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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Activist Identity

I had a bit of an identity crisis last week. Twice in a row I dismissed an invitation to attend a demonstration, first a counter-demonstration to a group with a web site called “God Hates Fags,” which I will not promote by linking to them, though I have point out that the same people have other web sites called “God Hates America” and “God Hates the World.” (There’s a world map, and you can click on any highlighted country to learn why they think God hates it.) The second counter-demonstration was to the “We Stand with Israel Rally,” which I suspect is a much bigger group than the world-haters. In both cases I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for demonstrating, which made me wonder if it is accurate to keep “activist” as part of my self-description or even what that terms means.

In the case of the first counter-demonstration, which was at a city high school early in the morning, I suspected that the group mobilizing over the Internet was going to give the world-haters (who call themselves a church) more attention than they deserved. If a few extremists show up with signs, it is not news worthy, but I could imagine an organized counter-demonstration getting the whole thing on television. On the other hand, if I were a gay or lesbian student or teacher entering the school that morning, I would be heartened to see the counter-protesters. Hate shouldn’t go unanswered; I just don’t want it advertised. In any case, I couldn’t make that demonstration because I was getting my own kids to school, though it appears my concerns were unfounded. The only reference I could find in Google News was an article in a student paper that described a few homophobes and a larger (but seemingly not enormous) counter-protest that I was glad to hear originated with an alumnus who said that his goal was not to change the minds of the protesters, but to support the students and staff who would have to look at their signs.

The second counter-demonstration was harder to delete because I could have actually fit it into my schedule, though I felt myself resisting. Although it was billed as a counter-demonstration to the group of Israel supporters, it was really a protest against the brutal bombing of Gaza, which is certainly deserving of protest. Like the gay students, if I were a Palestinian I would want to know that people in the world were standing up for me, and this one seemed destined to make it on the news. But there was something about the protest/counter-protest model that just left me feeling empty. I mentioned my dilemma to my husband who said, “I think the best thing you do [in terms of social change] is your writing.” Certainly my writing would have suffered if I had taken the morning to go downtown, but I didn’t mind losing some writing time to work on the Obama campaign or for some racial healing work I spent time on recently. I found myself thinking of a comment made when some of the contributors to The Secret were on Oprah ages ago. Longtime followers of this blog will remember that I have some issues with The Secret, even though I think there is a seed of truth in it. The piece that stuck with me from the Oprah show was when one author said that he would never go to an anti-war march, but he’d be happy to go to a peace march. He asserted that we attract what we focus on, and if we focus on war, we will only have more of it. Although I think this is simplistic, there is something in it that is ringing true.

When I think of the activist events I want to attend, what comes to mind is the annual Interfaith Peace Walk, a wonderful gathering of people from diverse racial, class, and religious backgrounds spending a spring day walking from one congregation to another in a mix of silence, song, and solidarity. That event always has such a positive vibe, and it draws a range of people that most anti-war demonstrations don’t. It also draws connections between violence in our own communities and violence in the world, as opposed to just reacting to the crisis of the day. That’s the other piece I’m trying to think about: it is necessary to stop the immediate violence in Gaza, but the bigger challenge is to build the trust and mutual acceptance necessary to create any kind of lasting peace in the Middle East. I don’t see how standing against the Israel supporters will do that, though one could argue that real reconciliation will never come until Americans stand up to Israel. Still, that seems simplistic, too. Combatants for Peace come to mind as a model of positive peace work, though one that is for people in the region, not US tax-payers like me.

There are many good people grappling with the question of how to promote peace right now in Philadelphia. Although I am not part of the week-long program, I do feel drawn to the intergenerational and interfaith day planned for Saturday, which is also making the connection between peace on our streets and peace in the world. If any readers are participating in the week, I hope you’ll feel free to tell us about it here or post a link.


Blogger Jim said...

Dear Eileen,

You know of my calling to anonymity. My commenting here might be considered a violation of that calling by some. However, I am moved to "speak" here. I speak of my limited experience and hopefully not to convince anyone toward any particular thought or practice. I am not humble by nature and, when I open my mouth to speak or put pen to paper or keys to the ether, I always risk allowing my ego and pride to take too much control.

The big struggle for me, in anonymous action, is in my self-centered desire for attention. When my spiritual health is in decline, my expectations and demands for attention, praise, and approval rise. Action in anonymity is most humbling, but in many situations most effective. I find deepest contentment in directing attention and praise to the Great Spirit and channeling it toward others who need it more than I.

It has been a long time since I have been an "activist" in the traditional sense. For me (not necessarily anyone else), there was a certain thrill, a high, to being a confrontational and reactionary activist. I found that I was not consistently genuine or faithful in my commitment to whatever was the cause-du-jour as real motive was that I be seen and praised and receive approval.... and be thrilled by the confrontations! A deeper look at my behavior showed me that this confrontational behavior was often an act of thought- and spiritual-violence directed toward the person or institution against which I was demonstrating.

I repeatedly learn that the highest order of activism is more often than not (for me) a gentler, quieter, slower, more imtimate experience. We are all equals. Those who offend me are not in any way lesser persons than I. They need the same respect and treatment that I would like to receive. When I ridicule or character-assasinate another, I am alienating myself from him and deconstructing whatever natural channels might exist for communion with that person. Most effective and meaningful progress seems to occur when I try to practice Francis' humble request to seek the other's comfort before my own, to seek understanding over being understood, to love without regard for my own being loved.

Thank you for sharing yourself to the ether for all of us! I do read/listen when I can and I am always improved by it.


3:42 PM  
Blogger Bill Samuel said...

The Peace Gathering was at least as much focused on violence at home as on violence abroad, and there were some (notably Chuck Fager who has blogged about it) who were disappointed at the low level of attention to international violence.

But one would not have known the focus in advance, since very little information was made available about the program in advance.

4:29 PM  

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