Values into action: The Three 'R's of Action

We come together in uncertain times
In troubling times
And against the noise and darkness
Together we find courage
Together we find strength
Together we are able to face tomorrow with hope
May this light guide us toward the good


Beginners, by Denise Levertov

“From too much love of living ,
Hope and desire set free,
Even the weariest river
Winds somewhere to the sea—“

But we have only begun
To love the earth.

We have only begun
To imagine the fullness of life.

How could we tire of hope?
—so much is in bud.

How can desire fail?
—we have only begun

to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision

how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.

Surely our river
cannot already be hastening
into the sea of nonbeing?

Surely it cannot
drag, in the silt,
all that is innocent?

Not yet, not yet—
there is too much broken
that must be mended,

too much hurt we have done to each other
that cannot yet be forgiven.

We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,

so much is in bud.

From ‘The Prophetic Imperative’ by Richard Gilbert

Social justice work is simply a natural spiritual evolution. Mystical and militant inclinations need one another. Social responsibility has too much centrifugal force; it needs to be balanced by the centripetal pull of inward spiritual experience to bring us back to the center from which the wholeness comes. To change the figure, the warp of the spiritual and the weft of the social form a vibrant pattern, a seamless garment of being and doing

In short, life is our only chance to both grow a soul and repair the world. We cannot really do one without the other. Ultimately, mystic and prophet should be one

Message, by Andy Pakula

It’s been quite a couple of weeks.

Donald Trump has been in power as president of the United States for only two full weeks. It’s hard for me to believe it’s been such a short time.

Like many of you, I’ve stayed closely in touch with the news - reading accounts from a few Newspapers. I’ve read what people are saying on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve retweeted, liked, responded, shared, and all of that. 

The speed at which things have been happening is head-spinning, and it’s made it terribly hard to even keep track of what’s going on. There have been the big stories you can’t miss, like a ban on immigration targeting muslim-majority countries, withdrawal from the TPP trade partnership, a series of right-wing cabinet appointees, threats against Mexico, Iran, and China, and apparently a terrible phone conversation with the Prime Minister of Australia. Australia!
There have been crazed middle of the night tweets including lies about the number of people who attended Trump’s inaguration, about voting fraud, about sending ‘the feds’ into Chicago. He’s insulted more people than we can keep track of, refused to release his taxes, kept his business and presidency mingled, flip-flopped on Russia and Israel… 

It’s been quite a time.

And although the oddsmakers are figuring there’s about a one in three chance that Trump will not serve out his term, he’s likely got at least another 206 weeks as President.

The people who think about these things full-time are flummoxed by the past two weeks.

Politicians, political analysts, journalist, and social justice activists are all perplexed about exactly what’s going on and what might happen next.

So it’s no surprise if we are feeling buffeted about and confused.

And, of course, it’s not just Trump but the politics here and across Europe and what populist right-wing movements means for all of us and our world. It’s about why our Prime Minister held Trump’s hand and why it took her a day to come out with the luke-warm condemnation of this policy: ‘We do not agree with this kind of approach and it is not one we will be taking,’

It’s no surprise if we feel confused and dizzy.

It is no surprise if we feel at a loss about how to sensibly, effectively respond. 

It makes sense that we might hit the streets with signs that reflect confusion about all of it - signs like ‘Down with this sort of thing’ or - one of my favourites - ‘I am generally displeased with the current state of affairs.’

Given the mania of the past two weeks, today seems like a reasonable time to pause - to hope that there are no new Trump tantrums this hour - and to try to get our footing again.

There’s a story worth thinking about. 

One summer in the village, the people gathered for a picnic. As they shared food and conversation, someone noticed a baby in the river, struggling and crying. The baby was going to drown!

Someone rushed to save the baby. Then, they noticed another screaming baby in the river, and they pulled that baby out. Soon, more babies were seen drowning in the river, and the townspeople were pulling them out as fast as they could. It took great effort, and they began to organize their activities in order to save the babies as they came down the river. As everyone else was busy in the rescue efforts to save the babies, two of the townspeople started to run away along the shore of the river.

“Where are you going?” shouted one of the rescuers. “We need you here to help us save these babies!”

“We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

There are babies floating downstream. What will we do?

Many of us have taken action in various ways already. We have protested. We have donated money to organisations we hope can make a difference. We have spoken out on social media and maybe elsewhere. We have pressed our elected representatives to take action. We have worked at helping refugees.  We have tried to exercise kindness and compassion. There are probably more ways that some of you have already taken action. We all realise that this is just a start to work that will need to go on for a very long time.

And many of us have expressed that we really don’t know what to do. I’ve heard discussions about whether or not protests are helpful - and whether they might, in fact, play into the hands of our opponents.

I’ve heard discussions contrasting being forceful or understanding, violent or peaceful, active online or in real life, generous with money or with time, helpful to the victims or a thorn in the sides of the perpetrators.

