Dr. Sharon Welch is Associate Professor of Theology and Applied Theology, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the author of Communities of Resistance and Solidarity.
AFTER Martin Luther King’s soul-stirring speech, “I Have a Dream,” at the 1963 march on Washington, the writer James Baldwin provided the following assessment of the impact of Dr. King’s address: “That day, for a moment, it almost seemed that we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not forever remain that dream one dreamed in agony!”(1)
Dr. King’s dream of the beloved community, and his passionate, embodied rage at injustice have marked affinities with the moral core of feminist spiritualities. His life and work offer profound challenges to those of us in movements for social transformation who are white and middle class. I will begin with the affinities and move to the challenges.
The poet Adrienne Rich captures well the motive rage and longing that shapes women’s hopes for a world free of sexism and war:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power
reconstitute the world.(2)
Adrienne Rich’s poem is a declaration of dangerous memory. Challenged by the lives of “raging, stoic grandmothers,” she moves from self-critique to committed action. Rich examines the consequences of male domination of women. She grieves for lives lost and damaged by sexism, and produces a poetry of mourning and rage.
While fully aware of the irreparable damage of injustice, Rich also holds fast to her love of life, and creates a poetry of resistance and hope. She speaks of “the dream of a common language” – the ability of women to speak in words that reflect our deepest hopes for life, to speak in a genuine openness to each other as survivors of a deadly system of oppression.
What Rich evokes in poetry, Cone, Gutierrez, Daly, and others describe in passionate prose.(3) Our time is enriched and enlivened by the voices of liberation theologians, women and men who celebrate and seek to understand the dangerous memories of the oppressed.
The life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the women and men involved in the civil rights movement can also be appropriated as a dangerous memory. In working with women and men who have long been active in the struggle against racism I find courage, hope, and theological and political challenges to Euro-American middle-class activists. In this paper I will explore these theological and political challenges in light of the response of Euro-American activists to the partial successes and partial failures of the peace movement in the 1980s.
Before examining particular complexes of dangerous memories, however, it is helpful to reflect on the term “dangerous memory” itself and its connotations.
Johann Baptist Metz has identified the power of dangerous memories in resisting communities. My use of the term is derived from his exploration of the task of Christian theology: “…speaking about God by making the connection between the Christian message and the modern world visible and expressing the Christian tradition in this world as a dangerous memory.”(4) Metz describes the Christian tradition as the bearer of “a dangerous memory of freedom.” Christians remember the freedom of Jesus and the call of God to all people to be subjects before God.(5) According to Metz, this memory leads Christianity to a critique of what is commonly accepted as plausible; dangerous memory leads to political action.(6) Dangerous memories fund a community’s sense of dignity; they inspire and empower those who challenge oppression. Dangerous memories are a people’s history of resistance and struggle, of dignity and transcendence in the face of oppression.
Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” is a powerful evocation of dangerous memories in this sense, challenging the ideology of those white ministers who argued for restraint and a slower pace of change with a vivid recounting of the costs of the past and the burdens of oppression. King wrote the letter while imprisoned for civil disobedience. He responded to the charge of eight liberal clergymen who called the campaign of nonviolent civil rights demonstrations “unwise and untimely.”
I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation say, ‘Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your brothers and sisters at whim;… when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro bothers smothering in an tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;… when you are humiliated day in and day our by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”;… when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. The memories evoked by King are indeed dangerous. They en- danger the continued acceptance of racial injustice as they propel people to courageous acts of resistance.(7)
Because of the work of feminist historians and theologians, we can identify may dangerous memories that enable our resistance as women. With my sisters, I rejoice in memories of strong, creative women. I find it difficult, however, to identify the stories that would empower me as someone who has a certain degree of privilege (as white, American, and middle-class). On the contrary, memories that are constitutive of white, middle-class identity are hardly dangerous. They reinforce the defense of privilege and often evoke despair or cynicism in the face of oppression.
