wizdUUm Blogs on Social Justice

"Thank You For Your Service"

Sometimes if feels like the Universe or Spirit (one and the same) is sending you a message. Or maybe it’s just a coincidence that allows you to see a pattern that seems meaningful. Whatever it is, I had such an experience yesterday, after Sunday worship service.

 

It started with a conversation about Christianity, and how it shifted from its early form emphasizing life to one emphasizing death. Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock detail this shift in their book “Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love for This World for Crucifixion and Empire.” The symbol for the early Christian Church was a simple cross, not crucifix. And the artwork adorning first century Christian churches contain no images of Jesus’s torturous death, only that of his life healing the sick and feeding the hungry, and images of him as the risen Christ. In other words, the iconography (and theology) focused on life.

 

So what happened to change the focus? Well in short, Pope Urban II had declared a crusade (the first) against the “heathens” who controlled the Holy Land, the birthplace of Christianity. And the crusade wasn’t going well partly because there weren’t enough Christians in Europe willing to go to war and die in a foreign land. He needed willing soldiers. So he declared that anyone who joined the crusade would be absolved of all their sins. With that, the idea that suffering is redemptive took root and grew. Instead of depictions of a living Jesus, the Church put forth depictions of his bloody crucifixion. Over time, the representations became more and more gruesome, culminating in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” (I still have not seen that movie.) Instead of living to love and serve others, saints became martyrs. And the more they were tortured before death, the greater their devotion to God.

Such was the shift in theology in the eleventh century because Rome needed people who were willing to fight and die for empire. The shift did not happen overnight, but rather was gradual, might even have seemed “natural” at the time, but nevertheless it happened.

Shortly after that conversation about the shift in Christianity ended, I talked with a different member of UUSF about the anniversary of Armistice Day. For those of you who don’t know, what we now observe as Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day, which celebrated the end of World War One. In accordance with the signed agreement, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, fighting ceased. (Soldiers actually continued shooting and bombing until 10:59 and then stopped a minute later. How weird is that?) At the time, WWI was thought to be the war to end all wars. There was the belief that its end was the beginning of a lasting peace, and Armistice Day was the celebration of that peace. It remained a somber yet hopeful holiday for many years, but obviously did not stay that way.

 

In 1954, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day. Part of the motivation for the change is understandable - WWI did not end all wars. We had had WWII and the Korean War, and we were about to enter the Vietnam War. So people wanted a day that would honor all veterans, not just those of WWI. But since the name change, Veterans Day has shifted from a somber hope for peace, to the flag-waving, military-parading, glorification of war.

 

Experiencing the two conversations so close to each other, I could see that it was the same pattern. (It’s not the first time that I’ve seen that the United States is the heir to the Roman Empire.) Washington needs soldiers to fight in its endless wars, and the way to make citizens willing to fight and die in foreign lands is to lift it up as the ideal.  Instead of paintings of Saint Lucy with her eyes gouged out or Saint Sebastian with a chest full of arrows, our televisions show us images of veterans missing arms and legs while flags wave and patriotic music swells in the background.

 

I want to be clear here that I do NOT want to return to the days during and after Vietnam, when those who answered the call to serve in our armed forces were spat upon and shunned. The willingness to serve our country - ie, our greater community - is noble, and recognition and gratitude are appropriate. What I object to is the shift from hope for peace to glorification of war. On Veterans Day now, we tell veterans “Thank you for your service,” but we (collectively) do nothing to make their sacrifice less required. Nothing to lessen war. For the sake of empire, we emphasize suffering and death over love and life.

 

The Social (In)Justice of Thermostat Settings

San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area experienced an historic heatwave this weekend, with recorded temperatures in the city exceeding 100 degrees two days in a row. To give you some context, up until this week there had only been ten 100 degree or more days since 1904. That's only ten 100 degree or more days in 113 years. Because San Francisco so rarely gets hot, most houses do not have air conditioning. In the surrounding areas, temps average 10-20 degrees higher so some homes do have AC while others do not.

The thing is, air conditioning requires power. And so long as our energy comes from fossil fuels, running the AC burns more fossil fuels, which increases global warming, which results in hotter temperatures, which causes more people and businesses to run air-conditioners, which use more fossil fuels, which will make the temps even hotter....

