Protesting didn’t feel as good as I thought it would. It was freezing and my hands quickly grew cold as I held my sign. I had arrived unfashionably early and now found myself standing at the apex of the street corner on which we were demonstrating. I felt out of place there, front and center, exposed to the weather and the eyes of drivers making their way home from work.
I reminded myself that I had come for a good reason. The local peace council had organized this demonstration to protest “endless war.” Why, then, was I uncomfortable and embarrassed? The thought occurred to me that someone I know might see me. So what? I argued with myself, but the feeling persisted. I was here with people I didn’t know, who weren’t like me – they were older, dressed differently, and had done this a hundred times before. I felt, in a word, ridiculous.
But, I thought, could that mean I was in the right place?
I came to radicalism by an unlikely, but by no means unique, road. Radicalism, of course, can be an extremity of any kind of belief. But it can also imply deepness of thought, rootedness, getting to the heart of the matter, addressing what is fundamentally at stake. I use the term here to refer specifically to the radical practice of Christian discipleship: taking the gospel at its word.
After college I entered a religious order, the Jesuits, because I was discontent with the more normative options and because I was serious about my faith. I assumed that here I would be able to use my gifts, and that I’d feel comfortable and in the right place.
I was disabused of this notion pretty quickly. After six painful months I had the opportunity to participate in St. Ignatius’s famous “long retreat” – thirty days of silence to contemplate the Gospels. During that time, I was forced to consider the consequences of really following this person Jesus. To my surprise more than anyone’s, this led me away from the Jesuits.
At the time I didn’t have any of the vocabulary of social justice, solidarity, or nonviolence. Just the simple belief that I should share life with vulnerable persons felt radical enough. I found work in an elementary school in a low-income neighborhood. From there I went on to live and work with people with developmental disabilities in a L’Arche community. From the children in the school and from the L’Arche residents, I learned a simplicity and frankness that make up the radical meaning behind Jesus’s saying, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
There is a certain childishness to radicalism. Everyone understands instinctively the innate character that prompted a child to address the emperor’s “new clothes.” It seems natural for a child to speak truth to power; it only acquires an air of lawlessness or indecency when adults do it. A child doesn’t participate in debates about just war or the ethics of particular tactics, but only cries, “No more.” When speaking of past wars, fought for arguably good reasons, radicalism is childish enough to say, “But it was wrong, because people killed each other.” Radicalism ignores the talk of the deserving and the undeserving, because it doesn’t want to see anyone suffer.
This childish response to seemingly complicated problems can be seen in Jesus’ personal relations. How often he turns a pharisaical trap on its head and goes to the heart of the matter with a simple directness. Moreover, the love Christ preached is an especially childish one. Working with children and with adults who lack the grown-up methods of guile, I have seen how they love without conditions, trustingly and absolutely. Love like this shows itself in deeds more than words and in the basic wish to be with others.
These are the roots of the radical disciple’s notions of nonviolence, economic equality, solidarity, and community. We protest and go to jail, work tirelessly, sacrifice, and form intentional communities simply to act out these basic impulses as followers of Jesus.
Joining the closely-knit social justice community in Syracuse, I found it smaller than I expected. Most of my fellow activists were nearing or past retirement age. Why, I wondered, did so few of my peers feel this calling to a simpler lifestyle or share my concern for the problem of authenticity, of making actions consistent with beliefs?
Over lunch one day I asked movement veterans Liz McAlister, from Jonah House, and Carmen Trotta, from the New York Catholic Worker, about the lack of young people coming up behind them. They hypothesized that the biggest obstacle is the increase in post-college indebtedness and the consequent pressure to find a job. Mary Keough, another lifelong radical, suggested that a lack of leadership accounts for a lot of the lack of motivation today. “Young people have lost respect for church leaders . . . There are no longer the kind of influential Christian leaders there once were.” Her husband, Dick, added, “I still believe the Spirit is working, but we don’t hear it or see it or feel it and I think that’s because we don’t have the voices and the prophets to get the message across.”
Clearly, there are larger cultural phenomena at work as well. Our increasingly homogenized Western culture and narrowing political discourse prevent young people from ever considering radical alternatives. And a sinister realism in the face of violence, global economic problems, and social crises seems to preemptively disenchant the idealistic. But don’t radical problems require radical solutions?
I can’t deny that radicalism doesn’t always feel very good. Sometimes you are ostracized for taking the unpopular view, and sometimes you just feel silly. And there is a keener awareness of our imperfection. I don’t always go the extra mile and the coffee beside me is not, alas, fair-trade.
But radicalism is not perfection. No one expects perfection of a child. Radicalism is a commitment to trying, and to the single-mindedness that children bring to their play.
I went home from that first protest and many others unsatisfied. I struggle with what solidarity ought to look like, and I often feel all too adult. I remain confident, though, that opportunities to live this life will be abundant and that, in time, I will find many more with whom to share it.
Photograph by Ragesoss (Wikimedia Commons)