“If our happiness depends on turning away from violence, our happiness is violence.” – Sara Ahmed
“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear ... Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In my sixth grade social studies class, we spent half the year studying two historical events: the Holocaust and the American Civil Rights movement. Now, it is easy to approach these periods as moments of sparkling moral clarity, when the actions of a few, brave, ethical resisters shine out like beacons of goodness in a sea of incontrovertibly evil actions. But my teacher, Ms. McConnell, took a different tack. She pointed our attention to the sidelines, where nice people served their families dinner or rode the bus to work while their neighbors were being arrested, beaten, lynched, or sent to camps, and asked us to take seriously some very difficult questions: how do good people end up letting atrocities happen? What do we have to do to avoid being among them?
Of course, we all want to believe we would be one of the ethical few who would have refused to participate in the great injustices of the past. Especially if we are white and experience shame in the face of history, we like to identify with the small numbers of people who helped slaves escape, fought against Jim Crow laws, or hid neighbors from the Nazis. But Ms. McConnell did not let us off so easily. Slowing down historical time, she asked us to look at each event as it might have appeared to people at the time, with the uncertainty and confusion that would have accompanied each small step toward unfreedom. Would you have done something at this point? How about now? Would you have done something if none of your friends reacted? Would the guilt at what you had already let happen make it harder to intervene as time went on? When would it have become too late? By asking us to imagine ourselves inside the unfolding day-to-day, she helped us see that doing nothing in the face of atrocity is as easy as it is horrifying.
This lesson stuck deeply inside me. Growing up outside of Chicago, many of my closest friends were Jewish. I had gone to Hebrew school and temple with them as well as to church with my own family. Picturing myself in the historical moments before the Holocaust, I was asked to feel how my white Christianity would have protected me while my friends were vulnerable, to experience imaginatively the safety that I could have had if I had simply continued to live my life as usual. I think of this class as a turning point in my ethical orientation toward the world – the moment that I became convicted that, spiritually and politically, I was here for the vulnerable. As I grew up in churches, youth groups, and a Christian college, the gospel that called out to me was one that issued a radical call to reject personal security and stand with those for whom life was most precarious.
Here and now, I feel myself at another turning point. Even before November, I had begun to realize the extent to which my life in white, Christian communities had insulated me from the experiences of those who face incarceration, deportation, or criminalization in my country, by leaders who act in my name. Now, that same country has elected a president who openly promised to expand the rate at which we ban, deport, grab, stop, frisk, jail, and bomb. Yet many of us feel the temptation to continue with business as usual, resting in our sense that even in this world of heightened vulnerability, no one will be coming for us or our families (at least not first). I wrote in my last post about how our desire for peacefulness can lead us to seek quiet and order over a struggle for justice. Many of us feel the call of the voice that says, “maybe it’s not so bad…give it time.” We trust in American exceptionalism and believe that our democracy and civil liberties are too solid to succumb to the collapses happening elsewhere in the world. We grasp at every moment when things appear normal, hoping for proof that it's okay to go back to life as usual. We wait for clarity, assuming that if the time were ripe to resist, we would know. I understand these feelings, because I remember how safe I imagined I might feel during past injustices. I too have felt the confidence that even in the worst of times, my whiteness would protect me.
I also recognize these feelings as the forces that create bystanders to violence. Ms. McConnell taught my sixth grade class that if we are waiting for universal agreement that civil liberties are being violated or for an incontrovertible sign that democracy is collapsing, we will wait too long. Even with the benefit of historical retrospect it is often hard to identify definitive turning points: moments when a historical change began or accelerated or reached a point of no return. It is even more impossible in the here and now, when we experience our political situation as an unfolding process. Because we are positioned in the middle of this process, there will not be a moment when all reasonable people agree on what is happening. Kathryn Schulz, writing about the alluring ethical simplicity of the stories we tell about the supporters of the Underground Railroad, notes that:
"One of the biases of retrospection is to believe that the moral crises of the past were clearer than our own—that, had we been alive at the time, we would have recognized them, known what to do about them, and known when the time had come to do so. That is a fantasy. Iniquity is always coercive and insidious and intimidating, and lived reality is always a muddle, and the kind of clarity that leads to action comes not from without but from within."
A voice from within tells me that I am at just such a turning point – a point at which the conviction that I am here for the vulnerable must either radically change my daily habits, or else wither into a platitude. In November, when I encountered these words from Alice Walker, they hit me with prophetic clarity:
"It is our ignorance that keeps us hoping somebody we elect will do all the work while we drive off to the mall. Forget this behavior as if it were a dream. It was. In some way, many of us will find, perhaps to our astonishment, that we have not really lived until this moment. Our surprise, our shock, our anger, all of it points to how fast asleep we were."
History teaches us how easy it is for those who are safe to sleep through injustice. This is why security is a spiritual danger for Christianity. If we remain comfortable, hoping that other people are taking care of the situation for us, we take our place in the quiet homes where good people allow their neighbors' freedoms to be taken away. In sixth grade, I made a promise to myself to resist that fate, to refuse to stand by. That's why it is time for me to wake up from the dream that the system runs itself and to learn new ways to obstruct, push, and pressure the system toward the justice I hoped it would achieve on its own. If we want our country to be immune to the processes that have undone democracies elsewhere, we have to fight to make it that way. If we want to be among the few who stand out as an example of radical Christian love, we have to be willing to put our bodies on the line while others are safe at home.