delivered at Shawnee Mission UU on Feb. 18, 2018 and at First Congregational in Manhattan on March 18, 2018
I see political activity as part and parcel of my spiritual practice, and I also have a tendency to self-righteousness.
But with those caveats - I have an aversion to the word “civility.” This idea has been around a while. It was a big part of the appeal of Barack Obama during his first run in 2008. “We don't have red states and or blue states, we have the United States,” he famously said.
I see it around quite a bit. It's based on the idea that America is super-partisanized, that we all live in our little self-thinking bubbles, and that we tend not to have friends across the partisan line. The answer to this, so the thinking goes, is civility. It usually means, trying to understand the other person's perspective, to treat their beliefs with respect. Sometimes it means, recognizing what we have in common as people underneath, or perhaps above, our political differences.
I don't want to be taken to mean that we should be in continuous hostility with people we disagree with politically, or that we shouldn't feed each other's dogs across the political spectrum. But neither is every idea okay. something about the way this is being framed rubs me the wrong way.
A couple of months ago the Johnson County League of Women Voters hosted the founder of an organization called American Public Square, that we tend to take our opinions as fact, and that just because your idiot relative, or, say, Gov. Colyer, doesn't agree with you politically doesn't make them a bad person. He said, They come by their opinions in the same way you come by yours. But elevating this to a principle doesn't take into account the sheer ignorance and bad faith in today's discourse. The example I always use is climate change. Given what we know about climate change there is absolutely no reason to believe that it is not real, or that that human beings aren't causing it. That's as close as science comes to a statement of fact. Yet 40% or more of the American public believe just the opposite. Being propagandized by Fox News or the fossil fuel industry is not, “came to their opinions in the same honest way that you came to yours.”
So I have three concerns, one of which I've already mentioned: We a post-fact age, when people can claim with a straight face that climate change isn't real or that AR-15s aren't a problem, these kind of conversations seem like a kind of kabuki, with no real effect. The right is into power politics while moderates and liberals still believe in proof and persuasion. And things keep getting worse.
Second, it seems like the kind of discourse policing that the respectable classes so often do. “We understand your goals but we don't agree with your tactics.”
Recently some of our friends in Kansas hosted what they called a “bird-dogging training,” which is basically to have people set up at a politician's public appearance, prepared and determined to ask them pointed questions about a particular issue. So you may have read about this, Gov. Colyer was in Manhattan a while ago with the intention of doing some glad-handing at a diner, and it turned out that everyone in the place wanted to know about Medicaid expansion. This person said, “Did you know that KanCare expansion would offer health insurance to 150,000 working Kansans?” and the next person said, “Do you know that Kansas has lost X billion dollars in tax money by not expanding KanCare?” And after a while he said, “Doesn't anyone want to talk about anything but KanCare?” And then he left.
The Manhattan Mercury didn't like this action, saying it was “unruly,” and that it wasn't in keeping with Manhattan values. Well, I don't know about that, but 80% of Kansans want medicaid expanded and Gov. Colyer doesn't seem to want to listen to them, so maybe it's natural that they would want to speak a little louder. It also communicates commitment and passion to the people involved, to the politician, and to the public.
This kind of criticism has always been heard – if only those abolitionists weren't so unreasonable. The lunch counter sit-ins were unpopular among the mainstream when they were taking place, as you probably know. We agree with your goals, but not with your tactics – exactly the same words the Mercury used. And Dr. King said, in the letter from a Birmingham Jail, that the tsk-tsking of white moderates was more disappointing, and more dangerous, than the White Citizens Council, because at least with them you knew what to expect.
And third, and most importantly: whose voices are being centered? Look at the rabbi's example: two middle-aged, middle-class white guys live next to each other in Johnson County. And isn't it nice that they don't hate each other. But this conversation leaves out everyone else, the people we are already don't think about.
I recently read Patrisse Cullors' book. She's one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and she has a memoir out called “When They Call You a Terrorist,” which I highly recommend. She grew up black and poor in LA during the depths of the war on drugs, and her story is one of a system at war with its children – a violent police occupation, lack of medical care, including mental health care, lack of meaningful work or connection. This is not significantly different today. I put it to you that we are far too concerned about the feelings of right-wing white people and not enough concerned, or not at all concerned about the trauma that we inflict every day on poor people and people of color. Where is Patrisse Cullors in the conversation about civility?
I think that a chemistry professor who has lived here for 30 years and hasn't committed a crime shouldn't be picked up off the street and put on a plane to Bangladesh, and you do? I don't think that working people should have to rely on food stamps because Walmart doesn't pay enough, and you do? I don't think discrimination against white people is a thing, and you do? Now again, and again, I understand that people hold these opinions and I don't want to hate them, which is one thing, but yet I still think these opinions are not only wrong but morally bankrupt, and the idea that these opinions are deserving of respect and that we need to meet in the middle is gross to me, frankly.
And another thing - sitting down and having a civil conversation with someone who thinks it's okay to pick Sayed Jamal up off the street might have some interest, but it isn't going to accomplish much politically. The idea that civility will address our issues indicates a lack of understanding of what those issue actually are. It also doesn't recognize the extent to which the issue isn't communication as much as the building of political power, and that we don't need politesse, we need change.
The Mercury raised the question of whether the tactic of bird-dogging would turn people off. It's a fair question. I find it linked with the question of talking to quote-unquote “the other side,” which is a question I get all time: how do we, or I talk to the other side. And, I don't think it's the wrong question exactly, but it's not the first question. We have a tendency when talking about these matters to talk about the people who hold the opinions on the opposite side of the spectrum from us. That's the way it always was with climate change – we argue with the deniers. It took me years of doing it to realize that it's just not that productive.
