Housing and Home, Mourning and Hope

(Sermon Preached at All Souls New London Unitarian Universalist Congregation on 9/25/16)

The person in man is a thing in distress;
it feels cold and is always looking
for a warm shelter.

But those (who are) warmly wrapped in social consideration are unaware of this.

(F)or every person there should be enough room, enough freedom to plan
the use of one’s time, the opportunity to reach ever higher levels of
attention, some solitude, some silence…

 If this is the good, then modern societies, even democratic ones, seem to
go about as far as it is possible to go in the direction of evil….
What man
needs is silence and warmth; what he is given is an icy pandemonium.

From “Human Personality,” in Simone Weil, Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Sian Miles (New York: Grove Press, 1986). p. 59.

Imagine you have been living outdoors for much of the last few years. Maybe when the weather is especially extreme a family member takes pity for the night, or maybe you know how to trade your food stamps for a few nights on someone’s couch. There is a homeless shelter, yes, but your abuser is staying there. Or you can’t handle the shelter’s rules and the press of bodies in such a small space.

So, much of the time, you live outside: in the woods in Waterford, under the pier in New London, in an unheated log shack in Groton, under the Gold Star bridge, in the remote corners of the college campus. Then, one fateful day, someone shows up at your campsite with an unexpected offer:

If you want it, there is a program that will subsidize your rent and help you find an landlord who will rent to you. You don’t have to live outside anymore.

What would go through your mind?

Hope? Disbelief?

Fear?  Apprehension?


Hope again.  Sheer, Terrifying, Risky Hope.


As move-in day approaches you might start to wonder:

will all the other people living outside be able to find places of their own?

Will they think I left them behind?

If not them, who will be there for me if I get into trouble?

What if I get my own place and I am still depressed / addicted / unable to afford what I need?

What if I get my own place and my children still don’t want to speak to me?


What will I miss about living outside? Ha – what a stupid question! Nothing, I have nothing, I have nothing to lose.


Although, now that you ask…


I will miss dawn rising over those trees early every morning.

I will miss the deer that bed down with their young on that hill.

I will miss being the “captain” of this campsite and knowing I had a role to play.

Now that you ask –

yes, I will miss these things.

Maybe I will get some houseplants. Or a beta fish.


That’s a composite of conversations I’ve had with dozens of people over the last three years. Those of us who work in homeless services – at the Homeless Hospitality Center, at the Covenant Shelter, at SMHA and Norwich Human services and TVCCA and Reliance House and Safe Futures and Sound Community Services – we are in the middle of an effort to find those who have been homeless the longest – especially those living outside – and make this simple offer: do you want housing?

Yet there is a certain asymmetry in the way we talk about homelessness. HOMElessness is the problem, and HOUSING is the solution. Catch that? It’s a small slip – from HOME to HOUSING – but it is worth probing.

Home is something more than housing, and though it shows up in non-profit slogans and campaigns, making a home is not actually on the menu of services. Affordable housing is hard enough to provide – surely home is more than any nonprofit or state agency can promise.

And still the gap between housing and home is where the conversation inevitably turns when we offer a rent subsidy to someone staying in a tent: yes, I want a roof over my head, but what might I stand to lose in this transition? Or what have I lost before that I am afraid to lose again?


Consider for a minute the figure of the “homeless person” as it appears in story or on television. The stereotypical Homeless Person is unwashed, clothed in rags, mentally ill, and panhandling. Like most stereotypes, this one has some basis in fact – and I have known people who resembled that man at one stage or another. But it is very possible the man in the story has had an apartment for a while, with a lease and keys and everything. At the same time, many people experiencing homelessness will present very differently – you would be hard pressed to pick them out of a crowd.

And this is very important: part of the stereotype of the homeless person is the sense that his or her problems are so complex we don’t know where to start or where it will end. Let’s say you decided to try anyway, and you didn’t have the benefit of experience in homeless services to guide you. Most of us would well enough relying on common sense and conscience to start with: a meal, a night in shelter, then line up mental health treatment and addiction services. Employment or disability income might be medium-term goals. But an apartment, you might think, is months or years down the road.

It turns out, though, that most of the time one should try to start with secure housing. Despite the enormous logistical challenges, all the evidence suggests that if affordable housing is available and quickly put in place then every other goal – from mental health to addiction to employment and criminal justice compliance – is many times more likely to succeed. Think about how powerful that is for a minute: that keys and a lease can be so crucial to someone’s recovery journey, and that our cultural instinct is to deny someone those very things until they are further along on their journey.

