More of Us Than of Them

The Third Reconstruction, part 3

Groups that seem as disparate as the Sierra Club, the NAACP, the ACLU, the National Abortion Rights Action League, the coalition to stop gun violence, voting rights organizations, the Human Rights Campaign for LGBTQ, and Amnesty International are all working for healing what is at root the same wound: the impulse toward dominance.

No one has done more to bring these different orientations together into a single movement than William Barber. He explains how it got started:
“In December of 2006, we called a meeting of potential partners for this new coalition. Representatives of sixteen organizations showed up. We started with a blank sheet of butcher paper and asked each group to write the issue they were most concerned about. Then, on another sheet, we asked them to list the forces standing in the way of what their organization wanted. We learned something important at that first retreat: though our issues varied, we all recognized the same forces opposing us. What’s more, we saw something that we hadn’t had a space to talk about before: There were more of us than there were of them.” (The Third Reconstruction 50)
Yes, there are some differences. If you cherish diversity, then you have to be OK with disagreement. That’s how the forces of domination prevail – by turning anti-domination factions against each other. Yes, it’s true that Barber’s base in the Black Church is strong on civil rights, voting rights, education, and housing – and often less enthusiastic about LGBTQ equality.

In 2012, Barber’s coalition encountered an attempt to cripple his coalition by dividing it against itself. That year a group called the National Organization for Marriage got a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage on the North Carolina ballot. The National Organization for Marriage’s internal documents – eventually ordered released –
“revealed that their goal had little to do with morality. They had pitched this so-called ‘Amendment One’ as a way to split North Carolina’s growing black vote, pointing out that many African Americans were religious conservatives and would not support [same-sex] marriage. The way to split a moral movement, they said, is it get them arguing about morality.” (90)
What Barber recognized was the need to keep the focus on domination – the curtailment of freedom, the legalized discrimination, the codified hate. People who couldn’t see how it could be right for two women or two men to be married to each other could nevertheless see that the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom protected the right of every religious institution to discern together what God’s definition of marriage is. They could see that “Our First Amendment right entailed freedom from any government attempt to tell us what God says about marriage.” They could see that,
“In the end, it didn’t matter whether my faith tradition told me marriage was to be between one man and one woman; all of our faiths made clear that the codification of hate is never righteous. Legalized discrimination is never just. And a moral fusion movement cannot be divided by the fear-based tactics of so-called conservatives.”
Amendment One did pass in North Carolina, and stood for two years until struck down by the courts. But the campaign for Amendment One did not divide the fusion movement. Barber explains:
“We learned quickly, that once we were able to reframe the issue, people quickly grasped how the treatment of LGBTQ citizens was an issue of civil rights and human rights....Amendment One passed before we could get to all of North Carolina’s rural communities. But in the places where we were able to reframe the issue, the results were clear: voters in majority-black precincts in North Carolina’s five major cities rejected the amendment....It failed by a ratio of two to one on the African American side of Scotland Neck, a rural community in Halifax County, where our movement has established a strong base by organizing against environmental racism.” (92)
Another issue that you might think could divide the fusion coalition is women’s reproductive freedom. I was moved to read how Barber handled that:
“Now here were, standing together. I noted the pink shirts of Planned Parenthood members and recalled my early conversations with their president, Janet Colm. I’d told her that with our broad coalition we could not endorse abortion, so she asked, 'Can you support women’s rights and access to health care?' Absolutely, I told her, but I also needed something from her. Could she give us white women to speak up for a black woman’s right to vote? She said she’d do it herself. We went on a national talk show together. When the host asked Janet about Planned Parenthood, she said, ‘I’m actually here today to talk about voting rights.’ When she turned to me as a representative of the NAACP and asked about voting, I said, ‘I’m actually here today to talk about women’s rights and access to health care.'” This fusion coalition had brought us together, confusing old dividing lines and making more than one interviewer stutter as they tried to figure out new categories to name what was happening.” (108).
Diversity is our strength. The diversity has sometimes been turned against us to divide us. But we don’t have to let it. No, Barber’s defense of LGBTQ rights and of abortion rights is not as full-throated as mine would be, but I’m not going to let that stand in the way of supporting as much as I can the Moral Mondays campaign – and also supporting Planned Parenthood and LGBTQ inclusion as much as I can in ways that go further than Moral Mondays alone does.

We need not think alike to love alike. Our differences won’t divide us if we stay focused on opposing the domination strategy that engenders all of these injustices.

So here’s my ask. I ask you to get this book: William Barber, The Third Reconstruction. I ask you to read it. And then let’s talk about it. I ask you to come on Thu Apr 20 – Fellowship Hall – 7:30. Let’s talk about what we learned, and what we can do about it together.

Let’s do this because there is no peace for our spirits when our country’s policies increase domination and inequality and cruelty. Let’s do this because a faith institution concerned with healing spirits must address the social causes that wound our spirits. Let’s do this because when we see the one wound that underlies all the different justice issues, and we join together against domination, then there are more of us than there are of them.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "The Third Reconstruction"
See also
Part 1: Truth, Hope, and America
Part 2: I Thought I'd be Saying...


I Thought I'd Be Saying...

The Third Reconstruction, part 2

“We must tell America if you think we are just going have one march, or one campaign, you must be out of your mind, because we are going to resist the one moment mentality. We are building a movement, we are building a movement of moral dissent, and we win either way. We win if we win everything we’re fighting for, and we also win if we don’t win it but we sow the seeds for victory in the days to come. But whatever the case, we’re going to walk together children and we’re not going to get weary because it’s time for a Third Reconstruction. It’s time for a Third Renewal. It’s time for a revival of love and hope and truth and justice all over this country.”
William Barber spoke those words last June at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio. Barber is a Christian (Disciples of Christ) minister, and an organizer based in North Carolina. We had invited him to address our General Assembly – and now we have selected his book, The Third Reconstruction, as the Common Read for all Unitarian Universalists for this year – because he’s at the fore of a promising and hopeful fusion approach for justice.

Last June, as I arrived at Columbus for General Assembly, it was clear to me, as it was to many of the UUs coming together, that there was something distressing going on in this country. Like many of us, I thought then that the November election would produce a result different from the one it did produce. Even so, the candidate I thought would lose represented something that had been going on for some time, that was much broader, more widespread, than I had imagined as recently as 2015. Already, last June, I was running over in my mind, some of the things I thought I would be saying to you in the weeks and months after the election.

I thought I would be telling you that just because the white supremacists lost this election, doesn’t mean that fear and hatred have been defeated.

I thought I would be telling you that the campaign showed us that, for many of our neighbors, things have not been going as we had assumed.

I thought I would be telling you that in the eight years since the 2008 election, while most of us have felt frustrated that the march of justice and equality has been so bogged down, it turns out that many, many of our neighbors have somehow become alarmed and angry at the tiniest of steps that have been made – and that a lot more of our neighbors than we thought have imagined much bigger change than what we saw.

I thought I would be telling you that these reactive forces were not going away. The reaction against an African American president, reaction against the simple and obvious notion that black lives do matter, reaction against the proposition that the business as usual in this country – i.e., the treating of black or poor lives as if they mattered less than white and wealthy lives – ought to stop – reaction against marriage equality for LGBTQ folk, continuing reaction against women’s reproductive freedom, was bigger than we had imagined.

