Tuesday, January 31, 2017
Today the sun glows behind a gray shroud, its shadows are anemic, shrinking, and more rain is forecast. With foreboding and growing fear, we watch our government take on an equally dismal expression, as its executive branch - with the exception of some of its bravest resisters - works to dismantle our constitutional principles.
How shall we respond to these gathering forces that are seemingly as bland and quotidian as the weather but equally able to wreck our foundations? What shall we do? Amidst a rising regime that seeks a shameless, naked, and determined acquisition of power, we are rightly reminded to reflect carefully before leaping into senseless action. But ultimately, we must act.
In his Over-Soul essay, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Always our being is descending into us from we know not whence.” In other words, despite our individual limitations, we are bound together into something greater than a single life.
Inspired by this Emersonian Transcendentalism, John Steinbeck filled Jim Casy, the fallen prophet and itinerate preacher of the Grapes of Wrath, with an ecumenical passion: “There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing… Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.”
This tolerance should not be confused with passivity. It is a call to involve ourselves in the world around us, to depart our cloisters and engage with the pains and pleasures of others. It is also a reminder that all laws, no matter how well-intended, are human creations, equally subject to human error and deserving of conscious oversight.
Henry David Thoreau helped shape this vision. A solitary idealist who would much rather tramp the quiet green spaces of nature than join the hurly-burly of city life, Thoreau called us to act when the pains of shared suffering demand it. To be sure, he emphasized that human machines eventually grind themselves to a halt if we’re willing to wait long enough. But, he added, “when oppression and robbery are organized… let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”
20th-century America saw a necessary rise of resistance against the oppressive machines of racial hatred, economic injustice, and gender inequality, a time that called for a nation’s citizens, woven from the same cloth that helped thwart aristocracy in one era and smash fascism in the next, to forgo its patience and muster on battlefields of land and soul.
Writing, marching, and ultimately dying for his beliefs, Martin Luther King understood this demand all too well. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King called for us to become rebels with a cause, gadflies in the Socratic sense who would not only preach our values but practice them. The creative tension of that practice is not simply a matter of philosophy or rhetoric; it is a call to disobey.
We must be willing to break unjust laws - not for anarchistic pleasure but instead from a fundamental belief in American values. After all, as King wrote from his jail cell, “an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
We look upon King, Gandhi, Anthony, Stanton, Thoreau, Emerson, and further back to Jefferson and other resisters, and we say, “Well, of course.” History has taught us the rightness of their actions. We re-read their words as if they were somehow always hewn in stone. But those brave men and women were not monuments; they were frail and fallible human beings with all of the fears that we share.
They were dismissed as agitators. They were mocked as fools. They were marked as criminals against law, decorum, and common sense. The tyrannies they faced were overwhelming, and the prices they paid were high. They could not imagine that school children (and sometimes overwrought professors) would one day recite their words as the scripture of America’s civic religion. They acted without the sure promise of success. They saw no other choice but to resist.
As Americans facing the new clouds of a Trump administration hell-bent on transforming our country into something that would horrify its founders, we must do nothing less.
Images by Andrew Wood