Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Seeking Deeper Power

Just over five years ago on a very cold January afternoon I was arrested along with six others for blocking the entrance to Colisimo's gun shop on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia. We were there to call attention to the store’s complicity in the straw purchasing process that leads to illegal guns getting into communities that are overwhelmingly used in street crimes. In the trial that ensued one of the things that I was always uneasy about is that in our defense, our lawyer stressed that we were praying in front of the store as part of our protest. While I understand that public prayer has been an effective from of political protest going back at least to the Civil Rights Movement, that it makes for good political theater, and that was an effective legal defense strategy, in my case it just was not true. Frankly I was too #%&@ cold to pray!

There were some deeply spiritual people among the twelve people who were arrested over the two days of civil disobedience protest: a young woman who later that year walked the El Camino in northern Spain; a Jewish Rabbi who is  a spiritual guide to many young Jews; a Quaker activist who on the street and in the jail regularly called us to pray. But not me. Now I did have a sense going in that I was living out the apostle Paul’s call to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice”(Roman 12.1). However, while I probably should have been praying, I wasn’t. In that moment of protest I was not calling on a deeper source of power to transform Mr. Colisimo’s heart; I was just trying to stay warm while sitting in front of his store. Moreover,  when I was arrested and spent a day and night in jail I did not call on and sense God’s presence in the jail cell; I wish I had because when I was left alone by myself in the cell I felt  totally cut off from people and God , so much so that I  nearly went crazy. Instead of meeting God that day, I experienced trauma and a spiritual emptiness that took months for me to process. (To see my reflections on the experience go to this link). So when my lawyer said I was praying in front of the store, I wish it were true, but I was not.

Five years later in a different way I find myself facing a similar challenge and question. I find myself in a spiritual state of unease while being involved in the faith-based network POWER (Philadelphians Organized for Witness, Empowerment and Rebuilding). Through POWER I am engaged  with many others in a campaign to convince the governor and legislature of Pennsylvania to develop a full and fair funding formula for resourcing the state’s public schools, particularly the Philadelphia School system. In our meetings we talk about developing and exercising power, by which we mean getting people out to vote and to rallies in sufficient numbers to convince politicians that we are force to be reckoned with. Most, if not all, of the people involved would consider themselves “people of faith” by which they mean that their values and worldviews are shaped by their faith tradition be it Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Our gatherings often begin with prayer and a faith reflection, and yet somehow I feel like we are missing something extremely important, a deeper power, the power of the Spirit that shapes and informs our various faith traditions.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and the co-founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation writes about the Perennial Tradition, a belief coming out of the Roman Catholic tradition that affirms that there is “a Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world” that connects all the world’s faith traditions and from which each of  those traditions emerge. He compares this Divine Reality to an underground stream from which all faith traditions draw their strength and inspiration. Through the years there have been numerous efforts by Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist teachers to articulate and describe this deeper source of power that links all faith traditions, while at the same time honoring the uniqueness of each. Now for some this idea of a deeper power linking all spiritual traditions wades into troubling theological waters. For instance, in my Christian tradition we emphasize that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and Life and no one comes to [God] except through [him]” (John 14.6).  I have come to see this statement as just another one of the paradoxes of my faith, such as the first shall be last, that in dying we find new life, that in suffering there is victory, and that blessing comes through suffering. In the same way Jesus is the Way while at the same time he points me to a deeper power linking to people of various faith traditions much different than my own.

How else do we account for some of the great leaders and spiritual teachers who come from different traditions. How do I as a Christian account for the power of Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn, Aung San Suu Kyi, Malcom X, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Elie Wiesel? Yes I am inspired by Christian leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., John Woolman and Thomas Merton, but I can not dismiss the power of these other voices from outside my tradition as well.

I am not what one would call a spiritual person. Yes, I worship and pray, but I don’t go through life with an ever-present awareness of God in my life. I have never heard God’s voice, or had a profound mystical experience. Even so I work at it, regularly reading the Bible and other spiritual readings. I even try to meditate. The great teachers say to do it right you should meditate at least for 20 minutes two times a day. I can barely manage 10 minutes once a day, if that; I feel better for it, but I am not expecting any great breakthroughs anytime soon.

On the other hand, some of my most profound spiritual experiences have occurred in very non-religious, non-spiritual settings, such as when I attended the 2010 U. S. Social Forum where 15,000 social activists (most of whom were decidedly secular) met to share ideas and strategize on ways to bring about social change or when I gathered with about 50 others for a vigil in Philadelphia’s Love Park to call attention to gun violence in our community, or when I am walking the streets of West Philadelphia watching and sensing the dynamic of the neighborhood. Somehow when I am out there in the community working for the change that is needed in concert with many others, that’s when I feel most aware of God’s presence.

