We Must All Be Changed

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I met Dr. King on April 22nd, 1967, slightly less than one year before he was killed. I had just turned six. He was coming to Brown University to speak, and my father, who was a chaplain at the university, was given the job of meeting Dr. King at the airport. I went along for the ride and shook the great man’s hand. I remember the total attention that he gave to me as he met me. Two weeks earlier, he had come out publicly and forcefully in opposition to the war in Vietnam, and an ocean of criticism had fallen on him for doing so. Here was a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and yet, he had the time and attention for an unknown six-year-old white kid from Rhode Island.

In August of 1967, in what was to be his final address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he said,

…we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society… When I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated. (Where Do We Go From Here?16 August 1967.)

On April 4, 1967, in the speech at Riverside Church in New York City, where Dr. King declared his opposition to the war in Vietnam, he also began to articulate the nature of the transformation he envisioned:

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit… Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken—the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

1967 was also the year that the precursor organization to Greenpeace was founded and Lynn White’s essay in Science, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” laid blame for the crisis at the feet of Christianity. It was the year after the National Organization of Women was founded. I imagine that over time Dr. King would have seen that environmental destruction and sexual exploitation are also inextricably intertwined in our society and our psyches with racism, economic exploitation, and the hideous violence of war. The sickness is very deep.

Dr. King, in his final year, was calling us to a complete change of heart and mind and society. It is not unreasonable to ask whether the revolution that Dr. King envisioned is possible, or whether human nature is such that we will always have war and racism and exploitation. Social and economic inequity, the creation of underclasses and enemies, sexual abuse, and environmental destruction have been part of the human experience for millennia.

If we are going to face our situation honestly, we have to admit that our attempts at change often remain superficial. We talk about change, but we fail to change. We fail to acknowledge our deeply entrenched mental habits, fail to accept the physical limits of the planet, and engage in a false optimism that thinks our cleverness is so complete that it can overcome any obstacle with new technology, even when our technology is the source of the problem. We like to believe that we are free to do whatever we want, that there are no limits—no planetary limits and no psychological limits—constraining what we can do. It is our nature to modify our environment rather than to adapt to it and we carry on as if that ability to modify the world to suit ourselves extends infinitely. We like to believe that, with us, all things are possible. Earth, meanwhile, is groaning under the weight of those assumptions. This is the hard question: can we change at the depth required or are violence and exploitation the final word on human nature and civilization? Is this just the way we are?

The civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s is one of our best examples of positive, nonviolent resistance to entrenched social and psychological structures, but Dr. King, toward the end of his life, was beginning to realize that the sickness at the heart of the American individual/political/economic/military system is so deep that the tactics of the movement were inadequate. Something more like a religious conversion was needed, what the English Bible calls repentance.

I found a note in the MLK Archives in which Dr. King commented on the meaning of the word repentance. He wrote,

The true meaning of repentance (in the Old Testament) is expressed in the verb shub, which means to turn or return. Repentance is not the mere passive act of feeling sorry about sin. It is the active turning away from it to a new goal and direction.

What Jesus likely called tub in his native Aramaic (Hebrew shub) was translated into Greek as metanoia (“beyond mind”) and then into English as repent. Shub means a change in direction, turning back or turning away. It also means “to vomit.”

Shub is not just an idea or an intention. The Greek translation metanoia makes it sound like something that happens only in the mind, and repent makes it sound like we have done something wrong for which we must pay a penalty. I experience shub as a complete emptying, followed by a change of direction that encompasses mind, body and way of life, turning away from all of those interrelated evils of exploitation and division and turning toward the wholeness of life.

The civil rights movement was a powerful force for achieving political and social gains within the exploitation system, but apparently not for unraveling or transforming the system itself. We can see today that racism went underground; it did not go away. Social and economic inequity did not go away; it got worse. Militarism did not go away. Sexual abuse did not go away. Environmental destruction did not go away. Dr. King got into trouble when he started talking about the root sickness, because that sickness is in all of us. We need shub, a complete change of direction at the deepest levels, a complete rejection of the status quo, a change of mind, yes, but a deeper change that goes to the root.

In his final Christmas sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King pointed in the direction that this change represents. He said,

Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation… It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… This is the way our universe is structured… We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of reality. (A Christmas Sermon On Peace. 24 December 1967.)