I thought I would be telling you that even though these forces lost an election, we have to find ways to address the despair from which their fear and hatred grow, for they, too, are children of God, are beings of inherent worth and dignity.

I thought that in the months after the new president was inaugurated, you might need reminding that the work of desegregating and equalizing our schools, extending hospitality to the stranger among us, responding as a people of faith and moral conscience to the refugee crisis, reforming our police forces, providing affordable housing, securing access to reproductive services, dismantling our incarceration nation, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting forest and wetland and other habitat, expanding access to quality health care for all, addressing the growing income inequality, creating jobs programs – all that work still needed to be pressed.

And then the election happened. And much of what I thought I would be telling you became too obvious to need mentioning. You don't need any reminding. We face a situation where despair is the bigger problem than complacency.

I thought I would be telling you what I heard William Barber say to us at General Assembly: “We are building a movement, we are building a movement of moral dissent,” -- that “it’s time for a Third Reconstruction. It’s time for a Third Renewal. It’s time for a revival of love and hope and truth and justice all over this country.” And that part holds, because it’s not about who wins this or that election. It’s about awakening and organizing the moral conscience of a nation no matter who happens to be in office. If we win, we win. If we lose, we still win insofar as we plant the seeds of victory in days to come.

What I will say, again, is that spiritual healing is the business of faith institutions. It’s our business. People show up at our door as they show up at the doors of thousands of congregations of many denominations across this country. They arrive heart sick for beloved community, torn inside by the stresses of negotiating a world that demonstratively holds that white lives matter more than black lives, lives of the wealthy matter more than the lives of the poor. We come to places of worship seeking inner peace, for there is no peace for our spirits when millions of our neighbors are mistreated, and have been for generations. There is no peace for our spirits when our country’s policies increase poverty and increase misery and increase cruelty. A faith institution concerned with healing spirits that does not turn its energies to address the social causes that wound our spirits is incompetent. It commits spiritual malpractice.

What I will say, again, is that all the various issues mentioned intersect. They are all products of what we can recognize as a single protective strategy gone wrong. Call it domination. The dominant class seeks to protect its domination with more domination: women must serve men, the poor must serve the rich, people of color must serve whites, the Earth and all her species must serve humans. Ultimately there is a single wound: the disconnection and pain of dominance and inequality. So whether we are marching for peace, for racial justice, or for lower carbon emissions, we are marching for the same healing vision of a fair and caring world.

This insight sometimes goes by the name intersectionality. William Barber doesn’t use that word. His word is fusion. Fusion politics, a fusion coalition, and a fusion movement – that’s what he talks about. Whether the key word is “fusion” or “intersectional” the point is the same: a wide range of justice issues are united by opposition to the ideology of dominance.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "The Third Reconstruction"
See also
Part 1: Truth, Hope, and America
Part 3: More of Us Than of Them


Truth, Hope, and America

The Third Reconstruction, part 1

The Spirit of Truth image has stood before her White Plains congregation for over 80 years, on the front of the pulpit I have occupied for less than four of those years. I admire the equanimity and equipoise with which she assesses all that comes within her purview -- including, this week, a Time magazine cover asking, "Is Truth Dead?" -- using the same red letters on a black background as Time's 1966 cover asking, "Is God dead?"

In 1966, Unitarian Universalists were mostly intrigued by the Time cover. Few of us were bothered by the suggestion that God may be dead. (Many of us were familiar with Nietzsche's "God is dead" claim.) This time, however, knowing, as we do, what prompts the magazine's question, it does bother us. There are such things as facts, and they deserve our respect. While we can never predict with detailed precision all the effects of a given policy, attention to the general direction of the evidence is vital for building "a land that binds up the broken." We need the truth, or our most careful and rigorous attention to the evidence, of who and what is broken, where, and how badly.

In our fallibility and finitude, with brains built for confirmation bias rather than for truth, we can never be sure when the Spirit of Truth is smiling upon our words. What we can do is pursue unflagging fidelity to the evidence, with a vigilant attention to where our own biases may be leading us down paths of misinterpretation. No, we can never be sure that Lady Truth is smiling upon our words, but with a humble commitment to the evidence, we can at least have confidence that Truth isn't tearing her hair out -- nor has she succumbed to her abusers. As long as there are those who elevate the question, "What does the evidence say?" over the question, "What does my ego want to believe?" then Truth is not dead.
What though the tempest round me roars
I know the truth, it liveth.
We need the truth, or at least careful attention to real evidence, to speak to power, for power will not concede on its own. We need the truth, especially when the evidence is surprising, does not confirm what we thought. We need the truth, not because it sets us free all by itself, but because it gives us hope that the oppressor’s story is not the only possibility. We need the truth because energized by that hope we can then take action and make ourselves and all the children of the Earth free. Dear Spirit of Truth, may we be thy faithful servants.

If truth is dead, then so is hope, for all that would then be left would be the narrative of power's self-justification. Looking for sources of hope -- disruptions of the Oppressor's Tale -- I read William Barber, The Third Reconstruction. Barber sees the current time as one of possibility and hope for significant new progress toward justice against those forces that oppress the poor and the darker skinned -- a third period of reconstruction in US history, following the first Reconstruction in the post-Civil-War years and a second reconstruction in the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s. Barber's book is the 2016-17 Common Read selected by the Unitarian Universalist Association.
"Drawing on the prophetic traditions of Jewish and Christian scripture, while making room for other sources of truth, the book challenges us to ground our justice work in moral dissent, even when there is no reasonable expectation of political success, and to do the hard work of coalition-building in a society that is fractured and polarized." (Gail Forsyth-Vail, Discussion Guide 2016-17 UUA Common Read)

For an introduction to the reality we face, and the sense of hope for transformation, Langston Hughes' 1935 poem remains resonant.

“Let America Be America Again”
Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Out of the recognition of our national failures, Hughes lifts up the possibilities of redemption. The poem "hopes" us. The mix of realism and hope was the brew William Barber was raised on. A few pages into The Third Reconstruction, he relates:
"When we were growing up, Grandmamma and her nieces always cooked for the whole family....When I was at her house, I often sat with them in the kitchen. They would hum songs from church as she rolled out biscuits and stirred pots on her old gas stove. They also had a ritual whenever the food was done. Grandmamma would take a bottle of the anointing oil that she rubbed on people’s heads when she prayed for them and slip it in the front of her apron. She and the other ladies would take some money, a rag, and some of the food they’d cooked and they would say, 'We’ll be back shortly. We’ve got to go and hope somebody.' As a young black boy learning proper English in school, I thought my uneducated grandmamma was misspeaking – that she mistook the word “hope” for “help.” I even may have tried to correct her error in word choice a time or two. But looking back, I see that Grandmamma articulated more theology in that single phrase than some preachers manage to get into an entire sermon....She knew in her bones that faith and works, belief and practice, were inseparable. And she knew in her careful choice of words that love in action was not simply about helping people. It was a practice of hope that both enabled others to keep going and helped her to keep her eyes on the prize and hold on.” (3-4)
About 120 pages later, at the end of his short book, Barber affirms the hope that has run throughout his story.
“If we refuse to be divided by fear and continue pushing forward together, I have no doubt that these nascent movements will swell into a Third Reconstruction to push America toward our truest hope of a “more perfect union” where peace is established through justice, not fear. This is no blind faith. We have seen it in North Carolina. We have seen it throughout America’s history. And we are witnessing it now in state-based, state-government-focused moral fusion coalitions that are gathering to stand against immoral deconstruction. Ours is the living hope of America’s black-led freedom struggle, summed up so well in Langston Hughes’s memorable claim that although America has never been America to him, even still he could swear, ‘America will be!’ Despite the dark money, the old fears, and vicious attacks of extremists, we know America will be because our deepest moral values are rooted in something greater than people’s ability to conspire. All the money in the world can’t change that bedrock truth. This is the confidence that has sustained every moral movement in the history of the world.” (122)
Truth is not dead. And as long as she lives, America may yet be born.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "The Third Reconstruction"
See also
Part 2: I Thought I'd Be Saying...
Part 3: More of Us Than of Them


