Reflection by Mark Matson
September 11, 2004
Today we mark the 3rd anniversary of the unbelievable events in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington. Our country has changed dramatically since that day. We have been led into a war that has taken over 1000 lives and billions in resources and generated a whole new flock of terrorists. We have alienated allies and our national symbols are desecrated in the streets of cities all over the world. We are fearful of what may happen next. We have tolerated a curtailment of our freedoms by our own government in order to be safer. We cannot provide affordable health care to a substantial portion of our population, repair decaying infrastructure or provide for after-school care and activities. We speak with great bluster and bravado about “winning the war on terrorism”. Seems to me the terrorists are winning. They have hooked us. We are obsessed with defeating them. We are diverting the majority of our energy and resources into that effort. And anger is our source of energy. It looks like we are in control – but our obsession is in fact disempowering us. All a terrorist has to do is say “boo!” in the dark and we mobilize.
It occurs to me that there is a lesson to be learned for DignityUSA here. A friend recently told me that he dropped out of Dignity because every time we speak there is an undercurrent of anger and he’s tired of that. In honest moments, I know that is true more than not true. Over time we have become obsessed with our own “spiritual terrorist” – the Hierarchy. We react and mobilize every time they speak. Their words understandably provoke anger and that anger fuels our responses. We believe that we must speak out to empower ourselves. But I am beginning to wonder if we have not actually been disempowering ourselves through a constant focus on defeating our adversary.
In the long run, anger is not a sustainable fuel source – nor a very attractive magnet. Hope is. Joy is. In a constant focus on conflict with the hierarchy, it is easy to diminish joy and hope. I find that joy when we gather for our national conventions – when we are speaking to ourselves. But not when we speak to the world, to the GLBT community, to the Church. Apparently, according to people far more objective than I, we come off as “protesters” and “reactionaries”.
We often ask the question “Why are there so few people under 40 in Dignity?” Is it perhaps that those of us over 40 are still fighting old battles? If so, these are not the battles of people under 40. They are our own. Maybe it is time to let go? Old wounds keep us hooked to the dysfunctional system that inflicted them in the first place. Anger and fear keep us controlled by the institution we demand to change. Like America is hooked by fear of the terrorists, we are hooked through our anger to an abusive institution. And who is winning in the end? An important question to ask ourselves is “If our adversary were to disappear, would we have a purpose for existing?” If we have to pause to think about that, it is a good indication we are hooked into a negative stance.
We need to change our focus more to the positive. Forget about changing the minds of the hierarchy. Forget it. Focus on providing witness to the kind of inclusive Church we envision, to call the Church to its better side. Celebrate the contribution our spiritual gifts bring to the Church. Find allies and celebrate a shared theology. Call one generation of people to healing and reconciliation so they can let go and move on. Call another to positive experience of joyful celebration and Christian camaraderie. A joyful person attracts. A dour person repels. Recall the old hymn “They will know we are Christians by our love”.
Could our declining numbers and declining energy for leadership over time be due to the dissipation of spiritual energy that anger causes? Could growing our numbers and inspiring leadership require a fundamental shift in the way we see ourselves in relationship to the hierarchy?
Have you noticed during this election year that when a reporter tries to pull a candidate into the negative by a question that a skilled politician responds with the message THEY want conveyed? By always reacting to the Hierarchy, we let them set our agenda – one that is essentially negative. I propose that we set a new strategy in place. We will shape our own positive message about GLBT Catholic Christians. We will promote it at every turn. We will seek to witness to it. When a reporter asks us to respond to some awful statement from Rome, we will respond with out own positive statement about the GLBT community. We will respond by living a Christian life that contradicts what the Church is saying – not through intellectual dueling. “We are faith-filled people in a faithful organization and here is what we are doing…” Let’s focus on witnessing to a mission fundamental to our Catholic Christian life – and that is our baptism. We have allowed the hierarchy to define our baptismal call. Let’s define it in a way that is authentic to us and let’s celebrate it and let’s live it.
I recently attended a professional workshop on inspirational leadership conducted by a PhD in cognitive research at Case Western Reserve. He noted that the most effective leaders connect best with people by creating an overall positive emotional tone – a message of hope. “Positive expectancy generates the most energy and consequently attracts people.” He goes on to say that positive leadership focuses on strengths, future, hope, possibilities, optimism; not problems, fears, pessimism, weaknesses, lacks and the present. “People change when leaders lift them up around possibilities and connect them with their dreams.”
America cannot stay focused resentfully on the hole in the ground in lower Manhattan. We must rebuild and move on – witnessing in our behavior to the values that built the spirit of this nation. Values we are at risk of losing.
Dignity should not focus resentfully on the wounds of the past. We should invest our energy in connecting our people with the dream of an inclusive Church that can be. And exemplify that Church. Be a light so all can see the love that we share! Invest our energy in spreading the light and stop trying to fight the dark.
We are redeemed. We are graced. We are gifted. We are loved unconditionally by God. We are dignified by that Love. Let’s make that our message. Maybe that will amplify and empower the voice because it is a voice many more yearn to hear. And it energizes!