Bearing Witness at the Women’s March on Washington

By Marie Griffith | January 24, 2017

(Mario Tama/Getty)

“I’m a WITNESS for JUSTICE!” read the front, and on the back, “¡Soy TESTIGO de la JUSTICIA!” This sign, held aloft by a group gathered on the National Mall last Saturday at the Women’s March on Washington, was the product of the United Church of Christ, the progressive denomination’s logo proudly stamped on both sides including the denomination’s motto, “That They May All Be One.” Wedged amid a sea of pink hats and edgier march signs featuring cartoon images of Donald Trump cozying up to Vladimir Putin, myriad depictions of female reproductive organs, and clever riffs on “tiny hands” and giant egos, this one bore witness to them all.

Saturday’s event, with sister marches in cities all over the U.S. and the world, was not a Christian march or a religious gathering of any kind, but its goal very much aligned with that UCC assurance—“I see you!” marchers reassured one another, over and over—and its call to oneness in diversity. Beneath the focal emphasis on women, it had much in common thematically with the Moral Mondays campaign started in 2013 by North Carolina’s Rev. William J. Barber and fellow clergy, a campaign that many see as the civil rights movement of our time. The Women’s March likewise honed in on the immorality of many of the policies promoted by the new administration and was broadly inclusive of a wide range of groups and individuals across countless affiliations. Muslims, Jews, and Christians marched side by side with secular humanists and atheists, men and women and transgender persons alike, countless children amidst teens and adults—all joined in a call for women’s rights that now seem more at risk than ever, and for human rights more expansively. Intersectionality was a pervasive motif, a reminder that feminism today is not the movement of white elites that it once seemed to be but a sprawling, richly colorful coalition of people whose identities and concerns complexly reflect the crossing points of race, class, and gender: people fighting for the rights of immigrants and refugees, African Americans, Muslims, Native Americans, trans and queer persons, and more.

Among the many people with whom I spoke, one of the most common refrains was what a relief it was to experience the exhilarating joy of this day spent with hundreds of thousands of others—millions across the globe—who had spent the previous day anguished by the uncompromisingly defiant and divisive message of the 45th president’s inaugural address. A large group of religious leaders—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish—prayed at the ceremony, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Rabbi Marvin Hier, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, Rev. Paula White, Rev. Franklin Graham, and Bishop Wayne Jackson. But even though so many religious leaders prayed over his inauguration (even some among his critics like Dolan and Rodriguez), and he invoked a unifying God in his speech, Trump nevertheless delivered an inaugural address worthy of a wrathful God, seething with nationalist animosity. He cited Psalm 133, saying, “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity,” but the rest of his words did little to promote solidarity. Thumbing his nose at centuries of such inaugural ceremonies, Donald Trump castigated the previous administration and, indeed, the entire political establishment—“Washington,” for short—for allegedly usurping all power from the people, prospering and protecting their own interests at citizens’ expense, and causing one catastrophe after another that amounted to “American carnage.”

Marchers uniformly rejected this ugly rendering of recent history and made clear who they believed the people’s real usurper to be: the “orange monster-in-chief,” as at least one sign put it. The people to whom the new president referred seemed only to include, as the comedian Aziz Ansari would put it later that evening on Saturday Night Live, “the lowercase kkk,” not the larger American populace. One day after the inauguration, the marchers making up these enormous crowds of peaceful protesters—predictably cast as unpatriotic crybabies by Trump supporters—resisted the hateful rhetoric of this apparent new era in every way they knew how. Finding themselves in unity with such an overwhelmingly vast community was not merely a comfort; it was inspirational.

In the lead-up to Saturday, there was no shortage of questions on the theme, “What good does marching do?” Scolds and naysayers of various political stripes tempered their snarky dismissals after the sheer numbers of march participants overwhelmed prior estimates, but a healthy debate persists over what the upshot will eventually be. Will the impact of the march stop at inspiration, as participants helplessly watch our democracy fall to fascism? Or will marchers channel their determination into organized political action on behalf of the disenfranchised and all those whose rights are under fire? Will the spirit of protest splinter into micro groups divided by identity politics, or will the commitment to coalitional unity prevail despite differences?

Scholars who study the history of religion and politics know that change is slow and that this is a marathon and not a sprint. The rivers of resentment run deep in our society, fueled by years of lies and contempt that have become part of the very air we breathe. Cleaning up that toxic pollution is a job as formidable as slowing climate change, and until there is broad political will across the spectrum, the one will be as impossible as the other. People of moral ideals and ethical conviction must learn from the example of the extraordinary women who led the Women’s March—Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour, and Bob Bland—and from the committed clergy who have been at the forefront of Moral Mondays and its allied movements—William Barber, Traci Blackmon, Osagyefo Sekou, and so many others.

A movement to counter Trumpism will also need principled conservatives in it like those who have long preached against Trumpism—including men and women who may not agree with the pro-reproductive rights platform of the Women’s March but who are staunch foes of much else that the new president represents. There is distate for such figures on the progressive side of the political spectrum, but ideological purity on the left cannot defeat Trump’s unjust policies on its own. The fight will require forming bipartisan coalitions among those who deeply disagree in good faith about major issues, but who can agree that truth and justice must prevail.

We—all of us who believe in the ideals of our Constitution and are willing to fight for them against the dictatorly actions and blatant lies of the new administration—are witnesses for justice.

Marie Griffith is the director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics and the editor of Religion & Politics. Follow her @RMarieGriffith.

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