The memories of the middle class often hinder the move from critique to action. Shaped by memories of conquest in the name of the common good (settling the West, the growth of technology, economic affluence, the military power of the U. S. during and after World War II), many middle-class people are paralyzed when we see that our work against the dangerous costs of this legacy of conquest does not have the same amount of immediate success. Given this disparity, the lack of control and precision in work for justice seems almost irresponsible. If control is the norm, then responsible action for justice is a contradiction in terms. American culture relegates such concerns to the young and the terminally idealistic. Responsibility is equated with action that is more likely to succeed, thus identifying responsibility with action that is by definition supportive of the status quo.
Memories of military and economic victories serve as a barrier to work for liberation. Any strategy may be criticized as woefully inadequate when it cannot ensure long-lasting, thorough change. The members of a study group at Harvard, for example, argued against disarmament because of its failure to provide guaranteed results:
Disarmament would not necessarily ensure a state’s position in the international contest between states. It would not necessarily ensure a state’s security. Nor would disarmament guarantee that the funds saved from weapons would necessarily be devoted to raising the living standards of poor peoples.
According to these strategists, it is not enough for an act, such as disarmament to be an ingredient in a larger process – i.e., releasing money that could be spent in other ways.
The search for guarantees, and for single solutions, is often paralyzing. Taking as the norm of power the ability of the political and economic establishment to meet its goals, middle-class activists often become trapped in cultured despair. They are well aware of the costs of systems of injustice, but find it impossible to act against them because no definitive solutions are in sight. The memories of the middle class are all too often enervating and deceptive: deceptive in their accounts of cultural victory without victims, enervating in their emphasis on the failure of “utopian ideals.”
The 1980s peace movement in the United States, recognized by many as a largely white, middle-class movement, has experienced demoralization even when partial gains are won. The response of the U. S. peace movement to the INF treaty is a case in point. On December 8, 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a treaty abolishing 2611 intermediate-range nuclear missiles. The treaty was the first to call for the destruction of missiles. Previous agreements between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have merely limited the scope of new developments in weapons technology. Despite this advance, reaction to the INF treaty was strangely muted.
In sharp contrast to the million people who marched in New York in June, 1982, in protest against the nuclear arms race, there were no large scale rallies to celebrate the signing of the INF treaty. The worldwide peace movement was not credited by Reagan or the U.S. press with playing any role in the signing of the treaty, and, in the United States, the peace movement failed to claim credit for helping create the political climate that supported the formulation and ratification of the treaty. The focus of most analyses, even by activists, tended to be on the remaining military threats and on the various ways in which the INF treaty could be used against the interests of the peace movement.
While the number of weapons systems dismantled under the INF is quite low, (around 5% of the total U.S.-U.S.S.R. arsenals), the muted response of the U.S. peace movement is still surprising.(9) The weapons now being eliminated, the Cruise and Pershing missiles, are the weapons systems most feared by nuclear activists. These are the weapons that would be used either in a first-strike of a limited nuclear war.(10)
The fear of the use of nuclear weapons in Europe was exacerbated by the introduction of a new generation of nuclear weapons, these Cruise and Pershing missiles, accurate enough to fulfill the requisites of a ‘limited nuclear war,” destroying command and control centers and missiles in their silos.
The peace movement has attained a significant, albeit partial, victory in the elimination of these weapons. For the first time, weapons systems are being destroyed. Much remains to be done. Yet the demoralization of the peace movement reflects the expectation of final victory and guaranteed success. We could profit from a careful study of other movements for social change, recognizing that uneven, ambiguous, and fragile gains are the norm. The gains of the civil rights movement, for example, are undoubtedly significant though much is left to achieve in the struggle against racism. A valued perspective on the peace movement is obtained through a careful consideration of the ambiguities of the civil rights movement. At times of greatest success, there was often the danger of demoralization and dissolution. After the watershed direct action campaign in Birmingham, “the movement was threatening to split apart in public just as it reached its highest level of potential influence.” (11) Tensions of a similar sort had early affected the movement after the success of the Montgomery bus boycott. “Me aftermath of the boycott had brought not celebration, but a run of violence… [and] a new series of disagreements within the MIA.”(12)
Despite these repeated tensions and ambiguities, the civil rights movement did not end in 1959 or 1963. It continues even now, with new strategies and analyses and with more victories and defeats. The uneven rhythm of social change can be disheartening, yet there are constructions of human limitations and of “learned hope” that can ameliorate the slide into cynicism or despair.
