I went on a run one evening in early October. It was a blustery night, and I ran hard against a misty and diligent headwind along New York City’s Hudson River. Under the bumpy plum-colored clouds, the river waters raged choppily, hissing over the river railing and juggling anchored boats like toys. The seething of the river frightened and disturbed me, and I didn’t understand why until I remembered what had happened in that river only a week before: Tyler Clementi, a gay freshman at Rutgers University, had thrown himself off the George Washington Bridge when his roommate outed him on the internet by posting video footage of Tyler with his lover. This news story rocked me with an uneasiness that only the boiling, storming Hudson River resembled. The Hudson River is Tyler Clementi’s grave.
Just like in the days after 9/11 when New Yorkers came together in peace and held each other at vigils—just like after the Columbine shootings when parents were newly mindful of the mental state of their outcast children—just like after Hurricane Katrina when everybody rushed to donate supplies and money—the rash of gay youth suicides last fall incited a flood of warmth and concerned encouragement for gay youth from celebrities, media outlets, clergy and politicians.
Instances of punctuated violence often presage a revolution of harmony, or at least heightened awareness of a lack of harmony. Such instances were on my mind when I recently read Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society. Niebuhr writes of crises that “prompt enough fear and create enough intelligence in the privileged classes to allow for a more rapid transmutation of the present social system into a more mutual one” (Niebuhr 2001,189). These violent events prompt an axial window of time in which consciousness can be raised, sympathies are aroused, and consciences can be engaged to contribute to change. Celebrities throw a telethon; mass media advocates for gay civil rights such as Ellen DeGeneres or Anderson Cooper speak out against the violence, and everyone agrees: something must be done. And maybe, some people do something. For a while. For a few weeks, queer youth are invoked in the prayers of the people; for a few weeks, schoolteachers are more vigilant against classroom bullies. Eventually, concern about the salvation and flourishing of others fades and life goes back to normal. The long arc of justice is too long for the general public to stay tuned in, and the boring realities of bureaucratic glacier-melting and large-scale zeitgeisting aren’t nearly as exciting as the bloody massacres that incited them.
Thus ardor for change cools. The revolutionaries, who “easily underestimate the patience of peoples” (Niebuhr 2001,190), lose the momentum of the tragedy. They fail to draw a sustaining thread between the long sentence of constant oppression and the punctuating violence of the news story. In early October, gay youth organizations were saying, “Gay youth have been the highest suicide demographic for years; it’s always been like this!” They sense that a revolution might be possible now that people are scandalized by a rash of gay youth suicides.
I have not heard a gay youth invoked in a spiritual context for about a month now. Tyler Clementi has been dead for three and a half. Not to mention many others.
The revolution that only follows violence is problematic and doomed to fail. It must precede the violence too. It must be merged with the punctuated event and with the constant pressures of real life. The task of the revolutionaries, then, in discerning efficacy for the revolution, is not only to capitalize on what violent event incites awareness and reflection but also to perpetuate reflection after the drama of violence has receded. Reinhold Niebuhr writes, “Without another World War, the possibilities of establishing communism by revolution are extremely slight in the whole of the Western world” (Niebuhr 2001, 191). Perhaps Niebuhr would agree that only a punctuation of disaster would incite the revolution that strives for equilibrium. Niebuhr promotes a proximate justice, a justice that is admittedly second-rate but is the best we can achieve now in our world full of power structures and human iniquities. But if proximate justice is “always running the danger of moving too slowly to avert another catastrophe” (Niebuhr 2001,191) we see a paradox that proximate justice, in being so proximate, may counter the possibility of attaining justice. On the other hand, if realistic revolutionaries must accept that the justice they affect will be proximate, their strategies must embrace a long arc and not just respond to punctuations of violence and euphoria.
I ponder a dictum I find at once appeasing and inadequate: prevention is the best cure. Unless we service this dictum we may be sadly invoking others such as too little too late, or the most tragic of all: woulda, coulda, shoulda. What sustainable measures are available to each of us on a daily basis in our relationships with each other, with the earth, with our own bodies, with our work and our spiritual lives? For those of us who fancy ourselves to be activists, and hope to construct proximate justice somewhere along that long arc of justice in history, it is important that we dwell not in despair or in damage control after punctuations of violence occur. Committing to a sustainable daily contribution to our cause is one form of proximate justice, and proximate justice affirms that every constructive, empowering contribution we manage to make, even interpersonal, even quite local—is worthwhile. The concept of “proximate justice” also dissolves illusions of grandeur or zealotry we might preserve about changing the whole world by our own power. Realism gives us sea legs so we can recover balance when life threatens to pitch us into churning waters; with realism, we are not helplessly blindsided when our illusions fail us. Realism offers a much more hopeful and subtle way of living because it is sustainable. Proximate justice says, “If we walk two steps forward, we will always fall one step back because we are humans.” It doesn’t mean than we don’t have that net gain of one step forward.
9/11, Hurricane Katrina,Tyler Clementi’s suicide: those punctuations of violence are so threatening. They make me feel hopeless, sometimes, that queer youth and abused women will always lose, that violent religious extremists and megalomaniacs will always win. But Niebuhr is onto something when he writes of the “motive force” (Niebuhr 2001, xxvii) that comes from a “sublime madness in the soul” (Niebuhr 2001, 277). This sublime madness, against all odds, drives us to “do battle with malignant power” (ibid). We all invoke this sublime madness in dreaming of a world where power structures are balanced, resources are equitably distributed, and humans are conscious of other humans and devoted to mutual flourishing. This sublime madness is the motive force that provides us with propulsion to keep fighting. To get up in the morning. To keep dreaming even though we know we will not see the world unfold into perfection. Niebuhr asks me to drop my illusions that I can change the whole world tomorrow or even save the next Tyler Clementi, but he reminds me of the madness in my soul that keeps me scheming to reach out to these kids on a local level and also to publicly criticize the structures that make it possible for them to be terrorized into death. His realistic reframing of my own moral outlook, then, is hardly demoralizing. It is, indeed, quite sublime.
Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society: a Study in Ethics and Politics. Louisville: Westminster John