Spirituality and the Environment: A Spirited Understanding of Sustainability

It happened again this morning. As I sat at my computer, I watched gentle breeze make black plastic shopping bag dance across my front lawn. In time, it was snagged by the growth around a cherry tree. In any given week, I’ll pick up plastic bags, water bottles, candy wrappers, chip bags, drinking cups, and other assorted debris from my lawn. While I’ve witnessed far more littering in the South than in any other place I’ve lived, improper disposal of waste happens throughout the country.

Recently, Pope Francis issued an official letter of more than 200 pages discussing the environment and climate change as a moral issue. Many objectors have stated that the Pope should focus on matters of religion and belief (since when is morality not a matter of belief?) and leave the science to scientists. The latter argument falls critically short given that scientists around the world agree that the climate change is related to human activity. In addition, Pope Francis was educated in chemistry, i.e., he is a scientist! In actuality, Pope Francis said nothing different from other recent popes. But Pope Francis has the attention of many people around the world in a way prior pontiffs did not. His words draw attention far beyond Catholicism in a way the words of his predecessors did not.

Our day to day behavior and attitudes are shaped by our spiritual values and practice. If we believe that the world is nothing more than a realm we pass through to achieve some better life, then we probably don’t care much about what happens to the planet. While I do believe in life beyond what we know and experience on Earth, I also believe that every aspect of the cosmos is fundamentally good and is imbued with something of the Divine. I base my belief on the Judeo-Christian story of creation in which each aspect of creation was declared to be “good” by the creator. If one believes that something is fundamentally good, then one has a duty and responsibility to treat it with respect and assure that our actions don’t spoil it.

In the scope of global climate change, litter in my yard is surely a small matter. Yet, littering is symptomatic of how people view the environment. The casual choices to litter, to dump chemicals in our lawns, to root out native landscaping and replace it with non-native vegetation that suits our tastes, to plant invasive species in new habitats all are part of the value system that has resulted in climate change. We may want to point to oil companies and hydraulic fracking or coal companies and mountain top removal as among the most significant contributors to climate change. Yes, by scale, many corporations have done immeasurable damage to the Earth. But the difference is only a matter of scale. When we are comfortable with littering or dumping chemicals in the lawn, why should we be concerned when corporations do the same things?

In order for us to live in a sustainable way on Earth, our hearts and minds need to change in order to embrace a spiritual path rooted in sustainability. Just as a person with regular practice of meditation knows that it is the practice of meditation that sustains a healthy balance in life, so a sustainable spirituality roots us to living in a balanced way on Earth. A sustainable spirituality — being animated by a spirit of sustainability — will empower us to practice sustainability in all aspects of our lives.

Sustainable spirituality needs to begin with each of us. A sustainable spirituality recognizes that just as we need to integrate and respect the various aspects of ourselves for wholeness and healing, so we also need to live in an integrated and respectful way with people and the environment. Sustainable spirituality recognizes that the inner dimension of the spiritual life and the outer dimension of living on Earth are fundamentally connected. They are not different but are simply different aspects of the whole.

Perhaps we need something of the same zeal and enthusiasm common among Evangelicals in order to spread the good news of sustainable spirituality. Indeed, when we truly integrate the spiritual dimension of ourselves with the other dimensions of our lives, we also grow toward wholeness with our planet and cosmos.

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

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Re-Writing History: The Confederate Flag and Southern Culture

It was something of a surreal moment. My sister and her family moved from Pennsylvania to South Carolina. I think the year was 1979. My nephew, no more than 8 years old at the time, when visiting my parent’s home for Christmas reported what he learned in school. He said full of enthusiasm: “Those Yankees invaded and took our property and freedom.” There was a stunned silence in the room. I remember starting to say, “You know that we are Yankees,” but my mother, wanting to maintain the holiday mood, used a hand motion to cut me off and asked about the flowers in South Carolina.

