Resistance is the rage.
The 2017 post-inauguration protests galvanized the country’s conscience. The thousands gathered set ablaze efforts toward building movements of justice and awakened many for the first time to our moment’s urgent crises of conscience.
I am one of those swept up in it, at least in part, lured by resistance. I live in rural Western Massachusetts, but even in the small nearby town of Greenfield, several thousand people gathered to declare post-inauguration moral outrage and concern for the marginalized.
Resistors inspire me with their courage. I experience a strange mix of awe and convicting fear when seeing photos of people like Daniel Berrigan burning draft cards in 1968 Catonsville, Md., while exchanging Eucharist and waiting for police to arrive. Rev. William Barber moves me in a way that few orators do, and his symbolic action of placing Bibles at Paul Ryan’s door to remind him of God’s commitment to the poor is pulled nearly straight from pages of Hebrew Bible prophecy.
But I’m realizing I am not a resistor. Don’t get me wrong, I would risk arrest for the resistance. My faith in Jesus propels me to stand against systems of oppression and lean towards the social movements of our time.
There’s something in me, though, that resists resistance.
Much of my decade or so in activist circles left me feeling like I wasn’t good enough. Whether it was as a community organizer for youth in South Boston, helping run a Catholic Worker-inspired soup kitchen for homeless men, researching for campaigns against large unethical corporations, I felt like I was never doing enough. Carrying the weight of the world grew exhausting.
So much in the world needs to change, but the people doing the most to change the world are often zealous. I know I was — and self-righteous, too. Yet perpetual effort to forge a new world did not heal my soul; rather, it deepened my soul’s sense of separation from love. To put it theologically, a friend involved with Catholic Worker-style communities describes a subtle culture of “not enough,” as communal embodiment of what Martin Luther called “works-righteousness.”
What if faith-based activists, on more depleted days, are unconsciously attempting to earn salvation by their level of commitment to the cause?
I have a nagging feeling that resistance itself is not enough. It’s a feeling that lies underneath my reverence for social justice warriors and admiration of activists who name today’s “principalities and powers.” My nagging feeling tells me it’s not enough to be against something, that a positive vision of transformation will always galvanize good in ways that a negative critique cannot.
Resistance is, as the definition goes, a refusal to comply.
Refusing to comply is one necessary step for people of faith and conscience in America today. And yet, resistance is not enough. It’s not enough because it’s not a positive vision for the future. Framing life, politics, and spirituality as a zero-sum battle is to build a vision around what is lacking. A vision of lack creates and draws people with experiences of lack, who believe under the surface that they are not good enough, that they have not done enough. The next demonstration or protest becomes another stab at the ever-elusive salvation or promised land. But what if, even now, God offers the love we need?
The best social movements are built on abundance, not lack. Jesus proclaimed, “the kingdom of God is here!” as his most important sermon. Martin Luther King Jr. perpetually testified to beloved community, even while painfully aware of its absence. Gandhi’s satyagraha, or soul-force, contained impetus for inner work right alongside civil disobedience on behalf of freedom. Sikh activist Valarie Kaur today organizes around what she calls revolutionary love. Rev. William Barber’s power comes not from his ability to “resist,” but from his resolute commitment to language of morality, values, and conversion of heart.
The brilliance of Jesus’s kingdom of God announcement is that he used the present tense. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he said, which means God’s realm is here. It may not be here fully, but it is here. The challenge to live a transformed reality of love, now, means that our efforts of social change are not reliant on tomorrow’s outcome. What’s more is that the true efficacy of social justice movements is connected to the level of present-day transformation in its leaders and participants. How could it be otherwise? Resistance may succeed in refusing to comply with unhinged and creeping authoritarianism in America, but it still will not make us loving. Only love can do that.