Yesterday, someone was telling me how their friends keep their house at 60 degrees even when they're not home so that the cat will be comfortable, and I nearly cried. I stopped myself so that my friend wouldn't feel uncomfortable, but maybe I should have wept. Who knows? Maybe I should have pitched a fit and been the stereotypical "environmentalist."

I'm not opposed to air conditioning.  I totally understand that when the mercury exceeds a certain temperature, cooling becomes a necessity, not a luxury. The single biggest weather-related killer isn't hurricanes or tornadoes, it's heat. When the temperature exceeds a certain point, people die. Children, the elderly, and the infirm die quicker. As for the rest of us, even if our lives are not at risk, we still suffer.  So I am not opposed to air conditioning at all. If we had had AC in the house on Friday and Saturday, I would have used it.

But access to air conditioning depends on your economic situation. The wealthy can apparently cool an entire house to 60 degrees so that the cat is comfortable. Others make due with fans and lots of ice cold drinks, as my family did. And still others do not have access even to fans and refrigeration. All throughout the heat wave, I kept thinking about people on the streets without shelter. Concrete and asphalt absorb and radiate heat, raising the temps even higher. How did they survive? If some folks died, would the news even bother reporting it?

Buddhists and Unitarian Universalists alike, as well as others, affirm the reality of interdependency.  Interdependency means that the thermostat in your house (should you be fortunate enough to have one) is connected to the power plant which is connected to greenhouse gases which is connected to extreme weather in many places which is connected to the people sitting in the shelters and to the people sitting on the baking concrete sidewalks asking for money.  In other words, the temperature at which you decide to set the thermostat is not just a personal choice.  It affects others.  (There are other interdependent connections too, like who suffers to acquire and burn the fossil fuels that power your house.)  And whether or not you can pay your electric bill is not the only consideration of a responsible person.  

Climate change is a social justice issue.  Its effects impact the poor (who tend also to hold other marginalized identities) much more severely than the rich. The rich (and the middle-class) can shelter themselves from the impact of climate change... by more easily evacuating areas overcome by flood and wildfires, by more easily replacing possessions lost to flood and fire, by moving, by running the air-conditioning. And the rich (and middle-class) disproportionately engage in behaviors that accelerate climate change, making life even more miserable for the poor.

Living in Non-White Whiteness or White Non-Whiteness or ...

Kathleen's 6th Birthday

"What do you like about being white?"

The anti-racism training facilitator chose me to go first. My view of myself as multicultural Latinx, with indigenous heritage and light skinned privilege, was discounted a room full of other participants. Every struggle of not being white enough, or Latina enough flew up to my throat into a knot. I could not get past the word "multicultural," because the facilitator, an African American man, kept interrupting, insisting I was white. I thought my story about my grandparents and great grandparents had explained who I was the day before. The Latina facilitator said in a stage whisper, "She's Latina." The white facilitator said in a stage whisper to the Latina, She's white!" Whispering ensued between them. The facilitator who asked the question more than once said, "Fine, let's move on. We'll get back to you." I sat in shock. The next white individual, somewhat understandably, did not want to claim he was white either.

When I had gone to a people of color retreat last summer, the speaker, Zenju Earthlin Manuel had brought up an example that made sense. In 2013, Black Girl Dangerous blogger, Janani, published, "What's wrong with the term 'person of color?'" In it, they wrote about an exercise about race in an anti-oppression youth camp in the South, in which they, along with two other Asian attendees, were put in the white group rather than the black group. Janani wrote,

I want to return to that moment of racial ambivalence, and why it happened. That moment was unsettling precisely because even if Black and Asian kids had a common experience of being racialized, we didn’t have a common racialized experience.

It seems as if it should be obvious, but upon hearing it the first time, my heart opened with more compassion for we of whom are not of the dominant culture. In our workshop, every single person had been racialized as a consequence of living in the United States. Each one is racialized based on their geography in the country, in addition to the relationships to friends, relatives, loved ones, institutions and society. Not one person's early soul tenderness was battered by racism the same way. I have no claim to the experience of being black, but navigating La Frontera, the borderlands as explained by Gloria E. Anzaldúa, is its own experience. I grew up occupying that liminal space of in between, not pale enough to be white, but without the Spanish language, unable to navigate in the Latinx sphere either. How you were treated could turn on a dime. Especially, if your name changed from European to Hispanic or back. I was punished a whole school year for a surname change and return. My mother experienced it, and my sister, who has fairer skin than mine with dark hair and eyes, experienced it.

