Fighting From the Inside

Have you ever met a person who was part of a group that did terrible things, and when you asked them why they would want to be a part of that they tell you, “I’m trying to change things from the inside”?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means and if it’s really possible. One thing I can say for sure, though, is that you can’t change things on the inside unless you’re subverting the bad behavior. Let’s look at some examples.

Rabbi Ari Hart, an Orthodox rabbi, wakes every morning and says the following prayer: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” This is the prayer he’s expected to say in the mornings, the prayer that is written in his holy book. Unsurprisingly, Hart is a little uncomfortable about this, and writes about his discomfort at HuffPo. (h/t Rebecca’s Dystopia)

These difficult, even painful blessings are a part of a series of otherwise beautiful meditations thanking God for the everyday gifts of sight, clothes and freedom. Those other blessings roll easily off my tongue, the praise genuine and sincere. But for years I’ve struggled with praising God for not making me a woman. And I’m not the only Orthodox rabbi who struggles with it.

Ok, that’s good. Orthodox rabbis should struggle with that. It’s a stupid thing to say, let alone say every morning. It re-enforces that there is something wrong with being a woman and glorifies the people who established societies where it is true. In fact, this should be a very brief struggle, one followed by no longer saying that particular line.

But, of course, Hart eventually decides that he will say it anyway. He spends some time talking about the advantages he gets as a man (which is a good thing), but then comes up with some lame excuse about how saying this every day reminds him of that.

This blessing calls me to recommit to building a world where inequality and oppression do not exist. It calls me to recommit each day to building a world where saying “thank you God for not making me a woman” will disappear, not because it is offensive, but because it is meaningless.

This is the most pathetic excuse for this sort of behavior I have ever seen. Hart seems to think his position as a spiritual leader is meaningless already, that the people who attend his synagogue don’t actually listen to him. If he wants that particular prayer to disappear, he should take a bit of responsibility and make it disappear, at least in his prayers. It’s not some super-secret double fakeout where saying, “thank god I’m not a woman” actually means we should pay attention to gender inequality. It’s an artifact of an uneducated and backward time and place where patriarchal jackwagons solidified their power by designing a society where being anything other than them was a sign of impurity that could be used to keep superstitious mobs from working together.

Hart makes a point of how he’s trying to subvert the meaning of this prayer, but he’s not actually doing anything subversive. He’s just going along to get along and smiling to himself on the inside because he’s bucking the system in the laziest and least effective way possible: by silently thinking something he’s not supposed to.

We can also apply this to the Catholic Church. I know a lot of people who still attend Church and still support the Vatican, at least financially. The people who Timmy Dolan tried to have arrested last week were all believers who clearly disagree with the red hatted scum. There are a lot of Catholics that I know that are trying to change things in the Church, but the question becomes: how?

Seriously, how do you change an organization that has been used to getting their way for centuries? One that doesn’t even have the decency to be embarrassed about hiding child rape? Seriously, look at George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sidney, answering an inquiry about coverup of child rape in the Australian Church. He throws out excuse after excuse, apologizes to nobody in particular, and even engages in some victim blaming according to some reports. Since there is still some speculation on whether this was said or not, I’m waiting on the transcript to post, but several people who were present Tweeted that Pell had said, “Some of the victims themselves aren’t entirely blameless,” and blamed the media for “25 years of hostility” toward the Church.

Regardless, I have to ask how one fights that from within? The Church’s power stems from money and the perception of numbers. Even though most Catholics disagree with Rome on a number of issues, the fact that there are still butts in seats gives them an outsized amount of power compared to their actual influence. Similarly, if you bother to drop cash into the collection plate, you’re paying the moving costs of pedophile priests and PR firm fees, so why bother even showing up?

Another example: The Boy Scouts. There are several people I know who are Eagle Scouts and remain a part of the organization despite the discriminatory nature of it. Even with the tepid, illogical, and universally infuriating decision to allow gay scouts but not gay scout leaders or atheist anything, it’s pretty clear that the impetus for change in the BSA is as much a reaction to outside pressure as inside.

Unlike the Church and Rabbi Hart’s synagogue, though, it seems that there are people who actually can and are doing something in the BSA. According to Dante at Surviving the World, who is very passionate about this, there have been councils operating under their own non-discrimination policies for a while. There are Scouts who have worked their way through the ranks to be able to vote on national policy. There are people on the inside that can do things in a way that simply can’t be done in the Church. While it seems like a lot of work for what was ultimately a very small thing (though was huge for every queer scout out there, despite the right way spending the past few weeks calling them all rapists and perverts), we often have to work hard for small victories.

So, what’s the difference? What makes the effort of rogue BSA chapters different from the efforts of Ari Hart? The answer, quite simply, is subversion.

The BSA chapters that Dante mentions are actively opposing the national council’s rule. They recognize that there is a behavior they are supposed to engage in, but they refuse to because they consider it reprehensible. Hart, on the other hand, has decided to do what he always does and just hope that somebody braver than he will force his faith to change, or that it miraculously will on its own for no good reason, as if power just fades on its own.

The BSA is changing because people are challenging the system. Hart will likely die thanking god for not having a vagina (or being trans*) every morning for the rest of his life. The Church is unlikely to change in my lifetime because the cash continues to roll in from parishioners who think they’re doing awful things but still pass off their required 10%.

You can change things from the inside of organizations, but it has to be uncomfortable. There is no easy way to tell the people in power that they are wrong. It requires you to challenge their authority, to fight them actively and visibly. If you can hide what you’re doing, it won’t be effective. Fighting means being loud, being noticed, and being counted. Otherwise, how can anyone tell the difference between being against something and being part of it?

4 thoughts on “Fighting From the Inside

  1. I tend to read: “I’m still a memeber because I want to be able to change the organization from the inside” as “I’m still a member because, yea, you’re right about those horrible things this organization has done, but they don’t affect me directly, and the benefits I’m enjoying being a member are more attractive and mean more to me than the harm inflicted on other people, so I’ll mutter some platitudes about ‘changing them from the inside’ so that I can still be a member without actually having to address any of that, but look like I’m actually not as much of a selfish self-centered bastard as I really am.”

    Obviously not true in all instances, but yea, that’s my default reaction to that phrase.

    • That’s often the case. I kinda want to do a post, when enough news happens at once to support it, about people who try to help others by doing that that primarily help themselves. For example, people who don’t tip their servers because they’re “not supporting a system that doesn’t pay servers real wages”. Similar to this, if you’re trying to help people and it’s not even marginally uncomfortable for you, then you’re doing it wrong.

      • Anytime you’re going to help someone else, and have to preface it with: “This is going to hurt you more than it hurts me – and in fact it’s not going to hurt me in the slightest”, you might need to re-check the definition of “help.” 😉

    • I tend to read: “I’m an arrogant ass who is so confident of his own opinion that he chooses to put words in other people’s mouths to satisfy his own prejudiced beliefs because dealing with reality is hard”

      Pretty much true in every case.

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