Neither Blame Nor Sympathy

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016) describes the poor southern and midwestern culture that Vance himself comes from – a culture that President Obama had characterized eight years before:
“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them. . . . It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” (Barrack Obama, 2008)
The President got some flak for that comment. In an interview with CNN, Vance acknowledged that Obama had identified legitimate problems, but said the President lacked “sympathy.” But only a certain kind of sympathy will do – otherwise sympathy is condescending. Indeed, it would seem that any sympathy that doesn’t blame, that is nonjudgmental, is therefore, necessarily, condescending.
“Vance is after a certain kind of sympathy: sympathy among equals that doesn’t demean or condescend. Such sympathy can’t be deterministic and categorical. In fact, it must be a little judgmental; it must see the people to whom it’s extended as dignified individuals who retain their moral obligations. For Vance, it’s ‘anger at Mom for the life she chooses’—recognition of her present-day freedom—that makes ‘sympathy for the childhood she didn’t’ meaningful and humane. That’s because sympathy that fails to recognize culpability also fails to recognize potentiality. It becomes a form of giving up. If you’re a politician representing a troubled community from afar, as many élite politicians must be, then it’s easy to fall into this sympathy trap. At best, you can be a well-intentioned but nonjudgmental—and, therefore, condescending—outsider.” (Joshua Rothman, New Yorker)
Not that blaming is helpful either. For those of us outside of that culture, there is simply nothing we can say. It’s neither helpful nor fair to blame them for their own problems, and it’s condescending if we don’t. For now, there’s nothing to say. As Rothman concludes:
“Often, after a way of talking has obviously outlived its usefulness, a period of inarticulateness ensues; it’s not yet clear how we should talk going forward.”
J.D. Vance hopes the “broad community of hillbillies” will “wake the hell up” – but he believes that any awakening must be done from within. Those of us who aren’t from the poor white culture Vance describes should just shut up.

Vance doesn't blame government for the ills that beset his hometown, Middletown, OH, but he does believe that government cannot possibly help. In this, I think, he is wrong.

Roosevelt’s New Deal, for instance, made a big difference.
“Projects like the Resettlement Administration, led by Rexford Tugwell, which moved tenants to better land and provided loans for farm improvements, brought real progress. So did the Tennessee Valley Authority, which not only spurred development of much of the South but created training centers and entire planned towns—towns where hill children went to school with engineers’ kids.” (Alec MacGillis, Atlantic)
Not every part of the New Deal worked as well. But we've learned better the sorts of programs that will work.

Sometimes aid contributes to a work disincentive, and encourages gaming the system, fostering resentment against recipients (resentment that helped fueled Trump support). But we could certainly expand Medicaid and treatment programs for people with the drug addictions that have been increasing in places like Middletown. Public investment and jobs programs in the most struggling regions would help. Alternatively, policies could make it easier for people to move.

The rise of monopolies, the decline of American manufacturing, the weakening of organized labor, and the dramatic increase in income inequality since 1980 have all played a role in Middletown's problems, and are all susceptible to amelioration through government policy.

Income inequality has increased precipitously since 1980. Whether the reason was Reagan-era policies, or the inevitable fading of the equalizing effect of the WWII-economy, a more progressive tax structure could ameliorate income inequality.

The policy changes mentioned would help all the poor -- black or white, urban or rural. We can talk about the benefits of those policies without resort to either the stereotyped categories "hillbillies" or "ghetto." Beyond -- and perhaps prior to -- those policy changes, specific attention to the injustices faced by often-urban African American poor (and middle- and upper-class) is needed. It certainly isn't fair that the damage that drug abuse does to communities is met with sympathy when it's white folks abusing oxycontin and with blame/punishment when it's black folks abusing crack. That this difference exists is testament to the systemic racism that no discussion of poverty in America can overlook. A significant manifestation of that systemic racism continues to be the differential police relations with white and black communities.

There are certainly a number of steps that could be taken. But the impetus for legislative action to address social conditions requires sympathy or blame. We will never manage to pass any policy without the moral energy of sympathy, blame, and usually both. We can't do neither, so we'll have to try both: judicious blame encouraging responsibility, and a limited sort of sympathy that avoids condescension.

Criticism is a form of holding accountable -- a way to build community and connection by lifting an expectation that the criticized account for themselves. Criticism affirms the agency and the responsibility of those criticized. While criticism of the less privileged by the more privileged is fraught with peril, if done respectfully (and I have to hope that it is possible to criticize respectfully even across socio-economic power divides) it welcomes the criticized into the dialog of democracy, rather than subjecting them to deterministic treatment or the exclusion of being beneath notice. The behavior of members of dysfunctional communities -- whether poor small-town whites, poor urban blacks, or the police -- needs this attention of criticism. Balancing that criticism with sympathy should take the punitive edge off blame. And balancing the sympathy with careful criticism should take the condescending edge off sympathy. Thoughts?


Sorrow Carves the Container for Joy

The Blues, part 3
“When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight....Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” (Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet)
Animals we are, with bodies made for pain, made for attachment and therefore made for loss. I understand that there is only so much of the grief of the world that one person can take in, before feeling the need to step back, turn away, think about something else. But as we grow wiser, develop spiritually, we can take in more, be present to more of reality for longer periods.

Most of us recognize and are generally sensitive to the limits of our capacity to be present to the world’s pain. We don’t want to be a downer, always talking about "the awfulness, oh, the horrible awfulness of it all." (We recognize that mocking, don’t we? It’s a device for pushing away the full experience of our grief.)

But here’s something you might not have noticed. It is the same with ecstatic joy. There are limits to our capacity to be present to the world’s ecstasy. Soon we feel the need to step back, turn away, get serious again, get back to business. Here, too, as we grow wiser, develop spiritually, we can take in more, be present to more of reality for longer periods – both the reality of grief and the reality of joy.

Your capacity to hold, take in, and stay with the world’s sadness is equal to your capacity to hold, take in, and stay with joy – for there is really only one capacity there that takes in both. “The selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

The spiritual path is one of growing that capacity, that single capacity for being present to reality exactly as it is. When we are able to take in the woe, take it all the way in and not turn away, we perceive shining through it a jubilant beauty. When we stay with a euphoria, a rapturous happy celebration, take it all the way in and look at it all the way through, we perceive also its foundation of tragedy and pain. Your capacity for sadness is equal to your capacity for joy, because they are the same capacity.