As the daughter of a Mexican American mother with the black hair and beautiful brown skin of her father, I was the first of sixteen grandchildren with the black hair and dark brown eyes that favored him. Unfortunately, he died before the year before. As the daughter of my Irish, Scandinavian, Northern European father, I'd never quite fit in. The McGregor family loved me anyway, often pointing out how smart I was, or tall I was, even though my build was more solid, and I tended to be chubby and darker. My heart and self-esteem suffered each time others were disparaged for gaining weight by the weight and look obsessed white women in the family, or how "Mexicans" or worse, "wetbacks" were disparaged by my new German stepfamily, most often by my stepmother.

If I had been asked a different question, the rest of the workshop might have gone differently. Instead, I became the female example of white denial. The trainer said to the group, "We people of color see you as white. You are not fooling us." My shutting down served as another sign of whiteness. In truth, I was in shock. Every misgiving about not being a person of color enough, was laid bare. I did not speak out about myself, nor with anyone else, the rest of the workshop. So, was he right? In a way, yes. And in a way, no.

I have much baggage: growing up in colonialized geography, feeling less than, being a widow of a small, dark, non-gender conforming, Filipina, a raw recent falling out with a relative, being enraged by my late beloved's treatment in the world, the traumatic death and aftermath, being an outcast accused of being unfeeling because I was white, and as such, had no culture, a coopted memorial. To say anything would have sounded like an excuse, or worse, as if I was trying to divert the discomfort, to make the conversation about my feelings, or separate myself from other whites by claiming I had suffered more, or that I had my own oppression, and therefore understood people of color's experience. Diversionary tactics are not new, and I've witnessed each one more than once.

For the evening and the next day, memories of scenes in the hospital, the funeral, and the aftermath haunted me. PTSD is real. When the other facilitator discussed what ends up lost to whites for opting to participate in whiteness the next day, I still could not trust myself to speak. When she blamed herself, her white privilege and ignorance, for the early loss of her own spouse, I just felt ill. I'd just managed to work past the survivor's guilt, stopped finding reasons to blame myself for my beloved's early death.

Going in to anti-racism work the decade before, I needed to be clear in my identity. I considered myself one of the mestizaje, on the border. After much discussion with my minister of color, I took on "person of color" identity as a political statement. That meant the battles are mine. Every single day, I choose not to walk away. My liberation is inextricably woven into the fabric of all people of color. Although there are days I hate the injustice too much to be healthy, I am committed. I'm committed to being open, learning, and to defer to the leadership of those people of color most affected by the intersecting issue at hand. I'm committed for all the multiracial children who do not quite fit into either family, and do not understand why race is such a big deal. I'm committed for gender nonconforming people of color, who are the most vulnerable, the most in danger, in our society. I'm committed for queer people of color, who are nearly as vulnerable. I am especially committed now for queer and gender nonconforming immigrants .

I'm grateful to have recently married, to a partner who works with me and learns with me. Still, I have married back into white privilege. So, what do I like about being white? I like that in passing, I can use the privilege I do have to speak out, protest, agitate, and put my body on the line for those who cannot. I like that in passing, I see and hear white people for who they are with each other. I like that in passing, my privilege can be used for the common good, rather than to get ahead in the capitalist white cultural narrative.

The Pure Land on Earth

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I've mentioned before that my family is what I call Chinese Buddhist - a mixture of Zen, Pure Land, and indigenous traditions. Most of you likely know about Zen, but you might not have heard of Pure Land.

The ultimate goal is still nirvana, as it is with all Buddhism, but Pure Land adherents believe in the existence of a Western paradise, created by the beneficence of the Amitabha Buddha. If one is fortunate enough to be reborn into this place of bliss, free from the distractions of suffering, one will easily attain nirvana. And one becomes so fortunate by praying to Amitabha for help. In his compassion for our suffering, he intervenes when we would not have made it by ourselves. One could call it grace.

And one can see why this flavor of Buddhism gained traction in China, particularly among the laboring class who struggled to feed their families. Pure Land says that 1) you are not alone - there is help, and 2) while conditions may be too difficult to attain nirvana now, there will be a time in the future,  when we’re in the Western Pure Land, when things will be good.

Contrast that with Zen where we are taught that we are all already Buddhas; we just need to remember it, to wake up, which can happen at any instant. Enlightenment is right here and now.

