Sunday, July 12, 2020

Building the Beloved Community

After hours of soul searching, truth telling, and digging deep, the group fell silent. The African American members of The Unity Center in San Diego looked at each other, then turned to the one white face in the circle – Reverend Wendy Craig-Purcell.

“What’s the next step?” she asked. After a pause, one of them finally spoke.

“Calling all white people.” Everyone nodded. The project of dismantling racism must begin within the dominant culture that perpetuates it – including in subtle ways not always recognized. That’s why this is white people’s work to do.

We came to Unity for healing. We thought that we might find something to assuage our wounds, and we did. We found fellow travelers and learned new principles and practices. However, something was missing. We thought love was enough, but it wasn’t. Unfinished business and untreated trauma were hidden in plain sight. In any relationship or spiritual community, there can be no intimacy without honesty.

When Rev. Craig-Purcell announced from the pulpit that she was forming a white allies group, my wife Lori and I jumped at the chance. We read Debby Irving’s book Waking Up White. We watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th. And we studied The White Ally Toolkit, written by David W. Campt, Ph.D., which teaches anti-racism allies how to have more effective conversations with white people who think racism is not real.

We shared our decades-long confusion and ignorance around the vexing question of race. It was life-changing, and it was difficult. We lost some folks along the way, and facing our own unwitting complicity in a system that has harmed so many wasn’t easy. But we persisted, encouraged each other, and kept our eyes on the prize.

One of the most bracing things we learned was that as white people we had the option of checking out. Whenever it became uncomfortable we could retreat to the safety of denial and avoidance. African Americans don’t have this privilege – they live in this work 24/7. Feeling uncomfortable, we decided, is a small price to pay compared to enduring daily harm from racism.

The next step was to bring the black and white groups together to merge our converging journeys. Through the weave of our shared endeavor, and through our willingness and vulnerability, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “beloved community” began to rise from aspiration to realization.

If we are serious about our commitment to awaken universal compassion and co-create a world that works for everyone, then challenging structural racism and unconscious bias within our midst is job number one. It is not political work at root – it is spiritual work, because it is about transforming consciousness, not systems. When consciousness changes, systems will change.

We named our combined group Braver Conversations Together. Through the focused actions of our subcommittees we built a calendar of events to broaden our outreach and influence throughout the congregation, and God willing, the world beyond.

It isn’t enough to take refuge in vague principles like love, diversity, and unity. We have to find the courage to look each other in the eye and admit we don’t know everything. We can’t do better until we know better. Action is the antidote to apathy, and there are people all around you who will help. They are only waiting for you to take the first step. Inspire one another with your boldness. Trust, show up, do the work, and allow the beloved community to emerge right where you are.

[This article first appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the July/August 2020 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Fourth of July Reflections

When Lennon's song "Imagine" came out in 1971 I was 13 years old. The poetic questions he asks -- What if there were no countries, no borders, no religion, no private property, no war? -- made an indelible mark on this little boy/man. It began right then and there. I starting falling out of love with the idea of countries and borders and organized religion. I still like private property, sort of.

I identify strongly as an immigrant even though I was born in this country, barely. My parents had just got here a few years earlier. My oldest brother was born in the Netherlands and mom was seven months pregnant with my middle brother on the boat.

I grew up in a bilingual home. Literally every single one of my relatives -- all of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins -- lived on the other side of the world oceans away.

I've always looked at the United States as somewhat of an outsider, an interested by-stander. I never got the flag-waving, chest-thumping thing. It all looked a little too uncomfortably like one of those vast Nazi rallies on the Zeppelinfeld in Nuremberg where Hitler screamed into a microphone and the crowd cried out for more. Rabid patriotism makes me nervous.

I'm suspicious of nations. (That is something I share with my libertarian friends.) Every worst impulse of humanity gets magnified when married with the power of the State. That said, I also believe that our solutions are social solutions. Individuals and individual choice alone cannot undo the spell that has been cast -- the spell of division, greed, and intentional cruelty.

So every Fourth of July I play along -- I certainly don't hate America, and in fact I dearly love her founding principles: equality, human rights, and e pluribus unum. But as we all know, those principles and ideals have never been real for everyone -- not yet.

