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In the 1980s, the German feminist liberation theologian, Dorothee Soelle, coined the term "revolutionary patience" to describe an attitude, a mindset, a complex virtue that I think is necessary for progressives and liberals to cultivate in our time.  It holds in tension a sense of urgency consistent with the size of the problems we face (e.g., catastrophic climate change) and a resilience that meets setbacks and defeats with both the hope and determinism to remain in the struggle for the long haul. Revolutionary patience refuses to despair even given near-apocalyptic contexts:  As one example, it enabled the bearing and raising of children even during the Second World War.


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Many, especially oppressed and marginalized groups, are rightly suspicious of any talk of patience. Throughout Why We Can't Wait, and especially in his "Letter From a Birmingham City Jail," Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described compellingly why African-Americans struggling for Civil Rights were rejecting calls for patience and "going slow" by well-meaning whites.  "Wait," too easily becomes "stop," and "someday," becomes "never." The kind of "patience" advocated by the powerful (or, at least, by empowered selves) needs to be rejected by the less powerful, the marginalized, those outside the "magic circle," of elite entitlement.  But Dr. King also had a strong sense that the movement would need to last beyond his own life. He knew "the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." In his last sermon, given on the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, drawing from the biblical imagery of Moses and the Israelites, King said, "I may not get there with you, but I believe we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."  That's revolutionary patience.

History is full of other examples that show a subversive, revolutionary form of hope for the future:  In ancient Judah, on the eve of invasion by the Babylonians, the prophet Jeremiah, who had for years been warning of the impending invasion and resulting Exile, bought a piece of land as a symbol, a visual parable if you will, that Jews would one day once more buy and sell property in the land of promise.  Kentucky's farmer-poet-novelist, Wendell Berry's "Mad Farmer," advices "plant sequoias."  

What sustained such heroes as Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, or Vaclav Havel through years, even decades, of imprisonment? Revolutionary patience.  

Revolutionary patience is not complacency and the hope that fuels it (and is fueled by it) is far from blind optimism. It is very "reality based," but not cynical and not despairing. It is practiced not only in prison cells, but on picket lines, and while holding the hands of dying loved ones in hospitals or nursing homes or hospices, or while taking yet another low paying temp job and continuing the Great Recession-era search for good employment.  It counts mild reforms like the Affordable Care Act as steps in the right direction even while knowing its' glaring flaws and limitations. Revolutionary patience is never satisfied with the status quo ante, but it knows the wisdom of celebrating partial and flawed victories. Life in the struggle must be joyful and not .

The rap on progressive activists is that we aren't joyful. We get some nukes scrapped and immediately list the huge numbers still out there.  We get new EPA standards and, before anyone can rejoice, we note how mild the improvement is.  We are the ultimate "Debbie Downers." I think that's what those calling for an "echo chamber" here are really pointing out. I don't think they really mean for DKos to become a bubble, to diminish strong debate or to become blind worshippers of either Obama or the Democratic machine.  We are called to be public critics, including internal ones.  But not joyless wet blankets.  Revolutionary patience learns to celebrate the small victories (and this is hard for me as I confess further on in this diary) BEFORE getting back to work the next day.  

Song writer Tommy Sands captures the feel of revolutionary patience powerfully in his "Your Daughters and Your Sons." I excerpt only one verse here:  

Your weary smile it proudly hides
The chainmarks on your hands
As you bravely strive to realize
The rights of everyman
And though your body's bent and low
A victory you have won
For you sowed the seeds of justice
In your daughters and your sons
I KNOW how difficult it can be to cultivate this virtue. I turned 18 in 1980 and cast my first vote that year for Jimmy Carter. During the years of Dubya, I was so ashamed of my nation and so worried that my then-young children would be turned into pro-torture, anti-Islamic warmongers by this culture, that I tried very hard for a couple of years to leave.  It took my wife's courage to enable me (us--I wasn't going anywhere without my lifepartner and our daughters) to stay.  I know how easy it is to despair:  On the very night that Pres. Obama was first elected in '08, I turned to a friend and, remembering the Clinton years, said, "How soon before he sells us out?" Afghanistan drags on; the surveillance state is worse than ever; Gitmo is still open and the policy of indefinite detention in black sites is still in place; drone attacks are creating more terrorists than they are killing; even if the House miraculously passes S. 744, it barely qualifies as immigration "reform." And our response to climate change is half measures appropriate to 30 years ago and more, all the while falsely described by the Right as a "war on coal." Real unemployment remains at 14% and inequality is greater than ever.

But the next generation is so promising. One of my daughters is now 18 and in her first year at university--double  majoring in Spanish and "Peace and Conflict Studies." She hopes to work for the United Nations or Human Rights Watch or the Carter Center or Amnesty International.  Her younger sister is a frosh in high school active in the gay-straight alliance. And it's not just MY millennials, but thousands of them who reject the selfishness of Ayn Randism and work in countless ways for the common good and a better future. I meet so many of them and they blow me away: When I was their age, the majority of my generation adopted Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good" as a personal life motto.

We can't despair and we can't tear ourselves apart in infighting--though we must have reality-based arguments, fierce ones. No echo chambers allowed.

We must organize and strategize and struggle with a sense of the fierce urgency of the now. But not in panic and not frantically. We must cultivate subversive hope (despite knowing all the facts) and revolutionary patience.

And now your music's playing
And the writing's on the wall
And all the dreams you painted
Can be seen by one and all
Now you've got them thinking
And the future's just begun
For you sowed the seeds of freedom
In your daughters and your sons.
Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to SouthernLeveller on Mon Nov 04, 2013 at 05:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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