Behold, A Dance with Wonder: An Experiment in Joint Discovery

Suspending Judgment, Embracing Wonder

There are some books whose urgency and vitality penetrate past the judgmental mind. These demand a move and counter move, a contest not meant to win but to experience. This endless grasping and holding and pushing away brings intimacy. The Need for Roots and The Human Condition are works that require the reader to become intimate with the needs of humanity and to find peace with the conflicted tension of our human condition. Through these works we encounter intimacy with how we fall apart—and how we can be made whole. For beyond all else these books are intimate encounters with vital minds – survivors of suffering harvesting the seeds of life and finding fertile ground from which to sprout new imaginations of human possibility.

The sheer boldness of purpose of Weil’s efforts to advise the future of France after the Nazi occupation, of Arendt’s demonstration that the human condition is one both admirable and contemptible but most of all shapeable to either of those ends, makes for reading that brings me out of judgment and into wonder. 

When I first read these texts, the scholar’s impulse to judge and question came first, but these texts do not surrender to such analysis. I held these words for months, and eventually in the holding the mystic’s instinct for experience, and the mage’s impulse for creative imagination I moved from an academic analysis towards an exercise of imaginative possibilities. I then found myself stateless with Arendt in the aftermath of the war—a person and not a person. I find myself starving and sick with Weil as solidarity with her people slowly killed her body but electrified her mind. Both straddled the end of one age and the sprouts of another, and in this liminal space both dared to imagine, inspire, open, and invite rather than fall to the impulse to argue, convince, close and reject. 

It is no accident that these texts brought me back into communion with spiritual texts. They share the very subject of nearly every wisdom work; how we break, how we suffer, how we find faith to heal and hope the world better. The shape of our experienced selves is much the same as that of our collective communities. And this shape denies classification and cataloging. It denies knowing and demands living with possibility and wonder—with endless mystery endlessly experienced. 

History’s Thresholds

I used to wonder why history so often skips so much time. But there is a reason we don’t dig into the lives of the mundane every day. We are fascinated by endings and beginnings. Wars particularly punctuate our story of humanity. This seems depressing, until we see these times not as endings, but as thresholds, possibilities held in tension until all the possibilities that were break down and new possibilities have to be imagined. Our endlessly mysterious potential for hope, hope that fuels faith in a tomorrow better than today, awakens in the darkest depths of the human condition. 

It is this spirit which infuses these texts, and beyond right or wrong, informs us not simply of what should be, but that what could be is bound only by the horizons of our minds. This seems a great optimism until we understand that those horizons are bounded by our collective and individual memory and experience. Thus, within our hope is the ever present knowledge of future tragedy, and within our tragedy the ever renewable faith that we will outgrow the restrictions of our previous potential—that we will break again and again and again and again the boarders of what has held both our hope and our suffering. 

Arendt pays close attention to the walls that have closed in on the modern mind. Walls of society, economy, and power that hem in our imagined possibilities. History itself is the horde at the gates, and if we are to make our world better we must imagine our public and private worlds larger by tearing down the very walls that we think protect us—before those walls collapse under the inescapable pressures of history. 

I find the most interesting ideas are born at these edges in time, born of the tension between idealism and realism. Take for example Weil’s idea that individual minds must be utterly free, but that collective minds—media, journalism, scholarship, literature, must not tell us how to think. I understand this impulse. Having seen what the ends of propaganda and perpetuated lies bring, she imagines that something is needed to contain them. This something must always be some organization of people, some select group that determines what is good and what is ill. Thus, the judgment moves from a free judgment of one’s own mind and into a social judgment, which cannot hold any grand ideal for long. The urge for expediency or for conformity in a collective always erode that collective’s ideals. Still, the society that allows falsehoods wide dissemination risks sacrificing the lessons of science, of experience, and of truth. Exposing this fundamental tension between allowing a mind to be free in its own opinion, and yet inhibited from freely evangelizing that opinion dramatizes the conflict at the heart of every liberal, democratic society. 

It is here that I think these texts speak so intimately to one another, for while Weil dramatizes these conflicts, Arendt seeks a framework for how to understand human experience from our tripartite lives—individual, public, and social. The ancient Greeks, from her perspective, saw the individual life as the most base, the realm of human necessities of life, sleep, food, sex, waste. The public life was the life that only a few select could hope to attend to, and here they left behind the base needs and attended to the needs of the collective. Only in this realm could one distinguish themselves. Not in service to self, or accumulation of wealth, or even of power, but by accomplishing something great for the commonweal. 

The Walls of Self and Social Limitation

Arendt saw that the private realm and the public realm had been largely absorbed into a social realm that didn’t seek to distinguish but to socialize through sameness. She saw our conflicts held in check by expanding social norms that through time and tradition and culture more and more closely intrude on our public and private lives. These social boarders form the all the “shoulds and musts” of life that we swim in without even noticing. These become the invisible walls that block thought, feeling, and experience. 

What then makes the social realm so dangerous is that it takes conflicts that can be constructive—take for example the public working out of Weil’s tension—and it makes these conflicts destructive.  Societal harmony requires that ideas, opinions, ways of being must be eliminated or prevented rather than integrated or even simply observed. Peace goes beyond harmony, not to the absence of conflict, but to the rejection of violence. Social harmony is not itself an evil, but it can become so when we cease to work and make peace when required in order to absent ourselves from all conflict. 