We live in a culture that is not very spiritually developed. It thinks we need to push sadness away rather than welcome it in. But even our culture of relentless cheer, with its insatiable appetite for the vacuously happy and the shallowly upbeat, has a crack. The blues. For some people, listening to sad songs is the only time they voluntarily allow themselves the greater wholeness of presence to sadness.

With training in a spiritual discipline, that crack grows wider, and capacity for presence to sadness grows, the inclination to push it away diminishes. One such spiritual discipline is Tonglen: a form of meditation in Tibetan Buddhism. In this practice, one visualizes taking in the suffering of oneself and of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath giving recognition, compassion, and succor to all sentient beings. You imagine yourself breathing all the world’s anguish, letting your mind move to world events of war, violence, disease or to specific loss and hurt of people you know. Breath that in – take it into yourself. On the exhale, breath out compassion for this suffering. Imagine that your exhaled breath flows out to hurting people and gives them comfort. Objectively, it doesn’t – but spending some time imagining it does re-orients us toward living compassionately.

The Dalai Lama reports he practices Tonglen every day. He says, "Whether this meditation really helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective, and the benefit is immense."

We are in different places in our development of this capacity. For example, there once was a minister in his first year with his new congregation. At that congregation’s social event of the year, which included a big dinner, the new minister was invited to offer a prayer before dinner. And so he prayed, as was his way, calling to mind all of reality, those who are suffering and mourning, as well as all that is good, true, beautiful, and evokes our gratitude. It was a celebratory occasion, a time for revelry and cheer. For some of those gathered, the reminder of suffering seemed like a downer, inappropriate to the occasion. Others, though, understood that real joy is in connectedness to all of life, that every moment we intentionally push a part of reality out of our mind we perpetuate a kind of sham upon ourselves. For them, the prayer helped the occasion feel real and authentic. The call to compassion lifted their spirits because it connected them outside the little bubble of the moment. Centered in a wider reality, they were then ready to more whole-heartedly party.

The different responses illustrate that we are not all at the same place in our spiritual development. Wherever you may be on your spiritual journey, the blues offers to all of us a standing invitation for a greater presence to sadness – and the greater joy that goes with that.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "The Blues"
See also
Part 1: Dukkha and The Blues
Part 2: Happiness vs. Joy


Happiness vs. Joy

The Blues, part 2
“When things go wrong, I’d rather just be quiet with it than to feel nothing at all. It can feel good to hurt, or to at least bring the hurt up to the surface enough to get it out through tears, words or hugs. Life itself is incredibly tough, and that’s why we need sadness to get us through. If we ignore it too much, the world takes on a dishonest veneer, and we feel a bit dishonest ourselves.” (Lynn Cinnamon)
Blues music encompasses the full range of emotional expression – it’s a genre of a particular music structure that has been used for happy songs, triumphant songs, angry songs, or any emotion. What I’m particularly looking at today is the ones that are sad. They help us get in touch with our sadness – that is, they help us face rather than turn away from certain aspects of reality.

Facing the tragedy and loss, honoring it, becomes a part of a deeper joy that grows through sadness. Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell For You":
You made me leave my happy home
You took my love and now you're gone….
Love brings such misery and pain
I guess I’ll never be the same.
Love lost is so painful. Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” mourns both the separation from home – the alienation of a stranger in a strange land – and the unreliability of loving relationship.
But I'm cryin' baby
Honey don't you wanna go?
Back to the land of California
To my sweet home Chicago.
Outside of blues songs, sad songs are all over the country, rock, and pop pantheon:
  • Hank Williams, “I’m so lonesome I could cry.”
  • George Jones, “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me, Her Memory Will”
  • R.E.M. “Everybody hurts”
  • Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
  • Townes Van Zandt, “Waiting Around to Die”
  • Eric Clapton, “Tears in Heaven”
Glen Campbell, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” At the beginning of 2011, Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This was his farewell song, recorded even as he could feel his mind slipping. To his wife of more than 30 years, he addresses the repeated refrain:
I’m never gonna hold you like I did
Or say I love you to the kids
You’re never gonna see it in my eyes
It’s not gonna hurt me when you cry
I’m not gonna miss you.
The song is powerfully sad, in part by reminding us how sad it is not to be able to be sad.

And then there’s Sarah McLachlen singing a Randy Newman song, “When She Loved Me,” from Toy Story 2. The song is about a toy getting abandoned by her owner as she grows up. Bonnie Stiernberg commented: “I’m not a big Disney/Pixar person, but I have a distinct memory of seeing the movie in theaters with my parents as a kid, looking over during this scene and noticing that even my dad was crying. Over a cartoon toy cowgirl getting left under a bed.”

Why do we have songs like this? The theory that’s somewhat jokingly advanced is that it makes us feel better because we’re not as bad off as what the song depicts. I don’t buy that. We listen to the blues, or other sad songs, or go to sad movies or read sad novels, because it feels good to feel.

We have memorial services when a loved one dies, and we have taken to calling them celebrations of life – and they are – but there’s no escaping our need to have our sadness. In opening to that sadness, we open to a greater truth than we are likely to notice in happy times: that,
“the dead move through all of us, still glowing....The lost human voices speak through us and blend our complex love – our mourning without end” (May Sarton)
We practice sadness so we’ll know how to do it when we need to. And because empathizing makes us more compassionate, and compassion connects us to others. Because sharing tears, like sharing laughter, is an entrance-way into human community and the human family. It’s because it is how we face reality and discover in that reality an underlying joy.

You see, there’s a certain mistake we make when we treat happiness and joy as synonyms. I know that in many usages they are synonyms. But the temporary exultation of things going well is one thing -- let's call that happiness -- and the abiding sense that you belong, no matter how things are going is something quite different -- let's call that joy. If we adopt this way of distinguishing happiness from joy, then sadness is the opposite of happiness, while sadness is an essential component of joy. When we face reality without filtering out the parts we don’t like, without turning away from the hard parts even for a moment, our own belongingness in that reality grows more secure.

The more time we spend holding in awareness the sadness of the world – feeling the pain, loss, and tragedy – the more we are part of it, the more thoroughly we are integral to it all, the more clear our belongingness is, and thus the deeper is our joy. To an outsider, sometimes someone’s sadness might look like they’re depressed, but depression is a numbness, an inability to feel, and sadness is feeling – letting in the feeling and not turning away.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "The Blues"
See also
Part 1: Dukkha and The Blues
Part 3: Sorrow Carves the Container for Joy


Dukkha and The Blues

The Blues, part 1

Life is dukkha, said the Buddha. Dukkha is often translated as suffering or dissatisfaction. The word dukkha comes from a root referring to a wheel with the hub off-center. Imagine what it would be like to ride in a cart with the wheel's hub off-center. Life is a bumpy ride, Buddha was saying. Alternatively, dukkha refers to a dark space – the wheel’s hub is a hole, a dark space at the center. So another way to read dukkha is that it’s about recognizing that life has dark spaces – dark times come to us all.

