- "What if I was near a rally with Dr. King? Would I have gone to support the movement?"
- "What if I was around in the rise to fascism in Nazi Germany? Would I have spoken out or organized with Bonhoeffer?"
- "What if I was around when women fought for the right to vote? Would I have supported Susan B. Anthony and the other suffragists?"
When we look back on history, we see the turning points from which we benefit, and want to believe we'd support them in the moment.
What the last few days have revealed, and not for the first time, is that the reality of social change is much more complicated than our historical pictures and the reality of our support is much more muddy than we'd like to admit. Especially for the privileged classes in the above situations. Men. White men. Christian white folx. Wealthy (meaning, middle class or more access to capital) Christian white folx. The reality of those questions lie at our feet because we're the ones most often benefitting from the status quo.
But I'm convinced that the "What If?" question just isn't helpful. You know right now the answer to those questions by your reactions and responses recently. Whatever you did or didn't do in the past week is likely what you would have done in those other situations, because let's be clear: The danger for supporting Dr. King's civil rights agenda, anti-fascism in Germany during 1930s and 1940s, and women's empowerment in the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries was no less dangerous and certainly no less complicated than the movement to combat racism and state-sanctioned violence today.
Now, before you get too offended, I don't mean that as an assault on your character if you weren't in the streets this week. In fact, there are tons of ways to support. I recently spoke to one woman who admitted that fear (COVID and potential violence) kept her from the streets but she supported movement through publishing a website with frequently updated resources through her faith community. I met others this week who didn't march, but came instead as legal observers, as medics, as counselors and pastoral caregivers. I know people who prayed in vigil during each of the demonstrations in their homes and church buildings, who directed traffic, who called public officials, who shared social media posts. For some, health realities, family responsibilities, and dangers from work kept you from being public, but you were subservience coconspirators.
For others, you just didn't show up at all. If you're offended by that, then you're not really mad at me. You're upset with something inside you telling you something should change that you just can't change.
The real danger of asking "What If?" is that we can cast ourselves as heroes in stories that aren't our own and in contexts where, in all honestly, we have no business being the heroes. Especially when we look at the evidence of the past and present ways that white folx with privilege have and have not acted. Odds are, whatever you're doing right now is what you would have done before this moment.
What I'm saying is, since your level of involvement in today's movement likely reflects what it would have been before, you know the answer to the question "What If? We should stop asking that question. But that doesn't mean we should stop asking all questions.
The more helpful question, though, is "What's Next?"
What's next for me? What's next for my community? What's next for our world? What's my responsibility and level of commitment to making what's next life-giving for everyone and not just a privileged few?
Asking "What's Next?" turns our attention away from the things we can't change about ourselves to the things we can change about ourselves, our behaviors, our beliefs, and our priorities. Because, if you're afraid that you didn't do enough this time, there's more to be done next time. If you're convicted that something must be done but you can't join the protests in person, that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do. There are organizers all over that would take your support through communication, through prayer, through material and cash donations, through your skills. Movements need graphic designers and nurses, editors and logistics personnel. Movements need mental healthcare, spiritual support, musicians, attorneys, and all sorts of other folx. Movements need you.
I recently saw a social media post that, with a similar sentiment, concluded something like this: "We all have your lanes. There's no shame to staying in your lane. Just keep your foot on the gas." That's the beauty, the import, of the question "What's Next?" It looks to the future in light of the past. It doesn't ignore what came before, but it also admits that we can't change history. We can, though, change our future. To focus on what's next is to plant yourself in the emerging reality. Of course, "What's Next?" is the more difficult question. It's also the question that is still, as yet, unanswered. Of the options, it's the only question where we can truly influence the answer.
When you ask "What's Next?" don't be ashamed of the gifts you have, the abilities you possess, or the priorities in your life - unless, of course, your priorities are racist, sexist, bigoted, or xenophobic - then admit your guilt and change your priorities ASAP. Instead, turn toward the future and keep your foot on the gas. Make the changes you want to see in your life, in our environment, in God's world.
And if you're really stuck on the "What If?" Question, consider this:
If you really think you would have marched with Dr. King but haven't marched with Black Lives Matter, what's next is the march or demonstration that is almost certainly happening in your area today.
If you really think you would have spoken out against fascism in Germany during the 1930s but haven't said anything to your friends or family yet about the current trajectory of our government, what's next is a conversation that you need to have.
If you really think you would have organized for women to access the right to vote, what's next is to join the movement to ensure Black and Brown lives truly have a right to live.
If you're unsatisfied with what you've done thus far, there's always a chance to change that with what's next.
Ask yourself, "What's Next?" Then make that a reality.