This is why in order to work and make peace, we must first create/hold/inhabit a place of safety. When we are unsafe in body, in mind, in place, in health, the work of peace is nigh impossible.  Only extraordinary souls find it possible when in danger to maintain the mindset and embodiment required to create peace. When we create a society in which many find themselves unsafe or actively assaulted by suffering chronic states of fear—when many are required by society to submit to this state so that others who are distant from danger can imagine themselves freed of even the stress of standard discomfort—we sacrifice peace for a enforced veneer of social harmony that perpetuates pain. 

This is why in liberal democracies we make conflict within the public sphere a duty—a task to be worked through together. This public duty is in contrast to the social sphere where the work is to avoid conflict. This avoidance often takes on the form of demand and suppresses individual expression. When this occurs it requires alienating individuals that don’t ascribe to the norms imposed either explicitly or implicitly. We often require the acceptance to work from the direction of societal culture. We wait for society to accept difference before we allow difference to be fully present. We make being different a right to be granted by society rather than accepting that the beholding the difference of others is a human obligation of every person.

Peace as the Praxis of Beholding Difference

The real work of peace begins in the public sphere, where space for the outcast, the suffering, and the non-normative is actively made and enforced—not suppressed—through the intentional effort of allowing the being of difference. But never imagine this is simple, easy, straightforward work. Because before this public space can be created, we need a critical mass of individuals who first build this peace within themselves and lead/teach the greater community in the public sphere. Before we can build a society of peace, enough of us have to do the more difficult work of entering into conflict with our own comfort before we can create safety for endangered lives and souls. This becomes the public work of creating public space and making it safe together. The more who can move into peace themselves, the more we can enlarge this sphere, the more we can create safety with one another, the more that we can withstand together without breaking down or out into violence. When enough of us hold peace, this shared space binds us together so that pain is witnessed and felt in community.  When held in such a communal space, pain and suffering, and even violence, can be transformed. 

In our society, we consider the binding force of self the mind, thus many philosophers have come to believe that society must also be led by a single mind, or leader, or ideal. But a community is not a body. It is a collection of bodies, minds, wills, forces, ideas, stories, beliefs, dangers, and delights. It is a flux. Always changing, flowing together, breaking apart in places, and combining anew. No one can control the flow, and when we try to control it the flow destroys the attempt. Direction, not control, guides the flow. The motion of our collective humanity finds the paths of least resistance, and so carves the landscape of our collective history.  The building of empires that dam humanity into one great reservoir, generating wealth and power like we generate electricity, do hold the flow for a time. Yet, ultimately all such constructs break down. When they do, the unrestrained forces unleashed lay waste. 

By holding in the great forces of conflict, rather than working out ways to move through these conflicts, we have come to associate peace with a lack of conflict. Peace, rather, is a choice to work out conflict in ways other than by violence. And because conflict feels like harm, because it feels like danger, our very beings rebel against moving into it and making a place of peace within the conflict. We have come to associate conflict with violence, even turning creative conflicts like business into metaphors of war and domination. We story even non-violent conflict in violent terms. We require something like “professionalism” or “courtesy” to hold our violence in check. Doing so, we often deny conflict because we imagine that if we allow the conflict to be fully expressed, we will destroy the safety of our team or workplace or family or community. Yet, conflict denied grows into violence, whereas conflict held and respected and moved through peacefully grows into greater peace. 

But our desire but for rest, for sanctuary from conflict, especially after such an event as the war that Weil and Arendt bore witness to, is great. In the aftermath we tend toward a kind of peace that irons out differences and that subsumes our internal struggles—this sows the seeds of future conflict. This process is seen through such actions as the invention or exaggeration of a social enemy. Rather than work to make peace in society, we allow the easy fear of another enemy to bind us together. When this happens, war of one sort seems inevitable. Either we war with the other, or if the other proves unwilling or unable to meet the force of our fear, we find closer “others” to expend our fear upon. The mantra we hold for inner or outer enemies is the same. “You are the reason I am unsafe. You are the reason that all is not well. You are the agent of destruction that I must work to destroy. Once you are gone I will have peace.” 

This is why the peace we seek cannot be found in a retreat to our individual lives, nor in the practice of social participation, but only through the action of public life. In the public life we can interact and agitate and work out a peace not through idle avoidance but through an intimacy of respectful communion. But this is action is a choice, and a difficult and rare one. And the seeds of our damnation or salvation are sewn in this choice. 

What I fear is occurring in the world, is that the skills to come into communion, to be fully present across differences, across perspectives, across otherness, don’t have a sufficient public training ground. With our need for communion now global, we find our industrial technologies of communication have exceed our technologies for making and holding common ground. Perhaps in the root of religious traditions we have minor models for how to do this work within a community, and perhaps at one time in our history that was enough. But in a world where everyone is our neighbor, and where we are the neighbor of all, we must make new models that work beyond “our community”. No isolated idea, no isolated community, can offer an answer. The praxis of intimate intra-communal conflict will not suffice for inter-communal conflicts. Our inter-communal peace must be worked out and worked through together.

Dance and Banquet as the Practice of Intimacy

The best metaphors I can find for this creative, intimate communion are dance and banquet. In dance, we fully come into presence of our body in community with music with others. While dancing alone can be enjoyable, it is rarely transcendent. And dancing with the right partner, or in a community of joy, is often transcendent. We are both fully ourselves and fully integrated into a more complex presence. The music holds the tension for us, and provides us a medium in which to commune. In banquet, we are both present in ourselves as we eat, and the table forms both that which keeps us apart and brings us together.  Remove the table and the image becomes absurd—the table holds the space and the medium of our encounter. As we feed one another and converse and celebrate and often argue, the table holds us in the tension of the meal and the space. There, we are forced to be both self and community. There, we experience intimacy.

