A Pilgrimage of Transformation
By Ken Butigan|
Copyright EarthLight Magazine, 2000
Seattle proved to be the last great pilgrimage of the twentieth century.
Aside from the occasional fealty and homage paid by e-pilgrims to the geeky founders of Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks, Seattle hardly resembles what is typically taken to be a pilgrimage site in a traditional sense. While rife with abundant charm, the self-described Emerald City perched on the cusp of the Pacific Rim is no Jerusalem, Rome, Machu Picchu, or Benaras. But then again, pilgrimage itself has undergone a profound transformation in the last hundred years. While millions still swell Mecca, Lourdes, and the cities dotting the Ganges every year, another form of "sacred journey" emerged in the twentieth century with as much or even more power. Those who traveled to Seattle in late November to protest the World Trade Organization meeting there consciously or unconsciously participated in this new and potent form of pilgrimage.
A pilgrimage for our times
This "modern pilgrimage" was paradigmatically defined by Gandhi's 1930 march to the sea. This stalwart procession challenged the British monopoly on salt and, more importantly, defied imperial rule once and for all. Here was a bold public ritual in which spirituality and politics were dramatically and unmistakably interwoven. This 261-mile politico-religious pilgrimage was a sojourn from bondage to freedom palpably symbolized in practical, corporeal, kinesthetic actuality. These were real, live human beings mobilizing the most powerful symbol at their disposal - their inspirited bodies - in loving and relentless resistance. Theirs was literally a movement: a restless journey to the ocean and, eventually, to liberation.
Since Gandhi's pilgrimage, others have followed in the Mahatma's footsteps. We recall Martin Luther King, Jr.'s pilgrimage in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights for African-Americans, and the peregrinacion that Cesar Chavez led from Delano to Sacramento in 1966 to call for economic justice and dignity for California's migrant poor. There have been numerous other pilgrimages around the world demanding an end to violence and injustice, including many concerted journeys to the Nevada Test Site and other atomic proving grounds on the ancient land of indigenous peoples.
Then there are the other pilgrimages: pilgrimages of remembrance, of reckoning, and occasionally of healing. The survivors of the Holocaust who journey to Auschwitz. African-American pilgrims who cross the ocean to see with their own eyes the embarkation points on the West Coast of Africa where slaves were dispatched to America. Nisei and Sansei who travel to the Manzanar and Tule Lake concentration camps where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II. The U.S. veterans who stand brooding before the Vietnam Wall in Washington.
The pilgrimage to Seattle
"Pilgrims," Richard R. Niebuhr writes, "are persons in motion - passing through territories not their own - seeking something we might call completion." James Preston speaks of pilgrimage as "spiritual magnetism." In more traditional terms, Jean and Wallace Clift point out that there are many different reasons that pilgrims set out on their journey: to hope and ask for a miracle; to give thanks; to achieve pardon; to answer an inner call; to experience a place of power; to express love of God; to reclaim lost or abandoned or forgotten parts of ourselves; to prepare for death; or to get outside the normal routine of life so something new can happen.
Pilgrimage, in short, is an actively mobilized process of bearing witness to woundedness and to the mysterious possibilities of sacredness.
Tens of thousands of people journeyed to Seattle to protest the injustice of the WTO and the perils it poses to indigenous societies, labor standards, human rights, civil liberties and environmental integrity. While these concerns were largely expressed in political and sociological terms, I would interpret them as ultimately deeply cultural and, even more, profoundly spiritual. Taken as a whole, the dizzying events that transpired in Seattle represent many of the motivations for pilgrimage listed above. These "modern pilgrims" were drawn - almost magnetically, as Preston would phrase it - to a place that momentarily intersected with history and challenged its crushing inevitability. The urgency of this journey came from a deep intuition that the great web of violence in which we are caught today is spun by large economic and political forces, and that the instructions for this "web design" for the next decades were about to be codified in a very few short days on the shores of Puget Sound.
It is not enough to view this as ideological or a form of political analysis. In fact, we "traveled to Seattle" to defamiliarize the familiar, to ask for pardon, to reclaim lost parts of ourselves, to express gratitude that we have one another and the earth, to show love for a God whose name is Justice and Compassion and who longs for the Beloved Community, and to hope - and ask for - a miracle.
And what did we get? The December 3 headline of the San Jose Mercury News read: "Protests' power to alter public awareness." The banner of the top story in the Sunday edition of Los Angeles Times on December 5 declared, "WTO is Humbled, Change Forever by Outside Forces." These are very preliminary judgments, but they signal the way in which the juggernaut of globalization has, at the very least, been problematized. There is an ambiguity attached to so-called "free trade" in a way that was not true a very short time ago. The events in Seattle broke the spell of the inevitability and unquestioned authority of global capital, and this in turn has laid the groundwork for a process of social and cultural transformation which has the potential to make the world more just, more ecologically sensitive, and ultimately a more peaceful place.
Pilgrimage of nonviolent change
Martin Luther King, Jr. entitled one of his essays the "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence." In spite of the impression left by much of the media coverage, 99.98% of the people who participated in the Seattle activities echoed King's "nonviolent pilgrimage" in word and deed. Sadly, this was not the case with the Seattle police -- who created an unnecessarily provocative and confrontational atmosphere with unprovoked attacks on peaceful demonstrators -- and a relatively small group of vandals who broke windows and spray-painted graffiti on storefronts and sidewalks.
Countless others exercised nonviolence and thus symbolically embodied the heart of the pilgrimage required to change ourselves and the world: the journey in which we as individuals and as a people recognize our own woundedness and sacredness so that we can see, and respond to, the woundedness and sacredness of the other. In such a journey of love and courage, neither self-righteousness nor violence has a place.
A pilgrim future
The word pilgrim comes from the Latin legal word pelegrinus, meaning a "stateless person" or a person without a country. It has the connotation of one who "journeys between states." As we struggle to understand and live out interdependence without succumbing to the seduction and trap of the monoculture that "globalization" promises, perhaps this sense of pilgrimage -- as a transformation beyond either nationalism or corporate integration -- can fruitfully illuminate the journey we are called to undertake together in the coming century.
Ken Butigan is an adjunct professor at the Franciscan School of Theology and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He directs "From Violence to Wholeness," a program in nonviolence education, for Pace e Bene Franciscan Nonviolence Center. He co-edited Cry of the Environment: Rebuilding the Christian Creation Tradition (Santa Fe: Bear and Company, 1984). Born in Seattle, he participated in the events in Seattle as a peacekeeper with the Global Exchange contingent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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