Zen and Pure Land might seem at odds with each other, and yet both exist in Chinese Buddhism for people to draw upon.

Last Sunday was Easter, which in traditional Christianity is thought of as the remedy for the Fall of humanity in the story of Eden. Adam and Eve, who represent us, lived in paradise, which was lost when they transgressed. Due to Jesus intervening for us, many Christians look forward to regaining paradise, heaven, in the future.

Now, most UUs would probably reject the idea of a Western Pure Land as most reject the idea of heaven. We Unitarians are known for focusing our attentions on this life and the needs of this world. As a dying Henry David Thoreau famously quipped when asked if he could see what's next, “One world at a time.”

And that is my take too. To me, the bodhisattva's vow to not cross over until every sentient being is free is a call to social action. Because the world is full of hardships that distract people from being able to attain enlightenment, we need to remove those hardships - such as racism, poverty, war, and environmental destruction - so that people have the space to practice. We need to create the Pure Land on earth, otherwise known as what Rev Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.

It was this desire to create a better world that led to the first Earth Day in 1970, the creation of the EPA, and passing of key environmental legislation to protect our air, water, land, and sibling species. This life, this world.

Yet recently I've realized that even though my focus is in this world, I've still been holding onto a notion of a future mythic paradise. Perhaps you are too. Not a paradise in an afterlife, no, but when I think of the Beloved Community or the Pure Land on earth, I catch myself thinking of the future, not the present. A future where humans live in harmony with each other and with Mother Earth, and all beings have enough. We just need to keep working, keep educating, keep advocating for change until we achieve it.

I call this a mythic paradise because in my more rational moments I realize that such a future cannot exist. Not as a steady state. To think that someday we’ll live in a utopia with no more social ills is a belief with little more basis in reality than belief in heaven or a Pure Land.  I'm not saying that we can't succeed in fighting climate change and racism, etc. I believe that we can and will prevail. But even as those social issues are resolved, others will arise. The work will always be ongoing.  That's just the nature of things.  Eden didn't “fall” because of some moral failing in humanity. “The Fall' was inevitable because change is inevitable. Because we are conditioned beings subject to impermanence. Because, entropy.

So, if the Beloved Community, or the Pure Land on earth, isn’t a state that can be achieved, one might despair and ask what’s the point? Well, aside from the fact that without the efforts of people who care things would be worse, there is this. In Chinese Buddhism there is both Pure Land and Zen.  Pure Land says enlightenment will happen in the future, and Zen says that enlightenment is right here and now for us to see.  We work for a better future, as our ancestors did for us, AND, every time we meet the Other with loving kindness, we create the Beloved Community at that moment. The Pure Land, paradise, already exists here and now, created by us over and over again.

Practice Taking Risks

Okay, I don't consider myself in a position to preach. I really don't. I just know what *I* strongly believe and that's it...and I listen to others. So, this week, I'm in charge of the service and the topic of the month is "risk."

I just saw a colleague post about reminding a man not to refer to his female assistant (?) as a "girl." And I'm sure this was completely unintentional and there's nothing at all wrong with him and he probably, hopefully, appreciated having his attention brought to this. My colleague, understandably, felt a little embarrassed.

Here's my approach to this kind of thing: How are we ever going to stand up for the big things, when something's really at stake, and act in the moment, if we don't *practice?*

Like physical self defense, sometimes social risk-taking, standing up for what is right, has to become automated. Or it just won't happen. Knowing what you believe is only halfway there. It's a huge step, but then there's at least another one, and that's acting on it.

Because I believe this so firmly, and I hate being caught in a situation where I later think about how I wish I could have acted, or helped (and sometimes no matter what you can't), I make it a point to practice with smaller, seemingly less significant opportunties.

It's not about nit-picking. It's not about being overly sensitive, or making a "big deal" about something that wasn't meant to be a big deal. It's not the incident itself that should be weighed, but its usefulness in practicing. That's a different value judgement, and much easier to act from, then trying to judge every situation on a case by case basis.

All of us, but especially women and girls, do this thing where we get stuck trying to weigh the worth of an event. We're sitting there trying to figure out, from scratch, where the bar of "okay, THIS is a big deal" is on the nebulous spectrum we never seem to understand...WHILE something is happening, and long after, when it's too late to do something about it.

