In the two weeks since the Charleston shooting, I have been unable to write anything, unable to follow through, unable to think. I felt paralyzed, destabilized, not knowing what to say or to do in my grief.
Then I heard about Bree Newsome, a courageous woman who (with the support of other concerned activists) scaled the flagpole in front of Charleston’s capital building to take down the confederacy’s rebel flag, which shamefully flies overhead.
When I hear of courageous acts in liberation movements, it reminds me of the chapter on action in the Bhagavad Gita. Not surprisingly, this text was Gandhi’s favorite and an inspiration for his incredible life - and also an inspiration to Thoreau (another civilly disobedient fellow).
“You are obliged to act, Arjuna, even to maintain your body.” (Bhagavad Gita 3.8)
It is impossible not to act. There is no such thing as inaction, no matter how hard you try. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna (a warrior who has lost his will to act) that even if he were to try not to act at all, you cannot stop acting. You eat, you breathe, you pump your blood, you interact, you gather, you build. Action is a fact of embodied existence. Our actions affect each other. We are all connected to one another; each action makes a ripple in the pond of inter-Being. None of us can act in perfect isolation. The question then becomes, what ripples do you want to make? Even non-action is a form of action. “Our lives begin and end when we become silent on things that matter.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
The Civil Rights struggle isn’t history. It's not over. Seven churches in the south have been burned in ten days. The Ku Klux Klan is planning a rally in Charleston for two weeks from now. Voting rights are being systematically stripped as voting districts get re-assigned to empower certain people and disempower others. Prison populations are booming with roughly five times as many black men as white men, and they are being paid cents per hour to do essentially slave labor for corporations.
Two weeks ago, my heart broke. I cried reading the news of the assassination and mass murder that took place in Charleston. The shooter took nine lives, all while reciting the rhetoric of white supremacist ideology: the ideology that is represented by the south’s historic rebel flag, which unfathomably still waves above the state capitol building.
I felt a mixture of grief, anger, hopelessness, fear, outrage, disgust—and I’m certain I am not alone. Being far away, I felt powerless and disconnected. Usually the further away suffering happens from our circle of experience, influence, location, relationships, the easier it is to shut ourselves off from the suffering. It is incredibly difficult to resolve to keep my heart and head open and not to close myself off to something that’s happening somewhere else, to someone else.
As the days unfolded, I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t close my heart to the events that were unfolding. Then, a beacon of hope. A group of activists decided to take brave action. Two activists in particular put their own freedom at stake to remove the offending flag. The two activists are facing criminal charges.
Bree Newsome’s own words are more powerful and eloquent than mine, and I shiver as I read her words again and again (her full statement can be found here).
I see no greater moral cause than liberation, equality and justice for all God’s people. What better reason to risk your own freedom than to fight for the freedom of others?
Bree’s own call to action mirror’s Krishna’s in the Bhagavad Gita, that all action should be done selflessly, in the service of others’ liberation.
“Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work a man attains the supreme goal in life.” (BG 3.19)
In the history of movements, there are many times when one person acted courageously and that person’s actions uplifted and inspired the hearts of many. I hope that this moment will be the call to action for many and that freedom, dignity, and peace will prevail. It is incredibly difficult for one person to overthrow the conditioning to which we all have been subjected and to act not out of desire for personal gain, comfort, pleasure, power, but for the sake of others. “It takes a tremendous amount of endurance and an enormous faith in the Lord within to rebel.” (Eknath Easwaran)
“What the outstanding person does, others will try to do. The standards such people create with be followed by the whole world.” (Bhagavad Gita 3.21)