I’ve been reading two books concurrently: Fr. Gregory Boyle’s Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, which tells stories of his work with Homeboy Industries that he began; and Nick Montgomery and Carla Bergman’s Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times, which discusses healthy movement-building and is part of an “Anarchist Interventions” series. The themes of the books have been weaving themselves through me; each from its own perspective contrasts “hardened” ways of being in the world with “softer” ways.
As we look around the world, dominant culture teaches us we must harden ourselves for protection against “them.” “They” might be immigrants, refugees, poor people, people of a different race from our own, people with different political perspectives, people with different lifestyles, people who did this, that, or the other “wrong” thing. Our armor may grow tighter and stiffer around us as more and more people fall into the category of “them.”
Montgomery and Bergman describe what they call “rigid radicalism”:
It is the pleasure of feeling more radical than others and the worry about not being radical enough; the sad comfort of sorting unfolding events into dead categories; the vigilant perception of errors and complicities in oneself and others; the anxious posturing on social media and the highs of being liked and the lows of being ignored; the suspicion and resentment felt in the presence of something new; the way curiosity feels naive and condescension feels right.”
I could say that “they,” those people who are “the enemy” because they don’t look like me, act like me, believe like me, are the ones who are rigid, suspicious, condescending. And yet, having a foot in the activist world myself, I’ve witnessed these tendencies up close and personal from people who seem a lot like me in many ways. I’ve fallen under the spell of rigid radicalism myself, believing that my actions somehow made me better than others I worked with, that I had the answers, that I knew the “right way” for people to serve the world. When I live in the energy of rigid radicalism, I find that I am angry, I get burned out easily, and I’m also scared of not living up to expectations I’ve decided other people have of me, because no one has lived up to my own impossible standards. Living in rigid radicalism shrinks me. Physically I find my back curved over, my face looking down. Emotionally and spiritually, I feel my heart constricting and even closing. The world appears in blacks and grays.
I am a member of the local Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) chapter, a national organization dedicated to organizing white folks to work with other white folks for racial justice. One of the principles that attracted me to SURJ was the value of “Calling People In, Not Out.” The description of this principle says, among other things, that we all mess up, it’s part of the journey, and that being “specific and direct” and that “talking to people in times and places that support learning” are ways to live into the value.
In Barking to the Choir, Fr. Boyle writes, “I’ve learned from giving thousands of talks that you never appeal to the conscience of your audience, but, rather, introduce them to their own goodness…I eventually learned that shaking one’s fist at something doesn’t change it. Only love gets fists open. Only love leads to a conjuring of kinship within reach of the actual lives we live.”
Love calls us in. Love opens hearts, expands them, helps us to stand tall in our own goodness. Love shows us the beautiful variety of colors, textures, tastes, smells, sounds that are part of our world, even in the midst of the blacks and grays.
Montgomery and Bergman’s definition of “joyful militancy” complements Fr. Boyle’s ideas:
We are intentionally bringing joy and militancy together, with the aim of thinking through the connections between fierceness and love, resistance and care, combativeness and nurturance… In our conversations with others from a variety of currents and locations, we have become increasingly convinced that the most widespread, long-lasting, and fierce struggles are animated by strong relationships of love, care, and trust.
Strong relationships of love, care, and trust. Radical kinship.
Boyle writes, “God loves us whole and entire, and as a community, if we emulate that, then hunger, weaponry, inequality, and every other evil will dissipate into obsolescence. This can only come when I know I am accepted especially at my worst.”
When I am accepted especially at my worst, I can see that I am more than my worst. I am also my best, even if not behaving that way in the present moment. Knowing the spectrum of who I am, I can choose which part of myself I want to nurture; accepting the spectrum of who we are, we can choose what parts we want to tend together.
Montgomery and Bergman write, “One of our basic premises is that transformative potentials are always already present and emergent. Not only can things be otherwise; they already are, and it is a matter of tuning, tending, activating, connecting, and defending these processes of change that are already in the making.”
Not only can things be otherwise, they already are.
And so we tune, tend, activate, and connect. Imperfectly. We step into the creativity of joyful militancy that allows us to explore the tension between “fierceness and love, resistance and care, combativeness and nurturance.” We try to accept ourselves and others “whole and entire” and do so partially and incompletely. We call others to join us in heart work of radical kinship.
Shall we try it together?