So when homeless providers are being very careful not to reinforce the stereotype of the hard-to-fix homeless person, we say the people staying in shelter or living outside are in a state of housing crisis, and the solution to that crisis is – HOUSING! It’s neat and helpful and true.


And still: there is something in the word “homelessness” not captured by the phrase “housing crisis.” Something the stereotypical shabby figure of story represents that I am not ready to dismiss just yet – stigma duly noted.

What if being without a HOME is a distinct crisis state, overlapping but not quite coinciding with the lack of housing)? Because in popular usage, “homelessness” names more than a lack of shelter or housing. It references uprootedness, deep alienation, and unfathomable vulnerability. In popular discourse, Homelessness names a state so beyond our imagining that many of us experience a kind of panicked moral annoyance at the visibility of (apparently) homeless people in our public spaces.

Have you seen the anti-panhandling signs in downtown New London? They read “If you are physically threatened OR asked for money, please call the police” which is (1) clumsy syntax at best and (2) fear-mongering false equivalence at worst. And this morning our  our local paper’s headline is preoccupied with the problem of “Unsavory Characters” and “vagrants” downtown. Note: presumed city residents are characterized in these terms, while local business owners or “merchants” are cited as authorities on what the city requires. While the article describes many needed interventions and real public challenges, its language both reflects and reinforces the sense that the dispossessed and destitute live in categorically different circumstances from the rest of us, we good citizens and property-owners who share our revulsion of the sick and the poor.

I must note in this context that relentless state budget cuts to human and social services threaten all the progress my agency and our partners are making to end long-term homelessness in our region. Many of us are feeling precarious about our “campaign to end chronic homelessness” while we watch the tools we have used to approach this victory disappear in the wake of our progress. The decimation at the state level of mental health services, addiction treatment, eviction prevention funds, and other key supports for the destitute is the true backdrop for this local drama of “unsavory characters” vs. merchants.

I have known people who DO wear “homelessness” as an identity long after they are housed. While many who pass through shelter see themselves as only temporarily off course, those who are “chronically homeless” often identify with a broader experience or community of dispossessed persons. Rightly, my agency serves both sorts of homelessness – the short-term housing crisis soon resolved and the lifelong condition of living at society’s margins – and every other variety that presents itself. But more and more I think the core of our mission IS at the margins: with those who are so radically alienated from American economic and political structures that it may kill them. And kill them it does.


Many of you know the story of how the Homeless Hospitality Center came to be. Several years ago, the City of New London closed its Department of Social Services. Some of our leaders, it seems, hoped that destitute people would seek aid elsewhere, in other municipalities. Concerned parties did set up a replacement emergency shelter for the winter, but at first you had to be sober to get in. Predictably, two men died in the woods that winter. One was Bill Walsh, a well-known individual and a veteran. At Bill’s funeral, Father Emmet Jarrett (of St. Francis House, our neighbor up the street) issued the call: “let us get up tomorrow and create a homeless hospitality center.” That was the start, more or less (many in this room can fill out the details and correct any errors in my folkloric retelling).

Every year, HHC joins St Francis House and other community partners to convene a memorial service for those who have died while experiencing homelessness. On the longest night of the year, we recite the names of the dead.

This ritual of public grief emphasizes two truths:

  • that in this resource-rich and prosperous society an astonishing number of people die due to exposure
  • that some die with precious few to mourn them, which is why we gather their names so carefully across the rest of the year.

Coming out of that ritual, we who work in this field carry grief and sorrow with us as constant companions – at the shelters, under the bridges, in the woods, in the apartments where we visit those still learning and practicing skills of tenancy and neighborliness. We witness unthinkable suffering (that is to say, trauma), and we bear witness to an enormous gap between the scope of human need and the limited capacity of our culture, its systems and structures to meet those needs effectively. For me, therefore, the direct service we provide often involves as well a sorrowing over the failures of our public and our community (That capacity to mourn public failure – and to do so publicly – is especially important today as we prepare to renew this congregation’s Black Lives Matter witness.)

One fateful week this Spring, the staff at HHC experienced three deaths in as many days: one person who was living outside, one in shelter, one in a subsidized apartment. We DID become overwhelmed, and we called outside for help. Reverend Carolyn came. On that third day, we stopped normal business, we gathered in the shelter, and we lit candles. We remembered the lives of people we knew we would remember again on the Longest Night. We gave sorrow just enough space to take root – and it was enough for one day.


