Yesterday, at the tail end of my letter “Election Hot, Supreme Court Hotter,” I wrote:
The crisis is all of these. We are living in God’s earthquake.
There are three possible responses to an earthquake:
Denial. Ignore it. Keep walking, and if a broken building falls on us, kills us, too bad. What else to do, when everything is changing?
Grabbing hard at something that just might be immovable. “Christian white America, run by men – real men, not sissies." Seventeenth-century religion --triumphalist and rigid --of all strands: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu. Workers without troublemaking unions. Cops in control.
Dancing in the Earthquake. Hardest to do – for the dance floor itself is shaking, rolling, swooping, dancing. But the most life-giving choice.
(If you missed that letter, click here: <https://theshalomcenter.org/content/big-news-supremes-turn-heat-planet-burning-new-hampshire-explodes>. At the end, if you like, you can post a public comment.)
And I promised that today I would explore what “Dancing in the Earthquake” might mean. Here goes:
First: There can be great value in reaching for a truth in past wisdom, if we don’t think it is immovable, unchanging. For example, there have been some creative responses to the Bible’s calls for Sabbatical and Jubilee Years (Lev. 25) - – rhythmically letting the Earth rest, periodically annulling personal debt -- that indeed became creative by letting go of the biblical assertion that these practices only applied in the Land of Israel.
Why is it more creative and effective to draw on these ancient teachings and refer to them than simply to start from scratch with a political demand? Because the spiritual depth at the roots of these teachings carries a fuller resonance and therefore a deeper appeal (and sometimes a broader appeal to more people) than treating them as sheer political proposals. That is why they became sacred teachings in the first place. That is why the Pope’s encyclical on the climate crisis had such broad and deep resonance.
For example: One way of dancing in the earthquake is drawing on Passover and (Christian) Holy Week to renew the challenges to entrenched power (Pharaoh, Caesar) that were at the spiritual / political root of the ancient actions that became these sacred festivals. It was no accident that Pharaohs and Caesars defined themselves as gods, and that resistance to idolatrous worship of these cruel and arrogant powers drew on a holistic sense of God as Creator, Liberator, Breath of Life, Resurrector.
At the core of other sacred festivals is this same affirmation of the Spirit, often obscured by commerce and sometimes even by a superficial pleasure in family or church. Joy includes pleasure, and goes beyond it. Joy requires justice. It requires seeing in the family, the congregation, the neighborhood, the nation a beckoning to a fuller Wholeness, what Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.
Why and how is this a “dance” in the earthquake? Because it dances between the past and the present. It does not ignore either one, it does not get stuck in either one. It moves in a delicious rhythm in time the way a dance moves in space.
Second: One of the most powerful forms of social change is to embody in the present a vision of the future, and in the doing to challenge the unjust, destructive aspects of the present. This too is a dance in time –- twirling consciously and fluidly between the future and the present.
The Sit-ins and Freedom Rides and Freedom Schools and Freedom Parties half a century ago were all embodiments of an envisioned future. Where restaurants and buses and schools were racially rigidified and unjust, where the right to vote was denied, they began by creating a just alternative that rubbed raw the skin of habit and control.
“We imagine racial integration someday; here we are today, racially integrated. You will have to respond to us. You can arrest us; you can kill us; you can integrate the buses; you can change the laws; you can change the elections.”
They did not begin by asking for new laws. They did not begin by bombing unjust buses. They did not simply withdraw into a purely utopian village, but forced utopia into the mouth of privilege. They set the teeth of the powerful on edge.
Similarly with the Teach-ins and Draft Resistance as aspects of the movement to end the US war against Vietnam. The Teach-ins were informational, but more than that they were confrontational. Not only about the war, but about a system of education that was boring, stupefying, disconnected from the blood, sweat, and tears of urgent life.
The Teach-in form was all-night classes, lectures, seminars, workshops on subjects left silent in the daytime university, led by people who knew what they were talking about whether or not they had official “credentials” commanding credibility. In the dark of night, a lightning-flash of knowledge.
The message became the medium, and in this way the medium became the message.
What might this mean today? In neighborhoods where the police have become a military occupation, it might mean starting from the bottom to found Freedom Guardians -- people from the neighborhood, people known to their neighbors as healers and sages. Carrying not tasers but a chemical shot to heal an overdose of heroin or oxycontin. Using their cars not to imprison or to maim, but to transport a disemployed person to a job. Trained to defuse conflicts.
