Why am I here?
Well, they say that the Army teaches you to never volunteer. I was never in the Army.
When I was thirteen or fourteen, on Christmas Eve, I was reading one of my favorite books. After finishing the most powerful part, I stood up in my pajamas, emptied my mind, and said to the One Who Is Existence, “I pledge myself to your service.” The One took me at my word.
It goes a bit further back, maybe; I’d talked to my deity before, and on a few occasions my deity had said something in return. I can’t even remember the earliest conversations, or so my mom reports. She took me to silent Quaker worship from birth, and she tells a story about it: once a friend asked me about silent worship; I said, in classic four-year-old fashion, “We sit on our chairs in a circle and wait for God to talk to us.”
“And does he?” asked our practical friend.
As my mother tells it, I replied, “Oh yeah” — totally matter-of-fact.
Suffice it to say: I’ve had a long relationship with the Light and Spirit, to use Quaker terminology, quite possibly as long as my life. And I volunteered to serve. I did not specify the method of service, and that was chosen for me.
My service is to the Word, to use the language of the Gospel of John, and my service takes the form of words. I am given messages in silent worship from time to time, the Quaker tradition of spoken ministry; I am also given messages for written words. I build essays around them; occasionally the essay is built for me and delivered in near-full form. People have occasionally called my words prophetic, which always frightens me; it is not a term I would use to describe myself, for prophets are known by their fruits, and I have not even blossomed. What I call myself, if pressed for a term, is God’s flunky. An errand boy, if the One so desires. If the One sends me with a message, then I’ll carry it to you, as best I can.
There is a message, in fact, though it is far from new. The One Who Is, to use my favorite name for the Almighty, tells me to tell you this: love your neighbor.
Or, to put it another way: I come to speak words of love and justice.
Love, because it is no weak emotion but a force of deep and awesome power. It is not mere attraction or sentimental affection; it is not sticky-note glue, but a river like the prophet said, bringing water and power and life where no life could otherwise be. Love breaks empires and builds cities; love grows farms and flocks, love summits mountains, love bridges chasms. Love is more potent than atom bombs and more healing than any medicine.
Justice, because it is the necessary ingredient in peace and prosperity, because only a sudden flood of justice (to again use the prophet’s words) can set right the wrongs of this world, because without it all human structures fall to the ground. As was once said of equality, one of justice’s many forms, justice “is like gravity: we need it to stand on this earth.” (J. Whedon, 2006) Justice is no tame force either. Justice can be a firebrand, a whirlwind; justice kills. Some, then, cry for mercy instead, and they aren’t wrong… but much of what you might say about justice can be said of love as well. Shall we surrender both because of what they might bring? I say no. We surrender to both.
Here I must make a confession. I am who I am because of injustice. I am a white middle-class male, raised in a time when that meant privilege that my parents earned for me, living in a society that grants to males and whites power, wealth, and tolerance no others have been blessed with. Others run in shackles, bound by prejudice and slowed by history, while I move freely. So where do I get off calling for justice?
I’ll answer with a poem I wrote some years ago:
White boy cries for justice
Like Martin and Malcolm
Cheer for the Klan,
Like Cesar buys stock
In United Fruit,
Like Sitting Bull swaps
Mining rights for whiskey.
I’ll bite the hands that feed me
All the same.
And believe me, I shall.
Listen: I have long believed that I was born a white American male in the 21st century for a reason. I do not stand at the apex of our society in terms of wealth, power, and privilege, but compared to all others in the world I stand high indeed. I am typing on my laptop, sitting in my room, lying on my bed. All that alone marks me out as more fortunate than billions. I have two college degrees, and employment that keeps me fed and clothed; I have most of my health, I have my friends and family. I have never known hunger or abuse or violence; I have lived in comfort and peace all my days.
I believe I must pay for all this somehow. Not as a punishment — I do not mean to tear down the life I and others have lived, though by all means I have made mistakes and done wrong. Instead I mean that I owe a debt, to the society I live in, to the less-fortunate, to the powerless. I have a voice; I must speak for those who don’t. I have lived well; I must therefore speak for those who haven’t. In the words of my greatest teacher: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required.” (New American Standard trans.)