Simone Weil, who supplied today’s reading, was living as a refugee from the Nazi occupation of France when she wrote those words. Displaced by invaders and targeted for her Jewish identity, Weil would have been wholly justified to focus on her own survival and well-being. But at that very moment she busied herself helping others: the Vietnamese colonial subjects that her government had brought forcibly to do defense work in France. With that remarkable lived witness in mind, let us consider her words again:

(F)or every person there should be enough room,
enough freedom to plan the use of one’s time,
the opportunity to reach ever higher levels of
some solitude, some silence…

So may it be.


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A Second Letter to the Boy Scouts of America 2/7/16

Members of the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America
Michael Surbaugh, Chief Scout Executive

Three years ago, I sent my Eagle Scout badge back to the Boy Scouts of America in protest (you can find that letter here: http://eaglebadges.tumblr.com/page/2 ). The BSA had just reaffirmed its policy on homosexual members and, as an Eagle Scout, I felt I finally had to face the moral weight of my “lifetime” association with the organization. Like hundreds of others, I chose to dissociate (while voicing support for Scouting as a global movement) in the hope that my external pressure combined with the efforts of committed Scouts from within would spur much needed change in the BSA’s policies.

Much of that change has come to pass in the last three years. I have been pleased and encouraged to see the national BSA first lift its ban on gay youth members and then leave to its member units the right to determine local policy on gay adult leadership. As some of my Scouting friends and I observed, these gradualist policies spell a fairly quick end to discrimination in Scouting, a movement that seeks intentionally to cultivate leadership in every one of its youth members. Many local units have already chosen to identify themselves as inclusive communities that do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation among youth or adult members.

There is more I would like to see change (in particular, I have theological reservations about obtaining half-hearted confessions of faith from young people who mostly just want to learn how to steer a canoe). But I think now as before there is much good in Scouting, and I am now satisfied that the grossest injustices in the Boy Scouts of America have been addressed effectually. The national BSA chose Kindness over hatred, and has thereby increased the pressure on its member units to do the same. For these reasons, I have chosen to wear the uniform – with Eagle and Equality knots above my heart – to participate as a member of this fellowship in my younger brother’s upcoming Eagle Court of honor. And in six or seven years, I look forward to finding an inclusive, active, youth-led troop with my son, whose birth we expect this April. Should he choose to participate as I did, I expect his experience of American Scouting will be better than was even possible for me, because the program itself will know love and justice in ways it has only recently begun to understand.

Please regard this letter as a statement of my intent to associate with the Boy Scouts of America as part of my continued identification with Scouting as a tradition and a global movement.

yours in the Spirit of Cheerful Service,

David Gonzalez Rice
Eagle Scout

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We are All Refugees

(Note: This is an edited and reworked version of a talk I gave in 2013. Reproduced here because it seemed timely.)

I’m talking tonight about the meaning of the refugee experience for political life.  In doing so, I am trying to expose some assumptions operating behind much of political science/philosophy/theory and to probe some of the different assumptions at work in my own research and teaching.  I will suggest that the refugee experience is crucially important for how we think and talk about politics in general, not just for debates about asylum or foreign aid.

My title references the influential article by Daniel Warner, “We are all Refugees,” published in 1992.

“Going beyond the specificity of the legal definitions, we can discern the universality of the refugee situation, and how the otherness of refugees can be refuted without prejudicing the need of certain people for international legal protection. This does not entail our re-integrating refugees into a universal category, but seeing how those outside the refugee category are similar to refugees.  The situation of the refugee becomes the basic norm and we, the outsiders, disclose our similarity. The differentiation between refugees and non-refugees diminishes as we see the important ways in which we are all refugees.”  Warner, pp. 367-8

Warner observes that the way we think about refugees today is powerfully informed by the experience of World War II.  Refugees as we imagine them are “other” – radically distinct from ourselves.

They are hungry, their clothes are tattered, and they speak other languages.  They are driven by guns and bombs.  They need things that non-refugees have.  The main thing they need is a stable-enough political community, without which all other goods – food, clothing, shelter, education – are insecure.  So when we see a refugee problem, or a proliferation of refugee problems, we tend to think the fix is relatively straightforward: we need to provide the refugee with a secure political community.  If her own is not available, the temporary mechanism of asylum may have to do as an approximation.  Even then, in the long run, we think eliminating the refugee problem involves shoring up citizenship in secure, relatively just, preferably democratic regimes.  We may even imagine we could eliminate the refugee problem entirely by extending a just, pluralist, liberal democratic (supply your own synonym for good) order across the face of the entire globe, as the cosmopolitans suggest.  Without war, and with justice established everywhere, no one would ever lose what refugee philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “right to have rights.”

