Why We Do What We Do

February 02, 2014

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

The ancient text we are using today is one of those texts that progressives love to hate. Go ye therefore into the entire world? Which world? And who are you to go anywhere? The words imperialism come quickly to mind, followed by that newly popular word, “Bullying.” Progressives like to think we are above imperialism, except when we are doing superb community organizing, like Ken is doing around Sochi. We also like to imagine ourselves as post-bullying. Maybe we are and maybe we aren’t. In utter honor and frank amazement of Queer Nation’s work with Coca Cola, I offer just a few more words. You can honor a work by understanding its motives. And here I refine those motives.

Imperialism is the conceit that you know what is best for the world and that you are it.

Bullying is the more personal invasion of another’s space by an act of aggression, which prohibits the other’s response. In the evangelism that we practice about gay pride and universal appreciation of that which is homosexual, we are doing the right thing. Ken is even doing the right thing in the right way – so please, please, please hear no sneaky self-righteousness in my words. I am not trying to damn with faint praise. I am trying instead to understand why we do what we do, how some values are non-negotiable for us.

Ken’s action is assertive, not aggressive. There is a difference. And Coke has lots of room to respond by doing the right thing. This turns the activism around the ancient text – going therefore into the entire world – in to something better than imperialism or bullying. It also provides a great occasion to understand and deepen our motives as social activists, who do have non-negotiable or universal values.

First let me say a word about Pete Seeger, the non-violent Universalist. Seeger had a terrible decision to make about what kind of Communist he wanted to be. He chose against the violent kind for the non-violent kind. He thought it was right to fight Hitler, even though some might argue that was a universalizing of morality, in a way that could become imperial and that surely used bullying tactics. Hitler had to be stopped. Stalin also had to be stopped. Seeger joined the forces to stop them by understanding the difference between two songs. You can hear the attitude in the music. “I’d like to teach the world to sing” is one song. Another is “He’s got the Whole World in his hands.” The former pleads for perfect harmony and has an attitude of active invitation. The latter is imperial and downright frightening. Who is the He who has the Whole in Whose hands?

One song invites, the other compels. There is a difference between insisting that there is one God or one way or one nation and inviting the whole world to sing. May Progressives understand John 3: 16 as an invitation and not a command.

Now let me report an experience I had this week with a psychologist friend of mine. Howard is a very smart man. I was telling him how much I liked the new play, ALMOST MAINE that is in our gym. It is a smart Rom-Com. One of the scenes is between a married couple who have a fight after going on an almost romantic, turned deadly ice skating date. It is on their anniversary. He doesn’t know that it is their anniversary. He has forgotten that they got engaged at this very pond, on an ice skating date, a dozen years ago. He has just worked two shifts. He is tired. She is angry and makes her invitation in an angry way. She wants to trap him in what he doesn’t know. She succeeds, only to lose her marriage. They part ways after he accuses her of lying and trapping and bullying. It is strange to see roles reversed in this way. Usually men do the bullying and women do the captive mating dance. She is emotionally smarter than he is and has remembered their anniversary. He keeps asking her whether she is mad and she keeps saying no I am not mad, loading her gun to let him know that he has forgotten the anniversary. Again. He knows something is wrong but doesn’t know what it is. She bullies him with her dishonesty. He finally says he knows something is wrong and doesn’t know what it is. Instead of making space for him to repent, she shoots, metaphorically. He says, so you are mad? She says, no I am not. He opens the door to leave their marriage by saying he doesn’t want to be around a liar any more. They part ways. My psychologist friend says yes , women do bully men because they are emotionally smarter, in general. Men lose their way. Yes, you’d have to see the scene to feel the compassion I feel for both partners in this failed date. But suffice it to say that emotional honesty is different than emotional quickness or smartness. The weak can bully the strong as well as the strong bully the weak. When we go into the entire world, we need to remember to be honest. Honesty is less imperial than its morally righteous guns.

Yes, coke is wrong. Yes, anti-gay oppression is wrong. And you can tell other people they are wrong in a right way or a wrong way. Evil is an equal opportunity employer. When we do superb activism, it is important not to get too self-righteous about it. It gives our opponent too much ammunition and too little space for repentance.

We hosted a press conference this week for the people opposing solitary confinement in New York State prisons. They call euphemize it as “isolated confinement.” We ate the food that the prisoners are given three times a day. You may have heard about this food. It is a corn bread type loaf, injected with various proteins and other fake foods. It comes served with a slice of raw green cabbage. Three times a day. It is gross. It tastes disgusting. It tastes like old chemicals. It is inhuman to put people in solitary confinement. And it is horrifying to serve them this kind of so-called food. Why use cruel and unusual punishment on anybody? Another universal value, right? Like opposing Hitler? Or Coke. Or Putin, who so unwisely thought that gay people molest children at rates higher than the average priest or heterosexual man. There are so many things to oppose, throughout the world and throughout New York State. I broke my own rule on Friday: I was very angry and full of hate at people who made and served that food.

How we oppose what we oppose matters. Isolationism is immoral, whether imposed as solitary confinement or semi-solitary confinement or when you are faced with Stalinists or Nazis. Emotional dishonesty is immoral and only leads to our demise as partners in a harmonic world.

Why we do what we do is clear. We do it out of love for the solitary, the sinful and ourselves. We hope for the world and have an active, assertive love and hope for the world. Probably we can’t help ourselves. Surely we are just following our orders and our own muses. But the devil is surely in the details. The details have to do with getting our heart right and making sure that the love goes all the way down, to our toes. Then we are safely leashed on the worlds as activists. Without it, we are bullies and imperialists. With love, we are breaking out of solitary confinement into harmonic human community, the destination from the beginning. Ken, thank you for your great heart of love and the way you activate ours as well.

55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844