Sunday, July 25, 2010

Engaged Spirituality

Many years ago I began thinking that the classic forms of Christian spirituality that I had been taught in church and seminary just didn’t work for me. I came to faith in the evangelical tradition where a good Christian was supposed to have their daily “quiet time” of Bible study, prayer and reflection. I read all the books of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard on spiritual disciplines, and still consider Foster’s Celebration of Discipline as a critical book in my formation. I explored Roman Catholic wrters like Morton Kelsey, Brother Lawrence, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. I read the classic Testament of Devotion by Quaker Thomas Kelly. I explored the charismatic movement and even dabbled in speaking in tongues for a few years. Yet, in the end something was missing.

The first seed was planted when I moved to Jersey City, NJ, a crowded poverty stricken city, where I realized that there was no place to find true and complete quiet in such a noisy, busy community. Moreover, I found that I was most spiritually alive when I was in the midst of people actively working on changing things that were causing suffering. It struck me that one did not have to retreat from the people and activity of one’s daily life to connect with God; God was there in the midst of it all. John 1 proclaims that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God was not far off only to be experienced in some mystical transcendence, God was among us to be touched and experienced in the busyness of life. I had developed what theologians call an “incarnational theology.”

However, I did not actively think about these things much for many years. I tried to fit my spiritual discomfort into the classic disciplines of prayer, meditation, Bible reading and worship. Then a few years ago, I read through most of the writings of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Freire is best known for his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he outlines his philosophy education as a way of raising the consciousness of oppressed people in order to motivate them to change the social and economic order that keeps them poor. His critique of the “banking model of education” and the concepts conscientization and teaching as dialogue are now standard subjects in introductory education courses and presented as an alternative to traditional methods of teaching. No one author has shaped my own approach to teaching as much as Freire has.

However, as I read through his writings, I saw and sensed and underlying spirituality that sought to engage the world even as it sought to change it. A lifelong Roman Catholic, Freire was critical of the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil for its support of the ruling oligarchy. Moreover, he criticized the clergy’s promotion of what he called “magical thinking” among the poor; encouraging them not to question the status quo (that was literally killing them) but rather to look for God to provide for them in miraculous ways and to reward them for their faithfulness in the hereafter. Instead he called for the church to be prophetic and to work in solidarity with those being crushed by the ruling elite. Terms like love, salvation, hope, conversion, and the Word, fill his writings. I find it odd that while many authors mention his affinity with liberation theology, few of his biographers and interpreters have explored the underlying spirituality that drove and sustained him.

What I found in Freire was a Christian whose spirituality did not remove him from the pain and suffering of the world, but rather engaged him more fully in that pain and suffering. As he wrote one time, he “met Christ in the people.” This was a perspective with which I deeply resonated. For years I had noted that I felt God’s presence more fully in a political rally or demonstration, than I did in a worship service. Prayer seemed to make more sense as a way of expressing concern for other people and connecting with their struggle, than it did as a way of communicating with God. Jesus was less of a Savior on a pedestal, and more like a brother walking along side of me in the midst of the search for justice. Freire gave me a way of thinking about these aspects of the spiritual life that was not removed from the world, but rather fully engaged with it.

Just recently, I came across the book, Spirituality of Resistance by Roger Gottlieb. Gottlieb is an agnostic Jewish philosopher who teaches at Worcester (MA) Polytechnic Institute, and is actively involved in promoting awareness about the critical nature of global climate change and the environmental crisis. Like me, Gottlieb is seeking to find a way to connect with some sort of spiritual presence as a form of resistance to the poverty, disparity and environmental degradation being committed by governments, corporations and individuals. He writes “To find a peaceful heart…we need to live on this earth: fully conscious of what is happening on it, actively resisting that which we know to be evil or destructively ignorant.” (p. 13). In other words, we can’t go into our prayer closets or out in the woods to seek God or spiritual peace, and hope that God or technology will somehow save us from our own self-destructive ways. We must meet God while we we are engaged in the issues of life and seek and express our spirituality through lives of active resistance to the status quo and in solidarity with those seeking to create a more equitable and just world. While Gottlieb rejects traditional forms of religion (and at points is understandably critical of their contribution to the current social, economic and environmental crisis), he does not reject those who can find a way to engage this crisis through those means.

Gottlieb and Freire have renewed my interest in exploring what an engaged spirituality would look like in our time. I do not know at this point where that search might lead, but I am excited about the possibility of finding a way to be a spiritual person and yet fully immersed in the struggles of our time in a way that “seeks justice, loves mercy and walks humbly with our God.”

