Anne Applebaum’s essay, “The Collaborators,” was a good read for me. The subtitle frames the topic: “What causes people to abandon their principles in support of a corrupt regime? And How do they find their way back?” It’s well worth your time to read, and can I even go so far as suggest, contemplate.
I’ve thought about complicity quite a bit over the past several years. My career employment in a religious system that categorized humans other than males as unworthy of leading or even participating was the precipitating environment leading to my confrontation with complicity. For many years my tribe of Baptists didn’t allow women to teach or hold any leadership positions over men. I cleared this hurdle by finding a new tribe in which to work. This new group at least taught that women could serve where ever they were called. While the teachings and practice never really lived up to these aspirations, it was refreshing.
However, my new tribe didn’t accept LGBTQ people as entirely acceptable to participate fully in the life of the community of faith. I grew to understand that this was opposed to everything I knew and valued in my experience with human beings, relationships, and my years of teaching the Christian scriptures. I avoided these inner conflicts, teaching and preaching around them to keep the peace and remain employed. Complicit.
In recent days, it seems that our society is beginning to reckon with race and racism that feels different to me. We all come to these moments at different times and with various precipitating events. I know that this particular moment for people of color is simultaneously welcome, hilarious, and rage-inducing. The punch line being, “WHERE THE ACTUAL F&$K HAVE YOU BEEN LIVING?!?” Where we have been living is very comfortably in our complicity. We can face it or not. But when faced with our collaboration in this unequal and unjust system, one must decide what their actual values are.
Our ACTUAL values are the ones by which we make our everyday decisions. They are the ones that happen automatically, by habit. When the automatic comes in conflict with our espoused or aspirational values, we can count that as uncomfortable or as an opportunity for growth and change. Mere discomfort produces rationalizations and then status-quo. However, our mission, if we choose to accept it, is to dive into the growth and change. It’s hard. But it’s not impossible. We will mess up. And we won’t know what to do. We will stammer and use the wrong words and stumble. But like learning a new language or negotiating a dark room, we’ll adjust. We’ll get more proficient. We’ll find a light switch. These values will become more automatic.
This new place in which I find myself living is simply beautiful. I feel more connected with other human beings every day. That experience expands my world continually, and that is always rewarding. Always. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m a LONG way from arriving. For years, I preached that the minute we think we’ve arrived somewhere is the minute we stop learning and growing. It’s at those moments that the seeds of complicity sprout. My goodness, this world I’m beginning to see, is so much more rich and fulfilling. I’m so thankful to be in this new, scary, uncomfortable place.
It seems to me that the more we have divided ourselves up into smaller and smaller ideological groups, the more anxiety and conflict we have experienced. Ultimately, there is always a smaller box to draw and defend. Eventually, this practice merely leaves us alone in a little box of our own making.
One thing that is becoming evident during our social distancing experience is our coming to share something that crosses so many of the lines we’ve drawn of late. There are still attempts to describe this crisis along some of those old, tired, and disruptive lines. I’ve heard Republican responses and Democratic ones. There have been racist attempts to explain this circumstance. Others are claiming moral superiority. I’ve observed every narrow and highly defended box we have constructed in our efforts to define ourselves of late contorted in attempts to bring some meaning to all of this anxiety and disruption.
But, without fail, the best responses—the ones that have resonated with me; the ones that have moved me—have been human beings responding to other human beings. I’ve watched home learning live feeds that have evoked a huge, lingering smile on my face. I’ve seen celebrities open up their homes via Instagram. I’ve seen people taking care of people. Those responses have been wonderful. The more we step back and broaden our boundaries of who’s in and who’s out, the better the stories become. Even at a “social distance,” expressing and recognizing our shared humanity, without fail, becomes life-giving and light-giving.
Be an excellent human today. You can do this from your COVID-19 bunker. Make a phone call. Check on an elderly friend by phone. Write some letters. Send some texts. Use Facetime. Post human stories rather than political ones. Post helpful information that keeps us all safe and dispels the misinformation and divisions. I came across a beautiful little meme from the amazing Brené Brown this morning:
“This pandemic experience is a massive experiment in collective vulnerability. We can be our worst selves when we’re afraid, or our very best, bravest selves. In the context of fear and vulnerability, there is often very little in between because when we are uncertain and afraid, our default is self-protection. We don’t have to be scary when we’re scared. Let’s choose awkward, brave, and kind.”
