Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A theology for radicals

Last week I spent two hours in conversation with five friends in Washington, DC. All are experienced in various types of interracial and interfaith dialogue and community building work. All are searching for appropriate responses to the current post-election polarization. Two run programs on university campuses where they said people are “having a difficult time talking with each other….they realize that things are a lot more complicated than they thought….There are confused liberals arguing among themselves but no conservatives at the table.” A key question expressed by these friends could be summarized as, “Do we put energy into fighting for justice and equity or into building bridges?”  

As a social activist myself, I am encouraged by the growing number of people who are making their voices heard for justice and inclusion. But while marches, demonstrations and disruption of town-hall meetings play a powerful role in gaining attention and building political pressure, we must be careful not to be so absolutist in our views that we fail to engage some of those who may come at issues differently but who could be strategic allies. 

The human condition is complex and defies easy stereotyping. Neither liberals nor conservatives can claim the whole truth. Conservatives have valid perspectives and liberals have worthy goals. Both have values that contribute to our society. Each one of us has developed our own worldview based on our lived experience. We may hold opinions that are conservative in some areas and liberal in others. Someone may feel strongly about the sanctity of life with regard to abortion issues but also be opposed to the death penalty, and supportive of racial justice and a welcoming approach to immigrants. Advocates for equal pay or clean air and water may also hold conservative views on taxes or family values. We do a great disservice by insisting on putting people in rigid social and political boxes.

Activists require humility and a readiness to examine our own motives, prejudices and behavior and a willingness to create a space of welcome for those whose participation is essential for real social change to be politically possible.

In June 2012, 150 evangelical leaders signed a statement of “moral and commonsense principles” for immigration reform. The group spanned the political spectrum from the Southern Baptist Convention to Sojourners. This action played an important role in building bi-partisan support for Obama’s decision that young people under sixteen years of age who had come to this country illegally would no longer be subject to deportation. As Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, writes in On God’s Side, the stand by politically diverse faith leaders created space and support for political leaders “to do the right thing.” 

We must constantly ask ourselves whether we are consciously or unconsciously shutting out some voices, whether they are people who demand justice or those who hold economic or political power. We may need to go toward those whose worldview is different from our own and who challenge our assumptions, people who irritate us, even people whose very presence threatens our sense of comfort and security. Working for effective social change requires the best of everyone: liberals and conservatives, immigrants and established populations, city dwellers and suburbanites, the young and the seasoned. 

My question to the courageous leaders of the various resistance and advocacy movements is this: Is enough attention being paid to nurturing the core values and the inner life that are essential for a broad-based and sustainable movement?  

A few days ago, Charles Marsh spoke at our church about his acclaimed biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose life and philosophy, he said, is particularly relevant at this point in history. I often quote from another of Marsh’s books, The Beloved Community, which highlights the spiritual roots of the civil rights movement. He claims that in its early years the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) pursued a form of discipleship that was “life affirming, socially transformative, and existentially demanding: a theology for radicals.” It made time for “reverie and solitude and for rituals that were refreshingly unproductive. A certain contemplative discipline was an important disposition in building community and trust.” Following threats to his life in 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr. confronted his deepest fears and prayed to “the power that can make a way of no way," writes Marsh. “Faced with the intransigence of the white resistance, liberal platitudes failed him; notions of essential human goodness and perfectibility were not what the moment required.” 

Wallis writes that we need to be “personally responsible and socially just.” In some circles the notion of personal responsibility is seen as a way of blaming the victim. But every great civil rights leader from Gandhi to Mandela has been crystal clear about the need for self-awareness and readiness to change. And Howard Thurman reminded us: "The root of what I condemn in others is found at long last in the soil of my own backyard. What I seek to eradicate in society . . . I must first attack in my own heart and life. There is no substitute for this."

Wallis directs equal challenges to liberals and conservatives. He highlights the importance of “choices in individual moral behavior, personal relationships like marriage and parenting, ethics, fiscal integrity, service, compassion, and security.” And he also stresses “commitment to our neighbor, economic fairness, racial and gender equality, the just nature of society, needed social safety nets, public accountability, and the importance of cooperative international relations.” 

