Fear and courage: Courage in the face of power

We gather together here to join our strength as one
Together, our fears are lessened
Together, our sorrows are eased
Together, our purpose is clarified
Together, our courage grows
Together, we can do more than we could ever do apart
May the light of this flame guide our way as, together, we move forward toward our vision of a truly just and loving world



Jane Coaston May 2, 2017, New York Times

[W]e believe that we would have stood alone against the crushing tides of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich or the worst of South Africa’s apartheid. We would have shepherded Freedom Riders across the American South and taken on the dogs and water hoses of Eugene Connor, known as Bull. Our movies tell stories of those who resisted the worst of humanity, and we see ourselves on those screens. We believe that we are better today than those who lived before us, more able to take the challenges of history head on.

And yet, if history is our guide, we are often not. Most people did not stand up to the Nazis as they marched into Czechoslovakia and Poland and Belgium and France…  The vast majority of people, regardless of country or creed or time period, want only to live their lives and protect their families, to be left alone, historical resonance be damned. Order, not righteousness, is our most cherished value, no matter what we tell ourselves.

But we don’t honor and remember order. We want heroes, not because we need them, but because we believe that we would be them ourselves if things were only different, if we weren’t so busy, if the right time came. When we select heroes, we then reject them, casting them off our self-constructed Mount Olympus for doing what we almost certainly would have done in their position.

We are no better than the people who came before us, heroes or not. We are more knowledgeable, but not necessarily more moral. We can operate technology that would have boggled even the greatest minds of the early 20th century, but we are still human, still desiring most of all to be left alone… 


We Are Many, by Pablo Neruda

Of the many men whom I am, whom we are,
I cannot settle on a single one.
They are lost to me under the cover of clothing
They have departed for another city.
When everything seems to be set
to show me off as a man of intelligence,
the fool I keep concealed on my person
takes over my talk and occupies my mouth.
On other occasions, I am dozing in the midst
of people of some distinction,
and when I summon my courageous self,
a coward completely unknown to me
swaddles my poor skeleton
in a thousand tiny reservations.
When a stately home bursts into flames,
instead of the fireman I summon,
an arsonist bursts on the scene,
and he is I. There is nothing I can do.
What must I do to distinguish myself?
How can I put myself together?
All the books I read
lionize dazzling hero figures,
brimming with self-assurance.
I die with envy of them;
and, in films where bullets fly on the wind,
I am left in envy of the cowboys,
left admiring even the horses.
But when I call upon my DASHING BEING,
out comes the same OLD LAZY SELF,
and so I never know just WHO I AM,
nor how many I am, nor WHO WE WILL BE BEING.
I would like to be able to touch a bell
and call up my real self, the truly me,
because if I really need my proper self,
I must not allow myself to disappear.
While I am writing, I am far away;
and when I come back, I have already left.
I should like to see if the same thing happens
to other people as it does to me,
to see if as many people are as I am,
and if they seem the same way to themselves.
When this problem has been thoroughly explored,
I am going to school myself so well in things
that, when I try to explain my problems,
I shall speak, not of self, but of geography.

Message, by Andy Pakula

Last week, the Black Lives Matter banner in front of this building was defaced. Someone spray painted out the word ‘black’ and put in the word ‘all’. 

It’s been interesting seeing reactions. Some people recognise why the change from black lives matter to all lives matter ignores some of the hard realities of racism in this country. Others don’t seem to recognise how very uneven the playing field is against the interests of people of colour.

And of course, that’s why the banner is there.

Some people are finding it upsetting that this happened. In part, they’re angry and sad about what that vandalism represents - angry and sad for the people who don’t get the advantages that white people do - angry and sad about the rarely acknowledged systematic disadvantaging of black and other people of colour.

They are also upset at least partly because - whatever our ethnicity - this vandalism seems like an attack on us. It is not just a banner that has been vandalised - the person who defaced the banner was also having a go at this community. 

An attack on us - even a mild one like this instance - can be frightening. If they did this, what might they do next? How many of them are there? Our imaginations may turn toward more serious possibilities. Might they smash windows, spray-paint our walls, or even try to destroy this cherished historic building? Might they physically attack one or more of us?

