October 08, 2013
I’ve been pretty worked up about the government shutdown, and more so now since it appears that we’re headed for default. Yesterday I let loose some thunder from the pulpit of my church about Republican lawmakers who had gummed up the works for everyone, yet still managed to pass some legislation, a bill that slashed funding for food stamps, knocking 3.8 million poor people off the rolls, mostly children and their mothers. (Republicans were captured on camera high-fiving one another after they managed to pass their bill.) I know some of these moms and children. I’m pretty sure they’re not going to get a magical visit to Wegmans from John Boehner or Ted Cruz when it comes time to go grocery shopping. I tried to moderate my remarks in church, stopping short of the Old Testament fury of the prophet Isaiah when he railed against “the powers that be” in his day:
Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims — laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children. What will you have to say on Judgment Day, when Doomsday arrives out of the blue? Who will you get to help you? What good will your money do you? (Isaiah 10:1-3, The Message).
So I was pleased to see that even the Senate Chaplain is exasperated. In the New York Times it was reported that Barry C. Black, a pastor from the conservative Seventh Day Adventist denomination and a former Navy Admiral, has been cutting loose. “Save us from the madness,” he reportedly prayed last week, before unleashing an “epic ministerial scolding.” “We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness and our pride,” he went on, his baritone voice filling the room. “Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.”
I admired the prayer, but wondered who the “we” are.
The problem seems to have something to do with what Jesus talked about a few thousand years ago, in the Sermon on the Mount, where he said to those who wanted desperately to change the behavior of others: Take the log out of your own eye, before offering to remove the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Jesus, a Jewish Mediterranean peasant of the first century, was “Freud before Freud” in his teaching about projection onto the hated Other those qualities or attributes we despise in ourselves. This is the same Jesus who instructed his followers to love their enemies, because this is the path to God. I once tried to launch a discussion of this text with a group of peace activists shortly after George W. Bush started the war on Iraq. Had W been in the room that night, the peace activists might have killed him. It appears that Jesus’ fine words are warmly embraced then coldly ignored. This much was always clear to Gandhi. When asked why he was not a Christian, Gandhi professed great love for Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and recommended it to Christians. The sly Gandhi was also once asked what he thought of Western Civilization. “I think it would be an excellent idea,” he replied.
Feeling unsettled by all of this, I went to my tiny book of writings by Thich Nhat Hahn, which I picked up one day in desperation, at an airport. Hahn, a Vietnamese monk who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr., is rightly regarded as one of history’s great Buddhist masters. He has known great suffering. Having survived the carpet bombing of soaring American B-52 bombers and fiery napalm which killed over two million of his people, he knows something about enemies.
I opened the little book without a plan, telling myself I would read whatever passage my fingers landed on, but gave up on this idea when they landed on the chapter called “Labels.” (“We are separated by labels, by words like ‘Israeli,’ ‘Palestinian,’ ‘Buddhist,’ ‘Jew,’ and ‘Muslim.’ When we hear one of these words, it evokes an image and we immediately feel alienated from the other group or person. We’ve set up many habitual ways of thinking that separate us from each other, and we make each other suffer. So it’s important to discover the human being in the other person, and to help the other person discover the human being in us.”)
I didn’t want to hear any more about that. I have pretty well arranged my life so that I don’t have to hear many opposing voices. I’ve done this by virtue of my privileged station, making exclusive choices about where I choose to live, shop, eat, consume, get my hair cut, even regulating whom I accept as a Facebook friend (ranters and haters and Tea Party members, including my two brothers, have been carefully culled), leaving me with artists and writers and Canadians, and progressives generally, with whom I tend to agree.
As America slides toward default I’ve been delighted to post articles on my Facebook and Twitter accounts that show how conservatives have been spoiling for this fight for years, backed by big bucks from the Koch brothers, or this one, that explains why rich people care less, and this one, that summarizes the research of Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, documenting how the G.O.P. has become “an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
I’ve posted these articles because they validate my point of view, but haven’t spent much time trying to engage with the points of view of others. Maybe this is because, when I’ve tried, I’ve been swatted aside like a pesky horsefly. I have bitter memories of trying to convince my two brothers that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and no linkage between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and despaired over taking them on years later when John McCain could not articulate clearly the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, confusing the two. At some point, I gave up and talked only to my friends. It was easier, and I felt better, because I felt less exasperated and less angry, and I don’t like to carry anger and exasperation around with me.
Which is why I was reading Thich Nhat Hahn in the first place—to restore my soul, and to find a quiet center from which I could again venture out into the world.
But the “Labels” chapter in my little book was messing up my categories. Wasn’t it correct to hate the Tea Party rabble—about forty of them in the House, and a few in the Senate—who are causing the current mess, threatening to take not only the nation but the entire world economy into the toilet? Labels are sometimes useful, I told myself. These people are irresponsible kooks, certainly stupid, definitely dangerous. I turned the page…to the chapter on “Inclusion” (a word I liked better than labels, a good liberal word if ever I’ve heard one). And here is what I read:
Each of us must ask ourselves: how large is my heart? How can I help my heart grow bigger and bigger every day? The practice of inclusiveness is based on the practice of understanding, compassion, and love.
So far, so good. I continued.
Very often in a conflict we feel that if those on the other side, those who oppose us or believe differently from us, ceased to exist then we would have peace and happiness. So we may be motivated by the desire to annihilate, to destroy the other side, to remove certain people from our community or society. But looking deeply we will see that just as we have suffered, they have also suffered. If we truly want to live in peace, safety, and security, we must create an opportunity for those on the other side to live this way as well. If we know how to allow the other side into our heart, if we have that intention, we not only suffer less right away but we also increase our own chances of having peace and security. When we’re motivated by the intention to practice inclusiveness, it becomes very easy to ask, ‘How can we best help you so that you can enjoy safety? Please tell us.’ ….The basis for this transformation, the first thing that must happen, is the change within your own heart. You open your heart to include the other side; you want to give them the opportunity to live in peace, as you wish to live….We know that if the other side does not have peace and safety, then it will not be possible for us to have peace and safety. That is the nature of interbeing.