Like Marsh he stresses the need for creating quiet space, to embrace silence, and to meditate. In this he finds a renewal of his “attentiveness.” As a Christian, he describes this attentiveness as “interaction with the Living Teacher” and applying those teachings to “the biggest and most consequential of social and political events, to the most personal of our closest relationships, and to the daily interactions we have with colleagues, coworkers, neighbors, and complete strangers.”

My guess is that if both liberals and conservatives were to focus on living up to our highest values and to paying attention to the voice of truth, the voice of conscience, in our own hearts we might find that we could reach some common ground in surprising ways.  

Thursday, January 12, 2017

With malice toward none

As a new president is sworn in, the towering figure of the Republican Party’s first occupant of the White House will watch over the inaugural proceedings from his seat at the other end of the Mall. What wisdom would he share with us? In accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s sojourn in Washington, especially Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Godwin, his exceptional leadership style contrasts starkly with much of what fills the headlines today.  

Among the qualities that stand out is Lincoln’s extraordinary generosity of spirit. He did not hold grudges and refused to let personal slights prevent him from drawing out the best in others. As a young lawyer, Lincoln was treated with contempt on one occasion by the brilliant William Seward. Yet Lincoln called on him to serve as Secretary of State, and Seward was to become his closest colleague and greatest admirer. Lincoln kept the prideful Salmon Chase at his post as Secretary of the Treasury, despite Chase’s constant criticism behind his back and maneuvers to further his own presidential ambitions, because he recognized his essential contribution to the country.

What some regarded as indecisiveness was often Lincoln’s discipline of reflecting, preparing and choosing the right time to act. He took infinite care with his choice of words. On occasion he would compose a strongly worded communication and then sleep on it (no overnight tweeting!), or think better of it and file it. Sometimes, after a more severe dressing-down of a subordinate he would quickly follow up with a letter stressing his respect for the individual.

His self-deprecating sense of humor is something from which our new leader could learn. Kearns relates the story of a congressman who had received Lincoln’s authorization for the War Department’s aid in a project:
When Stanton [the capable and outspoken Secretary of War] refused to honor the order, the disappointed petitioner returned to Lincoln, telling him that Stanton had not only countermanded the order but had called Lincoln a damned fool  for issuing it. “Did Stanton say I was a damned fool?” Lincoln asked. “He did indeed, Sir,” the congressman replied, “and repeated it.” Smiling, the president remarked, “If Stanton said I was a damned fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means. I will step over and see him.”
Lincoln appears as someone remarkably self-aware, with unusual insight into human nature. In one of his first major speeches on slavery, several years before he ran for the presidency, he cautioned against condemning Southerners since "they are just doing what we would do in their place." Lincoln understood that a man who is condemned tends to retreat within himself and “to close all avenue to his head and his heart.” In order to “win a man to your cause,” you must first win his heart, “the great high road to reason.”

The immortal lines from the second inaugural address, “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” reflect not just Lincoln’s vision but the core values and actual practice of the man himself. More than at any time in recent decades we need his wisdom to “bind up the nations’ wounds.” As we enter 2017, can our leaders – and all of us – take a page from Lincoln’s book?

Saturday, December 10, 2016

More than a vision, an imperative

Final day at the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Summit

The final day of the TRHT Summit starts with a presentation by Manuel Pastor, Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity, who directs the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California. He lays out some of the major cleavages in the country. One is the rapidly shifting demographics. By the end of the decade minorities will be a majority of the workforce. (But net migration from Mexico is actually negative partly due to lower birthrates.) Interestingly, Pastor says “racial anxiety is strongest in regions where demographic change is not happening,” e.g. the Rust Belt. There is also a growing social distance. Racial segregation has decreased in urban areas but income segregation is increasing. Cities are becoming whiter, while suburbs are more diverse but they don’t have the necessary social service infrastructure. Another factor is the racial generation gap. The median age for Latinos is 27 compared with 56 for whites. “Whites don’t see themselves in this younger generation,” says Pastor. 