It’s a complex web of possibilities in the early stages of a crisis that is, in itself, complex and shrouded by uncertainty and dishonesty.

I want to offer a simple way to think about how we respond, which I’ll call the three ‘R’s of action. 

The three ‘R’s are Resist, Relieve, and Reconcile. I will maintain that all three are necessary, that we probably can’t do all at once, but that we must keep all three in our hearts all the time.

The first R is relieve.

Relieve is to pull those screaming babies out the water - dry them off - clothe them and feed them and keep them safe.

We must relieve the suffering of the oppressed. When we feed and clothe those who have been set adrift by benefit cuts or house those seeking refuge when the government will not, or when we protect those who are attacked by the hate unleashed by our opponents, we are providing relief. 

In this country, the poor, black and minority ethnic people, refugees, those suffering from mental illness, young people, and more have been victimised by attacks on the social safety net. In the US, the list is even longer.

When we relieve, we turn away from the oppressor and from our own justified anger, and we turn toward the innocents. We direct our compassion and our efforts to them.

The second R is resist.

Resistance means that - no matter how strong the opposition is - we will oppose them. We will defy them. We will stand against them.

To resist is to find the baby throwers and stop them. We might yell at them, throw things, humiliate them, tackle them, or even throw them in the river.

Despite what the Borg say, resistance is not futile. We have seen the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom insist that parliament must have a say in a Brexit decision. We have seen courts in the US put obstacles in the way of Trump’s immigration ban. We have seen the intentions and plans of the opponents change because people spoke forcefully enough through their presence in the streets.

Resist is the most confrontational of the three ‘R’s. It requires no compassion for the opponent. Resistance may even be more successful when that sense of the opponent’s human frailties is absent.

The third R is reconcile

To reconcile is to reduce the distance between the opposing sides in the struggle. 

Reconciliation is not part of the baby in the stream story. It would mean sitting down with the baby throwers and listening. ‘Why do you throw babies in the stream?’ Perhaps they think this is a way of helping the babies? Perhaps they themselves were thrown in a stream as a baby?

Perhaps we can solve a problem. Perhaps, together, we can find a better way.

Reconciliation is what happened in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where both sides admitted to the terrible things they had done. Reconciliation is what happens in the village called Neve Shalom and Wāħat as-Salām when where Israelis and Palestinians live together in peace. 

Reconciliation happens when we make up after a fight, listen long enough with an opponent to see things from their perspective, and when we dare to try to love an enemy.

To reconcile is to do the hard work of extending compassion to those we oppose - to those who harm us or those we care about.

Resist. Relieve. Reconcile.

They are three paths of action in the face of oppression.

They do their work over different periods of time.

To relieve has its effect today. We can pull the babies from the water and they will not drown. We can feed the hungry and they will be sated. We can house the homeless and they will be warm and dry. We can shelter the fugitive and they will be safe.

But this does not change tomorrow. More babies will drift down the river unless we resist. 

Resistance today affects tomorrow. We can go after the baby throwers so fewer babies are in the water. We can protest today, we can pressure elected officials today, we can boycott today so that tomorrow’s actions will be different.

But resistance will probably not change tomorrow’s tomorrow. When we stop the baby throwers, they go to another stream. They throw babies at night when nobody's watching. They come back stronger and more determined.

When divisions persist, when mistrust grows, when hostility festers, oppression and conflict inevitably returns. For our children and our children’s children, we must also do the work of reconciliation. Reconciliation today creates a better world for them.

Resist. Relieve. Reconcile. They are three paths that are all needed - three paths that affect the world differently and three three paths that affect our own hearts differently.

Resistance requires no compassion. It may benefit from the rawness that arises from separating us from them. It is a fiery path - potent but dangerous to travel.

Relieving suffering extends compassion to the victims. It is a path of compassion to those who are hurt and needing. It is nurturing and satisfying, but it doesn’t stop the mechanism that creates victims.

Reconciliation is the deepest spiritual work - the work that calls our hearts to grow and open. 

What should we do? Relieve, Resist, or Reconcile. No individual can do all of them at once. But there is a balance between these paths that is essential for who we are and who we will become. 

Those who focus only on the path of relieving risk seeing their opponents as inhuman and risk ignorance of the causes of suffering. 

Those who focus only on the path of resistance risk a hardened heart unable to feel and hold another. They risk holding a vision of a world where hate can drive out hate. It cannot.

And those who focus only on the path of reconciliation risk falling into a moral relativism that makes anything acceptable as long as there is understanding. 

No matter what path we each take, our own health as individuals and in community depends on maintaining a balance of the three in our hearts - keeping a deep awareness of what we must but also that all of us are human - all too human - with the flaws and fragility inherent in our species.

The struggle ahead is deeply uncertain. I hope that we will play our parts in this work of our times with strength and wisdom and compassion. I hope that all of us can find a balance so that this work nurtures us and helps us to become ever more the individuals and the community we long to be.