And how have I used rivers, how have I used wars
To escape writing of the worst thing of all—
Not the crimes of others, not even our own death,
But the failure to want our freedom passionately enough
So that blighted elms, sick rivers, massacres would seem
Mere emblems of the desecration of ourselves?
Rich does not speak in a religious voice. Yet her anguish over our collective failure to “want our freedom passionately enough” touches a spiritual ache no less profound than the Christian desire to be “born again.” During this holiday season when we perform frenzied and often absent-minded rituals of giving, Rich offers us an intriguing model of religious rebirth where the political act of seeking our collective freedom and the spiritual act of understanding how our sense of self is contingent on others come together as a single pursuit.
Although not often acknowledged, the desire for religious rebirth draws many of us to churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. Religious communities speak to us when our old ways of being aren’t working and the promise of a transformed life touches an immense need in all of us.
Unfortunately, the radical right has hijacked for suspect political ends the very thing that is life-giving about spiritual rebirth. Too many have been devastated by that irony. It is nearly impossible to think about personal religious transformation outside a repressive preoccupation with discrimination and exclusion. Not surprisingly, when presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, refused to take back his 1992 statement that AIDS patients should be isolated, his words only reinforced conservative religious credentials grounded in the public pronouncement of a religious rebirth.
In contrast, the religious left has shied away from the language of rebirth as insular and harmful and instead has embraced the language of freedom through social justice advocacy to engage religious people. Such advocacy champions mostly the tepid language of tolerance, stressing the accommodation of diverse theological, cultural, racial, and class differences. Although valuable, this work keeps the focus on including others into our spaces rather than wrestling with the ways our sense of self is shaped by others.
Understanding that who we are is bound up with who others are, requires spiritual discipline. First and foremost it requires us to awaken our curiosity about how others live in the context of our own lives. To do this we need to start from a personal connection and then expand outward. For example, when we eat our meals we might reflect on those who cannot afford nourishing food. From this simple concern other questions emerge: how has a market driven chain of food production separated communities from one another and separated all of us from the earth? How might we rejuvenate the connection between physical nourishment and spiritual nourishment? How might breaking bread together become a model of liberation? Many of us volunteer in soup kitchens, but the demands of hostility and spiritual reawakening asks us to move beyond a volunteer model of feeding others—as important as this is--to sharing a meal with others both in our own homes and in the places where others live.
Religious transformation, in community or in solitude is a longtime struggle and as Rich points out, we often find circling around our oppression easier than facing the painful truth that we might not be ready for freedom. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before they were reoriented enough in their trust of God and their connection with each other to be ready for liberation.
Like the Israelites many of us on the religious left are in a kind of wilderness right now. We see the importance of our freedom and we know it won’t come without transformation. Yet we remain seduced by the security of “Egypt” where our oppression is painful yet familiar. Freedom, in contrast, requires a leap of faith and trust in what we can’t control. Thus the Israelites had to learn that God would provide food when they needed it but that they couldn’t hoard it up for future use. We similarly need to stop hoarding up old arguments that perpetuate the myth of the autonomous individual. Real change will only come when we risk dismantling the boundaries we’ve constructed between ourselves and others. It will take a religious rebirth to get us there.