These are necessary and prudential considerations. But if we focus exclusively on repatriation, asylum, and similarly “durable solutions,” we risk overlooking and distorting other aspects of human life and human need.  We may end up imagining, constructing, and defending political orders which would generate not just refugees but internally uprooted, displaced, and vulnerable people of endless variety (note: I would now include many forms of homelessness in this category – ed.).  In short, if we think the solution to the refugee problem is limited to extending or reconfiguring sovereign power, then we may not have understood the problem very well.

Of course, thinking of refugees simply as people who need a political community and some other things is fine for certain purposes.  If you’re in the courts trying to distinguish asylum-seekers with strong claims from those with weak claims, for example, this definition will work fine.  But if you’re trying to do more than apply law as written – say, to lobby for dramatic policy change, or to shift local attitudes toward refugees in order to facilitate resettlement and integration efforts, or even to develop a critique of the very circumstances that produce a “refugee problem” in the first place – the conventional understanding can be limiting, even distorting.

By focusing on how refugees differ from non-refugees – citizens and residents – we risk mistaking the nature of the refugee experience.  Worse, we risk misunderstanding the situation of non-refugees as well, insofar as we assume that we (and those we unthinkingly include in our “we”) are on all relevant counts dissimilar to the refugee: non-needy, secure, and in firm possession of the right to have rights.  Most especially, we may assume that we already know what political community is, that is always the same kind of thing, that its mere existence is more important than its relative capacity to promote human flourishing.  To do so would be, I will argue, a serious mistake – for non-refugees and refugees alike.

My initial interest in this topic stems mostly from two experiences as a volunteer serving displaced persons.  One is the time I spent in Guatemala in a community of resettled refugees. The recent trial in that country of former dictator Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity is related to work I was doing there ten years ago.

I volunteered in Xaman, where Maya-speaking people had resettled after 12 years as refugees in Mexico.  They were involved in a trial against the soldiers who had committed a massacre there in 1995.  I traveled with witnesses who participated in that trial, a form of deterrent against extra-judicial threats or violence.  Between trips to the city for court, I mostly visited with people in the community in order to be a visible international presence and a bodily expression of cross-border solidarity.

Here’s what I learned there (to my embarrassment, an obvious lesson): refugees are people.  I was sensitive to the risks of romanticism, going in but I didn’t really understand how much I retained romantic notions until I lived in a resettled refugee community for a year and came to relate to its residents as neighbors.  That is to say, I was dependent on and grateful to people whom I often found supremely irritating – a decent definition of community life in general.  Just like your neighbors, refugees – even indigenous Maya-speaking peoples with vaguely Marxist political consciousness – are not especially virtuous or vicious.  They are not all interested in social justice.  They are not marked for suffering from birth, nor are they destined for heroism.  They are people – full stop.

Another experience: in 2008, I spent a few short weeks with No More Deaths – essentially the anti-New Minutemen – attending to a class of people generally excluded from the category of “refugee.”  These were economic migrants crossing the border from the United States in Mexico.  My knowledge of the living conditions and political subjectivity of repatriated refugees in Guatemala encouraged me to question the commonplace distinction in the United States between political refugees and economic migrants.  After all, in Xaman, when someone was about to head out to the United States looking for work, he or she usually compared the trip to the original “refugio,” both in terms of risk (a deadly trip) and reward (life for self and family).  In terms of desperation and stakes, this “economic migration” seemed to many little different from the war that had turned them into “refugees” several years before.  Once relocation for economic reasons appears a matter of survival, the barrier between refugees and non-refugees is lowered even further.  We can imagine economic migrants at greater risk than political refugees, refugees from deliberate economic destabilization, and so on. This realization pushes back against our tendency to require refugees be pure victims, preferably with an army at their backs or political imprisonment in their pasts. At the same time, to migrate for economic opportunities that feed or nurture self and family is an experience to which many non-refugees can directly relate. Maybe the familiarity of this extremity is part of the barrier to casting it as a political and humanitarian problem demanding political solutions.

To be clear: Like Warner, I aim here to diminish the “otherness” of the refugee without depending too much on the notoriously weak cliché of the human family. So let me put it this way: what is helpful to keep in mind is not that refugees are like us but that we non-refugees are like them.

We are vulnerable. We are dependent on networks of both exploitation and mutuality that extend far beyond our knowledge. And we display in our actions an admixture of virtue and vice. We are to some degree alienated from our political authorities and neighbors – perhaps the degree is what separates us from actual refugees.

Thinking along this vector calls into question the usual terms of debate, according to which “we” sovereign citizens argue with another about how generous we should be or how deserving/blameless/needy the refugees are. It suggests we need to rethink a few things.