I try to practice what I and others have called an engaged spirituality, an approach that seeks to meet Christ in the midst of the people in action. It is through engaged spirituality that I wish that groups like POWER and Heeding God’s Call (a faith based group working on gun violence prevention) would realize that our strength and power comes not just from being able to exercise our political muscle but also comes from that deeper source from which all our spiritual traditions issue. Gandhi and King talked about soul-force, which I take to mean a source of power that is more than simply the collective numbers of faith-oriented persons working on a particular issue. Heschel said that prayer by its very nature is subversive  and that it works to overthrow the powers of oppression and falsehood. How do we tap into the power that can topple the power structures of our day? That’s the question I grapple with.

As I sometimes have shared in this blog space, I have grown skeptical of the political process in our day largely because the politicians are beholden to the wealthy 1%, lobbyists and corporations who line their pockets in exchange for deference and favors. For example, when 80% of Americans polled after the Sandy Hook massacre think there ought to be stricter gun laws and the Congress can’t even pass a weak background check bill, it is pretty obvious the politicians are not listening to the people; they are following the money. So I am skeptical of using the tactics of people power, unless those people come with pockets full of cash. To defeat the powers that be we must draw not just on our political power, but also on that deeper power that unites us as people of faith. We need to find ways to pray corporately even as we act to bring down the rulers of our day, both political and financial, so that justice can roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream of the Spirit (Amos 5.24.)

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Eating Ourselves Alive

When I was about 7 or 8 years old I went to visit my cousins who lived in the Chicago area. They had some guinea pigs who had just had babies. After the babies were born they took the adult guinea pigs out of the cage because as my aunt explained if the adult guinea pigs were not removed, they might eat their newborn babies. That memory came back to me the other day when I read about Dick Metcalf, a long time columnist with Guns & Ammo magazine who was fired for writing a column entitled “Let’s Talk Limits” in which he challenged the idea that the there ought not be any government regulation on gun use or ownership. He wrote: “…. way too many gun owners still seem to believe that any regulation of the right to keep and bear arms is an infringement. The fact is all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be.” In the past Metcalf has advocated regulation of concealed weapons and called for carriers of concealed weapons undergo training and preparation for responsibly bearing arms.

According to the editors of Guns and Ammo Metcalf went too far this time. Two days after the column appeared in late October, Metcalf was told that two major gun manufacturers, Ruger and Remington, threatened to pull their ads from the magazine unless Metcalf was fired.  So you know what happened. Metcalf is only the most recent of respected journalists and leaders in the pro-gun community who have been vanquished for questioning the “all or nothing” mentality of the NRA zealots and gun manufacturers.  Note that people like Metcalf are hardly what one would consider “moderate” on the issue of gun rights, so the fact that he would be ostracized shows just how narrow and rigid the “pro-gun” advocates are. The Second Amendment has become the holy grail in the minds of its worshippers, granting them absolute freedom to do whatever they want in the area of gun use and ownership. Newtown, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Tucson – nothing must dampen their worship of the almighty right to bear arms.

This most recent issue is illustrative of what is happening in the conservative political community in general. The Tea Party advocates like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are creating havoc within the Republican party, so much so that even House Speaker John Boehner, who is about as conservative as they come, has called them out for being too rigid and unyielding. Even Boehner knows that most of the gridlock in the House last year came about because Tea Party hardliners are trying to foist their rigid views on the rest of the Republican Party.  Like my cousins’ guinea pigs, they appear to be devouring one another.

Those of us who stand outside that intra-conservative debate should take note. Seeking to dialogue or reason with the ardent, hardline Tea Party, pro-gun types is not a logical strategy. However, joining forces with some who have been ostracized by their own people might make sense. On the other hand, we need to realize that as intractable and annoying as the John Boehners of the world may seem, they are only part of the problem. At issue is a deeper sickness in our culture.

While I get an admittedly sick joy in seeing conservatives beating up on one another, at the same time I am troubled by the uncompromising mean-spiritedness and narrow-mindedness that seems to be endemic in our culture. Last month I attended a rally commemorating the one year anniversary of the Newtown, CT shootings. The main speaker was former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, who during his term had attempted unsuccessfully to pass legislation restricting the sale of handguns through a predominantly Republican legislature. At the rally last month Rendell’s solution and charge to those gathered was that we become “one-issue voters” like the pro-gun folks. In other words, he was asking us to become as rigid, narrow-minded, and unyielding as our adversaries.  While I have yet to think of an appropriate alternative I found Gov. Rendell’s solution to be a less than satisfying.

Developmental psychologists tell us that one of the marks of maturity is the ability to live and work with ambiguity. By that standard our culture (as illustrated by the pro-gun rigidity and Gov. Rendell’s response) has regressed to a pre-teen level. Such a culture has no more room for a thinking person on the left as it does for a thinking person like Dick Metcalf on the right.  Perhaps those of us who are a bit more grown-up (i.e. those who realize that ambiguity and compromise are not bad things) need to let the purists devour themselves, while we try to figure out a way to live and work together productively. Holding strong opinions and views on issues is not the problem, nor is holding to one’s position on some issues. However, when rigidity and narrow-mindedness become the only response, then like those guinea pigs all we are doing is eating each other alive.

