Sacred Soil


The Trouble with Being Progressive
June 6, 2013, 4:35 pm
Filed under: Weeds | Tags: , ,

Newton’s first law declares that an object in motion will remain in motion until acted upon by a force. This is the law that describes how a ball will effortlessly sail through the air, until it collides with dirt, or a bat, or the catcher’s mitt. It’s one of those laws that we scarcely need to name, as it seems so obvious to our existence.

As a child, I had a lovely relationship with Newton’s first law, pushing down the streets on my little roller skates. The thing about roller skates, and my six-year-old self, well, I never really seemed to get a handle on how to account for the moments when I would be “acted upon by a force.” Gravity, gravel, the wall, my clumsy feet–invariably, I would be caught by surprise, my graceless gliding halted suddenly by the reality that there were many forces that lingered near, just waiting to act upon my body in motion. Fortunately, we always had a good stash of band aids.

These days, Newton’s law has me sailing forward. Gliding, now gracefully, on the joy and astonishment of tremendous victories that have profoundly changed my life. In 1997, I came out as a lesbian in the days just after my state had tried to pass a law banning the discussion of anything related to homosexuality in our public schools. While the measure did not pass, I remember well the violence, the fear, the vitriol hurling about. In those days, it seemed to me that claiming my identity as a white lesbian meant subjecting myself to the forces that would continually act upon my freedom. It was a frightening time.

And then, three years later, against all logic, I decided to become a pastor. I knew in this decision that these forces would press upon me, and that finding my calling would mean getting creative about my momentum, searching out new places and ways to launch forward. At the time, it seemed clear, like a law of physics, I was not going to be able to follow this calling in the standard way. The church had uttered a bellowing “no,” to my gifts for ministry.

But, it turned out differently. Somewhere along the way, our society began to cherish the mutuality of relationships. It happened quite a while back. (For more on this check out Stephanie Coonz’ book: Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage) And from this dramatic shift, we launched a movement toward justice that has been utterly astounding. It took awhile to gain momentum, but there are days it seems that this movement is a rocket ship launched into history. In the 16 years since I came out, as a white lesbian, I have experienced an astounding shift from fearing violence and enduring jeers, to a steady rain of laws, and policy changes, and attitude shifts that have meant that I am now functionally married (come on Illinois, figure this out), I’ve got a beautiful daughter, many legal protections, and mostly, I don’t fear walking around holding my partner’s hand. And, most astoundingly, I am a pastor, ordained in a blessedly ordinary way. It is as if I am moving ever closer to that moment when justice will be fully gained, and I will be really free.

Until I hit a wall that is.

Perhaps that’s not fair. I don’t know that I’ll hit a wall. It may well be that I will continue to benefit from this great launching toward justice… I don’t know. But I am leery. It may be that I kissed the pavement too many times while on those roller skates. But, I am leery of this assumption that this particular launching of hope will continue forward. I fear that the momentum created is not enough to withstand human fear, human depravity. And I’m also not sure it’s good for us to presume it will, even it if does.

For most white folks, history has been moving on this arc toward greater prosperity, security, and freedom. There are certainly moments where this is not true, times when economic decline has been devastating. But, for the most part, the story has been that the best days lie in the future. We are hurling ever faster toward goodness and hope, that we can do no other but progress toward this great time when all the world will know a good and holy existence.

And I do mean holy. We mix God up in this all the time. And there’s good reason to. We are promised in the scriptures that God will bring all things to God’s self. That God will redeem creation. There will be a time when justice will flow like a river, washing down upon the earth. And this is good. Very good indeed.

Yet, as humans, we have this little difficulty in separating our own experience from that of the divine. And, for us white folks, that’s a particular challenge.  Because for many cultures the goodness of God, the hope of humanity, lies in the past. For the Native Americans who experienced genocide as a result of white settlement, there is a longing for the freedom known before the force of white greed and colonialism came crashing against their lives. In reading the Hebrew scriptures, it is clear that the good days of Israel were the earliest, when the people were ruled by God. It was human depravity that brought about the need for kings. God clearly longs for those days past, when we truly listened. And by this I do not mean to imply that other cultures have a nostalgic longing for the good old days–rather that there is a fundamentally different understanding of time, of the action of momentum.

And so it seems to me that it is a dangerous thing to presume that this object that is in motion will stay in motion. We have this way of resting into the momentum, of believing that God has willed this movement forward and that nothing can stop it. Indeed, I have heard many times that marriage equality will come to Illinois. It is only a matter of time. Yet, I worry that this is an assumption based on the story of white privilege, on the story of people who instinctively perceive that history will continue to move in our favor, as if this were a law of physics.

I’m told that in Germany, before the rise of Hitler, gay and lesbian folks were growing in societal acceptance. Some parts of Germany even celebrated this diversity. But, in the difficulties of the Wiemar Republic, in the economic devastation, in the rise of fear, this group was one of the first to be sent to the gas chambers. Fear stood as cement against the momentum of justice.

An honest look at history will prove, we should never under-estimate the power of human depravity.

So what then do we do?

As a Christian, and as a pastor, I do believe that God will bring all things together. I do believe there is a day when freedom will truly come. It is a day without time, moving neither into the future or beyond the past. I don’t know enough about physics to tell you what that is like, but I do recall that Einstein suggested that if we think we understand quantum physics, we’ve got it all wrong.

Which is to say, I don’t know the answer. But, I do know that I am called to seek justice, to urge toward it on all levels. For all people. And as for the trajectory of our movement… well, I suppose it is best that we tend to the forces that act against justice, using the best of our humanity to act for good. But, let us never assume that our own actions will bring about the kingdom. That’s God’s to do. For now, perhaps all we can do is rejoice and be grateful for all those ways God’s reign breaks into our lives now.

And if we do this well, perhaps we can really be prepared for that day when the forces of fear and human depravity break against the lives of others, of ourselves. If we do this well, we will not be surprised by the abrupt collision with gravity, but will rather trust in God’s promises with a whole new fervor.


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