Rage to LIVE. Part 1. The Declaration.
The unanimous Declaration of the People who have been exploited, oppressed, incarcerated, adjudicated, murdered, and crippled by a global system that immortalizes greed.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women - mothers, brothers, illegal immigrants and working class fathers, black, hispanic, asian, white, gay, straight, employed, unemployed, sick, well, homeless, orphaned, poor, and widowed alike - are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. That whenever any economic model becomes destructive of these ends, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such a system.
Fuck the way we build companies.
I’ve been thinking about Rage a lot recently. About inequity. About Injustice. About Death and Slavery and Disease. And about the systemic greed and fear and arrogance and ignorance that underlies it all. About the power structures built around the world which enable us to build kingdoms on the whip-torn backs of the enslaved, trillion dollar corporations and hundred billion dollar men on the can't-get-$15-an-hour-to-pay-the-rent backs of the oppressed. We send the billionaires to outer space while we lock fathers up when they steal a loaf of bread to feed their family, and we treat saving lives as secondary to making a dollar. And I admit, it makes me angry. And I’m not alone. Rage, it seems, is everywhere. If you're not angry, you're simply not paying attention.
Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death…
Boston. February 2015. I was twenty-seven years old. I had come to Boston by way of Cambodia - where I worked against slavery and sexual trafficking. I had intended a life’s work fighting against enslavement and oppression, injustice, hopelessness. Against death. And then one February morning I heard the words, “David, you have a rare and untreatable form of head and neck cancer. We will do all we can. But when this comes back, there won’t be much else we can do. Good Luck.”
What do you do when you've been left to die?
Let's talk about cancer for a moment. 1.8 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer in 2020 - a number that increases by 46,000 patients every year according to the American Academy of Cancer Research. More than 600,000 died. To put these numbers in perspective - at that rate of increase, over the next 100 years, 400 Million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer. 150 Million will die of cancer in that same time frame. I’m not sure how we define a public health crisis, but something tells me this qualifies. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are left to die each year without a fighting chance. Millions more globally. Why is this given the vast amounts of money spent in the war on cancer? Because the only drugs that see the light of day are the those that promise the greatest return to that supreme of American Gods - the Almighty stock market. The stock market, like cancer, demands infinite growth. We have given the power of life and death to something that must continue to consume to survive. The drugs that make the most money get made - even if they’ve already been made before. We spit these out at patients on top of cut, burn, poison fattening the pockets of incomprehensibly wealthy organisations whom we pay for the honour of suffering through a few more months with a body choked in pain - because we must, because we can still imagine hope, because we don’t have another option, because we will not go down without a fight. But still we die.
In the past week I’ve received emails from a father in Egypt, a mother in India, and a husband in Virginia. “Dear David,” they begin. And then each has told a story of a beloved daughter, son, and wife, brother, friend, child who has been left to die. “Will you help me?” They all have asked. "Can you save us?"
These letters go beyond the tragedy of losing those we love. They go beyond the common experience of death to which we all shall come soon or late, in peace or in pain. They go beyond suffering. For in each of these cases, the tools exist to have saved these lives. These are unnecessary deaths. Unnecessary sufferings. These people were left to die by a system which has so entrenched its worship of Greed that we are willing to sacrifice human dignity and life at the altar of economic gain.
I’ve worked against the various vestiges of this enslavement for most of my life. I’ve had glimpses of this evil at work. Refugees from Liberia and the Congo in high school, children whose families were killed, forced into exile a world away due to genocide; academic work on reparations in college - the brutal regime of kidnap, violence, rape, and systemic oppression whose vestiges are still alive and well today; anti-slavery and anti-sexual trafficking work in Cambodia - sitting across the table from a nine year old girl describing what it was like to be raped and sold a dozen times each day while Western tourists ambled about indifferent or indifferently ignorant of what was happening before their very eyes.
The commonality among each of these is the willingness to sacrifice human life and dignity for the economic gain of those with power. Greed birthed colonial imperialism and the brutal slave regime that built this country. It created the still thriving global slave trade and international trafficking of women, boys, and girls for sex. (40 million people enslaved in the world today - more than at any other point in human history.) It underlies the field in which I currently work, cancer. It creates countless injustices the world over - from disease to mass incarceration to debt to slavery to violence to poverty. Greed is the greatest and most devastating pandemic we have known as a human race.
No Human Being Left to Die
No human being should be left to die, to suffer, to be forgotten. We should kneel. All of us. In the streets. In the gutters. Next to sinners, saints, mothers, brothers, illegal immigrants and working-class fathers, black, hispanic, asian, white, gay, straight, employed, unemployed, homeless, orphaned, poor, and widowed alike who spit and cough and sputter, who breathe their last, gasping, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. Have mercy. Have mercy. Have mercy.” We should kneel to look them in the eyes, to lift them from beneath that which seeks to steal from them - every child whose lungs have been riddled and choked with cancer, every woman and man who has been trapped and suffocated by abuse, every victim of slavery who can see no path to freedom, every victim of racism and violence whose life has been unjustly taken away, every victim of greed whose life was deemed “not easy or profitable enough” to save. We must fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, must shout for those who have no voice.
