A key component of Soulforce is studying the life and works of Gandhi, King Jr., and other non-violent thinkers and actors. Gandhi famously advised his followers—and the world—to be the change that we wish to see. My friend Shane Claiborne writes that often the saints and world-changers end up relegated to stained glass windows and coffee table books (after they're executed or assassinated, of course). That we want to venerate them safely from a distance. "Be the change" has a nice ring to it, feels good, and makes for a catchy movie tagline. But what does it mean? Do I really want to be the change? The answer changes everything. If I don't, that's fine. I can live a life of detached isolation both from my own problems and the problems around me. There is something to be said for creating a comfortable life and enjoying it with loved ones. I won't fault anyone for deciding against being the change. I ask myself almost daily, is this the life that I want?
But if I decide to be the change I wish to see in the world—if I truly mean it—then everything must change. Being the change is more than believing in myself, or even surrounding myself with like-minded friends. "To be" is both a state of existence and also a verb and "being change" requires making a deliberate effort to do differently than I've done thus far. What does being the change look like?
For Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. there was an inextricable element of sacrifice. "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable," he said, rather "every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals." When I say "be the change you wish to see in the world," is this what I mean? Am I prepared to struggle and sacrifice for the cause of justice? Is this the choice that I want to make? How will I make those choices today?
In some ways, the answer seems clear to me. Gandhi reminds me that, "The sacrifice which causes sorrow to the doer of the sacrifice is no sacrifice. Real sacrifice lightens the mind of the doer and gives him a sense of peace and joy. The Buddha gave up the pleasures of life because they had become painful to him." My cable television, my iPod, my luxury studio apartment have all fallen away as they have become burdens too heavy to bear. I still make daily decisions: what to eat, whether to take the subway, when to upgrade my cellphone, what presents to give my friends and family. I even indulge in luxury—spending on trips, clothes, gifts to myself, upgrades to business class as I travel. I am by no means an ascetic (or even a full-time vegetarian), that would be too easy. Rather, I try, at the very least, to be conscious of the decisions that I make. May I never pontificate about being the change while remaining comfortably complacent. When I need to be comfortably complacent, I should own and in live in that space. I'm going to allow myself that choice, otherwise the choice to "be the change" is not really a choice.
There was a time when I made a choice to sacrifice two months of my life to participate in the Equality Ride. Or even to sacrifice two minutes of my life to send an email to a senator. These are choices for change. Being the change begins in simple decisions. Let me make no illusions, I'm writing this from the business class of an Acela Express train. It was a long weekend, holiday traffic would be rough if I were to take a bus, I have a full week of work ahead of me. I'm choosing to take the train—and a nice one at that. I'm returning to a house in New Jersey where I live with three friends (and pay only $400 each for rent)--I'm choosing to live in community. I commit some hours every week to work with Soulforce NYC, The Simple Way, and Marble Church. In some ways sacrifice, in others, the only way I want it to be--I'm choosing to work for justice. Being the change comes through choices.
As I continue to mull "what comes next" for advocacy around queer issues, I keep coming back to "be the change." I want to "fix" New York State, the Christian church, and the United States of America. Then I want to fix Iran, Africa, and the rest of the world. And I want to tackle poverty and all forms of oppression simultaneously. I want to scheme, to be the mastermind, and to get paid handsomely along the way! But that is not the advice I've been given. I've been asked by Gandhi to simply be the change. Similarly, Dr. Norris in his sermon on 1 John this past Sunday at Fourth Presbyterian Church advised us to hate the sins that we commit, and in doing so, actively repent of them. Be the change, in other words. I commit many sins and in my personal life, I'm going to take explicit stock of them and meditate on ways that I can turn around and change. I'm doing the same in my life as an activist.
- Who have I taken for granted?
- Who have I had too little faith in?
- What assumptions do I continue to carry?
- In my quest for equality, am I stepping on or silencing anyone (including those that I perceive as the opposition)?
- What perspectives am I writing off? Is there anything to learn from them?
- What voices am I not exposed to or am I ignoring?
- How am I insulating or isolating myself from others?
- How am I ostracizing others from myself?
May we never quote Gandhi, King, Jesus, or any other saint without choosing to follow their lead.