A Sane and Honorable Resistance: Two Moral Principles

Catherine M Wallace

As the midterm elections loom, I've had repeated flashbacks to the moment when, in a grim little roadside motel south of Indianapolis, I awakened and checked my phone to see how the 2016 election had turned out. There was a long string of messages from my three Millennial-age kids. Even though they knew I'd gone to bed at my usual early hour, they had been texting me all night as they sat up watching returns—a family tradition going back to their childhood. Scattered now across the country, we grieved together electronically, vowing resistance.

            In the long grim months since November 2016, I've sought solace in another tradition as well: my religion. Christianity as I know it emerged as a courageous, witty, community-rooted resistance to brutal oppression by the Roman empire. For centuries, small groups gathered to care for one another, to care for the needy in their neighborhoods, and to insist upon the moral value and moral equality of all people. That struggle for honest, decent, humane community is the essential struggle of the human condition. In obedience to these moral standards, all of them inherited from the Jews, good Christians have spent thousands of years fighting for human equality, economic justice, and simple human decency. The commandment to seek justice and love kindness goes back to three hundred years before Socrates—and in Jewish thought it wasn't a new idea at that point. This moral ideal goes all the way back to the middle Iron Age, circa 1250 BC. We are engaged in what has been a long fight. What sustains good people in such struggles?

            In Christian tradition as I have received it, there are two big spiritual principles of sane and honorable political resistance—the only kind of resistance that does not burn itself out in catastrophic violence. These principles take the form of moral commandments. I think these principles are worth your consideration whether you are Christian or not, just as plenty of Buddhist insights are worth consideration even for non-Buddhists. Both Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi built successful political movements on the foundation of these two teachings.

 

First, do not imitate your enemies.

 

Second, do not be ashamed.

 

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            #1. Do Not Become What You Despise. We do not overcome evil by giving way to it: do not imitate your enemies. Do not hate, despise, or demonize anyone. Malice toward the malicious is spiritually toxic; contempt for those who hold us in contempt is a deadly trap. Abusing others does not prove that we are any better than they are. Rants do not establish our moral standing.

            We must equally resist fearing those whose malice, contempt, rants, and abuse are directed toward us. Fear leads to outrage leads to hate, which inevitably provokes violence, which provokes revenge.

            Imitating the tactics of our enemies fuels the spiraling tragedy of human history. The historical Jesus of Nazareth tried to stop that deadly spiral by insisting that his followers go beyond the familiar moral demands to love our neighbors as ourselves and to welcome the stranger—the immigrant—into our communities. "Love your enemies," Jesus insisted.

            The "Jesus Seminar" historians argue that this famous line does actually go back to the historical Jesus of Nazareth. The gospel biographer Luke expands the terse original teaching in a series of parallel constructions: "Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." A generation after Jesus—but writing decades before Luke—Paul of Tarsus turned Jesus' positive command into a negative one: "Return no one evil for evil."

            These teachings have been obscured and distorted by those who fear what the real Jesus was up to. Loving your enemies never meant giving in to them. It never meant being a wimp, a bystander, or a co-dependent. As I illustrate at length in The Confrontational Wit of Jesus, Jesus taught his followers an array of witty strategies for nonviolent confrontation. These strategies unmasked exploitation. They revealed the deep vulnerability of oppressive elites: the few cannot abuse the many unless the many are demoralized, isolated, and fearful.

            That still matters today. What if we could wrap our heads around the fact that real America, authentic America, is moderate, tolerant, collaborative, morally responsible, and committed to the ideal that all people are equal? It would change everything.

            And that's why the Romans killed Jesus. The man was dangerous. His teachings spoke far too directly to the anxiety and the rage that have been waking me up at night for the last two years. Restored to proper cultural context, famous sayings like  "turn the other cheek" meant something much closer to #InYourFace, which is the essential strategy pursued by the black community posting videos of their myriad encounters with commonplace racism.

            Do our enemies deserve our refusal to retaliate violently? Our refusal to demonize them as they demonize us? No. Transparently not. That's the point. We are behaving with restraint and moral clarity because of who we are, not who they are. (Hang onto that thought over Thanksgiving, perhaps. Remember that Trump supporters may be feeling the same desperate, besieged urge to attack that all of us have been struggling with.)

            In biblical terms, our restraint, our integrity, and our capacity for compassion is grounded in our respect for the image of God dwelling within every single person everywhere. Buddhists would say we must honor buddha-nature in everyone. In secular terms, we are respecting universal human rights and American democratic norms. Compassion is a global moral norm, so pick whatever conceptual language works best for you. Here's what matters: by confronting what is evil without demonizing others, we are doing more than advocate for particular set of policies (such as not seizing and absconding with refugee children at the border). We are upholding a key principle of moral politics, which is the absolute refusal to dehumanize the opposition—even when they have it coming (perhaps especially when they have it coming).

