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The Moral Imperative of Activism

By       Message Ray McGovern     Permalink
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Prophets on the Margin

And, then there is the worship of "free market" idolatry which has savaged America's Great Middle Class and expanded the ranks of the desperate poor. The late Rabbi Abraham Heschel had challenging words for us: Decrying the agony of the "plundered poor," Heschel insisted that wherever injustice takes place, "few are guilty, but all are responsible." He added that, "Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., warned:

"A time comes when silence is betrayal ... We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak ... There is such a thing as being too late ... Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with lost opportunity ... Over the bleached bones of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: 'Too late.'"

Amid these daunting challenges -- endless war, encroachment on liberties, environmental devastation and economic disparity -- there is also the question: Are our churches riding shotgun for the System?

As truly historic events unfold in our country and abroad, I often think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who founded the Confessing Church as an alternative to the overwhelming number of Catholics and Lutherans who gave priority to protecting themselves by going along with Hitler. How deeply disappointed Bonhoeffer was at the failure of the institutional church in Germany to put itself "where the battle rages."

This is the phrase Martin Luther himself used centuries before:

"If, I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing him. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved and to be steady on all the battlefield, except there, is mere flight and disgrace if one flinches at that point."

No one has put it better than a precious new friend I met on a "cruise" in June/July 2011 hoping to reach Gaza -- author and poet Alice Walker -- who said: "Activism is my rent for living on this planet."

As some of you know, that attitude found her a passenger on "The Audacity of Hope" -- the U.S. Boat to Gaza. On July 1, 2011, we made an activist break for the open sea and Gaza but were able to sail only nine nautical miles out of Athens before the Greek government, under strong pressure from the White House, ordered its Coast Guard to intercept us, bring us back to port, and impound our boat.

Okay to be Angry?

Recalling the anger I felt at the time, I was reminded that, all too often, people are conflicted about whether or not to allow themselves to be angry at such injustice -- whether it be in Gaza, on the Aegean, or elsewhere. I had been in that category of doubt, until I remembered learning that none other than Thomas Aquinas had something very useful to say about anger.

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In the Thirteenth Century, Aquinas wrote a lot about virtue and got quite angry when he realized there was no word in Latin for just the right amount of anger -- for the virtue of anger. He had to go back to what Fourth-Century Doctor of the Church John Chrysostom said on the subject: "He or she who is not angry, when there is just cause for anger, sins."

Why? Because as John Chrysostom put it, "Anger respicit bonum justitiae, anger looks to the good of Justice, and if you can live amid injustice without anger you are unjust."

Aquinas added his own corollary; he railed against what he called "unreasoned patience," which, he said, "sows the seeds of vice, nourishes negligence, and persuades not only evil people but good people to do evil."

Frankly, I have not thought of us activists being virtuous -- but maybe we are, at least in our willingness to channel our anger into challenging and changing the many injustices here and around the world. There should be no room these days for "unreasoned patience."

One saving grace peculiar not only to the ancient prophets and theologians but to the Alice Walkers and Medea Benjamins of today is that they did not get hung up on the all-too-familiar drive for success. That drive, I think, is a distinctly American trait. We generally do not want to embark on some significant course of action without there being a reasonable prospect of success, do we? Who enjoys becoming the object of ridicule?

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The felt imperative to be "successful" can be a real impediment to acting for Justice. One prophet/activist from whom I have drawn inspiration is Dan Berrigan. I'd like to share some of the wisdom that seeps through his autobiography, To Dwell in Peace. Berrigan writes that after he, his brother Phil, and a small group of others had used homemade napalm to burn draft cards in Catonsville, Maryland, in May 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, Dan mused about why he took such a risk:

"I came upon a precious insight. ... Something like this: presupposing integrity and discipline, one is justified in entering upon a large risk; not indeed because the outcome is assured, but because the integrity and value of the act have spoken aloud. ...

"Success or efficiency are placed where they belong: in the background. They are not irrelevant, but they are far from central. I was in need of such reflections as we faced the public after our crime. ... All sides agreed -- we were fools or renegades or plain crazy. ...

"One had very little to go on; and one went ahead nonetheless. ... The act was let go, its truth and goodness were entrusted to the four winds. Indeed, good consequences were of small matter to me, compared with the integrity of the action, the need responded to, the spirits lifted."

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 

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