Perhaps it is not the conflict that we fear, but the intimacy that creative conflict brings. We prefer the cold, distant conflict of destructive conflict. There, the only emotions that we have to contend with are our own. Perhaps this is why this conflict is so destructive, our emotions, in isolation, don’t flow. They stagnate and decay. Isolation breeds alienation, and alienation is the death of the soul. The alienated soul both craves intimacy and cannot cope with it, so it creates the only intimacy it can, intimate destruction. It takes that which is close to it, and breaks it apart, hoping that this breaking creates release, or expression, or anything that can free the soul from isolation. In this way, destruction points back toward the ultimate need for communion. Since the sick soul cannot commune with what is, it takes that which is and makes it what is not. The act of destruction manifests the sickness we hold inside, makes it external to us, and its destruction gives us an opportunity to witness what is happening internally. It gives others the chance to witness the same. To intervene. 

But most often, our destructiveness pushes us further into isolation. Something else is needed to generate transformation into wholeness and peace.

Sick and alienated souls can’t bear the presence of themselves, let along bear the burden of holding space for others as well. And a soul that does not learn to hold their space, and the space of others, is destined to become isolated and ultimately alienated. This is how souls become sick, become diseased, become agents of the ultimate human infectious disease—suffering. 

Intimate Vulnerability

The first step to healing, to communion, is a willingness to get proximate to suffering, to become intimately vulnerable to the suffering of another. Compassion, not isolation and blame, would make a revolution in the treatment of suffering. We cannot blame, isolation, segregation, quarantine, exterminate ourselves out of suffering. Peace requires the willingness of another to encounter your suffering with you, experience it with you without judgment, and walk with you through the dark places. There is no avoiding the human condition we carry within us.  And our condition is not fundamentally flawed, it is simply, fundamentally, human. We are fundamentally conflicted, creatively so, both within ourselves and within and among our communities. 

Wiel’s observation of the needs of the soul, that they all require a holding of tension of two opposing forces, is deeply true. But rather than an Aristotelian golden mean, the holding of tension requires a movement between the two, moving toward order, and moving toward freedom, never sacrificing the requirement of the other. Those that argue for perfection miss the delight of the dance of the life of the soul. Judging and moralizing they make life an isolated intellectual pursuit, rather than an embodied dance that melds mind and body and spirit into a celebration of union and communion. There is no perfect, there is only the dance. The steps are not so important. As with banquet, the particulars of conversation and food are mostly forgotten in time, but the intension of the participants, the desire to be together is remembered and held. 

The magic that makes a vital, vibrant, healthy community is not a formula. You can’t calculate and measure and craft and construct a perfect community. You can only cultivate community itself. Community is not a state that can be ensured, it is only ever a possibility to be held, nurtured, respected. We like to imagine that if we only get the rules right, the community will be ideal. This is the lie that Plato deconstructs in the Republic. If you demand a completely just society, the actions needed to craft such society force it to be extremely unjust.

How Evil Organizes

And here, I turn to the central question that Rivkah and I want to explore: How is evil organized? 

I have come to hold that evil organizes to demand absolutism—of all kinds. It is a force that denies what is, because it fears what might become. Evil is thus organized against intimacy. It is most fundamentally manifest as the forces that break us apart, forces that demand separateness to ensure an imagined purity. Evil denies tension yet celebrates violence. It lies that through sufficient violence, otherness can be eliminated. Evil works to deny public conflict by organizing social violence as a force restraining individuality. It crafts a false purity then organizes to enforce itself as an ideal model. The demand for absolute, the inability to hold disappointment of any kind, is the most destructive impulse in humanity. 

When we see the framework of social evil, we can come to see how the common good can be organized as well. Evil separates. Good makes whole. Evil cleaves. Good heals. What is most good is most whole. The society of the common good is a whole society. It embraces all. It makes and maintains space for all. It respects and values and dignifies all. It is not an absence of anything, but a completely full presence—removal of anything would make it less than whole. 

To Behold Together

In the modern world of social media, we find ourselves bereft of intimacy. The medium trades in social currency, not in communion. Ideas are less important than likes. We flatten out ourselves to be more likeable, more viewable, more sharable, and in doing so we take all the mystic, mythic, tension that mobilizes our souls and say to ourselves and to each other: “You are too much.” You are too much me to be seen, let alone shared or liked. We stop seeing the mystic, mythic magic of others.  We start to seek sameness and satiety. We craft and see only a static performance, a stand-in for the fullness of who they, and who we, are.  We deny the tension because we haven’t exercised the skills to build confidence with conflict, and thus we can’t bear the vulnerability of the true intimacy of wholeness—we can’t behold.  

Thus, my hope for this dialog with Rivkah, and with Weil and Arendt, is to hold this conversation, this experiment, in this spirit of vulnerable peace, of respected difference, of mutual beholding. Let us dance together. 

Wild God

Note: This post owes a great deal to Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination. I highly recommend this work, and this post is in response to my own processing of his book, which while being 40 years old, is shockingly current and relevant.

I am that I am.

Exodus 3:14

For no man may see my face, and live.

