July 7, 2010

Community Question: Do relationships impede activism & justice?

photograph of a group of young adults jumping, caught in midair, on a hill outsideI know internet readers tend to like their blogs spoon fed with headings and bulleted lists and strong language. I’m doing something different with this post, I challenge you to step up and dig into this with me!

I do not do that which I know I should do. She says something insulting and I let it slide. He calls me Peter’s “friend” and I don’t correct him. They make jokes which aren’t really funny and I chuckle enough to not attract attention. It seems that family, friends, and closer relationships impede the cause of justice by compromising our words and actions, by elevating relationships over rightness. Still, I am at a loss for what to do. That’s where you come in! I’m issuing a challenge for you to overcome internet passivity to work through this together.

Here’s what I observe with myself, let me know if you see this in yourself and if you have any thoughts on solutions.

I do not correct problematic language. For instance: my boyfriend’s father has never referred to me as “Peter’s boyfriend.” He always introduces me as “Peter’s friend.” Sometimes he even refers to me as his friend. Recently, I’ve taken to reintroducing myself (if Peter is around, he gives a personal–and correct–introduction). On a personal level, it makes my skin crawl and I feel shoved back into a closet to which I will never return. On a systematic level, this use of language continues to make queer relationship invisible. I’ve never addressed this with Peter’s father, though Peter has on multiple occasions. Which brings me to…

I do not intervene. Anti-Oppression 101 says that you speak up and take action when necessary; you don’t wait for someone else to do it and you don’t leave oppressed people stranded. Sam Crowell stepped up when a man came into my church spewing anti-gay rhetoric. But what about when it also affects someone you love and care about and they don’t want to say anything because of their own personal relationships? I’ve put my love for another person (perhaps a misguided love? or misrepresented?) over what I know to be the right action.

I don’t ruffle feathers. Whether it’s my own family and friends, or those of someone I am close to, sometimes I don’t do anything because it will be uncomfortable. We’re on vacation for a week together, they are always going to be his parents, we are at a party… I put comfort, sometimes others and sometimes my own, over stepping up and saying or doing something to correct an injustice. There’s a part of my that even hesitates to publish this article: what if a friend or family member sees it and gets upset?

I go inside myself. When oppressive things are said about or done to me and I do not respond, I loose a bit of my humanity. There is a saying “Sometimes we speak to change the world, sometimes we speak to keep the world from changing us.” When I don’t speak at all, I make myself a victim. It doesn’t feel good and it leads to other unhelpful actions: I avoid eye contact, I leave the room, I keep conversations shallow and short, my body language clams up.

So now what?

What then are we to do? Activism burn-out is real and all too often our relationships suffer. If relationships can help us take care of ourselves and right action also helps us take care of ourselves, and sometimes those two ideals are opposite of each other, WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?!

Gandhi, in his autobiography, eschews close friendships as they obstruct our ability to love the whole world fully as we necessarily prioritize some (our relationships) over others (everyone else). Similarly, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple” (14:26). Great.

So, I’m turning to you blogosphere: what are we to do?

Photo by scion_cho


  1. Hi Brian,

    I have been wrestling with this as well lately. (so it was a relief to hear someone else asking the same things)

    You've certainly identified the trouble spots we face. It is not easy. The last thing you want to jeopardize is your close & important relationships. Yet…. we kind of have to, don't we?

    Rather than give you a neat little answer (that I don't have), I'll leave you with this quote from Shirley Sherrod:

    “I truly believe that we can come together in this country. But you don't (come together) by not talking to each other. You don't get there by pushing things under the rug.”

    Keep in touch- I would love to continue this conversation.

  2. Thanks for sharing the Shirley Sherrod quote. That is helpful to keep in mind. When I shut down, or don't intervene, or don't speak up for the sake of “cohesion” I am doing just the opposite: splintering and dividing.

    Reconciliation is messy work, huh?

  3. Casey

    Hey Brian,
    Great blog entry, with some seriously tough questions. I don’t have a clearly outlined answer, but here are a few thoughts that come to mind in response.

    1. Justice has a lot of hard edges to it, which makes it a difficult thing to mix with human beings who are made out of soft flesh. We who hunger for justice also hunger for those hard edges, the clear lines, the purity of it, but I think danger lies that way, too – abject devotion to seeing that everybody gets what they deserve can be dehumanizing. I think the tension you describe here is the tension that Micah imposes when he says that we are to “do justice and love mercy” simultaneously. When you catch yourself avoiding the conflict of confrontation out of care for somebody’s feelings, you are being merciful – it’s maintaining the balance of when to show mercy, and when to demand justice, that makes you a thinking, feeling being rather than a robot, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

    2. Progress versus perfection. True justice, true equality, is an uncompromising position, but people rarely go from intolerance to perfect acceptance in an instant – like coming out, it’s a process. I think the yardstick for knowing whether you are being patient or allowing your feelings to actively obstruct justice is to ask if patience facilitates progress, or if you are enabling inertia – and that’s a judgment call every time. Demanding instant perfection is likely to cause somebody to shut down, but you never get improvement without pushing at least somewhat. Not particularly helpful, I know, but sometimes you just have to know you’re asking the right questions of yourself before you can answer whether you are putting relationships ahead of justice, or cultivating them in its pursuit.


Submit a Comment

Posted By