The Heartbeat of Union: An Introduction

I had a personal pre-orientation initiation into Union. On Saturday August 23rd, I went to a protest in support of Eric Garner and his family. Eric Garner was killed in Staten Island after being apprehended by an officer for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. The officer used an illegal chokehold move that killed Eric Garner, and the death was ruled a homicide. His death was a reminder that extrajudicial killings are still happening in this country.

In this spirit, thousands gathered on Staten Island on this particular Saturday to show support for Eric Garner and to resound a chorus of voices against the incredibly bloody summer. Garner’s story was just one drop of water in a bucket of chilling ice water over the heads of Black people. I was drowning.

Michael Brown. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Aiyana Jones. Rekia Boyd. Renisha McBride. The list unfortunately goes on. James Baldwin reminds us that to be “Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” And this summer seemed like a continuous flow of reminders that I was not worth defending as a Black American, as a woman, as a person. I was angry. And unapologetically so.

When I remember that people are continually abused by a system that pretends to protect, I am enraged. I find this rage liberating and compelling to action. But I also acknowledge that it can be paralyzing. What moves me to action is the community of friends that promise to hold me accountable to a larger goal– making sure this never happens again. While I really wanted to curl into a ball and never leave my bed, I felt a tug to be near other people who were also hurting. I needed a community.

I think of formal protest activities as analogous to church membership. Sitting in church does not make me a Christian, and going to a rally does not make me an activist. But tethering in these communities connects me to people who are like-minded. When done right, participation in these communities keeps me accountable to my values. I am among people who are on the same journey. I can do the work because I have people who hold my hand.

So on this particular Saturday, I was with a beloved community of friends from my home church. By some divine order, our group ran into another group of activists and faith leaders. I saw a woman with a “#myUnion” orientation t-shirt. Part of me had not yet transitioned into my new identity as a Union student. My pastor nudged me, “Go talk to her! This is a classmate of yours!”

Shy and nervous, I introduced myself.

“Hi, I’m Candace. You go to Union? Me too, this is my first year!”

“I’m Rebecca, I’m a first year, too!”

I don’t remember anything after that conversation. I was so struck by the “coincidence” that everything after our initial greeting dissipated into the deep recesses of my mind. Of all the people I could have met that day, I ran into a soon-to-be-classmate. What was the Universe trying to teach me in that moment?

Most times, when I imagine God’s voice, I imagine Morgan Freeman from Bruce Almighty. I’m still reminding myself that God speaks through coincidences. What if running into this eventual classmate was a reminder that my faith was indeed an integral part of my identity as an activist? What if this encounter was a message that I was not alone? What if this experience was a nudging from the Heavens to stay true to my politics, my faith, my identity as I embark on this new journey? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I’m growing in wrestling with them. That’s what seminary is for, right?

That’s why we’re starting a blog called “The Heartbeat” here at Union. In our bodies, the heart’s beating is nothing short of magic and miracle. The heartbeat is a sign of life, originating in our chests and pumping blood throughout a complicated system. But the heartbeat isn’t isolated. We get a sense of the heart’s beating from the pulse in the wrist and neck. As our heart beats to reminds us that we live, social justice is the reminder why we live. It is our charge and our responsibility. It is the “rent we pay” for living on this Earth, as Shirley Chisholm challenges us.

The Heartbeat will cover stories of social justice beyond the walls of 3041 Broadway. Each of us has taken a special journey to this place, and we honor this journey by proving the work we do at Union is meaningful. We can use theology to speak to people, rather than speaking beyond them. The Heartbeat of our institution is social justice. Let’s check our vitals.

If you have a story you’d like us to cover here at The Heartbeat, email Candace Simpson at . We’d love to have you.

“Never give up.”

The community of Perquin, capital of the FMLN during the war.

Our final day in El Salvador found us waking up in Perquin to head to Mass led by Padre Rogelio Poncel, the Priest we had met the day before over breakfast. Padre Rogelio preached about John the Baptist, calling particular attention to the differences between the messages of John and Jesus. For the Baptist, Rogelio claimed, the stress was “on the rights of God” and therefore of the need for all humans to cherish God and follow his demands. For Jesus, the focus was on “the rights of human beings.”  For Jesus we can respond to God only if we are responding to our fellow human beings. He concluded that it is in loving our neighbor that we love God and that in cherishingthe rights of our neighbors that we respect the rights of God. There is no going to God without going to our neighbor.

