A dispatch from the political wilderness
By Rosemary Bray McNatt
The story we Unitarian Universalists tell about ourselves is a story of heroic dissent. Much of that story is true: For a long time, and in many places, we have affirmed life in the face of death; we have stood for justice in the face of injustice. That has been our gift and a small part of our blessing to this world. But what looks to us like heroic dissent has often gone unnoticed in the larger world. We call for a world of love and justice, but who is listening? The truth is that liberal religious people, including Unitarian Universalists, have been politically marginalized for some time. Once part of every crucial moral and spiritual conversation in American life, we have become in the last century merely a footnote, a feature story in the lifestyle section, or a segment in the last five minutes of the news broadcast where we alternate with other quaint stories of human interest. The stories others know about us are very different than the stories we tell about ourselves.
I have come to the painful realization that we sometimes conflate our dreams of the Beloved Community with the difficult and grueling work that might lead to its achievement. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that “one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites—polar opposites—so that love is identified as a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.” It isn’t hard to notice that power without love surrounds us in this country today. But think too of the extent to which we live our lives amid expressions of love without political power. Think of the countless acts of mercy with which each of us may have aligned ourselves: We work with Habitat for Humanity, we volunteer at shelters and mentor children, we testify before hostile legislators unwilling to extend human rights to the whole human family; we lobby for an end to punitive drug laws that target people of color; we do a thousand things in an effort to make our love visible. And yet, if we had power, real political power, would not the hungry already be fed, those children already joyful? Would not Habitat be out of business and our legislators obsessed with supporting human dignity rather than denying it? Would not captives of every variety already be freed? If we had real power, is it not possible that our work would already be done?
King continues to challenge us: “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
My thinking on this topic was provoked most recently by a Beacon Press book, Going Public, by the community activist Michael Gecan. (I reviewed the book in the March/April 2003 issue of UU World.) A seasoned activist who is relentless in his use of strategy, Gecan heaps scorn upon those political liberals who, in their very public actions, hope to effect profound social transformation but who, in reality, create only a spectacle. He describes a morning in New York City in which hundreds of police officers were gathering in preparation for what he imagined would be a massive demonstration. Curious about the amassing of such large numbers of police, he went back during lunch to see what would transpire. He describes what he saw:
I have been haunted for months now by Gecan’s words. The notion of well intentioned activists as political idolaters is painful to consider but impossible to dismiss. I understand the vital importance of symbolic actions. As a religious leader, I regularly count on the unexpected power of those symbols to evoke in my gathered community a sense of the holy and a connection to one another. But upon reading and reflecting on Gecan’s words it is hard not to imagine the many times that we as liberal religious and liberal political people have mistaken symbols for what is real, substituted what Gecan calls reenactments for the power that King reminds us can correct everything that stands against the love we seek.
I recall an event last spring, when we Unitarian Universalists witnessed for peace in a small circle in front of the UN one Wednesday afternoon. We made it so very clear that we opposed the war in Iraq being fought in our name; several of us were even interviewed by CBS Radio for later broadcast. I was glad to be there, praying in my clerical collar, witnessing to our common desire to end the war. Yet our numbers were so small, the gesture so futile in its impact, we could stand only as witnesses—articulate, well dressed witnesses who stood watch over our nation’s failed foreign policy as we prayed, as one participant beat a drum, as people passed us and averted their eyes.
We Unitarian Universalists are extraordinarily faithful witnesses. We are willing to call attention to injustices by the score; our congregations’ social justice and faith in action committees are worn out and burnt out from the gestures of sympathy and solidarity with which we burden them and ourselves. We are vigorous and vocal in our unwillingness to allow anyone within the sound of our voices to believe, even for a second, that the regressive behavior of our government, or the racist behavior of the local police force, or the homophobic behavior of state legislators, has anything whatsoever to do with us. We are not that kind of people, we say, and we are proud of it, proud of being able to say that as bad as things periodically get we do not remain silent. We speak up; we speak out.
