Thursday, August 13, 2015

All Others

The last post above ends with Hindu nun Pravrajika Vrajaprana sharing how her life as a nun has unfolded with her now seeing moments of spiritual connection everywhere.  Worship is not just at church or temple or in the consecrated life of nun, but rather as something that happens in the details of work and daily life and, in particular, any time she comes in contact with the "other"--especially someone she does not know or like or understand.  It is that those moments that a spiritual distance appears which a person can work to cross.  It may not be a "real" distance but rather a perceived one.  Nevertheless, the ego seems to separate us from something that is eternal and connected. 

The opportunities for spiritual journey to cross these distances are ever present around us and multi-dimensional.  In this way, Hindu nun Pravrajika Vrajaprana leads us right into this post.

This is part 3 in a series on interfaith dialogue at the Festival of Faiths in Louisville, KY.

Part 1:  Interfaith is a Verb
Part 2:  The Journey Out is a Journey In
Part 4:  Merton's Vision: Transfiguration, Transformation and Transcendence

L-R: Rev. Robert S. Harvey, Rev. Daniel Corrie Shull, Rev. Willie D. Francois, III,
Rev. Neichelle Guidy Jones, Elizabeth Jones, JD.  Photo by Festival of Faiths, cropped.

Race, Gender, Class and All Other "Other-ing"

Interfaith relationships cause us to look at one of the most perennial challenges in human society: 

How do we relate to people we consider "other"?

The Festival hosted impassioned discussions by several millennial generation African-Americans who are leaders in Baptist and Pentecostal churches as well as in law.  Through their dialogue with each other and the audience, they highlighted the many layers of sensitivity and understanding required to identify, unpack and unravel a centuries-long legacy of sexism, racism, and classism. 

I encourage people to watch it on the Festival of Faith YouTube Channel.  It is the 4-part series entitled Discovering the Self in Sacred Journey with the Other:
     Part 1  --  Part 2  --  Part 3  --  Part 4

Understanding discrimination can be a multi-layered task.  Take racism, for example.   Many white Americans hold the view that America is largely a post-racist society.  After all, we have an African-American president and many African-Americans have risen to high levels of prominence in the culture.  There may be some minor clean up work to do, but largely we are over it, they say. 

On the other hand, many African-Americans have been saying quite loudly--and consistently for years--that racism is still at the top of the list of problems in America. 

Why are we seeing things so differently?  This by itself begs for more discussion.  It suggests that the American experience is dramatically different depending on the race of a person.  Do white people not see the existence or impact of racism, or are African-Americans still fighting shadows from the past of a problem that is no longer there?  People have opinions, but it is worth wondering whether they have every been in a true dialogue before arriving at those conclusions.

Racism may seem more visible in a rigid caste system of slaves and slave owners.  It trickier to delve deeper and find the mechanisms that are under the surface in our modern society.  The panelists at the Festival of Faiths argue that American society has gone from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration without much of an interruption.  While individuals have always had a chance of breaking out of the system and building prosperity for themselves (which even happened in the days of slavery), the underlying system of a racist society--where one race has more power and privilege than the other--is still in play.  One group is kept down by a system of discrimination, unequal treatment, domestic terrorism, poverty--and maybe more importantly, the unwillingness of the larger culture to take their concerns seriously.  These may be more subtle, but the mechanisms and their impact on people can be just as strong.  It is systemic, so even African-Americans can often participate in their own oppression.

The Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston has been bringing these issues more into the forefront than they have been for many years.  Still, there is a profound gap in American culture between the perspectives of white and black.  I encourage people to watch the videos directly, as this is a discussion that takes time and attention to unfold.  In a sound bite-driven culture, extended attention is a premium but in this case it is well worth it.  Parts 1 and 2 in particular address racism and mass incarceration most directly.

Racism is one example, but similar mechanisms exist for sexism and classism, as well.  A large body of comparative sociological data can help us identify a problem by pointing out inconsistencies, contradictions and unequal treatment.  We can show how power changes hands--or in this case, does not change hands-- over time.  But how does this relate to the realms of spirituality and religion?

Discrimination:  A Spiritual Matter

"Who Is My Neighbor?" (Luke 10:29)

Some people see reconciliation in racism, sexism and classism as part of their charitable work for social justice.  This is certainly noble, as treating people well is part and parcel of the commandments of virtually all of the religions of the world.