Sovereign and Non-Sovereign Politics:

I will attempt to tease out some fundamental and, I think, mistaken assumptions at work in just about any 20th and 21st century political discourse. Then, I’ll suggest some alternative ways of talking and thinking about politics that I consider more accurate and generative.

The Sovereign View

The assumptions I describe below more or less map onto the Westphalian paradigm, named after the treaty that established sovereign nation-states as equals and the only legitimate actors on the world stage. Westphalia assumes that sovereign nation-states, which are ideally permanent, unitary, and exclusive, occupy the entire non-ocean surface of the globe and recognize one another as sovereign within their own borders. Every person on the globe would, ideally, participate in democratic self-governance through a nation-state that corresponds to his or her own “nation” or political community (variously conceived as ethnic or liberal – or both at once – in composition).

  1. Unity.

The political community is at some level ONE.  Internal divisions or cleavages are not just problems but dangers.  Thomas Hobbes speaks of a political “Unitie” of the people that determines who is part of this group creating a government to protect itself.  Majoritarian rules ensure that the community continues to function as a body, lest disagreement tear it asunder.  A single person – king, president, figurehead, what-have-you – represents in his own body the unity of the political body.

The persons who participate in this political community are united by something, such as language, blood, history, culture, religion, principles, commitment to a constitution, commitment to a process, love of the land itself, or (usually and uneasily) some combination of the above.

The U.S. experiment to divide sovereignty into separate and overlapping powers and to diffuse it between state and federal levels struggles against this aspect of the sovereign view, but ultimately fails to escape its conclusions (as Thomas Paine predicted?).  Most doctrines of federalism come down to a unity at some point.  In the U.S., we argue about whether the nation is sovereign or states are sovereign.  That neither one should be conceived as sovereign is not on the table.  State sovereignty has become “states’ rights,” a tacit recognition that states stand with regard to the national government in the same relationship that individuals stand to government, as formerly sovereign agents that have delegated their sovereignty in exchange for the protection and enforcement of their rights.  In the Federalist Papers, Madison and Hamilton tried to skirt the problem by claiming the new Constitution would be national in some respects, federal in others.  Their argument is unconvincing.  The Civil War more or less settled the issue, but unstably, and we revisit it now with every budgetary crisis.


2. Exclusivity.

We belong to this community, and others do not.  One is either part of it or not. Changing citizenship is therefore exceptional and difficult. So is dual citizenship. A political community may be welcoming, but even then it’s usually a matter of bringing outsiders into our long and already well-established traditions (which may include immigration, comfortably woven into a rosy narrative about how this polity got to look the way it does). In fact, it may be impossible to hold a political community together without enemy outsiders. We can share public resources because we fellow-citizens are committed to each other in a way we are not committed to everyone. On some level, public libraries and military contracts both assume bounded mutuality and accountability. There is always an in-group and an out-group.


3. Permanence.

The polity is founded to last for as long as possible.  Within that assumption there are disagreements about what ensures longevity: absolute fidelity to a pure founding or flexible adaptation in the face of changing circumstances.  But either way, it is agreed that it would be a good thing for the polity in question to endure for as long as possible, and an unthinkable tragedy if it should pass out of existence.  Aspiring to permanence often degenerates into the hope – or the unthinking belief – that one’s political community is or should be eternal.  The thought that it might cease to exist is unthinkable, perhaps terrifying.


The assumptions of this paradigm obviously create some problems for refugees … when your polity kicks you out or it ceases to exist, you may have nowhere to go.  Even if you have somewhere to go, you may never make it there.

Less obviously, but nonetheless true, this paradigm – insofar as it applies, which is never perfectly – produces the refugee situation as we commonly understand it.

Sovereignty is at least one factor that makes many who might simply be migrants into fugitives, stateless persons into persons fleeing states and state-like actors that pursue. It turns uncertainty into desperation and risk into mortal danger. To prescribe more sovereign power (either intensifying the police state or extending its reach to cosmopolitan scope) as the antidote to the refugee situation is to reinforce the very conditions that make being a refugee so incredibly dangerous and so apparently distinct from the non-refugee experience.

My suggestion is that we need to think of political community (and thereby, the refugee condition) quite differently:


The Pluralist View.

1. Plurality.

A deep federalism all the way down and all the way up, with power overlapping, cross-cutting, diffused, shared in unpredictable ways.  Not the federalism of Madison and Hamilton but that of Bakunin and Proudhon.  Power is of several kinds.  It is always relative, emerging out of relations among people and not from the dominance of one over all others.  God’s sovereignty (the original sovereignty, shared with the King by extension and then the people after revolution) is a good model for overpowering force or strength, but a bad analogy for power among human beings.


