the spirituality of resistance, from Standing Rock to Matthew 25

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Last year I began research for writing a novel. A main theme I’ve been diving into is the link between local, Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel extraction and how these battles are really becoming the most powerful challenge to the entire capitalist worldview that has endangered the planet through climate change. The implications of this go way beyond environmental issues. I believe these movements have a lot to tell us about how to resist in the age of Trump, when traditional allies or institutions don’t seem up to the challenge.

Standing Rock is only the most recent and high-profile example of how resistance to fossil fuel extraction has changed. For the last 40 years, big Green organizations who depend on wealthy donors and work with energy companies to balance economic growth with environmental concerns have dominated. This has not worked, and extractivist companies have only pushed into new and dangerous frontiers – including fracking and deepwater drilling. We’ve seen the consequences: The 2010 BP spill, man-made earthquakes, poisoned water, and train car explosions. This greed and recklessness will be further encouraged by Trump. The narrative that you shouldn’t limit fossil fuel companies too much because that might slow economic growth (i.e. profits for the rich) or result in los of jobs is so ingrained in both parties. Many mainstream environmental groups have bought into it, further enabling the carbon polluters and extractors. Meanwhile, the most vulnerable people around the earth suffer the consequences.

The strongest and most effective opposition to the fossil fuel giants’ work, though, no longer comes from the mainstream environmental movement, but from Indigenous communities, farmers, ranchers, and their allies, who see their activism as fundamentally a fight for cultural survival:

Naomi Klein writes:

The power of this ferocious love is what the resource companies and their advocates in government underestimate, precisely because no amount of money can extinguish it. When what is being fought for is an identity, a culture, a beloved place that people are determined to pass on to their grandchildren, and that their ancestors may have paid for with great sacrifice, there is nothing companies can offer as a bargaining chip. No safety pledge will assuage; no bribe will be big enough.

It is no coincidence that the resistance movements have been framed not in terms of hatred against oil companies, but in terms of love of the land and protecting the water. Standing Rock is only the latest in a long line of water protector movements—First Nations in British Columbia organized in unprecedented numbers in 2012 to block a pipeline and tanker terminal that would have carried fracked oil from Alberta’s tar sands through their forests and salmon-rich coasts. The Lummi of the Washington Coast teamed up with the Northern Cheyenne 1000 miles away in Montana in 2013 because a coal mine there would have not only threatened local water, but the companies in charge wanted to build a terminal on the coast that would carry coal and oil to Pacific markets.

This understanding of the interconnectedness of life, communities, and resources –on a very local and concrete level, is what is so inspiring. The consequences of climate change and the impact of the relentless pursuit of growth on the environment are not abstract in Standing Rock. They are not abstract in the coastal rainforests of British Columbia, or in New Orleans, or in Flint, Michigan, or in South Florida, Nauru, Bangladesh, the Niger Delta, the Peruvian Amazon, or the Sahel. In these and other places, people are fighting local battles in what is increasingly a global war.

Many people now view the United States as a site of many battles in a larger war. This war is not just over abstract notions like the preservation of our Democracy and “American values.” People are battling on local fronts, inspired by the stories of their neighbors.

But we’ve had a lot of recent practice in this, most notably in the responses to the shootings of unarmed Black men in cities across the country. Those battles became part of a larger war.

Now the war has widened and there are more fighters.

This is why the spirituality of Standing Rock and other water protectors resonates. There is deep spiritual truth that fuels their action—and will hopefully fuel more of our action moving forward, even as it makes our individualistic culture uncomfortable. Matthew 25 movements in local churches are responding to injustice in more practical ways, rooted in a spirituality that goes much deeper than If it can happen to them, it can happen to us, or, I am my brother’s keeper.

At a time when leaders and commentators want us to think in terms of “Us vs. Them,” radical identification with the “other” is not just a spiritual or political act, but an act of resistance. The water protectors battling on the front lines of the climate wars surely understand what the oil moving through pipelines represents and they know they want to live in a cleaner, more just world. But the reason they fight is because they fundamentally identify with the rivers, animals, and land that are under threat. Their very existence—physically and culturally—is tied to those things. They are those things. Any distinction between nature and the people (a distinction that has been imposed violently by Western colonialism) is meaningless.

In the same way, Jesus taught in Matthew 25 that any distinction between God and those who suffer in the world was meaningless, from the standpoint of how we should act.

The question of how you identify with your neighbor isn’t just philosophical. The assumption is that if you identify with the person suffering, your reaction would be to do what you can to stop that suffering. Indigenous communities seem to instinctively understand this with regard to their defense of their land. The same should be said of the rest of us in this time when there are so many around us who need defending.

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now is the time

img_1138Last week I flew to Seattle and drove a rental car an hour south to Olympia, WA. My job had sent me to the state capitol to lead a group of staff members on legislative visits as part of a larger children’s advocacy day.

The day started with a short training on advocacy (of which I have now attended dozens) and a short march to the capitol steps and speeches from various advocates. I had prepared folders for my group, complete with maps of the capitol buildings, talking points, one-page fact sheets, and lists of legislators with their staffers and contact info. I had coached them about the process ahead of time and engaged them in some role-playing to help them practice their “elevator speeches.”

