Belonging and Becoming

By Robert Jensen

Published in Counterpunch · August, 2005

[Remarks to an interfaith service at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Austin, TX, August 14, 2005]

We gather here this afternoon, challenged by Cindy Sheehan,s courage. Out of her struggle to come to terms with the ultimate loss has come a moment for all of us to commit ourselves to peace, and to the actions necessary to bring peace to the world.

There is another opportunity that arises out of Ms. Sheehan,s vigil, a struggle that takes us beyond that ultimate loss. Though I am not of the church, I will borrow its language: It is the struggle to reconcile that we are spirit living in flesh.

Because we are flesh, we know best that with which we are familiar. We love most those around us. We yearn for connections to real people in real places, people we can touch and who can touch us. We love most intensely those people around us. We hold our children in our arms, and we breathe with them as one, and we love them deeply in each breath. And that is as it should be. We are flesh that touches and is touched.

But at the same time we are spirit. We know that to live our humanity to its fullest requires moving beyond the flesh.

And so we know there can be no difference between how we treat those we love and those on the other side of the world who we will never know and never touch. If our lives and the lives of the ones we love have value — if by virtue of being human we have a claim to life and dignity in living — then everyone must have that same claim.

We know that the children we hold in our arms have exactly the same value as those children we will never see, held in the arms of those we will never know. If our lives in flesh are to make any sense, our spirit must move beyond the ones we touch, the ones we love.

This is our struggle, and it is hard, because when we lose a loved one, when someone we have touched and who has touched us suffers, we cannot help but feel it more deeply. Our flesh aches. That is what it is to be human.

And at the same time we have to push ourselves to think about the suffering of those we will never touch. Our spirit has to ache as deeply as our flesh. That, too, is what it is to be human.

If we are the people we say we are — if we believe the things we profess to believe, if we want to build the world we claim to want to build — then we must struggle with this. And it will be hard.

Cindy Sheehan has been forced to do something the mere mention of which produces panic in me: She has buried her own child. I will pray — to any god and all gods that anyone has ever dreamed of — that I never have to face what she has faced, that I never have to look down into the grave of my own child.

Cindy Sheehan and all the others who have lost loved ones in the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq belong to our community, to our nation. It is easy to grieve for them and with them, and we should. That is what decent people do.

But as we mark our belonging by sharing her grief, we are called to a becoming, to become something more, to see that as we grieve there are thousands of Iraqis, tens of thousands, who have buried their children, buried their parents, buried their friends. Buried those who they have touched and who have touched them.

Somewhere in Iraq right now, there is a mother looking into the grave of her child. There is a friend weeping over his loss. There is a community that gathers, much like we gather here, to find meaning in a world of suffering. In Iraq right now, there are people grieving in exactly the same way that Cindy Sheehan grieves, that we all grieve.

We belong — to a congregation, to a community, to a nation. We belong, but we must become more than that to which we belong. Belonging is not the end. It is the place from which we struggle to become.

What is it that we must become? We must become more than a person who belongs to a congregation, a community, a nation. We must become spirit, in our flesh.

And when we do that, here in the United States, our obligation comes into focus. We live in the most powerful nation in the history of the world. We live in the most affluent nation in the history of the world. That power and affluence was born of violence and is maintained by violence. We can choose to protect that power and affluence, and hence be part of that violence, or we can choose to help create a different world. To create that world, we must choose to take risks, far beyond the ones most of us have taken so far. There will come a time, perhaps not too far away, when those choices will be even starker than they are today, and we should prepare for that, together.

If we do that, we can imagine a better world. Not a world without suffering, for there can be no such place. But a world in which no one suffers merely to protect our power and affluence.

To do that, we must become more than members of a congregation or a community. We must become more than just Americans.

This is hard, but it is worth the struggle. I believe that as we become that spirit, we will find that we can love more deeply than ever, in the flesh, where we belong.