Are you just?

A New Unity Sunday Gathering

 

We come together in this place for companionship
We come together for warmth
We come together to be with others who share our dreams and who will be gentle with our tender hearts
And, as we gather, we bring with us a piece of the hard and wounded world
It cannot be otherwise.
Each of us carries angers and fears - our guilt, our longings, and our secret shame.
May this be a place of honesty and acceptance
A place where all of our strengths and tenderness may be acknowledged
A place where the potential of each one of us may be nurtured and celebrated
A place where the potential of our world may be treasured, held up, and set before us - not as a dream - but as a future that can be realised as we walk forward together with strength, in compassion, guided by love.


Readings

 

To Savor the World or Save It, by Richard Gilbert (adapted)

I arise in the morning torn between the desire
To save the world and to savor it—
To serve life or to enjoy it—
To savor the world or save it?
The question beats in upon the waiting moment—
To savor the sweet taste of my own joy
Or to share the bitter cup of my neighbor;
To celebrate life with exuberant step
Or to struggle for the life of the heavy laden?

What am I to do—
When the guilt at my bounty
Clouds the sky of my vision;
When the glow which lights my every day
Illumines the hurting world around me?

To savor the world or save it?
[Spirit] of justice, if such there be,
Take from me the burden of my question.
Let me praise my plenitude without limit;
Let me cast from my eyes all troubled folk!

No, you will not let me be.
You will not stop my ears
To the cries of the hurt and the hungry;
You will not close my eyes
To the sight of the afflicted.
No, you will not!

What is that you say?
To savor one must serve?
To savor one must save?
The one will not stand without the other?
Forgive me—
In my preoccupation with self,
In my concern for my own life
I had forgotten… 
forgive me, and make me whole.

 

The Guest House, by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,

Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


Message, by Andy Pakula

 

When I was studying for the ministry in the US, one of the required modules was informally called “isms.” I can’t remember the actual name because nobody used it. We all called it “isms” because it was a semester-long module about all kinds of oppression and injustice: Racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, and so on. 

At the start of isms, I thought I was a pretty just person. I did not discriminate on the basis of race, sexual orientation, sex, ability, etc. In my life in business, I’d been careful not to let any prejudices get in the way of hiring and managing employees fairly. I signed the right petitions for gay rights. 

In isms, I learned about the institutional nature of all kinds of injustice. I learned how oppressions like racism and classism had become unconscious and unnoticed norms in our society. And because of that, we don’t have to be consciously racist to perpetuate racism or hate disabled people to perpetuate ableism. 

The system is already built. It is in place. It already ensures that the class you’re born into will determine much of your opportunities in life. It ensures that the colour of your skin will affect how often you are stopped and searched or how likely you are to end up in prison. It determines how likely people like you are to be part of the political leadership.

The system is there, doing its unjust work, whether we notice it or not. When we are not actively trying to disassemble it, we are part of the system of injustice. The great liberal historian, Howard Zinn, titled one of his books “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” In other words,  if we benefit from the unjust system, then just by being part of it, we are participating in its oppressive nature. We aren’t neutral to the injustice riding along in the train as it zips past the people who not allowed on. If we are riding, we are part of the oppressive system. Our choice is to ride or to try to stop the train and let more people on.
In isms, I became less certain of how just I really was.

                                                               Image from http://assets.inhabitat.com/

                                                               Image from http://assets.inhabitat.com/

I remember sitting in one of the early classes as we talked about racism, and I felt extremely white. We talked about sexism, and I realised that the majority of the class was female and I felt awfully male at that moment. We talked about heterosexism, and I realised that most of the other men in the class were gay and I felt very conspicuously hetero. And we talked about classism and that nailed it. I was the uber-oppressor, the one most uber-privileged person in the class. It seemed as though I had every advantage possible. I felt like every eye in the class was on me. I felt conspicuous. I felt deeply guilty. And worse, I felt ashamed of who I was.