We feel good about the commitments we make, and in so doing, we make a point as well: We make sure that our hands are clean, that we are disconnected from the big horrors and the small ones that plague this broken world. We make it clear that our hearts are pure. “Don’t blame me,” in the words of the bumper sticker, “I voted for the other guy.” Above all else, we are wedded to our innocence. We believe that “love will guide us through the hard night.” But I am not so sure of that as I once was; I have found myself afraid for our faith—afraid that we have embraced a love too sentimental, too anemic, too powerless to matter in a world filled with unspeakable acts committed by people who have no interest in our witness. I am afraid that we have embraced only the symbols of love and justice and peace with no commitment, and often no clue about what we will face at the moment we attempt to make these things real. I am afraid we have consistently underestimated the people and the systems we oppose, and overestimated our own skill, our own willingness, and our own resilience. I am afraid that we have settled for cheap grace in a very expensive world.
I formally began my first full-time ministerial settlement, in New York City, two days before the September 11 attacks. The impact that disaster has had on my life and on my ministry is one I will be evaluating for some years to come. One obvious effect for me has been my commitment to the development of a trauma and crisis ministry within our movement, and so I am a founding member of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry, and I continue to pursue training in this area. It’s for this reason that I came to be in Somerset, New Jersey, earlier this summer, completing courses for certification in mass disaster response. Imagine feeling accomplished about something so gruesome. Yet it was fascinating and fulfilling to learn skills I now think of as prerequisites for doing ministry in places like New York City.
Training in this work, as you might imagine, places you in the presence of people who most Unitarian Universalists would never have occasion to meet, at least voluntarily: lots of police officers, lots of military personnel, lots of folks from the FBI and the ATF and the Justice Department. I met a lot of folks like that over the four days of training, and among them was Jake, an African American man who spent his teenage years in a gang and entered the Army during the Vietnam War as a member of the special operations forces. These are the people who go to a country in anticipation of war, and though we of a particular political persuasion believe they might be there to provoke war, Special Ops folks, as I understand it, see themselves as part of the diplomatic arm of our government, working behind the scenes to destabilize dictatorial regimes and prepare citizen rebels to take arms against their governments.
Let’s be clear: I have issues with this. But at the same time, I was grateful for the willingness with which Jake engaged me as I interrogated him over dinner for more than an hour—for who knew when such an opportunity would present itself again? I asked lots of questions about how he could do what he does, how he survives seeing what he has seen, how he has faced the scorn of people who have no faith at all in our government. He was eager to talk to me, more than willing to share his own sense of disillusionment with the government that he admitted had betrayed him over and over and over again.
Jake talked a lot about the friends who died in his arms in lots of different countries; about the insurgent citizens of other countries who were murdered by their country’s dictators when America’s foreign policy shifted yet again. He talked about returning from Vietnam, living with the psychic pain of having done so much killing—a pain that grew so great he could not function—and being told that there was nothing the VA could do for him, since he was not physically injured and there was no indication that what was bothering him was war-related.
He told me of riding the subway from the Bronx from one end of the line to the other, crying all night, until he had calmed himself and recalled the rules that governed his life on the street. He was on his own, and there was no help that wouldn’t come from himself. Tempted to abandon military life, he chose instead to reenlist, to continue his controversial work. When I asked Jake why he would do such a thing after all he said to me, when I asked him how he could continue to be complicit in a way of life that seemed as abhorrent to him as it felt to me, his answer surprised me.
“I don’t want them to go through what I went through,” he said.
“I live with things nobody should have to live with. Nobody with any sense who’s ever fought a war wants to do it again. When you hear the President declare a war, it means that I’ve failed, all the people like me have failed.
“And it means that you failed. You all are the civilians; you had the chance to demand that the government make a certain kind of decision. But when you fail, then they call on us.