Buddha said this as the first Noble Truth in his very first sermon after his great awakening. Dukkha is the first point of the first sermon, and that sermon continues to be the first and central point of Buddhism. Why would anyone make suffering – or even dissatisfaction – into the starting point of a religion, or an approach to life?

Judaism’s starting point is Genesis: God makes the World and it is good. There was light – and “God saw that the light was good.” There was dry land Earth over here and the seas over there – “and God saw that it was good.” Vegetation – plants and trees – “and God saw that it was good.” The sun, and the moon, and the stars set in the dome of the sky – “and God saw that it was good.” Wild animals, cattle, and everything that creeps upon the ground – “and God saw that it was good....God saw everything he had made and indeed it was very good.”

Now that’s the way to start off a religion, right? Good, good, good. Everything is very good. In Christianity, there is suffering. Jesus suffers considerably, but the point, we’re told, is that he suffers so we won’t have to. No suffering for us – so that’s OK. But why on earth would these Buddhists go for a religion that starts off saying life is suffering? Who needs that?

The Buddha does have reality on his side. Genesis does, too. They’re both right. The land and the oceans, the plants and the animals, the sun, moon, and stars – life IS good. It’s also got some bumps on the ride, some dark spaces.

Birth is unpleasant. Aging, sickness, death, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, despair, being around what you loathe, not being around what you love, not getting what you want – all of these are experiences that we all have or will have.

This is reality, and reality is never depressing. Denying reality can lead to depression -- the exhausting struggle to avoid facing what is there eventually can leave a person depleted, enervated. When we face the bumps clearly, our life can be much better.

And that is the wisdom of the Blues: When we face the bumps – the pain and grief – clearly, without trying to deny them, or push them away – when we “meet them at the door laughing and invite them in” (Rumi) – it makes life better. Through music and song, the blues addresses squarely the dukkha of misfortune, betrayal and regret. You lose your job, your mate falls out of love with you, your dog dies. You can try acting like everything’s fine when it isn’t. Better is to recognize that we need sadness.

If you haven’t seen the cartoon movie, “Inside Out,” I recommend it. It’s about an 11-year-old girl, Riley, and the feelings inside her head: Joy, fear, disgust, anger, and sadness. As the movie begins, Joy is the primary organizer in charge, and Joy doesn’t see any purpose for Sadness. She wants to keep Sadness contained within a small space so she won’t touch anything. Joy doesn’t want anything to be touched by blue Sadness. She takes a piece of chalk and draws a circle and tells Sadness stay inside that circle. Perhaps you have wanted to relegate sorrow to a distant corner of your life.

Our culture teaches us to force happiness, and this ends up making us more unhappy – because we get unhappy about not being happy, which compounds the unhappiness. But being sad wouldn’t still be with us if it didn’t help us survive. Psychologist Joseph Forgas surveying empirical studies finds that
“sadness can help people improve attention to external details, reduce judgmental bias, increase perseverance, and promote generosity. All of these findings build a case that sadness has some adaptive functions, and so should be accepted as an important component of our emotional repertoire.” (Forgas, "Four Ways Sadness May Be Good for You")
Of course, we’re not talking about debilitating depression. Mild, temporary sadness helps us cope with various aspects of life. The evidence suggests that humans evolved with sadness because our ancestors who got sad when faced with a difficult situation, could withdraw from the distractions of excitement and wonder, and were thus better able to work through the problem.

Over the course of “Inside Out,” Joy learns that Sadness can do things she can’t. When Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend, speaks of his traumatic past, all Joy can say is “Cheer up, get over it.” It’s Sadness who can be with – without trying to fix. It’s Sadness that can empathize – Sadness that can be an accepting presence. When Joy offers only distraction, Sadness offers comforting, accepting presence.

Our sadness signals to others our vulnerability and invites others to a closer connection with you – and their capacity to welcome sadness allows them to accept that invitation. Your experience will surely bear this out: the friends that you’ve been through sad times with are the closest ones. The friends with whom you’ve shared only happy times: not so dear.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "The Blues"
See also:
Part 2: Happiness vs. Joy
Part 3: Sorrow Carves the Container for Joy


True Dialog

Dialog is generally regarded as a good thing. Particularly in these polarized times, we are surely in need of dialog, and a lot of it. But when we think of dialog, we are usually thinking of dialog about something. And we think of mutual understanding as the salubrious result. David Bohm (1917-1992) encouraged dialog that isn't about anything, and in which misunderstanding is a necessary component.

Bohm, as one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th-century, thought a lot about very difficult things to think about. In doing what physicists do -- trying to get thinking to square with the ultimate nature of reality -- Bohm noticed that thinking itself is an inherently limited medium. We are always getting it wrong. If I think somebody did something wrong – I’m wrong. If I think somebody did something right – I’m wrong. As Korean spiritual teacher Seung Sahn often said:
“Open your mouth and you’re wrong.”
The best available corrective for the inherent error of any thought I might have is encounter with someone else’s thought. In other words, dialog. Of course, other people’s thought is just as wrong as mine is. The point isn’t to arrive at some better opinion to settle into, but simply to unsettle our opinions. He’s not saying get rid of your opinions. Just: unsettle them.
“People wish to be settled. Only insofar as they are unsettled is there any hope for them” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).
The great value of dialog isn’t that we get better or broader opinions, but that we come unsettled from any opinion, unsettled from any definite thought. Beyond that, said Bohm, true dialog can’t have a purpose. Dialog may end up accomplishing a lot of things, but we can’t start out with an idea of: “Here’s our problem, and how are we going to fix it.” That approach locks us into thoughts about what the problem is, and what a solution would look like -- thoughts that are always awry.

In dialog, we bring our thoughts, but try not to be locked into any of them. Everything is up for grabs in the free flow of ideas. A dialog group is not like a problem-solving group, a strategy group, or a planning group. It’s more like people sitting on the back porch sipping lemonade and gabbing about nothing in particular. In that context, anything can come up, and a thought at any level can be called into question without making people impatient to get on to the point. Indeed, whatever is being offered is the point. Goallessness is crucial.
“As soon as we try to accomplish a useful purpose or goal, we will have an assumption behind it as to what is useful, and that assumption is going to limit us. . . . In the dialo group we are not going to decide what to do about anything. This is crucial. Otherwise we are not free” (Bohm, On Dialog)
A dialog group needs conflict, so it needs to be fairly large. A group of less than 20 won’t generate enough conflict.
“If five or six people get together, they can usually adjust to each other so that they don’t say the things that upset each other – they get a ‘cozy adjustment.’ People can easily be very polite to each other and avoid the issues that may cause trouble....In a larger group...the politeness falls away pretty soon.”
In conflict comes the unsettling and the possibility of wholeness that we can never have on our own.

Dialog is something very different from the sort of discussion that “where people are batting the ideas back and forth and the object of the game is to win or to get points.” Instead, dialog depends on careful attention to subtle implications of one's own, and the group's, assumptions and reactions, and a predominant mood of relaxed, nonjudgmental curiosity.

