ARE WE NOT THE RESISTANCE? - Jayme Reaves
I highly recommend Michelle Alexander’s recent The New York Times piece entitled “We are Not the Resistance.” Alexander’s scholarship, activism, and perspective is second to none. She is immersed in the realities of injustice, and her own place in the current civil rights discourse sits amongst the legacies of those who have gone before us and struggled to bring about a fairer world.
Alexander writes about how, when we are focused on the language and perspectives of resistance, we orient ourselves to reaction rather than proactivity. She asserts that we are part of a revolutionary river, that same river of justice proclaimed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoting the Book of Amos, and calling ourselves the resistance takes away the power of seeing and believing in the inevitability of justice.
Every leap forward for American democracy — from slavery’s abolition to women’s suffrage to minimum-wage laws to the Civil Rights Acts to gay marriage — has been traceable to the revolutionary river, not the resistance. In fact, the whole of American history can be described as a struggle between those who truly embraced the revolutionary idea of freedom, equality and justice for all and those who resisted.
Instead, she sees Donald Trump, the conservative right, and those who seek to preserve privilege and power at the expense of the many as the resisters. Trump’s support, and support for other far-right agendas are the “surge of resistance to this rapidly swelling river, an effort to build not just a wall but a dam.” To call ourselves the resistance is to give over to this crowd power they do not deserve or, in actual fact, hold. Alexander writes that “the whole of American history can be described as a struggle between those who truly embraced the revolutionary idea of freedom, equality and justice for all and those who resisted.”
There are many of us who are struggling right now and need to be given vision of a different paradigm in which to see our work. As Alexander asserts, there is a “new crisis roiling our nation nearly every day”, with recent developments related to the continued separation of families at the US/Mexico border, mass shootings, or the recent arson of black churches in Louisiana just to name a few. The reality of resisting feels never-ending and overwhelming, leaving me and many with whom I work feeling powerless. At times, it feels like we are buffeted by a ceaseless storm without any time to regroup, replenish, and rest before the next wave hits. Over and over, the next horrific thing happens – and to choose to react to this one and not that one gives the impression that we are picking what we think is most important, even when we are so keenly aware that it is all important. The fatigue that sets in due to negotiating this treacherous emotional ground can be debilitating.
But Alexander’s vision is immensely compelling. They are the resistance; not us. (And of course them and us thinking is part of the problem, but the language can be helpful, when used with care.) What we are doing is inevitable; they are trying to hold back the tide of the inevitable – a new “multiracial, multiethnic, multifaith, egalitarian democracy in which every life and every voice truly matters.” I have often listened to the news, read the tweets, and thought to myself or discussed with fellow activists the idea that this fierce storm we are enduring is the last gasp of power held primarily by white men who use it to oppress others rather than serve the common good. Like an injured animal, fueled by those last bits of adrenaline and primal need for survival, it is even more dangerous and can cause untold amounts of destruction in its wake until it lies dead.
I have so much faith and hope in this flow of justice; like so many others, I have dedicated my life and work to joining others on that river, and I am keenly aware that those of us working now are joining a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and done the same. I deeply believe in us and what we are able to achieve together. I am not a martyr. I would not do this work if I didn’t believe that, somewhere along the way, there would be victory – even if it won’t be in my lifetime.
And it’s for that reason that I find myself unable to sign up completely to Alexander’s argument.
She writes: “Resistance is a reactive state of mind.” For many, yes, it is. And when it is only reactive, it is unsustainable; for as soon as the threat lessens, resistance lessens. For that same reason, peace-makers aren’t always the best peace-keepers or peace-growers. But without a resistance, where would we be?
Alexander acknowledges that “we can and must resist the horrors of the current administration — thousands of lives depend on us doing what we can to mitigate the harm to our fellow humans and the planet we share.” Nevertheless, she qualifies that statement by saying that “the mind-set of ‘the resistance’ is slippery and dangerous” and that, in this frame of mind, the civil rights movement sang “We Shall Overcome” rather than chanting “We Shall Resist.” I do not disagree. If you orient your resistance to one thing – such as to depose Trump from office – then yes, it is slippery and dangerous, and it makes you lazy. But Alexander evokes a duality between the two that, for me, doesn’t exist.
