Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Storm Before the Calm

From Jesus to John Lennon wisdom teachers have asked us to give peace a chance. In times of widespread unrest and social disruption, it’s understandable that well-meaning people call for peace and love. But a note of caution is in order. In our calls for peace, is it universal love we’re after, or silence and compliance?

Is the light of truth meant to comfort us, or jar us awake?

When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference went to Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 they went there to cause “good trouble,” to borrow a phrase from John Lewis. Even though school segregation had been struck down nearly a decade earlier by the US Supreme Court, many southern states continued to enforce Jim Crow laws. King went to Birmingham to protest these ongoing segregation statutes, and his method was to purposefully violate a court order banning parades, protests, pickets, boycotts, and marches. They went there to cause good trouble. And they did.

King and his movement filled the streets of Birmingham, braved Bull Connor’s fire hoses and dogs, and through television, brought the nonviolent struggle for human rights into America’s living rooms. Many were arrested, including Dr. King. In the Birmingham newspaper there was an op-ed penned by eight white clergy criticizing King’s methods. King grabbed a pencil and began writing a response in the margins of the newspaper, then on scraps of paper a fellow prisoner gave him. In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” King makes the case that nonviolent “good trouble” is a necessary last resort because it’s the only thing that brings the dominant culture to the negotiation table. “Nonviolent direct action,” he wrote, “seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

King grounded his argument in the philosophy of Augustine, Aquinas, Niebuhr, and Thoreau – the idea that it is right to break human laws that violate moral or natural law, as long as we do it in an open, self-sacrificing, and compassionate way. In fact, it is our sacred duty to do so. As King famously wrote, “Everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”

“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily,” King wrote. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given up by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Now it is our work to re-perceive social unrest not as lawlessness and disorder, but as the messiness required in any birthing process. Think of it as “creative tension.”

The source of Dr. King’s greatest frustration was not the explicit racist, but the well-intentioned white moderate who agreed with the goals, but counseled patience while mouthing platitudes of law and order. “The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klanner,” King wrote, “but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers…the absence of tension to…the presence of justice.”

Peace and harmony is the ultimate goal – on that we all agree. And when all human beings are afforded their God-given rights of dignity, access, and abundance, then peace and harmony will break out all on their own. But until there is justice, the fa├žade of peace is reserved only for a privileged few, bought with the wages of systematic oppression. And that is no peace at all.

[This piece was first published in my A to Zen column in the November/December 2020 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reprinted here with permission.]

Friday, August 14, 2020

The Paradox of Power

 God didn’t know what to do. He wanted to destroy Sodom because of its wickedness. But ever since that flood he was second-guessing himself. God vowed he would never again curse the ground. But Sodom was really bugging him. He knew he had to do something. Maybe a targeted hit, just one city? “Shall I tell Abraham what I am about to do?”

God told Abraham his plans to blow up Sodom, and Abraham went to work. “What if you should find 40 innocent people there?” Abraham asked. “Wouldn’t it be wrong to punish the innocent and the guilty alike? Should not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” God was swayed by Abraham’s argument. “Fine,” God said, “if I find 40 innocent people, I will spare the whole city.”

But Abraham wasn’t done. “What if there are 30? 20? 10? Will you not spare the whole place for the sake of the ten?”

“Fine,” God relented, “I will spare the whole city for the sake of the ten.”

Look what just happened. In the most remarkable story in the book of Genesis, (and that’s saying something), Abraham models for us one of the core values of Judaism – that justice is a higher truth than power, and that we, as human beings, are morally obligated to intervene when justice is endangered, even if the source of the danger is God himself. It is not blind obedience God longs for – it is our awakening to a sense of moral responsibility. By speaking truth to power Abraham demonstrates that we are made in God’s image and must, therefore, join in the project of the furtherance of justice. Abraham is the first lawyer, arguing a pro bono case for his clients, the hypothetical innocent of Sodom. His willingness to wield the tools of reason, language, and persuasion to change God’s mind shows us how powerful we can be and must become.

In a later story, God asks Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Now, with the stakes so personally high, Abraham is oddly compliant. “Sure,” he says, “no problem.” Abraham sets out to complete the grisly task and is, at the last second, stopped by the angel Gabriel. “That was only a test,” said Gabriel, “we wanted to see if you had it in you.” Apparently Abraham did.

So which is it? Which Abraham should we be? Should we challenge authority in a struggle to co-create justice? Or when given an order, dutifully comply?

The answer lies, as it so often does, somewhere in the middle. In the paradox of Abraham our lives meander like streams around hard boulders and through soft meadows in turn, toward a sea beyond our reckoning. Reason isn’t the only tool in the box. We never have enough information. And we’re not as smart as we think we are. Sometimes we have to trust. Real empowerment has nothing to do with rigidity. It’s about fluidity in the face of obstacles, and the willingness to assert and acquiesce in turns.

In the wisdom of Judaism, we are morally obligated to participate in the healing of the world – tikkun olam. But it is also true that we are not in charge. COVID-19 taught us that. At best we can, and we must, join together to wield every tool – reason, science, and assertion, as well as empathy, sacrifice, and surrender. Only then does the best of all possible worlds begin to rise into view.

[A version of this piece first appeared in my "A to Zen" column in the September/October edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

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.