Wherefore Art Thou?

dubois

W.E.B. DuBois

In 1890 W.E.B. DuBois delivered a commencement address at Harvard[1] in which he tackled the issue of the impact that leadership has on society. He brilliantly foreshadows the work of Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (I and Thou – 1923). More importantly, his words ring ominously true today as we start 2017 in the United States. In the piece, he reflects on the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis:

I wish to consider not the man, but the type of civilization which his life represented: its foundation is the idea of the strong man—Individualism coupled with the rule of might

DuBois goes on to caution that:

The Strong Man and his mighty Right Arm has become the Strong Nation with its armies. Under whatever guise, however, a Jefferson Davis may appear as man, as race, or as nation, his life can only logically mean this: the advance of a part of the world at the expense of the whole; the overweening sense of the I, and the consequent forgetting of the Thou. It has thus happened, that advance in civilization has always been handicapped by shortsighted national selfishness.

Today, we are facing a New Year and a new government and sadly a new shortsightedness. The choice is stark: are we, as a society, a nation and individuals, going to be an isolated “I” or are we going to be partners in cultivating a world of “I-Thou”?

The incoming US Government administration has utilized a “post-truth”, bully posture to convince the American people that the schoolyard will be better for everyone as long as the chief punk is in charge. This has ushered in a new dark age in American idealism that finds its greatest motivation in fear…fear of exclusion from the club, fear of the other, fear of appearing weak, etc. It backs up a nouveau belligerence that has no grounding in facts or integrity. “Because I say so” has become the default bargaining phrase of the day and the “deals” that are already being struck are less about negotiation and more about coercion and self-aggrandizement. In this equation there is only “I”. The “I” of the “strong man” who only functions for himself* and the “I” of the minions responding to the source of their intimidation, each one trying to see a small part of the big bully/strong man reflected in themselves.

But there is also the dangerous “I” of apathetic immobilized malcontents who refuse to fight back because they believe the system will correct itself. These are the same people who in 1868 allowed Jefferson Davis and the rest of the Southern aggressors in the civil war to be pardoned “with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution and the laws which have been made in pursuance thereof.”[2] The result was Jefferson Davis and his “Strong Man” never being called to task for defending the institutionalized possession, abuse, rape and murder of other human beings in servitude. This laid the groundwork for the next 150 years of political apologists who still don’t understand why blacks don’t just “get over” slavery and the legacy of Jim Crow. The “I” of apathy does more damage because it is the “I” of retreat and acquiescence with the full knowledge that grave wrong is being committed. This is the same “I” that quickly defaults to assumptions of sameness as a rationale for inaction. It proudly proclaims on one hand that “All Lives Matter” and that it does not see race, but it refers to “the Hispanics” or “the gays” as if they are entirely different species. This is the “I” who will see you as long as they see themselves in you first.

But, I-Thou does not function based on sameness; it is not a filter. Instead, I-Thou is a manifestation of interconnectedness. I-Thou asks us to be in relationship regardless of our ability to agree. It says that there is no I without Thou. The great advantage here is the elimination of in-groups and out-groups and the true nourishment and safety of all. The challenge for us then today is to avoid being swept up in the wave of “Strong Man” individualism based on assumptions about how we are all the same and instead embrace the importance of being able to submit strength, individual or national to the benefit of all in celebration of our collective uniquenesses. In truth, the more the “Strong Man” abandons his relationship with “Thou”, he is not only weak, but an utter coward, afraid of his own human frailty and need. I cannot improve upon the words DuBois uses to drive home our greatest calling, particularly now at the dawn of an era that will challenge our most basic potential for interconnectedness:

What then is the change made in the conception of civilization, by adding to the idea of the Strong Man, that of the Submissive Man? It is this: The submission of the strength of the Strong to the advance of all—not in mere aimless sacrifice, but recognizing the fact that, “To no one type of mind is it given to discern the totality of Truth,[3]” that civilization cannot afford to lose the contribution of the very least of nations for its full development: that not only the assertion of the I, but also the submission to the Thou is the highest individualism.

Happy New Year!

– ALD

*I have intentionally retained the limited masculine language of “he/him/his” in this piece to reflect the original language used by both DuBois and Buber from which I have drawn my analysis.

[1] http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b196-i029

[2] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=72360

[3] New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, Volume 7, Issue: 3, March, 1890, 361-374

 

God or “whatever”

I have frequently heard liberal preachers speak of religious inclusion and at some point in their discourse, they offer up a list that goes something like this: “whether you believe in God, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Vishnu, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or whatever.”