No - it is not my fault that I am white, straight-identified, middle-class, and male, but it is also true that these attributes give me tremendous advantages. I was born without the barriers in front of me that get in the way of so many others. I don’t get stopped and searched by police. I don’t get harassed for being gay. I don’t get cat-called on the street or sexually harassed. I don’t have a strong accent that signals to potential employers that I am not well-educated or that I might lack the sort of middle-class values they want to see. 

So, in a system of oppressor and oppressed, as nice as I might be and as caring as I think I am, I am the oppressor. I am the oppressor, not because I am actively hating, harassing, or discriminating, but because I am a part of an oppressive system which I support by passively acceding to it. I cannot claim to be neutral when I am benefitting from my unearned privilege - enjoying the advantages I gained simply by the way I was born.

Learning about privilege and systemic oppression was not something that felt academic or dispassionate. That’s not at all how I felt in the isms class. 

I felt guilty - that somehow I was responsible for other people’s suffering even though I hadn’t directly caused it. 

I felt angry about being called the oppressor. I felt angry about being called responsible in some way for benefitting from a system I had no part in creating. I felt angry because I felt ashamed.

We heard the poem, The Guest House, this morning, written by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī as he describes welcoming all the feelings that come us. He compares the moods and emotions that come as different travellers arriving as a guest house. We are the hospitable host who welcomes them in, no matter how awkward or difficult. Rumi says to welcome even shame. He says: “Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide.”

Is guilt a guide? Is anger a guide? Is shame a guide?

Yes and no. Guilt and shame are not the same thing. If I think I am basically a decent, good person who has done something wrong, the feeling I have is guilt. It’s not a good feeling, but it doesn’t attack my values and challenge who I think I am. Guilt can motivate us to do differently. It is a guide, to use Rumi’s word, that tells us we are not living according to our own values.

Shame is different. Shame says that I have not just done something wrong. The problem is who I am. It’s my essential being that’s wrong. I’m not a good person who did something wrong.

What’s wrong is who I am.

And this is what made me angry. Being a white, straight, middle-class, able, male meant that I was bad. And since I couldn’t accept that, I became angry. 

Shame does not motivate us to do better. Guilt can guide us to live closer to our values. It can open us up. 

Shame, however, closes us down. It leaves us angry and defensive. 

If I say you are a good person who made a racist comment, you might be motivated to be more careful in your speech.

If I say you are a racist, you might be motivated to justify racism - to find a way to convince yourself and me that racism is OK and justified.

Not all guests are equally good guides.

As we talk about justice and injustice this for these three months, we will each probably run into difficult feelings in ourselves and in others. It is probably the case that most of us are both oppressed and privileged at the same time. We have disadvantages relative to some and privileges over others. 

We are both oppressor and oppressed simultaneously. 

We will probably feel anger about how we or others like us are or have been oppressed.

We will probably feel guilt about our privilege.

We may feel shame.

Part of the work of justice is the inner work of confronting our own emotions. The guests that arrive at our door can seem a threat. They can make us passive. They can cause us to fear.
How do we want others to feel as we do the work of growing justice in this community, this city, this nation and this world?

It is typical of the quest for justice today to label our opponents - to call someone a racist, a sexist, or a homophobe. It is tempting. Our anger enjoys it and is satisfied by producing shame in others.

And yet, we must avoid causing others to feel shame about their role in injustice. It is not only hurtful, it is counterproductive. Shame prevents change and stokes anger. And this, as Martin Luther King said, is why “hate cannot drive out hate” and why “only love can do that.” This is why these are the guiding words of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign.

We must work with our own anger toward oppressors. Hate will only get us more hate. 

Moreover, anger and hate get in the way of diverse people working together for justice. The relationships of injustice are so complex that our anger can prevent us from joining with others to work for justice together. Each oppressed group working alone has only so much influence. Imagine the power we can have when women and men, muslims and jews, old and young, able and disabled, black and white, and gay and straight join to support one another in the cause of justice. We can’t let our anger prevent this.

And finally, we must work with our guilt - welcome it at the door laughing. It is a hard but true guide. It is a friend that leads us toward our best selves.

May it be so.