2. Permeability.

This is essentially implied by the description of plurality.  It is not enough that several different political communities exist on the globe, giving discontented or alienated persons a mere right to “love it or leave it.”  Leaving and loving must both be concrete, practicable options.  Political communities (which in actuality do and should overlap and crosscut) must be increasingly communities of consent and consensus as we migrate among them, joining in different efforts in different places according to our gifts and inclinations.


Provisional Good.

With a little wordplay, I mean this in two senses: first, political community is always contingent, alterable, arranged in a certain way just for now and revisable upon further reflection or deliberation by diverse peoples.  I also mean that political community provides for the people it serves: provides security, risk, opportunities, and manifold other goods, and we can and must judge its performance in those terms rather than grant loyalty through a distorted view of history and essence.  Political community needs to endure long enough to do its jobs, but it cannot be built with such permanence and finality that we cannot alter it when it becomes more consumptive than providential.


This is a bare sketch, far from an exhaustive imagining of non-sovereign politics. I merely hint at some sources – Bakunin, Proudhon, the syndicalists, the British federalists – that offer lots of resources to the curious. This is certainly not how people in contemporary America usually talk and think about politics. My claim is that we should think about politics in this way, that we do so when we are thinking clearly, and that bad consequences (from conceptual incoherence to mass slaughter) follow from the Sovereign view.

Permeable borders, pluralist polities, and a “provisional” sense of political community won’t end the need for migration or ensure that absolutely everyone has a home.  But we shouldn’t want to eliminate migration or keep everyone at home.  To leave and search for our home(s) is crucial to human well-being.  To be stuck at home can be a nightmare.  Therefore, we need political communities that stave off danger without eliminating risk, and that do not purchase overprotective security for a privileged few at the expense of the at-risk many.

Coming back to Daniel Warner, he eloquently expresses the importance of seeking and migration to human experience thus:

“Even though the refugee has been disjoined from his or her traditional place, the disjuncture between self and ‘home’ existed before flight and will exist after flight, whether there is voluntary repatriation or asylum. It is this disjuncture which causes the refugee and non-refugee to be similar. If the refugee is searching for a ‘home’, so are we all, ‘we’ being those who have not been forced into exile.”  – Warner, p. 370

I assume you all are a pretty mobile audience.  Many of us have probably moved around quite a bit in the last few years, and most of us expect to do so again soon.  Sometimes we’ll do it out of hope, other times out of fear.  Sometimes we’d prefer to stay where we are. The upshot of Warner’s observation is that we should not naturalize the refugee as some kind of uprooted indigenous person for whom all would be well if only she remained tied to her ancestral land, or who could find a new perfect home if only we Americans were more committed to the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Being forced from home is bad, but staying or being at home is not necessarily good. We should remember our own life histories, the complicated calculations and feelings that surround moving and removing as we pursue diverse and sometimes conflicting goods – education, career, love, self-fulfillment, adventure, peace, sanctuary, good death – and flee evils – abuse, boredom, ignorance, constraining expectations, and bad death.

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The Slow Boring of Hard Covers

At thirty-five I find I can read poetry.
And this: that I care to.

My father read and wrote poetry.
He professed love for the sonnet’s confinement
while he read Plath
to my mother’s displeasure
listened to Dylan at home
and Limbaugh in the car
extolled Whitman and Emerson
voted for Reagan and Bush
spot-read Civil Disobedience
and marched dutifully through the Harvard Classics Library
(purchased second-hand)
emerging with worldview intact.

Is it that at last I reached and broke foundations
laid down in marker and mimeograph
pillar of salt and basket of fish carefully cut from reproduced sheets
hung with love and violence onto flannel-draped board?

Commuting by train to lifeguard at the YMCA
I followed autodidact father with used volumes of
William James (which I dropped in that pool)
Huxley and Orwell and John Milton (always the essays)
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche
Though I missed the poetry
as well as context.

I long feared poetry would remain for me like algebra
impenetrable and tinged with pain
Though it happens I’m an excellent math teacher
as I discovered upon confessing ignorance and dyscalculia to test-prep classrooms
at high schools and historically black colleges in North Carolina.
Then to my surprise: they did well.

I employed the same technique
to good effect
when I became
a social worker without training or experience:

  1. confess
  2. partner
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Axiom derived from encounters with destitute persons

This person can’t wait for me to get my thinking straight.

