Million White Man March

Obama_WhiteHouseConfederateFlagAs I watch the current state of the US Government, it is difficult to regard it without also taking in the national climate surrounding what is going on.  Mass shootings, chronic homelessness, rabid religiosity and total religious apathy, education in decline, greater wealth gap, gender and gender identity wars, the complete meltdown of information systems and above all the total and absolute disintegration of cultural trust.  Houston we have a problem.

To me, this whole thing reminds me, sadly, of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.  I’ve referenced this movie before.  In it, the director portrays a world that is thrown into chaos when black people are liberated, particularly when a black man is in leadership (at least that’s how this black man sees the movie.)  That was 1915.  What is happening right now in 2013 is exactly the same thing; we have a black man in leadership and the cornerstone of everything American is falling to pieces.  Simple, right?

No, not so simple. This is what I believe, our dear conservative tea party Bible beating white male friends would like to have us believe: that because a black man is in the white house, mayhem ensues.  He (Obama) doesn’t have the capacity to lead; he is polarizing; he is inept; he has no authority.  This story line is exactly what D.W. Griffith was preaching.  But my dears, that was a movie, made by one white man 98 years ago. This is real life.  Or is it?  Could it be that our Tea Party friends aren’t quite as simple and bumpkinish as some of us high flying, over educated Liberals want to believe?  Remember, the Tea Party created Sarah Palin.  She is a complete and ignorant nobody, yet she is in our NATIONAL media and consciousness.  She is the ultimate creation of the “gotcha media” that she so scorns.  Like the bride of Frankenstein, SHE LIVES…and it would seem that she is carrying the torch for a completely fabricated movement to make President Obama the scapegoat and to reaffirm the bedrock of what American culture was originally built upon: oppressive white male colonial power.

Now why would someone do this?  Why would anyone wish to play out the storyline of a movie like Birth of a Nation?  Well, if you are attached to the security you felt when your world wasn’t challenged by someone else’s culture, or gender expression or wealth priorities or look or smell, you might just want things to go back to 1861.  But in this modern era, we live in an increasingly unstable and erratic world.  Most specifically, from November, 22 1963, as a nation, the United States was suddenly living in a world where “if it could happen…it would.”  The President of the United States was shot and killed and unlike the Lincoln murder that took not only days but sometimes weeks for people to become aware of, the entire nation experienced the loss of John F. Kennedy in real time.  The unthinkable of losing someone who’s image we had seen repeatedly and who’s voice we had known, happened and was transferred globally within minutes.

And that was just the beginning.  Footage of race riot brutality, Viet Nam, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy.  We spent the 1960’s being emotionally raped by a serial sickness of “if it can happen…it will.”  We emerged assuming that if a public figure was out in the open, they would be shot; if world finance was on the rise, sooner or later it would come crashing down; if there was a conflict between nations somewhere in the world, it would escalate into a convoluted political quagmire with unthinkable loss of human life.  And then, just as we were starting to show a few signs of emotional healing…September 11, 2001.  The attack on the World Trade Center in New York, more than the 50, 100, 200 years of tragedy leading up to it, sent us nationally over the edge.  Regardless of the political motivations of the attackers, or their connections to international networks or global terrorism, 9/11 meant that we were locked in the cycle of abuse once again.  If it could happen it would.

Suddenly we have Homeland Security, border control, language like “Islamist Extremism,” “freedom fries,” and cries of U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A! We entered an age of chronic national post traumatic stress disorder.  Our first thought is fear.  Our world is shaped by laws that, despite the language of law (innocent until proven guilty) assumes the worst.  We put people in prison for assumption; we have insurance we don’t need nor could ever use; metaphorically, we are shuttered away in our minds and our attitudes so that even if it is good for us to be in the sun, we don’t want any part of it because we might develop cancer.  Our reaction to learning of the abuses in the Catholic church is a classic example.  We assume now that everyone who interacts with children is predatory and thus we’ve created boundaries and walls and assumed guilt and an environment of suspicion. There now little Johnny, you’ll be safe!  Of course you won’t know what to do with yourself when you need comfort and you won’t think you could ever trust an adult, and you will develop attitudes that present no sense of community or interdependence on your peers or cultural identity and you will develop into someone who is more likely to perpetrate a mass shooting because of your disconnectedness and mistrust of others…but you’ll be safe! 

The current state of affairs is not just about the assumption of privilege by white men.  It is about the assumption of privilege being played out in a culture of trauma.  The million white man march of the tea party is reactionary; it is a symptom, it is not the problem.  Certainly, we need to fix the symptoms: racism, homophobia, classism, sexism, ageism, etc., but we need to go to the root of a national consciousness that is in deep and excruciating pain.

