Pastoral Activism

Having grown up in a marriage (still strong) of two people who did not hesitate to fight in front of their children, I am as deeply distressed by the acrimonious bullying as I am by the content of what is being said.

But as a German-heritage American, I also know that Nazism got its foothold from people like me, who felt that the best way to take care of their own highest needs was to accommodate Hitler and his bullying leadership. They had been elected, had they not, so it must be a legitimate partner for conversation. (Here is where it helps to remember Goebels’s strategy for getting elected: “Tell big lies, not little ones. The big ones they’ll believe, the little ones, they can figure out.” So stepping back is not a live option for any of us.

So what to do?

First, I must hate the sin and love the sinner. That means that I must as thoroughly condemn the bullies and big liars on the left, as on the right. Up here on New England’s Left Coast (Burlington, Vermont), we recently had the shameful sight of anti-war activists calling on Senator Bernie Sanders (who did come out when they knocked) and shouting interruptions into his statement that he planned to wait and hear from all sides before coming to a decision on his vote. “Commit to voting no,” the insisted. When Bernie said he would leave if they did not let him finish, they apologized and settled down. To their credit, they tried to do as well when meeting staffmembers for our other senator and our one member of the House of Representatives. 

But I’ve seen them in other meetings, along with the folks who oppose our airport stationing the new F-35s, if and when they ever get delivered. Some of them are well-behaved, but there is not much commitment to listening. And they are quick to dismiss the views of the other side, wrapping them in belittling language about motives that the left considers immoral.

In this era of shouting and bullying, those of us in the center must struggle not to reclaim, but to rebuilt, the ground in which we wish to plant our civic and personal dreams. To do that, we must give up the religious exuberance of testifying, and take up the religious duty to listen.

To listen is not just to hear. It is not to gather ammunition for the next round. It is to open oneself to these two painful outcomes:


We must venture forth believing that we are going to meet good people, God’s people. As God’s people, they have good in them, good ideas, good motives. As God’s child, our job is to believe in that goodness enough to find it.


In accepting relationship, we are acknowledging that our ideas, our lives, our dreams are going to be changed. The motives and needs of our sisters and brothers are going to seep into our own view of what is good, what is right, what is justice.

Do you think this is too hard? It has been done before. The best example, by far, is the Freedom Summer portion of the Civil Rights Movement. Young white women and men of all faiths trained themselves to knock on the doors, eat the food, sleep in the churches, of the poorest African Americans in the most hidden corners of the South. This would inevitably subject them to ridicule, hatred, even attack, from white Southerners whose way of life was coming under attack.

And the activists would not fight back. They would stay on their pre-set course, no matter what.

It would be hard: they had training sessions before setting out.

Our error was in not coming back, a generation later. We let ourselves be imprinted with the message of the moment: that racism was the whole problem. We didn’t recognize that racism had white victims as well, poor whites, uneducated folks, whose fragile lives gained their only dignity from the power to victimize African Americans. Anyone could do it, anywhere. Dominate a sidewalk, stand in front of a water fountain, set fire to a cross on someone’s lawn.

What white liberal activists didn’t realize was that the loss of these violent outlets put these white folk into a position of powerlessness. So a new generation came for every party. Those of us who grew up among Freedom Summer activists adopted their message about racism, rather than their process, of going forth to meet and listen. If we had repeated their process instead of their message, we would have learned firsthand, that poor White southerners now faced the terrifying prospect of entering a class war with new Black allies, against the symbolic (or real) White kin from whose success they previously had derived vicarious stature.

We couldn’t do it. We had our unions. Why didn’t they just form unions? We had our schools. Why didn’t they just improve their educations? We had our social institutions. Why didn’t they just move away from glitzy consumerism into genuine theater, art, music, which at once represents and questions the fundamentals of the human condition?

Is it too late for folks to listen to each other? With the national media enthralled by the shouting match, how do we set up a shelter for reasoning? Where would it even be?


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