“Maybe being powerful means to be fragile.” – Ai Weiwei
Last week, I went to see “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” a powerful film that made me feel like I did at age sixteen: troubled and inspired. Ai Weiwei is an internationally acclaimed artist who was disappeared by the Chinese government for almost three months last year. Upon his release, he was fined 2.4 million dollars in taxes. He just lost this case, but will continue to fight, despite having been detained and not allowed to go to court. This is what he does: along with making art and taking care of his cats, he prods the Chinese government into giving citizens rights. When the government wouldn’t release names and a count of all the school children killed in the 2008 earthquake as a direct result of shoddy government construction projects? Weiwei gathered volunteers to interview the families, collect the names, and get as accurate a count as possible: around 5,000. He then went on to make art to commemorate these children.
Ai Weiwei is a people’s hero. He is powerful. People all over China follow his work, his Twitter feed, and his blog until it was taken down by the government. He is fragile. He stands out. He is at risk. He puts himself at risk, I think, because he recognizes that really, everyone is at risk. He’s willing to pay the price, and has already suffered cerebral hemorrhage from being struck by a police officer, plus the imprisonment I wrote of, and now his current “Beijing arrest” as his passport has not been returned to him.
Last night, I sat around a table with lawyers, activists, labor representatives, and the family members of Alan Blueford, who was killed by the Oakland Police Department on May 6. I was there with other members of the Interfaith Tent at Oakland who have pledged to rally and inform the religious community about this case, which unfortunately links to so many others cases of young black men and women being beaten and gunned down for no reasonable cause. It is an Interfaith issue because justice work is spiritual work. There is no separation.
Alan’s parents are strong, and are gathering the collective strength of the community. They are doing this, I think, because they are fragile. Something in them must have broken open that night they spent waiting in the coroner’s office, being stonewalled, while their son lay dead, lacking ID, the officials said, despite always carrying his high school card. The story kept changing: He had a gun. He didn’t have a gun. He shot the officer. The officer, it turns out, shot himself. I wrote of the city council meeting I attended last May, where the council members were shocked that no coroner’s report had been released, no fingerprints had been run, in short, nothing really had been done except trying to make the implausible story more plausible. Alan’s crime? Being a black teenage boy on a street corner with his friends after a sporting event, waiting for a ride.
Alan’s parents are standing up to the government, because the lives of young black men in America are powerfully fragile things. We are standing with them. We can be broken, but we stand up anyway. Ai Weiwei has been broken, but does not remain so. He stands up to tyranny again and again.
We can each be called by this, if we allow it. We can each say, “Here I stand. Here is where I have been broken open. Here are the scars where I have repaired my heart. Here I am.”
“Maybe being powerful means to be fragile,” Weiwei said. He said that because he didn’t feel powerful after close to three months of who knows what sort of psychological torture. Yet he still stands as a symbol of hope to millions, and has not given up. That is powerful. But even more than that, he is pointing us to a conundrum that holds deeper truths. I want to take this and sit with it at my altar. It feels like there are many ways it will unfold. Here is one: We think we always have to feel powerful in order to not be frauds, in order to have an effect on the world, in order to create art or stand for justice. We don’t. In our times of greatest fragility we are more powerful than we recognize.
We are at risk – even those of us with enough privilege to forget this. We are strong – even those of us despairing. God Hirself connects us, hand to hand, from Beijing to Oakland and back again. We are fragile. Together. And that is a powerful thing.
In other words, Brene Brown was right.