It seems that we as a species are in a "shoulder season", a time of transition between seasons. We vacillate between what we are becoming and the lesser angels of our past. We are both a fearful, bigoted, selfish lot, and a generous, welcoming, evolving people. And, of course, each of us individually is somewhere on that spectrum, often vacillating between the poles.
When I was a child, my grandfather and I were inseparable. We listened to records together on his stereo: Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves. We built bird houses, solved crossword puzzles, gardened, and hosted "radio shows" during which we sang and interviewed grandma and our dogs. The dogs were actually the better interview as they played and wrestled with each other. Grandpa and I did everything together. And I loved him dearly. He was a good man, if ever there was one.
When he died, I inherited his records. Midst the ones I knew well, I found two that I didn't recognize. There were comedy recordings, which were blatantly and offensively racist. I destroyed them.
How could I reconcile my amazing grandfather, whose love and upright values formed me...the very best of me...with these grotesque recordings?
This sent me on a journey to face racism in my own heart and mind. Eventually I started to see ways in which my skin color gave me inherent advantages others did not have. For example, the house I live in today would not have been possible to buy if I had not inherited my parents' house, which they were able to buy at a time when people of color were being denied access to affordable mortgages.
In the name of preserving Southern heritage, some are clinging to symbols like the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate generals. Nostalgia wafts through the air for a bygone era of gentility and civility...for magnolias, cascading weeping willows, and mint juleps.
Wafting through the air with that nostalgia is the stench of slavery. We cannot ignore that an economic system was built on the backs of slaves. We cannot ignore the vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow that still oppress and diminish opportunity for people of color. The structures of racism, and their deleterious effects, did not end with the Civil War or the Civil Rights Act.
When we destroy racists artifacts, whether comedy records or statues, we are affirming that we wish to be a different people. Our nostalgia for an historical figure or a beloved grandfather goes not excuse us from facing racism and its symbolic toxicity. Isn't any nostalgia for those symbols infinitely less precious than the tearful healing and hope sparked in people of color when those symbols are taken away?
My grandfather taught me fairness, but that pristine fairness did not fully embrace people of color. The best way I know to honor the legacy of my grandfather that I still feel in my heart is to stretch his values to include more and more people, until I finally become the man he hoped I could be...and more.
In our garden is a statue of Kwan Yin, the feminine Buddhist embodiment of compassion and love-kindness. Her hands form a mudra, a spiritually-symbolic gesture. It is this gesture that hints at how we can have an appropriate, sustained response to what is happening in our country.
Her right hand is held up, palm facing outward, as a clear and firm boundary. To me, this is the hand of justice, resistance, of a loving "NO" to that which must be challenged.
Her left hand is at her side, palm facing out, as a welcome invitation, a "YES". This is the hand of outreach to those with whom we do not agree, yet whose humanity we affirm, and whom we seek to understand, and perhaps someday even reconcile.
Kwan Yin is able to hold these paradoxical signs because she is grounded, her feet connected to the earth. What keeps you grounded, rooted, connected with a Source larger than yourself?
Kwan Yin embodies loving-kindness. This is the essence of grounded spirituality and constructive spiritual activism. More than a warm fuzzy, this is the sacred love that is our truest identity, residing at the core of all our personal paradoxes.
Rooted in that loving-kindness, we can say both "NO" to injustice and "YES" to dialog with those with whom we disagree. We can pursue a compassionate understanding of those whose actions we must, in all good conscience, oppose.
Only with such a paradoxical practice can we hope to liberate everyone, oppressor and oppressed. And, of course, most of us are both oppressor and oppressed. We have all, in some way, intentionally or unintentionally, been part of the problem: white privilege, fossil fuels, retirement money in morally-compromised corporations, etc. Loving-kindness holds compassion for the oppressed, the oppressor, and for ourselves.
Loving-kindness ignites hopeful hearts that can hold paradoxes. By grounding in loving-kindness and holding this paradox, we might eventually fulfill the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his final Christmas sermon in 1967:
“I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we'll still love you. But be assured that we'll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’"
"Speak the truth in love." Ephesians 4:15
Twenty years ago I faced a decision: continue to lie about my sexual orientation or tell my parents the truth. I realized that I was closing my heart to them in order to protect myself and that the only way to have an adult relationship was to tell them the full truth, which I did. It was painful for us all, but, in time, with immense patience, we came to a place of honest, loving relationship.
We often pit truth and love as opponents in a virtuous battle in which there can only be one winner. We set up a false equation in which we must choose between truth and love, and end up having neither.
We just came out of an election in which both truth and love were largely absent. The result is a nation divided, hurt, resentful, anxious, angry, confused, and distrustful. Some are happy that their candidate(s) won, but immense damage has been done to our nation-family, and a troubling future looms.
So what now?
Discard the myth that truth and love are somehow incompatible. The path before us requires that we practice both together.
The Sufi poet Rumi wrote: "Out beyond notions of right and wrong, there is a field. I'll meet you there."
That field is Love. It is a place of unconditional positive regard, even for those whose thoughts and behaviors we loathe. True love is a choice, not a feeling. It is hard work. It's much easier to demolish someone's hypocrisy on Facebook or Twitter than it is to engage in honest dialog.
In that field beyond right and wrong, we meet others as they are, listen, learn, and start to understand.
And in that field, we are also free to speak the unvarnished truth with the intention of remaining in relationship with those with differing views. That field beyond "right and wrong" does not ask as to surrender to evil, but rather we are asked to surrender our self-righteousness, moral superiority, and smug certainty,
This is the pivot, the twist, the middle way. While we radiate respect and seek to understand "the other", we give no ground to misogyny, racism, Islamaphobia, homophobia, destruction of the planet, economic injustice, etc. We speak the truth in love, realizing, with humility, that we too have our own "isms", ignorance, and arrogance.
The how of our response becomes very bit as important as the what. We choose to "go high" even when others "go low". In our crusades to be right, we can become just as vile as "those people" whom we condemn. Only by holding love and truth together can we heal, do justice, and make peace.
When I came out to my parents I learned that it takes time for beliefs and irrational fears to shift. Only in loving, patient, and courageously honest relating can such shifts happen. I had to say "no" and refuse to stay silent when horrible things were said or done. Yet, I chose to stay in relationship and keep doing the difficult, messy work of listening, forgiving, speaking up with firm love, and owning my own issues. That's the key. Change happens in relationship, not through social media exchanges or even by winning the next argument or election.
Transformation of a family or a nation occurs when we tend both truth and love, when we choose right relationship over self-righteousness, when we have the courage to return, over and over, to that field beyond right and wrong. I'll meet you there.