For four years I’ve lived in Atlanta. I’ve met many people. But I’m aware that there remains a real divide between North and South. I realized about a year ago that my new friends in Atlanta are transplants from the North like me. I’ve met many people who grew up in the South. I’ve invited people to dinners and parties. Two colleagues who pastor in the area often tell me that we should meet for lunch or that I should come over for dinner. But when I try to follow through and set-up a social meeting, I’m met with silence. There’s no direct rejection. It’s a polite lack of response that’s paired with a friendly looking smile.

A few weeks ago, I visited with a colleague who pastors a major church in Pittsburgh. He spoke of officiating a wedding some time ago in the Atlanta area. He concluded his comments by saying, “I just don’t get the inscrutable ways of Southerners.”

I’m not attempting to sound negative about Southerners. What I’m trying to say is that there is a very real cultural gulf that’s difficult to navigate. I presume that some Southerners find me to be too direct if not plainly rude. While I can understand that the values of Southern hospitality and gentility mean to always be kind and friendly with people, I honestly don’t know how to distinguish between authentic exchanges meant to build a friendship versus a gentile social grace.

The chasm deepens even more when it comes to the Civil War and the Confederacy. Those outside of the South may not be aware that the Civil War is more commonly called “the War of Northern Aggression” in the South. I’ve heard many people speak with pride about the role their grandparents and great-grandparents played in the war. There is a basic understanding that the Union of the United States infringed on State’s rights and that the Union stole property from the South. As I’ve researched historical documents to gain a better understanding of this State’s rights issue, I’ve found it clearly stated in declarations forming the Confederacy that the State’s rights in question were about the establishment of slavery and that the property stolen were slaves.

Here’s a section of one such document: Confederate States of America – Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union from April 26, 1852:

“These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.
“We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”

I live about a block from a Confederate cemetery. The cemetery is located in a wooden area between two neighborhoods where a majority of the residents are middle class African-Americans. At times when I walk through the neighborhood, I reflect on the irony of that those men fought and died to preserve slavery now they lay buried among the descendants of former slaves.

I also see throughout Georgia people flying the Confederate flag, affixing bumper stickers to cars and motorcycles, or wearing it as an emblem on their clothing. I’m told that it’s part of the culture. I’m told it’s a symbol or pride and self-determination. I’m told that people’s ancestors proudly died for that flag.

On some level, I respect that people fought and died for their convictions. The war was horribly brutal. It tore apart the country, families, and religious denominations and other social institutions. But I also cannot escape the reality that the war was fought to preserve slavery. The war was an act of rebellion against the country and based on racism and the conviction that some were created as so inferior that they could not be viewed as a person. The Confederate flag is the remaining official symbol of that racism and social stereo-typing that supported that worldview.

Were there Northerners who also made money from slavery? Of course there were. Were there Northerners who helped to build and enforce the slave trade of the South. Indeed, there were. But at a critical time there came the awareness that is was morally wrong for one person to own and enslave another. Such practices would have no place in the United States.

Today, the Confederate flag is flown from homes and yards near my boyhood home in Pennsylvania. It’s no longer just part of Southern culture. It remains a symbol of racism and rebellion against the principles of the United States Constitution. As a moral issue, I believe it’s time for people who believe that we are all created equal to call for the accountability of those who cling to symbols of racism and beliefs that only create division. It’s time to take down the Confederate flag and to honestly discuss the ways racism continues to be perpetrated in the United States. Taking down Confederate flags will not end racism. However, the flag is a powerful symbol of racism, rebellion, and treason against the United States. The flag has no place in American life today.

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

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The Duggar’s: Abuse and Conservative Religion

Until a few weeks ago, I had no idea who the Duggar family was. To my surprise, it appears that many people in North America have been following this conservative Christian family. Further, the Duggar’s seem to be very influenctial among various Evangelical Christian lobbying groups. It seems that they have become a sensation because of their reality TV show, 19 Kids and Counting. Even as I read some things about the family in the news in recent weeks, it seemed to me that the Duggar’s were faux celebrities much like the Kardashian’s and Paris Hilton: they never really did anything but yet they seem to be famous.

