Friday, November 18, 2016

Faith and Works

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, "Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled," notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

James 2:14-17

In May of 2008, I was having a rough week: I'd spent a night in jail, my long-time girlfriend dumped me, and my latest show had been a flop. (That last one may not have been so unusual.) The last thing I wanted to do was conduct a tech rehearsal. But fifteen minutes into it, as I was talking through colors and washes and transitions, I was surprised to notice that I'd forgotten all of that -- I was relaxed, confident, decisive. In a confusing and uncertain world, ah! This was a process that I understood. I was relieved to have the work to do.

It was the first time I'd been clearly aware of that fact about myself, far from the last, and I've been reflecting on it a lot over the course of this election season, as I've been producing and writing and performing in a variety of a politically-themed shows. I was acutely conscious of it during an election-night fundraiser that I helped to produce. As the participants and audience were (unsurprisingly) left-leaning, I began to feel much like a funeral director, facilitating a process that I wasn't closely engaged in. (Indeed, as an alternate-party activist among liberals, I've been feeling a lot like I'm watching friends lose a beloved relative -- I can't share their grief, exactly, but I'm sorry as hell to witness it.)

I'll confess to being a bit bewildered -- three of our regulars declined to perform, one performer simply failed to show up, and of the remaining several expressed a desire for me to give them a way, any way, out of having to hit the stage. I appreciate that different artists have different responses to crisis, but this response is simply alien to me -- I'm so fucking grateful for the work.

(To be clear, it's not that I don't understand it. On election night 2008, after my show, I walked up and down Hennepin Avenue, punching telephone poles, until my knuckles were ripped and bloody. But I completed my goddamn set first.)

Granted, I may be a lot more acclimated to performing under ugly or hostile circumstances, but the comforting chaos of live performance is something that I can understand and (to some degree) control. If the alternative is drinking and grieving alone, I'd rather be trying to wrestle laughs out of a grieving crowd together. After all, if our profession has any true social or political function (and I am sincerely dubious that it does) -- surely it's that, in times of crisis, we can offer laughter and insight, comfort and context?

And what I found troubling is that my colleagues -- a pack of professional talkers if ever there was one -- in a moment of crisis, a moment when their words might have been able to provide something truly valuable to their audience -- their first instinct was to fall silent.

I was raised Catholic, and one of its tenets that remains central to my faith is the notion that we live in a fallen world, a world dominated by sin and greed and fear and hate and evil -- and that's why it's so incredibly important for each one of us to labor to improve it. We were reminded of that fact on Tuesday. What amazes me is that so many of my colleagues were shocked by the reminder. It's been said that my lack of emotional devastation is symptomatic of the fact that I don't take the threat of fascism seriously: my immediate thought is that their emotional devastation is a sign that they haven't been taking it seriously for some time.

My compatriots on the right have been observing (rightly, in my view) that the Democrats who have labored for decades to centralize and expand power in the executive branch are now reaping the bitter fruits of their short-sighted strategy. But even this seems short-sighted to me. After all, when Trump talks about a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States, what the hell even gives the President the authority to do that? The answer lies in the Alien and Sedition Acts, many of which are still on the books, which were passed by our second President, founding father and champion of liberty John Adams -- most likely as a means of silencing his political opponents. My intent isn't to draw some kind of false equivalence here, but to observe that the battle against authoritarianism and fascism isn't new, it's as old as civilization itself.

November 8th, 2016 was neither the beginning, nor the end, of anything. This is a battle that demands a lifelong commitment from every one of us. That is the price we pay to live in a constitutional republic.

One of the talking points among the left right now is that the election results mean that it's time to get to work. To which I can only say, uh -- were we supposed to have stopped? Over the past few years, I've signed my petitions and made my donations. I've toured the country. I wrote a book. I've attended conventions and festivals. I've produced fundraisers. On many of those endeavors, I lost money; on many more, I faced down hostile and belligerent audiences. I have exploited every opportunity I could find to create a space and a platform for the marginalized voices that so many of colleagues are currently mocking and vilifying. I have upraised my tiny, ineffectual fist to the best of my ability, and in at least this respect (if not in far too many others), my conscience is clear.

I don't plan to get to work, because I never stopped working. I plan to continue working exactly as hard as I would have if the Democrats had swept the House and Senate. I've already got some ideas for 2018 and 2020 that I've started research on. And praise God for that, because I don't know what I'd do without the work.

I share my colleagues' fear and concern for the damage that this unified legislature can do. But I'm also troubled by the moral damage we can do to ourselves, and our cause, in that fight. When I see the vitriol that many of them are unleashing on social media -- when I see them justify that vitriol as necessary -- when I see them characterize traits like empathy and compassion as weakness -- when I see them lionize themselves for their courage in abandoning those traits -- losing political power is one thing. But I also worry about losing our political soul. Rage is one thing, and one thing that I believe in (witness this entire blog) -- hate is entirely another. I know, from humiliating experience, that that is a very dark, very ugly path to go down. After all, if November 8th taught us anything, it's that we can't control anything -- nothing, except our own speech and actions, surely?

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?

Mark 8:36-37

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