Whatever? I know many Christians who would take issue with anyone who called Jesus a “whatever.”  There is a great deal of privilege that goes with being able to reduce every faith expression from the vast expanse of unnamed, or personally unfamiliar in the Western religious experience down to a “whatever.”  It is the same impulse I believe that lets the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” actually have traction among the some of the religious “nones” (those who are unaffiliated despite acknowledging a spiritual force.) Now, as a writer, I fully understand the casual grammatical placement of the word “whatever” here, but I’m more concerned with the intention behind the use of the word and the telescoping in a list like this from familiar to foreign.  I believe it is worth asking ourselves if we really are committed to inclusion if we’re not willing to complete the list…or at least to try.

Monday night, I was in Pastoral Care class at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, listening to a great lecture and interaction with our esteemed professor from the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Herbert Anderson.   Class was focused around how stories fit into our idea of pastoral care and what story telling, particularly the God story can mean in the pastoral context.  As a Unitarian Universalist who is in no way exclusively bound to the Bible, I was acutely aware of the Christian framing of this whole scenario: God, Jesus and the Bible applied in a deliberate way for healing, but regardless of my own spiritual framework, I still got a great deal out of the class.  I explained to a classmate afterward that I took this as just one mechanism for applying communication in a pastoral way.  I may or may not use Biblical scripture; it may or may not come when someone is in crisis.  No matter what, having the ability to help someone connect a shared human narrative to a lived experience can be a valuable tool.  But I was also reminded by another classmate that in some other traditions, this business of “pastoral care” is not something that one needs to learn or do as a separate skill.  In many ways (as it has been communicated to me by some of my Jewish colleagues) religion is the story; God is the lived experience; ‘pastoral care’ is entirely what it means to be a religious leader.

Whatever

My broader point may not be entirely clear yet.  This class was, by the professor’s admonition, Christian focused and framed.  But even in stripping away the Christianity, we must be mindful of where this understanding of a religious practice comes from because it may sit completely outside of the way and purpose of another faith tradition.  This is the ‘whatever.’  It would be so easy to say of pastoral care practices that they apply to all religions, Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, whatever…when in fact that is not the case.  But then our modern sense of ironic, tongue in cheek, media scripted humor says that we have an ‘out’ when we get to the end of our specific knowledge and our bulleted lists: Whatever. I say that if we reduce each other, even those we do not know about to ironic, witty or worse, snarky reactions and careless dismissive bucket phrases, we are as good as saying to them “you don’t matter and I don’t care.”  We face a similar dilemma in the LGBTQQI2S world; in an awkward attempt to create inclusion, we have created a trap for ourselves by attempting to reduce our beautiful tribe of gender fluid, sexuality affirming humans to a labeled container that will always be too small.  Coming back to religion, I’m well versed in the origins of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but I’ve all too often heard liberal religious folks use it as a bucket to mean “all those other faiths that I don’t have time enough to find out about or are too ‘out there’ for me to wrap my head around but I think they should be mentioned somehow because I want to protect my liberal cred.”

So what is the solution?  First, we in the progressive/liberal traditions need to take our religion more seriously and not be afraid of asking those around us who may not believe our way, or may not believe in anything at all to give us the respect of acknowledging that we do take it seriously.  We’ve all heard the talk of “recovering Catholics,” “bitter ex-Baptists” and “former Mormons” and their situations and feelings are real; but so are our feelings about a life that is shaped and guided by our faith in positive ways.  Common respect.  Second, we need to be careful of making light of those who come from more conservative camps than we do.  Although I think teaching creationism in school is dangerous work, particularly if it is the only thing being taught, I do not think parodying it is the answer.   All parody serves to do is bully the ones we don’t agree with into submission.  We will get much further in coming up with real solutions to keeping schools out of the battle over religion by understanding and being able to actually communicate with those from whom we differ.  We don’t have to learn how to be Evangelical or Pentecostal, but we do have to learn how to live along side those whose beliefs differ from our own.

Finally, I would ask that we make a commitment.  A commitment to real inclusion where when we get to the end of the list we acknowledge that our experience is limited…or better yet, that we don’t speak in lists at all.  Rather, we speak always of the greater body of faith traditions and expressions and that we don’t single out our personal practice as somehow standing above or first in line.  Real inclusion means everyone is at the table and that miraculously, no one is served last.