In Dialog, each individual agrees to suspend judgment in the conversation. “Suspend” doesn’t mean you don’t have the judgment. It just means you don’t live there.
"...people in any group will bring to it assumptions, and as the group continues meeting, those assumptions will come up. What is called for is to suspend those assumptions, so that you neither carry them out nor suppress them. You don't believe them, nor do you disbelieve them....For example, if you feel that someone is an idiot, to suspend you would (a) refrain from saying so outwardly and (b) refrain from telling yourself you should not think such things.”
You don’t suppress the thought, nor do you indulge it. You “suspend” it – as if it were hanging in the air in front of you, and you just look at it, watch it. And you watch what the effects of the thought are. The thought “you are an idiot,” is going to be attended by feelings: agitation, anger, resentment. Don’t suppress those either. And don’t indulge them either. Watch the feelings as they run their course. See them without identifying with them. Suspending an assumption or reaction means attending to it without following through on it.

Dialog participants try to build on other individuals' ideas in the conversation. In this way, misunderstanding each other is central to the enterprise. In the misunderstanding of what another person meant, we might bring forth a new meaning.

"Bohm Dialog" does what the spiritual path generally does: helps us understand ourselves. What Bohm Dialog most centrally teaches is the current state of the group the participant is in.

Sound like fun? Find 19 other people and give it a try.


What Does Mercy Have to Say?

Scared, part 2

Let me mention another issue where our fear reaction overrode both rationality and mercy: our incarceration rate.

In 1930, about 200 of every 100,000 men was incarcerated. It stayed relatively flat for the next 40 years. Indeed, as of 1970, fewer than 200 of every 100,000 men was incarcerated. By 1980 it had climbed a bit, to 275 men per 100,000. Then it really took off. By 1990, we had jumped all the way to almost 600 per 100,000. By 2000, we were over 900 men per 100,000 in state or federal prison. The male incarceration rate peaked in 2007 at about 950 per 100,000. It’s dropped a little bit since then, but still stands about triple what it was in 1980. Women’s incarceration has also increased, albeit less dramatically.

The United States has 4.4 percent of the world’s population. Yet we have 22 percent of all the world’s prisoners. And we’re paying about $74 billion a year for all those prisons and jails. Adding in the people on probation or parole, and about 1 in 32 Americans are under some form of criminal justice system control.

The causes of the drastic uptick were both greater likelihood of a prison sentence, and longer sentence terms. These were driven by many states passing three-strikes laws, and mandatory sentencing. The War on drugs is a big part of this picture.

Americans got scared. We were scared of drug addicts, and whites were scared of African Americans, who are way disproportionately incarcerated.

We’re scared whether we have any basis for it or not. Gallup polling since 1989 has found that in most years in which there was a decline in the U.S. crime rate, a majority of Americans said that violent crime was getting worse.

Researchers suggest that changes in our news media contributed to growing fear and misperception. Media consolidation reduced competition. Media executives slashed budgets for investigative journalism. It was cheaper to fill the space from the police blotter. It is safer, easier and cheaper to write about crimes committed by poor people than the wealthy – who might be funding the advertising revenue. Stories about a missing white woman are cheap to produce and grab audience share "stay tuned for unfolding developments."

Fear grows, reactivity grows – we become, as a people, less rational and less merciful. The reality is that we in the developed world are safer than any human population ever has been. Try spending an afternoon in a Victorian cemetery, noticing how many gravestones have death-dates only a few years different from the birth-dates. The defining feeling of our age ought to be gratitude, not fear. Yet it seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear.

The numbers show decreasing crime, decreasing disease, increasing lifespan. However: “Shaped in a world of campfires and flint spears, our intuition is as innately lousy with numbers as it is good with stories.” (Gardner 93)

So what are we to do? Aware that fear gets attention, that fear can dominate lives, and that fear also leads us to bad decisions, how do we deal with it? How do we find a path to mercy and compassion?

First, and foremost, notice when you’re scared. Your fear reaction is an important part of who you are. Fear is your friend, and it is just trying to protect you. Listen attentively to what fear says. Don't do what it says until you've checked it out with rational assessment, but do listen. Notice when fear arises. “Ah, there’s fear," you might say to yourself. "Eyes are opening wider, heart beating a little faster – yep, I’m experiencing fear. Hello there, fear.”

Don’t tell the fear to go away. Don’t repress or suppress. And don’t indulge, either. You didn’t consciously decide for fear to arise, so you don’t get to decide it’s going away. What you can decide to do is see through your illusion of control.

Let fear go, not in the sense of dismissing it, but actually in the sense of allowing fear to proceed. You don’t have to do what it says to give it a full hearing. And the fear reaction is sort of like an inner toddler: what it most wants is attention. If it gets the attention that it wants, its demands tend to subside. But if you ignore it or deny it, its demands will take over in more surreptitious ways.

If Fear feels listened to, then Fear will begin calming down. It may take a little while. Give it all the time it needs. It’s when we don’t acknowledge our fears that they just keep on in the background pulling our levers.

Finally, it may help to remember that source of the living tradition that we are celebrating today: Jewish and Christian teachings that call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as ourselves. When fear arises, and you give it a fair hearing, you can then choose to call on other inner voices you have. You can say, “OK, let me now hear from love, from that capacity within me to love my neighbor, love all beings. What does my voice of universal love have to say? What does the voice of mercy have to say?”

That’s the question to come back to, the question I leave you with: What does mercy have to say?

* * *
This is part 2 of 2 of "Scared"
See also:
Part 1: Fear Stifles Mercy

Letting Go: Fear


Fear Stifles Mercy

Scared, part 1

In Melanie Watt's children's story, Scaredy Squirrel, our hero discovers the pleasures of leaping into the unknown. It is, of course, a lesson for us all.

There’s a lot of fear in our country. Many people were driven by fears of immigrants to vote last November for a man who promised a wall. (Is there any clearer symbol of fear?) And now there’s fear coming from the other side – fear of what is happening to our country. There’s a lot of fear on both sides of the partisan divide. Fear makes us less willing to extend mercy.

Fear itself typically does us more damage than the things we’re afraid of. For example, just after 9-11, for instance, fear of airplanes went up as you might imagine. Analyzing patterns of car use and airplane travel after 9-11 shows that there was a shift from airplanes to cars that lasted about one year. We have pretty good ways to measure total vehicle miles traveled, and, during the year it took a year for the fear of airplanes to die down, return to normal levels, we saw people putting in more miles by car. The thing is, airplane travel is safer. The fatalities per vehicle mile traveled stayed constant, so as automobile travel went up, so did traffic fatalities. Analysis of the numbers indicated that the extra car travel in the year after 9-11 killed just shy of 1600 people more than would have died had vehicle miles stayed constant. The actual collapse of the twin towers killed less than 3,000 people. The increased fear of airplanes over the next year killed over half again that many. Fear kills.

At home, children are forbidden from playing alone outdoors, as all generations did before, because their parents are convinced “every bush hides a pervert.” As it happens:
“Obesity, diabetes, and the other health problems caused in part by too much time sitting inside are a lot more dangerous than the specters haunting parental imaginations." (Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger, 13)
Fear, of course, has its purpose. We need fear. Fear helps us survive by grabbing our attention when there’s something to which we need to be attentive, and by gearing up energy to protect ourselves. We need to have the fear response. The thing is, though, that the fear response is often not very bright. The fear response can’t even tell the difference between your first-hand experience and someone else’s stories. It believes the examples that are most readily at hand. Statistics and rational risk analysis have no effect on the fear response. Fear will fixate on one lurid story. And that was fine for our hunter-gatherer ancestors who never traveled very far. For our ancestors, any vivid memory of danger ready to hand, was probably a memory of something that actually happened in their presence and not far from where they were at that moment. In a situation that looked similar to that memory, the warning bells of fear made sense.

