On the evening of 9/11/11, I watched the streaming video of theologian/activist Matthew Fox‘s 9/11 commemorative lecture at the First United Methodist Church in Boulder, CO, where he decried the loss of moral outrage – values wrapped in passion to sustain purposeful action over the long haul – in this couch-potato culture, addicted to immediate gratification. Quoting the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, he said, “Moral virtue is found not in the will, not in the intellect, but in the passions. That is what is missing in our culture.”
These passions weren’t the tantrums of the Tea Party, nor the hysteria that gripped the nation after 9/11, he said, but a balanced form of warriorship focused on protecting the earth and creating a just society, ensuring that the coming generations (of all beings, not just humans) would have a livable planet for their home.
“Warriorship” – that’s a loaded word. I should add that Dr. Fox warned also against militaristic “crackpot religions” of the sort espoused by presidential candidate Rick Perry and his allies, and on the Catholic side of the fence by Opus Dei and its confreres. He described these as aberrations gaining in influence because responsible Christians had lost touch with their moral outrage, allowed the passion of conscience to be made taboo, and so surrendered the inner fire that could drive change.
I sat listening to his words with deeply conflicted feelings. While working through an Independent Study for my Master’s, walking the four paths of Creation Spirituality as laid out in Dr. Fox’s primer, Original Blessing, I struggled with his affirmation of the value of anger as fuel for action against the powers of oppression and injustice.
I still struggle. As healing and transformative as I have found the teachings of Original Blessing, the prophetic path of action to create change is profoundly challenging for me.
I grew up in a household filled with moral outrage: my mother, Helen Rizzo, was an essayist on conservative politics and spiritual matters. During my childhood, I longed to follow in her footsteps (I decided at age 4 that I would be a writer just like my mom; she warned me that it was not a lucrative career. Undaunted, I pursued it anyway).
We came to an early parting of the political ways, however, when the nuns at my parochial school urged our second-grade class to ask our parents to boycott iceberg lettuce and seedless grapes for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. My mother all but exploded at the thought: Cesar Chavez was a Communist; her daughter was being indoctrinated! While she was having harsh words with the nuns, I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about: people were suffering and we could help them. What was wrong with that?
So I grew up a closet liberal in a conservative house, coming to see my mother’s political essays as increasingly at odds with the message of Jesus that I heard in the gospels.
My mother’s viewpoint certainly did not lack in moral outrage; however, her religio-political polemics only polarized her readers. It was spiritual warfare for the soul of the nation, there was no middle ground; one either agreed or one didn’t…and if one didn’t, one was verbally flayed.
The most telling moment came in real-time, the day after I’d given birth to my son, and my mother and liberal Quaker mother-in-law had both come to help with the baby while I recovered. I should have known it was a mistake: both mothers were deeply values-driven, politically impassioned readers and thinkers. I awoke from a nap with my son to hear them in the kitchen – at the other end of our large apartment – in fierce debate, belaboring each other with snippets from their favorite pundits. I doubt either of them was even hearing the other; there was no effort at genuine communication in that Battle of the Quotes. I kept the bedroom door closed (expecting to see steam seeping under it any moment), nursed my baby, breathed deeply, and waited for the conflict to subside. Eventually they stopped, came to check on us rather sheepishly, and were painfully polite to each other for the remainder of their visit.
But as I sit with these memories, I see that there can be differences in the expression of moral outrage. Dr. Fox, in his 9/11 lecture, quoted medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas: “A trustworthy person is angry at the right people for the right reasons, expresses it in the appropriate manner for an appropriate length of time.” This, he has written elsewhere, is healthy anger, which can be used as fuel to drive creatively and productively toward a positive end…the polar opposite of destructive rage or self-consciously righteous venting.
I sit now contemplating the scrapbook of Mom’s political essays and letters to editors, remembering her readers’ responses: warm admiration from those who agreed, flames from those who didn’t. In a country – a world – where hate speech rules much of the political discourse, I emerged from my childhood with the conviction that such venting only adds to the problem; it wins no converts, achieves no unitive blossoming.
But when the ears of one side are closed to the views and values of the other, what does healthy anger – or healthy communication – look like?
Mom and I struggled with our spiritual and political differences as I matured and came out of my ideological closet. We never did come to a political understanding, but toward the end of her life she began to ask sincere questions about my faith and earth-based spiritual practice. To help her understand, I tapped into my memories of seeing her in tears at the sight of forests clear-cut for development.
It was an effective tactic – she did come to understand my passion for the earth – but at a certain point she called a halt. The reason was not a fear of heresy or apostasy, but a fear of her heart breaking – in the words of Melissa Etheridge, a fear “of crumbling.” Beyond the point of intellectual understanding, she could not move into conscious connection with the immanent Divine, clearly though she felt it. Below her doctrinaire conservatism lurked a profound, devastating, and unanswerable grief. And so she remained by choice on the surface, immersing in her Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, William F. Buckley and George Will, rarely leaving her house.
Even so, the right-wing rhetoric never claimed her soul; in her final decline after a fall and head injury, her spirituality radiated love. And on her deathbed, she gave me, her liberal panentheist daughter, her blessing: “I can see you have a vocation, though it’s not the one I would have chosen for you. I want you to follow your vocation.”
Building this conscious connection with Spirit and the Earth – seeking the Transcendent/Immanent Divine in my experience, supporting others in doing so for themselves, I say, is the focus of my Independent Studies toward my Master’s degree. And yet my Spirit/Earth connection, like my mother’s, is limited and manifested mainly through intellectual pursuits.
Oh yes, I do walk the woods, keep an organic garden, reduce/reuse/recycle, use green energy in my home to the greatest degree I can, sign petitions, write letters, and choose my clients for their level of conscience and social entrepreneurism.
But like my mother, at a certain point I become immobile, paralyzed by fear of my heart breaking. Aware that my ability to see, understand, communicate arises from hard-won personal clarity arising out of long inner wrestling. Having been devastated by hearing the scream of a tree being cut while I sat meditating in nearby sacred space, I shrink from opening my consciousness fully to the land. Knowing that I cannot spend half an hour in a bar without picking up on the energy being shed by the drinkers, I avoid entering a highly charged direct-action protest atmosphere of slogans and counter-slogans, chants and counter-chants.
Remembering my mother’s withering condemnation of liberals, I limit my engagement in political arguments; I know from witnessing her – and from my own impulses - the desire to go for metaphorical blood. There’s a stimulation to be found in such debates, sure, but it’s (for me) a toxic energy that leaves me feeling sick at heart. It is not the clear, generative energy of which Dr. Fox writes.
So instead of engaging, I isolate, working to make my home a still haven of safety in a wildly careening world, while I immerse in, and share, the words of spiritual teachers urging a dynamic, engaged, and fiercely compassionate balance. I support the “99%” of Occupy Wall Street in all the ways I can, but have not visited the occupation sites.
I am not proud of this.
The memory arises of a time of similar paralysis as a child, tiptoeing into the ocean surf, fearful of moving beyond the painful line of sharp shells, stones and sea glass to engage in the duck and dive of the deeper water, unwilling to give up and retreat.
I ask myself: If I am afraid of fully letting down my shields against the pain of the world, how much more might others be, who have at risk a greater attachment to the things of the world, who have not experienced all things as inescapably alive, aware and sacred? Who are defensively immersing themselves in the voices of fear, projection, and objectification that rule the airwaves?
And I ask: Is moral outrage the path I need to follow, or is it healing, open-hearted connection – taking the risk of letting down the shields? And if I am struggling to do so, fearing the heartbreak of authentic connection with Spirit, the Earth, the People, how can I ask others to take that step?