Yesterday I re-posted a Washington Post poll on facebook that showed a clear majority of Americans now support marriage equality and that the trend is accelerating. While obviously something to celebrate, I could not help but preface the post with a sort of snarky comment, “This will be a big disappointment for Unitarian Universalists who are addicted to being in a lonely minority.”
Not that UUs have a corner on this. It happens to a lot of social justice crusaders who spend years, often most of their lives, fighting the unwinnable battle against enormous odds. We are used to being the only guy or gal out in the pouring rain with our picket sign expecting to be spit upon. We are so instinctively counter-cultural that we are suspicious of any popular opinion.
But what happens when after years of diligent work, we wake up and see that it has really paid off—that slowly our concerns were heard, tolerated, accepted, and finally embraced? The tipping point has been reached and passed. Suddenly we are in the middle of a Fourth of July parade down Main Street.
It can be a little disconcerting. Not all of us know how to handle it. Some can’t resist a smug I-told-you-so attitude. Some insist on being recognized as heroes and denigrate the Johnny-come-latelies who did not share the early sacrifices. Some wander off looking for a new lost, lonely cause to invest their identities in. Some will figure that the battle has been won and abandon the effort. And many, very many, will simply not know how to shift gears in the messaging and tactics still necessary to translate that new-found majority status into lasting social change.
When I look at the top priorities that the Social Justice Committee at my congregation, formerly the U.U. Congregation in McHenry now trying on the new moniker Tree of Life—A U.U. Congregation in McHenry County, I see that in each case we are now reflective of general popular opinion, or at least standing on ground moving rapidly to a majority.
- On marriage equality, despite solid evidence of plenty of support, we still face a hard battle convincing a timid Illinois House of Representatives to take action.
- In battling gun violence, we find even more overwhelming support for a broad range of reasonable regulation of the sale of military style weapons, high capacity ammunition clips, universal background checks, and other measures. Yet the loudest voices in the public debate are the NRA and the noisy gun-obsessed right wing fringe who frankly scare the crap out of everyone with their constant hints at civil war, assassination, and insurrection if they don’t get everything exactly as they demand.
- While there is less unanimity on exactly what to do about immigration reform, we find that the old deport-‘em-all-and-build-an-impenetrable-wall sentiment has waned if not disappeared. Most people are now for some form of a path to citizenship and for fairness to the youthful Dreamers who have spent almost their entire lives in this country. But simple naked racism and nativism die hard and a lot of economically distressed folks still worry about “them” taking their job.
- On reproductive rights, safe access to birth control and abortion as well as frank and truthful sex education in the schools were issues that went mainstream a generation ago. And despite everything, remains solidly supported a majority. But complacency that the battle had been won, let a highly motivated, well financed, and intensely angry minority seize a major national political party, come to power in many states, and in Congress and place all of those once safe gains at deadly peril.
It’s not that I disparage the work and sacrifices of those who first broke the ground, risked life and limb and, perhaps worse, ridicule. I would hope that I could have had the courage to stand with Theodore Parker against slavery, the ladies at Seneca Falls, with all of the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement. But in fact all of the movements they fostered matured and won significant victories, even if imperfect ones. The culture changed. Only the most vicious and rabid want to go back to the way it was.
The point for us now is that although we are now buoyed by popular support, the battles are not over. What has changed is how address the issues in this new environment, embrace and encourage our new allies, coax the with-us-in-spirit just a little out of their places of trepidation and uncertainty. It is changing the message from you should to we can.
Part of that is dialing back the shrillness, the perpetual outrage, the self-righteousness. It is about being inclusive and not always insisting on being the one out front waving the flag the hardest and shouting the loudest.
It is good to remember what our enemies have taught us. As the paradigm on these issues has shifted, it was accelerated as much by them as by our efforts. As they felt the once solid ground slipping out from under them the haters hated more openly and insanely. The bigots forgot to cloak their intentions. The uncontrolled rage, the vituperation, the raging paranoia not only scared the bejesus out of a lot of fence sitters and even former allies. More and more folks simply decided that they did not want to be associated with that kind of ugliness anymore.
And now they do not want to see that mirrored among their new friends. They want to be part of positive change, and to be with positive people. To engage them from passive support to participants will require a different voice and a touch of humility.
Look, I am not saying that we never again stand up and loudly and plainly speak truth to Power, or that we are not permitted our anger, only that we need to focus it differently.
That is why the Standing on the Side of Love campaign is so brilliant. It encourages reaching out and inclusiveness, linking together sometimes isolated concerns and causes under a common human understanding. It uses the language of love, not righteousness, justice, not revenge.
As the issue examples above show, there is still plenty of work to do. We need to do it better, smarter, and kinder. And best of all, we don’t have to do it alone.