The mass was also punctuated with lively singing, in the popular style, further reflecting an impulse we had experienced time and time again in our travels: the impulse of the Salvadoran people to make their worship responsive to their community’s historical and present context. From the community of Romero’s crypt, to the Christian Base Communities and their formation schools, to now the parish mass in Perquin, Salvadoran religious leaders and lay people had a strong confidence in their own assessment of their liturgical needs, and a willingness to carry on as they needed to, even in opposition to the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Following mass we loaded onto the bus and Daniel drove us to a short way to the community of Agua Blanca in Cacaopera, Morazán, where we met with Acción y Vida, an organization of youth leaders seeking to improve quality of life through sustained social and political engagement. We heard from a new generation of leaders who, while inspired by their formation in communities of resistance, feel unrepresented of the language and models of their parents. They are engaged in inspiring work to offer sexuality education to their communities, educate people about HIV/AIDS, and continue to insist that the voice of rural youth be a part of the formation of El Salvador’s future. Still, like many of the groups we have met with, their voices are on the distant margins of the national conversation, out of the boundaries of the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church, and maybe even not central to the discourse in their local communities, still they continue their work with impressive energy and a gentle but persistent spirit.

Finally, after a 5 hour ride back to San Salvador, we gathered for dinner with Fr. Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit, who taught at the Catholic University. He is alive today only because he was out of the country, at a conference in Thailand, the night that is colleagues and their two housekeepers were murdered by the death squads. Sobrino’s talk captured the spirit of so many groups and individuals we had met. His theological affirmations were rooted in the reality of the lived experience of the people of El Salvador, and he was insistent that all true theology must be grounded in experience.

The people of El Salvador call Romero a Saint. While it may take generations for the Catholic Church to agree, Sobrino told us “reality makes things obvious.” Those who are grounded in reality know that “in Romero, God walked with us in El Salvador.” Sobrino spoke beautifully, clearly, and succinctly, without straying into complex reasoning or cloudy questions of ontology and metaphysics. He insisted that we all keep our eyes squarely on the suffering of the world, and act to end it, drawing on the stories and teachings of Christianity to reflect on and frame that action. Finally, he offered a perfect closing mantra for the fullness of what we met in El Salvador. Quoting from Micah he reminded us that our task is to walk humbly with God. Like Madre Alicia who walked into the teeth of an empire for the sake of truth, sustained by the potent power of a mother’s anguish; walk. Like the women who carry on a weekly mass in Romero’s crypt despite pressure from the Archbishop to stop; walk. Like the 6 year-old Children in formation schools in the countryside, learning the tragedy of their history and the hope of their parents struggle; walk. “The one thing we have learned here” Sobrino said, “is never to give up.”

The Union delegation with Fr. Jon Sobrino (front center).

Depraved Because Deprived

Those lines from West Side Story’s rollicking song, “Office Krupke”  have come back to tease me over the decades since I first heard them.

Are we depraved because we’re deformed? Or because we’re deprived?  Some Christians, given their understanding of original sin and our fallen nature, would hold to “deformed.”  I suspect that that’s an incorrect reading of the myth of Adam and Eve, and certainly a misunderstanding of what Jesus had to say when he called people to work for the Reign of God here on earth. It is also squarely opposed to what Buddhists hold to be the “human condition.”

Both Buddhists and Christians can agree with another line of “Officer Krupke”: “Deep down inside us there is good….There is good, there is good, there is good, good, good.”

But that “good” has been stifled by our being deprived.

Buddhists would agree. We’ been deprived.  But  of what? Buddha’s answer: Of a correct understanding of who we really are.  Ignorance, not deformity, is the fundamental problem.

Marx would agree with Buddhists that the fundamental problem is not deformity. But he differs in pinpointing what we’ve been deprived of. For Marx, and I believe for many Christians, the fundamental cause of the hatred, violence, and “depravity” affecting our world today is that so many humans have been deprived  of the material conditions necessary to live a full human life.

Terry Eagleton, with his usual clarity and precision, makes this Marxist argument in a passage from his recently published Why Marx Was Right:

If history has been so bloody, it is not because most human beings are wicked. It is because of the material pressures to which they have been submitted. Marx can thus take a realistic measure of the past without succumbing to the myth of the darkness of men’s [sic] hearts. And this is one reason why he can retain faith in the future

It is his materialism which permits him that hope. If wars, famines and genocide really did spring simply from some unchanging human depravity, then there is not the slightest reason to believe that the future will fare any better. If, however, these things have been partly the effect of unjust social systems, of which individuals are sometimes little more than functions, then it is reasonable to expect that changing that system may make for a better world.  (pp. 98-99)

So Marxists, and most Christian liberation theologians and activists, would hold that if we want to change the “depraved heart,” we first must change the “depriving system.”

Buddhists, in general, would see it differently: if you want to change the “depriving system,” you have to change the “deprived heart.”

Which comes first?


The Sitting Buddha and the Crucified Christ

One of the most difficult, and therefore one of the most promising, topics that came up in my recent  conversations with Korean Buddhists a couple of weeks ago was embodied in the central images of our traditions: the Buddha sitting in quiet contemplation under the Bodhi tree and the Christ agonizing on the cross.  There are real differences here.  These images point to DISTINCTIVE, or defining, truths that were discovered, or revealed, in the life and experience of Gautama and of Jesus.