And yet, we leave them to die when we stand by, stand fast. When we succumb to the apathy and complicit collusion that marks each of us every time we look away. When we give in to the fear and knowledge that it is often a dangerous and unpopular thing to speak the unbecoming truth to power out loud. To go toe to toe. And so, confronted with the seeming inevitability of our collective experiences of death, of injustice, of systemic oppression, frightened or lulled into silence, we simmer, all of us, with anger. With Rage. With Righteous, justified, mature, “what the actual fuck” Rage.
Rage is Not Enough
But Rage is not enough. Anger will only destroy unless it is harnessed into real, sustained, difficult, costly action. Real anger is marked by real cost. Rage cannot remain “Rage at”. It must become “Rage for”. “Rage to.” Rage coupled with audacious and fearless endeavour to change the order of things, to self-examine, to set the world on fire. Rage that leads to redemption. To radical mercy. To forgiveness. To rehabilitation. To revolution. To reconciliation. We have, often, it seems, lost our capacity to dream, to imagine freedom, to conceive of a reality or a structure or system that is not some version of what we already know. We think in terms of reform, not revolution, and thereby allow ourselves to be seduced into reticent resignation or complicit collusion with an unjust law or status quo. We look away because we cannot look at injusticer anymore and see little hope of tyranny conquered. We look away. But we mustn’t. We must not give in without a fight.
Rage to LIVE.
There is a simple piece of artwork that hangs above the fireplace in my home. It is an excerpt from John Steinbeck’s, East of Eden. "I do not believe that all are destroyed. I can name you a dozen who were not and those are the ones the world lives by. It is true of the spirit as it is true of battles - only the winners are remembered. Surely most are destroyed, but there are others who, like pillars of fire, guide frightened men through the darkness. Thou mayest! Thou mayest!” When I see that piece, I am reminded of David Foster Wallace who wrote that “Real leaders are people who help us to overcome the limitations of our own laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear to do better, harder things than we can do on our own.” Those brave enough to rail and rage and fight against systemic injustices have defined the human story for as long as we have told and had stories to tell. “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."
No human being left to die. That is the vision of Rage to LIVE. You see, I don't think a billion dollars is all that cool. I think a billion lives is, though. A billion lives saved in the next 100 years. Yes, Billion. With a “B”. Capital “B”. Lives. Not Dollars. That’s the Vision. To go to the PEOPLE being left to suffer and to die. Even if no one else will. Even when the whole world says it can’t be done. We will go there - not in spite of, but precisely because others say "You can't do that." And then we will fight on. Disease. Slavery. Poverty. Violence. We will work with others ideally, alone if we must, to fight against all of it. It is all fundamentally and systematically connected. And to change forever, you must change from the inside out, and you must change from below, with the least of these.
Join the Fight
Stand for something. Even if it costs you everything. Like so many others who have stood up to power, I have been hated, cursed, cussed, and betrayed. Falsely accused. Falsely slandered. Told that I didn’t belong. “Philanthropy and business don’t mix. You need to decide what you are. You may get people to cheer, David, but you’ll never get them to write a check.” “You can’t do that.”
I have wept tears not of salt and water but of blood and fire; I have known that to speak the truth and fight against injustice is often to be alone; and I have embraced that. For it made me better able to forgive debts, bless betrayers, slake thirst, shower faithfulness; better equipped to endure: a body choked in pain, a head dizzied by blows, a self shamed… by the innumerable scoffs of the soon to be saved. Those I might soon save. But I have lived with a power on an edge where haunting ghosts nor condemning demons could follow, succoured by an abiding conviction that This. Was. Our. Place. To Stand. Come Hell or High Water.
And yet, like so many others, I have also witnessed repeatedly that I am not alone. That speaking the truth and rallying around justice, equality, and freedom is never to be alone, as much as power may want us to believe that. Truth brings freedom, it brings redemption, it brings LIFE. And it rallies PEOPLE together to fight - plumbers, pop stars, presidents, patients, doctors, DJ’s and dudes. All who believe that God is in the darkness, among the least and the ugly and the forgotten, that they may not be forgotten, that they may be beautiful, that they may be great, that they may be saved, that they may LIVE. Whatever it costs.
"You can't do that." You know how many times I’ve been told that? How many times power has spoken that to the enslaved victims of its own greed? I was in Dubai a few years ago, had just been told by a billionaire that I had no right to call what I was building a business. "Philanthropy and business don't mix. You need to decide what you are.” Later that evening I received a phone call from a mother whose 3 year old son had just relapsed with a devastating rare cancer for the third time. He had a few weeks to live. “I’m going to fight for my son until the end. Then I’m going to come fight at your side." I met Finn Schafran 3 days before he passed away. BrandiLee Schafran, his mother, joined the fight a few weeks later.
Of the People. For the People. By the People.
If Power won’t build it, the People will.
My son, but months old, lies asleep as I write this. And I wonder - what world will he inherit? What shall be his fate? God help me, it will be better than this. I have no idea whether I have 5 years left to LIVE or 50. But I’ve set out with a group of people to build something that will outlive me. So that when he asks one day, “What type of man was my father? What did he do with his hands?” He will have no reason to be ashamed.
What do you do when you’ve been left to die? You die of nothing but a Rage to LIVE. So that one day our children will carve our names on lives, not on buildings.
Join the Fight.