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Teachable Moment on the True Nature of Racism

The recent accusation of racism that led to the firing, apology and offer of a new job to Shirley Sherrod is instructive of many things on several levels. For those who may have missed it, conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart took a statement of Shirley Sherrod out of context to make it look like she discriminated against a white farmer in her role as an official in the Agriculture Department. FOX News ran the story as an example of Obama administration racism against whites, Ms. Sherrod was fired, and the NAACP (to whom her speech as addressed) denounced her words; then the truth came out. Ms. Sherrod’s story was exactly the opposite and the white farmer in question said she was an invaluable help to him. The Obama administration apologized and offered Ms. Sherrod another job, which at this moment she has neither accepted nor rejected. To read more on this incident go to this link.

Putting aside the out and out character defamation of Mr. Breitbart, the opportunistic race-baiting of FOX and the knee-jerk ineptness of Obama’s Agriculture Department, let me add a thought on why even if Ms. Sherrod had done what she was accused of, it could not be considered racism.

It seems that many folks are so uptight about race in this country, that we are afraid to honestly look at the underlying issue of institutionalized, systemic racism in our nation. The election of a black President did not eradicate racism in this country, it only made it more confusing for many to discuss, and raised the level of fear among many whites. The election of a black president, like the changing demographics of the United States as a whole, has a lot of whites in this country scared. By the year 2042 most demographers predict that white people will comprise less than 50% of the population. Whites will still comprise the largest racial/ethnic group, but Hispanics will be over 30%, while African-Americans will comprise about 12-13% and Asian/Pacific Islanders 6-8%. English will be one of many languages spoken. “American” history will by necessity have a different slant, as the various peoples who make up our populace will include less people from European backgrounds and more from Africa, Asia and Latin America. For a group of people who have always had their culture, their history, and their way of thinking and speaking as the norm, this signals change, and change generates fear for many white folks.

Having said that, the systems that are in place (education, law enforcement, health care, etc) still overwhelmingly serve white citizens much more effectively than they serve citizens of color. Why do schools with predominantly Latino and Black students generally receive significantly less funding than white school districts? Why do areas where people of color live experience more crime and less security than white neighborhoods? Why does the health care system not serve people of color with the same effectiveness as it does white patients? Why do African-American drug offenders consistently receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts committing the same crimes? The answers to these and related questions are both simple and complex. The simple answer is that racial preference and bias is built into the very systems that inequitably serve different groups of people. The complex answer is trying to figure out a way to make those systems serve all people equitably.

When people look at the laws and policies on these issues, one sees that while they may seem “fair” on the surface, the results they generate create tremendous inequities. For instance, funding public school systems with property taxes seems “fair” and yet when one looks at the disparate results, one sees that that system creates schools with widely different levels of resources. State and Federal governments are now trying to compensate by funneling additional funding to underfunded districts, encouraging charter schools and offering vouchers, but these actions are band-aids on an oozing sore. What is needed is a totally revamped system of how education is funded and delivered in this country. The people working in this system may be sincere, dedicated, and personally non-biased when it comes to race, but the system they work in is irretrievably discriminatory against people of color, especially when they are also poor.

Now that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some white schools or communities that lose out, or that there aren’t white citizens who sometimes are discriminated against, but the overarching pattern favors one group over another. The laws, the policies, the structures and the institutions that have served whites very well over the long haul, do not serve their fellow citizens of color at the same level. That’s racism; and one sees the effects of that racism by looking at the results these systems produce. Like doctors we need to use the symptoms to diagnose the underlying problem. Simply treating symptoms does nothing to address the underlying disease.

Had Shirley Sherrod chosen not to help a white farmer because he was white, that would have been an act of prejudice. If she had consistently chosen not to serve white farmers at the same level she served black farmers, that might be a pattern of racism on her part. However, the Agriculture Department where she worked historically takes quite good care of white farmers, and therefore would not be institutionally racist.

People like Andrew Breitbart and the folks at FOX News use distortions to distract folks (especially scared white folks) away from the deep systemic issues that need to be addressed in this country. I suspect that there are smart people at FOX, so I can imagine (though I don’t know) that their distortions and character assassinations are a deliberate attempt to keep the systems that privilege whites over others intact. They use half-truths (which are really lies) and out of context statements (like Breitbart’s video) to paint a picture that makes whites feel like they need to fight to “take the country back,” when in fact the systems in this country continue to serve them just fine. Parading a black spokesman like Republican National Chairman Michael Steele in their reports confuses the unsuspecting and gives flimsy justification for those who seek to keep the systems as they are. When it seems opportune, they then throw in the non-sensical charge of “reverse racism,” which is what happened in Sherrod's case.