And in a neighborhood where all the electric power comes from burning coal, it might mean creating a neighborhood solar coop. Saving money for households, reducing CO2 emissions, weakening the coal and utility companies, expanding the market for renewable energy devices, building a grass-roots political base for changing energy policy.
Third: Dancing with anger and with love, starting perhaps with a two-step in the emotional dance, learning to synthesize them in what the ballet calls a “lift.” Leaping beyond fury and passivity to offer the most basic of affirmations to our opponents, our oppressors -– “I will not kill you, I will not hurt you, I will not obey you.” Creating nonviolence -- what Gandhi called not “non” anything but “soul-force.”
As I‘ve suggested above, the strongest form of “soul-force” is creating an oppositional alternative in the present that embodies a future we envision. Yet sometimes soul-force does not embody an alternative, is simply an effort to stop the unjust machinery in its tracks. In 1967, padlocking the doors of local offices of the military draft apparatus. In 1967, Catholic priests and devout laity using home-made napalm to burn the records of a local draft board, disrupting inductions into war. As Father Dan Berrigan said, “burning paper instead of children.”
Was this a “violent” act? Is the destruction of property ever nonviolent? I think it walks the edge, and is often the tactic of secret provocateurs to discredit an oppositional movement. Almost always, better to reject the tactic. Some dance steps are very likely to bring about a broken leg.
So the possibility demands of us a keen and caring discernment. If ever this tactic might make sense, it would only be to destroy property that itself is intrinsically violent –- like the records that forced young people to kill and die in an unjust war –- and never to destroy property that is intrinsically neutral –- like the glass windows of a department store, or the fences around a city hall. And always to keep in ind the possibility of provocation.
Fourth: Cleaning and clarifying our language just as we learn the careful grammar of a dance..
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said to me in 1971 when I was still a fledgling on my Jewish journey -- two uncertain years beyond the Freedom Seder: “What are our weapons in this struggle? We have no guns, no money. We have only words. We must aim our words with as much precision as people who have guns aim their guns.”
I was moved by the great sage using “we” to include me, so new and ignorant, into "our" effort toward revitalizing Judaism that he saw alrady under way. And I was educated by his rebuke of an inflated, chutzpadik phrase I had used to describe our work in a way that I thought might attract excitement.
No inflations. And no sugary soporifics. For example:
Conventionally, we talk about “losing” a job. The word conceals a politics of put-down, of blaming the worker who has been thrown into despair. Rarely might I “lose” a job the way I might “lose” my house keys. Calling it that defines me as careless, heedless. It shifts the blame onto the despairing worker. Jobs are robbed from us by a bank, a boss, a governmental policy.
To be “unemployed” sounds as if we “lost” our jobs, or stubbed our toes on the way to work. In truth we are “disemployed,” not “unemployed.” Some one decided.
There is no “global warming,” -- warming is for most of us a pleasant sensual feeling. Using the phrase says inwardly and outwardly, It can’t be all that bad. In truth there is global scorching, global weirding, global burning. And in truth there is no “climate change” -- as if I decided this morning to change my climate the way I changed my shirt. There is “climate crisis,” the danger of “climate chaos.”
Finally, we must learn to dance more gracefully with both our principles and our practice. Never to get stuck in the immediate day-to-day without asking ourselves, How does this live in the light of the principles I hold? And even more, Can I learn by searching beneath each immediate problem I am facing, beneath each surface action I am taking, for the deeper truth, the fuller wisdom, that is hidden here?
I have tried to shape these thoughts to themselves embody this pattern -- some principles of dancing that have emerged not from abstract theory but from a waltz here, a grapevine there, a dosado and a pirouette. Moments of dance that I have sprinkled back into clarifying the categories they created. I welcome you to share your own thoughts, your own suggestions and critiques. You can do that by going to the "Comments" section below:
And I also ask your help in continuing this work. The metaphors I’ve used emerge from our work at The Shalom Center. The work of dancing our way into the future, in the very midst of earthquake. Our dancing needs your steadying hand on the shifting floor. If this letter has lifted your heart or opened your mind or strengthened your activism, please make a (tax-deductible) gift to keep the dance going, by clicking on the Donate button in the left-hand margin.
Thanks! –-- and blessings of grace and gracefulness!