[UPDATE: After I wrote this there was a huge event November 6th at the White House, and President Obama sent the pipeline back for review. See the Tar Sands Action website for more info.]
I got arrested at the Keystone XL pipeline protests this August in Washington, DC. And it wasn’t a big deal. I thought I should put that out there, and I want to share a bit about why. President Obama has before him right now a monumental decision which will show whether or not he is serious about the pledges he made on the campaign trail that this would be remembered as the time when the rise of the seas began to slow and the earth began to heal. Is the President going to show backbone and leadership or is he going to go along with the monied interests that perpetuate our oil addiction? Is he going to stand up for what is right or do what’s easy? The more important question is, are WE going to stand up for what is right or do what’s easy?
So often we get caught up in the excitement of an action, the furor over the misdeeds (or lack of deeds) of elected officials, the logistics and tactics, or the media outrage of an issue. If we are to be successful in bringing about a new earth, we need to focus on the world we want to create and hold that in the center of our thoughts before we jump into actions or outrage. And to have effective action, we need to be clear in what we want and have a practical strategy to achieve it. To the point: everything we do must properly flow from an inward motivation not from some desire to achieve or from some external call to action.
This August over 1,300 people, among them a good number of Friends, were arrested to show some backbone, encourage the President to do the right thing, and to generate the sort of movement that could force his hand so that we would be victorious. Why is this a good action, why should we participate in these sorts of things, and how should we feel about doing so? More importantly, where do these actions fit into a reasonable strategy for change?
For some reason in certain circles, and these circles are certainly represented among my fellow arrestees from August 24thand are represented among Friends generally, there is some sort of mystique around getting arrested for a cause. For me, getting arrested was neither a tremendous spiritual experience for me, nor was it a hardship. And it shouldn’t be. The second response may seem natural. Plenty of people have asked me what it was like to get arrested, and the truth is it was like sitting on a warm beach in the hot sun. And then having my hands in tight plastic cuffs behind my back for a bumpy ride across town to the Park Police Station in Anacostia. Waiting some more, sweating a lot, and then paying a fine.
Nor is it a personal spiritual experience. For some it may be powerful, and that’s as it should be if we are taking powerful action, for we are building bonds of trust and friendship that must be strong enough to withstand the withering attacks of intrenched interests who will stop at nothing to prevent change. But at the end of the day it isn’t about you. And it isn’t about the protest. Because any effective action cannot be exclusively about either the means or ends. Too often we view actions or “witness” as an end in itself, but this ignores the fact that while bearing witness we are still complicit in the systems which perpetuate that which we are protesting. And at the same time we can easily view work like Transition Towns as the ends we are after, but these too are only means to creating the kingdom of heaven, because they do not actively confront entrenched powers that seek to perpetuate the status quo and will continue to dominate the vast majority of the population without which any change that we make ourselves will be meaningless because it will lead to our eventual destruction. (sorry for not using periods)
Yet both types of action are required. And both are means to achieving what is needed to get us where we need to be: both are ways to create social transformation that will alter the political and cultural landscape (and their associated mental constructs in the minds of the people) needed to bring a out a new way of seeing and being that can lead to a new earth. In later posts I’ll spend some time going into more details of these two pillars.
How then should we approach action? Where does rightly ordered action come from? The Tar Sands Action for me is a great example of what should be. For action that is rightly ordered there should be no feeling of moral superiority. There should be no feeling of being an underdog assailing some impenetrable fortress. There shouldn’t be anger or yelling, but rather an overwhelming calmness. A feeling of being used for a purpose. A peace that transcends the social tension that an action endeavors to make, ensuring that the tension is between social forces, not between the actors. And a humility of acknowledging that we don’t know if this is the exact right or most important thing that we can be doing but acting in the face of uncertainty.
How then are we cultivating this spirit among Friends and within New England Yearly Meeting? How can we further the clarity and unity of purpose needed to move us in that positive direction? Are these the important questions? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts and having some dialog around this.
This movement needs two things in order to succeed, and they are linked like the serpent which bites its tail. Fist, we need commitment. Margaret Meade’s famous quotation about a small group of committed individuals being the only thing that has ever changed the world is true. And the operative part of that sentence is committed. Too many of us who want to see change aren’t willing to give up much for it. Too many aren’t even willing to go to DC spend a day paying a fine for sitting in front of the White House to stop a big straw from being plugged into the 2ndlargest carbon reserves in the world. That has to change. And once we have that committed group we will inspire people to join us by our commitment: much like the Occupy Movement has succeed in doing these last months. The other thing we need is more people. But the way to do that is not by making the action we are calling for easy. We need to work tirelessly to inspire people to step out of their comfort zones, step out of their routines and do something more than send an email, sign a petition to congress or stand on a street corner with a sign.
How do we know an action is right? How should we feel when taking bold action? I think there are two ways we should feel. Most of our work should be organizing, and every time we take a step organizing it should feel like a stretch. We should be a little nervous that we’re not going to reach our goals. Because if we’re not a little nervous than we aren’t being bold enough. Yet there are other times where there are things that we need to be participating in, and should be a matter of routine. Stuff that is just obvious that we need to do. Emailing our legislators, sending a little money to FCNL or whever it should go. I would submit that joining a local Occupy event and getting arrested for the Tar Sands should be of that flavor too. It’s not the meat of the work, it shouldn’t put us on a pedestal, but it should be a peaceful, powerful act of our faithfulness. In our organizing efforts, at whatever level (within the Religious Society of Friends, in our own Meetings, in our communities or further afield), is where we ought to properly question our footing, revel when we do something new, and properly feel that sense of agency as we create a new condition and reality in the social landscape around us.