There is no such thing as a separate self. We all are tied together in “a single garment of destiny,” and that “we all” includes the whole Earth. Because we all are in this together, the solution requires that we all come together, even while we continue to address the greatest violations of the integrity of life. I am not suggesting that we turn a blind eye to injustice. I am suggesting that we face it. We need to admit it. We need to address the roots of exploitation and abuse in society and in ourselves.

We need to get real here. The environmental destruction being wrought by humanity has no simple solution, no technological quick-fix, no natural evolution from where we are now to where we need to be, no solution within an economic system that is founded on infinite growth, no “new story” that can penetrate to the deep layers of the mind where our behaviors originate. We need to be stopped in our tracks. We need to be emptied. We all must be changed, deeply.

Real change will disrupt our lives at every level. It will be difficult. It will be painful. We will lose status. We will be profoundly inconvenienced. Willingly accepting those losses requires changes in deeply entrenched psychological structures: the desire for power, the desire for absolute safety, our deep attachment to the familiar, our almost infinite ability to deceive ourselves about our true motives. Changing those structures requires an unrelenting honesty that is foreign to our current way of functioning in this world.

This is the nature of shub: turning away from the course we are on, because we see it is a disaster, even if the way forward is unclear, even if our friends tell us we are crazy, even if society says it is impossible. If we do not know how to proceed, we can simply stop. Stop blaming others. Stop believing in fantastic scenarios of technological deliverance. Refuse to accept the bribes society hands us to buy our allegiance. Abandon the empty promises of civilized society and rediscover the beauty and profundity of the living world, the world not created by humans. Stop everything, and start paying attention. Be emptied of the poisonous beliefs we have absorbed, and become oriented toward life. Be still. Listen. Pay attention to the whole living world. Be changed by what we hear and see and feel.

Shub is not a fantasy. Deep change is possible. It holds the promise of a more satisfying life than industrial civilization offers, but we don’t get there by bypassing the loss of our illusions, bypassing our loss of power, bypassing our mortality, bypassing our deep devotion to our selves. We have to face our demons, internal and external, and not be seduced by them, in order to enter into a healing relationship with the living world. Shub is not a choice we make, not in the way we normally think of making choices. Choice remains within the realm of what we know, our familiar worldview. In shub, reality grabs us and shakes us and removes our choices so we can move along the path of necessity, that necessity informed by the incontrovertible awareness that everything is interrelated, and Earth has its limits.

Aligning with reality requires us to face hard truths about ourselves and our society; it requires truly daunting changes in how we live, individually and collectively; it requires us to be emptied of much that we think we need and think we are. The only chance life has of surviving and thriving is if we reject our own self-serving lies and align ourselves with the whole living world. Fifty years have passed since Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated for trying to convert an entire nation away from systemic violence toward justice and peace. His call to repent, to shub, to a total change of heart, mind and society, is more relevant now than it ever was.

Metanoia

I have been following and occasionally commenting on an article in Orion magazine by Derrick Jensen called “Self Evident Truths.”

The other commentators frequently refer to a book that Derrick co-authored called Deep Green Resistance (2011), which advocates a resistance movement that includes the use of violence to bring down industrial civilization. What follows is a slightly modified version of a comment I made on the Orion site earlier today.

I’ve been operating under the assumption, which was common twenty years ago (cf. How Much is Enough (1992) by Alan Durning), that a more modest, European style life is sustainable. That using 90% less electricity than the American average (which we do, and which is perfectly comfortable) is sufficient. That driving less, and eating more local food and no grain-fed animals, and drinking fewer bottled drinks, and not flying, and mending clothes rather than buying new, and fixing things rather than replacing them, and keeping a computer for a decade rather than a couple of years, and eschewing the whole smartphone/cell phone thing, etc etc is enough. That converting to solar for heat and electricity is good enough. I thought it was sufficient to live with less of this stuff. That the American (now mostly global) “way of life” is so obscenely obese, that trimming the fat is enough. That giving it all up entirely is not necessary. And that may still be true, although we are not even close to doing any of that trimming!

But now I am not certain. I am not entirely convinced, but I am at least unsettled by Derrick’s position, which is that the entire package of civilization as we know it is unsustainable. That any importation of materials from outside your immediate region is unsustainable. That any use of fossil fuels is unsustainable (this is unequivocally true – no finite resource can be used indefinitely). That any mining of minerals is unsustainable. That any exploitation of labor is unsustainable (this one seems more a moral stand than a physical one – unfortunately, exploitation of labor can probably go on indefinitely in a strictly biological sense). I reject absolutely the use of violence and destruction to bring down the system because I feel they are part of the system that needs to be transformed, but the advocacy of a strict definition of sustainability is compelling.

