I have represented female police officers fighting for equal treatment at work, gay and lesbian victims of hate crimes, an African American family chased at gun point by a member of the KKK, persons with mental health problems arrested and tasered without cause, people who are stopped, harassed, and arrested because of their race. The work of a civil rights lawyer often seems to focus on breaking down walls in our society that perpetuate inequality and oppression. Privilege and power constantly builds these walls on the basis of race, class, gender, sexual oreintation, disability, and age. It is difficult but important work to challenge these walls through legal action.
Just as important is the civil rights work of building bridges across difference. Our identities are complex and diverse. I unwittingly oppress women on the basis of gender, even while I am trying to challenge oppression on the basis of race, or be a good ally for my LGBT friends. We are oppressors and the oppressed at the same time, in different contexts. As a very privileged person, I am often trapped in my own privilege and a victim of my own misuse of power. The building of a beloved community does not end with the breaking of walls. The next step is the laying of the foundations of creative redemptive good will to build bridges across difference. This is an inner journey to root out bias and prejudice, and an outer journey to reach across the remnants of old walls. We are called to take risks, to cross boundaries, and nurture authentic relationships of good will with folks who are different from us. Only by sharing ourselves and opening our hearts to learn from others will we take the next important steps in advancing civil rights, and make real the dream of a beloved community.
In my Quaker spiritual practice we have “queries” instead of creeds, and ask ourselves questions about our core values individually and in community. One Query goes like this:
“Are you alert to practices here and throughout the world which discriminate against people on the basis of who or what they are or because of their beliefs? Bear witness to the humanity of all people, including those who break society’s conventions or its laws. Try to discern new growing points in social and economic life. Seek to understand the causes of injustice, social unrest and fear. Are you working to bring about a just and compassionate society which allows everyone to develop their capacities and fosters the desire to serve?”