I received an email from one of my colleagues, a psychologist in another part of the country, who asked what I thought of the Duggar’s and the current sexual abuse scandal. It was her question that prompted me to learn more about the family. While I have clearly never met the Duggar’s nor have I watched their TV show, what I found in the press seemed to fit the pattern of domestic abuse.

There’s a common misperception that various types of domestic abuse, i.e., sexual abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse, or spiritual abuse, are different from one another. At root, they are all very much the same. Abuse is manifested in various forms but both the inner dynamics of the abuser and the family system within which abuse occurs are very much the same no matter what type of abuse occurs. In other words, psychological or spiritual abuse isn’t in some way better than sexual abuse. However, sexual abuse seems to both offend and fascinate the general public more than other forms of abuse.

While there are exceptions about most everything, there are some very typical patterns involved in abuse. Abusers are generally individuals who have a great deal of shame about themselves. Because their inner life (both thoughts and emotions) seem to be out of control for them, abusers generally become very controlling individuals. Abusers generally find that external structures like conservative religion, military life, or other kinds of regimentation, provide a sense of order to life to balance their internal sense of a lack of control. When that order is threatened, they often abuse others. When they find themselves becoming stressed, anxious, or filled with rage, they hurt others around them: physically, sexually, psychologically, and spiritually.

Abuse is typically inter-generational. Abusers were typically victims of abuse, often by someone older in the family. This doesn’t mean that if a person was abused that the person will become an abuser. The cycle can be stopped. Not all victims of abuse become abusers but it is rare for an abuser to have not been a victim earlier in life.

One way to understand the cycle of abuse is with the psychoanalytic concept called introjection. When someone abuses another, the abuser introjects (or inserts into the other) the capability of abuse to the victim. That happens as the abuser shatters the world of the victim and leaves this abusive tendency in the ruble.

It seems to me that the Duggar family fits much of the profile of a family living with abuse. Father Jim Bob is known for outbursts of anger. He’s also known for shaming others as is his wife, Michelle. The family embraced a rigid form of religion and, for a long period of time, cut itself off from outside influences like public schools and less rigid church groups. Once they became more public through their reality TV show, they displayed a high level of judgementalism and intolerance for those who lived less rigid lives than theirs. Interestingly, while neither Jim Bob or Michelle have any mental health training, they pride themselves on being counselors, particularly marriage counselors. (Jim Bob is actually a real estate agent, which is a fine profession — but not a qualification to be a marriage counselor.)

While the media has focused on the sexual abuse in the family surrounding son Josh as the perpetrator, as I read articles and quotes from the family, there are clear signs of psychological and spiritual abuse. Given the comments that other children in the family have made about Jim Bob’s anger and a very angry grandfather, I wonder about the potential of physical abuse as well, which may have been couched in terms of punishment for the children.

I strongly suspect that Josh didn’t just start engaging in sexual activity with younger siblings on his own. It is likely that Josh is himself a victim of sexual abuse. I wonder if the poor way in which the family dealt with Josh’s known abuse (it wasn’t a secret in the family) was a way to avoid admitting the family history of abuse.

I find the Duggar’s to be a very helpful example of what not to do in regard to family abuse. Abuse of any form is woven with judgementalism and shaming of self and others. Highly structured religion is often used a way of trying to keep things together because the emotions can be overwhelming. Tragically, there are families like the Duggar’s living in many communities and neighborhoods. I’m sure that there are people all of us know who have lived with abuse, whether we are aware of it or not. More often than not, abuse is kept as a secret.

Perhaps the good that can come from the Duggar’s is that more people can be aware of abuse and the need for quality professional services to break the cycle. It’s not something that goes away. Unless the cycle is broken and deep healing occurs, abuse continues from generation to generation.

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

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