            Such restraint is rooted in a metaphysical claim: violence is not necessary. Our success does not depend upon our attacking anyone, whether physically or rhetorically. As Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan document at length in Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Resistance, political movements succeed by gaining allies, not by killing enemies. We will gain allies more effectively if we are for something, not just against someone. We must offer an alternative model of human political relationship: courtesy, respect, justice, and personal integrity rather than abuse, exploitation, lies, and the threat of violence. As Arlie Hochschild illustrates at heartbreaking depth in Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, many fervent Republican voters are good people who nonetheless believe what Fox News tell them to believe. And as Robert Mueller will undoubtedly document at some point, America's global enemies have been hard at work riling up the fear and the outrage on all sides. The antidote to all such toxins is the moral resolve love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Or more plainly yet, we need to get it through our thick heads that imitation is surrender. If we behave as they do, we are capitulating.

            Is what I propose naive? Is it unrealistic? Is fighting fire with fire the only way to win? Good question. Ancient question. I'll get back to that in a minute. First I want to lay out the second spiritual principle of political sanity. At first glance it may seem no less naive and unrealistic than refusing to do unto them what they have done unto us.

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            #2. Do Not Be Ashamed. We are rightly appalled by Trump, his appointees, and Republican leaders generally. That's reasonable. But it's dangerous too. The worse they behave, the more tempted we are to feel that our rants against them are morally requisite. We are tempted to attack them as a necessary defense of our own honor and commitment to moral principles. Our silence feels reprehensible.

            Silence feel reprehensible because we are haunted by the 1930s. We know  what followed when good people kept their mouths closed and their heads down, waiting for Nazism to blow over. It didn't blow over. It blew up. We don't want to be guilty of that ourselves. We have to prove that we disapprove. Or so it seems, so it feels.

            That's a deadly mistake. Giving way to the need to prove that we disapprove far too easily pulls us into the spiral of violence. But what's the alternative? What is the honorable thing to do here? How do we cope with feeling profoundly ashamed of what our nation's leaders are doing and failing to do?

            Shame is our most powerful social emotion: it's a primal dread of inadequacy. It's fear that we do not belong to some crucial social group, or worse yet a fear that we do not deserve to belong. It's fear that important others will reject or ridicule us, a fear that can echo in our heads as self-ridicule and self-denigration. Shame fuels Trump's rants and his lies. It fuels liberal counter-rants too. It permeates today's hysterical partisanship. And it drives many people into depression and self-isolation.

            The complexity of shame is obscured by the fact that we think America is not a shame-based culture. Other nations worry about "face," we say; but not us. We are a nation of rugged individualists, we say. Real Americans don't care what other people think: we follow our own stars; we forge our own destinies. As Robert Bellah and his associates documented decades ago in Habits of the Heart, this individualist pose is itself an unquestionable group norm to which we obsessively defer. It is distinctly un-American to admit that we pay any attention whatsoever to "what people think."

            But of course we do care. As I explain in more detail in Confronting Religious Judgmentalism, we care about what people think because we are social animals. Social animals depend for their survival upon belonging to a group, which is to say monitoring closely the responses of others. Furthermore, the vast majority of Americans are immigrants. Whether we arrived as slave or as refugees, we left behind the social hierarchies and structures of our original homeland. We arrived into a cacophony of competing cultural cues and cultural norms within which we had to "make a place" for ourselves. There's an horrific downside to the American dream that in this nation you can be anything you want: in this nation, you are nothing at all unless you "make something of yourself." We are haunted by that demand.

            Our sense of group identity as Americans has come under remarkable pressure since the election of Donald Trump. If we don't resist, we feel ashamed of ourselves—a shame that quickly converts to rage. If we do resist but nothing changes, or nothing changes quickly enough, then we find ourselves at odds with the dominant alpha-males of American culture. That too is a set-up for shame: who wants to be "American" if Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell and Jeff Sessions and all the rest of them define what America stands for? We joke about moving to Canada. But the emotions in play here are no joke.  

            As Jesus of Nazareth demonstrated repeatedly, the key to sane, honorable, and sustained resistance is freedom from shame and freedom from the edgy anxiety and anger evoked by shame. In his teachings, as in many moral traditions world-wide, the antidote to shame, self-doubt, and despondency lies in cultivating our capacity for compassion.

            But how do we do that? What's the key to a sane and resilient resistance? In the poetic language of Christian spirituality, the antidote to shame and the rage fueled by shame is the spiritual quest to see ourselves as God sees us. The problem here, it is said, is that we fail to recognize ourselves. The problem here, it is said, is that we don't believe that we are who we truly are. Instead we see ourselves as helpless or hopeless, as ugly or stupid, as failures or frauds, as rejected or victimized. Or at least we spend unreasonable quantities of energy fending off whichever one of those fears haunts us the most. And because we are afraid, because we are defensive, we are quick to attack anyone who threatens us. And so, spiritual practices in the Christian tradition seek to change the default setting that keeps telling us we are inadequate and we ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Buddhist loving-kindness meditation practice seeks the same change. The larger spiritual purpose in both traditions is changing how we behave toward others by changing how we perceive ourselves: our shame-laden sense of inadequacy drives our nastiness to other people.

