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Wearing Your Cause Like You Mean It

I think it’s for the best to confess my guilty pleasure at the outset. I hope there is a lesson to be learned from this confession or maybe just admitting it is penance enough.

Here it goes. I am a voyeur of the red carpet. I love the dresses and hairdos, but most of all, I love lampooning the absurd ensembles. Is it just me, or do some stars land on the fashion no-no pages week after week, regardless of what they wear? There’s a fiendish joy to seeing that some of the most beautiful people in the world have atrocious clothing and apparently are oblivious to it.

Not that I’ve ever dressed like a Ralph Lauren model. I had my polyester days and I still admire the gutsy fashionista—if nothing more than for her ability to wear an outfit like she means it. But even at my most outlandish, I was cowed by a few cutting comments. I may not admire celebrities for much—I disdain the inconstancy that they represent—but I admire their immunity to criticism. It may just be couture to us, but to Gwen Stefani, it’s an extension of her personality.

The moral, I think, is applicable to social justice. Indulge my train of thought for a moment: It seems to me that causes, like couture, come and go. Did you notice the spat of anti-death penalty flicks for a while? Dead Man Walking, The Green Mile, The Life of David Gale. Next came right-to-die films, Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside. Then Transamerica dovetailed with Brokeback Mountain and Hotel Rwanda paired up with HBO’s Sometimes in April. There are two ways to interpret this. Either it’s a smorgasbord of options, diverse enough to appeal to everyone’s ideology, or causes are more like couture than we’d care to admit.

It’s easy to see how causes get traded out. A few years ago, I realized that once my favorite CDs left my changer, my appetite for them ebbed. Automatic for the People still makes my annual list of Top Tens, but I haven’t spun it in months, even years. And it’s not just my music. Wandering about Target, I observed that home décor was revolving like my clothing. Throw pillows and tablecloth shades shift each season, until it’s impossible to replace broken furniture without redecorating. No wonder I prefer paint to wallpaper. I’m not judging the ebb and flow that permeates our tastes. I’m just amazed that what we like says more about our personality than what we do.

Herein lies the conflict; social justice is no matter of taste. The tao of social justice is that we learn to sustain our effort in it by striking a balance, where the cause we choose is independent of anything capricious, but the energies we expend are an extension of our personalities.

Which means everyone plays a different part. I’ll defend this cliché to the death in this circumstance: to recreate our social universe to be as elegant as God intended it, we must be a human symphony, singular instruments moving towards harmony. Everyone gets to live social justice without joining the Peace Corp or moving to the inner city; a good thing, since many of us are ill-suited to urban life or to working with some of the difficult populations. It’s a question of how we envision integrating the cause with who we are—either as our career, our relaxation or our self-actualization.

Art student Erin Wakeford says that many of her art peers see themselves as activists and art as a revolution. Beauty might have been the classical ideal of art, but nowadays art takes aim at the status quo. Artists aren’t playing social workers—which is not to overlook those who also volunteer or support themselves in social causes—but they educate themselves and are shaped by the pain and problems closest to them. In turn they mold their media to evoke empathy in the rest of us. If they’re doing it right, we’ve just been moved to act.

Wakeford’s only just begun finding where her heart and voice lie, but she’s started with the HIV/AIDS crisis and the shortage of safe water in the world. What is striking is how the medium that once diverted us from the ugliness of our lives now challenges us to bring lasting beauty to our world.

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I suppose that diversity creates the space for entrepreneurs who mature into philanthropists and for theologians and monastics who pray for the life of the world. It is a delicious mystery to me that Bono, Bill Gates and so many other wealthy people devote themselves to a host of causes, from literacy to agricultural practice. The world needs doers like this, but this alone does not sustain the results that keep us going, especially when problems multiply exponentially, as seemed to happen with the tsunami, the earthquakes, wars, epidemics, hurricanes and environmental crises of the past five years.

What Christians have to offer that makes our social justice superior to mere philanthropy is prayer. My uncle, a pastor in a Pennsylvania Church of the Brethren parish, had the moxie to say he does very little for social justice causes except pray. I was a bit dismissive of him for this, and very surprised, especially since he’s intimated his passion for social justice in many occasions, either by helping immigrants from South America find less degrading employment or defending Christian hospitality towards homosexuals, a group Christians traditionally disenfranchise.

This is not to say that Christians, as a whole, should merely pray that our brother receive the loaf he needs. Mother Theresa bridged the doer with the praying person best: “I believe that we are not real social workers. We may be doing social work in the eyes of the people, but we are really contemplatives in the heart of the world.” Prayer, it seems, is constant and on-going while we serve in the capacity to which we are best suited.

I keep a poem that Mother Theresa reworked in sight in order to pray it daily, and it reminds me that what I do should come from the essence of my identity, and therefore I should be as immune to the criticism lobbed at me for my efforts: “If you are kind, people will often accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway … For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”

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