I am frequently asked about God and religion.  This is a constant for anyone who is in seminary.  I always reply with “I” statements, because I deeply believe that faith is entirely personal and that although we can unite as people who experience faith, the expression of that faith is as variable as the people involved, even within faith traditions.  For me, I believe that that breaking the cycle of trauma is dependent upon faith, for the sake of a better word.  My “faith” is rooted in my interpretation of Christian teachings and Unitarian Universalist principles. For others, it may be in Islam, or Judaism, or Humanism or Hinduism.  It may be a “faith” that is not god centered at all.  But trauma, any trauma, can only be healed by the distinct belief that one is unconditionally safe and loved, where the cycle of anticipating harm or loss is broken and put to rest.

The Tea Party and the Million White Man March are not the enemy. Instead, it is very clear that in a changing world on shifting ground they do not believe that they will be safe and cared for as they had been in the mythical pre-Birth of a Nation past.  As a result, they are trying to create this safety just as they created Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz by elaborately and deliberately fabricating a world where Obama will ultimately be a scapegoat and everything will magically return to the “way things were.”

And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. (Matthew 8:26 – NRSV)

I see you Tea Party; I see who you are and I will not let your fear bring us all down.  I will acknowledge your pain, for we all share in the trauma; but I will call you out on your crap.  Just remember that ultimately I will love you all the same, as I ask you to love me, because ultimately that is the only way this cycle will end.

Colonial Fool Part III: The Common Good

“The Common Good” is the first of two sermons being debuted at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento this summer, June 23 & August 4.  I decided to post this sermon partly in response to the irrational and misguided ignorance of the United States Supreme Court in their decision to gut the Voting Rights Act.  I have never seen a more clear example of narrow perception entirely changing someone’s world view and how the white male, heterosexual dominated concept of “common good” has a catastrophic strangle hold on our country.  Despite the lives lost over the years and the continuing restrictions on voting placed on non privileged and predominantly brown people in this country, four white men (and ‘Uncle’ Clarence) have decided that we’re done with Civil Rights.  

They have unleashed an unthinkable fury.

*** 

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

When I was in rehearsal for the Broadway show Ragtime, the Musical back in 1996, the whole performing cast had the good fortune to work closely with the creative team.  It was a heady experience working with the likes of E.L. Doctorow, Terrence McNallly, choreographer, Graciella Danielle; director, Frank Galati; composer, Stephen Flaherty and lyricist, Lynn Ahrens.  Not many people realized it but, Lynn Ahrens wrote many of the School House Rock tunes and lyrics including the “Preamble”…not the actual Preamble but the TV song.  I had some wonderful conversations with her about the craft of songwriting.  As a lyricist myself, I was very eager to share with her how much her music (prior to creating award winning shows like Ragtime, Once on This Island and Lucky Stiff) had meant to me as a very young person who was fascinated by communicating through song.  I told her that the “Preamble” was one of the tunes that I hummed constantly as a child and always looked forward to during my Saturday morning cartoons.  It was as a result of hearing catchy commercial music like this as well as studying the classics and a host of other music that led me to actually doing a show like Ragtime.  She was of course, flattered.  What is interesting to me now, however, is that there I was talking to her about the preamble of the United States Constitution, a paragraph that, although it has no real legal meaning, sets up the entirety of the rest of the Constitution as an instrument designed for the common good.  Yet, the show we were working on, Ragtime, was about the very different perceptions of what the common good actually is; how one person because of their sex, religion or race or social status, can experience the world as a very different set of outcomes entirely.  Ragtime is a musical about how different the common good looks to different people and how ill fitting the American dream really can be and the sacrifices that are made emotionally, culturally and even spiritually to live into that dream.

I was recently reading the book, Lovingkindness: the Revolutionary Art of Happiness.  The author, Sharon Salzberg shares a great deal about her own experience with discovering and embracing Buddhism.  I am struck by the clarity of her writing and I expect I will enjoy putting the book into action…not that it is an instruction manual on Buddhism, but rather a guide toward discovering ways to be genuinely happy through meditation and focus.  However, there is another part of me that is puzzled.  Salzberg, like many Westerners, traveled to the East to seek spiritual enlightenment, specifically through Buddhism.  This is something we hear a lot about, and we see a great deal right here in the Bay Area…Westerners embracing Buddhism.  I wonder, why don’t we hear about people coming from the East seeking spiritual enlightenment here in the states…seeking it from Christianity…Judaism…Unitarian Universalism?  No, instead, we hear about people coming here in search of wealth, or ways to learn how to be more wealthy.  That says a lot.  Why is this such a one way street?  Is it that the spiritual grass is that much greener?  Is Buddhism that much “better?”  I am not raising this question to at all be critical of Buddhism or those seeking/ practicing Buddhism.  I am just asking, rhetorically, what is missing in our own Western based spiritual practices that leaves us lacking?

