Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Mystery is a gift to be enjoyed

Abraham Lincoln is often quoted as saying, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side.” But too often political and religious leaders select passages from sacred texts to bolster their own beliefs or prejudices.

God must be appalled at hearing his/her name being used as justification for bigotry, discrimination, torture and murder. Each week brings horrifying reports of atrocities by supposedly religious groups: Christians slaughtering Muslims in the Central African Republic; Buddhists killing Muslims in Burma; Sunni and Shia bombing each other in Iraq. Europe suffered centuries of religious violence between Catholics and Protestants. US history is full of examples of religious bigotry. Even slavery was supported by established Christian churches and discrimination was often cloaked in religiosity. More recently, the burning of a Koran by an American pastor in Florida provoked deadly riots in Afghanistan and American evangelicals are actively supporting Uganda’s human rights abuses against gays.

Worldwide persecution based on religion is increasing. For example, one hundred years ago Christians accounted for 30 percent of the Middle East’s population; today they represent just three percent. The region risks losing its historical diversity and tradition of tolerance.

So it was with relief and gratitude that I rediscovered a small gem of a book entitled God’s Favourite Colour is Tartan*. Susan and I read it during our morning reflections while on vacation. The British author, Tim Firth, who died recently, was a prominent Catholic priest who, finding that for him church doctrines “ceased to be convincing interpretations of reality and a basis for living ,“ left the church and pursued a career as a human resource manager with an international accounting firm. With his theater director wife he became deeply involved in the arts as a vehicle for spiritual renewal.

To a large extent Firth’s book reflects his own journey from the certainty of a specific religious tradition into a wider world of unknown paths and a new understanding of spirituality. He notes that we are all innately spiritual beings; religion is a comparatively recent creation. It is, in the words of Diarmuid O'Murchu, “the local harbour that points to the vast ocean beyond, without which the harbour would never exist in the first place.”  Firth focuses on exploring that vast ocean and the many ways in which humans connect to what he calls the "Mystery of Being."

He repeatedly cautions against the “either/or” trap of doctrine, recalling the words of Ludovic Kennedy: “Believing may be what people die for but doctrines can be what people kill for.” He encourages the reader to take a “both/and” approach. Human beings crave certainty and we fear the journey in the unknown. But according to Brian Boobbyer, “Mystery is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be enjoyed.” 

Firth affirms that religion plays an important role in providing a framework and identity. Where it goes wrong is in claiming exclusive fullness of the truth. The Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths said, "Be true to your roots, but go beyond their limitations.”

Prayer, art, myths, stories and symbols are helpful because they tend to unify across cultural boundaries: “Beethoven speaks universally; the same principles of geometry are found in Stonehenge, the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the Kaba in Mecca and Chartres Cathedral because their architects all believed that by building on geometric proportions they were building – the same proportions God used in building the cosmos – they were building truth. There is no such thing as Hindu geometry or Islamic beauty or Buddhist music – there are just mathematics, geometry, beauty and music.”

Firth believes we all have an “an in-built compass to believe what our instinct tells us will give us life and hope.” Obedience comes from the Latin “ob-audience” which means listening – listening to our conscience and attending to the Mystery of Being. In the end it is about relationships: “You must live in a certain way and then you will encounter the sacred within.” 

Personally I think God might welcome a year with no public mention of his/her name. Instead, people of all faiths and spiritual traditions could simply live out the universal core values of honesty, love, forgiveness, compassion and justice. The world might be a very different and much better place as a result. 

*God’s Favourite Colour is Tartan, Tim Firth, Catholics for a Changing Church 2007 London, UK.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Will America create healthy integrated public schools?

Ten years ago I took part in a forum of scholars, social psychologists and racial dialogue practitioners, marking the 50th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education.  At the time we noted that American schools were reversing much of the progress toward integration achieved since the Supreme Court decision.   

That same year, our youngest son graduated from Richmond Public Schools. Nearly half of the city’s schools had fewer than ten whites in their student bodies and eight had none at all.