As a white person, I am not interested in developing a system that punishes whites; that is not in my interest. However, as a white person of faith who is concerned for justice, I am committed to creating a system that serves all people equally. Honesty compels me to recognize that as a white person I can take for granted many things that my friends of color cannot: from the schools their kids attend, to the way they are treated by the police and courts, to how often their trash gets picked up to the kind of health care they receive to how they are treated by the media to who knows what.

One lesson we need to take from this unfortunate incident is to take a look at what is actually going on in this country. The disparities mentioned above are widely cited. Can we wake up and see what is going on? Shirley Sherrod told her story to illustrate her personal growth in race relations, but at the very worst she might have been prejudiced against one white man (which she was not). On the other hand, all of us live within a network of systems that is inherently racist and must be significantly overhauled, if this “land of the free” is going to offer that freedom equally to all.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Good to the Last Drop

This past week I attended the funeral of co-worker and good friend, Sheri Robinson. For the past three years Sheri had been battling cancer first of the breast and then the liver. Like any good “homegoing service” (a common term for funerals in the African-American Church), Sheri’s service was much more a tribute to her life than a mourning of her death.

While she was only 48, Sheri had lived a full and vibrant life. I met her about 11 or 12 years ago, when we hired her to join the faculty of Eastern University’s Degree Completion Program (a program designed to enable working adults to earn their college degrees). At the time of her hiring we were concerned about her stamina because she had already had one bout with cancer and many other medical issues, not to mention lupus, a disease that attacks your immune system. Over the years I knew her Sheri had battled various other health problems, even before this last battle with cancer. Given all the health challenges she had to face, it was a miracle she lived as long as she did. No, I take that back, it was a testament to the vibrancy of her living.

Sheri was a woman full of life and power. She was an intelligent woman with three degrees in HR, Marketing and Law. She loved students, and fought valiantly on their behalf. She always had a smile and a laugh, but behind that smile was a passion for justice, a concern for excellence and a deep love of people. Moreover, as was so beautifully brought out at her service, she gained strength and hope through her deep faith in and love for God. In addition to all her school and community involvements, Sheri was a leader in her church, both in her actions and in the quality of her faith.

That is why the preacher of the day chose to entitle his eulogy “Good to the Last Drop.” He based his remarks on Philippians 2.17, where Paul characterized his life this way: “I am being poured like a drink offering on the sacrifice.” This refers to the Old Testament passages that describe the drink offering of lambs’ blood poured out over a fire in the Temple, which then created a savory aroma up to God. He said that Sheri had poured out her life on behalf of others and of God, and that she had left nothing behind. She was “good to the last drop.” I agree – she was a woman who gave her all right to the end.

Funeral services often cause us to reflect on the nature of our lives. We ask ourselves: What will they say at my final service? Who will show up? More importantly what kind of legacy will I leave behind? Psychologist James Hollis says that the reality of death actually gives us the urgency to find meaning in the days and years we have. I think that is true. What is really important? What relationships do I need to nurture? What work do I have to do? What values and passions will fuel my living? Like most people I want my life to count for something. Like Sheri I want to be “good to the last drop.”

I said goodbye this week to a good friend, a great woman, a person of deep faith, and quality person. I was also reminded that this life we have is a gift from God, which in turn must be offered as a gift to others and the One who created us.

Friday, July 16, 2010

What Happened at West Philadelphia High School?

I have shared some of my feelings about the terrible string of decisions and actions regarding West Philadelphia High School. However, I came across a blog (A Good Day of Teaching) that puts it well: Did Saliyah Criz Steal Arlene's Thunder?" (For those unaware of the situation Saliyah Criz was the outstanding principal of West Philly High School who was replaced by Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman for "low test scores" despite having made tremendous progress in the school.

I can't say it any better, so I refer you her blog here.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Way of the World The Way of the World by Ron Suskind

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ron Suskind has a way of writing about current events and feeling like you live thru them. He follows the lives of several people in the years 2006-2008: an Afghan high school exchange student, a Pakistani college grad in the US, several CIA operatives, lawyers defending prisoners detained at Gitmo, Benazir Bhutto, George Bush and Dick Cheney. The message Suskind brings is clear: America's political leaders have lost their moral authority by pursuing an "annthing it takes to win" approach, even when that involves outright lieing to the American public about WMDs and terrorists cells in Iraq as a pretext for invading Iraq. Suskind can not be well liked by the former members of the Bush White House as he portrays them as people who lived by the maxim "don't confuse me with the facts, I know what I believe." Yet Suskind ends with a positive view of the ordinary American citizen who stills believes and lives by the values of honesty, integrity and compassion. I came away with a different feeling: that our place as a nation in the world has been severely undermined by the hypocrisy of our stated values (democracy, freedom, integrity, compassion) not being backed by our actions as country. I see the crumbling of the Empire, and its not pretty.

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