Thursday, April 16, 2009

Misguided activism

This month marks the 25th anniversary of a pivotal moment that helped to determine my views on activism. More accurately, it showed me how not to go about it.

On Easter Sunday 1984 two groups of pro-labor activists -- the lay Network to Save the Mon/Ohio Valley and the Denominational Ministry Strategy, comprising pastors -- disrupted the later service at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, a prominent congregation I had joined just weeks before. When I arrived there a little late a tall, heavyset man dressed in flannel shirt, workboots and jeans was shouting at the congregation amid the singing. The offficiating pastor allowed him to deliver his message, which was full of invective toward members of the congregation who were involved in upper management of steel companies that were shutting down operations, putting many of those men out of work. Many of us greeted them afterwards, a close woman friend taking me by the elbow as we made our way forward.

That wasn't the end of it, however. Over the next couple of years the groups, among other things, placed dead fish in safe deposit boxes in certain bank branches, insulted the pastor the church later called (as if he had anything to do with it) and bombed with skunk oil attendees of a post-Christmas pageant reception in the fellowship hall. I'm sure that, to many of my church fellow members, it felt like a constant siege. The activists were certainly committed to the cause -- one of the Lutheran pastors affiliated with the DMS, who ended up going to jail, had his ministerial credentials revoked.

But the groups' ultimate demand, to take the church's entire endowment, then about $6 million, showed their real colors. The message: "You owe us." In other words, they cared only about getting what they wanted no matter how it affected other people -- just what they were accusing the execs of. Well, they didn't get a penny from the church and the effort eventually petered out largely because of justifiably bad press.

Since then I've witnessed other similar demonstrations, specifically the anti-abortion Operation Rescue in 1988 during which two people I personally know were arrested for blockading abortion clinics. Civil-rights marches were still also taking place for reasons I don't even remember right now. And so on, and so on ...

Amazingly, all these groups claimed the "nonviolent" mantra of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom I've studied for years. I saw immediately, however, that there was no connection between them.

King would never had insulted the other side, much as he personally would have liked to, because he knew full well that the opposition was trying to draw him into a tit-for-tat that would have sabotaged any moral authority he had. He also even invited his enemies to join them, witness conversations he had with jailers in Birmingham, Ala. who were complaining about the very same "system" that had imprisoned him.

That spirit of gentle confrontation didn't exist in the Network/DMS; their goal from the start was to humiliate the "enemy." Instead, the campaign against SPC became the church's finest hour, as its leadership consistently conducted itself with grace and humility. Indeed, I'm sure that some of the people reading this have all but forgotten about those demonstrations.

And that's the point. There's a way to confront perceived injustices -- with communication and relationship, not just making demands.

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