THE ESCHATOLOGICAL RESERVATION
While a denial of the fragility of our political strategies and structures is undoubtedly dangerous, the evasion of the resiliency of our work for justice is equally devastating. Sole attention to the failures in history can blind us to the partial successes; the realization that more is yet to be done masks the fact that some good has been obtained.
Theologians have examined the relationship between continued human fault and the power of divine presence in terms of the concept of eschatology and the eschatological reservation. (13) The eschatological reservation is the reminder that all of our good works are partial. Though inspired and guided by God, they cannot be directly identified as the work of God, nor identified as the kingdom of God.
As Segundo states, the critical value of the “relativization of any and every political system, in the name of God,” is lost when the “eschatological reservation” is “generalized.”
Even before some new regime is worked out, it is criticized in the name of some new hope. At the same time, the opposed regime is being criticized under the same head but for opposite reasons. And even the search itself is relativized because there is no element in history that can be related causally to the construction of God’s eschatological kingdom. (14)
A search for only absolute victory leads to “faith and hope in something metahistorical and a disgusted turning away from real-life history.”(15)
Hope is paradoxically translated into a radically pessimistic view of the whole process of change, even when the latter is not violent, precisely because any and every change prompted by man [sic] cannot help but lose out to world-don-tinating sin. The kingdom of God can only be fashioned by someone who is free from sin, and that comes down to God alone. (16)
The Christian notion of the eschatological reservation is also intended to remind us of the disparity between political aims and the actual consequences of implemented programs and policies. We cannot imagine in advance all the consequences of any action. The environmental costs of agriculture and energy policies are a case in point. Attempts to produce social good have had disastrous consequences. For example, Rachel Carson described the destruction of birds, animals, and insects through the use of pesticides. (17) Ecologists now are warning of the dangerously high level of extinction of plant, animal, and insect species due to agricultural expansion and unchecked deforestation. (18) Scientists working on genetic alteration of plants and bacteria have yet to heed the lessons available from the destructive consequences of the intended goods of the use of pesticides and nuclear power. It is possible that the fatal flaw of the human species is the lack of commensuration between our ability to act and our ability to imagine the consequences of our actions.
This dangerous, possibly fatal, lack of commensuration might seem sufficient evidence for the necessity of the eschatological reservation. Insofar as the eschatological reservation points to these limits, its functions are positive. Yet these positive functions are negated by the complete discourse within which the notion is framed. It is a social imperative that this disparity between intent and consequence be acknowledged, yet it makes all the difference in the world if the source of such knowledge is a contrast between human power and absolute power or a positive recognition of the complexities and interdependence of the web of life. From the latter perspective, people come to see their inability to imagine consequences from an appreciation of the dependence of humans on nature, and in appreciation of the complexity of the natural world. That is, we do not exist outside nature, manipulating it for our own ends. We are nature, our intelligence itself material – dependent on physical health and the operations of the natural world, dependent on political and economic structures, or access to education and influence. (19)
Human intelligence is limited and our understanding of the complex interdependencies of the natural world ever growing. The result of such a perspective is the expectation of partial success and partial defeat. Social policies and environmental policies require continual monitoring and re-evaluation. The need for correctives and revision is not, however, a sign of the failure of action but a manifestation of the nature of human action. The ability to be self-critical, to remain open in a systematic structural manner to revision, is a sign of maturity. As Habermas has reminded us, rather than revisions occurring only because of crises – environmental catastrophe, social insurrection – a mature institution or social system would have as a sign of its strength the operation of structures to elicit critique and note negative consequences. (20)
Within a framework of valued interdependence, the work of revision and self-critique is grounded in strength, not weakness. The revision of social systems and the critique of programs for political change are positive responses to a community’s increased awareness of the consequences of its actions.
