Whew! It’s been quite a week! Starting from the depths of despair and rage over the murderous racial terrorism the displayed its ugliness in a Charleston, South Carolina. Then, slowly at first, the realization the shear stupid ugliness of the act and the moving dignity of surviving family members, had actually plucked hearts, and, yes, changed some minds. A national debate about a symbol—the Confederate Battle Flag—started down the familiar road of just digging polarized sides in deeper and intensifying mutual disgust and distain—then failed to reach that destination. Many people pull off to the shoulder to give it some thought and decided they were on the wrong road all the time. Those flags started to come down, often by unexpected hands. And most people cheered. The haters were still there, but they were lonelier and less sure that they only said what their neighbors were ashamed to admit.
Then the Supreme Court began to hand out goodies. One day it preserved affordable health care and open housing protections. Sure, so-called Obama Care is not perfect and many of us want to finish the job by going all the way to truly universal, single payer health coverage, but there is no denying that this half-measure has brought a measure of health security to millions. And on Friday, the big announcement that had been the focus of so much anticipation and no little trepidation came down. Marriage Equality as a fundamental Constitution right was extended to every state and territory. Oh, the overwhelming elation and sense of hard-won victory!
To sweeten the day the Preacher in Chief at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney reminded us despite our many disappointments in him why so many of us loved Barak Obama. He spoke as no American President ever has or could if none of the evasive ifs, ands, and buts we are used to from politicians seeking to speak on race without offending anyone. Has any President flatly declared, as he did yesterday that the cause for which Confederate soldiers died bravely was slavery?
Victory, or what smells like victory, on so many fronts. But there are still so many struggles left uncompleted—finishing that healthcare job, coming to grips with gun violence and the gun fetish culture the enables it, ending the stupid war on drugs and the racist American Gulag it creates, protecting our schools from the corporate predators on one hand and the peddlers of anti-science ignorance on the other which threaten to destroy them, reclaiming nearly lost right of women’s choice over reproductive decisions, securing equally threatened voting rights, destroying corporate personhood and the new feudalism it enables, acknowledging and taking real steps to reverse human caused climate change, and making Black Lives Matter a reality and not just a catchy slogan. The list goes on.
But first some attitude adjustment may be in order. A little more than two years ago, on March 19, 2013 I posted musings that may also inform the present moment. I think, despite some dated references, that it merits being dusted off today.
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.
|No longer the Lone Ranger or the rescuing hero on a white horse.|
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 Justice Committee at my congregation, the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry, Illinois, 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. [Won the following year.]
- 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 by 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 for women’s rights, with all of the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement. But in fact all of the movements that 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. [The most important lesson in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.]
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. Their uncontrolled rage, the vituperation, the raging paranoia 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.