|November 4, 2004|
Revive Your Spirit: From Despair to Resistance
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
The Sorrow and the Pity: First, We Cry
Bush has won another four years, and you are entitled to feel what you feel. You can take long angry walks or cry bitter tears. You can refuse to talk about politics for a while, as many Poles did after waking up to the takeover of their country 20-odd years ago. Or you can remember the way we used to be by watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or The State of the Union (but keep the tissues handy—the contrast with today’s America will be a tear-jerker).
You can give up for a while, or consider moving to another country. Bush’s re-election, cheered by the majority, is a tragic turning point, made all the more difficult to bear when you hear the crowd’s naïve applause and witness its lack of understanding about short-term gain versus long-term consequences.
You will need time to revive your spirit. Time to adjust to the terrible reality that our civil rights will continue to take a beating, and that life will continue to be extinguished, in the Bush administration’s foolhardy "war on terror". You will need time to allow the discouragement to settle. Time to discard the hopes you had this time last week for a change of course, a change in leadership.
It’s important not to push yourself right now. Psychologically and spiritually, you’ll recover faster if you don’t resist the pain. Feel it when you can, distract yourself when you must. Cocoon with those you love and allow yourself to heal. Indulge in your favorite music and food. I will admit that, upon hearing the election results, I made a cake I had no intention of eating, just to lick the bowl. Cake batter is, in my view, one of those desperate measures that are reserved for desperate circumstances. "Four more years" is one such circumstance.
All Great Resistance Movements Are Borne of Despair
But while you are processing this new reality, this brave new world, keep this firmly in mind: All great resistance movements are borne of despair.
Apartheid was not fought by people who felt optimistic and content. Slavery and its racist underpinnings were not overcome by calm abolitionists who basked in the glow of positive media attention. McCarthyism and the Salem witch trials were not opposed and eventually discredited by citizens who felt safe -- socially or physically -- when they spoke out against those mean-spirited campaigns.
And the liberals who dedicated their lives to winning the right to vote for women and blacks were motivated by righteous indignation, but also a great despair as the years rolled by with no visible change. We who abhor the divisive and violent policies of the Bush administration are feeling a profound sense of despair that is palpable in the emails I’ve received:
"I’ve felt so much fear about the direction our country is going -- now there’s no stopping it. Where do we go from here?"
"It’s all over now -- separation of church and state, and religious freedom is over."
"Our best efforts against "faith-based" ignorance and tyranny have failed."
"Looking at the election figures, I have to face up to the fact that the majority of Americans really, truly have no problem with the way Christianity is being used to promote war and hate -- I realize now that I really am in the minority, overpowered and overruled."
"I can’t sleep, my ulcer is bothering me -- how can I handle four more years of this?"
A resistance movement is fueled by pain and suffering -- and, in the beginning, a shared sense of helplessness and hopelessness. When people feel that their voices are heard, that their concerns will be taken seriously, and that they won’t be punished or rejected for their views, they tend to resist evils in a more individualistic way. They write letters to the editor, or write to their Senator, or talk with like-minded friends.
These are good and valuable things to do, and they fit in nicely with our individualistic culture because we can do them in isolation. They are relatively easy and pleasant activities, in that they don’t require we set aside our differences in order to work together for the common good.
Lessons in Courage from the Antislavery Movement
Individual expressions of dismay allow us to let off steam, which is important for our psychological and physical health. They also temporarily reduce the distressing collective guilt we feel when we see how other people are suffering at the hands of our government or in the name of our religion. But they do not constitute a resistance movement.
In the fascinating book, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life by Stanley M. Elkins (1959), which should be required reading for every American of conscience, the author analyzes the difference between effective and ineffective resistance to unjust policies in America, where most of us have never been exposed to terrible suffering, and where we put a premium on national unity:
"It now remains only to ask what might happen when people to whom daily aggression is not a perennial problem, people who have no knowledge of the traditional mechanisms whereby such aggression is habitually controlled, are then brought face to face with concrete instances of violence, cruelty, lust, and injustice. The individual whose culture does not contain formalized arrangements for the handling of such matters feels himself personally involved...he is oppressed by the accumulation of guilt without means of an outlet...
