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 Englishas 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.

We Need an Ecological Spiritual Revolution

The following is a modified version of the final part of the post The Whole World Is Sacred. I am reposting that part because it is a good summary of what I am trying to communicate.

The human presence on Earth has become so dysfunctional; our ways of living and working, of growing and catching food, of making things, of gathering the resources to make things, and our ways of disposing of those things are so fundamentally out of harmony with natural, life-giving processes, and so destructive to the basis of life, that we must be utterly changed, inwardly and outwardly, in our sense of identity and in the structures of our societies. New technologies and a few policy changes are insufficient and often merely perpetuate the problem in a new form.

We need an ecological spiritual revolution: a complete change of heart and mind, a reorientation at the deepest levels of psyche and society. The nature of that revolution is what I have tried to articulate in this blog and my other writing and workshops: see that we are deeply out of touch with reality because our beliefs distort reality; see that I am no thing (empty), and therefore everything (whole); see that everything is sacred; listen to the animals; be devoted to the well being of the whole movement of life.

Contrast those with what I think characterize our dominant perspective: my beliefs form the core of my identity – I’ll kill to defend them if I have to; I am an individual, autonomous self, and that self reigns supreme; My life and the lives of those related to me or close to me are of great value, but everything else is of value only if it is useful to me and my kin and my nation or wherever I happen to draw the boundary of my “self” (and it is a very flexible boundary, although we fail to recognize that).

A complete reversal of orientation has become a matter of survival. I have tried to describe where I think that reorientation comes from, and to make clear that it is possible, but it remains elusive at best. It is a reorientation in which nothing needs to change for everything to change. It is not something that comes as a result of anything we do; it comes when we stop all of our doing and see things as they are. The truth is right at hand waiting for us to recognize it and be changed by it.

Repent!

I have posted a new essay on my website called Repent!

This essay is particularly relevant to the Eco-Spiritual Revolution  retreat day  my father and I are planning for April 22. Other essays that are relevant to that day include Metanoia and In Wildness is Our Salvation.

I am convinced that most of the work we are doing to alter the destructive trajectory of human civilization is tinkering at the margins. We are extremely resistant to making change in the only place it really matters: our own lives. A fundamental change of direction is needed, which Jesus probably called shub, which was translated into Greek as metanoia and into English as repentance. Shub means “to vomit” as well as “to turn or return.” I take it to mean being so repulsed by the status quo in oneself, in one’s own life, that one needs to be viscerally emptied in order to move in a new direction.

Here is an excerpt from Repent!:

“In some fundamental way, human society is profoundly out of touch with reality. “Be not reconciled to this world,” said Jesus. Repent! Turn away from your society and everything it stands for, and turn toward God and everything God stands for. Or as John Dominic Crossan put it so clearly in his Birth of Christianity, turn away from “all that systematically destroys and dehumanizes and dominates.” Turn toward all that creates and includes and makes whole.

“The essential question of my life from that point until the present became, what is the kingdom of God? Where is it to be found? What does it mean to repent, to turn away from all that is unreal, and turn toward God, toward wholeness, toward reality? I knew then what my purpose was: to find the kingdom of God, not in some future time or distant place, but here and now. I felt that it was “right at hand.” I think I knew intuitively that that meant it was already present, but unnoticed, unappreciated, perhaps not fully realized, veiled by the destructive illusions spun by the human mind. I was determined to see through the illusions and break through to the kingdom, which lay, I was convinced, right at our fingertips.”

Read the whole essay…

The Whole World Is Sacred

The following paragraphs summarize most of what I have tried to communicate in this blog and in my essays. I have arrived at this perspective by living among homeless people, being in a war zone, hanging out with whales and seals and birds and trees and rivers, and living a contemplative, listening life.

The Whole World is Sacred:

The plants and animals, rivers and seas and mountains and forests, the stars and planets, are sacred, of value in and of and for themselves. For humans to use them, manipulate them, harvest them, harm them, abuse them, without any regard for their own value for themselves leads to grievous harm for us all. I seek the sanctification of the whole universe and all of its members. I resist commodification and exploitation in all its forms. Nothing, absolutely nothing, exists only for another’s use.

Beliefs Distort Reality:

No matter what we believe (about the world, or about ourselves), no matter what we think we know, if we prefer our beliefs to reality, our relationship with reality gets distorted. To stay in touch with reality, we must be active listeners, open to the whole range of experience, inward and outward, comfortable and uncomfortable. To be attentive to reality is to be here and now, listening deeply, observing sensitively; acting as necessary, taking into our awareness our limited experience and our vast ignorance.

When I See That I Am No Thing, I See That I Am Everything:

To be attentive to reality is to encounter our limits, to see that we do not really know anything at all. Reality is essentially hidden from us, even though we live it and breathe it and it is right at hand. From this awareness of our ignorance comes the love of everything that is. How is that? Our sense of self is created by the stories we tell about the world and our relationship to it. When we realize that we do not really know who we are, and we do not really know what the world is, our ability to derive an enduring sense of self from these stories evaporates, and what is left is the whole of everything, its dynamic interrelatedness, and this organism as part of that whole movement of life. The stories don’t necessarily stop, but they are no longer definitive. The living “self” is not in the stories I tell, but in the whole movement of life. This is a powerful shift of perspective.

