Right now, hundreds of people from all walks of life and faith traditions, who marched 140 miles from Philadelphia to Washington, are participating in a weeklong sit-in on Capitol Hill. We marched to take back our democracy from corporate interests, outlandish political spending and recent voter suppression legislation. We marched as part of Democracy Spring, a nonpartisan, grassroots movement that demands Congress “take immediate action to end the corruption of big money in our politics and ensure free and fair elections in which every American has an equal voice.”
Democracy Spring is an independent 501(c)(3) formed from a coalition of more than 100 organizations. We are liberal, we are conservative, we are concerned Americans who see our country heading toward a precipice. Our march began in Philadelphia’s historic Independence Mall on April 2, and we arrived at the Capitol on Monday. As many as 3,000 people have pledged to be arrested on the steps of the Capitol building, and thousands more will risk arrest through the rest of the week. This is civil disobedience on a historic scale, and we see reason for hope. Why? In part, because this has happened before.
The first Democracy Spring, the first demonstration against voter suppression and institutionalized corruption, happened more than 3,000 years ago when Moses and the Israelites went to see Pharaoh. Moses asked Pharaoh: “By what right do you rob us of our right to self-determination, by what right do you dominate us?” And Pharaoh replied: “I make the sun rise and the Nile flood, I grow the economy and I create jobs.” And it was just as unlikely that Moses and the Israelites would walk across the Red Sea toward freedom as it is that an average citizen will one day walk into Washington and be meaningfully represented.
But before Moses and the Israelites could earn their right to self-governance, they needed to believe that they could be free. Their courage to inspire was sparked at the burning bush, where despair turned to hope, indifference became passion and the stale swampy levees of inaction shattered before the flowing waters of righteous action. This march is our burning bush, and we are all Moses.
At the burning bush, Moses acted with wonder and gratitude. He honestly and courageously faced his suffering, and he found his place, his role, in a larger story that began before his birth and has continued since his death. Moses also realized that Pharaoh and his entire empire were based on a lie, the illusion of Pharaoh’s perceived control over reality.
At the burning bush, Moses learned that no human being and no government can maintain strict static order in our ever-changing world, no human being and no government can claim absolute knowledge, and no human being and no government can forever control the fates of others. And with this knowledge, Moses was emancipated from the mental slavery of empire. He took the first step toward meeting with Pharaoh, and demanded as a free human being, let my people go!
As we sit in at the Capitol as free human beings, we are lovingly reminding our brothers and sisters in Congress that we are not immune to the grand trends and the shifting tides of history, which spell out clearly that whoever accepts a bribe brings destruction upon the nation. We are lovingly reminding our Congress that democracy is an adaptable, dynamic and open system, and lawmakers do not have our consent to close us out. And we are lovingly reminding our fellow patriots in Washington that they are sowing seeds of division and discontent when they suffocate the soulful expression of “we the people.” We cannot continue this way and expect to avoid the plagues of a failed state.
And we must hope that, unlike Pharaoh, our government’s heart is not yet fully hardened.
Michael Pollack is a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. This piece is adapted from a speech he gave at the start of the Democracy Spring.