Activism: An Irenic, Inclusive & Intentional Vision

MLPBy Tommy Airey

We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spike into the wheel itself.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Right after Andrew educated me on the elaborate formula he uses to determine his weekly lotto number, Will stared me down intensely, proclaiming “It’s happening and I’m gonna need a ride to the airport.” This was probably the sixth time he’d told me this since arriving in Detroit less than a year ago (so far it hasn’t happened and he hasn’t needed a ride). Eternally glued to his smart phone, he has been taking money out of his monthly SSI check to “invest” in a business that he is utterly convinced will deliver him two planes with $100 million so, as he puts it, he can “get out of this shit hole.”

Andrew & Will are exhibits A & B exposing a world defecated on by imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, inflicting addiction and mental illness in its wake. It breeds scams and fraudulent behavior dressed up as “competition” and “work ethic,” thriving on personal responsibility narratives. While conventional wisdom obsesses over symptoms, it is vital to remind ourselves that Andrew, Will and the-rest-of-us (in ways less obvious) are being sodomized by systems: an economic system thriving on massive unemployment along race & class lines, ecological destruction, a totally dysfunctional “democracy” and a rapid deterioration of the commons. This state of affairs requires serious moral action.

In an interview a couple of years ago nature writer and Oregon State philosophy professor Kathleen Dean Moore said:

I used to think it was enough for all of us simply to live our lives imaginatively and constructively. I don’t think that anymore. I think we have to find the time to be politically active. I don’t want to cut anybody any slack on that…

The reason nonviolent methods haven’t worked is because we haven’t really tried them yet. We haven’t tried massive protests and civil disobedience. We haven’t tried boycotts. We haven’t harnessed the power of the global religions. Somewhere near half of us don’t even vote. Here and there, sure, we’ve tried nonviolence, but not on the scale we need. Let’s give it a go.

For years, Moore was spending all her time teaching, writing, parenting and exploring nature, and then one sentence from Yale’s James Gustave Speth changed her life:

The only thing we have to do to be sure we will leave a ruined world for our children and our grandchildren is to do exactly what we are doing now.

Protests, rallies, direct action, boycotts. We’ve all got to be doing some of this because, quite frankly, an inspired few are doing all of it. This state of affairs is a recipe for status quo for Andrew, Will and the-rest-of-us and a shitload of burnout (and addiction and mental illness) for the few cutting against-the-grain for transformation.

The world desperately needs people who take seriously their creative talents and inspirations and their commitments to vegetarianism, blogging, social media posting, gardening, poetry, divestment, recycling and socially conscious consumption—and then extend it beyond personal practices, to a more strategic communal and cosmic orientation.

Monica Lewis-Patrick (photo above) of We The People of Detroit, a key leader in the struggle against massive water shut-offs and tax foreclosures targeting low-income residents in the city, challenges fellow activists that their work must transcend “philanthropic do good in the hood” projects. Lewis-Patrick broke out in a hopeful and challenging sermon two months ago when some of us met with a delegate from Venezuela. An excerpt:

We need collaboratives, networks and communes. We don’t have a government with the will, but we will not go without a fight. We will see it through in our lifetime, but to do it, we will need plenty of allies and creative out of the box solutions.

EllaLewis-Patrick, and the cadre of women leading up We The People of Detroit, beautifully cultivate the Spirit of Ella Baker (right), an exemplar of rare democratic leadership who always put the community of everyday, ordinary people at the very center of the movement.

Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, has been narrating a lifestyle of activism flooded with the daily tension of deep grief and consistent joy.

His vision for people of radical faith and conscience is two-fold:

First, we should commit some of our energy to movements that focus on the question of justice in this world, especially those of us with the privilege that is rooted in that injustice. As a middle-class American white man, I can see plenty of places to continue working, in movements dedicated to ending patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, economic domination by the First World, and U.S. wars of aggression.

I also think there is important work to be done in experiments to prepare for what will come in this new future we can’t yet describe in detail. Whatever the limits of our predictive capacity, we can be pretty sure we will need ways of organizing ourselves to help us live in a world with less energy and fewer material goods. We have to all develop the skills needed for that world (such as gardening with fewer inputs, food preparation and storage, and basic tinkering), and we will need to recover a deep sense of community that has disappeared from many of our lives.

Only a beloved community of support, nurture and challenge will be able to sustain dramatic acts of resistance and experimentation.

This is where Princeton professor Jeffrey Stout comes in to focus our efforts more strategically. In his book Blessed Are The Organized (2010), Stout differentiates between several different kinds of engagement with the terrain of power.

-There are lifestyle liberals who cast votes, attend rallies, sign petitions and donate money to express their anger at injustice.

-There are also social critics who effectively denounce domination, but who lack the energy or discernment to offer “a precise, accessible, and detailed description of the organizational options open to people who seek large-scale change.”

-There are fugitive democrats who lament that authentic democracy is unattainable. They do not aspire to govern, but to break off and “nurture the civic conscience of society.”

-There are anarchists who “offer a vision of a coming community without rulers but neglect to explain what would keep the strong from enslaving the weak if the vision were realized.”

-And there are grassroots democrats who, by building broad-based coalitions, commit their lives to organizing themselves, educating themselves and strategizing to keep the powers accountable.

Only grassroots democrats, according to Stout, can strategically pave the way to a whole new world where domination and arbitrary exclusion cease to exist. This is hard, demanding work that only long-distance runners for justice can endure.

Howard Zinn, towards the end of his classic The People’s History of the United States (1980) called all of us privileged folks “the guards of the system.” As long as the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbage men and firemen remain busy and silent (or only “committed to their families”), nothing will really change for the poor, marginalized, oppressed and abused in our world.

The guards (a vast majority of them white, middle-class Americans) must end their silence and compliance and join up with the Cause. This will take sacrifice, time, energy & resources. Certain privileges, comforts and conveniences will be on the chopping block. Friends and family members will think you’ve gone Richter, as Mary Oliver lyrically ponders:

But you know how it is

when something
different crosses
the threshold — the uncles
mutter together,

the women walk away,
the young brother begins
to sharpen his knife.

We will continue to live in the deep tension between promise and peril. But within this precarious space, we can conceive & birth more and more promise over the long haul. Andrew, Will and the-rest-of-us will see it in our lifetime if a critical mass moves

from intuition
to in tension
to intentional practices
to institutional protest
to inhabitation of a whole new world.


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