Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Solidarity and conversion

The desire to diagnose injustice as an intellectual problem as well as the power of action to achieve a new form of justice requires “raised affections,” a vitality taht can break through old forms of behavior and create new patterns of community. But the raising of the affections is a much harder thing to accomplish than even the education of the mind; it is especially difficult among those who think they have found security.
This element of commitment, of change of heart, of decision, so much emphasized in the Gospels, has been neglected by religious liberalism, and that is the prime source of its enfeeblement. We liberals are largely an uncommitted and therefore a self-frustrating people. Our first task, then is to restore to liberalism its own dynamic and its own prophetic genius. We need conversion within ourselves. Only by some such revolution can we be seized by a prophetic power that will enable us to proclaim both the judgment and the love of God. Only by some such conversion can we be possessed by a love that will not let us go.

James Luther Adams’ notion that liberalism and liberals need a conversion experience strikes me as an amazing truth. I struggled with this concept for many years but lacked the language to talk about it. During my radical youth, I have sometimes chided well meaning liberals who had very abstract ideas of justice and very lukewarm commitment to their justice work.
Sometimes I will tell dogmatic atheist activists (UU and other) that if they are really just doing work for others they really are just performing that kind of “Christian charity” that they despise. I have found that no one stays committed for an extended period of time if they understand their work as doing good deeds for others. Usually, their notion of the other is so abstract and so distant that the work loses meaning and dissipates into the problem of “compassion fatigue.”
Other times, when I have really looked at issues of commitment and what it can take to create change and build justice and community, I have talked to people about two kinds of consciousness. The difference between the liberal and the radical can often be delineated by these two kinds of consciousness.
One I call the No consciousness. Liberals with this state of mind will take the radical step of dissent, but will seldom reach beyond their individual comfort zone in terms of risk or in terms of dialogue with others outside their immediate social circle. The quiet check and letter writers (God bless them) are usually in this mode. Often times, those who participate in silent vigils or other entirely symbolic actions also operate from the point of view of the No consciousness. They have taken the very brave (necessary yet not sufficient) step of registering their dissent, but have yet to learn Frederick Douglass’ wise words, “Without struggle there is no progress.”
The other consciousness I refer to as the Hell No consciousness. Where the point of view of the No consciousness might say “I disapprove of this,” from the Hell No consciousness one might say “I disapprove of this and I am obliged to do what I can to prevent this from being done in my name or to reinforce my own unearned privilege.” In this light, silence is indeed the voice of complicity. While a kind of mindless rebelliousness can sometimes look like this Hell No consciousness, when it is sincere it reflects positive progressive towards a broader notion of self that is involved and engaged in the larger community and world. It moves beyond the brave dissent of the mind and into action and the dissent of the body and community.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Fire Next Time

This is the crime of which I accuse my countrymen, and for which I and history will never forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives, and do not know it, and do not want to know it.

James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time as quoted by Rebecca Parker in Soul Work.