I will take your faith seriously and not mock your faith in any way whether it be by exclusion, assumption or dismissiveness or invalidation.  My faith is not yours…even if we share the same practice and tradition…nor is your faith mine…our faiths are personal and our experience of community and spirituality are unique…as are each of our stories and each of our lives.  We all own the freedom to live our faith as we feel necessary.

I will take time and care to speak of all spiritual practices with sensitivity, awareness, intention, Grace…whatever.

Too Quick to Covenant

“Should we create a covenant?”  These are familiar words to Unitarian Universalists.  I’ve found that in UU circles covenants are as common as coffee and dounts.  Bless our bleeding, left leaning hearts, it seems that UUs more than any group are always determined to be in “right relationship” with one another, and we frequently begin any kind of process or group exercise with a “covenant.”  Although I admire this eagerness to have level playing fields and understand how this can be a useful tool for helping groups stay on point, the specific use of the word “covenant” is a bit of a hot button to me.  As I delve deeper into understanding faith traditions and magnify that understanding in the lens of our modern world, I caution us all not to miss the point of true covenant or how the assumptions built into social covenants can actually harm us.

The covenants that most people are familiar with are those from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament.  The covenants entered into between God and Noah, God and Abraham, the Mosaic covenant, the covenant beween Jonathan and David and the Covenant of Christ are those which inform much of our modern interpretation of the word in Judeo-Christian culture.  I do not have the scholarly or linguistic heft to venture into a sufficiently deep explanation here of each of these examples, but suffice it to say that these are solemn agreements with God that assume two important absolutes: a) that one believes in God; b) that one believes in a God that believes in them.  Again, this is a much longer conversation…

I believe, however, it is useful to explore how in modern relationships, we take for granted a certain culture of covenant that has its own built in assumptions.  One of the basic definitions of a covenant is as an agreement.  It is first and foremost an agreement that two parties will fulfill certain obligations to one another.  One could call a covenant a “contract” of sorts.  One key difference however, is that a covenant is entered into between people or entities, or groups who know one another and hold a common goal or purpose, whereas a contract is generally between people who only have that agreement as their primary means of relationship.  A covenant serves to bind or enhance an already existing relationship.

The Biblical agreements that I mentioned before are definitely not just contracts. Often involving blood commitment, God (for those who believe and/or follow Abrahamic scripture) surely “knows” mankind.  God “knows” Noah, Abraham and Moses.  David and Jonathan “know” one another intimately and because of that intimacy, enter into their covenant.  The Covenant of God made through Christ, giving his Son for the forgiveness of man’s sin is one made based entirely on God’s omniscience, Jesus’ knowledge of his predestined mission and the acknowledgement man is willing to make in recognizing Christ as savior.  There is a lot of “knowing” going on here.

In today’s environment of deep political and social divide, it could be argued that we are in need of a covenant.  We are in need of an agreement that obliges us to protect one another and serve a common good.  Of course, we already have many agreements that are intended to do this, from the US Constitution to the Kyoto Protocol to NAFTA…and certainly the Judeo-Christian  covenants I point to should serve the purpose of making our world safe and nurturing.  We put on a good show in treating these agreements like covenants.  We see entire governments shaping the course of history based on some of these agreements.  We watch people protest for their rights based on their spiritual covenants.  But in a world that stumbles along on fractured social relationships…fractured by inequities and ignorance and fear and broad assumptions…even these solemn agreements with God become merely contracts that are too easily broken.

We all know what assumptions make….

The conservative LGBTQI hating Christian assumes that the world should want to function in their paradigm of truth.  The rich American capitalist assumes that everyone wants success in the way they see it.  Likewise, some of the the best ultra liberal Unitarian Universalists assume that the most damaging force to people of color is white privilege. These are just examples.  The point is that “right relationship” cannot happen until you are actually IN relationship with the other party. How well do you know me?  How well do I know you?  How deeply do our communities of trust actually engage one another in today’s world? Are we willing to sublimate our personal desires, agendas, guilt, etc. to acknowledge the world as it is seen through the eyes of others long enough to offer them the respect and love that would allow us to enter into a true covenant of human dignity?  A covenant is not a contract, so much as it is a commitment.  It is a commitment to be not just in right relationship, but to be in genuine relationship with one another.

Pardon the mixed cliches here…love your neighbor, but do not suffer fools.  If your neighbor is not willing to genuinely know you, and you are not willing to genuinely know your neighbor, you never stand the chance of embracing the true covenant of peace.