One could say much about what we Christians — especially we Christian activists or liberationists — have to learn from the Buddhist insistence that unless we spend time, lots of time, sitting under a Bodhi tree and seeking enlightenment, we’re not going to be able to really change the world and its structures.  That message came through again and again in my dialogues in Korea.  And I know I have not yet fully understood what it is telling me.

But I’m not sure whether the Buddhists I spoke with really grasped what I think is one of the DISTINCTIVE ingredients in what Jesus discovered about the Mystery he called God/Father.  It’s contained in the cross.

I recently came across a powerful expression of this distinctive message of Christianity in a book by Terry Eagleton, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics. (Wily-Blackwell, 2009):

If God is indeed in one sense utterly other, he is also made manifest [for Christians and for the world]  in the tortured body of a reviled political criminal … The ghastly good news of the gospel is that being done to death by the state for speaking up for love and justice is the status to which we must all aspire. The message of the New Testament is that if you don’t love you are dead, and if you do, they will kill you. Here, then, is your pie in the sky and your opium of the people. It is a message scandalous alike to the civilized liberal, the militant humanist and the wide-eyed progressive.  (p. 256)

Eagleton’s statement is strong.  I would change his “the status to which we all must aspire” to “for which we all must be ready.”  Still, his (and my) understanding of the Gospel as not only calling us to have compassion and love our neighbor (that the Buddhists would readily agree with) but to also confront the systemic powers that be (the state or the economic system) and be ready to accept the uncomfortable or deadly consequences — this is a message that the Korean Buddhists I talked with found difficult to comprehend.

Which means that “the sitting Buddha” and “the crucified Christ” have a lot to learn from each other.

A Buddhist-Christian Take on the Financial Crisis III

Last night, we brought our “Buddhist-Christian Dialogue on Global Greed” here in Chiang Mai to an end with the formulation of a “Common Word” on the economic mess the world is in and what we might do about it.

That’s quite an achievement.  Finding a common word about the economy between Buddhists and Christians who share few common words about “theology” (Buddhists are uncomfortable with the word, theology) will be surprising to many.  It’s an indication, I think, that religions can more easily find agreement about ethics than they can about doctrine.

In any case, our “Common Word” will soon be announced once it has been vetted by the organizations who sponsored our dialogue (the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation).

For the moment, I can offer a preview of the content of our Common Word under the slogan: “The Way to the Global Is through the Glocal.”  That’s cutesy, I know. But it contains a powerful insight.  Let me try to explain briefly.

Throughout our conference, as I tried to make clear in earlier blogs, we – both Christians and Buddhists – agreed that to understand and do something about the financial crisis that now surrounds us, we cannot talk only about personal or individual greed.   Rather, we have to recognize and grapple with the reality of structural greed. Personal greed takes on the form of structural greed, and structural greed takes on a life of its own.  So to prevent similar economic catastrophes from happening in the future, we have to deal with the greed that has become incarnated in the structures of the global economy.

But how do that?   These structures of greed are incredibly powerful, living as they do, not just in the neoliberal economic policies of Wall Street, but also in the politics of Washington, Berlin, London, Tokyo –as well as in the public media that determine how people think of their nation and its economic policies.

So it’s not very promising to start from the top of the economic, political, and media systems.  It seems impossible to start with trying to dismantle greed in its structural forms.

But that doesn’t mean that we should therefore simply start from the bottom – that is, from the level of personal greed.  Of course, we must always seek to transform individual hearts. But that is not enough to change structures.

Therefore – and this gets to the heart of our Common Word – we should focus our energies not on the structural level, nor on the personal-individual level – but on the local level.

On the grassroots level, in our local communities, at the roots of civil society we should try to create structures that will insure economic policies and practices that will promote the democratization of the economy – that will prevent economic power from being concentrated in the hands of a few, that will provide a process of checks and balances for economic transactions.

We identified four examples of such local efforts that are already taking shape in different parts of the world: local exchange and trading systems (LETS) in which trading is done in local and regional currencies, cooperative banking, decentralized energy, and localizing the production and exchange of goods necessary for basic needs such as water and food.

Such local efforts, which are based in personal values  and which try to create local structures of greater economic participation, will not remain just local.  As these local realizations of a new way of organizing the market and the production and exchange of goods increase, and especially as they network with each other, they will have a transformative effect on global structures.  They will become “glocal.”

But, at the end of the process, the Buddhists reminded us Christians, that all these efforts on the “glocal” level meant to transform the “global” level, won’t really work unless we are also continuously working on the “personal” level.  Our efforts to transform the world have to be rooted in our efforts to transform our own hearts.

As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us:  We cannot make peace unless we are peace.

So the message of our conference is this:  As we all seek to transform our hearts from self-centeredness and expand our hearts toward compassion for others, we work on the local level, trying to create new ways of organizing our local economy that, we hope, will gradually transform the global economy.   Our focus is the local. Our goal is the global.  We act glocally.