Exodus 33:20

We need a Wild God. Man’s desire for immortality causes us to constantly create structures that seek to fix—in the full multiple meanings of that word. These structures both lift the consciousness of humanity and they also ultimately chain that humanity in some new perceived “best” state. Traditional conservative religion is manifest in the desire to stand atop this edifice and proclaim the work of humanity complete when lived in harmony with these chains. Even traditional liberal responses to these chains beget more chains. Rather than the strictures of religion these tend to be strictures of ideas—a belief that elevated values are the epitome of humanity. The belief that any limited ideological path will be our ladder to heaven is endemic to humanity. This is the Tower of Babel, not a past even of history but a perpetual pattern of human action, a central parable meant to remind us of both our capacities and inclinations and remind of us of the perpetual response by a Wild God.

The Wild God stands perpetually on the side of humanity without standing on the side of humanity’s makings. The Wild God comes in and tears these structures down time and time and time again. Whenever we chain God or chain ourselves to an idea of one path, one way, one idea, Wild God returns to smash these idols and to free us, from ourselves and from our makings.

Without the work of mankind to build new structures and form new possibilities, God has no place. All is wild. But with the beginning of order, with the formation of any system, entropy—the perpetual, eternal wild—must manifest. Entropy makes all work, even the most enduring, always incomplete. This is no tragedy, but the energy of change, and in the forms of human order society, community, family, nation, religion, creed, flags, borders, classes, and castes, it means that no circumstances endures forever. Our work is building and rebuilding, dreaming and imagining infinite possibilities and potentials. This duty of human life is always renewed if not by being “transformed by a continual renewing of the mind” (Romans 12:2), if not by the formation of new consciousness, if not by symbols and traditions being rearranged, then by Wild, the unseen, unexpected, inexplicable, un-percievable forces of change and transformation. When we cease in our work through our satiation, then the Wild God will return to the scene of our stagnation to teach us grief and death, to end what is, what we came to believe may always be. Then the same Wild God renews our vision and through our grief teaches us to cultivate new hope that makes for new work.

History is not complete progressive nor completely cyclical. History is —formed and unmade and reformed. It is new patterns for the sake of new life and new ways of being. For being stagnant is not being. We are eternal things, not immortal ones. Eternal life is not life that remains forever, but life saturated completely in being and meaning. When we seek to create a stagnant “best’ we create a living death. We make an edifice of history that is a relic rather than a living symbol and fount of renewal. Relationship is lived—not made and then persevered. God is the creator—and man the maker of that co-creation. God is the destroyer of those makings so man make again— so man does not love his makings more than his being. Without God man is dead. Without either, the World is dead—devoid either of meaning or of change.

All of creation is complete. But man must make and remake new realities and ways of being of that creation. This is our work in of relationship to God and creation, and our righteousness, i.e. our correct relationship, is found in faithfulness to that work and its renewal. We have a sacred duty in space and time as those beings who imagine and make new realities. We have a duty as responders to our times and places to live fully in our times and places, ever respectful of the eternal Wild not that we wage war against to make perfect order, but that we live in relationship with—through which we enter into the full power of making and being destroyed and being remade. For we are born of death, grief, hope, birth, growth, expansion, challenge, making, reduction, and unmaking.

“No man may look on me, and live.” “I am that I am”

That is—”I am beyond definition and state and purpose and limit in place and time and in understanding.”

God. Is. Wild. Wild noun. Wild verb. Wild adjective. Wild adverb. Wild in the context of language but  of the language of sacred poetry not rational prose.

With a Wild God there is no permanent despair, no absolute resignation. There is the full experience of now—and fully felt and experienced, now changes.

Depth of experience replaces permanence of experience.  This knowledge of impermanence does not make our work futile. Rather it makes our/my work profoundly meaningful. Our work is necessary for now. This is our/my purpose now. And when our purpose is complete, we can let it go. Not without pain and loss and death—but through pain and loss and death—we lean how to lose what we cherish before what we cherish destroys us. We learn how to grieve and say goodbye, so that when our begins again we are not chained to the past, nor do we forget our histories and what we have made before.

And these thoughts shed new light for me on this passage from Romans.

And do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, for you to prove what is the good and well-pleasing and perfect will of God.

Romans 12:2 (emphasis added)

Louis MacNeice concludes his poem “Plurality” with how it feels to be human and live this dynamic tension. I recommend the entire poem, but this piece is relavant to my thoughts here:

“…
A species become rich by seeing things as wrong
And patching them, to which I am proud that I belong.
Man is surely mad with discontent, he is hurled
By lovely hopes or bad dreams against the world,
Raising a frail scaffold in never-ending flux,
Stubbornly when baffled fumbling the stubborn crux
And so he must continue, raiding the abyss
With aching bone and sinew, conscious of things amiss,
Conscious of guilt and vast inadequacy and the sick
Ego and the broken past and the clock that goes too quick,
Conscious of waste of labour, conscious of spite and hate,
Of dissension with his neighbour, of beggars at the gate,
But conscious also of love and the joy of things and the power
Of going beyond and above the limits of the lagging hour,
Conscious of sunlight, conscious of death’s inveigling touch,

Not completely conscious but partly—and that is much.”

Story is Our Sacred Duty

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

Genesis 2:19, KJV

We speak for mountains, for oceans, for dirt and dust and dead civilizations, for rain and rivers, for trees and toads and triceratops, for the dead, for the future born, for ourselves. We are the conscious speaking beings of our planet, and our words have a weight and responsibility. Each word is a prayer, a promise, and a spell. We bind them in our books and bear them in souls. Out of the loom of our minds we weave our world.

