A theology for radicals

Last week I spent two hours in conversation with five friends in Washington, DC. All are experienced in various types of interracial and interfaith dialogue and community building work. All are searching for appropriate responses to the current post-election polarization. Two run programs on university campuses where they said people are “having a difficult time talking with each other….they realize that things are a lot more complicated than they thought….There are confused liberals arguing among themselves but no conservatives at the table.” A key question expressed by these friends could be summarized as, “Do we put energy into fighting for justice and equity or into building bridges?”  

As a social activist myself, I am encouraged by the growing number of people who are making their voices heard for justice and inclusion. But while marches, demonstrations and disruption of town-hall meetings play a powerful role in gaining attention and building political pressure, we must be careful not to be so absolutist in our views that we fail to engage some of those who may come at issues differently but who could be strategic allies. 

The human condition is complex and defies easy stereotyping. Neither liberals nor conservatives can claim the whole truth. Conservatives have valid perspectives and liberals have worthy goals. Both have values that contribute to our society. Each one of us has developed our own worldview based on our lived experience. We may hold opinions that are conservative in some areas and liberal in others. Someone may feel strongly about the sanctity of life with regard to abortion issues but also be opposed to the death penalty, and supportive of racial justice and a welcoming approach to immigrants. Advocates for equal pay or clean air and water may also hold conservative views on taxes or family values. We do a great disservice by insisting on putting people in rigid social and political boxes.

Activists require humility and a readiness to examine our own motives, prejudices and behavior and a willingness to create a space of welcome for those whose participation is essential for real social change to be politically possible.

In June 2012, 150 evangelical leaders signed a statement of “moral and commonsense principles” for immigration reform. The group spanned the political spectrum from the Southern Baptist Convention to Sojourners. This action played an important role in building bi-partisan support for Obama’s decision that young people under sixteen years of age who had come to this country illegally would no longer be subject to deportation. As Jim Wallis

, founder of Sojourners, writes in On God’s Side, the stand by politically diverse faith leaders created space and support for political leaders “to do the right thing.” 

We must constantly ask ourselves whether we are consciously or unconsciously shutting out some voices, whether they are people who demand justice or those who hold economic or political power. We may need to go toward those whose worldview is different from our own and who challenge our assumptions, people who irritate us, even people whose very presence threatens our sense of comfort and security. Working for effective social change requires the best of everyone: liberals and conservatives, immigrants and established populations, city dwellers and suburbanites, the young and the seasoned. 

My question to the courageous leaders of the various resistance and advocacy movements is this: Is enough attention being paid to nurturing the core values and the inner life that are essential for a broad-based and sustainable movement?  

A few days ago, Charles Marsh

spoke at our church about his acclaimed biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose life and philosophy, he said, is particularly relevant at this point in history. I often quote from another of Marsh’s books, The Beloved Community, which highlights the spiritual roots of the civil rights movement. He claims that in its early years the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) pursued a form of discipleship that was “life affirming, socially transformative, and existentially demanding: a theology for radicals.” It made time for “reverie and solitude and for rituals that were refreshingly unproductive. A certain contemplative discipline was an important disposition in building community and trust.” Following threats to his life in 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr. confronted his deepest fears and prayed to “the power that can make a way of no way,” writes Marsh. “Faced with the intransigence of the white resistance, liberal platitudes failed him; notions of essential human goodness and perfectibility were not what the moment required.” 

Wallis writes that we need to be “personally responsible and socially just.” In some circles the notion of personal responsibility is seen as a way of blaming the victim. But every great civil rights leader from Gandhi to Mandela has been crystal clear about the need for self-awareness and readiness to change. And Howard Thurman reminded us: “The root of what I condemn in others is found at long last in the soil of my own backyard. What I seek to eradicate in society . . . I must first attack in my own heart and life. There is no substitute for this.”

Wallis directs equal challenges to liberals and conservatives. He highlights the importance of “choices in individual moral behavior, personal relationships like marriage and parenting, ethics, fiscal integrity, service, compassion, and security.” And he also stresses “commitment to our neighbor, economic fairness, racial and gender equality, the just nature of society, needed social safety nets, public accountability, and the importance of cooperative international relations.” 

Like Marsh he stresses the need for creating quiet space, to embrace silence, and to meditate. In this he finds a renewal of his “attentiveness.” As a Christian, he describes this attentiveness as “interaction with the Living Teacher” and applying those teachings to “the biggest and most consequential of social and political events, to the most personal of our closest relationships, and to the daily interactions we have with colleagues, coworkers, neighbors, and complete strangers.”

My guess is that if both liberals and conservatives were to focus on living up to our highest values and to paying attention to the voice of truth, the voice of conscience, in our own hearts we might find that we could reach some common ground in surprising ways.