December: some notes

by Jeff Oaks

So much has happened in the last few months for me to process into words. Much of it is simply anger. Some of it is anxiety. Both of those feelings make my body want to sleep because they feel so overwhelming.  Any big, full emotions take time to process into thought, action, direction. I distrust large events, which can so quickly turn into disasters, and which are prone to being used by a few cowards as covers for destruction, on one hand, and which are prone to being completely misinterpreted by the media. I took part in marches for gay rights in the city and the nation during the nineties, and I remember well the energy and excitement I felt then, the sense that so many other people were involved in and cared about those rights.

It bothers me that I haven’t taken to the streets with the Ferguson marchers or the marchers more lately protesting the absence of any indictment over Eric Garner’s death by chokehold. The refusal of the justice system to take up the question of police violence toward people of color is threatening its integrity in, it seems to me, similar ways to the the Catholic Church’s refusal to take up for decades, maybe centuries, the question of priests’ abuse of children. Or colleges’ refusal to deal in any kind of real way with rape on campus. What else? Domestic violence. The environment.

I think in many ways my own body’s urge to just sleep is probably related to the way institutions, upon finding out that something painful is happening within them, close ranks so quickly. Or the way that totalitarian regimes, upon finding out that some of their citizens are taking to the streets, always blame foreigners for the unrest, or they talk about some small minority, who may indeed have been pushed to the breaking point where they can no longer breathe, who is airing some minor grievance the government is “already looking into,” but never actually do.

It’s frustrating to see so much of it, to feel as if it is everywhere.  Governments blame the people whose houses and land they are destroying for making the destruction necessary or prudent or in the national interest. Groups of fundamentalists torture and murder and rob groups of people who can’t fight back, and if those groups do fight back, the angry retaliation is enormous and will be blamed on the victims for not converting, for simply living lives that are other than whatever scriptures they want to use to justify the need for horror.

It’s tempting to say we have no moral conscience anymore, but even as I began to write that very sentence, I had to remind myself that people of moral conscience have been around during every war. It’s tempting to fall into the sleep of despair at that.

And yet, what else is there to do but to say over and over that what is happening in so many places is wrong and needs to be fixed or dismantled? I feel the small, still voice of responsibility in my body again. I think many of my fellow citizens do too. I hear it in voice cracks, in eyes tired of scanning the news, in hands and knees that can’t stay still for long.  People of good heart, we have to stand up and refuse to go to sleep in our comfortable beds. The country, all of our country, needs us to step up to podium and say that we see what’s going on–that the police and the  military are becoming confused, that our fellow citizens are getting confused with the enemy, are being demonized unfairly and are being killed in that split second the police and other people with guns have to make a decision to shoot or not shoot another human being, that what our fellow citizens are asking for is not something they “should” fix themselves, in “their own communities”.  We need to be present and listen to the stories that keep coming out, that form an impossible to deny narrative of violence done very often in our name, which is sometimes the name of “law and order” and sometimes the name of “the greater good,” which we need to be skeptical of, lest great evil be done in those names as it has been in the past.

Don’t go to sleep. If you can’t walk or march, you can write your representatives. You can send money to the Ferguson library, to Occupy movement, to a place who might be able to turn your money into help. If you can’t write, you can pay attention at least, and be kind to your neighbors, the stranger who asks for directions. That is no mean feat. At the very least, you can refuse to reach for the tv remote, refuse the voice that says, God, I am so tired of hearing about X and Y. You can at least listen a little longer than did yesterday. Think of it as spiritual practice if it helps, if you think that, after all this, what you do here will determine where you’ll be located next.

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