Bread and Roses

In the 2014 movie Pride,
there is a scene of loveliness
that you know you shouldn’t fall for,
but do.

A woman stands up
in a crowded room full of talk and confusion
and begins to sing
in a haunting voice;
soon a few more women
stand to sing with her,
then the whole room.
All are joined in song,
and tears prick your eyes.

Pride is based on
the true story of gay and lesbian Londoners
throwing their lot in
with striking miners around Britain
during the time
that the Thatcher government
was trying to crush unions.

It’s the 1980s,
and activist Mark Ashton realizes
that the reason the LGBTQ community
isn’t being too harassed lately
is because the police
have been diverted
to dealing with striking miners;
immediately, Mark holds
a fundraiser during London’s Gay Pride,
and, suddenly, a new group is born:
Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners
or, since every political movement
needs an unwieldy acronym: LGSM.

As you might imagine,
some of the miners and their communities
aren’t thrilled to be linked
to the gay community,
and some in the LGBTQ community
aren’t thrilled to focus on miners and their towns,
since many escaped places just like them
so they could be free to be themselves.

Somehow, though, LGSM
ends up in a small town in Wales,
and bonds are slowly forged
after distrust, setbacks, and protests,
as the miners learn that
these activists know a thing or two
about how to protect their rights
when dealing with police harassment
and the activists learn
that miners aren’t as prejudiced as they assumed.

If you want to know
how this amazing moment of solidarity
turns out, well, you’ll have to watch the movie.

But back to the song.
During a community meeting
of rural miners and their families
and urban GLBTQ folks,
there is lots of talk and argument
about what to do next,
when a young woman
stands to sing:

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”

The other women rise
to sing the second verse in harmony,
which ends,
“Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes—
hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses.”

And, finally, the whole room
joins—for the Welsh are a singing people—
and together sing the last two verses,
all stirred by this old union song,
inspired by the slogan,
“Bread for all, and Roses too”
that first appeared as women struck
for the right to vote
and then later joined trade union fights
for decent working conditions and fair wages.
Helen Todd who first uttered the phrase,
said that “bread for all, and roses too”
“expressed the soul of the women’s movement,”
that women want bread
for themselves and their families—
home, shelter, and security—
but they also want roses—
beauty, art, and nature.

The slogan “bread and roses”
then appeared at union protests and strikes
throughout the beginning of the 20th century,
inspiring a poem
and then a song
that became the anthem of trade unionists,
the IWW, and the women’s movement.
It is still sung today
at protests and women’s colleges.
And why not?

For don’t we understand that need
for bread for the body and roses for the soul?
How can we choose between food and beauty;
there need not be a dichotomy,
a divide, between the two,
though the practical, unimaginative Judas
seems to think so
as he criticizes Mary’s beautiful, lavish act
of love and sorrow and gratitude
as she breaks open a jar of costly perfumed oil
to anoint Jesus’ feet,
allowing the oil to thickly cover him
and then letting down her long hair
and using it to wipe his feet with the oil,
allowing the rich fragrance to fill the room.

Here Judas protests:
This expensive nard should have been sold
and the money given to the poor!

Poor, impoverished Judas,
an accountant of “should,”
pinched with need.

And lest we think that this fault
is peculiar to Judas,
all the Gospels share this story,
and in all someone protests,
sometimes the disciples,
sometimes a religious leader,
so it’s not just Judas
who balks at this lavish act of beauty,
insisting that the needs of the poor come first.
Perhaps even we are made uncomfortable here:
a sensual act of love,
bowing before Jesus,
pouring oil over his feet,
hands and hair used to massage and wipe them.
Then the reminder
that we must give money to the poor,
and Jesus’ seemingly callous answer
that “you always have the poor with you,
but you do not always have me.”

Lavish costly oil versus the poor of this world;
we, like Judas, like the disciples,
think we have to choose.

But Mary sees this is a false choice.

For in anointing Jesus’ feet,
she makes clear who Jesus is—a king—
for it is kings who are anointed.

In anointing Jesus’ feet,
Mary prepares him for death,
for it is the dead who are anointed.

In anointing Jesus’ feet,
Mary lavishes all she has on the poor,
for is not Jesus the poor?
Was he not born in a stable,
without a place to lay his head?
Didn’t the son of God empty himself
so that he might join us
in the poverty of human form?
Jesus ate with the poor,
taught the poor,
healed the poor.
He was crucified
without his clothes,
hung between two criminals,
and, finally, laid in a tomb not his own
but borrowed for him.

In anointing Jesus,
Mary anoints the poor in front of her,
showing us what we are called to:
to bring bread to the poor, yes,
but to bring roses, too.

To open our hands to the poor among us,
as we are told in Deuteronomy
“since there will never cease to be some
in need on the earth” (15:11)
but also to break open our hearts,
pouring out kindness and mercy and love,
for we are to love our neighbors,
not merely administer to them.

Mary refuses to choose between body and soul,
between bread and roses;
she insists on both,
and in Jesus she, we, receive.

For what is more lavish,
more wasteful, than Jesus’
act of love on the cross?
Could he not have done more
by living for another 30 years,
devoting his life to the poor?

And, yet, thank God
for that lavish, beautiful moment
when he broke the vessel of his body,
covering us in his perfumed spirit.

For in Jesus,
we receive bread and roses—
the bread of life,
bread of the world
in mercy broken
for us on the cross,
the roses of his wounds
blooming eternally, beautifully,
in our salvation.