I'm happy to introduce today's guest post by fellow North Carolina resident Laura R. Levens. Laura earned her Master of Divinity degree from Duke Divinity School in 2008 and is currently a Doctor of Theology candidate at Duke. Her research and teaching interests include Christian mission, Baptist studies, and women in Christian history. She is an ordained minister through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. She has been a voting and tax-paying resident of Durham, North Carolina for eight years, and is a member of Watts Street Baptist Church.
There is good reason every American should know the story of Romeo and Juliet, and it’s not because everyone needs a good cry. Shakespeare’s tragedy is a political story that needs to be told today in North Carolina, as this state finds itself wrenched by conflict between the Republican controlled legislature and Moral Monday.
Everyone has heard of Romeo and Juliet, but often forgotten is the extent of the hateful environment that is determined to keep apart these two star-crossed lovers. At the end of the play, Shakespeare reveals that the true tragedy is the way the whole city has fallen captive to the Exclusionary Way of the Montagues and the Capulets.
Romeo, a Montague, has been reared in the Exclusionary Way. He willingly joins the fight against his Capulet foes, and draws his best friend Mercutio into the feuding, exclusionary way. It is miraculous that Romeo could ever love an outsider more than his own clan, and would even try to become a new family with Juliet Capulet. Even Mercutio cannot believe it.
Juliet has not yet become a full Capulet. Her nurse provided a safe-haven during childhood, but cannot prevent Juliet’s fate as a Capulet woman. One day Juliet will be married off to strengthen the Capulet family. It is miraculous that Juliet, when Romeo appears on her windowsill, chooses to love her enemy instead of fulfilling her destiny as a pawn in her parents’ feuding game. The two lovers choose to leave the Exclusionary Way for a new way as the Montague-Capulet family. They have never seen this type of family before, but they are committed to being together in hope of a better way.
Romeo and Juliet are to be commended for choosing the difficult path of new family, even as they are drawn into that difficult path by a greater power—love. Yet they cannot have it both ways. Romeo loves Juliet, and promises to love her Capulet family as his own. Then in the name of revenge and justice he acts as his old self, as a Montague, and kills Juliet’s cousin Tybalt. Banished Romeo still has hope for love as long as Juliet, his love, lives on.
Juliet keeps her marriage a secret, but she cannot hide her grief. Her mother and father arrange for her to marry the Prince’s cousin, to secure Capulet plans for more influence in city government. Juliet must choose between her Romeo and the Exclusionary Way. Juliet resists returning to her old, Capulet self in the best way she can through faking her death.
The rest of the story is well known: the supposed death of the lover leads the other to despair. Each no longer believes their love can survive in Verona, and they both choose suicide rather than return again to the Exclusionary Way. But by this point in the play, All of Verona is caught up in the duel between the two powerful families. As Montagues and Capulets fight one another, they drawn in the Prince and the rest of the city by their tactics of control, manipulation, bullying, and violence. The Montague v. Capulet game of “winner take all” results in tragedy for everyone. Both families lose beloved relatives, and several other citizens of Verona die in the feud. In the end, the Exclusionary Way does not protect anyone, even those in its own party. There is no hero, no victor, at all. All are punished.
Love does not cause the tragedy in Romeo and Juliet. It is the old hate, the Exclusionary Way, which rears its ugly head for ultimate destruction. Or rather, it is penultimate destruction. For there are survivors in this evil time, even though all survivors are guilty. All hands are stained by the sin of exclusion, but they are given a chance to change their ways.
Romeo and Juliet truly is the greatest love story ever told, because on the morning after the tragic suicides, the surviving Montagues and Capulets pledge to leave the Exclusionary Way and cease their feuding. The families move into the future as Montague-Capulets, as fellow citizens of Verona instead of sworn enemies. Though “never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo,” in coming together the families take up Romeo and Juliet’s hope in a better way for tomorrow.
But before they go, the two families do something strange. Capulet and Montague both promise to build golden statues for the other’s lost child. While some may scoff the gesture, Shakespeare knows that statues, like stories, are powerful symbols that make people remember. And remembering Romeo and Juliet is important to Verona, because the process of becoming fellow citizens after a feud takes much longer than a photo op and a handshake.