What kind of life would we be living without any export or import of materials, without any fossil fuels, without any mining of minerals, without any exploitation of labor? What if we include animals in that? How would we live without any exploitation of human or animal labor? Now we are back to being hunter/gatherers with perhaps a bit of permaculture thrown in. Or if we compromise a wee bit on the animal part, we can include being pastoralists (shepherds, goatherds, nomadic reindeer herders etc).  What else is there that is completely harmonious with the processes of life? How else can we be human animals, where absolutely everything we take from the Earth is given back in a form that is useful to Life? What else can it possibly mean to live sustainably?

I ask these questions in all seriousness. From this strict definition of sustainability (which is the only definition that the Earth cares about) nearly everything we do now is unsustainable. It all has to stop one way or another.

I agree with Derrick that to participate in the current industrial economy is de facto to live a life of violence and exploitation. That is part of the structure of civilization. Theologian John Dominic Crossan calls it the “exploitative normalcy” of civilization and argues that Jesus was calling his followers to reject that system absolutely, both in the external circumstances of their lives and even more potently in the internalization of that system in their own behavior and thinking (cf. The Birth of Christianity (1998)). I have been making that argument for a couple of decades. But I still reject the intentional use of violence to combat what is for most of us the unintended violence of a system we were born into and are trying to find a way out of. Violence can not end violence. There has to be a better way.

The Civil Rights Movement is a fine example of positive, nonviolent, coercive resistance, but my understanding is that Dr. King, toward the end of his life, was beginning to realize that the sickness at the heart of the American individual/social/economic/military system was so deep that the tactics of the movement were inadequate. Something more like a religious conversion was needed, what Jesus called metanoia — a complete transformation of heart and mind. Resistance tactics were adequate for achieving limited political and social gains within the exploitation system, but not for transforming or unravelling the system itself. Dr. King got into big trouble with his movement colleagues when he started addressing the root sickness, because that sickness is in all of us, and we much prefer to project it onto someone else. Like it or not, this is not an us-versus-them problem. It is an all-of-us-together problem. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few people who are benefitting from the system at the brutal expense of everyone and everything else (and that “few” now includes most of us in the industrialized world), but it does mean we will get nowhere by projecting all of our fear and anger and blame onto them.

J. Krishnamurti (1895 – 1986) said in his book, Beyond Violence (1970),

“… unless there is a fundamental, radical revolution in the psyche, in the very root of one’s being, mere trimming, mere legislation on the periphery, has very little meaning. So what we are concerned with is whether man, as he is, can radically bring about a transformation in himself; not according to a particular theory, a particular philosophy, but by seeing actually what he is. That very perception of what he is, will bring about the radical change. And to see what he is, is of the highest importance – not what he thinks he is, not what he is told that he is.”

This still seems to me to be our best and perhaps our only hope. That we see things (ourselves included) as they/we truly are and stop deceiving ourselves. That in itself brings about a radical reorientation without any violence or coercion. I have seen this in action, and I known how powerful it can be.

That still leaves open the question of how much is enough and how much is too much. It still leaves us pondering the meaning of sustainability: we must use only what we truly need, and absolutely everything we use from the Earth must be given back in a form that is beneficial to Life. It still leaves us with the urgent question of whether we can change course quickly enough and soon enough to avert catastrophe. But I am convinced we can not answer those questions adequately and on the scale required, where it actually makes a global difference, without a radical transformation of heart and mind. Without that transformation we inevitably fall back into violence, the endless repetition of that ancient ill.

Not to Destroy, But to Build

Reflections on a gospel passage “I come not to tear down the Law but to fulfill it.” I first wrote this almost two years ago, but it is terribly relevant to me right now.

It seems to me that this gospel passage shows that Jesus was struggling with a challenge that is highly relevant to us today. For him to say something like “Do not say that I have come to tear down the Law” must mean that people were in fact accusing him of that very thing. Which means that his actions and his words were perceived as a challenge and a threat to traditional belief and practice.

But he replies to this criticism, “I have come to fulfill the Law,” which sounds to me like this, “I am honoring the very foundation on which the Law is built, on which all religion is built. If the edifice of your beliefs and practices is falling it is because those beliefs are not true to the foundation, not because I am tearing them down.”