However, even this work can become compartmentalized and even neutralized.  As Rev. Willie D. Francois III, points out, Christian theology, for example, often focuses on Jesus as a means to individual salvation rather and personal morality than as a challenge to the social order.

Many wonderful spiritual leaders jump right in and tell us what they are doing for social change but often neglect to tell us exactly how their faith experience has led them to the point of social action.  Intuitively or otherwise, people have long held that the faith journey manifests into how we treat others.  Sometimes, however, it can be seen as tacked on to the spiritual experience as something "extra"--as if devotional practices like reading Scripture or attending worship services were the primary elements of a faith experience with charitable actions as only secondary.

Overcoming societal divisions is actually much more central to the faith experience than that.

For some, charitable deeds are an expression of gratitude toward God who has blessed them so abundantly and freely that they, in turn, want to share those blessings with others.  The role of gratitude in "paying it forward" cannot be understated, but that is a post for another time.

At some point, every mature person of faith has to wrestle with "otherness" however it may manifest.  It could be a Christian trying to relate to a Muslim; it could be a white person coming to terms with the entanglements of privilege of race; it could be an evangelical Christian in Appalachia meeting a Roman Catholic for the first time and then trying to sift through what he has heard about Catholics with the personal experience of the person he has gotten to know. 

"You never stop doing this work." - Rev. Willie D. Francois, III
Photo by Festival of Faiths, cropped.

Finding and eradicating privilege and "otherness"--both in society as well as in ourselves--takes constant vigilance.  "You never stop doing this work of overcoming what has been drilled into us," says Francois, offering a sobering perspective. While successes are possible, there are always more layers and more boundaries to overcome. 

Every person has been both a victim and a benefactor of discrimination somewhere in their lives.  The African-American men in the videos above, for example, speak strongly and prophetically about the racism they have experienced.  In the next breath, they are also willing to turn inward to explore and consider the ways that as males they themselves have had a position of privilege compared with women. 

Back to an earlier example then, if someone were to say that racism were over in America, that is more likely a sign of their denial to delve deeper than an observation of a culture change.

It's All About The Ego (According To The Ego)

Humans want to create groups.  Some people are "in" while others are "out."  As young people grow and form their identify, both psychologists and spiritual masters tell us that this grouping is essential.  However, the spiritual life calls us to eventually transcend this, as these groups are also the breeding ground for discrimination and, in many cases, violence.  The Buddha stressed that these "attachments" are the root of human suffering.  Jesus tirelessly challenged this throughout the Gospels by urging people to seek what is eternal instead of the transiency of this world.  His vision of the Kingdom, who is "in" and who is "out", turned upside down the Jewish and Roman soaked society in which he lived.  Jesus was consistently including those whom society either discarded entirely or relegated to lesser status.

It is for exactly these reasons that discussions of race, gender and class are not at the periphery but rather at the heart of the spiritual journey:  Those who are marginalized need to cry out for justice so they can remove obstructions to living into their full dignity.  On the other side, those who are not marginalized need these voices to tell them where they need to grow in order to open up to the fullness of what is eternal.  Everybody loses when someone is excluded.  To exclude someone, we have to deny a spiritual connection that exists and thus diminish our own spiritual awareness as well as the growth and changes in our lifestyle that would come from that awareness.

When people speak prophetically pointing out injustices, they are doing us all a favor.  It is the roadmap to untangling the obstructions created by the ego.  When people preach about our entanglements with injustice, it can seem like a burden at first, but in the long run they are providing a blessing and an opportunity for growth.

The presence of people who are "out" is a signpost of how much spiritual maturation society still needs to undergo.  This is how Jesus could say that how we regard the "least of these" (Matthew 25) is key to finding ourselves within the Kingdom of God.  This is also how it can be said that the private spiritual journey is completely interwoven with our relationships with other people and the world--through our relationships, we learn to transcend the false boundaries of this world in order to find a glimpse of what is eternal.  Our individual, private spiritual journeys must always lead us into our relationship with others and the world, because it is in wrestling with the boundaries we find in relationships that we can ultimately grow in our relationship to God.

Rev. Robert S. Harvey
Photo by Festival of Faiths, cropped.