To end their Exclusionary ways, the families must heed the Prince’s challenge to “Go hence and have more talk of these sad things.” They must commit to the process of Dialogue with one another. To become fellow citizens may take years, generations even. It will take much talk, much discernment, much restitution, much forgiveness, and much more of the love brought together Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. The golden statues remind every citizen to resist returning to the Exclusionary Way, so that one day, the story of woe will become a story of unconquered love. Exclusion will be ended, feuds will be over, and there will be true peace for the whole city.
North Carolina is now an American Verona. Rather than dueling families, there are dueling parties every Monday on the lawn of the capitol. And whether or not one is physically present, all North Carolinians are involved, and all are affected.
Currently one party, the Republican led General Legislature and Governor Pat McCrory, are trying to narrate the duel in a Montague v. Capulet way. These legislators want the state and the nation to join their side in a battle between Winners v. Losers. Rep. John Blust proudly framed the matter as a fierce, no-love-lost basketball rivalry: “I think of it like Carolina playing at Duke… I’m not going to let the Cameron Crazies throw me off my game.” Since Blust is concerned with winning, he cannot, or chooses not to see the Moral Monday protests in any other way. Blust believes North Carolina is a place of Republican Montague v. Moral Monday Capulet, and he has chosen to be a Montague, and wants the whole state to support the Montagues too.
Governor Pat McCrory and other state legislators believe they are Montagues fighting Capulets too, and this is the story they tell through media outlets. Pat McCrory warns that Moral Monday demonstrators are “Outsiders…coming in, and they’re going to try to do to us what they did to Scott Walker in Wisconsin.” State Senator Thom Goolsby used slander and mimicry to describe the demonstrators as a “circus…complete with clowns, a carnival barker and a sideshow,” with NAACP leader “’Reverend’ Barber…decked out like prelate of the Church of Tome…complete with stole and cassock.” He then blasted more bullying remarks at any person who dared post a comment on social media. He called ordinary citizens of North Carolina “liberal crybabies,” and claimed they were the guilty ones, not him. Where were they when the Democrats were in power, and “bankrupting the state?,” Goolsby challenged.
In other words, Goolsby claims that Moral Monday demonstrators and those who support them are Liberal Capulets to be defeated. If in power, participants in Moral Monday would champion Capulet interests and oppress Republican Montagues. Goolsby has positioned himself as defender of Republican interests, but his protection comes at high cost for the GOP and the state. North Carolina would have to let McCrory and the Republican legislators keep charge of the Republican Montague family and do things the Exclusionary Way.
But it is time for North Carolina to remember Romeo and Juliet, the famous Shakespeare play many saw and read in their youth. They need to remember that when political systems tolerate or operate in the Exclusionary Way, all sides lose and precious lives are destroyed. In this “winner take all” game of crushing one’s opponents, love cannot truly blossom and no one is truly free. All must sacrifice their wants and hopes and dreams to the family, to the Montagues or the Capulets, for the sake of the Exclusionary Way.
Right now, the leaders of Moral Monday understand this, and they reject the Exclusionary Way of the North Carolina Legislature. They have not come to the steps of the capitol to fight their sworn enemies in their pursuit of justice. Moral Monday demonstrators are looking for Democracy.
Moral Monday demonstrators refuse to be described as Capulets. The organizing leaders refuse to play the “winner take all” game Blust, McCrory, Goolsby and other legislators want to play. Reverend Barber refutes McCrory by reminding North Carolina that they don’t have to believe the Montague story nor tolerate the Exclusionary Way. “This ain’t Wisconsin,” Barber intoned. “This is the South, where justice was hammered out.” Barber stands as a North Carolina citizen for his fellow citizens. As he and others stand for the people of this state, Moral Monday exposes the injustices occurring due to the Exclusionary Way of the General Legislature.
Like wise, in a letter to his children, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove explained that he peacefully refused to leave the state capitol and was arrested because “we believe they are wrong because we know a better way of life. We have asked them to consider the pain they are causing others by pursuing their own interests. They have refused to listen.…But what they are doing cannot last forever because it is not true. “ Because the Exclusionary way isn’t true and doesn’t protect, Wilson-Hartgrove will not return hate with hate. Moral Monday will not act as Capulets, even when the Republicans act as Montagues with their words, their money, and their power to arrest those who practice civil disobedience.
