Loving Across the Divide: Soulforce and the Philosophy of Nonviolence

Amy Brainer-Medellin

"The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love." - Che Guevara

Amy Brainer-MedellinThis quote has become my mantra as I prepare for the Soulforce Equality Ride. My preparations have been (and continue to be) physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and communal, aided by the support of fellow riders, loved ones, and friends like those I have found at Wicker Park Grace. In every instance, I strive to couch my burning desire for revolution in a fierce, relentless, and nurturing love. My understanding of what that love looks like and feels like is constantly evolving.

In the past month and a half, the concept of Soulforce – taken from the Gandhian principle of Satyagraha – and the philosophy of nonviolence have blown the lid off my understanding of love and stretched me in 101 directions.

I met the Che Guevara quote (above) long before I encountered the organization Soulforce or signed up for the Equality Ride. At the time, I used the quote to talk about love for my people – the driving force behind my activism. This point of view made sense to me. For example, my struggle against the interlocking systems of racism, heterosexism, and sexism is powered, at least in part, by love for my wife. This kind of love comes gently and easily.

I showed up for my Soulforce Equality Ride training in Austin, Texas confident that I had this principle down pat. My assumptions were shattered within one day. I quickly learned that Satyagraha and the philosophy of nonviolence take love to heights and depths far beyond the natural flow of love for my wife and my people. Within a nonviolent paradigm, love for our adversaries – for those who would seek to harm, humiliate, slander, oppress, oppose, or condescend to us – becomes another driving force behind any revolutionary act.

This kind of love does not come gently or easily; it comes with the kind of sweaty, bruised and bloody resolve that got me through the Chicago marathon, through cancer as a teenager, through the coming out process. In some ways, the major challenges of my life pale in comparison to the challenge of holding my adversaries in loving nonviolence as I journey in and through the belly of anti-gay rhetoric in this country.

This is the challenge that I am wrestling with now, and that I would like to share with you.

One of my fellow Equality Riders recently shared with me, and the rest of our group, the hurt that he felt when someone at a school we plan to visit lashed out at him in an email. (The writer called him, among other things, "self harming and unproductive" – a relatively moderate position, after a more zealous writer accused another one of my fellow Riders of urinating and defecating on truth because he identifies as both gay and Christian!) I responded to my wounded brother with the following note, summarizing many of my developing thoughts and feelings about nonviolence:

We are going to be told that we are 'self harming and unproductive' (and a myriad of other qualities, limited only by the imagination and fervency of the speaker) quite regularly in the coming months. Some of us are told these things daily by our closest loved ones; others of us have been largely shielded from it until now. Either way, it is to be expected and handled gracefully. Some people are not yet ready to listen to what we have to say. That in no way diminishes the value of the conversation, however truncated it may have been. As you and I both know, it is important to recognize that the speaker also suffers because of the perspective s/he holds, and that s/he is a victim of the same oppressive system that we are working to dismantle. We are putting forth a message of hope not only for LGBT people and our allies, but also for our adversaries, that they might be healed from such a debilitating prejudice. I would encourage you to hold this young man, and the many others like him whom you will soon encounter, in your mind and heart as a reminder of why this work is so important.

Increasingly, I am challenged to digest the hateful – or, worse for me, the passive-aggressive and condescending – words of those who believe I am sick, sinful, and/or hell-bound, without a retaliatory hate or condescension. I am challenged to view such individuals not as symbols of intolerance, but as people in pain, to be lifted up and out of the intolerance that harms them and me in an equal measure.

I entitled this essay "Loving Across the Divide" for an important reason. Regardless of where we stand in the culture wars – and, specifically, where we stand in regard to faith and sexual or gender identity – there is always the possibility that we will have loved ones who stand on the other side of the divide. As I shared with some of you during the Equality Ride dinner and discussion, this is true for many of the people who matter most to me. Nonviolence is a bridge over this divide. It offers an alternative to polarization and segregation, by opening up a third way – not a compromise of human dignity and equality, not an attack, but the possibility of loving across the divide – hoping and trusting that, one day, those who mean so much to us will dare to walk with us over that bridge and out of the oppressive system that has fractured our relationship.



Graeme Udd

Graeme Udd's ArtFrom my early childhood, I remember a coffee table book that my parents owned. It contained images of Jesus as interpreted through the art of myriad cultures and time periods; Jesus as many different ethnicities and ages, as infant, as old man, as corpse and resurrected man. In wood and metal, paint and ink, gilt and glass, ceramic and bone. I loved all of the wonderful textures and colors and shapes. I had no concept of which was the "right" Jesus, the correct one. I didn't have to choose the proper and acceptable Jesus; I loved all of them.

I was told in Sunday school that Jesus loved little children. I saw drawings of him holding them, smiling and talking to them. He was strong and gentle, kind and smart. And yet, he didn't use these attributes to gain unfair advantage over others. I was puzzled. How could you be strong, and not use your strength to hurt others? How could you be gentle, and not use your gentleness to trick people into letting their guard down? How could you be smart, and not use your intelligence to humiliate and oppress?

Because in my small, young world, my father's strength and gentleness, kindness and intelligence were weapons used against his family. I had to guard against them. If I even left a crack, a smile, an openness behind my eyes, it was all over. I would have to pay for trusting. If I gave away my heart, all I got back was ashes. If I offered an outstretched hand, it got slammed in a door. If I spoke a kind word, I got a fat lip. See my beautiful necklace of bruises? These plum and amethyst jewels, set in skin fading to green and yellow, these are my prizes. They are hidden so no one can see them, but they are precious, they are hard won these trophies. They mean my father loves me, that he cares enough to notice me. I collect them, wrapped with care, here beneath my clothes. And when they disappear, past their expiration date, I have to go dig for more, mined from his anger.