A glance at the 2014 demographics shows that while the number of white students has increased, due largely to greater participation in elementary schools, white participation in middle and high schools remains low. Out of a citywide population of 1,153 12th graders there are just 100 white non-Hispanic students. The largest number is at kindergarten level and 146 out of the total 258 are clustered in two elementary schools.  Some schools have lost ground. The middle school that our sons attended has just two white 8th graders (there were 19 in 2004). 

But Richmond is actually faring better than many school districts nationally. As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, the resegregation of America’s schools as documented by Jonathan Kozul in The Shame of the Nation:The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, is relentless. And in a 2007 ruling, the Court effectively buried Brown by outlawing even voluntary initiatives to create racial balance, as for example in Seattle and Louisville. Justice Stephen Breyer, in a scathing dissent, likened the inequality in our schools to “a caste system rooted in the institution of slavery and 50 years of legalized subordination.”  

A compelling case study, Segregation Now, by Nikole Hannah-Jones in The Atlantic, April 2014, examines the story of one school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that has experienced both integration and resegregation.   

By the 1970s, public schools in the South had become the most integrated in the country, largely as a result of court-ordered action. Central High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was “one of the South’s signature integration success stories.” In 1979, a federal judge had ordered the merger of two largely segregated high schools. For two decades, students at the new integrated Central High performed at a high level academically and in sports. 

But the Tuscaloosa school system was steadily losing white students. Once a majority, by the mid-1990s they made up less than a third of the population.  Many white parents had decided to send their children to nearly all-white private schools or to move across the city/county line to access the heavily white Tuscaloosa County Schools. And the business community, concerned about the eroding tax base and hoping to attract new industries, wanted to be able to say that Tuscaloosa City Schools would not be “an inner-city school system.” In 2000, after much back-room lobbying to build support from key leaders (including some African American leaders), another federal judge released Tuscaloosa City Schools from the court-ordered desegregation mandate.

“Freed from court oversight, Tuscaloosa’s schools have seemed to move backwards in time,” writes Hannah-Jones. The citywide integrated high school was replaced by three smaller schools. Central High is now “a struggling school serving the city’s poorest part of town, it is 99 percent black...Predominantly white neighborhoods adjacent to Central have been gerrymandered into the attendance zones of other, whiter schools.”

To be sure, there are no all-white schools; most of the city’s white students attend schools with significant numbers of blacks. “But while segregation as it is practiced today may be different than it was 60 years ago, it is no less pernicious: in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, it involves the removal and isolation of poor black and Latino students, in particular, from everyone else.”

And this appears to be the key point: Across America, the overwhelming majority of white and middle-class parents do not wish their children to be educated alongside poor black and Latino kids.

Yet integration has been shown to benefit whites and blacks alike. The Atlantic story cites a 2014 study by Rucker Johnson, a public-policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who found that African Americans who attended schools integrated by court order were more likely to graduate, go on to college, and earn a degree than those who attended segregated schools. Five years of integrated schooling increased the earnings of black adults by 15 percent. They were significantly less likely to spend time in jail and they were healthier.

The reasoning behind Brown was not just about black kids being able to go to school with white students. It was about having access to equal resources and similar opportunities which could only be achieved through integration. Research by Richard Kahlenburg in All Together Now:Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice shows that both lower-wealth and higher-wealth students perform better in economically integrated schools. 

Our sons all say that their experience as white minorities in Richmond schools prepared them for living in a diverse world. Our middle son, Mark, says that despite the challenges, “the public schools did set us up socially by teaching us the thing that is fundamental in life: being with people who are different.” 

My wife, Susan, comments: “I guess I hoped that if our boys were in the public schools, some African American kid would have the experience of knowing at least one white person who was an OK guy, and it would help to break down some stereotypes. Equally, for our boys, if the black guy sitting next to them was better than them at math or won the science prize, they are less likely to have negative images of African Americans.”

Andrew, our youngest son, is now director of programs at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public charter high school. Located in Anacostia in Southeast DC, it serves an all-black population, mostly from low-wealth families, and prepares them for college.  US News & World Report highlights the school in
Fixing the Education Gap 60 Years after Brown.Every student in each of the school’s graduating classes has been accepted to college and the alumni are graduating college at rates five times higher than their neighborhood peers.