Yet, we are not the fullness or center of the world. Rather, we are the sacred authors of its stories. We are the parts of the world that speak back to it, those motes that fling our fragile bodies beyond its borders to gaze back upon it and ourselves. And so, we have the duty of doing it’s seeing. In our tellings we accept the first task given to man, to name that which surrounds us, and in doing so to partner again with God in creation.

When we realize our words as being we create, we accept the mantel thrust upon us at Birth. When we live without this knowledge or when we resist accepting it, we distance ourselves from being meaningful humans. We mute ourselves—we mute the being whose first duty is that of speaking the being of all, speaking the fullness of existence, giving name and meaning to all we see, hear, touch, experience, dream, nurture, love, and destroy.

This is our portion of life to ever be at work at our first duty. To see, to name, to speak the world into meaning, after God speaks it and us into being.

Evil meaning is not the fault of God, it is our own manifestation.

Nor does beauty belong to God, it is our meaning to make.

God made the substance—the very time and space we exist in and the matter/energy that we exist of—of our world. But man determines what that substance does and what it means.

Our birthright is more than we allow ourselves to imagine. And our lack of creativity is our fundamental flaw. It is when we fail to imagine more for the world we inhabit that we fail our part in the creation story.

This first sin in the western mind came with imparted knowledge, rather than made meaning. We ate the idea of a world that breaks apart into good and evil, and so our meanings and lives became locked in perpetual struggle.

When Nietzsche imagined a world of meaning beyond good and evil, he sought to take us back to our initial mental wonderland and that sacred First Breath of humanity. God breathed into Adam then assigned him the first task of naming all that saw. The gift of humanity—reason, sight, speech, the gift of meanings and ways infinite in direction—came with a duty. The naming was not simply a process of language, it is itself a story of our fundamental nature. We make meaning before we make good and evil. Meaning exists outside of this dichotomy.

When we trade the challenge of making meaning for the perceived peace of an imparted story we choose as truth, we shut ourselves off from our purpose and the human spirit breathed into us by God. Our souls are never saved in the battle of good and evil. Our souls are freed when we give meaning to the stories of life; we make a small degree of order in the Chaos—a beachhead on which to build.

Jesus taught by story. He described the duty of life in his stories about himself. “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the father but by me.” This is not a law—this is a story.

Jesus is the story of humanity, returning us to our relationship with God not by profession of a belief, but by the living of a way—seeing and making meaning of the spirit of religious teachings. We must See the poor and sick and disinherited. We must Speak with them and share in their portion of the Story. Yet, we resist because to make meaning of their experience is a challenge to our comfort and wealth.

Jesus showed that life is more than imposed rules and roles. Jesus challenged those rules and roles again and again not by arguing from them, but by showing a way beyond them. When asked about taxes (Matthew 22:15-22) his response challenged his questioners to consider an image on a symbol (Caesar’s face on a coin).  The underlying meaning is that we are images of God and we should render unto our maker what is due to our maker. The parable is not about money and paying taxes (this is the limited viewpoint of his questioners), it is about performing sacred duty and honoring our nature.

We can take the parable further and say that in our making meaning we impose a tax on those who carry our words and meaning, and that rendering due is a process of joint responsibility. If we imagine our words imposing a duty on our listeners and readers, by those closest to us, perhaps we will choose to make better meanings. Perhaps we might make rendering due a life affirming process of mutual seeing, rather than a transactional one of give and take. Laws hold people responsible for actions, religions hold people responsible for choices, but I imagine that God holds us responsible for making—and being—Meaning.

When we stop seeing all things through the rubric of good or evil; when we stop making the full measure of meaning simply knowing and following the laws/customs of religion and the laws/customs of the land, when we instead choose to love God and to love one another, we move beyond good and evil. We move into the Kingdom of God. It is a choice and state of mind, not a place and time.

We do not thrive as robots of good deeds or as believers of a specific narrative. We are at home as poets of dreams. When we dance our life/death we Live. We form the world by the sounds of utterance that form never ceasing streams of meaning. We make our place in time by snatching mere moments and giving them space and time in form and line or in measured meter, note, and melody.

We trace out these spells in technologies of symbols. These cure into concrete memories that carry our consciousness through chaos — this small order hard earned as an act of resistance and ego without which we lose all we ever were, did, or dreamed.  We write runes that challenge Imagination before they grant answers. Silent sentries stacked and ordered, waiting for eyes to see, and minds to make their meanings new again in the fertile soil of new imaginings.

What wickedness can we not imagine our way around or out of? What hope do we fail to dream and speak? What limited meanings in ruts of habitual thinking take us to graveyards of every dead civilization, and what new paths can be made through the dark forest if we dare to do the work?

When we free ourselves from seeing and telling stories with a predetermined eye we open up the truth we find in them.

And this Truth shall set us Free.

Or shall our dream be earnest of the real

Future when we wake,

Design a home, a factory, a fortress

Which, taught with effort, we can really make?

What is we want really?

For what end and how?

If it is something feasible, obtainable,

Let us dream it now,

Autumn Journal – XXIV, Louis MacNeice

Society’s Cudgels vs. Moral Values

People kneel in exhaustion
From a burden
Borne too long
People kneel in reverence
Calling a nation
To right it’s wrongs

I challenge people to see kneeling as an act of reverence for the people suffering due to failure of the nation to meet the standards of liberty and justice for all. It can be a deeper act of respect for the nation and it’s highest credal values than patriotism that is narrowly defined as obedience to traditional social norms.