            Surely it's clear to everyone that Trump's nastiness is driven by his own remarkable insecurity. The brazen greed of his cronies and the cowardice of his enablers are no less revealing: these are astoundingly shallow and insecure individuals no matter what political power they exercise in the moment. At a further extreme, white-supremacist radicals are driven to violence and dreams of violence by their own sense of oppressed, excluded, aggrieved victimhood. If we are going to oppose such people successfully, we need every possible resource for cultivating the opposite moral character in ourselves. That begins with refusing to stoop to their level. Do not return rant for rant, tweet for tweet. Do not scream obscenities at political rallies. Do not dish it back to Cousin Fred over Thanksgiving dinner. We have an active moral obligation to be the grown-up in the room no matter what that room may be.

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            The moral principles I am advocating here here lack the iron-clad certainty of easy ideologies. I'm saying we have to trust and we have to remember than truth is on our side: there is no escape from the judgment of history. History will remember that Republicans systematically orphaned and imprisoned infants, toddlers, and children whose parents had sought refuge in American mercy. History will remember that Republicans rolled back desperately needed environmental regulations. History will remember that Republican cut healthcare benefits for the working poor in order to fund tax cuts for America's wealthiest one percent. History will remember that generations of Republicans fanned racism and xenophobia for narrow political gain. History will remember all of this and more.

            But history will also remember that many of us banded together in steadfast resistance, asserting once again the moral vision at the heart of the great, fragile American experiment. Truth may not prevail fast enough to suit our needs and our frustrations. I admit that. And the Democratic party seems all too often clueless about the larger moral issues at stake. But this much is clear: if we compromise our moral and personal integrity in the quest for quick success, if we give way to malice and hatred fueled by our own sense of shame that all this is happening around us, then we have already failed. We have become what we condemn.

            If, on the other hand, we look for the best in everyone, we will find more of it in ourselves our well. We will begin to create, to re-create, and to sustain the reality that we seek.

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            This brings me back to the metaphysical issue I mentioned but postponed earlier: in refraining from contempt and malice, in anchoring ourselves outside the penumbra of shame and the rage that shame elicits, we are in effect making a metaphysical assumption. We are assuming that virtue is realistic. We are assuming that honesty, restraint, honor, and common decency can anchor a personal sense-of-self that is indelibly secure because it's tied to the moral structure of the cosmos. That's poetry, not astrophysics, but the metaphor is a brilliant one: compassion is something like the gravitational constant of humane human community.

            I have no trouble thinking in such terms. I have no trouble resolving to live my life as best I can in accordance with these difficult and complicated ideals. But the radical Left will dismiss what I'm saying as utter nonsense. The radical Left will of course insist that there is no such "moral structure." They will say that "morality" is a social construct, an essentially arbitrary and meaningless system of rules that is commonly rigged to serve the desire of socially-dominant groups. As they see it, so-called "morality" is at best meaningless, at worst craven conformity. Some of them will thereby conclude that the ends justify the means, and nice guys finish last. Fight fire with fire—and he who dies with the biggest flamethrower wins.

            These are simply alternative world-views. They are different sets of core philosophical assumptions. There's a lot to be learned by grappling with these alternatives in detail, a task that has engaged me deeply ever since I graduated from high school in the pivotal year of 1968. But whether we study the issues or not, we all make choices about how to live our lives. We have to. Reality corners us into to making choices that derive from our essential world-view whether or not we are fully conscious of the logic shaping our conclusions.

            On philosophical issues of this magnitude, mathematical proof is not possible. I have returned over and over again to famous lines from Coleridge's "Dejection" ode, lines warning that morally speaking we create the world in which we dwell:

 

. . . We receive but what we give . . .

And would we aught behold, of higher worth,

Than that inanimate cold world, allowed,

To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,

Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth,

A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud

Enveloping the earth--

And from the soul itself must there be sent

A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,

Of all sweet sounds the life and element.

 

If we want an alternative to the bleak despair that has been haunting so many of us in the last two years, then we must rouse up within ourselves the courage necessary to claim that morality has meaning and that honesty has substance. If we want to sleep soundly at night, confident that our lives are morally substantial and meaningful, then we must somehow anchor our behavior in moral responsibility to human rights, the common good, and personal integrity in every domain of our lives, from the most intimately private to the most explicitly public and political. That's the deal.

            And so, if Trump, his cronies, and his enables are all driving you crazy, it may be that you are feeling forced—perhaps for the first time at this scale—to decide whether or not morality has meaning and honesty has substance. That's a worthy crisis. But its resolution won't be found by following the news or reading political strategists. The answer lies within you, not around you.

            Elections may be won or lost, but life is a once-and-done deal. There's always another election cycle, but there's never a chance to live your life over again. The older I get, the clearer that is to me. There's no avoiding the need to take chances and the need to take a stand: moral issues are inescapable. Our only certainty, our only comfort in difficult times, is the knowledge that in all things we did our best to act with quiet courage, unflinching honor, and respect for the humanity of those around us—including our political opponents, no matter how fervently we disagree with them.

            If this nation is to endure, Americans must live together for better for worse. Abusing and ridiculing one another should be beneath us. That minimal standard is—or should be—beyond all question.