I am aware that there are many who wince at a distinction between property and persons — who hold both sacrosanct. My views are not so rigid. A life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on; it is not man. The focus on property in the 1967 riots is not accidental. It has a message; it is saying something.
These are words from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from “Nonviolence and Social Change” at the Massey Lectures from December, 1967.
This message is not all that different from one found in my faith tradition:
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything — all she had to live on.’ As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’ ‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’ (Mark 12:41—13:2)
This widow, nameless and seemingly insignificant, came to the temple, the spiritual, social, political, and economic epicenter of her society, and put her very last coins in the temple treasury. This treasury was supposed to help care for people like her, for widows and orphans and the marginalized of society. But instead, as Jesus’s prophetic cleansing of the temple revealed just a few chapters earlier, what was supposed to be “a house of prayer for all people” had become a “den of robbers.” The poor and dispossessed of society were being neglected. And so this nameless widow came to the temple — perhaps, as many have interpreted, out of submissive obedience. Or, perhaps, she came as a moral witness and threw her last two coins into the temple treasury in protest of an institution that was not protecting and caring for the people it was meant to care for.
That, in fact, is what the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival was doing in our statehouse on June 4th — protesting that this house for all people had become a den of robbers. We protested outside the governor’s office in the statehouse over his negligence to the people of Kansas for his part in not expanding Medicaid which would allow 150,000 more Kansans to have access to healthcare. And on that day, 16 moral witness sat outside that office singing, perhaps much like the widow in the temple, exclaiming “we’ve got nothing to lose but our chains.”
Those 16 moral witnesses, practicing moral obedience to an authority higher than that of the State of Kansas, were arrested on charges of criminal trespass. After being released from jail about 6 hours later, they were given no contact orders that stated explicitly “no contact with the victim” and listed the address of the capitol building as the victim.
After being released from jail about 6 hours later, they were given no contact orders that stated explicitly “no contact with the victim” and listed the address of the capitol building as the victim.
As King reminds us, though, property is not life. Therefore, it cannot be a victim. Property is meant to serve life. In the Mark passage, Jesus must even remind the disciples not to be enamored with a building. The temple, he reminds them, may crumble for it is only a building, but it is those to whom that building belongs, who ought to be served by the activities of the building, that matter.
A week later, a few of us went back to the Kansas Capitol Building, the statehouse, the People’s House, and watched as groups and families entered the capitol building in awe of the high domed ceiling, the various kinds of marble, the murals, and the ornate decorations. And while these families toured the building, our group stood quietly and listened as one of us read that quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reminding us that a building does not have life.
On Monday of Week 6 of the Campaign, we had planned to again hold our rally and press conference in the state capitol, as we had done for many weeks of the #40DaysOfAction. But we found out just days before our event that our permit to be in the capitol had been revoked. We, instead, were only permitted to rally outside on the south steps. After our rally we walked to the visitor’s entrance and were told that anyone who set foot inside the building would be arrested. Eleven moral witnesses were not deterred, entered the building, and were arrested and jailed. Meanwhile, those of us standing outside the visitor’s entrance were told that we had to vacate the property or we, too, would be arrested.
Once again the building was treated as the victim. But it is not the victim. It is the people who are hurt by the policies enacted within the walls of that building who are being victimized. And we plan to continue to enter that building, courageously and prophetically declaring that
We are not afraid
We are not afraid
We will fight for liberation
Because we know why we were made!