I remember what Christ became to me then, His perceived faces, the abusive, judgmental, all or nothing faces that drove me away from Christianity in my teens. There's a song by the band Nine Inch Nails that really encapsulated the impression of Jesus I had in high school. Jesus, God, Father, blind and indifferent to my pain, the impression that I had been fooled and lied to, that the joke was on me: "Terrible Lie"...

"Hey god, I really don't know what you mean.
Seems like salvation comes only in our dreams.
I feel my hatred grow all the more extreme.
Hey god, can this world really be as sad as it seems..."

How could all of the Christians that I knew be such complete and utter fools? What was the Church but a place for sociopaths to nest and move unhindered, the flock tended by wolves who ate the sick and the weak and the gullible? Sweet incense, smoke and mirrors. Hymns to lull and seduce. Sunday school and Vacation Bible Camp to reprogram and brainwash. But not me, suckers. Couldn't all the bleating sheep see what was behind the curtain? I had been cheated and lied to, and I was so angry I could spit, spit in all their self-righteous, arrogant faces.

But it's not in me to be angry for years and years; outrage isn't fuel efficient. I come to a conclusion, give it its due, and then move past it. The Terrible Lie of the Church changed for me over time into a more aloof and distant understanding of God. Why should I expend energy praying to an empty dream? Here was a new Jesus who didn't have the energy to lie, as He was so disinterested and detached from the world. Dragged along through history by word of mouth, a projection of people's desperate hopes and even more desperate fears. Powerless, mummified, a dry and desiccated God buried beneath the shifting sands, lost, lost, His angels blowing in the wind like dead moths, tumbleweeds, husks...

In college, I clearly remember reading the following excerpt by Walter Benjamin in the forward of the poet Carolyn Forche's collection "The Angel of History":

"This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward."

A God of good intentions? Maybe. But still no horn to blow, no cavalry to call, no spine, no guts. Trapped behind a mirror, He can pound all He wants but we can't hear Him, can't see Him. When we scream into the wind, into the night, lost and wandering on the moor, why is there only deafening silence? Why do the crickets continue their periodic songs, the lightning bugs blink endless ellipses, the night birds sleep undisturbed? Down the path, between the olive trees, in the bruise-colored shadows of Gethsemane, God was either dead or indifferent. Up the path to Golgotha, between the rocks and dust, God either exists or does not.

What good is this Dry God, this figure bound and static between perfect leather covers? What good are the words, unchanged for millennia, black links in an endless chain binding us to paper? They can throw the book at me, hide behind verses that they grip like prison bars, flay me with phrases that they strip like birch bark, peel like skin from the pages, but convince me to believe? If every book ever written was burned, every psalm ever sung silenced, every verse on every tongue vanished, would God cease to exist?

I will not believe in a God so leashed, even for our love. I will not believe in a God so confined, even for our comfort. I will not believe in a spitty-wet thumbsucking God, even for our benefit.

I will not believe in the proper and acceptable God. Neither heavenfire nor hellfire, bookworm nor brimstone, fisherman nor fearmonger, megaphone nor megachurch.

I will not believe in a God who hikes up Her skirts and runs at the first sign of science, nor is frightened by doubt or dialogue. God needs no defense, no war with method and measure, no puppet, no scapegoat, no scarecrow to protect the harvest.

All of the Faces are and are not Jesus. Awful and awesome, terrible and terrific; the truth isn't any easier to winnow or swallow than the lie. Serendipity or premeditation? Metaphor or formula? Chance or choice? Mystery or mistake? Living fruit or dried fruit roll-up?

I choose to see Jesus as many different people, ethnicities and ages; Jesus as son and mother, fruit and father, tree and seed, root and resurrected, paradox and epiphany. In wood and metal, ivory and ink, ceramic and glass, flesh and bone. I love all of His wonderful textures and colors and shapes. I have no concept of who is the "right" Jesus, the correct one. I don't have to choose the proper and acceptable Jesus; I love all of them.


Beth's Art: Soul Turned a Corner

Beth Laurin

Beth Laurin's artThis piece represents part of my jouney in the search for God and the journey of life.

Sometimes it takes me a while of looking at a piece before I really know what it is about. This is one that I have come to understand on a deeper level as I look at it.

This piece is about that point in life when one makes a decision to turn to God. In the world there are many distractions, portrayed by the bright colors and silver, (although you can't really see the silver in this photgraph of the piece.)

Inside the archway, the path seems narrow, but there is a possibility of peace and stillness. The three figures in the doorway signify the trinity.

Jesus says I am the door, I am the way. The hand in the lower left corner represents an idea of reaching out, desperation or denial.

The title of the piece comes from a song, and I wish I could remember more of it. It is a country song about happiness being at both ends of the Red Dirt Road (I used that image for another painting).

Its message was essentially that you don't have to be rich to be happy. This road is also where the musician meets his wife and finds God.

I asked a few people in a class of Princeton Review Interviewees if they were at all enticed to go through this archway and they said no. It looked scary.

I guess that I am searching for peace or maybe I don't really see God as a loving being. I don't know.

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