Some friends this week have been talking on Facebook about their experiences with abusive relationships. Horrific stories. Fascinating examples of manipulation and human sickness. I had a new appreciation for the fact that without knowing what you believe, or in this case, what to look for and notice, it is very easy to go from mild gas-lighting to suddenly a horrible situation that literally puts your life at risk...and scars you forever.

I know a little about what some "abuse" looks like in small forms, so I speak up at the seemingly little stuff. Comments that I don't agree with. Attempts to put me down, or coerce me to do something. Letting people know when I'm pissed at something, instead of hiding it or swallowing it and trying not to let it show. I'm firm, and yet not combative.

But since I have not actually been in THIS situation, I realize anew it would do me well to learn more what the flags are...because you can't see things when you're IN them. only if you have the markers ahead of time, can you know what to look for on the landscape. Looking at a map, and being IN the map, are two different perspectives, and exist in different dimensions.

Now, I've made mistakes. It is rare, but recently, I made one. I misjudged a man and had to go back and apologize, very, very humbly. I did, and he forgave me. But though I'm sorry I hurt his feelings, and I really did, I am not sorry that I acted on my beliefs. It's good for him to know that he can be misjudged, because sexism and harassment are serious problems and exist. Maybe he can contribute to doing something about it, if he doesn't want to live in a world like that. Mistakes can be corrected. Harm cannot always be corrected.

So...I haven't lived on this earth long enough, nor experienced lack of privilege enough, to really believe I have much worth to talk about when it comes to taking risks. But since I have to anyway, that is one of the points I will be bringing up: the importance of practice.

The little things *do* matter, people. We should never feel silly for caring about them. The worst that can happen is people don't get it and are annoyed with you. And guess what....people are going to think whatever they think, ANYWAY. Is that really so bad, if you know what you believe, and have the peace of knowing that you act on it? Wouldn't it feel better to be thought of as "that" person, when you've actually done something, not just because you timidly spoke and *suggested* something?

I admit I actually enjoy saying, "I disagree," when someone makes a comment that is upholding an oppressive, harmful belief. They don't have to understand...I don't need to convince them. i respect them. But it's good for them to know that someone might disagree.

If I stay silent, they will go through life believing that what they said was acceptable, because no one else seems to find it UNacceptable. And it is not my job to make sure someone who takes a risk by stating an opinion falls back on as soft a cushion of disappointment as possible. They took a risk; they can handle the consequences. I literally will say this sometimes only for the record. For the record, everyone does not agree with or endorse that opinion, but you're welcome to have one as long as you understand that.

Anyway, I wish I could say this more articulately and do a better job of being inspirational here. I just want to affirm for ANYone the value and rightness of caring and speaking about things that seem to have minimum consequences.

The little things are guilding over the big problems. Our rape culture, for example, extends from simple jokes, unconscious victim-blaming and mixed messages about gender roles all the way to the very worst. They may not be the same in degree, but they ARE connected. They are of the same nature, stem from the same problems. To respond to one less in degree is to contribute to lessening the worst that can happen.

Be strong. Know what you believe. And practice. Practice. Practice. You're not going to hurt anyone. Everyone will be all right. If you practice, you're less likely to overdo it when something big happens and you make a mistake, because all that anger and surge of emotion and years of not speaking out comes to the surface and crucifies whoever happens to be standing in the way that day.

But with practice, that energy flows more easily, and the mistakes don't have to be that harmful. The more we practice something, the better we get at it. NEVER berate yourself for standing up for what you believe, large, small, or miniscule. It's just being consistent, that's all.

Remember that poem that went around a few weeks ago, calling out how people look back at the Civil Rights movement, and firmly believe they would have marched with King, they would have seen very clearly what was wrong and what they were called to do, and yet TODAY, when we face identical situations, it is hard to get up and going, hard to see it the same way.

So people sit on the sidelines. And comment. And shake their heads, and tell protestors how they should be protesting, when they've never so much as held a sign themselves. I focused on women's issues here, but this is true for everyone. We all need to trust ourselves and value ourselves enough to be willing to act, and yes, without thinking. Thinking feels like acting, but it's not. Practice can help tell the difference, and hone the degree of appropriate reaction.

Pages

Latest Wizduum Blog Posts

11/12/2018 - 11:03
06/08/2018 - 11:54
04/24/2018 - 11:09

Forum Activity

Fri, 10/31/2014 - 08:11
Mon, 06/16/2014 - 07:09
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 22:01

Acknowledgments

wizdUUm.net is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative