Black Lives Matter

A few months ago, I was asked to be part of a panel discussing policing, public policy, and race. The event was sponsored by a professional psychological association and was titled, “After Ferguson.” I was invited to be part of this panel because I am faculty in a graduate school in psychology, I’ve written about race issues in this blog and delivered sermons on this topic, and I’ve work in various African-American communities.

To be honest, I found the experience on the panel to be very confusing. A number of younger African-American people strongly resonated with a white panelist who spoke of the scars of racism in the country and admitted that all white people in the US benefitted from racism. At the same time, I felt like I was viewed negatively when I tried to address directions that could lead to better public policy and law enforcement practice. It wasn’t until the panel discussion was almost over that I realized that the vocal, younger African-American participants wanted me to publically confess my sins and guilt as a racist. But doing so seemed to me to be disingenuous and inappropriate given the topic of the panel discussion. The panelists had been invited to discuss ways to improve public policy that impact policing and minority communities including African-American, Latino/Hispanic, and LGBTQ.

After the presentation, I noticed that the younger African-Americans surrounded the one white panelist who claimed his own racism and seemed to treat him as a hero. As I watched, I couldn’t help but think, “He’s playing the audience but offering nothing substantive.” As I was leaving, I was stopped by a three older African American people (two men and a woman) who introduced themselves. One of the names I recognized as an historic leader in Atlanta’s civil rights movement. They told me that they appreciated what I was trying to do in terms of discussing institutional change. After a pause, the woman said, “Our children have a lot to learn about making social change.” We chuckled and I said, “Yep. You only learn that by doing it. It’s hard work, not cheap grace.”

This week, I watched the video tape of Hilary Clinton’s conversation with members of the group Black Lives Matter. I saw in that conversation something similar to my own experience at that panel discussion a few months ago. I also watched the same members of Black Lives Matter on Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting what these individuals are saying, but it seems to me that this young group of civil rights leaders is primarily focused on making sure others agree with their historic and political analysis with the belief that if others share in the analysis, somehow social change will happen. However, that’s not been my experience of how to be a catalyst for social change.

Over the years, I’ve worked for social change in regard to immigration reform, nuclear disarmament, gay rights, and the funding services and treatment for people with HIV/AIDS. I’ve also been in the backseat in work toward the Equal Rights Amendment and the pro-choice movement. Through it all, I’ve learned a simple lesson: I can’t expect others to agree with my analysis of social problems. But if there’s a clear, focused platform for change, enough people may be able to be pursued to work toward the goals that make up the platform for change to occur. But the goals need to be clear and feasible.

Yes, I believe that personal transformation is key to our growth and development as human beings. Yes, I believe that we are more fully human when we embrace diversity in ourselves and among other people. Yes, I believe that racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, and all the other social diseases only make us weaker as a nation — and as a community of people on Earth. And yes: I don’t have any reason to think that all people will embrace my views on such things. Some people actively choose to be hateful and bigoted and are proud of it.

Yes, I believe that the countries of the Americas were founded on the genocide of indigenous people. Yes, this pattern of subjugation continued with the enslavement of African people and became this country’s original sin. Yes, I believe that all economic development in the United States has been based on the subjugation of various groups of people. Most notably, economic development in the US was based on the subjugation of Africans, then on the subjugation of other immigrants including my grandparents who lived as indentured servants while working for mining companies. This pattern continues today with exploitation of Hispanic people. Because this is my analysis — an analysis with which many people agree — I cannot conclude that anything will change because the analysis is correct and insightful. Consistently, change happens when people stand up and say, “No more” and demand specific action.

Changed occurred when the women’s suffrage movement won voting rights for women by passing a constitutional amendment. Change occurred when the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s demanded laws that ended segregation and established voting rights. Change occurred when Stonewall Riots led to the ability of gay men and lesbians to congregate publically. (Yes, in many states, it was against the law for more than two or three gay men to be in the same place at the same time.) Change will occur again if there are attempts to change specific laws and policies that result in the mass incarceration of African American men, sub-standard education in urban environments, and single mothers working 60 hours a week at multiple jobs and still not being able to feed their children. But change will not occur because of the number of people who agree to a particular historic analysis or because a critical number of white people confess the sin of racism. Feelings of guilt do not lead to action but draw people toward self-preoccupation and greater inaction.

For me, bringing about a just society for all is rooted in the spiritual dimension of our lives. For any of us to be truly whole and to live in consonance with the mystery deep within us, we must work for equity among our brothers and sisters. This basic concept is reflected in the Golden Rule found in all of the world’s great religious traditions. For me it is enshrined in the words attributed to Jesus: whatsoever you to do the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me.

Yes, Black lives matter. They matter not because of a particular analysis of historical events and social patterns. Instead, Black lives matter because life is sacred. Fundamentally, Black lives matter is asking a simple and honest question: will society stop killing and subjugating people with dark skin? Yes, I want to stop that. So, what’s the plan? How do we stop it? What is this new civil rights agenda? I’m ready for change.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Musings on a Cosmic Spirituality

While sipping my morning coffee, I skimmed news headlines. One item caught my attention on National Public Radio’s web site: Astronomers Present New Information on the Aging Universe.

The universe is 14 billion years old. It began with what we commonly call the Big Bang. From the Big Bang, matter and energy began an expansion that fills what we know as the universe. Where does the universe go from here? A team of scientists has determined that the universe will continue expanding and in the process use up all the energy available until a time in the future when the universe will simply fade away. In other words, the universe, just like every living being we know, will one day come to an end. All the energy of life will be spent and the universe will fade away. The universe came about in a bang but will fade into silence.

Is this a depressing story? Is it an unhappy ending? What do we make of the knowledge that everything related to life in the universe (energy and matter) will one day come to an end?

As I reflect on this news, this scientific discovery, I find something poetic about the dynamic reality of the universe and life as I experience. In May of this year, I had the opportunity to return to my family’s home in Western Pennsylvania. I spent time visiting two cemeteries: one where my maternal grandparents and relatives have been buried and another when my paternal grandparents and my parents have been laid to rest. As I placed flowers and spent time at each grave of these family members, I recalled wonderful memories of their lives: meals shared, weddings, dances, times working together and ordinary events long past. I recalled the verse of Psalm 103: The wind blows and we are gone and our places never see us again.

While we seek permanence in life, in truth everything is impermanent. It’s not just our own lives and the things we create and shape that are impermanent. Instead, it is a fundamental truth of the universe that everything is impermanent: changing and growing toward a point of passing from existence. While we want to live with the illusion of permanence, perhaps a better way to live is with the recognition that we, like everything else, are passing through the seasons of life.

What I find most striking about the universe and its movement toward death is that the universe came to being with a powerful surge of energy out of a singularity (the Big Bang) and grew and expanded and is using all of its energy to create life — to be the energetic life that is the universe. This is nothing less than a wonder in itself! The universe will continue to spend energy, to give of itself, until it passes from this dynamic life to an inevitable death. But it gives this energetic life in ways that are growing and expansive and which inspire awe and wonder among whatever conscious beings exist.

Do we not fulfill our own lives as individuals, as families, and communities by following the fundamental pattern of the universe — to give our life-force and energy to stir up wonder and awe? Do we not find value in our lives by creating beauty, caring, and wonder around us? Is not the life worth living one that reaches beyond self to something greater? It seems to me that spending our lives for others, for the greater good, for something more than self is a foundational lesson of the universe. In this, it’s something of a cosmic spirituality.

No, I don’t find it sad or depressing that the universe will one day end. Instead, I find it inspiring. I know that my life follows the same pattern not just of plants and trees and the cycles of earthly-nature but that my life follows the pattern that is foundational to the universe. That inspires me to come to a deeper understanding of my life and my place in this wonderful universe that is giving all its energy to create and sustain life …. for billions and billions of years.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Sin: Can We Talk About It?

About a week ago, one of my Facebook (FB) friends posted this comment as a status up-date: “Everybody sins & God loves everybody. No exceptions. How come people like to separate the clauses?” I may not have given the comment much notice, but this FB friend is known to be theologically articulate and progressive. At first glance, I thought the comment seemed a bit shallow and representative of the kind of theology one would find on a bumper sticker. The incongruence of the statement coming from someone known to be theologically articulate gave me reason to ponder the comment. I thought I’d share some of my reflections on the two parts: “everybody sins” and “God loves everybody.”

Sin. What is it? The word is used a great deal and generally makes people uncomfortable. In the United States, social conservatives refer to personal actions like adultery, abortion, and sex between members of the same gender as sin. Social progressives tend to view failing to care for the poor and social injustice as sin. Much like everything else, we tend to approach sin in a relativistic way. Is sin like pornography? You know it when you see it. Or maybe sin is like that definition of promiscuity that holds that a promiscuous person is someone who has more sex than I do.

My progressive Christian friends don’t talk much about sin. The conservative Christians I know seem fixated on sin. When I’m with Buddhists, I don’t hear the word used. But I did have a Buddhist friend from Vietnam who regularly claimed that doing particular things were sins. When I asked her about this, she said that in Buddhism there are lots of sins.

The most common word used for sin in the Christian New Testament is the Greek word hamartia. It’s an archery term that literally means missing the mark or the target. In archery, if a person misses the mark, then there’s something flawed in the process of shooting the arrow. It’s not so much that someone does something wrong, but that there’s an incorrect approach to one’s stance, holding the arrow, aiming, etc. I presume that most of those reading this are like me and have no more experience with archery than playing an archery video game. But think of what goes into hitting a hole in one in golf, successfully shooting a foul shot in basketball, making a penalty kick in soccer or a turkey in bowling. Hitting the mark isn’t about just one thing. Hitting the mark involves a process in which one performs a set of skills with a precision. When one misses the mark, the hole in one, the foul shot, the penalty kick, something’s wrong with the process. That’s the essence of sin.

The writers of the New Testament didn’t understand sin as an act but as a way of being or doing that isn’t integrated, centered or properly balanced. Because sin is related to something that’s out of balance, we miss the mark. This understanding of sin was prevalent in Christianity for most of its first thousand years. It was lost to the narrow focus of sin as a particular action that came from penitential manuals created by Irish monks of Medieval Europe.

It’s useful for us to consider the ways in which our lives are out of balance. The truth is: we all live in a way that’s not centered. We work too much. We eat too much. We don’t exercise enough. We can be judgmental, demanding, impatient, and on and on. In other words, we all sin. We also know that when we experience life as balanced, when we have a sense of internal alignment, we treat self and others differently then when we’re out of balance.

When I think of experiencing that internal alignment or balance, I recall the experience of wholeness I find in meditation or contemplative prayer. There are also times when I write and the creative juices flow and everything in me seems to be focused and work together. There are other times as well, as in intimate moments with my beloved, when present to another in need of support, or when I’ve been walking or bike riding and find the rhythm of my body and the rhythm of nature around me moving as one. The experience of internal alignment or balance can be found in the experience of doing anything.

Living in balance and integration is a dimension of what Buddhists refer to as mindfulness. The practice of keeping one’s mind focused in the present moment has the ability to open us to the balance and integration that allows us to hit the mark. The balance and integration that allow us to hit the mark are tangible aspects of God’s love. It’s the opposite of the imbalance and lack of integration that is described as sin.

Here’s a suggestion that may be helpful to others: perhaps you can take a moment to think about or share as a comment something about your experience of hitting the mark and living out of the experience of balance and wholeness. After all, by sharing the journey together, we find insight for our own path.

(Originally posted on e-merging on January 26, 2011.)

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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