But they can be. I really believe that. I believe that what lies ahead is so much greater than what lies behind us. I will never stop believing that, not because I live living in a fantasy, but because something deep, deep inside of me -- beneath ideology and identity -- moves me to believe that, in the same way that a mountain stream knows that it is returning to the sea, even though it has no memory of the ocean and does not know the way to go. The natural fall of the land will lead it home. So too, the natural line of our inner wisdom, and the sacrifices of too many to count, pave the way for our redemption. We will one day realize the dream of the Beloved Community, beyond border, beyond nation, beyond religion, beyond ideology. It is our fundamental nature to lean in toward each other, to be one. And we will.

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace, you

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world, you

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one

I'm feeling contemplative and reflective on this strangely still 4th of July. There will be no fireworks over Lake Murray this year, where I live. Normally we sit in my backyard and watch that. But this year, it will just be the sounds of crickets, and the roosting of the birds in the trees as they settle in for the night. The stars will be our lights in the sky.

At dawn this morning a lone coyote trotted by in the open field behind my house, headed for home and a long day's sleep. He doesn't know he lives in the United States of America. He and his family have lived in these chaparral canyons for 400,000 years. In their family annals the United States came and went like a blip.

Once in a while, we should all take that long view.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Fighting for Planet Earth

Nature is under attack, and all the regulatory defenses that once protected her are being dismantled. Human activity, especially in the industrialized, high-consumption cultures of the first world, has accelerated environmental destruction to historically unprecedented levels. We are in the fight for our lives, literally.
Instead of cataloging, yet again, this dystopian withering, let us turn our gaze to the good news. It doesn’t have to be this way. Since we can no longer rely on the gutted Environmental Protection Agency to protect us, we’ll have to fight for ourselves. But our activism must be grounded deep in the soul. We’re going to need spiritual guidance.
German mystic Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) entered the monastic life at 14. For medieval women life in the monastery afforded a freedom unavailable to married women. Released from the constraints of child rearing and housekeeping, monastic women focused on study and contemplation. Hildegard became one of the leading intellectuals of her day (though her work was not recognized until centuries later). Her writings covered the gamut from theology to natural philosophy. But it’s her startling defense of the natural world that strikes us most today. For her, respecting nature was the same thing as respecting God. It was just that simple. “Every creature,” she wrote, “is a glittering, glistening mirror of Divinity. There is the music of Heaven in all things.”
Hildegard’s message was a startling departure from the other-worldly emphasis of Augustine’s Christianity of the 5th century. For Augustine, the natural world was a fallen world mired in sin and insignificance – our true home was in heaven with God. Earth was simply to be endured. But for Hildegard, “everything that is in the heavens, on earth, and under the earth is penetrated with connectedness, penetrated with relatedness.” This beautiful world was God’s best work, and our defense of it a sacred calling. But it isn’t easy. We often feel overwhelmed and defeated. Still, we can’t give up. “Even in a world that’s being shipwrecked,” she wrote, “remain brave and strong.”
It is not from alien invaders that the earth must be defended. Human activity has accelerated environmental degradation at an unprecedented rate. There aren’t two sides to this. Scientific consensus is 100%. Only one question remains – what are we going to do about it? For Hildegard, the answer is clear: “We shall awaken from our dullness,” she wrote, “and rise vigorously toward justice. If we fall in love with creation deeper and deeper, we will respond to its endangerment with passion.”
The answer is love. Not personal love, but passionate universal love for the ground of being and all her manifest forms.All living creatures are sparks from the radiation of God’s brilliance,” Hildegard wrote, “emerging from God like the rays of the sun.” The government isn’t going to save us – certainly not now. Only we can save ourselves. “Dare to declare who you are,” she wrote. “It is not far from the shores of silence to the boundaries of speech. The path is not long, but the way is deep. You must not only walk there, you must be prepared to leap.” And when you leap, know that “you are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.” God and the world are one. We and the world are one. There is nothing but oneness. When we fight for the earth, we fight for ourselves.
[This piece was first published in my my column "A to Zen" in the May/June 2020 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]