These pastors are sensitive to the role churches play in entrenching notions of "other."  Harvey points out in the videos that the way heaven and hell are typically taught communicates that there is both an "in" and an "out" group--not just here on earth but as an eternal reality.  In this way, religion becomes a tool to keep society as it is (with its injustices in place) rather than a means to help imagine the way society could be according to the vision of the Kingdom of God.

Harvey sees his role as pastor as promoting questions rather than providing answers:  "We do not have essential views on what the Christ says or does but rather we leave people with the freedom of space to read and to take Christ as they will take Christ."  In other words, he is trying to promote a climate where his congregation can engage the "otherness" they find when they encounter Scripture, God and other people.  "We should not be so attached to our understanding that we are afraid of deconstructing its meaning and context."  This is an attempt to transcend grouping and the "othering" that accompanies it.

This reconciliation is especially important in religion as all too often religion has been a complicit supporter of oppressive systems.  While religion can manifest a prophetic voice for social change, all too often it becomes embedded within the dominant culture and starts speaking its language and seeing the world through its eyes. Harvey describes this as a "spiritual Stockholm Syndrome."  He continues:  "Our people have become so attached to the oppressive language that was imposed upon them about Jesus that now we identify with oppression as normalized."  Francois sas it this way: "White supremacy can inhabit black bodies."

Ecumenical vs. Interfaith

At the beginning of this string of posts on interfaith dialogue and the Festival of Faiths, I said I would talk about how the issues raised relate to the unity between Christians, as that has been the central theme of this blog.

The most obvious reason for the topics in this post is that Christianity includes people of all races, genders and social classes.  Any divisions between these groups will also affect the unity of the Body of Christ.  Sometimes this results in formal divisions, as church denominations break apart over these issues.  There are "white" and "black" denominations.  There are "rich" and "poor" churches.  Even when it does not result in a formal split, however, these divisions diminish the ability of the Body to work as a whole and function.  As 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 instructs, if the foot and the hand do not want be together, that does not stop the Body from being the Body.  But it does, however, stop it from working properly as all the parts need each other to be whole together.  The mouth may be speaking without first having ears to listen.

The relevance does not stop there, however.  A critical reason race, gender and class are important for ecumenical dialogue between Christians is this:  If we are only willing to dialogue with people who fit a certain criteria, then dialogue will always be stunted.  It is true that ecumenical dialogue between Christians is different than interfaith dialogue between people of non-Christian faith traditions.  However, the willingness to dialogue with literally anybody, to sincerely hear whatever is said by absolutely anyone, is the cornerstone of any true dialogue.  If we are only willing to dialogue between people we consider "legitimate" Christians, then on some level we need people to fit into our predetermined box before we dialogue, then it is questionable whether true dialogue can happen. 

It is as if people need a pre-dialogue to determine if they should dialogue. 

It is like saying, "I am only willing to hear you if you say what I want or think you will say."  A person would be trying to take what someone says and try to make it fit into their own categories of understanding.  As a result, this kind of conversation is more of us talking to ourselves than truly listening to what the other is saying, doing and ultimately being. 

Psychologists say we all do this to some extent, as that is how the brain functions through grouping.  However, there is a difference between taking the other and trying to make them fit into my boxes and trying to take a step toward the other and reconfigure my boxes in the process. 

We all ultimately want to see ourselves reflected back in the other person.  This can be either profoundly enlightened or disappointing depending on the intent:  The important question is whether we want to see our false self created by the ego or our true self created by God for eternity? 

This openness to the mystery of the other ultimately opens us up to the mystery of God.  This why interfaith dialogue, better than anything else, prepares us for the mystery of the unknown which we find whenever we encounter "otherness."  It prepares us for dialogue with people who we suspect do not share commonalities with us.

In other words, it is hard, and may be impossible, to have ecumenical dialogue between Christians if the parties are not willing to have an interfaith openness in the process.  I am not denouncing the importance of Christian-to-Christian dialogue at all--it is vitally important.  I am only saying that the openness required for interfaith dialogue creates a necessary platform for that kind of dialogue to happen in the best possible way.

It is also important for this reason:  When two Christians meet, very often at least of them is not entirely sure whether they are a Christians or not.  One party may assume they are having an ecumenical encounter between Christians while the other may treat it like an interfaith encounter. 

Join me in the next posts as I offer some concluding thoughts on interfaith dialogue at the Festival of Faiths, followed by a post on Catholic monk and "North Star" for the Festival, Thomas Merton!

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