The notion of the eschatological reservation is used to explain both the limits of human action and the horizon of human hope. The latter dimension of the eschatological reservation is highlighted in McCann’s critique of liberation theology from the perspective of Christian realism. McCann contrasts the unbounded hope of the liberation theologian with the qualified hope of the Christian realist. He claims that there are some limits that cannot be removed, and faults liberation theologians for supporting a naive hope: “Genuine limit-situations must be accepted in faith, a response that leads, it is hoped, to repentance and a measure of serenity in social conflict.”(21)
Seeing no limits to human possibilities, according to McCann, liberation theologians are naively utopian. In McCann’s interpretation of the choice between “religious disinterestedness” or “solidarity with the oppressed,” the profound challenge of liberation theology is lost. For liberation theologians, the foundation of action is not a particular view of what is possible in history, but a perspective from which one determines the current boundaries of human hope. The foundation of analysis and action is a passionate love for the oppressed. (22) When I fully love myself, my people and others who are oppressed, my hope for our lives is expanded. I begin to question whether previously accepted limits are actually necessary. What emerges is not the naive denial of any genuine limits, but a sophisticated questioning of what a social system has set as “genuine limits.” Women of all races are questioning “natural” physical and social limits, i.e., women “naturally” being defined socially and rewarded economically primarily through their relationships with men. Men and women of color are questioning the world-wide distribution of wealth and political power and their questioning is grounded in a vital self-love. June Jordan describes a world-wide movement of women and men challenging the necessity and legitimacy of existing political systems, a phenomenon she describes as grounded in love: “…the movement into self-love, self-respect, and self-determination is the movement now galvanizing the majority of human beings everywhere.”(23)
Liberation theologians do offer “criteria for distinguishing limit situations that summon people to worshipful contemplation rather than political action” (McCann). The criteria are primarily those of loyalty and action. The genuineness of the limits facing a people can best be assessed from the point of view of love for people and being involved concretely in struggles to live with joy and integrity.
Feminist theologians, especially those re-affirming earth-based spiritual traditions, argue that some limits, seen as transitory in western cultural and religious traditions, are, in fact, irremovable. Loving the earth, nature, and humanity as part of nature does lead to the recognition of “limits” and does provide a principle of self-critique, a check against the idolatrous reification of any particular human project.
In feminist theology and thealogy, in Native American traditions and in the writings of Afro-American women, I find a depiction of the complexity of the nature of limits that both explains the distortions inherent in western responses to limit and offers a less destructive option for responding to threats.
In Toni Morrison’s Sula, we see two sorts of limits to the human well-being, those posed by injustice, and those posed by the vagaries of life (natural disasters and human conflicts emerging from difference, but not from exploitation).(24) Attempts to eradicate injustice are made, yet other limits of human existence are accepted; the transitoriness of institutions, the need to let go of old pains and embrace new challenges with their attendant pain, and the limits of being finite and dependent on the earth.
In Native American traditions and in feminist theology (Christ, Soelle, Starhawk) one sees a similar distinction. Even the “final limit,” death, is not an enemy. Death is understood as part of the cycle of life, an event to be mourned, but also an event that can be accepted as good in that it makes it possible for others to live. (25) What is fiercely resisted is not death itself, but untimely death, death caused by human folly or evil, by torture, environmentally induced cancer, war, occupational hazards, or malnutrition.
There are different kinds of limits to the well-being of all, those caused by the limits of finitude, and those caused by injustice. Frequently limits of injustice are caused by attempts to deny or control the limits of finitude. A Marxist explanation of the root of economic injustice is a case in point: the profit and leisure that enable the transcendence of natural limits for a few are produced by the consignment of many to little but the limits of manual work. One form of this exploitations is the male appropriation of female labor: in patriarchal societies men avoid the limits of life by relegating the work of at least some of the cooking, child-care, cleaning, and mending to women?6 Physical limits are often transcended through exploitation. The leisure of the upper class, the evasion of the limits entailed by having to work, are attained by binding others to little but work: consigning certain classes to cleaning, factory production, service work, clerical work, and garbage collection. This illusion, that the chore of self-maintenance can be avoided without costs, has led to the degradation and exploitation of those who are poor and working-class.