Now is the time for all citizens of North Carolina to choose which side to believe and to stand on. Must North Carolina believe the Exclusionary Way and its story of fierce and unquenchable rivalry between Republicans and Democrats? Or is this “defeat or be defeated” narrative not the way to live as North Carolinians any more? Must all citizens, to protect the people and things they love, accommodate and contribute to an Insiders v. Outsiders society? Or is there a way to be fellow citizens with our own wants and dreams, and with disagreements as to how to make those happen?
There is a better way to address the injustice in North Carolina, and it is found in the search for Democracy. True Democracy, forged and shaped by generations of Americans, recognizes the diversity of its citizens and the dreams of multiple families. Seeking liberty and justice for all, citizens in a Democracy journey together for the good of all people through the practice of Dialogue. This is why I support Moral Monday demonstrators, and stand with them as they speak for me.
Rejecting fear and manipulation, Dialogue makes room for all parties. It follows the rules of hear and be heard. Dialogue understands differences, airs grievances, and then forges new connections that will bring justice and liberty to all. Legislators and citizens who practice Dialogue are the true Democrats and the true Republicans, no matter where they stand on any one issue. This is True Democracy, of citizen voice in the legislative process. And Americans have been working hard to reach Democracy, generation after generation. Let us remember our American foremothers and fathers, who strove to make a better way to be citizens together.
After all, American history is full of its own Romeo and Juliet tragedies. Many a plaque, statue, and memorial keep record of our nation’s losses due to the Exclusionary Way. The Civil War—North v. South, States v. Union, Slavery v. Abolition, Brother v. Brother—however you call it, it was the bloodiest instance of Exclusionary Way. The Jim Crow era was equally terrorizing for North Carolinians, with deeply held fears and power differentials between whites and blacks culminating in Klu Klux Klan revivals and the Lynching Tree. These American tales of woe left deep marks on American bodies and souls. All were punished.
Thankfully, there has always been a voice calling our nation and North Carolina back to a better way of True Democracy. Like the Prince of Verona, they challenge us to remember our losses, and go forth as fellow citizens instead of mortal enemies. The Civil Rights movement, born out of Greensboro and other North Carolina sit-ins, was once a voice. Moral Monday, right now, is acting as this voice in the state of North Carolina. They are calling all citizens to stop seeing one another as enemies, and to join together in search of Democracy.
Fortunately for North Carolina, this pivotal moment of choice is offered before the next great tragedy occurs. In this moment, the state stands between two paths. There is always a choice to repent from the old way, the old fights, and the old family feud. There is always a chance to try again to act as one Montague-Capulet family, to move forward together. But there is also always a temptation to fall back, and return to the Exclusionary Way.
And these two paths are open to everyone. Even now, Governor McCrory and the Republican legislature have a choice to stop believing they are Montagues who must defeat Capulets or their political party will die. They can act as Romeo, and leave the Exlusionary Way by falling in love with a Capulet. Moral Monday demonstrators must continue to resist the temptation to turn from fellow citizenship back to feuding, even in the name of justice. They must be strong like Juliet, or they will prove Goolsby right and become Capulet pawns in an Exclusionary power play. Like Romeo and Juliet, neither side can have it both ways.
For me, I choose not to believe in the Exclusionary Way. I admit that this is a difficult choice, because I, like everyone else, have been trained to fear potential enemies rather than trust potential friends. I must repent, and take stock of the ways I have been drawn into the Exclusionary Way, because in our society they are pervasive and mighty. I must repent on behalf of my community when it teaches me that the Exclusionary Way is “right” and “good.” I must repent when I have turned back to the Exclusionary Way, and try again to follow a better way.
Right now I choose to use my voice as a fellow citizen to affirm that Moral Monday demonstrators speak for me as they stand for North Carolina citizens in search of Democracy. But I am also ready to sound the alarm if Moral Monday turns to Exclusionary tactics of enemy defeat over Dialogue and True Democracy. I am convinced that if both parties in this duel submit to the Exclusionary Way, we are all punished no matter which side wins in the November elections. The key for North Carolina, and for me, is to remember Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and to go hence in search of True Democracy.