Instead, I think about the fifths. Picture a horizontal line, with spokes coming out of it to one side, so that the area is divided into fifths. So the left fifth is progressives, the second fifth is leans our way but who aren't active, the middle fifth is neutrals, then lean rights, and then hard right. The way to build a movement, the way to build change, is not to spend your energy cultivating the opposite side. It's to bring the 2nd fifth toward the 1st, and the neutrals toward the second fifth, etc.
I think maybe the conversation should be less about civility and more about compassion. I think the image of the fifths coincides with, or overlays, a spiritual practice that I find helpful, which is metta meditation - compassion practice. This is a Buddhist practice, where you send lovingkindness out into the world. First to yourself, then to a loved one, then to a neutral person, then to a person you have tension with. So, starting from here and moving outward. So, rather than saying, rather than starting from the conversation about dealing with the “other side,” let's start from here and build outward.
I actually think there's an important organizational and theological concept buried in here. The way we have framed integration or other liberationary tendencies is as accepting people into the previous existing framework. Women in corporate board rooms, gay people in the military, or black people in white churches. But bringing a modicum of morality to immoral systems isn't a solution. Rather we have to open out the systems so that they are changed – not just changed, transformed - by the people who participate in them. That includes our religious spaces, our social spaces, our economic spaces. That's so hard for white people to accommodate, because we always expect to be centered. But that's really the change we need.
When we think of self-care we often think of it as self-protection. And loving ourselves does mean caring for ourselves, taking time for ourselves, working on our health and our spiritual lives, but it also needs to mean being open to the Other. The principle of “none of us are free until all of us are free” is not only a political concept, it's a spiritual concept. That opening out – making ourselves vulnerable in that way - is something we need for our own spiritual well-being - not as an act of charity, but as a responsibility to ourselves.
Another book I highly recommend is “Radical Dharma,” written by a couple of African American Buddhist teachers, angel Kyodo Williams and Lama Rod Owens. The book is largely about how they were able to work with (not through) their trauma in their meditation practice, and the challenges they've faced being a part of almost exclusively white dharma communities. The central concept, and the line I want you to remember, is that liberation inside is intimately connected to liberation outside – and vice versa. We cannot be liberated spiritually without all of creation being liberated, and our social justice work depends on self-liberation, spiritual development as well. That's really true – truer than we usually mean when we say it. None of us are free until everyone is free! Let me say it a different way: personal spiritual development depends on engaging with the world in a way that moves toward liberation for all. Liberation for all depends on personal and communal spiritual connection and growth. We cannot be our full selves while we ignore, or push away, the suffering of others. None of us are free until everyone is free.
Where civility is focused on the people on the opposite side of the spectrum, who are already getting plenty of attention, during our metta meditation we can open our hearts to some of the people who aren't normally in our line of sight: the Patrisse Cullors, the Sayed Jamals of the world. Let's make sure we're thinking of them. Because the ones who need our compassion, our love and our commitment.
I do think compassion should include those who disagree with us politically. I don't see any purpose in hating, for instance, working people who voted for Donald Trump, many of whom acted out of suffering and will suffer more that decision. I'm not particularly a fan of call-out culture, because I think there are times when people are open to new inputs if they're treated kindly and not attacked. Doctor Who said, Try to be nice, but always be kind. That's a good distinction. But being nicer to Gov. Colyer in the diner doesn't release one black man from prison, of save one Latinx person from deportation, or one Muslim woman from having her hijab pulled off, or one trans woman from attack.
But nevertheless, at the end of the metta meditation you do have to extend your metta to the people you disagree with, and I have to confess that in my word it's been an ongoing struggle to do that, to not hate the people I oppose. This is so hard! Gun violence, Kris Kobach and his anti-immigrant. For me this is particularly the case with the issue of gun violence. This week we were inspired by millions of young people walking out of their schools to demand action on the proliferation of guns. One of the first demonstrations I ever went to was an anti-hand gun event in the aftermath of John Lennon's murder and it's hard to overstate how much ground we've lost since then. But I believe that guns are actual, literal idols – specifically the idol Moloch, to which we sacrifice our children. So when I see the NRA lobbyists, or hear legislators spout the usual nonsense about self-protection, freedom and the God-given right to self defense, it's hard for me to remember that I'm supposed to think kindly of them.
It doesn't do me any good to hate these guys, but neither do I have to say, I wonder why they believe what they believe, we should have a panel discussion to look for ways we can come together. Later for that! In metta we say, “May so and so be happy, may they be free from pain, may they live happily and in peace.” That's what I owe them, and that's all I owe them. Sometimes I can do it and sometimes I can't.
But what we really need is not nicer conversations but more power. And the way we build that power, and thereby bring justice, going back to the spokes, is by reaching more people who hold our point of view and by bringing people who are sympathetic toward our point of view into action. Activate our fifth, bring the next fifth toward us and the middle fifth, the uncommitted, toward them. That actually would be enough. A change of 5 or 7% would be astronomical. But that takes hard work, and sometimes that work is disruptive, and may appear to discourse police as uncivil. But that cannot be our biggest concern. The way to fix what ails us is by lifting up the people who are the most hurt by the injustices in our society – the poor person, the person of color, the victim of violence, the refugee, the immigrant, the worker. Bandage their wounds, cool their heads, feed their stomachs, treat their trauma, free their souls. Center them. Be nice to them. That, and not politesse, is the way to redeem the world.
Because as Sister Assata said: It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.