Have we considered that it may not be lacking at all?

Consider this, every religion and spiritual practice seeks to do the same thing: make sense out of existence.  Whether that is to prepare us for the afterlife, death, or birth, or give us tools to sustain adversity, to give us hope, to build community, all of it is aimed at satisfying the answer to the perpetual “why?”  Even the lack of spiritual practice, even the determined belief that this is all we’ve got here and now, is a way of processing how we are in our existence.  It is human nature to ask “why” and that, as I see it, is about the only real common good that we can legitimately pursue: finding a personally satisfying explanation for the question “why life?”

Westerners traveling East to find “Truth.”  Odd thing, so if on a certain basic level we are all seeking the same thing, why would someone have to go to East to find truth?  What’s to say we aren’t able to attain the same level of enlightenment through our own Western traditions?  Are they that tainted?  Or are we?  Why should we have to learn someone else’s ways to find enlightenment.  The human animal, regardless of where they are, seeks peace in its heart.  It seeks oneness with existence.  In our largely Judeo Christian shaped Western world, we actually have the same goal of peace, enlightenment and truth as any Buddhist or Muslim, but we suffer from uniquely Western challenges of life. But Buddhists, Muslims and everyone else also suffers from their own unique challenges of life.  No human is perfect and no human is outwardly the same.  What binds us together is a sameness of inner purpose…not a sameness of outward practice.  If the purpose is linked to our being human and not how we are human, then it stands to reason that we should be able to find that “truth” within; regardless of how we choose to practice that truth.

I like to study anthropology in my spare time…genetics and human migrations.  It amazes me that humans who exist with no knowledge of one another all come up with the same stuff.  On a biological level, we all eat and secrete, we all procreate and die, but then also on a spiritual level, we all stand in awe of things we can’t explain and we seek an answer…whether that be through faith or science or both or neither. I love the fact that many scientists are actually deeply spiritual just for this reason. Ancient drawings, statues, language…all of these attest to the inner sameness of the human animal.  This is the reason every culture has ritual and spiritual practices and sometimes what we call religion.  There is a human tendency toward humility for our existence that wants to package that immense knowledge into something that is comprehensible; the real common good.

I try not to be the black guy who gets up and always talks about being black; and I don’t believe that conversations about race are all about black and white.  But I’m going to go there to demonstrate a related point.  I cannot stand the expression “post racial.”  It implies that we have “overcome” and hints at a job well done for everyone who was fighting through the sixties and seventies…yay, its all over now.   Many achievements have been made admittedly, but the same attitudes that created slavery in America still exist.  Slavery wasn’t created out of meanness.  Slavery was created out of ignorance and selfishness…and a sense of inherent superiority.  The assumed cultural superiority that created that disparity is still evident in advertising, public policy and pretty much everything else in this country that continues to live by a government and Constitution that was created by wealthy white men in a time long gone.  The more I study politics, I believe we will not ever be able to claim a cultural position in the United States of being “post racial” unless we are willing to give up the foundation of our government and start again by including all of the voices that make up the population.  My generation (Generation X) in the United States is the generation of deconstruction; we think…often too much.  Wedged between technology and the death of religion, civil and human rights and Reaganomics, we saw the world of the 60’s and 70’s spun completely out of control (my apologies to the Baby Boomers) and reaching adulthood said, quite simply, enough.  The words “post racial” are part of that spinning out of control “oh, we worked so hard, so there must be a result, right?”  There is indeed a result, but its not that easy.

Again, I am put off by calling something “post racial.”  For me “post racial” conjures up language like “color blindness” or believing that people of all races are the same or leveling the playing field.  I don’t want to leave my cultural, racial-isms behind…If I do, what does that leave me?  You see, the problem with the concept of “post racial” as it is largely presented is that it is based on a white Western concept of “commonality” which is fine if you are white and Western but rather lacking if you aren’t.  There is this assumption in “post racial” that my unique racial-ness can and WANTS to be blended into the concept of the “melting pot” and that this will be for the “common good.” But that is the same assumption that told me to straighten my hair.  It is the same assumption that told me to be a lawyer or doctor or banker.  It is the same assumption that says I should want a heterosexual modeled relationship.  But no, those priorities still leave one group calling the shots.  Ask the descendants of the Nisenan people, the Southern Madiu people, the Valley Miwok and Me-Wuk people, the Patwin people, the Wintun People and the Wintu people any of the indigenous people of the land we are sitting on nowAsk an Australian Aboriginal…ask different people what their “common good” represents and you will get very different answers.

