Faith

Can we dream of a better, a new, a peaceful, a just, world, and if so, how do we make the dream into reality?

A book and an Op-Ed have given me some answers to those always timely questions.

The book is On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (Viking 2018) by Deray McKesson and the Op-Ed, from the New York Times of  September 21, 2018, is “We Are Not the Resistance” by Michelle Alexander. 

Each has a distinct perspective and agenda—McKesson reflecting on his experience of being a lead organizer in Ferguson MO protests and then helping form #Black Lives Matter, and Wallace, in a much shorter space, talking about how the term “resistance” is being misused and is damaging efforts to create desperately needed social change. 

On the Other Side of FreedomFor me, however, they converge in offering real life ideas and strategies for that change. And they each share truths and history about how those struggling for freedom, work for justice and wholeness in the world help bring about real change.

Let me begin with Wallace. Her powerful essay is classic Wallace (author of the enormously insightful and life-changing book about mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, in that here she again uses history to show it is being ignored, misused and repeated. 

A basic observation is that throughout U.S. history, the struggle that has created change is the work of oppressed and disadvantaged people to achieve justice, e.g., African Americans to end slavery and Jim Crow and gain freedom, workers seeking fair wages, reasonable hours, decent workplace conditions, and dignity, women seeking voting rights and an end to rape culture, etc. (none of these yet won, of course).  That is the course of history, she says. The resistance has come from the powerful, the propertied, the privileged. In that sense, she writes, 

Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision to the next election cycle, leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history. The disorienting nature of Trump’s presidency has already managed to obscure what should be an obvious fact: Viewed from the broad sweep of history, Donald Trump is the resistance. We are not.

We are not the resistance photoWhen I read her piece I was buoyed up. It makes so much sense. Those who are trying to take us back to some imagined golden time (“fake news”) are the ones reacting to, and resisting, the flow of history which has, here and elsewhere, pushed the world to new levels of justice, dignity, equality, and inclusion (even as there is so far yet to go).

We owe it to those on whose shoulders we stand who worked and sacrificed and died for more justice, more peace, more shalom to continue the march, even as we know many of the privileged and the powerful will resist. 

And yet, of course, that means we who want that more have work to do. As former Attorney General Eric Holder cautioned several years ago, commenting on Dr. King’s memorable statement about the moral universe, “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.” 

In slightly more than 200 pages, Deray McKesson—using the experience of creating with others a movement in Ferguson,  his own personal history, and the dogged and ongoing pursuit by him and others of information about how white supremacy works in this country—gives us both information about right now that we need and how we can go about using what we learn to create real and deep and lasting change. 

Deray McKesson

Deray McKesson

I learned a lot from this book—about the current realities of police violence against people of color, wisdom of how complicated coalitions are, and the importance of hope and faith (for him, as for others, including questions about whether God is in the struggle any more), as well as important perspectives on organizing and not being quiet—and I encourage all to read it. It is very readable, life on every page, and hope laced throughout. 

I want to focus here on McKesson’s thoughts on hope. I have long said I am a hopeful person, a person who does not lose hope even in the midst of great challenges. But after reading this book I think I have been rather passive about hope, seeing it as an attitude, a perspective on life—good things, yes, but not enough. 

“Hope is not magic,” he writes, “hope is work.” I saw this in his person when I heard him speak at George Washington University recently—he is a deeply engaged and engaging human being. I felt him reaching out to us, yearning for us to join the struggle. 

He observes that many Black folks, and undoubtedly other marginalized and oppressed people, feel it is unfair to require them to carry the burden of hope in the face of huge obstacles to liberation and justice.  I have heard this said along the way in struggles for LGBTQ equality as well. 

“To this I say that the absence of hope, not its presence, is burden for people of color. If anything, blackness is a testament of hope: a people born in and of resistance, pushing against a tide meant to destroy, resting in a belief that this world is not the only one that can be.” (I remember the magisterial collection of writings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope, edited by the late extraordinary scholar James M. Washington). 

McKesson says that faith is the burden that gets misnamed as hope. Faith is our choice. Whether we have faith or not is a decision to make—and it can be difficult if not impossible when we struggle and we see others struggle only to be crushed by the dominating powers. He says his faith wavers at times, and I know this to be true for me. 

But then he says what caused me to stand up and cheer in recognition of a fundamental truth:

I think that in some ways the hope of black people is the fuel for this nation; that it is the creativity and ingenuity of a people who have had every reason to choose resignation but have not that fuels both the culture and cadence of this American life. 

Amen. A truth of black lives and women’s lives, queer lives, disabled lives, elderly lives, youthful lives. 