All Americans have the right to criticize our nation and to call attention to the need for a reckoning with the values and commitment to the freedoms defined in our constitution.

If you are more upset by an act of conscious that conflicts with your social norms than the injustice those acts are calling attention to, your attitude is part of the problem. Your outrage highlights the psychological distance between creating liberty for all and compelling compliance with socially normative behavior.

Socially normative behavior has given us a nation quietly at ease for decades with the new Jim Crow that replaced the old Jim Crow that replaced racial segregation that replaced slavery. This quiet ease of a comfortable life is insulated by myths that provide explanations of injustice and suffering so that one doesn’t have to discomfort oneself by thinking to hard. We have a culture that dissuades the comfortable from deep exploration of the dark aspects of our society. People push back hard against others in their social circles getting too much spirit in their veins about righting these wrongs or even discussing them “in polite society.”

Our society has only ever had a veil of politeness.

No one ever said to me, “in compassionate society we do x.”

No one ever said to me “that’s not compassionate.”

They said “It’s not nice to make a fuss. You should be nice. Don’t be impolite.”

Then I went to war. Politeness didn’t mean anything anymore. I saw real injustice and real suffering and had to face the systems that led to these outcomes from within those systems. I saw how traditions and ritual gave people means to prevent deep introspection and moral reckoning. Ritual and tradition lubricate the systems that perpetuate injustice and suffering just as they lubricate the necessary social interactions and civil interactions in a society. Ritual and tradition are indiscriminate. People provide the meaning, or the lack of it. I began to resent indiscriminate adherence to ritual and tradition. I especially resented it in those who never served but who draped themselves in a shroud of flag worship and loudly proclaimed patriotism that willfully ignored facts and actual events.

I never had the moral courage to make a public display of that conflict. So I admire those who do. Their actions forced me to more fully confront my own attitudes.

Social compliance to traditional norms are used as cudgels to control people—to prevent social disruption, the essential factor for social change and progress. While that can be necessary, when it becomes toxic, when the impulse is to revert to social attitudes and behaviors that deemed disastrously immoral decades ago, we have a moral duty to question our own complicity in the perpetuation of these efforts.

If we continue stand for something that is actively harming others, perhaps we should consider what purposes kneeling might serve. Humbling ourselves in reverence for the lives taken and families terrorized by improperly aggressive, improperly targeted, often intentionally racist, and tactically poor techniques of policing is not an act of disrespect. Is is an act of disruption—intentionally so. It forces a confrontation between learned rituals of respect with actual facts and actual events in the world. Our psychological impulse is to lash out at the confrontational act—which is the point of the act. Then, after reflection, the overreaction raises questions, forces investigation, forces comparisons between the act and the issue.

What is more patriotic, a conditioned behavior toward a symbol of our nation, or a lived dedication to the highest values of that actual nation and it’s living people, combined with a dutiful knowledge of its full history and how that history is carried into every aspect of our collective social lives today?

An easy patriotism of learned behaviors and social compliance will not make this nation well and whole. It may even contribute to division and sickness.

Some will take a knee. Others may work to register voters. Others may fight to reform criminal justice systems, help addicts, feed the hungry, house the homeless, educate our children, care for our families and neighbors.

Some acts will be symbolic, some will be practical. We should look to the deeper values, the deeper stories at play, rather than the manufactured narratives that give us a side to pick instead of values to explore.

Do the work of citizenship. Learn the history, wrestle with the deep values of our constitution, and be a bit more fully conscious about your own response to traditions and traditional narratives. Consider what can sustain and build on our progress to the full flourishing of those values, and what holds us back.

I also see the kneeling as a sign of moral exhaustion. Why do those who suffer have to always be those who do the moral, social, and intellectual work of challenging, educating, and making others comfortable?

When I see these men taking a knee, I hear a call to action. It’s time for me to take up the burden they have born for far to long. It’s time for me to use my capabilities to live the values that were much repeated but often not modeled. It’s time for me to do the damned hard, urgent, necessary work.

The Lie of the Climb

The hardest lesson we learn is what our true enemies look like. Not the bigoted, racist, nationalist ideas of an enemy. Real enemies. Cruelty. Violence. Ignorance. Poverty. Sickness.

The terror they inspire haunts us. It slides down our spines at random moments when our eyes first open to see reality and not merely our imagined world. When we hear a cough from someone we love that’s not a cold, but a deeper rumble of a disease we only hear in hushed whispers. When our best efforts and honest earnestness are laughed at and rejected by those we seek to engage. When a word becomes a projectile and first punctures our scarless heart. And we bleed our first drops of hate’s pain.

And finally we learn that our enemies were never people but the systems they made to make themselves rich, or safe, or famous, or powerful, or deathless. How those that first learn how not only how to wield power but to engineer it into inhuman systems that manufacture these outputs with a machine consistency, when we see the bodies, souls, and minds crushed in the gears and broken by the weight of maintaining these systems. We are told to aim for the top, grind our way up the king of the castle game, the truest game we learn as children. That the meanest and most powerful will win, and you will continually thrust yourself into harm in your attempt to summit their worthless hill.

We learn our world is not made for us. It is made of us. Our flesh and blood and time and our literal lives construct the systems around us that wage war on us. On all of us. Even those who think they live in that castle, stand at the top of that hill. They are wounded at a soul level by the endless war they wage to stay on top simply because they bought into the rules of the game.