Injustice can be eliminated, but human conflicts and natural limitations cannot be removed. The conflicts of social life and the limitations of nature cannot be controlled or transcended. They can, however, be endured and survived. It is possible for there to be a dance with life, a creative response to its intrinsic limits and challenges. These conflicts and limitations are not the threat of nonbeing, as Tillich thought, but are, rather, the conditions of life, the matrix of creativity, community and love.
Tillich sees our interdependence as a threat. The fact that there is no necessity to our existence, that we might well have never been born with no violation of the laws of nature, is seen by him as a threat to self-affirmation. In poetry, prose, and philosophy, feminists are celebrating another possibility, the acknowledgement of contingency, our belonging to the web of life, as a complex, challenging, and wondrous gift. Meaning and value, in this emerging world view, are not predicated upon necessity or upon ultimate foundations. The dance of life, with all its contingency and ambiguity, can be good in itself. The many victories of injustice do not belie the richness of life possible when the alienation between humans, and between humanity and nature is overcome. An appropriate symbol for the process of celebrating life, enduring limits, and resisting injustice is not the kingdom of God but the beloved community. The kingdom of God implies conquest, control and final victory over the elements of nature as well as the structures of injustice. The “beloved community” names the matrix within life which is celebrated, love is worshipped, and partial victories over injustice lay the groundwork for further acts of criticism and courageous defiance. (27)
There is an alternative basis for social critique and self-criticism: the life-giving love constitutive of solidarity with the oppressed and love of oneself. Resistance to oppression is often based on a love that transcends the limits of social systems, a love that leads people to value ourselves more, and leads us to hope for more, than the established cultural system is willing to grant. June Jordan describes the revolu tionary power of love: “It is always the love… that will carry action into positive new places, that will carry your own nights and days beyond demoralization and away from suicide. “(28)
The love that heals is far from the spirit of self-sacrifice. It is founded in love of oneself, a difficult task for those of us who are judged as less rational, reliable, and honorable than white middle and upper class men. It is also difficult for ruling class men to love themselves as finite human beings, limited in judgment and in action by time and place.
The “powerless” are valued because they are loved. Such love does not have to lead to the absolutizing of any political projects. To the extent that love remains strong, a movement is open to internal critique and is able to recognize the validity of the experiences of all people, thus realizing that liberating ideals are not yet extended to all. Love would enable whites to recognize the grievances and aspirations of people of color; love enables those who are relatively affluent to recognize systematic inequities in the distribution of wealth.
Love provides the resiliency of commitment, vision and hope when efforts for change are either repeatedly defeated or shown to be insufficient. As I have argued earlier, the recognition that we cannot imagine how we will change society is the beginning point, not the end, of an ethic founded on love for oneself and others. And yet, if the motive of love for all people is lost, programs for social change become idealized as ends in themselves and groups of people are oppressed in the name of the greater good. The liberal critics of revolutionary fervor are right in their fear of tyranny in the name of the people. The cause of such absolutism is not, however, revolutionary hope, but the loss of revolutionary love. Its source is not unwarranted hope but the isolation and elitism of a revolutionary vanguard.
Like Rosa Luxemburg, I would argue that the suppression of dissent occurs when a revolutionary vanguard, a group committed to the good of all, become isolated from other people, and begins to see themselves as the primary bearers of revolutionary vision. The idolatry of a particular political program, rightly criticized by liberals, does not emerge directly from hope for change, but emerges from a hope cut loose from its moorings in community with people of many backgrounds, when love for people and respect for the wisdom of people is lost in working for the masses, not working with people.