But despite the remarkable success of Thurgood Marshall Academy and a few  other standouts around the country, the vast majority of black and Latino students are attending schools that are underfunded, badly equipped and lacking in resources. Dedicated professionals and volunteers work tirelessly to mitigate the impact of segregation, but a friend who has done much to support Richmond’s schools says, “No-one is talking about the importance of a healthy integrated school.”

At this point it will be virtually impossible to reverse the resegregation trend without courageous, determined and sustained action by citizens of all races and social classes – but particularly by white upper- and middle-class parents who are prepared to invest their families in building community. My blog of last April highlighted some Richmond families who are doing just that.

A wise friend who does racial healing work in Oakland told me, “We have to keep going upstream about consciousness and ask ourselves: what are the truths we have lost sight of? If we recaptured them, things would be very different. One such truth is that we are all connected. Our social structures are set up to help us forget this.”

Race and class largely determine the neighborhoods we choose to live in, our friendships, our recreation and our places of worship, as well as where we invest our time and resources and how we vote. As Michelle Obama told students in Topeka, Kansas, “Brown is still being decided every single day, not just in our courts and in our schools, but in how we live our lives.” 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A welcoming space for difference

The theme of this year’s Lenten series at my church was “radical welcome.”  So I have been reflecting on what it actually means to create a welcoming space in my life, my friendships and my work with Initiatives of Change. 

It takes courage to reveal your true convictions when you feel you may be alone in your beliefs among a large and vocal group.  It is doubly hard in the polarized political climate of the US today where we so quickly form stereotypes around words like conservative and liberal.

An organization like Initiatives of Change which claims that it is for “everyone everywhere” must take special care not to allow prevailing orthodoxies of left or right to create a culture where honest conversation is stifled.

When Susan and I first came to live in Richmond thirty years ago, many of the people we came to know, including our work colleagues, were deeply conservative. As the son of a trade unionist, I often felt like an outsider.  But one of my early “aha” moments was the realization that my natural inclination to make judgments about conservatives was a barrier to my effectiveness in building the teamwork needed for social change and that I had something to learn from everyone – including those whose political bias was different from my own.

Today the scene is very different. I would venture to say that the great majority of those with whom I interact are strongly liberal, so it becomes especially important to hear and encourage the more conservative voices. No one has a monopoly on truth.

I am convinced that one of the greatest obstacles to progress in this country is the prevailing sentiment among liberal activists that “we are the solution and others are the problem,” or at least in need of education. I recall a meeting of national social justice advocates where I remarked that we were “like an airplane with one wing.” How could we change the country with only people of one worldview?

Some years ago, I invited a dentist friend who devoted much time to pro bono work to attend a “dismantling racism” workshop. He withdrew in frustration because the trainer insisted on group acceptance of a particular social construct and historical interpretation. My friend was made to feel that his contribution to the community was of no value – worse, in the prescribed victim-victimizer paradigm, he was identified as a perpetrator of injustice who must be reformed. A potential ally was lost.

Similar feelings of exclusion can occur around matters of faith. One of the most significant moments of a recent national meeting of Initiatives of Change occurred in the final hour. A woman from Northern Virginia rose to say she was aware that most people in the room were liberals, but she wanted everyone to know that she was a conservative Christian and marched in pro-life rallies. But she also said that she was committed to social change. (Later one person said to her in surprise, “But I thought all pro-lifers were mean people!”) 

This act of courage emboldened a participant from Richmond to say that she also was a conservative and had not previously felt comfortable within the group. Another person expressed appreciation for the sensitivity she had felt during the weekend as a person of no religious faith. Afterwards she met over lunch for a heartfelt conversation with the two self-identified conservatives. She said she had frequently felt excluded in a predominantly Christian culture and she “wept tears of joy” at finally being accepted for who she was and feeling that she had a home in Initiatives of Change.

Many of my sons’ generation would describe themselves as spiritual and are deeply committed to making practical change and to building just communities. They do not believe in a God confined behind church doors, where the emphasis is more on gaining members than addressing social ills, where doctrine excludes rather than welcomes and where judgment supersedes love.  