Pastor also notes that regions that work toward equity have stronger and more resilient growth for everyone. “For example, San Antonio introduced a sales tax to support pre-K education for disadvantaged kids. The leaders of the Chamber of Commerce supported it because they saw it as an investment in the future.”  

The rest of the day is devoted to taking the TRHT guiding principles and the recommendations of five design teams (narrative change, racial healing and relationship building, separation, law and economy) who have developed papers over the past several months, and begin to imagine how they might be applied in communities across the country. 


The Richmond group convened by Initiatives of Change/Hope in the Cities includes representatives of Richmond City Council, the Office of Community Wealth Building, Bon Secours Health Systems, Richmond Hill Community, Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the American Civil War Museum and the University of Richmond. Other groups are here from Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Buffalo, Dallas, as well as Mississippi, New Mexico and Michigan. Each group spends five hours together working through the process and beginning to develop plans for first steps.

The guiding principles include a commitment to an accurate recounting of history, which has been largely told by the dominant groups in our communities. An atmosphere of forgiveness must be cultivated and people of all backgrounds encouraged to tell their stories without fear of recrimination. Equally important is a clear and compelling vision with ambitious but achievable goals with progress regularly assessed. The process must be fully inclusive, reaching out to non-traditional allies. True healing requires the building of trust; divisive rhetoric and blame and adversarial proceedings are unlikely to produce an atmosphere in which healing and transformation can occur. This transformation must be seen in some form of reparative or restorative justice and policies that foster systemic change.  

Richmond has taken important steps to acknowledge its racial history and to engage a wide range of citizens in honest dialogue. There is a significant network of individuals and institutions who have built relationships of trust – perhaps more than most cities in America. All of the Richmonders at the summit agree that the time is ripe for another major step forward that would enable our community to truly overcome the structural inequities that are the result of the belief in a human hierarchy based on race. In the coming weeks we will be consulting with our various constituents as well as reaching out to new allies as we develop a plan. One resource that may be useful is a business case for racial equity developed by Kellogg. 

The summit has been a time of intensive work, with the daily program starting at 7:00 am and ending at 9:00 pm with scarcely a break. No time to enjoy the beautiful Carlsbad surroundings! But there is a sense of urgency because of the divisive rhetoric of the presidential election and the alarm at what may lie ahead with the incoming administration. 

“This week has proven to me that we can do it!” says Gail Christopher as we wrap up the summit. “It is a vision, but more than a vision it is an imperative.” She announces that Kellogg and its TRHT partners – with a combined reach of more than 200 million people – are responding to the need to bring a different spirit to the country before the Inauguration, by calling for a National Day of Healing on January 17. More details coming soon!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The house that racism built

Day 3 at the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Summit 

After a day focused on personal racial healing and relationship building, we focus today on healing the wounds of our society that result from our inherited belief in a racial hierarchy. David Williams from Harvard’s School of Public Health shares data showing the devastating impact of racism on health outcomes for people of color. His presentation entitled “The House that Racism Built” provides overwhelming evidence drawn from multiple studies. 

He highlights residential segregation as America’s “most successful political ideology.” It impacts schools, employment, transportation, public safety – all of which impact health. “It is a truly rigged system based on skin color.” In a city like Richmond, Virginia, there is a 20-year difference in life expectancy between some neighborhoods. Studies show that eliminating residential segregation would result in eliminating disparities in educational achievement, employment, and health, and would reduce by two thirds the number of births by single mothers. Discrimination also leads to feelings of disrespect and to stress that causes health problems such as high blood pressure. Williams recalls W.E.B Du Bois’ remark on “the peculiar indifference to black suffering” in America.

Surveys show that white Americans operate with a very different narrative. One in three reported they were “troubled” by Obama’s election, and because a black man is in the White House they are less willing to support efforts to further reduce inequality. “Research shows that we think with our hearts,” says Williams, therefore we need to develop stories that will “break through the empathy gap.”  

Salin Geevarghese, deputy assistant secretary for international and philanthropic innovation at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, says, "Just putting data out there does not mean that people will draw the right conclusions. We have all witnessed the power of narrative to make data come alive.”