An ethic based in love for self and for others can provide selfcritique and social critique without the enervating cynicism of the eschatological reservation. A deeply felt, abiding love is the foundation for a resilient, dynamic hope without the fanaticism and idolatry of a revolutionary vanguard. Starhawk, for example, describes the foundation of ethics as erotic love for the particular:
All is relationship. Perhaps the ultimate ethic of immanence is to choose to make that relationship one of love; love of self and of others, erotic love, transforming love, affectionate love, delighted love for the myriad forms of life as it evolves and changes… love for all the eternally self-creating world, love of the light and the mysterious darkness, and raging love against all that would diminish the unspeakable beauty of the world. (29)
In the works of Audre Lorde there is a further description of jouissance (here named the erotic) and further evidence of why the speaking of jouissance cannot be heard in patriarchal categories:
The erotic… [provides] the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference ….
The erotic functions in
the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy. In the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea. (30)
Jouissance, or the erotic, is a form of power that challenges the very core of capitalism.
Audre Lorde refuses to accept repression of creative energy as the only form of order possible. She posits a different ordering, one that builds from the power of the erotic, the energy that comes from the delight in relatedness, an energy that can be part of work just as it is part of love:
For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe. (31)
The alternative understanding of communion articulated by feminists provides deep joy and the strength required for sustained resistance to oppression. It is possible to combine skepticism about the likelihood of certain, total victory over injustice, and persistent, energetic work for justice. The key is a complex, fluid, concrete love: love for the earth, for oneself, for those who are oppressed, and for those who work against oppression. It is our love for life that enables the critique of particular strategies for further resistance. It is our love for life that enables us to maintain rage and vision in the face of the disclosure of more forms of oppression.
In 1973, Mary Daly argued that the participation of women in processes of self-definition beyond the strictures of patriarchal cultures was participation in the movement of God the Verb. (32) Other liberation theologians have also claimed that the love that gives birth to hope and to work for justice is holy. We participate in divinity as we delight in the beauty of humankind, as we rage against all that destroys the dignity and complexity of life. The ability to love and to work for justice is profoundly spiritual. Carter Heyward argues that the capacity for “right relations,” with others, with nature, and with ourselves, is the gift of God. (33)
Resilient connections with other people and the earth brings joy, pain, and wisdom. These resilient connections are the presence of grace. This grace can move us from resignation, bitterness, and despair to passionate love and determined action. Alice Walker describes the movement from cynicism to resistance, what I would call the movement of grace, in her essay, “Only Justice Can Stop a Curse.” Walker examines her initial inability to work against the threat of nuclear war. She depicts a cynical reaction to the complex reality of oppression: so much evil has been wrought by whites against the planet and against people of color, that perhaps it would be best if the earth and all people were destroyed in a nuclear war. “Fatally irradiating ourselves may in fact be the only way to save others from what Earth has already become. And this is a consideration that I believe requires serious thought from every one of us. (34)
Walker then depicts, briefly, eloquently, the love for life that enables her to move from cynicism and the desire for revenge to hopefulness and work for justice.
However, just as the sun shines on the godly and the ungodly alike, so does nuclear radiation. And with this knowledge it becomes increasingly difficult to embrace the thought of extinction purely for the assumed satisfaction of – from the grave – achieving revenge. Or even of accepting our demise as a planet as a simple and just preventive medicine administered to the universe. Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it. In any case, Earth is my home – though for centuries white people have tried to convince me I have no right to exist, except in the dirtiest, darkest corners of the globe.
So let me tell you: I intend to protect my home. Praying – not a curse – only the hope that my courage will not fail my love. But if by some miracle, and all our struggle, the Earth is spared, only justice to every living thing (and everything is alive) will save humankind.
And we are not saved yet.
Only justice can stop a curse. (35)
Walker’s essay expresses a solid foundation for ethical action love, courage and rage. We are moved to moral action by love and hope, not by guilt or duty. It is painful to learn that we have caused others harm, either as individuals or as members of a dominant social group. Change occurs when the response to this knowledge is not guilt but repentance, a deep commitment to make amends and to change patterns of behavior. Such changes are not losses but gains, chances to live our love and respect for others.
