GRIST IN THE MILL OF JUSTICE: Notes on Spiritual Resistance

Allow me to begin by saying that this essay will not be of interest to everyone who reads it. This is because not everyone in our society engages in some form of spiritual practice. I take this opportunity to differentiate the spiritual from the religious: the latter is a series of procedures and observances, the former an attempt to enact religious principles in everyday life. The Republican Party of the United States is an excellent example of an organization that adheres to visible pieties while making no attempt to enact the religious principles of the tradition from which those pieties spring. In contrast to Jesus’s instructions to feed the hungry, for example, Republican politicians at all levels of US government routinely conspire to cut food stamp programs, criminalize homelessness and restrict healthcare options for women (with disproportionately negative repercussions upon families living in poverty). The lawmakers who do this can rightly claim to be religious “men of God” as they contribute to public charities and demonstrate the fundamental pieties of regular church attendance. However, in their failure to enact religious principles in everyday life, they abdicate any claim to spirituality.

There have been historical moments when the spiritual and the religious have operated in close parallel. An example of this would be in Medieval European village life wherein the regular cycle of confession, absolution, church attendance and spiritual observance was closely connected to the everyday life and yearly rhythms of the people as they could only be in a small village. There was, of course, an element of subjugation in all of this. The Church itself benefitted from the prevailing power structure, as it always has. But priests and bishops felt a real obligation to care for the people, and they did. On those occasions when members of the aristocracy abused their power and victimized the poor, the religious community threatened to embargo access to the offices of salvation in an effort to restore justice. This balance of power, precarious thought it was, served the interests of the people for centuries.

But increasingly, the Church (broadly defined) has chosen to maintain its allegiance to power in the face of demonstrated lawlessness and corruption. When the clergy abdicate their mandate to care for the people, then the Church – like the faithful – forfeits any claim to spiritual authority. Any religious leader, for example, who sided with Adolf Hitler conferred upon Hitler’s acts a tacit stamp of religious approval. Every religious establishment faces, in times of social crisis, a choice: whether to side with the people or with the powerful.

A striking response to this choice may be found in the Liberation Theology movement of the Catholic Church. As a pagan, I have studied the tenets of liberation theology, and I am strongly convinced they offer guidelines for future engagement on the political plane. The main idea and central thrust of Liberation Theology has nowhere been expressed more succinctly than in Richard McBrien’s CATHOLICISM:
“God is disclosed in the historical ‘praxis’ of liberation. It is the situation, and our passionate and reflective involvement in it, which mediates the Word of God. Today that Word is mediated through the cries of the poor and the oppressed.” – pp. 249-250

It seems opportune, at a moment when the world’s richest nation has elevated a billionaire to the highest political office in the land (and, arguably, the world), for religious people of all faiths to question their relationship to the structures of power. Be we Catholic, Wiccan, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish or of any faith which posits a moral standard, we must question where we fall on said standard. Put simply: the best measure of an individual or a society lies in its relation to the Poor. At a time when the forces of oligarchy and brutality are in ascendance, people of all faiths would do well to examine their relationship to the poor, to the oppressed and the disadvantaged and ask: are we truly standing with them?

If we find ourselves wanting, we might want to take this moment to consider how best to re-engage in the work of charity and witness for the oppressed. So many politically active friends of mine are taking steps against the current wave of oligarchy and xenophobia by calling their representatives, contributing to charities and going to protests. All of these are excellent actions. But they are made even stronger by a commitment to endure, to stay the course and to remain focused on a moral compass. Faithful spiritual practice can work to reinforce this commitment.

A spiritual practice which meditates upon social justice is a spiritual practice built for the long run. A daily meditation, an immersion in prayer and communion with the divine will be fundamental to this effort. And our efforts, make no mistake, are of global importance. Put simply, we cannot – and must not – turn away from those who will be most ruthlessly victimized in the coming new order. We must practice love when dealing with the Other and we must fortify ourselves for the work ahead. I can think of no better preparation for people of faith than to sharpen the tools of spiritual resistance. We must pray together, break bread together and prepare to go to jail together in witness of our beliefs. For without that witness, spirituality becomes the empty observance of a dead religion. We are privileged to live in interesting times – times in which we are called to be grist in the mill of justice.

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Welcome to the White Zone

In the 1971 sci-fi film THX-1138, the eponymous hero played by Robert Duvall is sentenced to a term of confinement. But instead of jail cells, the justice system of the futuristic dystopia he inhabits has evolved a new kind of incarceration: within an endless expanse of flat white wilderness so vast it blunts ability to perceive distance or perspective. There, individually and in small pods, the criminals of THX’s world go slowly mad as the system grinds on without them. (Or, perhaps more properly, over them.)

