Thursday, March 5, 2015

The foreskin of your heart

They will beat their swords into plougshares
Isaiah 2:4

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.
Deuteronomy 10:16

I read a piece in the New Yorker over breakfast about a group of activists I have known about for years and not paid enough heed to. They live in poverty, serve those in need, and break into US nuclear installations to protest nuclear weapons' threat to the human race. Many of them are Catholic priests and nuns, and many of their leaders are over the age of fifty, as far as I can tell.

My reaction is not really about this article. This article is just a flashpoint, igniting a magazine of old powder.

When you read this post, you'll think I've been possessed by a ghost out of the era of settlement houses. This is not new thinking. But blow off the dust and listen anyway.

But these people, who spend their hours and days on this earth in service, are the kind of human beings I look up to. These are the kind of people I have known for a long time I should be like. Faith helps them accomplish what seems to me like a mammoth task: reconciling personal desires with social needs.

I am not a Christian, and I will never be a Christian. I also have no problems with atheists. If you are able to take action and be strong without an object of faith, then I am just as impressed by you. I used to be an atheist myself. I am neither an atheist nor a believer now. The word agnostic is not a correct characterization either. I don't have a word. I am in in the middle of a long time of transition, and I do not know what the result of that transition will be.

In the United States, during the time I have been alive, mainstream cultural trends have encouraged us and provided us with excuses not to value un-cosmetic sincerity, to view solid faith in something intangible, unprovable, and at times injurious, as evidence of lack of intelligence and critical insight, rather than evidence of discipline and a source of strength in solitary suffering.

But reconciling one's self with social needs, rising above personal discomfort and even agony . . . that's hard. And it helps to have faith to turn to in your suffering. Faith may give your suffering meaning, or may, even better, be an analgesic to ease the pain. It may give you company in isolation, lift you up when you are falling, be a bridge to sanity when you begin to lose your grip, and free you when you are captive.

Faith has become associated, in the United States and in other places as well, with small-minded people and groups who do things like hamper gay rights, prevent women from accessing healthcare, campaign against governmentally-supported social safety nets, or tell other people how to live their lives. Or blow people up. (Although I'd tempted to argue that faith is a tool of power in those instances, really I have no idea). It has been portrayed as no more than a tool to blind and placate those who might otherwise rise up in their own defense.

When we feel faith, we learn to be afraid of going crazy, of losing touch with reality, or being viewed as having done so. We learn to be afraid of becoming so devoted to an ideal that we cross over into violence, metaphorical or literal, forcing our ideas one way or another onto other human beings, and hurting other people.

We have learned to value comfort. We learn that it is acceptable to want what we think is reasonable—a well-paying job, a satisfying sex life, a secure retirement, some treats of one kind or another—and frankly, for folks who have spent their lives having very little, I think that reaction IS reasonable. For folks raised in comfort, coddled and protected, it is evidence of weakness and sloth, and I indict myself in that.

We whine, internally or externally, when we do not have the things we want. We justify allowing ourselves small and big luxuries when people in this world are starving, and some of the agencies trying to help them are ineffective. We see people in those fields, especially young people but also older folks, accepting low pay, long hours, and a lack of both short and long-term security, and maybe not even effectively supporting the action and service they give their lives to, in organizations that are or become unworthy of their devotion. We watch people come out of the nonprofit industrial complex1 in the States or abroad disillusioned and disempowered. And looking at these examples, valuing our comfort, afraid of suffering, afraid to lose our relationships with people outside of that world, we speak big and act little. It's hard to be a bridge between “normal” people and people absolutely committed to a mission and a goal. It's difficult to be brave when you are young, when you have been protected and kept comfortable, when you feel you have so many things to lose.

In my weakness I seek out personal comfort and indulge my fear and laziness.

I watch others labor in obscurity, suffering, at great personal cost, for the good of the most vulnerable of us and for the human race as a whole.

The individuals in Plowshares, and many other activists and advocates around the world, are human beings who, even in their worst moments of adversity, have tried  to help other human beings, through service, protests, or legal action.
They work to hone themselves into tools for making positive change in the world.
There are many brave young people, but I am overawed by the wisdom and toughness available to older folks who have gained wisdom and insight from other people and their own experiences. I am not so young anymore.

And I look at myself periodically, make excuses and give into fear. I cling to things and activities, and the people associated with them.

My battle would be different from the battle of Plowshares. Nuclear weapons are one of many threats. It is hard to choose. There are so many battles, and they all seem related, tangled together like spaghetti. 

I am not ready to walk away from what I have now to do this. I know there must be a middle way, and one that can make use of the skills and connections I have.

I don't know where to start, or how much I have to learn to give up.

Or perhaps that's just a rationalization.

Maybe taking this conversation outside of my head will get it somewhere.

I want to be alive so I can live up to my potential by using it for what it should be used for.

1(Although nonprofits, or NGOs as they are called elsewhere, have  a special role in the US, a place where there is a long tradition of relegating social service and advocacy activities to independent organizations, frequently missionary ones. It comes out of the perhaps overrated American preference for self-reliance and independence which helps to both fragment our nation, and give it openings to move forward in one region when another remains stuck in a previous era. The lack of federal oversight helps to make school funding and other social provision terrible in some places, but also has made possible the slow legalization of abortion, interracial marriage, and gay marriage. But I digress.)

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