But a system that grabs our attention like that is ripe for manipulation. So the evening news specializes in what is scary because it grabs attention. That’s what they need for their ratings. The consequence is that the overall fear in our lives grows.

Murder, terrorism, fire, flood – and sharks – seize our fearful imaginations. Risks like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease – and auto accidents -- are much greater but get less of our attention.
Citizens fear our undocumented neighbors and whites fear people of color, when the risks to our national prosperity are much greater from the reactive actions taken in the grip of this fear.

There is in our world a refugee crisis, with the plight of Syrian refugees especially heartrending. From worldvision.org:
  • 13.5 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance due to a violent civil war that began in 2011.
  • 4.9 million Syrians are refugees, and 6.1 million are displaced within Syria; half of those affected are children.
  • Children affected by the Syrian conflict are at risk of becoming ill, malnourished, abused, or exploited. Millions have been forced to quit school.
  • Most Syrian refugees remain in the Middle East, in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt; slightly more than 10 percent of the refugees have fled to Europe.
The March issue of On the Journey, on the topic of Mercy, which our Journey Groups will be discussing this month, includes a moving piece about this by my colleague, Rev. Erika Hewitt:
“For many reasons, people depart. They leave home—or the places given to them, in place of home that might’ve been lost to war—and seek refuge from a thousand dangers and uncertainties. For many reasons—many of them inconceivable to us, who live in relative peace and prosperity—people can’t stay where they are, in the places they know; so for themselves and for their children, they trade the hell they know for the unknown, and the foreign. For so many reasons—unimaginable to me, and maybe to you, too—people give up their sense of belonging; they surrender the climate and food and sounds and smells that their bodies have always known for the new, the unfamiliar, the harsh and unlearnable....Some members of our human family are throwing their arms wide to welcome those seeking mercy and seeking home; others are nearly taking up arms to drive them away....Those of us who call ourselves Americans are all, to some degree, complicit in the unstable geopolitical disasters that result in such vast human suffering....Our country’s own policies are culpable, and by extension, us: we have protected our American lifestyle of consumption and corporate rule....We’ve lost a bit of our soul. That’s what fear does. Fear is a voice that says: nothing matters more than self-preservation and self-importance. Fear drains the antifreeze out of your heart so your compassion center runs cold; it cuts off the feeding tubes that keep our souls supple and our morality intact....How much would it cost us to invoke the Principles of our faith, and the beating heart of our ethical lives, by saying: ‘We’re a single, interconnected human family.’ ‘We make one another stronger and braver by sharing what we have.’ ‘All people have the same worth and the same inherent dignity; [and] no human being is illegal.’ ‘The suffering of people beyond our borders asks us to examine how we’ve created the conditions for its existence.’” (Hewitt, "Seeking Mercy, Seeking Home")
Too many of our fellow residents of these United States have let fear make them deaf to this need for mercy. Fear kills, and mercy is the first fatality.

* * *
This is part 1 of 2 of "Scared"
See also
Part 2: What Does Mercy Have to Say?

Letting Go: Fear


Justice AND Mercy

Mercy Sakes! part 3

The Count of Monte Cristo wreaks upon his wrongdoers the perfection of retribution. For the betrayer who was cowardly, "afraid to challenge Dantes for Mercedes love directly," the Count "orchestrates a public accusation of treason," exposes his "claims to honorable military service as false. His wife and son then desert the deserter." For the one who was acting from greed, the Count "turns his own scheme of trading on public secrets against him, bankrupting him and publicly humiliating him." He is then "captured by greedy bandits at [the Count’s] instigation, and suffers near starvation and extortion" because of their greed. For the one who just went along with the other two because it would let him blackmail them later, the Count "turns his own blackmail against him." For the compassionless prosecutor whose own ambition led him to prosecute the case against Dantes though he knew to be ill-founded, the Count "arranges a public exposure of the crimes he... committed to achieve his position."

The reader is drawn in, attracted by the Count’s ingenuity, and delighted at the perfection of justice that is rendered. "The plunderer is plundered, the traitor betrayed, the blackmailer blackmailed, and the ambitious deposed by ambition". The Count himself gains nothing from all this. He spends down most of his fortune on it. "He does not even bother to clear his true name in public – even in the end when his revenge is complete." Nothing sullies the purity of the retributive justice.

Notice that what we’re seeing is not the carrying out of a private vendetta. It "is the very opposite of a private vendetta discharged by discreet duel or shadowy murder." The Count "transcends the personal;" his punishments are highly public. He is not merely a vengeful victim of wrong. He "plays the part of Providence [itself] – absolute justice come to earth." And the fear his betrayers feel as their downfall unfolds is a fear "not of Dantes, but of God" – for Dantes' reappearance after many years as a wealthy Count is so improbable that they can only think it a form of divine retribution.

"Each sees his own fate, his own life as under the power of a higher order and a higher justice. Each understands his punishment as just and deserved, and each has the opportunity to repent....Chaos is abolished; cosmos is reestablished." Yet even this most perfect justice, as art and not life can render it, goes astray. Alexander Dumas is too good an artist not to notice the difficulties inherent in even the most perfect of retributions.

The Count, after all, "is not omniscient nor omnipotent." The innocent suffer along with the guilty – family members of the betrayers also fall, though they had done no wrong. The cosmic scales are left as imbalanced as before – merely differently imbalanced. "Neither rewards nor punishments can be confined to their targets." Dantes is left to wonder toward the end of the book whether "perhaps God is not on his side" after all.

Dantes' quest "for a perfectly rational, perfectly fair, perfectly meaningful universe" in the end fails – because neither we nor our world is perfect. Justice cannot be the kind of thing that Dantes thought he was accomplishing. The problem is not that we humans, in our finitude and frailty, fail to achieve the ideal. The problem is that this ideal isn’t one we should ever really want.

We are thrown into this world to be with one another. And we mess up. All the time. Some of us will mess up in ways that are criminal – even felonious -- and all of us will mess up in ways that are rude, inconsiderate, less than fully respectful. This much of the traditional Christian doctrine of sin is true: we make mistakes, including moral mistakes. I don't think those mistakes are result from an inherently sinful nature. They result from being highly social organisms that: (a) must balance competing needs, including social needs; (b) are not always skillful at effectively balancing these needs, and (c) are built to learn through experimentation and the inevitable error that goes with it.

It is community, it is being-with, that is the only context of our wrongs and our only strength and our only salvation from those wrongs. It is in re-connection that the hope of wholeness lies. There is no ultimate rationality that can explain "why bad things happen to good people." Our maturity lies in the extent to which we can embrace the uncertainty and mystery that come with being finite, rather than seeking to resolve it all into retribution for wrong.