Michelle Wallace

So we have work to do. We have to protest—surely protesting is the work of hope. And we have to keep nurturing and expanding the vision of what a world of justice and joy—a work we have yet to see in the flesh—will be. The world we want, the world we seek, the world to which all are entitled. 

I go forward with renewed and stronger courage, and faith, grounded in hope. Read this book, read the essay by Michelle Wallace, and let us join the march forward. 

Spiritual journeys are often arduous affairs. Many people who have shared about their own admit that they went places they did not expect to be, saw things they did not expect or maybe even want to see, and changed more,and in ways other, than they thought possible or even desirable (at least initially).

Mother TeresaMother Teresa, for example, wrote (in private diaries only published after her death) that much of her journey of caring for the poor, exhibiting what the world saw as enormous faith, was marked by a lack of faith in the presence of God. Nonetheless, she kept going until the end.

It is this kind of patience, perseverance, that so many lack. Our Western culture lives on the fast track, wanting only sound bites for answers, quick fixes that may make the fixer feel good but do not really change anything.

I am struck by how this desire for the quick fix is infecting the political arena in the United States today. It reminds me of an earlier time in our national life, a tumultuous time before the Civil War. Slavery was unsettling the nation to be sure, but there were other stresses, too.

Citizen Know Nothing

“Citizen Know Nothing” by Sarony & Co., lithographer – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

One was immigration. Wave upon wave of immigrant from Europe–many Irish and German Catholics arriving in the late 1840’s and 50s–scared those already here. They feared the country would be taken over by the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

A political movement arose, under various names, but ultimately came to be known popularly as the Know Nothing Party  (because members, seeking to keep their membership and work a secret, were encouraged to say, “I know nothing,” when asked if they belonged). It officially became the American Party, and other combinations of terms, designed to highlight their belief that only nativists (but not Native Americans, of course), not these Catholic immigrants, were the true Americans.

It would be easy to say the Republican candidates, and many of their supporters, today are like the Know Nothings. But in fact the Know Nothings supported many progressive measures. They often supported regulation of railroads and other institutions and free public education, and many opposed slavery and spoke against concentrations of wealth.

What does connect these Know Nothings with contemporary Republicans is fear, fear that someone from the outside is destroying the nation. Today, it is immigrants from Mexico (“build a wall” so no more come in, and send all the ones here back), and now, thanks to twenty or so state governors, it is immigrants fleeing the chaos and terror of Syria (because among their number are sure to be some ISIS-inspired terrorists seeking to come here to destroy us).

And there is another fear, namely that elites–the so-called mainstream media today is the favorite–are selling out all the good, ordinary Americans. Certainly, the anti-politician rhetoric of Messrs. Carson and Trump, and their supporters, reflect this belief. Another target of many, though not all, are the banks and other concentrations of wealth.

All of this feels very scary to many of us. Simplistic solutions to complicated problems rarely help, certainly scapegoating groups does no good, and insisting that one ideology or religion has all the answers has never worked, and will only promote totalitarianism.

ilearnamerica.com

ilearnamerica.com

Is it possible to say a nation is on a spiritual journey? I hope so. We are in the midst of great turmoil. We are being shown things about ourselves that many would rather not see (e.g., the continuing violence against African-Americans). Indeed, many refuse to even look. Instead, they apply angry rhetoric and harsh policies to avoid having to deal with complicated realities.

I continue to pray, and hope, however, that all this is leading us to a deeper place, a place where we can finally face the fact that our nation, though wonderful and beautiful in many ways and surely the land that I love, is not the paragon of virtue and freedom we claim to be–indeed that we never have been–and that we need to find ways to lower the decibels, listen more to disparate voices on the margins and work with other nations in constructive ways (even recognizing their own national needs as legitimate, not just ours).

What helps me pray, helps me to share this hope? I remember Mother Teresa who stayed the course. She wrote in her journal in 1961, as revealed in the book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light

“Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God. … The torture and pain I can’t explain.”

donmilam.com

donmilam.com

According to those who have studied her life in depth, she died with this struggle still very alive in her. Her spiritual adviser of many years, Rev. Joseph Neuner, helped her realize that her feelings of abandonment only increased her understanding of the people she helped. And she identified her suffering, and their suffering, with that of Jesus.

Our answer as a nation is not to lash out at others unlike us, to find easy fixes in blaming others, but to go more deeply in our own souls, as individuals and as a nation, and persevere in creating more justice and more opportunity and more openness everywhere in the world.

The answer to our troubles, our need, lies not so much in politics (necessary as good politics is), as it does in spiritual depth–I don’t mean religion, even though I am a deeply religious person, because we are a secular society–but I do mean in going on a spiritual journey together.

We must find a way to knit our hearts together without blame and recrimination, without scapegoating or false divisions.

One nation under God (whatever you think of, or about, God).