* * *
Earlier, I mentioned my work with peace activists. This was years ago, in the swing state of Ohio. September 11 was fresh in everyone’s memory, and the U.S. was gearing up for war against Iraq based on cherry picked intelligence, and lies in high places. I hosted a peace conference and invited my friend Walter Wink as the speaker and workshop leader. In one of our breakout sessions, after Walter’s keynote address, a fifty-year-old peace activist and author said, “Walter, can you help me with this? I hate George W. Bush. I mean, I just hate him. I hate looking at him, I hate his tight little smug face, that stupid smirk, hate the way he talks, hate his words, hate his lies, hate the way he walks, and that silly way he has of waving when he gets off the plane. I hate most of all what he is doing to my country and to the world in our name—I mean I just hate him!”
As I listened to her, I was reminded of a story about Fred Rogers, aka Mister Rogers, at the George Herbert Walker Bush fundraiser in 1992. It seems that Fred had somehow been invited to pray at this fundraiser, and it was a difficult predicament. He didn’t want to go. It was one of those fundraisers where you pay a thousand dollars to sit and eat and be in the presence of the president, and Fred wasn’t at all sure that he wanted to do it. A pacifist, he thought about how much he opposed Bush’s decision to go to war in the Persian Gulf. An artist, he thought about how he opposed Bush’s educational policies—at the time the Republicans were screaming about cutting funding for the arts. Fred thought about all the reasons why he didn’t want to go.
And in the end he went.
The function was held at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and Fred arrived late, skipping the cocktail party. He was escorted by a throng of beefy Secret Servicemen up to a private room where President Bush was to be waiting. The opening ceremonies began. Fred was announced from the podium. He stood at the podium, facing all the fancy and excited Republicans, flanked by George Bush on one side, and Senator Arlen Specter on the other. Everybody looked important and serious and heavy with political agendas.
Standing behind that podium, Fred Rogers looked—skinny. All 143 pounds of him. He didn’t fit in. He could have been a six-year-old kid. He cleared his throat.
“I know of a little girl who was drawing with crayons in school.”
He paused. It was a long pause. The Republicans looked at one another. Was this…appropriate?
“The teacher asked her about her drawing and the little girl said, ‘Oh, I am making a picture of God.’ The teacher said, ‘But no one knows what God looks like.’ The little girl smiled and answered, ‘They will now.’”
Fred asked each member of the crowd to think of his or her own image of God, and that’s who he prayed to. He asked that all the politicians listen to the cries of despair in our nation and help turn those cries into actual rays of hope. He never did actually mention George Bush’s name.
And when his short speech was over, Fred Rogers stepped off the podium and darted out of the room. He had a habit of doing this. No one could find him. The beefy Secret Service couldn’t find him. They combed the building and talked into their secret little walkie-talkies. Lunch was about to be served and Fred was missing.
Finally, he was found. He was standing outside, alone, by an oak tree. A priest came running up. “Mister Rogers! Where are you going? We’re about to start the lunch!”
“Oh, I have to go back to work now,” Fred said. And then he was gone.
Fred didn’t want to be at that event. But he would say a prayer with those people or with any other people. He was not put on this earth to snub anyone; that’s how he saw it. He later told a friend, “I wasn’t about to participate in any fundraising or anything else. But at the same time I don’t want to be an accuser. Other people may be accusers if they want to be; that may be their job. I really want to be an advocate for whatever I find is healthy or good.”
When I read these words I was a bit disappointed in Mister Rogers. An activist alarm went off in my head that said, Hello! Naïve! Speak truth to power! and all the rest of it.
Bu then I read on, and I encountered these words, which remind me so much of Thich Naht Hahn, and okay, Jesus, for that matter:
I think people don’t change very much when all they have is a finger pointed at them. I think the only way people change is in relation to somebody who loves them.
And now I can tell you what Walter Wink said to the woman at our peace conference who hated George Bush’s eldest son, W. What Walter said, in that quiet way of his, was something like this: Look, I don’t think that we’re called to hate George Bush or anyone else. There’s no shortage of hatred already in this world. What we’re called to do is pray. “But how do I pray for George W. Bush?” the woman asked, a question we were all probably thinking. “Well, I think we have to pray that George W. Bush will come in time to awaken to his full humanity, that what the Quakers call ‘that of God,’ would be awakened in him, and while we’re at it, let’s pray the same for ourselves.”
* * *
Look, I’m a hot mess too. I’m not preaching here, I’m confessing. But I’ve had to ask myself this past week, as the news continued to leak out of our nation’s capitol, most of it bad: What is it that I want?
Most of the time, I want a world where Tea Party members have good health care from cradle to grave—the same people who hate Obama and despise “socialist” programs like Social Security and Medicare. I want them to be free from suffering, and to be able to live in peace. I want for their children what I want for my own: a path that leads to happiness and prosperity, security and peace. I want them to feel listened to, and I also want them to listen to me. None of this can happen if they and those who agree with them are excluded. Oddly, my happiness is linked to theirs, and no one can uncouple us. This train has to clatter down the track, intact.
It is disturbing to me that the path ahead leads through red states like Texas and Oklahoma, Wyoming, Alabama, and Georgia, and through the spacious Washington offices of John Boehner and Ted Cruz. But their annihilation will not happen, and would solve nothing. Until and unless they and their constituents are well and free from suffering, there is no interbeing, there is only this mell of a hess that we are in, and more of the same, up ahead.