“Those other guys in my unit may have had all kinds of reasons to join the army, but they don’t get to decide when to fight. I know enough so that if some of them have to be called up, I can get a lot of them back home again. I do it so I can get those boys back home.”
That is hardly a perfect answer, but this is hardly a perfect life. I tried to imagine the impurity of Jake’s life, the messiness of his choices, and attempted to compare it to our choices as citizens and religious people. We refuse to be corrupted by failed foreign policy. We refuse to be taken in by selfish and self-aggrandizing politicians in our chosen parties, by economic expediency, by bad faith. So we stay out of the fray. We march and write and send e-mail, but we rarely organize strategically. Some of us even refuse to vote “because they’re all alike,” whoever “they” are. We take every available opportunity to make the best the enemy of the good, and as a result we often end up with the mediocre—or worse.
It has been important for us to feel good about our choices, to be correct in our discernment—so important, in fact, that some of us would rather be right than faithful to the call inherent in living a religious life. It is a call that demands messy involvement and disappointing compromise combined with a certain resilience in the face of uncertainty. But our tolerance for uncertainty is woefully low, and thus it is that we find ourselves being held hostage to purity.
I have rediscovered in these past few months that I have a healthy tolerance for fear, but that I really cannot bear the idea that I might be a coward. I cannot abide the idea that the faith I love so much is so often paralyzed by purity, so often blocked by a certain kind of cowardice that we render our good news worthless to those whose lives are under siege.
I am glad I met Jake, but I do not want to be Jake. I do not want a life filled with memories no human being should have to bear. But neither do I feel proud of belonging to a faith in which all too often our symbolic resistance to evil trumps real resistance to evil in this world. What will it take for us not to be cowards, to give up the political idolatry highlighted by Gecan, to move from being resigned and pitiful witnesses in a culture of death to being impassioned advocates for life and for wholeness?
This is the hardest essay I have written in some time, and it took some time for me to discern the reason. I wanted to be triumphant, filled with hope, or at least optimistic about our common lives and future. Being a cynic is frankly against my religion, and a betrayal of my religious heritage as an African American that includes knowledge of a God that “makes a way out of no way.” But this reflection is, in fact, a dispatch from the wilderness. Religious leaders loathe being called to the wilderness—despite the fact that it really does come with our territory. But the wilderness is precisely where we are. It doesn’t matter that, across time and across faith traditions, the wilderness very often turns out to be a spiritually fruitful place. In the short run, life in the wilderness is hard, and insecure, and I do not want to be there.
I believe that many Unitarian Universalists are serious about creating a world of justice and peace; that is, I think we think we mean it. What I believe we are less serious about is what it will take to create that world, particularly in a society filled with people and circumstances actively opposed to a whole and holy life.
Our troubled world is filled with difficult and dangerous people who will not always respond to kind, thoughtful words and good intentions. A time may be coming when the love we hold dear will require a more practical expression. It may no longer be enough simply to counsel peace in a world where there is no peace; as the life of this world grows more violent and dangerous, perhaps the time is coming when we must give up our culture of witness and pick up the heavier burden that the twentieth century Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called discipleship. It may not be long before we risk becoming aimless hypocrites if we are not willing to put our own bodies and lives on the line to protect those who stand in harm’s way.
Perhaps we can hear the truth in Annie Dillard’s classic words: “There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead—as if innocence had ever been—and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit.”
We are unfit for this wilderness; we could have used more time to get ready, more time to think of the perfect strategy and learn the right words to change the world. But like it or not, the wilderness is where we are.
None of us can ever really be innocent again, and frankly, innocence is overrated. But we can be givers and receivers of a more demanding love and a more focused power, starting with one another in the religious communities that shelter us and support our lives. Like Jake, we feel betrayed and doubtful and disappointed too much of the time. Like Jake, we are failed and imperfect and not at all pure. But in the gathered religious community, we are given the gift and the opportunity to pledge ourselves, to offer our very lives, not simply as witnesses, not just as sacrificial symbols of love or power alone, but as true agents of Creation.