When working with young tigers...
We speak of American exceptionalism, a belief that we are special, uniquely able to bring peace and progress to the world. In this view, we are smarter than, better than, more prosperous than, more blessed than all the peoples of the world. These are sometimes experienced as gifts, but often, as entitlements.
Maybe we got this from our spiritual forebears, primarily from Christians who believed themselves especially called by God to inhabit this Promised Land, this new Eden of America, echoing the Jewish concept of being the chosen people to witness the one true God as well as inherit their Promised Land.
Maybe we got this from our struggle for independence and our form of government, shaped by enlightened Enlightenment values, a shining “city on a hill.” We were not going to make the same mistakes our Anglo-European ancestors did.
In last week’s post, I used the phrase “youthful exceptionalism.” From my youth to old age, I have recognized youthful exceptionalism in myself and in others.
In my first book, Uncommon Calling, I wrote that my opposition to the Vietnam War may have been fueled in part by youthful arrogance, but I couldn’t let that keep me quiet. No doubt that also played a role in my early efforts to see the church reformed when it came to race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.
At the same time I tried to discover, as the saying goes, “the shoulders on which I stood,” those who had gone before me in the church and in each justice movement. The scene that troubles me most in a favorite film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, is when the son, played by Sidney Poitier, berates his mail carrier father’s generation. In contrast, my 80+ year old mother was delighted when Tom Brokaw heralded The Greatest Generation. “I’m glad our generation is finally getting the recognition it deserves,” she said.
A longtime political activist told me that he works alongside young people who are experiencing “white male fatigue,” entertaining little interest in those who have gone before. I myself have been accused of quoting too many dead white men on this blog. I kidded the critic by saying “some of my best friends” are dead white men, and I will soon be one myself!
Many of us in the early LGBT movement used our white male privilege, risking our lives and our livelihoods, to speak out for many who could not speak for themselves, those who were similarly privileged but afraid and closeted, and those who were already severely marginalized because of race, gender, or disability. We did not speak for them, but we spoke out for all of us.
I think I offended a young LGBT activist unintentionally by commending him for following in the footsteps of (and here I named earlier prominent activists in his religious tradition). I meant it as a compliment, but I haven’t heard from him since. Did he think his efforts were original?
Youthful exceptionalism can be as spiritually dangerous as American exceptionalism. To believe your generation has the answers or will solve our problems may be as narrow as believing that of your country.
At the same time, spiritual peril may also be a spiritual opportunity. I have often said approvingly that movements are led by their youngest members. Not having the baggage of us old-timers in the movement, all that held us back or prompted us to compromise too much, all our blind spots and missteps and mistakes—all provide an opportunity for a fresh start.
After all, we didn’t have all the answers either.
“Only with the calmness of Buddhist monks is breakfast with young tigers possible.” What sounds like a Zen saying about generational differences is actually a line intended literally from The Tiger & the Monk, a documentary I recently watched free on Netflix about a Buddhist monastery west of Bangkok that serves as a refuge for tigers.
But it may serve as spiritual guidance for the longer lived within any movement.
A reading for Advent: The Right Word
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