"Such, then, are some of the considerations which make guilt a primary thing to watch for in American reform movements. The easing of guilt is always a most important hidden function of such movements...guilt may have been absorbed and discharged in ways which make unnecessary a literal attainment of the objective."
In the early stages of antislavery sentiment in America, a degree of optimism was in the air. Various plans for ending slavery without offending anyone, or cutting slaveholders’ profits, were proposed. Elkins notes that, as of 1835, these fell into four categories, three of which were conservative in nature, designed to appease proslavery Southerners. These included (1) colonization (deporting all freed blacks to Nigeria), (2) philosophical abolitionism (accepting that slavery was unlikely to end due to its widespread support in the South, and focusing on the improvement of master-slave relations), (3) gradual immediatism (limiting the civil and political rights of freed slaves, who would be shifted into peonage or apprenticeship).
The fourth plan was (4) immediate and unqualified emancipation (freeing slaves and giving them full rights without delay). This was, not surprisingly, also the least popular. For those who’d long agonized over Southerners’ stubborn support of slavery, this "radical" and "liberal" emancipation plan seemed most right, yet most doomed to failure. Liberals who wanted to free all slaves were denounced in newspapers across the country as unrealistic, unpatriotic, and unchristian.
Compassion is Never Conservative
The latter point is especially relevant today. Christ-centered Christians across the US and the world have one thing in common: a horror at the linkage of Jesus with violence, oppression and war. In what will surely go down as one of the most grievous distortions of Christianity in history, George Bush said that Jesus is his favorite "political philosopher" and then proceeded to order the bombing of the innocent along with the guilty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This false view of Jesus and his teachings has been particularly difficult to stomach these past four years. Multitudes of Christians have been led astray by the message that Jesus is staunchly prowar. Millions of nonChristians now hate our faith because the prowar version is all they’ve ever known. And now we’ll have four more years of this? It’s enough to make you want to give up. To despair.
But we must take a deep breath and recall that this is not the first time that Jesus has been dragged into politics to justify policies that hurt, degrade or kill innocent people. Responding to abolitionists’ claims at the pulpit and on street corners that slavery is a sin, an antebellum author countered, "Slavery, authorized by God, permitted by Jesus Christ, sanctioned by the apostles, maintained by good men of all ages, is still existing in a portion of our beloved country."
We will hear, for another four years, the argument that bombs are the instruments -- indeed the only instruments -- by which peace can be secured. We will continue to hear that war is the best existing means for protecting ourselves against terrorism. But keep in mind that terrible things have always been defended as the best or the only option. For example, a proslavery writer reasoned, "As a man, a Christian, and as a citizen, we believe that slavery is right; that the condition of the slave, as it now exists in slave-holding states, is the best existing organization of civil society."
Over time, antislavery activists began to realize that trying to strike some kind of compromise over slavery was both disingenuous and ineffective. Without quite meaning to, they began to shift, first one and then another, and then more, like a flock of birds, towards the realization of one great truth: Slavery was wrong. They began to realize that, in their efforts to woo conservative slaveholders, they had watered down their true convictions to such a degree that they came across as lukewarm, capable of inspiring no-one.
But even apart from the strategic aspect, this moral equivocating had led them to deny the very best parts of themselves. Realizing how they’d betrayed their deepest values, their true selves, often came as a terrible shock. Elkins describes the kind of transformation, rising from the ashes of despair and impotent rage, that took place in the hearts and minds of abolitionists across America, North and South, East and West:
"…William Henry Channing had counseled himself, sometime between 1831 and 1833: "Not excitement. Calm, deep, solemn question. Sympathy with slave-holder. What can he do? Sympathy with the slave." He would subsequently pencil "shame" and "alas" alongside his early writings on that subject. Upon reading "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" he would exclaim in anguish,
"O Heaven! How patient are God and nature with human diabolism! It seems to me that I have never begun to do anything for antislavery yet. And now, with one’s whole heart bleeding, what can we do?...How this book must cut a true-hearted Southerner to the quick! -- cut us all, for we verily are all guilty together."
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Dr. Teresa Whitehurst, a clinical psychologist and the author of
Jesus on Parenting (Baker Books, 9/2004), teaches parenting workshops,
and writes a column ("Faith
and Reason: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose", www.JesusontheFamily.org).
She can be reached at DrTeresa@JesusontheFamily.org
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