Justice and Integrity for Many Seasons
Rev. Elizabeth Bukey
Notes as prepared for First Church in Jamaica Plain, January 12, 2020
Marge Piercy, "The Seven of Pentacles," Circles on the Water
Nancy McDonald Ladd, After the Good News
Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk
What Moves Us: Ethics for UUs (UUA curriculum, handout on Sharon Welch)
“Inspired Faith; Effective Action” workbook from the UUA, c 2006, online
adrienne maree brown, website, Emergent Strategy.
Probably because I am a member of the clergy, my friends and family now seem a bit freeer in bringing me their ethical struggles. In a trip to Seattle last year, someone I love who works at an agency supporting foster children said something like “how do all my little spreadsheets matter when there are children in cages at the border?” A friend who was working on an organic farm told me she was thinking of quitting because she didn’t see that growing fancy organic tomatoes was doing anything to really help people. And on it went—from those people, from you. Often from people who are in jobs or doing tasks that actually really do seem helpful to me: the question comes: am I doing enough?
So many of us are wondering: how do we live ethically given the deeply unethical things going on in our society? What is “enough” action, given that at this point we are not going to stop climate change, and that the climate crisis is upon us? What is an ethical response to what seems like a war we are not going to win? Or more cynically, why bother doing anything at all?
And this is why we have to let go of our attachment to winning.
I relate to what Nancy McDonald Ladd says here: that as a white person in this society, I have been taught to measure success in specific ways, to pursue goals that are achievable, and to weigh “well, is this really going to have any good, meaningful impact” when I think about my actions for justice. When I say “I was taught,” I mean literally.
I was literally taught this.
When I worked for the UUA’s Washington DC office for advocacy and witness, we were taught and then in turn taught congregational social justice groups about effective congregational social justice work. One of the things we were told to weigh was effectiveness, and concrete, achievable goals.
I don’t think this is exactly wrong. I still understand working strategically as critically important, and that in our stressed-out, burned out times, we must avoid wasting time and energy on actions that aren’t very helpful.
And yet, I also think and feel that my understanding of what is “helpful” has been expanding greatly, or even turning upside down. I remind myself, for example, of the our experience and work supporting a guest in Sanctuary from immigration detention starting over two years ago.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, one of our neighbors was in Sanctuary at Bethel AME church for fourteen months. And he needed to be accompanied at all times by two people, in case Immigration and Customs Enforcement came to the church and we needed to accompany him and document what was happening. So that’s two people 24 hours a day, including sleeping over at the church. That’s thousands of volunteer shifts of people from a number of different local congregations, including I know at least eleven folks from this congregation. Plus of course, there was the work in strategizing, and leadership meetings, and navigating a whole interfaith and multi-racial and multi-lingual coalition. I wasn’t there for that but I trust that this was a lot of work that didn’t always seem fun.
Given this amount of work, the question could arise: is it worth it? And in the logic of effectiveness and big picture and strategy, no it may not seem to make sense to spend so much time and effort for one person. All this work didn’t change the immigration system. The southern border is still a bleeding wound and while even the Obama administration deported thousands of people, this president is a proud white nationalist who is tearing children from their parents. So why do it?
I’ve been revisiting a book by UU Ethicist Sharon Welch, “A Feminist Ethic of Risk.” She’s a white feminist ethicist whose book learns from black people’s critiques of white US systems and ethics and critiques this idea of “effectiveness” in white liberals. She writes that we are shaped by a dangerous “ethic of control,” where the idea is that what counts as “responsible action” to us is “effective action.”
he assumption that effective action is unambiguous, unilateral, and decisive.
"We assume that to be responsible means that one can ensure that the aim of one’s action will be carried out. This understanding of responsible action leads to a striking paralysis of will when faced with complex problems. It seems natural to many people, when faced with a problem too big to be solved alone or within the foreseeable future, simply to do nothing. If one cannot do everything to solve the problem of world hunger, for example, one does nothing and even argues against partial remedies as foolhardy and deluded."
Why do anything at all?
But as I said to you the week that the guest was able to leave Sanctuary because community support changed something in his case: when it comes to the work of justice and peace-building, we need different standards than what the dominant society teaches us about what is successful and what is worthwhile. That we can think of this work is a theological statement. That yes, EVERY person is worth every effort. Every person is holy and precious. EVERY person deserves thousands of hours of community support if that is what it takes to keep them safe. Or even if it ultimately doesn’t.