Dantes has made himself into something inhuman in the precision and perfection of his vision of justice. He loses kindness. He loses capacity to trust. He "loses his pride and his dignity." He sought to embody Providence, and indeed became as impassive and unfeeling as fate. Retribution "does not heal, it cauterizes."

So yes, we really need significant expansion in those alternatives to retribution I mentioned. This doesn’t mean the end of punishment. It means the reconceiving of punishment, such as Linda Ross Meyer does: "punishment is the shared memory of a wrong as wrong" (87). Wrong-doing affects the whole community, and we need structures that will allow and facilitate those offenders that are able to recognize that their greatest need is reconnection and restoration not just of the victim but of the community – to enact a humble penance of restoration.

This is a view of justice in which the very limitations that make perfect retributive justice impossible – our finitude, our inability to know all the effects of a given action or even to know all the actual actions -- are not our corruption, our unfortunate weakness. They are our humanity itself. It is boon not bane that we need each other to heal together. We are in continual need of mercy, of forgiving ourselves and each other, beginning again in love. In this capacity for re-beginning is both justice AND mercy. While impassive balance and order is neither possible nor particularly healing, our capacity to forgive and begin again is both.

This grace is free -- but, as the saying goes, not cheap. "We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love" is not a performative utterance. It may be a start, but more than saying it is required to make it so. A process of truth and reconciliation is necessary -- a process that, depending on the nature of the offense and the injury, may be difficult and even harrowing. This is the path of healing. If we seek justice that heals -- rather than merely, at best, cauterizing -- we must step into the abode where mercy is not "the madwoman in the attic" (11), but rather "the lady of the house" (44).

* * *
Quotations in this post are from Linda Ross Meyer, The Justice of Mercy. Unless otherwise indicated, they are from pp. 165-175.
This is part 3 of 3 of "Mercy Sakes!"

See also
Part 1: Mercy v. Justice
Part 2: Sin v. Disconnection

What Is Mercy?
Just Mercy


Sin v. Disconnection

Mercy Sakes! part 2

I once heard my colleague, Rev. Scott Tayler, UU minister now on the UUA denominational staff in Boston ("Director of Congregational Life"), tell the story of growing up with a father who was a traditional old-line Methodist minister. His Dad, he said, saw the world through the lens of sin. When he picked up the morning paper and read about what newspapers report about – crimes, scandals, wrong-doing, things going awry – he saw this all as manifestations of a basic sinful nature. Scott saw sadness and grief as clearly as his father did, he said. But rather than seeing it through the lens of sin, he saw it in terms of disconnection.

Too many of us are not connected in loving, caring relationships of respect. There are so many of us alienated, despairing, isolated, ungrounded, that all of us are to some degree affected by this anomie. Sometimes we’re scared. Sometimes our fear makes us angry and prone to behave in ways that just worsen the disconnection. But what we aren’t is corrupted in our soul. As Unitarians and others of liberal faith, we have no use for that old language of about inherently sinful nature.

We understand that the Calvinistic "total depravity" bit was a strategy for facilitating humility – curbing the arrogance of thinking we’re powerful enough and good enough to be in control. We get that. But there are other ways to get to humility, other paths to letting go of the illusion of control. So, this is us. We of liberal faith, while also seeking humility, letting go, and letting be, prefer the road that goes through "inherent worth and dignity" rather than the one that goes through "total depravity." We see the world's wounding as failure of connection rather than as sinful human nature; as failures to sustain contexts of nurturing relationships of care and accountability rather than as manifestations of inner corruption.

Broader culture still carries the residues of a notion of justice as something in the course of which none of us should see salvation. That notion makes mercy into something that has to intervene occasionally just so some of us can get on with our lives without having to be continually punished. This mercy is, as Portia said, not strained – not constrained by any rules or even guidelines. On that view of mercy, then, mercy is random -- without rhyme or reason.

The ideal of justice is to be fair and rational and treat like cases alike by having set, fair, transparent procedures. Mercy makes a hash of that aspiration. Mercy, being unconstrained, has no rules, no fairness. Her methods are opaque, her outcomes wildly variable. Mercy is "the madwoman in the attic" of the house of justice (Linda Ross Meyer, The Justice of Mercy) .

But that’s because we’ve been thinking about justice all wrong. Our system of justice still is primarily retributive. It’s a carry-over from two thousand years of theology of sin. According to the theology of sin, the only thing to do with sin is subject it to torment. In a few random cases it can be forgiven, cleansed, and expunged; otherwise, the bearers of sin can only be tortured forever. On the retributive model of justice, the only thing to do with wrong-doing is subject it to forms of pain and sacrifice. The guilty cannot be rehabilitated, corrected; belongingness in community cannot be restored, and therefore healing and meaning can never recur.

Today, there are alternatives being tried in limited ways in a few jurisdictions: there’s community mediation, victim-offender mediation, alternative sentencing, and restorative justice. We don’t have to be stuck in a retributive model. If we see wrong-doing as a product of disconnection rather than as a product of sin, then we'd want our justice system to restore connection, restore belonging.

By setting up Mercy and Justice as opposed to each other, we get neither. By seeing Mercy as the imposition of irrationality, we blind ourselves to the irrationality of our conception of Justice. For instance, we get mandatory sentencing, in the name of removing the unfairness of judicial discretion. But all we did was shift all the discretion to the prosecutor who decides whether to prosecute at all, and what plea-bargaining to offer.

Moreover, mandatory sentencing forces meaningfully different cases to be treated alike. The ideal of justice is: Treat like cases alike. With mandatory sentencing, we forgot that treating different cases alike is just as unjust as treating like cases differently.

One way to look at the fundamental wrongness of retributive justice is to imagine it at its most ideal. The real world is always messy, always has complications. The real world is never ideal. To see an ideal, we'd have to look to art rather than life. Alexander Dumas' 1844 novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, provides us with such an ideal.

Edmond Dantes, a valiant and honest young sailor, is betrayed by people he thought were his friends. One of them fears Dantes promotion to captain would put an end to his embezzling. Another wants to stop Dantes marriage so that he can woo Dantes’ fiancée. They fabricate false charges, and Dantes is thrown in prison. In prison, he meets another prisoner, who has an escape plan, and a map to an immense treasure -- but is dying. He gives the map to Dantes, tells him how can escape, and then dies. Dantes gets out, finds the treasure, assumes a new identity as the Count of Monte Cristo, and sets about tracking down his betrayers and plotting their undoing.

The Count of Monte Cristo sees himself as an avenging angel of Providence. He is the means by which God will restore the balance of right and wrong. At one point he declares his desire “to be Providence, because the thing that I know which is finest, greatest and most sublime in the world is to reward and punish.” Expense is no object as he is in possession of a fortune. And he takes his time working out the perfect form of revenge. He goes to great lengths to bring out the “natural” consequences of the evil character of his betrayers. He makes them in effect, live by their own law. The punishments he wreaks epitomize classic retributive justice.

Yet even perfected, retribution comes with a heavy cost.

Next: Costs of retributive justice.

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The account of The Count of Monte Cristo is adapted from Linda Ross Meyer, The Justice of Mercy, pp. 162-177. This is part 2 of 3 of "Mercy Sakes!"
See also
Part 1: Mercy v. Justice
Part 3: Justice AND Mercy

What Is Mercy?
Just Mercy