After a long day of day-job work and activism-related travel for networking meetings, I came home and settled in with the latest issue of UU World, the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Inside was an excerpt from a sermon on Vigilance that spoke to me as an activist and a person of faith. I suspect that very few bilerico readers have more than a passing familiarity with Unitarian Universalism. Perhaps this excerpt will provide some insight into this spiritual path as well as what informs my activism.
RESISTING REASONABLE ATROCITY
By David Schwartz
A former South African paramilitary commander looks across his dining room table into the interviewer's camera. He is in his early sixties, overweight, with short gray hair. He wears glasses and a polo shirt. It's late morning. He explains:
"We were at war. We believed that if the Blacks were organized they would rise up. They were trying to get weapons, and they would have used them on us. I had to do what I did to keep the country from descending into chaos. If we didn't get them, they'd be shooting at us a few years later. So we found suspects and took care of them. I did what I had to do to keep our country together and protect us."
This is madness. He is talking about assassinating kids, a systematic program to find and kill kids: fourteen, fifteen year olds who had committed no crime.
But did you hear the reasons? Did you hear that the killings weren't an act of madness or passion or blind hatred. He had reasons to do what he did, hard-headed, straightforward, pragmatic reasons....
When I first realized it, a crawling horror seized me, because though the assassinations sicken me, the thought that they could be reasonable terrified me. I can imagine those same words coming from politicians and pundits and editorials here, today. And more: coming from my co-workers, my friends. From my own mouth.
That is the horror of what this commander had to say: that reasonable, well-meaning people could support reasonable, pragmatic assassination, or genocide, or ethnic cleansing. These acts are not the product of demagoguery, political trickery, or force-- they are the product of bright, reasonable people making bright, reasonable arguments about how to best protect themselves.
This, more than anything else, convinces me of the need for a critical education that teaches how to recognize and resist the pernicious "commonsense" truths that lead us into calamity.
To resist, we need both to develop critical awareness and to trust our own voice. It takes courage to speak. Speaking out is hard to do--I don't even mean speeches before thousands, I mean it can be downright difficult in a group of three people to speak out and stand firm. It's a skill that takes practice, and takes trust in one's own power and a belief that you do have something to offer and you can make a difference.
This faith in one's voice is slowly built in a thousand tiny ways and continually eroded in a thousand ways.
Intellectual understanding and critical thinking will make no concrete difference to the world without the moral courage and skills to speak out and stand up. We develop them over time, and the courage comes in part from practice.
In dialogue we can learn that we do indeed have something of great value to add to the conversation, and in our democratic process we can practice leadership.
But this is hard work, we shouldn't forget, and the strength to pursue it across all the years of our lives must spring from firm spiritual and ethical commitments.
The fact of the world carries with it certain obligations for us as Unitarian Universalists. The religious worldview of Unitarian Universalism says that facts are not valueless. The common vocabulary of principles and purposes make this philosophical orientation clear. The interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part is not a mere fact--it places an ethical requirement on us. It makes concrete demands: recycle, carpool, vote for sustainable energy policies.
Nor is the inherent worth and dignity of every person an abstract fact: it too makes concrete demands on us as individuals: that we live our lives in a certain way, that our world be structured not to trample on that worth and dignity.
Our religious conviction must flow through our politics, our social interactions, and our economic decisions
Our spiritual life is the ever-deepening root that bears fruit in our ever-expanding work for justice. The two depend on each other: spirituality without work for justice is hypocrisy; and without a spiritual root, our work for justice may burn brightly but all too briefly.
We've traveled far from that sunshine-filled dining room in South Africa, and the calm, rational argument for assassination. But the crawling horror of reasonable atrocities is never left far behind. Perhaps you've heard those good, reasonable, common-sense arguments. We must keep ever vigilant against good people, with good, rational reasons trying to convince us of terrible things.
It takes work, and that means:
Develop your critical thinking skills: over dinner and after the Sunday service, in class and in conversation. Don't tune out if you disagree, understand why you disagree, and why the other people believe what they say.
Cultivate a trust in your own voice: talk with others, debate, dialogue, listen and then listen again.
Our task is neither intellectual exercise, nor mere activism. It requires that we root ourselves firmly in our deepest moral and spiritual convictions.
Therefore, above all, attend diligently to your relationship with the Divine--the root which will give you strength for the journey and courage to speak. Pray, meditate, and sing. Walk in the sun, and rest.
In this way, may we journey together from unknowing into awareness, from silence into speech, from acceptance into action, sending down deep roots to the Divine and aligning our lives with our deepest values.