So I am here to speak a simple message: love and justice.
What does that look like, then?
Love and justice look like the rich always paying the debts they owe to the poor. They look like governments always paying the debts they owe to their citizens and servants. They look like liberty established at last in its purest form, with power in the hands of the people, power in the hands of the many rather than the few. They look like the beloved community growing like a garden, like a forest, full of life and strength and endurance. I reject both the narcissism of an uncaring individualism and the obedience of a conformist socialism: the community is nothing without its individuals and the individuals are nothing without their community. Sometimes those communities are churches, sometimes those communities are governments, sometimes they are neither. But the many are useless without the one, and the one is useless without the many.
Love and justice look like wealth serving those who labored to create it as well as those who hold it, serving all in the community rather than the fortunate few. It especially looks like wealth returning to its proper place as a servant, not a master or an end in and of itself.
Love and justice look like people recognizing other people as human beings, not fodder or obstacles or tools or puppets or commodities: people to be respected, not things to be used.
Shall I be more specific?
It means that my friend Hank the wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet wouldn’t be begging outside a grocery store, getting robbed and being ignored. It means no more sending our soldiers off to come back maimed and lame — it means no more wars at all, as we see the humanity in the Iraqi and Iranian as much as in the German and the Japanese.
It means letting the teachers teach and the doctors heal, it means letting farmers feed us and promise to feed our great-great-grandchildren too; it means debt as not a chain for a slave but a promise between friends. It means every head has a place to lay, it means every belly is filled with food, it means every sickness is soothed, it means every child is loved and reared.
And it means that when there are those who covet and hoard, those who gather power to themselves, those who seek rule and riches at the expense of others past, present, or future, then those people are held harmless — held firm, tight in the grip of those who love them, so they can do no harm. (See? Even the language shall be set right.) All tyrants shall be humbled, all abusers restrained.
How shall this be?
First there must be the flood that is justice. Chains must be broken, broken now, and for that there has to be a great rush of loving force. It may seem like violence, especially to those whose power is suddenly ripped from them. And there will likely be violence, I fear, for power concedes nothing without putting up a fight. People may die. But people are dying as it is, so we can’t let that hold us back. That said, we cannot fix the violence of our present world with more violence. Besides, violence is limiting. Start shooting and the whole affair is about who can outshoot the other (hint: it’s usually the side that has tanks and nukes). Renounce violence, though, and thousands of other options open up. I see boycotts, I see protests, I see whole cities turning out and shutting down the systems that constrain them, I see strikes and occupations. I see the words of the prophet written on subway walls, I see Banksy at work everywhere, I see a Stonewall on every street.
It will be chaotic. It will be wild. It will be a carnival for some, a strange dream for others, confusion for a great many. One parallel might be a week in Jerusalem some years ago, after a certain man rode in on a donkey.
Then the flood ends. The waters roll back. And the hard work begins.
Revolutions are not won or lost in the act of revolt. Revolutions are won and lost in the days after the balance of power shifts. So after the flood of justice that is the revolution, there has to come the ever-flowing stream of love that gives life to all. It’s called “peace.”
I can only begin to dream the course of that stream, and my dreams are only fragments of the glory that could be, but it shall be all I have spoken of and more. When power is reclaimed by the people and the people are guided by both justice and love, then that power will be used as a check against harm and help for the struggler. This rests, I think, on an idea: when we see all people as people, part of the fabric, no matter their color or gender or condition, and move as a whole to help each other, then the stream of love will be running through us all, and answer every thirst.
Others greater than I have come before me to say the same thing. Too many of us have forgotten, or surrendered the hope of the future to the demands of the present, or would rather rule today than live in peace tomorrow. So I am here to remind the world of a promise that the Almighty has not forgotten. I am here to say that we either begin to build a brighter future, or we give up on the future entirely. And the only future with any hope is the one built on love and justice.