The day went as well as it could have. The visits were timed perfectly, the legislators were engaged and interested in our message, I had prepped my team well, and they grew noticeably in confidence and excitement as the day went on. Everyone, especially those who had never done legislative advocacy, ended the day feeling empowered, educated, and more confident about their access to the democratic process.

About halfway through all this, I started thinking to myself– damn, I am in my zone right now. I could not remember a time when I felt more at ease, more confident, and more knowledgeable about what I was doing than I did while leading last week’s advocacy day. It was incredible to think of how far I had come since I started my journey toward this career back in 2012. I remember being thrown into it as an intern and then as a staffer with my old job in Illinois, leading groups of parents and nonprofit service providers through the capitol in Springfield. I was in awe of how the more seasoned advocates and lobbyists knew their way around the offices and the policy issues. I was also awed by how powerful it was for normal citizens to write and delivery their own stories to their lawmakers. I wanted to see more of that. I wanted to be a part of getting more people more access to the seats of power.

Five years have passed and I can now say this is my skill set, my vocation.

The reason I wanted to share this is because I think (and hope) I am at a place where the skills I have gained will have some importance in 2017 beyond just my day job–in truth, “for such a time as this.” I have begun to think about how I might freelance or volunteer as an advocacy trainer or campaign organizer. This would be a leap for me– my comfort zone is still writing, after all. But it is impossible to avoid the sense that these are extraordinary times that will require courage and faith beyond what makes us get up and clock in every morning. I have valuable tools and they must be put to good use.

 

 

 

 

notes on returning

So, I’m back on the Blue Timeline. It has been a little disorienting. I had forgotten the feeling of constant urgency and the pressure to be relevant and timely. Cultivating a voice on this blog, no matter how isolated it felt much of the time, was a good discipline. It required me to be more honest about my voice, more vulnerable, and more patient.

That said, I am happy to be connected again with friends near and far, new and old. To be clear, my use is still very restricted, and even my friend count has been scaled back (part of the terms by which I am permitted to return to FB).

I did not think too deeply about how I would re-engage. I just sort of dove back in where I left off. Part of me wonders if I should be reflecting more on the lessons I learned from being away. Then I realize that most of the lessons I learned in the last year had more to do with the why of me being away. Being away just provided more space for me to absorb those lessons.

I want to be more intentional about engaging in the communities that Facebook helps to maintain. One way this has happened already is through coordinating attendance at protests, and with a possible writing group. I want more things like that, and more opportunities for virtual community to turn into actual community.

I will continue, I think, to write more politics on FB, and more personal stuff here. I don’t want to lose the momentum I’ve had in doing a lot of the recovery work I’ve been doing this last year, even as I move out of isolation.

 

 

Day 1

trump-protests-california-jpeg3-620x412More rain has fallen in Southern California today than I can remember in the time I’ve lived here. The sky is streaked with grey sheets, the roadways clogged and flooded. The symbolism of this meteorological fact can be applied to any circumstance or agenda. Franklin Graham (ugh), at the presidential inauguration this morning declared rain a symbol of God’s blessing. He’s not wrong. At the same time, there are those–like us struggling to stay dry on the West Coast today–who might see a different meaning: The sun is hidden, our light obscured by a storm that turns the sky and many moods dismal.

They’re not wrong.

In this time when presidents and their meanings are so much at the forefront, there’s been much talk of how these men we elect to this office are also symbols whose meaning can be manipulated and projected onto any agenda, any ideology. Barack Obama was many things to many people, and the identities that were projected onto him (Socialist Muslim tyrant; post-racial civil rights icon; progressive hero; drone-wielding champion of U.S. Empire) say a lot more about we as a people than they say about him as a person.

I am tempted to say the same thing about Donald Trump. After all, he has exposed our divisions more starkly and cynically than any public figure in memory. His supporters see in him a longed-for embodiment of American strength, vitality, pride, (and White privilege). His opponents…well, just read more of this blog. Point is, people see in Trump what they want to see, and that reveals us to be more divided than we thought we were.

The more I think of it, though, I’m less satisfied with talking about presidents as symbols. Yes, in the Bible rain is a blessing from God. It is life-giving water for the crops that sustain human community. But keep reading, and rain and floods are also instruments of destruction and wrath. God used rains to eradicate humanity. Floods and storms are symbols of chaos, over which only God himself has control.

On a more practical level, rain is an actual, physical reality whose benefits or costs vary depending on where you stand. Farmers in arid areas pray for rain, but when too much comes, it can mean disaster. Climate change has disrupted weather patters, leaving many dead in recent years from record rains in the U.S. and Europe.

Like rain, Donald Trump is an actual, physical, reality. And, like rain, there is not much to him. Rain is water falling from the sky. I am more and more convinced that there is not much more to Donald Trump than what we see. He is not complex, self-reflective, analytical, a long-term visionary, someone who grasps complex systems and the details that make them function. Impulsivity, lack of empathy, a fragile ego, vindictive and puerile personality–these qualities are not disputed between his supporters and his haters. These qualities (and many others) are plain to see, and you either love them or hate them.