We can step off those childhood hills. We can stop playing games and start living lives only when we allow ourselves to fully see and know our real enemies. But sometimes that sight breaks our minds, hearts, and spirits.

How do we armor ourselves? How do we learn to wage the real war while still living, laughing, loving?

Stop resisting, just make it so.

Luke 4:18, as Jesus opens his ministry. He starts with the good news:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,

Lovely, but dangerous words. This is the most dangerous of ideas—the world is not just, but it can be made more so. Maybe this is why the people  whom Jesus was teaching then proceeded not only to run him out of town, but to try and throw him off a cliff to his death.

There is a reason that moral leaders are ignored, then mocked, then threatened, and often then killed. Being faced with a call to treat the poor and oppressed with full dignity and respect often results in society feeling threatened. No one likes to hear about what that takes, and what it means for them. A few are guilty, but all are responsible. What we do when we feel the weight of that responsibility is our moral choice, and collectively this defines our moral character.

So much of the resistance to social justice is simply determined efforts to not see, to unsee, to make others blind to, and finally to make them participants in, injustice.  The resistance is not those fighting for justice, the resistance is those fighting against it.

This is why I have grown to dislike the framing of liberal and progressive organizing and political will as “The Resistance.” What we are seeing in our national politics is the real resistance. It is a resistance to justice. By defining ourselves as resistors we fail to see that we have the power our our national creed and the strength of our shared moral principles. We are the force being opposed.

The power to make and change policy occurs at the intersection of moral principles and public engagement. Moral values of fairness, justice, honesty, and compassion have the power to increase prosperity, health, and security for all. The choice that we have to cast off or out the poor, sick, weak, old, or other to obtain freedom or prosperity is a false teaching based in fear and aristocratic traditions. It is not only morally abhorrent, but it does great injustice the people whose labor and suffering built and continues to build our society. Even more, this core teaching of libertarian elitism is utterly dishonest and ultimately untrue.

Fair wages, fair treatment under the law, fair opportunities to learn, access to safe and reliable transportation, housing, medical care, and food are essential for a society that is truly free.

The freedom of the elite cannot come at the cost of the poor, the working class, minorities, and immigrants. Those are the very people who literally create the wealth of the rich with the labor of their hands, feet, backs, bones, muscles, sweat and blood. The rich may finance, but the poor are the ones that make the buildings in which the rich live, the roads they travel, the cars they drive, the food they eat, clothes they wear. They nurse them in ill health. They often protect them, entertain them, secure and serve them. None of these these people work with the intent to make the few free. They believe, that through their efforts, they make free themselves. Though, the common the result of the system they work within manufactures their captivity and sickness, at their own expense.

Do we see this, or do we remain blind? Do we work to set the oppressed go free, or do we double down on the chains and fetters of the systems and attitudes that keep them out of our sight because we fear, or because we are, the overseers?

We are called to witness, and to release, not to resist.

We cannot be defined by that which we oppose. When we start defining ourselves by what we are doing, what we are working to achieve, we reclaim our power and focus our efforts.

Let us be The Witness. Let us be the Voice bringing good news to the Poor. Let us be the Healers of the sick, and let us be the Liberators of the oppressed. Let us be the humble, stalwart, masses back doing the work that must be done in small ways everyday until these small ways become the mass movement that reawakens and quickens our national soul, a soul that seems to be sick and slumbering.

We don’t resist injustice. We overcome it. We are not The Resistance.

We are Architects, Constructors, Artisans, Voices, Dreamers, Doers—and most of all—we are Makers.

We are The Makers of a just, fair, free, and well America.

We are doing the work of making liberty and justice for all.

The work of making liberty and justice standard, common, expected—the default setting—for all.

If you want prosperity, to unlock American potential and pride, to unleash the strength of our nation as a force for good in the world, we must make the work of justice first in our hearts, our minds, and our bodies, everyday in all the small ways and things that matter so much.

Make justice your first work, and you make America better.

Keep making justice. Keep bringing the good news to the poor, keep making the sick well, keep freeing the oppressed.

Reclaim what it is to make America. America was never about harkening back, America is about moving forward. Not great again, but better always.

Better Always. In ways small and large. In efforts personal and actions global.

Always More Just.

Always More Free.

Always More Well.

Always more Prosperous.

Let us make it so.

Books are the Collective Soul of Humanity

Originally posted to Facebook on January 17, 2017.

I have an inherent distrust of anyone who doesn’t read. And by that I don’t mean the illiterate, I mean the unwilling.

“A room without books is like a body without a soul. ” – Cicero

I loved seeing what the President was reading (he was open about it) and his conversations with writers—his discussion with Marilynne Robinson which discussed her book Gilead and their mutual Christian faith was particularly memorable.

I’m currently reading American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice — and fell more in love with the generous and luminous view of human work that Rabbi Heschel taught and lived; Hope in The Dark —who I am discussing with 40 or so strangers as we struggle with how live out social justice; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (for my fourth time in as many years – it’s delightful) — where I live out a Nazi occupation of British Guernsey and how suffering can be endured through a love of books and the community that forms around that love, and Beowulf (Image Comics) — where exactly who the monsters are, and how they seem to be perpetual, is explored more in art than words and is also simply beautiful and gloriously fun. I peruse the poetry of Louis MacNeice, W.H. Auden, and Wallace Stevens several times a week. I linger in their liminal lyricality and feel the fellowship of others who endured events exceeding their immediate understanding.