This is where we need a new metaphor for what “effectiveness” means and looks like.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Marge Piercy’s poem “The Seven of Pentacles” is from an eleven-poem sequence called “Laying Down The Tower,” inspired by cards of the Tarot. She called this a political reading of the Tarot, and this poem, and the card it’s named for are placed in the position of “the influence coming into play.” She wrote it in 1971 or 72 shortly after moving from Chicago to Cape Cod.
This poem is speaking to me about the kind of hope and the kind of strategy we need to have for the times we live in.
The poem speaks to me of patience and stamina:
Connections are made slowly.
Live a life you can endure:
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time.
Impatience is of the biggest downfalls of social justice efforts rooted in the dominant culture.
White people, and men especially, have been trained to expect quick results, from what Nancy McDonald Ladd calls our lived experience of privilege.
And so when we have discovered a a social justice issue, parachuted in to “help,” and somehow failed to fix it quickly, our level of frustration can be so high. We are not accustomed to failure. We are accustomed to winning. Tending a vegetable garden is not something I actually know a lot about. But I understand that it has very little to do with winning. I hear from my mom, from my friends who garden, from you, that it is about persistence, and consistency, and care over the long term. About the caring for the garden as part of our whole lifestyle.
What if we approached our justice and peace-building in this way? Not as a hobby, and not even as a “job” or a “task,” but as something we just…do. daily. Or as part of our regular life. Like picking off the caterpillars, or dead-heading the petunias, or watering the carrots.
I am not sure I really know how to do that, myself. I do think that it has to do with remembering that there are a lot of different ways to nurture a garden: There is mulching, watering, caring for the insect-eating birds, picking off harmful insects.
And there are a lot of ways to nurture justice and peace. Again, that’s something that’s easy to be trapped into forgetting for those of us who swim in the dominant culture, with its faith in hegemony and fear of diversity. I count at least seven ways to work for justice: community service, education, advocacy, direct action and witness, community organizing, moving money or other resources, and realigning your life with your values.
I don’t think that it’s necessary to start in a particular place with that list, or that it’s necessary for every person to be involved in each way. For some people, reading a book or going to a lecture about climate change might lead to greater consciousness, and they’ll then advocate with an elected official about a public policy proposal or give money to the Sierra Club. For some people an experience serving in a food pantry might lead to questions about our country’s food policy and reading about the farm bill. Some people’s lived experience of racism might lead to community organizing for more educators of color in the local public schools, which might then lead to running for office.
I am trying to move away from the ethics of “everyone has to do everything” and toward an ethic of “everyone can do at least one thing.”
Some people can chain themselves to pipelines: some people can teach young children about equitable gender roles and keep them safe from toxic masculinity and abuse. Some people can buy solar panels and some people can make organic vegetable soup for the people who just got out of jail after chaining themselves to the pipelines. And then some other people can ensure things get cleaned up with non-toxic cleaning products and composted.
(It would be especially revolutionary if it were some male people who took automatic responsibility for that kind of domestic cleaning, teaching children that it’s not just women who need to jump up and start clearing away plates without being asked.)
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.
Liberal activists are sometimes criticized for not being unified. And sometimes that’s fair. But the work is not about building a parade of people marching in the same direction. To quote [activist and professor] Loretta Ross, via Adrienne maree brown: “A group of people moving in the same direction thinking the same thing is a cult. A group of people moving in the same direction thinking different things is a movement.”
We are called to be a movement, whose variety of actions and thicket of relationships keeps us strong despite the expected setbacks, and a movement of people who keep trying, even when they aren’t likely to win, even when there is no chance of winning.
A people who have what Sharon Welch calls an “ethic of risk,” where the point isn’t to win today but to quote “maintain resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.”
A willingness to take action that makes further actions possible, to do a next right thing, to quote ”to care and to act although there are no guarantees of success."
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.
We aren’t called to ensure every plant in the garden thrives and produces.
We must expect and early frost and damage and the one plant that just doesn’t grow.
But as one delicious tomato can renew a commitment to cultivation even in a hard year,
I hope that each act of justice and compassion we take and bring in to our interconnected lives will renew our commitment to nurturing justice and peace for many long seasons to come.