These are images that are mostly far from reality, but it is possible. Any time we stand up for something we believe in - any time we speak a truth that others contest - any time we say something that makes others feel uncomfortable - we put ourselves in some amount of danger.
Working for change is never wholly without risk. 

And this is where we start to think about trade-offs. On one side of the balance, we ask how great is the danger? How much do I have to lose. How afraid am I? 

And on the other side is commitment to a cause and to our values and the estimation of how much difference we think our actions can make.

A Black Lives Matter banner puts us in a bit of danger - probably a very low chance of anything major happening. And our commitment to racial equality is strong. So, the balance favours going forward, getting a new banner, replacing it every time it is defaced and maybe doing more because of the fact that it has been defaced - an action that shows the sign is getting noticed and sending an important message from our prominent location.

Thursday was the 47th anniversary of the Kent State shooting. On a spring day in Kent State University in Kent Ohio, American national guard troops fired upon unarmed students protesting against US involvement in the war in Vietnam. Twenty-nine guardsmen aimed their rifles and fired some 67 shots over a period of 13 seconds. Four students were killed. Nine others were wounded, one of whom was permanently paralysed.

The students knew that there was a risk - a high risk. In the preceding days, National Guard troops had been brought in to break up student protests. They had bayonets fixed to their rifles and had wounded students just the day before.

But the students assembled anyway. Some of them threw threw tear gas canisters back at the guardsmen who had lobbed them into the ranks of the protesters. Some threw rocks and bottles. They taunted the troops. The situation was ripe for a mistake and a catastrophe as the young students and the equally young guardsmen faced off. 

The cover of today’s order of service includes an iconic image now known just as ‘Tank Man.’ This unknown man stood alone in front of and stopped the progress of a column of chinese tanks in Tiananmen square. It was the day after the massacre of protestors in that same location. This man knew the danger. His commitment to freedom and dedication to the dead and wounded protesters was greater than his fear. 

I think we all make calculations of fear vs commitment. We think about acting on our values and we have to weigh that against the risks.

I’ve never been an especially brave person - not when I was bullied as a child, not when friends proposed risky adventures, not when I walked through crime-ridden areas, and not when asking for dates.

The students at Kent State, the protestors in Tiananmen Square, the women who fought for the right to vote, American civil rights activists, and many more risked a great deal for a cause.
I am brave enough to speak out, brave enough to challenge prevailing views, and brave enough to put my email address and mobile number on the internet, but I have not been brave enough to break the law, give up all my money, or put myself in real physical danger to further the causes I care about. 

I feel some shame about this. Shouldn’t I be setting an example? Shouldn’t I be willing to risk more to make a difference? 

But when I consider such an action, I think about my immigrations status. I think of my son, my wife, and my dog. I think of the risk of being taken away from this community which means so very much to me. I think of pain and the indignities and dangers of prison.

There is some rationality in these considerations, but there is also cowardice. If cowardice is overestimating the likelihood of bad outcomes, then there is cowardice in my choices.

I like the way Neruda talks about the different selves within him - how his cowardly self appears when he summons his courageous one and his dashing self is similarly pushed aside by a lazy one. Don’t we all have many selves that make us up, sometimes delighting and sometimes disappointing our sense of true identity.

I hope that I can bring my courageous self out a bit more.

And yet - importantly - effective action does not require tremendous courage. It does not require risking life and limb. The vast majority of people who have made change happen walked away from confrontations unscathed. Most student protesters were not killed or wounded. Most civil rights movement activists were unharmed. 

We do not need to be at the front lines facing the guns and the attack dogs. There is a need to fill the ranks that fall in behind. And this is how community is so essential in the struggle for justice. We all play our parts, whatever we have to lose and whichever of ourselves choose to emerge.

We have three new identical Black Lives Matter banners on the way to replace the one that was defaced and to replace and replace again if need be. We have courage enough to face that risk and commitment enough to continue moving forward toward a world of greater justice. 

Through the fear
Through the sorrow
Through all the challenges of life
Let's keep on moving forward
Keep on moving forward, together