This person can’t afford the consequences of hasty, uninformed, ill-considered actions on my part.

I will be stuck in this tension as long as I keep thinking about or acting on behalf of this person.

It is in thinking and acting as co-laborers that we are saved.

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The Asymmetry of Nonviolence

“This guy, he just wouldn’t leave my apartment.  I invited him in, but then he wanted to stay.  I told him to leave, and he said he wouldn’t.  I told him I would call the police, and he said ‘go ahead, I still won’t leave.’  Who does that?  Then he started to touch me.  So I beat the shit out of him.  I just beat the shit out of him.  Then I called the police.  Then he left.  I called the police back and told them the situation had taken care of itself.  Seriously, who does that?  Who would risk getting beat up and arrested instead of just leaving when you ask them to?”

“Lots of people experience something like this when they move from the shelter into an apartment.  Other people in the shelter or on the street see an opportunity to get housing for themselves, and they try to move in with you.  The laws in Connecticut are a little weird: it is very easy to establish residency and force a legal eviction, which can take months.  But it sounds like you were able to take care of yourself, and that’s very encouraging.”

“What do you mean?  That I beat the shit out of him?  I’m not proud of that.  He should have just left when I asked him to.”

“That’s true, he should have.  But he didn’t, and I’m glad you were able to do what you had to in order to stay safe.”

“I didn’t feel safe.  I don’t like when I’m out of control like that.  I don’t like who I am when I do that sort of thing.”

“I get that.  You know, it’s normal when someone feels very threatened for them to respond in the way you did.  I work with lots of people who get violent over much less!  I get why you feel the way you do about getting violent, but you were in a dangerous situation and I – for one – am glad you are safe now.”

“I just don’t like who I am in that moment.  I don’t like knowing I am capable of that.”

“Well let’s think about how you can avoid putting yourself in that position in future so you don’t have to draw on your formidable shit-kicking skills.”

*Laughter* “Like, maybe I shouldn’t invite people over to my apartment?”

*Laughing* “Yea, maybe certain people.  How did you meet this guy anyway?”

This is how my commitment to nonviolence takes form in my current work.  I have no interest in lecturing this person about turning the other cheek, or imagining some kind of nonviolent resolution to the immediate situation described above.  But I am most definitely interested in talking through someone’s feelings about getting violent, acknowledging the real cost and pain borne by the person who was forced to defend self, and identifying strategies and measures to avoid having to get violent in the future.  The conversation I recount above went on into matters of policy and structural violence: the tenant’s fear that this threatening man would wind up staying out on the streets in the cold, and my reassurance that my agency mounts a massive effort to bring everyone inside somewhere, even the people deemed too dangerous to stay in the shelter during warmer months.

This is the epistemological work of nonviolence (that is, its impact on how we know what we know): to point beyond moments of violent crisis to the broader conditions that occasioned the crisis.  The seductive logic of violence always insists on restricting inquiry to the moment.  Its hypotheticals are crazed gunmen, ticking time bombs, genocidal villains with guns trained on orphans.  Nonviolence directs our attention beyond these moments to bigger questions about inadequate mental health services, to the global inequities and alienations to which bombs refer, to the political systems that raise genocidal villains and produce orphans.

I say this now because Baltimore has brought violence and nonviolence powerfully into public discourse.  Lots of voices normally unconcerned with the actual, lived traditions of nonviolent direct action are suddenly reminded how much they appreciate it when aggrieved populations restrict their methods to “peaceful protest.”  It’s just so much easier for us onlookers.  And as a devotee of nonviolence (who, like most in that category, is forever frustrated by the terminological inadequacy of a life-philosophy defined in opposition), I want to go on record that the nonviolence mobilized to scold militants in Baltimore is not a nonviolence I recognize.  It is unfamiliar to the bodies of writing and action that make up nonviolence as a lived philosophy and strategic practice.  The nonviolence of Gandhi, Dorothy Day, the Plowshares Movement, the American Sanctuary Movement and so many others is disruptive, boundary-crossing, disobedient, front-lines nonviolence.  It cares more about human bodies than property, and it prefers virtuous courage to complacency (for some, even courage with a gun to cowardice without).  Edouard Theis, a pacifist minister from Le Chambon – the French village that smuggled thousands to safety during World War II – was asked whether Russia could have used nonviolence to resist the Germans.  He said,

“No, they had to use violence then.  It was too late for nonviolence…(which) involves preparation and organization, methods patiently and unswervingly employed – the Russians knew nothing of all this.  Nonviolence must have deep roots and strong branches before it can bear the fruit it bore in Le Chambon.  Nonviolence for them would have been suicide; it was too late.” – quoted in Lest Innocent Blood be Shed, by Philip Hallie