The problem is, they will have real-life impact on our country and our world. A President Mitt Romney or a President John McCain would have had character flaws of their own, and they might even have tried to radically re-make America along conservative lines. But something different is happening here. We fear it because we have not seen it before in this country. If we’ve been paying attention, we’ve seen it in other countries. This is not to say America is morally clean or hasn’t perfected violence, injustice, or chaos through the force of law and bureaucracy.

But to combine the mechanisms of empire with the temperament of an insecure and authoritarian populist? I don’t want to throw words around lightly, but students of history should know what that has led to in the past. At the very least, it should give us cause for deep concern.

But concern is one thing. Action is another. Trump will use the instruments of government (insomuch as he is allowed to by the other branches, the media, and a strong popular resistance movement) to shape America according to his dismal and deluded vision. The border and the “inner cities” are not flooded with crime and carnage. Foreign governments have not “destroyed” or stolen our jobs (they’ve been shipped away by greedy corporations, like the ones represented by many of Trump’s cabinet picks).  But it doesn’t matter what is factually true. What matters is that false rhetoric can and will be solidified into actual policy.

The border with Mexico is already more militarized and surveilled than it has ever been, despite record low illegal immigration. What will be the consequences of spending billions more on a project that is not only useless and doomed to fail, but that will destroy families and innumerable human lives?

What will be the consequences of an administration treating the free press like an opposition party? What will be the consequences of an abandonment of federal oversight for police abuse of power, corporations’ environmental impact, or states’ attempts to curtail voting rights?

It is true that these things were already piecemeal or fragile, even under “liberal” administrations. Things might very well not get as bad as we think they will under Trump. We just don’t know.

This is why we have to move beyond concern, and into action. Trump and his government will not tire of action. They’ve wasted to time getting to work, as their days in office will be numbered. But the rest of us, we will still be here (let’s hope). Obama himself is fond of urging citizens toward engagement and activity in the service of a free and inclusive society. We’d do well to heed his call. And it is not just his call. It has been the occupation of so many freedom fighters and patriots through history who deeply lived out the vision: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream

With that in mind, I will focus my political posts on this blog on sharing opportunities for regular people to take action, get involved, and lead. I hope–I know–that we can make a meaningful stand to protect the communities and values that are dear to us–and that are just as much a part of America as any others.

 

Trump: A Resister’s Guide

ha026__2vp70-1Eleven very good short essays. From the intro, by Corey Robin:

Gazing back on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt. Why? Other characters in the Bible disobey God without meeting the same fate. Perhaps it is her irrepressible interest in the destruction she has been spared — her sense that the evil she has left behind is more real than the possibilities that beckon — that dooms her. Instructed to choose life over death, Lot’s wife opts to find life in death. The known past is more compelling than the promised future. Hence the salt — a substance that suspends time, that preserves things by drying them out.

As liberals and leftists confront the reality of a Trump Administration, they will face a similar question of orientation. Will they oppose Trump in the name of a transformative vision that lies beyond him — a multiracial social democracy that emancipates all men and women from the fetters of caste and class? Or will they look on Trump’s America with an apprehension, born of fear and fascination, that its ravages are realer, more in sync with the deep and ugly truths of the world, than whatever story of progress they can muster in reply? Will they welcome every act of Trump’s brutality as a revelation of our national whole? Will they make of themselves a pillar of salt?

it will be different

img_1020It’s been a while. I was in Virginia and D.C. for almost a week. Now I am in an undisclosed location for work, preparing for the beginning of the legislative session in a state that is close to my heart. The state capitol is round and made of brown stucco. It snowed here all weekend.

Being out of the normal routine, I haven’t been reading or writing as much. On the flip side, more experiences and good food.

I watched President Obama’s farewell address from a hotel room blocks from the White House. The next day, my coworkers and I tuned in to the Trump “press conference” on the big screen TV in our office. Witnessing history as it happens, knowing it could all have been so different and we’ll have to tell our children how, how it could (and should) have been different.

Another thing that came of this week: I realized that I really love working in policy and if I could, I’d teach others to do it. This week I participated in another advocacy day, which included trainings and workshops for parents and providers of early childhood programs on how to talk to legislators and tell their stories. Later it dawned on me– I’ve done enough of these and I believe in this work enough that I really want to share that with others, especially those who do not have the resources or education that I do. As I met and talked with young families, program directors, and organizers from all over this state, gathered in the state capitol and preparing for conversations with their elected officials, I felt what I felt when I first got into this work: I belong here.

Readers might think that this is already what I’m doing (or have done), but that’s not entirely the case. I’ve watched it done and helped out, and more recently I’ve done policy work that feels more removed from communities. At this stage in my career, I feel like I am ready to take initiative and lead in a way I haven’t before, and to do that in a way that brings me back to the reasons I started.

These thoughts are early, but I am determined to follow them. I have a few ideas about what this might look like.  Keep me accountable this year as I look for ways to make it real.