* pictures from Google Images

Thursday, January 02, 2014

What It Feels Like to be an Oxymoron

“He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction” – Kris Kristofferson “The Pilgrim”

Recently, I came across an open letter written by Asian-American Activist Kil Ja Kim entitled “The White Anti-Racist is an Oxymoron.” I encourage you to read it for yourself (link here ), but here is a short summary. She begins with the observation that “whiteness is a structure of domination” which is “at the heart of the U.S. social, economic and political system.” It is important to note that Kim writes this letter specifically for those whites who see themselves as actively working to dismantle that white supremacist system. Yet as she points out white people are those who benefit from the system and for whom and by whom the system was created. Even as white anti-racists work to dismantle the system, they are benefiting by it.

Whites cannot be but what and who they are. Kim is particularly bothered by whites who try to use their anti-racist stance as a badge of honor and who try to emulate people of color in their dress, hairstyles, speech and lifestyle. They try to take on some sort of “marginalized” social position not realizing that for whites such a position is largely a matter of choice, whereas for people of color there is no choice; marginalization is the position the white supremacist system has placed them in.

From my perspective Kim’s most damning statement is that “white activism, especially white anti-racism, is predicated on an economy of gratitude,” by which she means that anti-racist whites expect people of color to be grateful for them having joined the liberation cause. She points out that while people of color may be thankful for their white allies, those same people of color are often made to feel inferior for needing “help” in the first place. She concludes by challenging whites to do their own work, and to “figure out ways in which whiteness needs to die as a social structure and as an identity in which [whites] organize [their] anti-racist work.”

I plead guilty to having thought or done everything Kim mentions in her letter, and more. Most, if not all, that she says is true for most whites involved in anti-racist work. I have come to realize that I cannot not be racist. Like a fetus in the womb of a drug addicted woman, I was born addicted to racist privilege. This is not to say that my parents or any one in my extended family was a member of the KKK or a white supremacist group. On the contrary, my family has generally been liberally minded and inclusive when it comes to matters of race. However, the privilege we enjoy living in this society simply because we are white (See Peggy McIntosh’s classic essay on white privilege), the financial wealth we inherit because it could be passed down, the access to education, employment, cultural opportunities and more – these are all things that come to us as whites  simply because we are white. The society around us, the media we watch, the education we receive, the history we read and much more has explicitly and implicitly contended that the white way of life is the norm while at the same time has demeaned or  ignored the contributions of  people of color in those same arenas. So, yes for these reasons and many more, I am a racist.

I also consider myself an anti-racist ally; therein lies the contradiction. In my teaching, writing and work for gun violence prevention and educational justice I seek to name, challenge and dismantle structures of privilege and oppression (often two sides of the same coin). In my consumer choices, my investments, my friendships, and work relationships, I seek to be a voice and advocate for equity and justice. I have tried to do these things always maintaining relationships of accountability with friends of color who can and will set me straight. In spite of my best efforts I have spoken, acted, and thought in ways that betray my attachment to whiteness and my racism. Moreover, I take for granted many things that come to me simply because I am white. I try to be aware of such things, but I know I mess up much more than I wish.

I will also admit to participating in what Kim calls the “economy of gratitude.” In the past I have expected people of color to be thankful that I am ‘on their side.” However, I no longer think that way. I now realize that it is in the long term interest of white people, as well as people of color, that the structures of white power and privilege be dismantled. White anti-racist speaker, Tim Wise says it this way: “I fight racism because racism is a sickness in my community, and it damages me” (White Like Me, p. 182).  The laws and structures that degrade and dehumanize people of color in other ways dehumanize whites. The racism embedded in white society distorts and disables whites from living in the world as it is, even as it oppresses and alienates people of color.

I no longer expect people of color to appreciate me. In fact if I am honest I will admit that I need people of color to challenge me and hold me accountable, and make me feel uncomfortable from time to time. Kim ends her essay saying that people of color have got their work to do and whites have their work to do. Whites’ work is to figure out how dismantle whiteness and build identity on something other than the power and privilege that comes from simply being white. That system, while it is still in place, is a dying system, and keeps whites from living in meaningful relationships across differences of race and culture. It keeps whites from seeing themselves clearly for who they are. It keeps them from seeing the huge mistakes and crimes that their ancestors have perpetrated through history. It keeps them from embracing the present and future diversity in our country. It causes them  to fear those who are not like them. It cripples them, it cripples me, in so many ways.

So I accept that I am an oxymoron, a walking contradiction. At the same time I aspire to be a living paradox, an apparent contradiction that seeks a deeper truth and reality of what it means to be human. So for the time being, I will accept feeling out of place in the world – not at home in the company of whites who take their privilege for granted, while simultaneously accepting that people of color have an understandable and justifiable distrust of white anti-racists  like myself. Not always a comfortable feeling, but I think and hope it is the right way to try and live out my convictions for racial justice.