Thinking again of the conversation I had with the shit-kicker, I would add that nonviolence is necessarily addressed to the powerful.  It may be embraced by marginalized, dispossessed people and their allies (by some as a tactic, others as a broader philosophy) but when the powerful and the privileged prescribe nonviolence for the marginal and the dispossessed, a performative contradiction obtains.  To demand nonviolence from a victim of violence is to defend violence.  If you find yourself doing this, you need to turn around and address the right audience.  That Dr. King mobilized non-violence to powerful effect – and, let’s remember, at enormous cost to every civil rights advocate who received blows without striking back – gives none of us the right to extract that consideration from populations who are daily targeted by brutality, neglect, and casual lack of consideration.  Whether violence “is justified” is beside the point.  Justice does not characterize anything about the situation the actors in question are facing.  I am glad for whatever skills they have to advocate for themselves and make absolutely clear the intolerable nature of policing in their city, their intolerable abandonment by a nation that recognizes few if any public responsibilities.

The toolbox in Baltimore does include many nonviolent strategies, of course, and we must not lose sight of that in the rush to characterize uprising as thuggery.  And yes, nonviolence undertaken by the dispossessed has incredible power to shame the wider public (though this assumes the wider public has a sense of shame, which is debatable at the very least in the U.S.).  But nonviolence preached by an onlooker – or worse, by a victimizer – to the victim is just perverse, and ill-deserves the name.

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Hungry Ghosts and Birds of Appetite

Serving persons who are homeless is particularly demanding work.  In general, I do well in this environment – I like the clear stakes and the opportunity to be creative and nimble.  But I have gotten into a pattern of recurring overwhelm, and I am always looking for tools and practices for self-care over the long term.

I concluded a few weeks ago that I need to cultivate the virtue of equanimity – to maintain emotional balance through difficult situations.  Since the largely Western, more-or-less Christian sources of moral teaching I usually employ have relatively little to say about equanimity, I’ve become interested in zen.  But I dislike dabbling, and I need a reliable guide through this unfamiliar terrain, so I am reading Thomas Merton as a kind of compromise.  So far I am pretty impressed with zen and less impressed than I remember being with Merton.  I’ll keep reading.

At the same time, my professional interest in harm reduction brought me to Dr. Gabor Maté, whose experience runs closer to mine than Merton’s.  Reflecting on his medical practice among addicts, Maté maintains that pain – if not trauma – lies at the heart of all addiction, both the substance dependency of those we think of as addicts and the less stigmatized – even lauded – compulsory behaviors common to the rest of us (“workaholics” and others). Any addiction can provide escape from unspeakable life histories, while drugs’ effects provide access to ranges of feeling otherwise numbed by trauma.

This passage from Maté struck me most:

“The addict’s reliance on the drug to reawaken her dulled feelings is no adolescent caprice.  The dullness is itself a consequence of an emotional function not of her making: the internal shutdown of vulnerability (which is) our susceptibility to be wounded.  This fragility is part of our nature and cannot be escaped.  The best the brain can do is to shut down conscious awareness of it when pain becomes so vast or unbearable that it threatens to overwhelm our capacity to function.  The automatic repression of painful emotion is a helpless child’s prime defense mechanism and can enable the child to endure trauma that would otherwise be catastrophic.  The unfortunate consequence is a wholesale dulling of emotional awareness…
When we flee our vulnerability, we lose our full capacity for feeling emotion.  We may even become emotional amnesiacs, not remembering ever having felt truly elated or truly sad…” – In the Realm of Hungy Ghosts, 40-41

Though my own trauma toolkit does not include controlled substances, Maté’s words ring absolutely true.  More to the point, Maté leaves me skeptical of my pursuit of equanimity, which in light of his words is starting to look like a sophisticated justification to keep practicing emotional numbing, my coping mechanism of choice.  What little I have learned of zen clearly indicates that equanimity is not compatible with numbing.  Nevertheless, the temptation to numb means that I must proceed with caution.  If equanimity will serve me in this work, it must equip me to experience rather than avoid distress.

Perhaps I should frame equanimity as a skill rather than a virtue, something I can use when I need it and set aside when the time comes for intemperate passions.  From Maté, I am learning the importance of sitting with profound sadness.  Meanwhile, I will experiment with regular rituals of sadness and celebration as part of my prayer life.  Any worthwhile equanimity will have to make room for both of these registers, not seek a secure middle ground between them.

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