THAT sounds very human in the best sense of the word. We can do this! Hell, we canceled the NBA, March Madness, Spring Training, and the NHL! Zero riots! Come together (at a safe social distance). We got this!
“…Whenever dissent is scattered and unfocused, and whenever mutual suspicion and hostility rule, the only way forward or back to communal solidarity…is to pick a joint enemy and to unite forces in an act of joint atrocity aimed at a common target. It is solely the community of accomplices which provides (as long as it lasts) a guarantee against the crime being named a crime and being punished accordingly. What the community will therefore not suffer lightly are such people as refuse to join the hue and cry, who by their refusal cast doubt on the righteousness of the act.”
In just about every context I find myself of late, when the issue of politics comes up, my friends and I are for once in a long while united. For the most part, people in my circles, be they conservatives or liberals, Democrats or Republicans, are decrying the rise of Donald Trump. However, looking at his numbers and at the delegates he has apparently “won”, chances are many of my friends and acquaintances are choosing Trump as their mode of choice to “make America great again.” Somebody, somewhere, is in fact voting for “The Donald”.
What was darkly humorous just a few short months ago has become a dawning awareness. A vulgar reality television personality whose accomplishments are nothing more than turning his name into a brand representing gaudy irresponsible opulence is about to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States of America. How can this be?
This question sent me to my book shelf to retrieve Zygmunt Bauman’s In Search of Politics—a book I purchased several years ago as assigned reading for a course I was taking at Fuller Theological Seminary. It has been a challenging read but also timely and helpful. In a section of chapter one entitled, A Prowler Around the House, Bauman recounts the story of Sidney Cooke, a paedophile, who had been released from prison and was returning home. He quotes a reporter from The Guardian who perceptively writes:
“If there’s one thing guaranteed to get people out on the streets today, it is the whispered arrival of a paedophile. The helpfulness of such protests is increasingly being questioned. What we haven’t asked, however, is whether these protests actually have anything to do with paedophiles.”
Bauman says that the reporter focuses on one particular town in which “the variegated crowd of grandmothers, teenagers, and businesswoman who had seldom, if ever, expressed any previous wish to engage in a public action had now laid protracted siege to the local police station, being not even sure that Cooke did indeed hide in the besieged building. Their ignorance concerning the facts of the matter took second place only to their determination to do something about them and to be seen doing it; and their determination gained enormously from the haziness of the facts.”
While there is no paedophile in this particular election, there is a strong perception by many, if not most, of the electorate that their government and the political process has failed them. And while, in my humble opinion, most of what Trump throws up against the walls of public opinion is simply false, unworkable testosterone fueled bravado, he has tapped into this “unfocused and scattered” dissent and channeled it into a wave he is about to surf right down the center aisle of the Republican National Convention.
As I process what Bauman has written, I recognize that our biggest enemy in this election isn’t Donald Trump. And it isn’t Bernie Sanders. Or Ted Cruse. Or Hillary Clinton. And it isn’t congress. Or Barack Obama. Yes, those ARE the enemies we all perceive to be “hiding in the besieged building”. Those are the ones we have all labeled as the prowlers around our neighborhoods. These political figures have all of us, regardless of party affiliation, riled up and angry and active. And, to paraphrase Bauman, our “ignorance concerning the facts of the matter [take] second place only to [our] determination to do something about them and to be seen doing it [mostly on our social media feeds]; and [our] determination [has] gained enormously from the haziness of the facts.”