At this junction, I am keenly aware that I am a white woman, with the privileges and lack of advantage inherent in that identity. However, in my studies of resistance movements, the scriptures, theology, and ethics leads me to argue that resistance isn’t just a hashtag, and despite its pitfalls, resistance offers something necessary.
Are there people along for the ride who are here because they want to be perceived as “woke”? Probably. And many have joined the movement – gotten on the boat, if I can continue the river metaphor – because they found Trump’s election so disorienting that they felt they just had to do something. In watching his campaign and election, they asked “Is this really our history? Is this really who we are?” But for some people, exclusion and threat from the powers that be is something they have always known. For others, being awakened to the realities of injustice faced by one’s neighbors is a profound paradigm shift, and it is only through sustained work in the resistance movement that our true history as a nation will become clear.
Will they abandon ship if the next election cycle brings a victory? Perhaps. But if their experience has been real, they’ll stay. They’ll know this is so much bigger than this election, or the next election, or even the one after that. In fact, they know it’s more than just about elections: they are more involved in their local communities, they are educating themselves, and joining up with others.
Seeing the Democratic women dressed in white at the most recent State of the Union address in a nod to the suffragette movement - a resistance movement - was heartening. The rise of women of color in national leadership roles such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Stacy Abrams, Rashinda Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and others rise to a national stage has been encouragingly defiant.
But for myself and others I know, resisting in this time and place is a natural act rooted in our overall commitment toward social justice and a fair and equal society for all. We are invested in a common good, and our resistance is borne out of that investment. Our commitment is not just to the next election cycle, though I do think it is fair to say that there are milestones – including election cycles – that we see along the way.
In the same way Alexander talks about being amongst the travelers on a river of justice, I see myself as a descendent of a heritage of resistance. That heritage is situated in the words of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos; in the arguments of Job; in the words and life of Jesus; and in the experiences of innumerable people within both religious and secular traditions over millenia who have suffered, fought, and died for justice. This heritage of resistance isn’t reactionary, and it is – very definitely – playing for the long game.
I so very much want to believe that we aren’t the resistance. I long to be assured that what we’re experiencing right now are the death throes of a myriad of supremacies. I desperately wish for it and pretty much everything I do is to work toward that end.
And yet… how much do I believe that it will actually ever happen? This river of justice flows to an eschaton, a coming of the reign of God, or utopia, or in Dr King’s words – the Beloved Community – and I have to be honest and say that, despite my hopes and dreams - as well as all of our blood, sweat, and tears - I am not sure it is actually ever going to be fully realised.
I do not believe we will ever fully arrive. We will see glimpses. With our efforts, things can be made better than they were. Nevertheless, there will always be principalities and powers to be resisted and overthrown. As long as humans are in on this earth, we need to be prepared to resist that which is motivated by greed, fear, and scarcity.
“What you resist persists,” writes Alexander. Yes, it does – not because of our resistance, but in spite of it. Greed persists. Exploitation persists. Ethics of scarcity persists. Our orientation toward life, love, and abundance will always be necessary and will always be resistance to the dominant narrative. Regardless of our resistance actions, there will always be people out there who strive for more power at the expense of others. Is that persistence maintained because of our resistance? No, it persists because we are people of both darkness and light, capable of immense good and profound evil.
South African theologian Tinyiko Sam Maluleke writes that theologies that wish to construct something useful for the common good are unrealistic unless they also make space for the practice of resistance. Resistance and construction go hand in hand, and to discount resistance is to create a shortcut that takes the heart and soul out of what we are trying to build.
Our resistance is built on profound hope for this world and all within it that lives, and moves, and has its being. It is also built on profound hope for the world to come, that world both past our own individually lived days, to future generations, and beyond.
Michelle Alexander, “We Are Not The Resistance,” The New York Times, 21 Sept 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/21/opinion/sunday/resistance-kavanaugh-trump-protest.html
Tinyiko Sam Maluleke, “The Elusive Public of Public Theology: A Response to William Storrar,” International Journal of Public Theology, 5 (2011), 87.
Jayme R. Reaves is a public theologian, co-host of the "Outlander Soul" podcast and Coordinator for the Centre for Encountering the Bible at Sarum College in Salisbury, England. Find out more at www.jaymereaves.com