The way in which we need most to become “post racial” isn’t by becoming “post racial” at all.  It is by becoming “post colonial”…letting go of a colonial Western centered world view.  When you look at indigenous people living off of the land or in nomadic tribes, do you see someone who has “less” or do you see someone living their truth?  When you see Shinto ritual, do you see primitive religion, or do you see honest insight into the heart of a culture?  News flash: some people not only want to live in villages, but they don’t understand why we don’t want to live close to our multiple generations and instead choose to cocoon ourselves in homes where we have so much “space” that we rarely see our children.  Some people don’t actually want to support endeavors that use money to make money.  Some people don’t want to be rich or even have any major stake in what our financial system is about, just ask some of our homeless populations.  Yes, we all need water, but at the cost of displacing people?  We all need clothing, but at the cost of modern slavery and the serious threat to health?  Are money and wealth and “prosperity” bad?  It really depends on who is pushed out of the way or manipulated to create that wealth.  And it definitely depends on who is defining what “wealth” really is.

In certain social justice circles there is a lot of talk today about “equity” and “sustainability” and “resilience.” But to what end?  Equity…so we can all have two leased cars a home with a mortgage and raise children who will spend 40 years working just so they can afford to retire? Who decided that our “American Way of Life” was such a good thing?  I actually don’t understand why we should have to live a lifestyle where we need to take 2 weeks of vacation.  If we were actually living in balance with what our bodies and minds and communities need, we would have no need for vacation.  We might actually live in balance with the seasons and also be able to embrace the shifts in ourselves from one time of life to the next, from day to day and from hour to hour.  There would be no retirement, because there would be an important role in the community waiting for us as elders and everyone in the community would want to support that role and all the other natural roles that are part of our human way of being.

The world that we…that’s you and me, people over the age of 40 have created, has reached a saturation point.  We cannot sustain any more useless attorneys.  We cannot build any more hospitals for rich people, and staff them with professionals who look at medicine as a profit centered business.  We cannot create any more schools of “higher learning” that are jammed with students who have to wait until someone else dies so that they can get a job.  We cannot pump any more pollution into the earth.  We cannot make our way of governing and our stewardship of the land we stole any more complicated.  We cannot keep doing this.  The next generations see it clear as a bell.  And although they love us, I do believe they are perfectly willing to let us charge headlong off the cliff…letting us die in the mess that we have created…because this world of capitalist pursuit without consequence does not suit THEIR common good.

Let me close by bringing this back around to our faith.  In his Berry Street Lecture “There’s a Change A-comin’” last year, Rev. Dr. Frederick J. Muir criticized what he calls the “iChurch” and rabid individualism among Unitarian Universalists.  It is a fascinating and delicious talk, but I caution against the negative framing of the Apple industries “i” in that the next stewards of our existence have a very different view of that little letter and the technology it represents.  Instead, I think it is more a question of whether we belong to a  “we-ligion” or a “me-ligion?”  I see ME-ligion as the faith practice that is purely driven by individual goals and desires and the individual truth.  We see this a lot.  Some of those same people who have gone abroad seeking Buddhism or other enlightenment come squarely from this space.  As do some people who experienced oppression in the name of other traditions they grew up with and carry that damage looking for healing and self reconciliation.  This is an important part of Unitarian Universalism that is even lifted up in our fourth principle “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  There is nothing wrong with self awareness.  But taken to an extreme, ME-ligion begins to assume that everyone is doing the same self centered practice.  WE-ligion on the other hand has the potential to acknowledge the identity of the self, while pointing more toward our sixth principle “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  Humility.  Here I believe is one place where we start to point toward that truth, that real “common good” that I speak of.  It is a common good that is small and simple enough to acknowledge that life and existence, however we experience it or explain it on a personal level, was here before us, is greater than us and will go on after us.  Yet it is a common good that is spacious enough for us to be our whole selves beyond the imaginary boundaries of “states” or the history of slavery and genocide, and allows us to access what is at our unique cores outside of Western contexts.  It is a common good that will enable the next generations to reclaim what it means to be truly human and wrest it from the priorities established in a monochromatic, monophonic world dominated by a handful of cultures who were motivated by fear.  And they will replace it with love.  Let us help them.  May it be so