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.

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“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

Not Quite Back to Before

When President Barack Obama won re-election last week, the first thing that came to my mind was hearing Marin Mazzie sing the song “Back to Before” every night while I was in Ragtime on Broadway.  That was always my personal favorite of Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics from the entire show.  It reads like a love poem to a cherished and familiar lover that one must let go.  There are so many lettings go that we do in life.  Close friends of mine know that my favorite poem is by Elizabeth Bishop (One Art) and the refrain “the art of losing…” speaks to the way we tumble through life leaving behind a trail of ourselves that can never be recaptured.  Truly on election night, the United States left behind many things that say we can never go back to “before.”

On a personal level though, this signaled a breakthrough for me.  I carefully considered what it must feel like for those who were not supporting Obama to see this shift.  There seemed to be much more at stake than just an election.  We see that now with all of the secession petitions being signed and rhetoric about conservatives wanting to leave the country.  There was something endangered and then lost to these people that was extremely dear.  Was it privilege or power?  Or was it the foundation of how they defined themselves?  Looking in the mirror, I realized that somewhere along the lines, in all of my own letting go of life, I had left a part of myself behind that I too deeply loved; something that had defined how I saw myself for my entire early life: music.  The whole reason I was able hear Marin sing in 1998 as part of the incredible cast of that original show, was because when I was 13, Dr. Theodore Davidovich from the New England Conservatory of Music heard me sing a solo in the Northeast Junior District Choir and then suggested that I speak with someone at the school about voice lessons…that someone was Kim Scown, tenor, who lovingly introduced me to the magic of making music with my voice.  This was supported by the careful, if sometimes unorthodox, methods of George Perrone at Framingham South High who drilled me in music theory and other life lessons and discipline and I emerged from my youth a fairly well formed, near professional musician. College, cabaret shows, concerts, choirs, cruise ships, Broadway and National Tours followed…

And then one day, I had to leave it behind me.

There are many reasons this happens.  For me, it was about the need to discover that I was really more than just a body and a voice.  As a performer, it is easy to feel reduced to those things.  A Chorus Line asks that wonderful question, “Who am I anyway, am I my resume?”  And it is true.  We feel reduced to skill sets and types.  I knew I had more to offer: intuitive people skills, analytical capabilities, leadership skills.  These were all things I needed to discover about myself in order to get to where I am today.

It is the same with this election.  Many of us thought that ’08 was about “change.”  Change from the nightmare that had begun in 2000.  But ’08 was only about setting the stage for change.  The real change only began with last week’s election result and it happened because of a shift in the status quo.  We are no longer defined by how white, middle aged and male we are.  We are actually defined by our total diversity (including white middle aged men) and how that diverse population wants to see the world.  Funny, back in 2002, I was inspired to start a web based movement about diversity.  Some of my conservative friends scoffed at it; well, just look where we are today!  As a country, we can never go back to ‘before’ and where we are headed has the potential to be much brighter for more of us than where we came from…if we give it a chance.  This is a defining and transformative moment in our culture.  If we are smart, we will embrace it and look at the beautiful evolution that is taking place for all of us.

For myself, I am looking at my own evolution and re-re-inventing myself.  But like the song says, I can never go back to before.  So, I am still on track to become a Unitarian Universalist Minister; but I’ve learned that my ministry must come from my heart and soul which is my music…but a ‘new music’ if you will.  My music doesn’t have to define me anymore.  I will never be the young singer with stars in his eyes who was willing to get on a Greyhound Bus at 3 in the morning to make the 6 hour trip from Boston to New York, just to be seen for a part in a show.  I left him and his selfish dream behind.  I am free.  I am now, approaching 50, someone who has embraced so much more of who I am as a person and a leader and a real “voice” committed to making real change happen for people.  I am am carried on the wave of the voices of millions of people who never really felt like they had a stake in this country before last Tuesday.  People who must now be heard in all of their glorious harmony everywhere there are ears and hearts to hear.

At last, it is time for me to really start singing.  I look forward to sharing my journey, not quite back to ‘before’ with you all.

The following is a montage of selections from two performances on Holland America Line in 2007.  Thank you Yeonae Nam and Paul Pappas for the accompaniment.