When people hesitate to take a stand on issues from the Gulf oil spill to the horror show off the coast of Gaza, it's often because they're unsure of the outcomes of their actions. The issues themselves can be complex and overwhelming. I've talked in an earlier Soul of a Citizen excerpt about the trap I call the perfect standard, where we feel we need to know every conceivable answer before we start to take a stand. But we also hold back because all our actions seem fruitless or compromised and because we're uncertain just how they'll will play out. Yet acting despite this ambiguity is often the most effective way to make change.
Heartfelt social involvement inevitably leads us into uncertain spiritual and emotional terrain. Theologian George Johnson amplifies this point in Beyond Guilt and Powerlessness. "Most of us," he says, "are more comfortable with answers than with questions. When faced with a problem we generally approach it with the assumption that information, insights, and proper action will bring satisfactory solutions. We want to fix things right now."
But as Johnson explains, "the reality of a broken world" often leads to ambiguity rather than certainty. "What we thought, believed, assumed, or followed is suddenly brought into question .... Receiving more information unsettles us rather than making things clear and easy .... It should not surprise us that our journey into the lives of those who cry for help will be discomforting."
As a result, those of us who work for social justice often have no choice but to pursue our fundamental goals by approaches that are sometimes unclear, ad hoc, and seemingly contradictory. I remember one Vietnam-era demonstration in San Francisco that focused on the role of major oil companies in promoting the war. My friends and I drove the 35 miles to get there. As we stopped to fill up at a gas station, we felt more than a little absurd, but there was no other reasonable way to get there. I experience a similar disjunction when flying across the country to give climate change talks that I hope will move people to act, while contributing to the very greenhouse gases I'm aiming to reduce.