Now, it seems to me that we face this same challenge today. The structures of our societies and our economies, our thought structures and many of our religious structures, are not true to the foundation of Life. They serve only themselves. And many are in full-frontal assault on the foundation of Life on Earth. So how do we, as people who wish to remain true to the foundation, which is the fundamental unity of all that is — which expresses itself as love of oneself, love of neighbor, of enemy, of life forms alien and mysterious to us humans — how do we stay true to that foundation of unity and at the same time deal effectively with the structures — in which we ourselves are deeply enmeshed — that perpetuate genocide and biocide?

People the world over identify deeply with the super-structures of belief and tradition that they hold dear. Yet so many of those structures must fall or be transformed if Life on Earth is to be reclaimed. People, all of us, will feel that what we hold most dear, our very sense of self, is under attack. How do we, with Jesus, say “I have not come to tear apart but to fulfill. Not to destroy, but to build. It may feel like an attack on the foundation, but it is not. There is a deeper foundation to be rediscovered. Let the false fall away and the truth return. Let the structures that are destroying Life fall away and let new life grow from the still-healthy root.”

How do we do this? Can love transform the world? How does love approach those who feel threatened by the change, those who feel that all they hold dear is under attack, including their very sense of identity? How do we allow our devotion to belief and tradition and security to fall away, if that is the consequence of being true to the foundation of radical, inclusive love? How do we bear witness to the truth, knowing that there are many edifices of society and self that will not stand under the scrutiny?

If we are to survive the coming decades, and if we are to live on an Earth that is vitally alive with all manner of life forms, radical change must come. To welcome that change we will have to know what is true and what is false, and we will have to know how to let go of many of our most cherished possessions, those possessed in the mind, and embrace the living truth.

The Kingdom of God Is Right At Hand

Where or what is the kingdom of God?

This is it. Right here. Right now.

It is not a future time. It is not some exalted place in the clouds. It is not even dependent on some set of conditions: perfect peace and justice. It does not appear after peace appears or after justice is established.

Peace and justice and balance and harmony and abundant life are not conditions on which the kingdom of God depends. The kingdom of God is not dependent on any condition. It is already here among us. It has only to be recognized. Peace and justice and balance and harmony and abundant life are dependent on the presence of the kingdom of God. It is in recognizing the kingdom of God, already present, that peace and balance are restored. We’ve been doing this backward for a very, very long time. Trying to create the kingdom of God by establishing peace, by any means necessary, including through war. Totally backward, right?

This is my understanding of why Jesus said, “seek ye first the kingdom of God… and all these things shall be added unto you. Take no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” (KJV Matt 6:33-34).

Seek ye first the kingdom of God, because all else is dependent on it. Take no thought for tomorrow, because when tomorrow arrives, it is today. It is always today. It is always right now. Right here, right now is the only place we ever are. So if the kingdom of God is to be found anywhere, if it has any reality, it must be found right here, right now. It’s presence cannot possibly be dependent on any change in conditions.

So, this is it. This crazy mess called life is it. This is the kingdom of God, right here, right now. This is heaven. It is amazing to be alive. It is only in thinking and acting as if this is something other than the kingdom of God that we make it appear to be something other than the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom is within us and around us at all times. It is what we are. It is life living itself through us and through everything. And it is deeper even than life. It is the source of life. Not an external source but the intrinsic source, the energy within matter. The stillness within energy. The incredible beauty and intelligence and creativity within stillness, within energy, within matter, within life.

The kingdom of God is everything, and it is that without which nothing could be. It is therefore immediately at hand, in everything. Pick up a stone and it is there. Take a breath and it is there. Fall into deep sleep and it is there. Awaken to the rising sun and it is there. It is in every encounter, every sight, every sound, every thought, every feeling, every joy, every sorrow, every happening. It is what makes all of that possible, and it is all of that, the interplay of everything. There is nothing you can do to escape the kingdom of God. You have never been anything or anywhere but the kingdom of God.

We think that we are separate from it, that it is far off from us either in space or in time. It is by believing that thought, by repeating it incessantly, that we make it appear to be true. But it was never true. And if we stop repeating these untruths and turn back to the immediacy of life being lived right now through all of life together, then the presence of God’s kingdom, its beauty and majesty, its wonder and surprise, its creativity and intelligence, its peace and harmony, become immediately apparent once again.

Seek ye first the kingdom of God in the dance of all things. Right here. Right now.

Look! The kingdom of God is right at hand.