My own spiritual beliefs and my views on abortion, gay and straight relationships, racial and economic justice, and a range of other issues do not fall easily within prevailing political or religious orthodoxies. I suspect that many people are frustrated by the liberal/conservative or cultural and religious boxes in which we insist on placing each other. Life is complex and we must allow for ambiguity.

Now more than ever America needs spaces where honest conversation can flourish and where unexpected partnerships become possible. If people feel they must check their true selves at the door, the dialogue will not be honest and we will miss opportunities to celebrate the richness of our diversity. As I wrote in my book, Trustbuilding, “true dialogue involves inquiry, attentive listening, and sharing of experiences as well as information and assumptions with the purpose of learning.”

Monday, March 24, 2014

Democracy depends on good losers

I have been reading Making Our Democracy Work by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (Knopf 2010). One passage may be of particular relevance to the struggle for democracy now underway in many parts of the world from South Sudan to Egypt. It is also a challenge to those in Washington whose reluctance to follow the basic operating principles of a two-party democracy has led to government paralysis. 

In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore won the national popular vote. But elections are decided by the electoral votes and everything hinged on Florida. Under Florida law (like most states) the candidate who receives the largest share of state’s popular vote also receives all the state’s electoral votes. In the original count, Bush led Gore by fewer than two thousand votes out of the six million cast, thus triggering an automatic recount. Bush still came out ahead but by a narrower margin and Gore challenged the count in four districts. 

The Florida Supreme Court then ordered a recount of the entire vote. Bush’s legal team leapt into action and challenged the state’s decision. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and in a highly controversial decision voted by 5 to 4 in Bush’s favor.

The process had been complicated by hand counting of machine-uncountable ballots due to various types of voter error. Subsequent studies produced conflicting conclusions on which candidate would have won, had the state been allowed to do a complete recount. For many the Court’s decision was a huge disappointment and many regarded it as unfair.

Justice Breyer, who was among the dissenters on the Court, writes: “Whether the decision was right or wrong is not the point here. If I and three other members of the Court thought the decision was very wrong, so did millions of other Americans. For present purposes, however, what is important is what happened next. Gore, the losing candidate, told followers not to attack the legitimacy of the Court’s decision. And despite the great importance of the decision, the strong disagreement about its merits, and the strong feelings about the Court’s intervention, the public, Democrats as well as Republicans, followed the decision. They did so peacefully, with no need for troops… without rocks hurled in the streets, without violent massive protest. The leader of the U.S. Senate Harry Reid, a Democrat, said that the public's willingness to follow the law as enunciated by the Court constitutes a little-remarked, but the most remarkable, feature of the case. I agree”

In a New York Times commentary on December 13, 2011, Scott Farris reflected on what some observers have called one of the great political speeches in American history: “In many countries, losing candidates do not peacefully accept defeat, and their obstinacy leads to political chaos, riots and sometimes civil war. Gore understood the risks to America from a prolonged dispute over an unresolved election. Our democratic political system works only when the losers give their consent to be governed by the winners. So, on Dec. 13, 2000, Gore chose to begin a process of healing. He did not merely concede, he gave a remarkably upbeat and friendly concession speech and quoted an earlier losing candidate, Stephen Douglas, who pledged to Abraham Lincoln upon losing the 1860 presidential election, ‘Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.’”

In order to function, democracy requires a loyal opposition which puts country before political partisanship. Al Gore offered a lesson we all will do well to remember.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Pain and hope in Ukraine

It is difficult not to write about Ukraine at this time. And I realize how little I and most of us really know about this huge country, the second largest in Europe, which now stands at the crossroads of history.

Recently, I read Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by historian Timothy Snyder of Yale University (Basic Books, 2010). It is a sobering read, a meticulously researched history of how 14 million people were murdered in Eastern Europe between 1933 and 1945. Snyder writes, “During the years that Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in the bloodlands, or Europe, or in the world.”

For both Hitler and Stalin, Ukraine was the place that “would enable them to break the rules of traditional economics, rescue their countries from poverty and isolation, and remake the continent in their own image.” Everything depended on control of Ukraine's fertile soil and its millions of agricultural workers.