Mary Daly describes this process as “learning innocence.” She states that the root of the word “innocence” is innocere – to not harm. “Not harming” is something we learn, a continual task that expands as our ability to affect the lives of others expands. (36) We will always need to learn innocence. As our social worlds change, and our individual responsibilities change, there will be more opportunities for harm, thus the necessity of learning again how to respect and honor the life around us.
It is difficult to acknowledge complicity in structures of oppression. This difficulty is mitigated when our acknowledgement is grounded in strength, in the eager search for a self made larger through the challenge of accountability. Accountability, not guilt, is the response to critique when our selves are constituted by love for others.
This love for others is holy, and is rightly referred to as grace, a power that lifts us to a larger self and a deeper joy as it leads us to accept blame and begin the long process of reparation and re-creation. This surplus connoted by grace – the deep joy of loving and being loved, the amazing changes possible in peoples’ lives – is sometimes interpreted as a gift from outside – grace being the gift of a force or person, grace as the gift of God or the Goddess. I would argue that grace is not the manifestation of the divine in our lives, the gift of a separate, or foundational being, but that grace is all there is or need be of the divine. The healing connections of grace are both profoundly life-giving and undeniably fragile.
I celebrate a presence that is both healing and fragile, constitutive of life and unambiguously present in the human condition – as well as unambiguously absent in the atrocities of history and in humankind’s despoliation of the earth. Kate Ruskin has evoked this form of presence in her poem, “The Black Goddess.” She is denying the attributes of the monotheistic goddess of presence – perfection, completion and omnipotence – and celebrating the incomplete yet undeniably real power of transformation and liberation:
I am not a Black Goddess,
I am not a Black Goddess,
Look at me
Look at me
I do what I can
That’s about it
Sometimes I make it Sometimes I don’t…
I still get Night Terrors
And sometimes it takes me weeks to
Answer a letter or make a phone call
I am not a Black Goddess
I am not a Black Goddess
Once though I was Harriet Tubman (37)
Divinity is not a mark of that which is other than the finite. Grace is not that which comes from outside to transform the conditions of finitude. The terms “holy” and “divine” denote a quality of being within the web of life, a process of healing relationship, and they denote the quality of being worthy of honor, love, respect and affirma- tion. Divinity or grace, is the resilient, fragile, healing power of finitude itself.
The need for continued critique and transformation does not mean that the impulse and the power present in work for justice is not divine. The fact of moments of defeat and of being outmaneuvered, does not mean that the power in our movements for justice is not divine. When divinity is understood as absolute, this would be the case. But divinity is not only transcendent and life-giving, it is also fragile. The power of relatedness can be destroyed and has been destroyed in the Nazi holocaust and in the many genocides of western history. The divinity of these forces does not lie in their absolute power, but in the quality of life they enable. Worship of nature, love, and interdependence does not ensure success but does offer the possibility of a life of belonging and resistance. The power which is holy is also fragile. We are constituted by it; it is sustained by us. (38)
Such fragility is intrinsic to creative power. Central to its working is the eliciting of responses from others, and courageous openness to novelty and creativity. Creative power, the power of love and the power of web of life, can never guarantee the results of its operation. When freed to be creative, people’s responses can delight or dismay, but they always escape our control.
In solidarity with others, in work for justice, we remain human. Our vision is ever-growing. Our strategies for change have partial successes, and require continual critique and revision. Yet this work, though partial in its depth and scope, is divine. Secondly, the human community can celebrate the wonder and beauty of life. Native American religious traditions exemplify this sort of transcendence. To celebrate the cycles of nature is not to be imprisoned in a static pattern. Celebration implies seeing, honoring, rejoicing – all acts of transcendence. This celebration is not merely romantic, for it can provide the resources necessary for resistance. Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, for example, describe the beauty of nature glimpsed in the midst of oppression, and the power such recognition evokes. (39)
The fourth form of transcendence is the movement of social transformation. The last century has seen masses of people demanding social change, refusing to accept their oppression as natural. In the United Sates there has been the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, and the women’s movement. All of these are holy. They are manifestations of transcendence, of the love of life and self leading to work for social change. In Africa there has been the ouster of colonial powers, and now, the determined resistance of the majority to oppressive white rule in South Africa. The mass movements in the Philippines, Korea, and Nicaragua are all manifestations of a holy transcendence, love of life enabling the transcendence of social structures that destroy life.
