Last summer a relative told me that the only way to “protect” our border would be to allow the Border Patrol to shoot to kill. This eventually resulted in my writing an essay called “Who would Jesus strafe?”
Initially, though, it resulted in disbelief and sorrow. I cried as I drove away because his heart was so hard and so bitter.
I needed to do something to cleanse myself of that kind of hatred. And that’s when I came up with my evil plan:
I would make a donation to a cause that I knew this guy would absolutely loathe. And I’d do it in his name.
So I sent some cash to H., a woman I know who teaches in Los Angeles. She’s a Palestinian, a social activist, a non-accepter of the status quo, a questioner of authority and an all-around kickass person — the kind of woman, in fact, that my relative would probably want to shoot to kill, if only for the fact that she wears a hijab. In my note, I explained the situation and asked her to use the money on something for her classroom. Subversive readings, maybe.
I just addressed another envelope to her. This time the money will be in the name of Clint McCance, who wishes all gay teens would kill themselves.
Knowledge is alive
When I told another writer about this, she dubbed my plan of action “the divine up-yours.” I agree. It’s a petty little gesture but it’s also a form of prayer, this turning of dead-end sorrow into positive action. Instead of sitting and crying, I’ll be helping to fuel the next generation of subverters of the dominant paradigm.
H. encourages her students to subvert, to speak up, to participate in the world. I worry about what will happen to them once they leave her classroom. Will they be allowed to live their dreams? Will they be allowed to live at all? She recently heard from a former student whose high-school “guidance” counselor signed him up for ROTC without his knowledge or consent. Is he to be instead the next generation of cannon fodder?
That first time I wrote to her I realized that the partially used notebook I’d tossed in my suitcase was from the Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities. That’s where H. and I met, back in June 2007; we’d both won fellowships to attend the two-month program. (Incidentally, SIAH was the genesis of another essay, “Turning invisibility into stealth.”)
From the first day of class were notes that seemed relevant to our post-university lives:
- “Knowledge is alive, rooted in social relations and most powerful when produced collaboratively through action”
- “New categories (accommodating) themselves to old thought patterns”
- “Respect for local custom and practices not as an obstacle to research, but as a site for possible learning and shared engagement and long-term social change”
Wait a minute. I need to respect customs like a “shoot to kill” mindset?
No. But I did need to try to understand them — and I needed to think of my relative as a human being, not as some gun-toting Tea Party caricature.
Understanding vs. forgiving
Perhaps, I thought, his anger and hatred are driven by fear: Fear of change, of the unknown, of losing power.
Perhaps he feels like less of a man because he sits at home all day, unemployed, while his wife goes to work.
Perhaps he’s looking for someone to blame. It’s got to be someone’s fault that his life didn’t turn out the way he wanted. It couldn’t be the result of a changing economy. Or globalization. Or corporate greed. Or even just the roll of the cosmic dice.
No. He is a middle-class, middle-aged white male. He has the absolute right to expect everything to go his way, always. So it must be….those Messicans! Yeah! That’s it! They ruin everything! Them and that #$@! Obama guy.
What a disappointed, angry man. He may never be truly happy because he can’t let go of what he wanted to have and will probably never get.
Understanding where my relative is coming from doesn’t excuse his douchebaggery, incidentally. It just puts it in context.
Understanding isn’t the same as forgiving. Not yet, anyway. In my church we speak a covenant in unison at the close of every service. It includes the phrase, “To promote Your reign of justice and peace, meeting hate with reconciling love.” I still struggle with that hate/love thing, even though I believe in its power.
At the moment I’m more in step with St. Augustine, who famously prayed for godly behavior – “but not just yet.” Reconciling love is what I strive for, but right now all I can think about is sending a few bucks to the Mexican-American Opportunity Foundation in my relative’s name.
Out of my comfort zone
It’s tempting to avoid people who don’t share my beliefs. It’s easy to think, “This guy is never going to listen to me, so why bother?” In fact, he said as much to me when I tried to speak to him about the issue of immigration: “It’s no good talking with you because you’re one of those liberals.”
I got irritated. But later I realized that I was using the same kind of essentialism on him: He’s one of those right-wingers. He’s never going to give me a moment’s serious consideration.
Even if that were true it’s no excuse for giving up. Paulo Freire, author of “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” wrote that real knowledge comes from “invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry people pursue in the world, with the world and with each other.”
If I close myself off from inquiry, then I’m not learning any longer. That’s not the kind of life I want. Since all my actions impact the world around me, it’s my cherished duty to make a difference. Otherwise I am perpetuating the status quo.
Some days, frankly, I’m not up to the challenge. I don’t want to discuss politics or religion or even the weather. Those are the times for reflection rather than action, for thinking, “What am I doing, or not doing, that could make a difference in the world?”
In large ways or small we can make that difference. It can be as simple as paying someone’s bus fare if he runs short, or volunteering for causes in which we believe, or speaking up when somebody makes a hateful comment. (It can also be as serious as teaching school – thanks, H.!)
We can create a world that’s welcoming to all, even the people we don’t particularly like. To do that, though, we need to examine our own behavior and motives. After all, I condemned my relative for being intolerant yet I initially responded with intolerance of my own.
Before I can learn to forgive him his hatred, I need to look a little harder at myself. It might be time to donate money in my own name, as a prayer for my own failings and a reminder to do better. “Reconciling love” is a great concept. It’s also a lot tougher than it looks.