In each I am connected with people and places and ideas that I would never encounter or discuss in everyday life. They expand my world, my awareness, and my empathy. They challenge my limited perspective and allow me to see and experience lives that I am otherwise oblivious too.

They make me more human—and I hope—more humane.

Through books we have connection to the collected story of humanity. We go beyond ourselves. Picking up a book is saying that “I am incomplete without this story. I am incomplete without these words. I want to hear from someone else, of someone or somewhere or something else, and see how that affects me.” It is an act of humility and curiosity and a model for how to live a life open to the greater world that exists beyond one’s own body and sense range.

So many lives and worlds to explore. To deny myself those experiences is to deny myself life. To choose to be absent from books is to choose to be absent from the soul of our collected humanity.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” – George R.R. Martin

Now finish Winds of Winter already, George. We are waiting…

Sowers

IMG_2666.JPGInspired by Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower

We all seal the day with the prayer of our ways
Our speech, our work, our tools and play
We pray ceaselessly the intent of our will
And we only only sometimes come to glimpse
The shape of what we mean.

But we shape on
We form the world
Known and unknown
Seen and unseen
We build castles and crowns
And blood and war
We shape schools
We shape seeds
We shape thoughts and tiny dreams
And though we form daily all possible futures
We sink into thoughts that run in patterns
Or ways turn to ruts
And we can’t stand the shape
Of our oft repeated days
Nor of others’ dreams.

We dream ourselves separate
We dream ourselves seeming
The material of thought makes the material of being
We shape the world and it shapes us
We become manifold
Or
We become none.
I struggle to write one true line
I work to make one true shape
I dream to make one true design
One true word
Or sound
Or movement
That reflects this mind
That must not remain

entirely mine.

A Crack in Reality

I pour ideas into my heart
there they pulse
and move apart
I breath them out
pull others in
Your ideas
And mine
and her’s
and his

We seek them often
to free ourselves
from what we can’t believe simply is
and we mourn that we can’t capture the world
or even ourselves

Truth may be
but it has no cages
nor peace to offer
Yet on we pour
ideas into that breach
that is life
a crack in reality
this we are
a glimpse by creation
of maybe
something more

The Demands of Moral Principles and the Seduction of Violence

I swear I will not dishonor

my soul with hatred,

but offer myself humbly

as a guardian of nature,

as a healer of misery,

as a messenger of wonder,

as an architect of peace.

–Diane Ackerman “School Prayer”

Two men died intervening to protect two Muslim women being harassed on a train in Portland. They died protecting the lives of two strangers being treated horrifically by a white supremacist terrorist.

The ideas of the terrorist led him to kill. The ideas of the heroes led them to make a choice to put their bodies in the breach and their ideas led to them sacrifice themselves for others. There is no greater moral choice.

These two men are my latest moral teachers. Here is what I’ve learned through them and others:

May we all be willing to place ourselves in the path of violence to take the blows for another and to pay with our lives if necessary. This is the moral choice that brings violence to its knees. Violence needs to feed on violence. It compels a reaction to sustain itself. When we call for violence against the antagonists and the peddlers of racist, xenophobic, religiously intolerant ideas we feed violence its sustenance. We fall prey to the same seductive idea that the terrorists we claim to fight do—we imagine ourselves the heroes. We believe our violence is right, that only our “right” violence can fight their wrong violence. We become infected with the same idea at the root of all violence—that our violent control is correct and good. We begin to believe we are the righteous, and thus we fall victim to the curse side of the promise that “all things are possible to those who believe.” Twisted by our belief in our righteousness, we become the villain—all the while the while believe we are the hero.

Some will say: “But we had to fight a war to stop the Nazis!” No, we didn’t. The war was the result of allowing their rise to power. That occurred not through violence but through democratic elections. The people elected not only Hitler, but gave his party the power to rewrite all laws and control the entire state. The people made their moral choice to accept the violence in order to see the world “made right” in their minds.

A lot of people who did not support Hitler’s party had to passively accept the systematic exclusion of foreigners, religious minorities, and the disabled, at a time when these were only ideas. The full violence of the Nazis erupted when the masses refused to refuse to participate. The moral decision of masses was to accept these ideas rather that refuse them. They refused to confront their friends, their neighbors, their own family. They would rather not make scene, not make a stand that might carry a price. The sum total of those decisions led to the rise of the Nazis and fueled the death of tens of millions and the suffering of the world.

We don’t need to punch the white supremacists. We need to refuse them. We need to collectively reject them AND their means everywhere. We can fight without violence. We can show in mass to their rallies and refuse them space and volume. We can confront racist ideas whenever we hear them, even when its hard to do so. We can confront those we love who passively repeat these ideas, and we can work to sway those we love who seem receptive to them. When we hear a slur we can confront the person and call others to do the same. We only have to have the courage and moral gumption to make that choice. We need to proactively arm ourselves not with weapons of violence but the readiness of moral actions that fights, not perpetrates, violence.

In the end its not the terrorists with guns, bombs, or knives we need overcome. It’s the idea at the core of all violent philosophies—that we can fix others and the world if we just kill, or violently control, the right people.

People around this terrorist knew he was racist, I can’t help but think they likely knew he was also unstable and violent. Perhaps had they taken action when he first fell into these ideas, there would have been no victims on Friday.

May I work to ensure that I will not be a passive accepter of violent, racist, or intolerant speech or ideas. We need one another to be brave in small things so others don’t have to pay the price for being brave in the ultimate things.

We need to not imagine ourselves heroes. We need to think ourselves human and humane.