What is the Good News? A Hunger Strike, Detention, & the Bread of Life

I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire. But I want to read the Bible and think it’s talking to me. This is a problem.” – Brian Zahnd

While we all hold a certain degree of pain and brokenness, the extent to which the gospel is good news for us is a function of our level of comfort. My experience hearing from those who live in conditions of material vulnerability is that they comprehend the Bible at a level that is unaccessible to me. Comfort, in this way, is the assassin of the gospel. We cannot understand its power as good news unless we submit ourselves to communion with those who are vulnerable. It is only through sitting at their table that we can savor the bread of life⁠ [1] in its fullness.

I was recently invited to this communion by Ramón Mendoza one of the leaders of the hunger strike that took place at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, WA, last March and April. Ramón spent over 40 days fasting, 30 of which were in solitary confinement due to an unfair accusation of “incitation;” a charge that resulted from an “internal hearing” to which his lawyer was not allowed.

There are two aspects about the NWDC that will help you appreciate the depth of Ramón’s disempowerment: First, detention of migrants is administrative; it does not follow a specific charge⁠ or a trial and it is indefinite [2], lasting from a couple of months to several years. And second, detention centers are privately ran by the GEO Group, a corporation that has lobbied aggressively to create the policies that lead to detention of immigrants and that provides the services on the other end. GEO made over 1,5 billion in revenue in 2013,⁠ 16% of which comes from their contract with Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE). Migrant detainees are subject to social isolation, poor medical care, excessive fees for phone calls and basic goods, and several means of retaliation as a response to reasonable complaints.

After several months in detention, away from his wife and three children and subject to abusive treatment, Ramón decided to fast to draw attention to the inhumane conditions of thousands of migrant detainees. Retaliation was quick to follow and he spent 30 days in solitary confinement. The emotional scars of his experience were evident and he fought tears as he told me about his days in the ‘hole.’

I asked him what he did all day. “I read the Bible,” he responded. This was curious to me, the Bible seemed an odd choice for the new hero of immigrant rights.

“Why the Bible?” I asked.

“Because it resonated with what I was going through.”

“What part?”

“I read it all.”

Ramón told me how he prayed each night to ask God what was the next step for the following day. Sometimes he felt like giving up, but he found encouragement from scripture at key times in his journey. Then he said this:

By day 15 I was getting discouraged; not being able to communicate with anyone and on top of that I wasn’t eating… one feels, well, despair, and I read the part where Jesus fasted for 40 days and that invited me to say, ‘I have fasted for 15 days and I am complaining; he pulled it off for 40!’ That helped me keep going. Another reading I remember from those 30 days is when Jesus was taken to be crucified. He never, never, objected to what was being done to him and I was going through something similar in here and that gave me peace… [the officers] do whatever they want with us and unfortunately no one outside knows what happens in here… those are but a few things that I realized by reading the Bible.

Despite GEO’s attempt to curtail the hunger strike by having medical staff misinform detainees about the health consequences of fasting, and lying to the women saying that “99% of the men had resumed eating,”[3] Ramón and his friends’ attempt to draw attention to their conditions was successful enough to have Rep. Adam Smith propose a bill to ensure accountability of immigration detention. We can only hope this bill will be passed and offer some relief to migrant detainees. Improving conditions, however, does not make it right to deny someone’s freedom for administrative purposes. What we need are alternatives to detention.

At the core of Ramón’s action, however, we do not find political activism, although the strike brought about hope for political change. What we find instead is a prophetic attitude of, in the words of Jacques Ellul, “the affirmation of a spiritual truth against the error of the moment.”[4] The truth that migrant detainees are not human abjection but created in God’s image and made free by Jesus’ restorative power. This is the good news, that no matter who wants to profit from their vulnerability, their humanity is defined by God’s love. “I refused to be an object” Ramón told me.

It is only through complete vulnerability that the good news become a matter of life and death, and as such these good news realize their transformative power in the world. Once we have attempted to see the gospel the way the vulnerable see it, there is no turning back—I can no longer domesticate the word of God. I am faced, instead, with that which is real and at the same time ungraspable. Further, it demands that I give up my own understanding of the world; my cynicism, the safety of sociological theories of power and of social technique, and be left bewildered yet hopeful.

Ramón is still detained.

Yet in the darkness of detention, away from his family, in this very moment as I write, he knows the Bible is certainly speaking to him.

— [Image by Ben, CC via Flickr]

1 John 6:35

2 It is important to note that crossing the border illegally is a civil, not a criminal offense. It is akin to a speeding ticket.

3 Personal communication from female detainee already deported.

4 Ellul, Jacques. The Presence of the Kingdom [in English].  Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989. p.29

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