All of these movements for justice are holy; all of them are flawed. Their gains are incomplete: aims for social justice are hindered by exploitative forces within the movements, hindered by oppression from without. Middle-class people can be empowered by a recognition of the power of divine love and healing at work in our communities of resistance. They bear witness to the transcendent, healing power of love; they bear witness to the beauty and wonder of life.
- James Baldwin, cited by Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: New American Library, 1982), p. 255.
- Adrienne Rich, “Natural Resources,” The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1978), pp. 66-67.
- James Cone, From my People; Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation; Mary Daly, Pure Lust.
- Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Society (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), p. 89.
- Ibid., pp. 90, 236.
- Ibid., pp. 90, 77.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), pp. 289, 292-293.
- Albert Carnescle, Paul Doty, Stanley Hoffman, Samuel P. Huntington, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Scott D. Sagan, Living with Nuclear Weapons (New York: Bantam Books, 1983), p. 190.
- Robert Schaeffer, “The 5% Solution,” Nuclear Times, September/ October 1987, pp. 22-26.
- “A first-strike potential in intermediate-range nuclear weapons is thus the most compelling argument for their elimination. Their existence fosters the dangerous myth that a nuclear war can be fought and won.” Paul Warnke, “INF Treaty a good start;” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 1988, p. 18.
- David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), p. 270.
- Ibid., pp. 88 101.
- Gayraud Wilmore describes a shift in theological interpretations of eschatology from a focus on biblical prophecies about the end of time, or “last things (Johannes Weise, Jesus’ Preaching of the Kingdom of God, Albert Schweitzer, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God and The Quest for the Historical Jesus to the “transcendental eschatology” of Karl Barth (the final truth about human lives exists in our relation to that which is eternal and the “existential eschatology” of Bultmann. Eschatology as a category for interpreting political struggle has been developed by J rgen Moltmann, James Cone, and Juan Luis Segundo among others. (Last Things First, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982) pp. 31-39. Francis Schussler Fiorenza also explores “the intersubjective force and interactive pragmatic” of eschatology in Foundational Theology: Jesus and the Church (New York: Crossroad, 1986), p. 117.
- Juan Luis Segundo S.J., The Liberation of Theology, trans., John Drury (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1976), p. 145.
- Ibid., p. 147.
- Ibid., p. 65.
- Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1962).
- Timothy Weiskel “The Anthropology of Environmental Decline,” Statement for Hearings of the Committee on Environmental and Public Works, United States Senate, September 14, 1988.
- Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).
- Jürgen Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), pp. 121-122.
- McCann, p. 178.
- Gustavo Gutierrez, Power of the Poor in History (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1986); Janice G. Raymond, A Passion for Friends (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986).
- June Jordan, “Where is the Love?” Civil Wars (Boston: Beacon Press, 1981), p. 142.
- Toni Morrison, Sula (New York: New American Library, 1973).
- Carol Christ The Laughter of Aphrodite: Reflections on a Journey to the Goddess (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 217-227.
- Christine Delphy, Close to Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression.
- For an example of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s use of the term “beloved community,” see “An Experiment in Love” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 18.
- June Jordan, “Where is the Love?” Civil Wars (Boston: Beacon Press, 1981), p. 142.
- Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), p. 44.
- Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansberg, N. Y.: The Crossing Press, 1984), pp. 56-57.
- Ibid., p. 57.
- Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father.
- Carter Heyward, Our Passion for Justice.
- Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1983), p. 341.
- Ibid., pp. 341-342.
- Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Meta-ethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), pp. 413-414.
- Kate Rushkin, “The Black Goddess, ” Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, cited by Culpepper, p. 68.
- Carter Heyward, The Redemption of God (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America).
- Maya Angelou, And Still I Rise, (New York: Random House, 1978); Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens; Toni Morrison, Beloved, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1987).
- Mary Daly, Pure Lust, pp. ix, 5.