Friday, October 9, 2015

On Evil and Angelic Troublemakers: What Bayard Rustin (and Martin Luther King and Gandhi) Were About

Colleen, thank you for reminding me that angelic troublemakers should not forget their vocation to be troublemakers. The point on which I'm insisting over and over in comments here lately is that I think we should struggle to keep aiming at the angelic side of the equation, too.

Constantly shouting that those we're challenging are evil may be very satisfying to us psychologically, but it ultimately gets us not anywhere productive. It may leave us with the thrill of self-righteousness and the illusion that we don't need to examine our own less than perfect hearts and motives.

But it doesn't actually do anything. It doesn't get us to the point we claim as our goal — changing what's evil, pushing back against it, collaborating with others to change things for the better.

In fact, it often becomes a kind of purity test to establish within movements who can shout "evil" louder than someone else, and who sees that this person and that institution are evil more clearly than someone else. When our attention ought to be focused on collaborating — on building a movement together to challenge what's wrong in the world — we end up trying to whip each other in line.

We end up turning the very aggression and demonic energy of those we're challenging against each other, establishing hierarchies of stronger and weaker, purer and less pure, within our own movement for change. We end up doing the work of those we want to challenge for them — fragmenting our own movement for change by tearing away at each other.

The spiritual genius of Martin Luther King, Jr. (and he learned this from Gandhi, and Jesus is also in this mix) was not to become like those he was challenging, but to aim at being more angelic and to build a movement that was more angelic. Both King and Gandhi challenged demonic energies of injustice by enacting something different from what they were challenging. They met firehoses and police dogs with non-violence. (My angelic troublemakers quotation is taken from a man who actually went to India to study non-violent resistance with Gandhi's followers, and who brought back Gandhi's philosophy and tactics to teach them to King.)

I feel quite sure that King and his followers saw the systems they were challenging as evil, and that they saw the people enmeshed in those systems, people loosing police dogs on them and turning firehoses on them, as evil. What they did not permit themselves to do was to treat those battering them as evil in return. 

They did not let themselves succumb to the temptation to fill their own movement with a similar demonic energy (and you and others surely should know full well I am not talking of real angels and real demons here: I'm talking about kinds of energy). They did not succumb to the thrill of self-righteousness and let themselves assume that by returning blow for blow, they would be engaging in a holy and righteous cause because those they were opposing were evil.

I suspect that all of us discussing the issue of sexual abuse within religious bodies are pretty well aware that such abuse is evil. I think we may not have to keep shouting about this evil any longer, in order to convince each other that we're dealing with evil.

I think we may have reached a point at which we can stop playing the game of "I see it as more evil than you see it," or "My approach to this evil is purer than your approach." I think it might well be time for us to use our limited energies for what is far more valuable than engaging in all this dysfunctional and non-angelic use of our energy, which is really all about establishing who is bigger and badder in our own movement to resist this abuse.

I also think we've all been pretty well convinced by now that those within religious groups abusing minors are demonstrating evil, acting out of evil, perhaps evil themselves, since as the gospels tell us, evil that is acted out shows us what's inside the heart acting it out. I can understand and have no problem with victims of abuse and those who care about abuse victims concluding that abusers are evil.

What I do resist and have a problem with is our non-angelic belief that we — that any of us — have the right to sum up the humanity of any fellow human being by the word "evil," as if that is the sum total of another person, including a serial killer on death row, a sexual abuser of minors, whatever. 

The angelic energy that, in my view, should be pulling movements for progressive change forward, resists summing others up in this way. It aims to see the other in a different way, a way that believers might call a God's-eye view of the other, as they remind themselves that God sees in a way none of us sees, as God searches the heart of the other. It aims at these impossible angelic practices as its revolutionary assertion against how the "other side" thinks and behaves. It refuses to do to others what is being done to itself.

It refuses to dehumanize in return for its own dehumanization. 

I'll admit, I've really grown sick at heart at the belligerence and aggression, the constant self-serving, self-righteous crowing about the evil of those over there, the really mean-spirited and underhanded assertions about how those who don't crow loudly enough aren't real troublemakers and are just covering for the evil of those folks over there.

I'll admit, I'm plain tired of all of this, and of the folks who keep using this discussion space — despite my repeated requests to them to stop this — to promote this agenda in the most aggressive and belligerent way possible. I've grown tired of having a discussion space I work hard to keep open, inclusive, and respectful used in this way. I'm non-angelic enough myself to grow very weary of being treated so disrepectfully. 

This behavior is all about treating me with disdain and insinuating that I cover for evil, that I don't see the evil that others see with their clear eyes. It's about using the very discussion space I work hard to keep open for others to inform me that my pleas for folks to stop engaging in this rhetoric will simply be ignored, because I command no respect at all.

Meanwhile, as we fight among ourselves in this ridiculous way, the work we claim to be about — and it's a gargantuan task, and requires collaborative effort and thoughtful strategizing — is not getting done.

To the delight of the folks we say we're opposing.

The graphic is a clip from a slide-show presentation by Joe Gerstandt at the site.

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