Let's Talk About Merit Badges

During the spring, Soulforce provided 4 different workshops in nonviolence, direct action, and civil disobedience to church communities seeking greater confidence in difficult conversations on fossil fuels, poverty, racism, and homo/bi/transphobia in the Church. The impetus was the United Methodist Church General Conference in Portland, May 10 - 20, 2016, but folks from several traditions participated. We tried out a new thing as trainers, and I want to share it with you here, because it hit that sweet spot of learning complex and nuanced information while laughing about life and ourselves along the way. It’s called the Merit Badge Exercise. Soulforce is a values-driven organization, and we work every day to adhere to a practice of nonviolence. That means that we are vulnerable, reflective, and accountable in the things we aspire to. What is in the heart matters, for ourselves, for our people, for our liberation. [Not in an oppressor-centering way, in case you were wondering.] In the Merit Badge Exercise, we present a series of images of “What Not To Seek” in our activism. Each drawing represents a common pitfall or hunger that we have witness derail our collective work. There’s the “Clean Hands Merit Badge” wherein the activist seeks purity, simplicity, or some kind of un-impeachability in their activism. The idea behind this badge is: if can just button up and act “properly”, you just might win. The desire to wear this merit badge might also mean that you feel you already have access to un-impeachability or purity and the privilege of staying that way. If that is actually true, we need you to deploy that privilege post-haste for our collective liberation, okay?

And then there’s the Merit Badge for “Being a Badass.” We all know this person. We probably have all been this person, at least a little bit: seeking a little glory, to express a little bravado or power, or playing the “I’m more hardcore than you” game.

Another example is “The New Civil Rights Merit Badge.” This merit badge goes out to people who claim the shine and the identification with the still ongoing Civil Rights struggle toward justice for Black People and People of Color..but it’s not actually your own story. We live in a country where many of the major lessons about nonviolence, public activism, and civil disobedience are demonstrated to us through the bravery and strategy and brilliance of the Civil Rights Movement.

But if this is not truly your story to own, your activism today is not a chance to tap into that powerful stream and put it on like a mantle. Look, listen, learn, respect...but let’s make our own powerful narratives if we need a story of our own. When we showed these around around the room, we all giggled a little. The pictures are sometimes silly, but it’s also a chance to look in the mirror and lovingly laugh at or kindly challenge ourselves. We wrap up this exercise by passing out blank merit badges and asking folks to write down on their merit badge any “baggage,” self-limiting thoughts, or ego-driven ideas that they want to lay down. Our desires for lineage, ancestors, feeling strong, leading, and other emotions represented in this exercise are understandable. They are human. The hunger is strong, and it spills out. This exercise is meant to heighten our awareness and be sure that we are spilling out in ways that move our movement forward. Nonviolence at Soulforce does not ask you to not be human; it asks you to practice self-awareness, and to recognize that the expression of our feelings, beliefs, and desires is political, relational, and, when done well, the most juicy and potent source for our pursuit of justice. At the end, we go through a ritual of release. Here’s how you can do this at home:

  1. Download this set of merit badges to use with your crew.

  2. Have a conversation about what each of you brings into the room - the messy, the sacred, the ego-y, the healthy. You don’t have to have an impending action; in fact, it’s a good check-in especially when you aren’t action-ready.

  3. Then talk about what you are seeking to satisfy through your participation in the group or the project. How can you all make sure that you each get to meet your needs in a way that’s appropriate to the common cause.

  4. Write down on your own badge any negative narratives, false hopes, ego mess, vendettas, fears, etc. that aren’t serving you and your group.

  5. Share as you are willing, and then do something de/constructive with your badge, like put it on an alter, rip it up, burn it, fold it securely in your wallet as a reminder, or make a collage with it.

  6. Send us a photo of your group, your altar, your badge etc. on Facebook or to hello@soulforce.org. Tell us about your activism, what you gave up through this exercise, and what you are able to welcome in after it. We love to know what you are up to in your community!

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Soulforce works to end the political and religious oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex people through relentless nonviolent resistance.

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