to do. Give up? No!! We will join with the God whose reality and kingdom are forever, ever present and not yet here. We will wake up from our slumber, rise in that hope and say together, Si Se Puede! Say it with me: Si Se Puede. Yes We Can!!
Jesus’ sacrifice defeated death–it made it possible for us to change systems.
Let us take charge of our role as the body of Christ and follow the Head where he’s going: To liberate those who are oppressed.
—  See Brueggemann’s “Hope, Reality, and Grief: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks”  http://sojo.net/magazine/2013/12/grief-courage-and-perseverance