Throughout the day we hear powerful testimonies and reports from teams of community organizers, civil rights activists, academics, and racial healing practitioners who have been working on visions and potential strategies to develop new narratives, to overcome separation and concentrated poverty, to create equitable opportunity and fair economies, and to reconstruct a legal system that delivers justice for all. It is intense and challenging. The energy is high. Panel discussions reflect America in all its racial and ethnic diversity.

As the father of a Georgetown University alumnus, I am particularly interested in the contribution of President John De Gioia who describes the university’s efforts to address its racial history. He notes that America’s universities were complicit in establishing the notion of racial hierarchy. “The very idea of race is the product of colonial scholarship.” However, he stressed the role of higher education in providing a place where we can have “the most rigorous discourse on the most challenging issues.” He expresses alarm that funding support by states for higher education has dropped on average from 65% to 35% and in some states it is less than half that. “We are not providing the level of commitment to public education that is crucial at this time.” Civil society, of which higher education is a vital part, is the “bulwark against authoritarianism.” He says we need a new conversation in America “about what it means to belong here as a people.” 

Much of the conversation is set against the backdrop of the incoming Trump administration and the anticipated assault on voting rights, legal justice, fair housing, and protection for immigrants. However as someone remarked, one result of the election is that there is now a transparency around the discourse on race: “We need to own that space.” And, Gail Christopher reminds us, “You can stand up for values without having a political conversation. These are human rights values. We need a movement that truly stands up for what we believe to be right.” 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The power of story

Day 2 at the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Summit 

“Our beliefs are shaped by the stories we hear,” says Gail Christopher as we embark on a “day of healing” at the TRHT summit. “Today is about stories…When we form a circle we suspend the hierarchy…we are not here to judge but to create a safe and sacred space.” 

We pause to celebrate the remarkable forgiveness ceremony that took place at Standing Rock just twenty-four hours earlier where military veterans made a heartfelt apology to Native people for military action taken against them for centuries. Rituals of forgiveness, says Christopher, can give rise to “heartfelt commitments to change conditions.”

An important step in the healing process is to overcome false narratives that define us. So for most of the day, the entire conference is divided into groups of 20 to 24 people. Each “healing circle” is facilitated by two experienced “healing practitioners” who invite the participants to share a personal story about a time when they overcame, challenged, changed and/or stood up to what they felt was a false narrative about themselves or their identity group, and how that moment influenced them or changed their life and/or the lives of others. It is a powerful experience that one of my colleagues describes as a process of slowing down; of showing up as your authentic self; and of deep listening and being listened to without judgement. 

Later in the afternoon several members of a team working on guidelines and recommendations for a racial healing strategy discuss their experiences of racial healing with the whole conference. They include Elizabeth Medicine Crow of the First Alaska Institute, Jerry Tello of the National Compadres Network, Lloyd Asato of the Asian Pacific Community in Action, and Mee Moua of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Some important steps in healing highlighted in the team’s recommendations:
  • Let the voice and spirit of the community be your guide. Listen to the communities and consult with them; ask what they need; seek their ideas and visions and reflect back what you have heard.
  • Validate the practice of racial healing and recognize those who are doing healing work in your communities. Seek guidance and support from those who have done this in other communities. There are many people and organizations who have developed racial healing practices, history walks and rituals, as well as dialogues, community trustbuilding and community organizing. Map these resources, learn from them, amplify them and make connections.
  • Develop a racial healing practitioner network and affirm the necessity for healing by creating healing spaces for ourselves and others. Pay attention to reflection and to self-care, to relationships in our own homes and family life, as we try to heal our communities. Avoid a hierarchy of woundedness. Support each other.
  • Our work is centered on dialogue and connectedness. Recognize that the healing process is for everyone, both the oppressed and the oppressor.
  • Look for ways to connect racial healing to efforts for equitable public policy. Highlight the importance of connecting stories to data as a way to reach people emotionally as well as intellectually and to mobilize them for action in effecting needed structural change.

Tomorrow’s agenda will focus on some of the key areas for where change is needed.