In 1933 Ukrainians suffered the “greatest artificial famine in history of the world.”  As a result of Stalin’s policy forced of collectivization and export of grain from starving villages, 3.3 million Ukrainians died (some say up to 6 million). In the spring of 1933 they died at a rate of 10,000 a day. Thousands of others were deported to the Gulag or to Kazakhstan.

Then, in 1937 and 1938, NKVD operatives shot 70,868 inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine in the operation against the so-called “kulak resistance.”  A disproportionate number were of Polish origin. Of the 681,692 death sentences in the Great Terror, 123,421 were carried out in Soviet Ukraine (this does not include natives of Ukraine shot in the Gulag).

When Hitler seized control in 1941, writes Synder, he tried to realize his own colonial vision beginning with the shooting of Jews and starvation of Soviet prisoners of war. The German plan envisaged “a vast eastern colony.” The native pollutions were to be deported, killed or forced into slave labor. Depending on demographic estimates, between thirty-one and forty-five million peoples, mostly Slavs were to “disappear.” Under the “hunger plan” sixty-five percent of the population of western Ukraine and eighty-five percent of Poles, and seventy-five percent of Belarusians were to be eliminated.

The German military conquest failed, but three million Ukrainians (non-Jews and as many as 900,000 Jews) were killed, sometimes with the assistance of local police forces.

Further suffering followed when the Soviets regained control. Synder records that many new Gulag prisoners were from the lands that Stalin had taken in 1939 with German consent and then took again in 1945. Between 1944 and 1946, more than 182,000 Ukrainians were deported from Southern Ukraine to the Gulag.

This is just some of the history that continues to impact Ukraine today and which the courageous young Initiatives of Change team in Ukraine has set out to heal as described by one of its leaders, Lena Kashkarova. It is a daunting but vital task. Last fall Lena, who is of mixed Ukrainian-Russian background, interned in Richmond, Virginia, with the Initiatives of Change program Hope in the Cities. She is currently in Crimea interpreting for CNN. Her recent emails help to correct some impressions created by the media:

Events of the last three months united people from different backgrounds from East and West alike. As I see it, a big part of the population finally lost Soviet identity and became aware that Ukraine is home for all of us, no matter what origin we come from, and learned to hold responsibility for this home.

Another important factor is the role of churches of all confessions as well as other religions who demonstrated enormous support for the protest movement. It started with the beatings by riot police youth by offering refuge in the Orthodox monastery, and it continued with the installation of a prayer tent at Maidan square, and turning churches into underground hospitals; then providing space for cooking, running dialogues and meetings in the cities where no other institution would dare to host them; staying for hours between riot police and protesters; and reading the last rites for those killed.  At times of attacks on Maidan, all the churches rang bells in warning.

In the past there was lots of controversy between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Ukrainian Patriarchy and Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Russian Patriarchy (which is subordinate to the Russian one). Not any more. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Russian Patriarchy condemned Russian occupation of Crimea along with its Ukrainian counterpart, despite a completely different message from its 'boss' in Moscow. In my opinion they all became not separate institutions but one real Christian Church and played a huge role together with doctors, journalists, veterans, students, etc., in making true what seemed to be completely impossible three months ago.

Paradoxically, Russian occupation both divided and brought more unity among Ukrainians. There are people from East and West alike who are ready to defend their country. Russian-speaking Ukrainians with Russian background are ready to fight against the Russian army. There are almost no Russian citizens in Ukraine! There are many people of Russian or mixed origin (as I am) whose native language is Russian, but they are not citizens of Russia. There are huge lines of those who want to get mobilized in the Ukrainian army in a country where [normally] people pay bribes and do everything not to be mobilized for [required] military service.  

At the same time there is a huge divide with those people who hold what I would describe as 'Soviet' identity and – what is most important – have listened to Russian propaganda that pours from Russian TV and other media. The amount of lies and bluff is just overwhelming.

Overhearing Russian TV is just painful. It is not just manipulating facts; it simply fabricates news and rouses hatred! No wonder people who listen to it are scared of "fas—Āists" from the West and are full of hatred towards them. This propaganda will affect our society for a long time.

It's easy to bring division and conflict. It is very hard to reconcile.