One of the nicest guys in major league baseball is retired catcher and newscaster David Ross. “Rossie” to everyone. But he has a saying, which others like to quote:
“Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness.”
This is a saying that resonates with my reverence for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his adherence to nonviolent action. But how does it work with either Nazism or Universalism? This is no minor issue, but the fundamental challenge to my religion at this time.
Growing up in Cincinnati, I learned early about two great Kentucky natives: Abraham Lincoln and Henry Clay. They were the two great nice guys of the 19th century, who struggled to reconcile the safety and expansion of the nation with the hardline evil of slavery. It helps to remember that Kentucky began as an extension of Virginia, and lots of great Ohioans also came from that beautiful but evil-doing commonwealth. In the case of both Clay and Lincoln, it made them nice to the point of moral error.
Clay’s great sin was to negotiate extensions of slavery with 50-50 admission of slave and free states, above and below certain lines of latitude. Lincoln’s sin was to move too quickly and widely with forgiveness for the traitors of the Confederacy. Had Lincoln lived, his benevolence would have suffered withering challenge from the Radical Reconstructionists of his own Republican Party. As many costs as there were to Lincoln’s premature death, the worst was to lose the sharpened arguments and anti-racist organization such an intra-party quandary would have caused. For what it’s worth, in those same years, Cincinnati, the lynchpin of North and South, played a prominent role in spreading Universalism throughout the Great Lakes region. It makes me wonder what we really wanted out of all that generous forgiveness.
This brings me back to the distinction among gang members laid out by the Boston Police in those bloody nineteen-nineties, and expanding it a bit to open a path for dialogue among potential people of good will on both sides of the current political aisles. In the current nationwide situation, I have to expand that distinction a little. Here I call out the local leaders of evil — and of good — as fundamental lynchpins to the spread of any political philosophy or platform nationwide.
Currently, leftwing activists have begun disrupting the private times and spaces of national leaders who foment racism and promote false narratives in its support. These are exactly the right moves to let these criminals experience life without their White Privilege bubble. I only wish we had more of this being done to leaders of corporate robbery in various localities and industries. I would also like to see it spread to local leaders of evil, which at once is more effective, and therefore, more personally dangerous. As to God’s forgiveness of them, that is something I’ll leave for God.
National hate-mongers rely on two types of followers. For sheer numbers, they need genuine victims, misguided by virtue of childhood teachings and narrow social outlets. These are the people among whom I believe left and right can build common cause.
The other day I posted a suggestion on Facebook, calling on progressives to show up at Republican rallies with signs saying, “You don’t like me, and I don’t like you, but can’t we all agree to like Social Security?” It is my genuine belief that many of these folks have no idea that their own family budgets are being gutted by the very folks their false prophets have talked them into sending to Congress.
And what about these “false prophets”? Here is where nationwide, top-down (unitary) organizational models on the left cannot succeed. False prophets are the local enablers of the national hate-mongers. Local hate-mongers and wage-stealers rely on rhetoric that plays off childhood messages about who a follower can rely on. But local evil-doers have the face-to-face contact that allows them to offer personal affirmation to folks feeling lost, rejected, or insulted by ways they feel society is hurting them.
The left’s current insistence on total conversion by political allies plays right into the power of these false prophets. As much as I try to cleanse myself of old racist and corporatist trainings, I know that in my lifetime it will never happen. If people have to achieve these impossible puritan standards before left and right work together on definable issues and goals, we might as well get out our yellow stars and pink triangles right this minute and start walking toward the cattle cars.
Every week, innocent African Americans, queer folk, and immigrants suffer hands-on harassment all over this once-great nation. To eradicate these practices will require sustained local oversight, publicity, and repercussions. Law enforcement knows that the most effective form of punishment is not necessarily the toughest, but the least random. What frustrates me about the “Say Her Name” movement and its equivalents is the way it hopscotches all over everywhere based on viral social media postings. The left needs to reorganize around that principle. We need to stay constantly in the face of local leaders, preventing them from functioning as enablers to national (and international) human rights violators. Only by this means will we break each local link between large-scale evildoers and their mass followers.
But it is also only by this means that we will start to forge effective alliances with local folk who could, on many issues, become pragmatic allies. There is now, for instance, a rising movement against clergy sexual harassment among evangelical church women. If traditional feminists insist on these women changing their stances on abortion rights or marital idealism (gulp! I’m in a gay marriage!) we will not be able to roll back statutes of limitations or persuade victims that hospital rape kits can be neutral tools for safety. We cannot assure them that in cases of same-sex harassment, we have no agenda other than health and justice for their victimized loved one. Yes, freedom to choose and right to marry are fundamental to safety for us all, but only by getting together on initial tiny bits of common ground will wider circles start to see them function in our lives.
Bracketing. It’s not only the key to successful foreign policy negotiations, it’s a vital tool in pastoral care for people who have done wrong. (I didn’t make that up, it was taught to me in divinity school.) Set aside issues of justice until the person can start to feel strong. Then gradually, and with sensitivity to pain, start introducing questions that probe the individual’s potential to understand and correct the error of their ways. With sustained support, most folks can tap and unleash a better being inside.
I realize this is written from the safest little haven of gay white privilege in our nation, good old Burlington, VT. I realize this can be seen as rejecting Dr. King’s assertion that “we have waited too long.” But widening the circle of justice requires a complex community of actions and activists. I am a reconciliationist by nature and there are ways for me to put this in the service of long-term peace and justice. Others are fed up and will keep on the necessary pressures.
And yes, I am very tempted to perform acts of “Justice Incivility” among miscreants even up here, because yes, we have them. My reconciliationist tendencies extend only to those who genuinely seek new paths, new common ground, and are willing to turn their backs on evil. For true evil-mongers and their local allies, I, like others, hold out no handshake. When people hear me talk about God’s forgiveness and ask how I can say that it encompasses people I fear and loathe, my answer is always that, “This is the difference between God and me.”