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.

What Will It Take?

Just some thoughts, summing up the things I have been thinking and writing about recently.

The natural world, the plants and animals, rivers and seas and mountains and forests, 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.

Along with the other animals and the plants, the human is a product of Earth, and therefore part of a complex system of lives and feedback loops and relationships. The whole is more real than the part. Nothing can be understood, nor does anything exist, including the human person, outside of the system of relationships that constitutes the whole universe. There is no “self” or “soul” that is somehow separate from the intertwining of the whole. “Self” or “soul” or “spirit” is the dynamic intertwining of the whole.

Because we and all the plants and animals are aspects of the same life system, we should expect to find the qualities we most revere in ourselves also in the rest of the natural world. Intelligence, ability to communicate, self-awareness, deep feeling, awareness of others as others, and basic consciousness, the ability to have experiences, are present in us because they are aspects of the universe as a whole. It is not that humans are uniquely conscious and intelligent, it is the universe that is conscious and intelligent, through us but also through other life forms and quite possibly through inanimate forms such as mountains and streams and forests.

We are least ourselves when we perceive ourselves as separate from everything else, and therefore give ourselves license to destroy, to manipulate, to use according to our desires. We come most into ourselves when we perceive that we belong to a larger whole, not only belong to it, but are expressions of it, in no way separate from it. Thus we most fully honor our own lives, and the other lives that share this life with us. The non-human world beckons to us, even now as we wrap ourselves in layers of electronic media that feed us only our own thoughts. What we need is not more of ourselves. We need to be free of ourselves. The non-human world offers us this, but we have to take the time to listen, to observe, to learn, to be present. A simple encounter with a non-human life can change us completely.

The full realization of this non-separation is impossible to talk about because our language is inherently divisive. Language creates meaning by creating distinction. The experience of wholeness (which is slightly but significantly different from the realization of wholeness) is inevitably lost when we try to describe it.

The realization of wholeness or non-separation is simply recognizing that wholeness is the essential state of reality, regardless of whether it is being experienced that way. The experience of wholeness is temporary and fleeting, as is all experience. But wholeness remains even though the experience passes. One retains awareness of the truth of it even when it is not being experienced. The real can not be known. As long as we remain absolutely devoted to what we can know and experience, we remain out of touch with reality.

After several millennia of devotion to the thought world, and debasement of the real world, it is very hard for the individual human to break free of the grip that the mind-made world has on our sense of reality. There are ways, but there is no formula. Formulas are products of a mind that insists on reducing reality to that which it can predict and control.

The whole world is more alive and more conscious and more intentional and more communicative and more interesting and more integrated than humans have believed for a long, long time. Reawakening our sense of belonging to that rich world, which we must do if we are to survive the coming few decades and stop the slide into unrestrained destruction which is the current human trajectory, at some point requires an encounter with our essential no-thingness, what I variously have called our essential emptiness, stillness, or silence.

Emptiness, stillness and silence are words I have used to suggest this central realization, that our sense of existing as a separate entity is illusory. The only reality is the whole of everything together, and therefore any idea or image we have of ourselves is essentially “empty.” When this is seen fully, what follows is often a sudden, unexpected, unsought quieting of the mind. Silence. Stillness. Acute listening. I speak of silence and stillness, but emptiness and no-thingness and wholeness are probably more appropriate words.

The encounter with emptiness, with no-thingness, with wholeness, never comes predictably. But it does come when we are open to it. To be open to it, we must prefer reality to anything our minds can conceive. And since we are quite deeply devoted to the mind’s version of reality, we resist and resist and resist the arrival of the real, and we resist accepting our place within that reality. We insist on carrying on the sham of self-serving control and manipulation, and thus we ensure the destruction of the world.

The discovery of non-separation is life altering. One’s life can fall apart after its discovery, because one’s life and identity have been built on a shaky foundation of separation. One of the ways it alters life, or at least has altered my life, is that I feel an immense responsibility in the world. Every thought and action is shaping the world even as we are shaped by the world. My inner violence is the violence of the world. The violence of the world is made of our inner violence. The rapacious machine that is modern society is the manifestation of our inner state. It is a mirror held up to us. God help us.

There is no “them.” There is only us. All of us. Everything together. It is therefore no small thing for any one of us to clean up our own house, to find a way, any way, to stop judging and criticizing and hating and marginalizing and destroying. Everything we do in our own lives to be examples of wholeness, to live out the implications of non-separation, however imperfectly we do it, however badly we fail to do it; every little thing we can do to manifest wholeness in thought, word and deed, which requires deeply acknowledging our inner fragmentation, our stubborn belief in separateness; whatever we can do on behalf of wholeness robs the destructive machine of some of its fuel. For it is fueled by the division in each and every one of us. It is fueled by everything in us that has split off from wholeness and believes itself to be separate, superior, the master, the controller, the victim, the sufferer.

Death is part of life, natural, inevitable and not to be feared. Annihilation is something else, the death of life itself. We are bent on annihilation. Most of the lives we destroy do not sustain life. Most of it is not necessary for biological survival. Much of it is wanton, cruel destruction; self destruction. Most of the destruction only serves the phantom self, the self image, while it destroys the real. If we could get to a point where the only lives we take are for food, warmth and biological survival, that in itself would be an improvement. But I think we are beyond that now.  We need a psychological revolution, the realization of emptiness.

It would be a worthy goal of natural science, and of all of our human cleverness, to find all of the ways that we can give back to life, to enhance and encourage life in all its diversity. Our reason for being could be to increase diversity, to increase vitality, to support and affirm the beauty and the value of all of life, animal, vegetable, mineral, water and sunlight. We could serve the whole, which includes us, rather than serving ourselves, which excludes everything else.

Words and ideas are inadequate. We have run out of time. The Kingdom of God is right at hand, but we refuse to be embraced by it. What will it take? What will it take for us to allow ourselves to be embraced by reality? Not tomorrow. Not next year. Now. What will it take?

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.

Time to Repent?

I have been feeling pretty apocalyptic recently.

I no longer think there is much we can do to avert climate catastrophe. Even the kind of repentance (metanoia) that I have been advocating for twenty years or more won’t change the harsh fact that we have utterly failed to address our most pressing problem. We are going over the cliff even if we slam on the brakes now (and we have done no such thing, we are stomping on the accelerator).

The most recent evidence of this is a summary report on the state of the ocean that predicts mass extinction in the oceans if we do not radically and rapidly change our values and our ways of living.

Now what? I really don’t know. We will have to adapt as best we can within the very real limits this much warmer, less hospitable world will impose on us. We must keep trying to wean ourselves off fossil and nuclear fuels, and reduce our environmental impact in every way, for the sake of future generations, but I no longer think we can stop climate disaster. We might be able to lessen its impact.

My biggest concern now is that increased environmental distress will lead to more conflict. I am afraid that a warmer world is also going to be a more stressful world, a meaner world, a more competitive, conflicted, militarized world. There will certainly be no end of work for those of us who wish to bring compassion and understanding and a vision of unity, interdependence and shared resources to a troubled world.

In my view, limited as it is, we have utterly failed to awaken to the Earth’s beauty and, more important right now, its fragility, and our absolute dependence on its health and well-being. We still manage to think that we are somehow separate from the Earth. That failure will ring down through the ages that remain to the human family. But it is never too late for us to awaken to our innate compassion, and to move forward into this unpredictable future in mutual support rather than enmity and competition. We can still repent (experience a complete change of mind), but I no longer hold out much hope that doing so will avert environmental catastrophe. It might help us survive it.