We tend to have this backward. We elevate the stories we tell to the status of Self, and we denigrate the reality in which we move to the status of “other;” not important, inherently evil, of value only if useful to me, an illusion, to be feared, to be hated, to be escaped, to be conquered, to be manipulated, used, abused, destroyed. We create a “me,” and then the “not-me” is either useful to me, or it is a threat to me and treated accordingly. The love of everything is not the love of one separate thing for another separate thing, but the inherent love of the wholeness of life reveling in its wholeness, in which there is no division, no “me,” no “not-me,” no conflict, no distortion, no exploitation.

Everything Must Change:

The human presence on Earth has become so dysfunctional; our ways of living and working, of growing and catching food, of making things, of gathering the resources to make things, and our ways of disposing of those things are so fundamentally out of harmony with natural, life-giving processes, and so destructive to the basis of life, that we must be utterly changed, inwardly and outwardly, in our sense of identity and in the structures of our societies. New technology and a few policy changes are insufficient (though probably necessary).

We need a complete change of heart and mind, a reorientation at the deepest levels of psyche and society. The nature of the change is what I have articulated above: look and see that beliefs distort reality; see that I am no thing, and therefore everything; see that everything is sacred.

Contrast those with what I think characterize our dominant perspective: my beliefs form the core of my identity – I’ll kill to defend them if I have to; I am an individual, autonomous self, and that self reigns supreme; My life and the lives of those related to me or close to me are of great value, but everything else is of value only if it is useful to me and my kin or my nation or wherever I happen to draw the boundary of my “self” (and it is a very flexible boundary, although we fail to recognize that).

A complete reversal of orientation has become a matter of survival. I have tried to describe where I think that reorientation comes from, and to make clear that it is possible, but it remains elusive at best.

One final word: Because beliefs distort reality, I do not ask anyone to believe anything that I am saying. This reorientation goes way beyond a change in beliefs. It is available to anyone and everyone who stops and looks and listens and is willing to be utterly changed in the process.

Everything Must Change

I wrote the following essay a year ago, but I never published it. The news is so grim, the goal seemingly so impossible, that I thought it was probably not helpful to talk about it because it would discourage people rather than motivate them. Certainly that is the effect it has had on me. I’ve been living with this for over a year now, and I have been sick and depressed. But I think we have to face the reality of our situation. The truth is our only hope even if at first we do not see any way forward. If we are not honest about the situation, we can not even begin to address it rightly and completely.

I think this helps explain my previous post on metanoia. Our situation is urgent, and we are not doing what we need to do, and we are not stopping all that we need to stop (e.g. burning fossil fuels). The whole system must change. For me, “the system” exists both as external social, economic and political circumstances; and as an internal mindset — beliefs and unconscious thought patterns that govern our behavior. The inner and the outer aspects of “the system” or what I sometimes call “the exploitation system” are intertwined, mutually reinforcing, and extremely difficult to unravel. For “the system” to change we have to be absolutely honest with ourselves about both the internal and the external aspects, or else it continues unabated. That’s what metanoia means to me: stepping aside absolutely from the exploitation system, both internally and externally. Stepping aside to where? That’s what is so hard to describe, because for most of us, what I am calling “the system” is simply “reality” or “life as we know it.” Stepping aside from that ends up sounding like moving into a fourth spatial dimension. Where the heck is it?

I’ll have more to say about this if I can find some clarity myself beyond what I have already described in this blog and in my essays. This is what I have been writing about for more than twenty-five years, and I still don’t think I have quite succeeded in explaining what metanoia means to me.

Everything Must Change
21 June 2011

An unusual meeting of ocean scientists (International Programme on the State of the Ocean) just released a summary report (note: the full report was released in 2013) concluding that unless there is a wholesale transformation of human society,

“… the world’s ocean is at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history.”

The oceans will undergo a major extinction event that will cause ecosystem reorganization never seen within human history, on a level with past major extinction events (which have occurred a few times over the past 600 million years). All the known problems are accelerating much faster than anyone predicted, and the reason is that the problems are interacting to amplify their effects. So, for instance, acidification is having a greater impact than expected because the oceans are already stressed by the presence of toxic chemicals. Because of the way science is done, the effect of all of these stressors on each other has not been studied.

The interlocking problems are climate change (warming, acidification and oxygen deficiency), pollution (heavy metals, plastics, nitrogen from agriculture, and a variety of toxic compounds from industry and agriculture), overfishing, and habitat loss (which they list separately but which is often a result of the others, although seafloor trawling, which is destroying habitat directly is a stressor in itself, not just a consequence of overfishing). They don’t mention sound pollution. That might fall under habitat loss, but I think it should have been listed as a factor in its own right (note: as was clearly demonstrated for the North Atlantic right whale in 2012).

It’s a very grim picture. The solutions these scientists offer amount to this: everything must change. The whole structure of human society must change. They don’t come out and say that directly, but they come close. For instance, one of their solutions is to

“avoid, reduce or at minimum, universally and stringently regulate oil, gas, aggregate and mineral extraction.”

Wow. That one alone requires a complete transformation of our politics, our economy and our way of life. And so do all the other solutions they offer.

They make it clear that this is not a hundred-year project. We are perilously close to not being able to stop this thing. We may have already crossed that line and made total collapse and mass extinction unavoidable. In the summary conclusion they state,

“Technical means to achieve the solutions to many of the problems the workshop identified already exist, but current societal values prevent humankind from addressing them effectively. Overcoming these barriers is core to the fundamental changes needed to achieve a sustainable and equitable future.”

That’s as close as they come to stating outright that everything must change. These changes are not  adjustments within the system. They require a total transformation of the system. Current societal values must change. We must change. And fast. Not over several generations, which is the normal time frame for deep changes in societal values.

Everything must change. Now.