The deafening silence of many of my fellow Caucasians in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory is, frankly, every bit as frightening. I wonder if perhaps they simply fail to comprehend who these men are that Trump is appointing feverishly to just those positions any tyrant would consolidate beneath him the moment he seized power: national security, intelligence, military and the attorney general’s office. The news that President Trump will be coached by alt right champion Stephen Bannon and gay hater Mike Pence, and advised on National Security matters by perennial Pentagon outsider and anti-Muslim kook Michael Flynn is perhaps lost on them. Or maybe they don’t understand how civil rights will be rolled back for women, GLBT folk and Muslims under the pending First Amendment Defense Act, scheduled for vote by the GOP majority House and Senate upon resumption of business and almost guaranteed a signature by President Trump. Perhaps they just don’t get these things. Perhaps their understanding has been blunted by the perspective-flattening horror of cable news and the pseudo-journalism of the Alex Jones crowd to the point at which they don’t perceive the threat.

Or perhaps they just don’t care.

White supremacy is a virus: once it enters a population, it propagates quickly. Upon achieving critical mass it transforms itself into an exponential fractal, attaining a speed and virulence at which it becomes unstoppable. By the time it breaks into view, the window for stopping or reversing the process has shrunk to a period of weeks, if not days. I’m wondering how many of my fellow Caucasians feel which way the wind is blowing and have just decided it’s easier to say nothing, to go along and not resist. That failure to declare one’s self for one camp or the other, to voice an opinion, to engage in the civil process creates a vast, empty horizon – a white space like Robert Duvall’s prison – that is seized upon by more energetic forces.

These forces, and their agenda, are resolving into clarity before our very eyes. And we should be very, very frightened.

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The Bitter Angels of our Nature

I hate bullies. Always have. My problems with them began in nursery school when a group of older kids smashed me around enough to open a cut the length of my bicep (you can still see the scar). A few years later a gang of teenagers happened upon me playing alone at the park and battered me to a pulp. Those early lessons motivated me to conduct a study of the species. I learned that bullies are easy to spot. When you’re in a  group, they’re always the first to point out when someone else trips over their feet or their words or expresses an unpopular opinion and they do so loudly and clearly, soliciting agreement. It’s their social go-to: bullies are quick to create and claim space by excluding and ridiculing others.

Examining Donald Trump’s behavior during the primary debates and comparing them to his first days as President-elect yields interesting parallels. In the debates, he distinguished himself among a large field of competitors by ridiculing and hurling insults at his opponents. The strategy must have worked, because he successfully adapted it to an election campaign unparalleled in modern memory for its invocation of nativist and xenophobic themes. And in the four days since he has become president, Trump has shown every indication of bringing this style of management into the Oval Office. He has stated his intention to immediately deport 3 million people and made two key administration appointments, Mike Pence and Stephen Bannon, both notable for their anti-gay and anti-minority views. This is the politics of humiliation writ large: Trump has created and claimed space by excluding and ridiculing the concerns of others, specifically those of women, GLBT folk, ethnic and religious minorities.

Meanwhile, incidents of racial and sexual harassment have proliferated nation-wide, documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and chronicled in such news sources as The Guardian and the Globe and Mail. Similar reports have emerged on social media. Perhaps most troubling has been the outcry (mostly ignored by the mainstream) from teachers witnessing a terrible upswing in racial bullying among students. As a former teacher I’m convinced these kids are probably mimicking the behavior of their parents, who are themselves mimicking the Bully-in-Chief.  The Left has responded mostly with horror and hand-wringing: protest marches, indignant social media posts and the well-intended but vaguely ridiculous Safety Pin Campaign, which has left most targeted minorities shaking their heads in frustrated incredulity.

I learned, as a kid who spent a tortured adolescence fending off attacks right and left, that bullies don’t listen to reason. They are immune from persuasion by argument or emotional appeal. That’s because they don’t care: about you or morality or the opinion of people other than those they hold in thrall. All they care about is hurting you, over and over again, until you are reduced to nothing, whereupon they wander off in search of their next victim.

Anybody seeking to counter this new trend of social authoritarianism (a bully’s favorite form of government) must be prepared to get their hands dirty. Useful guides are popping up on the internet on how to confront and stop racist attacks. But it’s going to take more than good intentions – both in America and elsewhere – to halt this wave of xenophobia breaking out across the western democracies.

Opposing bullies comes at a risk. Specifically, you might get your ass kicked (or worse). But here’s a secret: refusing to give up, refusing to back down and refusing to accept the abuse is the only sure cure to bullying. Wearing safety pins is nice and all (and probably makes you feel better about yourself) but it won’t be enough to counter the vicious, primitive energy of the herd that has been unleashed. It took me nearly putting a kid in the hospital for my bullies to stop. I’ll never forget being dragged into the Dean of Student’s office, bloody and missing chunks of hair, to answer for my actions. I just stood there, bruised and grinning, not caring that I faced detention. I served it happily, reflecting on my new lesson. To survive, I would have to be that one kid who rises again and again, no matter how many times I got struck down.

Nothing terrifies a bully more.

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