I’m starting to suspect that what’s hiding in the buildings we have all besieged is actually a figment of our imaginations. What’s actually hiding in the building is our caricatures of the people we deem to represent all of our fears. We’ve reduced ourselves to labeling “the other” as “the problem” rather than placing the actual problem on the table between us and examining it with all of the tools we have available. Rather than solving anything, we have resorted to creating a boogeyman, and then we take to the streets (or our social media feeds) to call it names. I’m just beginning to read what I’m finding to be a profound book by Dr. David Dark, a professor at Belmont University in Nashville. Of labels, he says:
“When I label people, I no longer have to deal with them thoughtfully. …Calling someone liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, atheist or extremist is to largely deal in curse words. It puts a person in what we take to be their place, but it speaks in shorthand. When I go no further in my consideration of my fellow human, I betray my preference for caricature over perception, a shrug as opposed to a vision of the lived fact of somebody in a body. In the face of a perhaps beautifully complicated life, I’ve opted for oversimplification.” —David Dark, from Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious
Some of the most useful and powerful tools at our disposal to tackle the huge problems we face in our world today might very well be the perspective of someone other than ourselves. The tools at our disposal include all of us. All of our values. All of our beliefs. All of our perspectives. All of our creativity. I’m reminded of a great line from an Indigo Girls song: “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.” A little collective humility might be just what the doctor ordered.
Would some of these tools be more effective in solving our problem than others? Absolutely. Do I disagree with some of the propositions being proposed? Adamantly! I’m NOT simplistically saying, “It’s all good.” But what I am saying is that we’re all human beings. And the God I attempt to follow values all of these human beings — in fact my understanding of God holds they are ALL created in God’s image.
As I continue into the dark and cynical hole that is this election season, I’m going to attempt to ask a couple of things of myself:
To recognize that I’m not a cold, objective (and correct) observer. I have a bias.
To give myself and others a break. For the most part, we’re all trying to make sense of something extremely complicated that no one really understands. We’re all doing the best we can.
To, with the best of my ability, lean into the space between myself and others with grace and peace…with love.
Can I be so bold as to ask the same of you? I don’t mean to preach. I just happen to think the boogeyman is actually a collective “us”. While there are a lot of things out of our control, we actually do have choices. We can decide how we respond to our neighbors. We can decide the words we use. We can decide that a label doesn’t define anyone any more that it defines me. And ultimately, WE can solve these problems we’re facing. We have before. I’m confident we will again. Seems to be a better way to live than being afraid of the boogeyman. Especially when the boogeyman has probably been me the whole time.
A friend posted the picture on his Facebook page this morning with the comment, “We have no idea.” And we truly do not. But on this Martin Luther King day, I would like for you to place yourself on that bus. Pick a role. You can be the African American entering the bus. Be the bus driver, just wanting punch the clock and make it through the day to return home to your family. Be one of the other passengers, recognizing or maybe not recognizing, the sea change that is occurring right before your eyes. If you are in a city with public transportation, take a bus ride and bring a copy of these suggestions and be transported back to a time not to distant when a document such as this was necessary.
As you read this document, imagine stepping onto a bus with these “suggestions” seared into your memory. The jolt of adrenaline and fear and nervousness that wells up as the door opens and you mount the first step. As you reach the top step, what does it feel like to see the seat you are to occupy and feel the all the eyes on the bus wielding looks that communicate the full gamut of possible emotions. There is hate in some of those eyes…but there is also hope in others. There is anger but there are others illuminated with the dawning recognition of what is right. There is fear but also determination.
I discovered a quote by Dr. King yesterday:
Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.
Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.
Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency ask the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
But, conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
I would encourage and challenge you to think about what metaphorical bus you need to step into. What difference could you make if you allowed courage to spawn creativity and change? Allow your conscience to ask the question, “What is right?” and then step on that bus armed with these suggestions. They are still just as valid as they were in 1955.
Integrated Bus Suggestions Provided by the Montgomery Improvement Association for the bus boycotts.
We prescribe for one another remedies that will bring us peace of mind, and we are still devoured by anxiety. We evolve plans for disarmament and for the peace of nations, and our plans only change the manner and method of aggression. The rich have everything they want but happiness, and the poor are sacrificed to the unhappiness of the rich. Dictatorships use their secret police to crush millions under an intolerable burden of lies, injustice and tyranny, and those who still live in democracies have forgotten how to make good use of their liberty. For liberty is a thing of the spirit, and we are no longer able to live for anything but our bodies. How can we find peace, true peace, if we forget that we are not machines for making and spending money, but spiritual beings, sons and daughters of the most high God?