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Thursday, November 19, 2009

(Mandatory) Habits of the Heart

For the past 10 years or so, the Diocese of Newark has had canon law which mandates Anti-Racism Training (now called 'Dialogue') as a prerequisite for election to diocesan office.

I voted against it then because, while I support Anti-Racism Training, I thought it was a bad idea to mandate any kind of training. Moreover, I thought it an especially bad idea to make that mandate a prerequisite for election to office.

Okay. Go ahead and dismiss me as a hopeless radical non-conformist from the 60's. That may have once been true, but no matter the individual generational manifestation, we all go through both individual and cultural adolescence.

And then, we grow up. Well, most of us do, anyway. And what is right becomes written in our hearts, not followed by socially constructed mandates.

Even more to the point, I think mandatory canons like this are, at their core, absolutely contrary to the essential spirit of Anglicanism.

The training / dialogue program itself had then, and continues to have now, many serious flaws, none the least of which is that the success or failure of the "experience" of the training / dialogue is highly dependent upon the skills and abilities of the facilitator. Not all of them are good. Trust me.

The pedagogy also assumes one or two learning styles, leaving out those who do not learn best in a program which is ruthlessly communal in its design.

Mind you, I LOVE the communal nature of its design. I'm just very aware that there are many, many more people for whom this pedagogy ultimately fails.

The program is also now a 14 hour required session, which can be broken down into several, shorter sessions. Even so, my experience is that this is simply too much time for many folk - especially in these times when 'downsizing' has reduced the numbers in the work force (especially churches), resulting in one person doing the work of three or four - in which to invest.

I believe in 'sacrificial presence' but 14 hours goes a bit 'above and beyond' the call of duty to serve God through diocesan structures.

There are other, corporate models of anti-racism training which are far superior. I have found this PBS interactive web site RACE: THE POWER OF ILLUSION to be positively brilliant.

In fact, take a break from reading this and g'won over there and check it out. No, seriously. I'll wait until you come back. Nothing I could write here is as important as the stuff you'll learn over there.

Okay. Back now? Wait. Before you continue reading my post, check this out: "I'm for gay rights, but . . .". It is a 'conversation' (actually, more like 'talking points') between two people of color about the links between racism and homophobia and the similarities between the struggle for the Civil Rights of both people of color and LGBT people.

As if they were two distinct and separate classifications of people.

As if there are no LGBT people among people of color.

The essential problem I have in particular with the Anti-Racism program as it currently exists is that it unintentionally sets up a 'hierarchy of evil', placing racism at the top, giving it status and privilege among the oppressive forces in human nature as well as in our cultural expressions of the human enterprise.

There is no denying the evil of racism and the horrific cultural impact of its manifestation as slavery, but I think it is, at the very least, not helpful to to replace hierarchy with hierarchy - especially when you are working for the justice promised of God.

What we have come to understand is that there is an interlocking nature to all oppression and prejudice.

Indeed, I have said it before and I'll say it again - the 'original' social sin in the Garden was sexism.

Just ask any of the Daughters of Eve if that isn't true.

'Original' does not mean that it has rank and status in the hierarchy of the evil of oppression and prejudice. It's just a starting place to begin to learn the lesson that, once you take the first step toward one form of discrimination and prejudice, you have begun the journey out of Paradise.

If we learned nothing else from the movements for Abolitionist, Suffrage, Civil Rights Movements and the AIDS pandemic it is that collaboration among the various 'target groups' will win the day.

Julia Ward Howe was at Gettysburg and wrote the "Battle Hymn of the Republic'. Frederic Douglass was at Seneca Falls and signed the 'Declaration of Sentiments' (and if you don't know what that is, perhaps you need Anti-Sexism Training more than I need my fourth session of Anti-Racism Training).

Indeed, the Seneca Falls Declaration was signed by sixty-eight women and thirty-two men. You will note that we do have a Civil Rights law which guarantees equal rights for people of color. We do not yet have a similar law which guarantees equal rights for women.

Which brings me to another point, one made by a dear African American friend, now numbered among the saints, who was also a parishioner of mine when I was Vicar of St. Barnabas, Newark.

We were doing some serious stoop-sitting and lemonade drinking one lovely Sunday afternoon, when Frank looked at me and said, "Lemme axe you somethin': Why do we need a Civil Rights Amendment?"

"Frank," I said, "Why would you ask me such a question?"

"Okay, lemme put it to you this way," he continued, "Doesn't the constitution say that "'All men are created equal'?"

"Of course," I said, confused about where he was going with this.

"Right," he said, "then what part of 'all' don't nobody unnestand?"

Frank was right, of course. And, he's wrong. Unfortunately, we need laws like this to make it absolutely clear to absolutely everyone about the Law of the Land in these United States.

Behavior is changed by laws. Hearts do not necessarily follow the Law of the Land. Just ask a 'Tea Bagger' or 'Birther'.

Then again, never mind.

In 1967, Robert N. Bellah, with four others, wrote his seminal book on civil religion in America, Habits of the Heart.

That phrase, of course, is from the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, a man described as "a conservative aristocratic pessimist". Pessimists are my kinda people. As an unrepentant, openly practicing optimist, I actively recruit and cultivate relationships with the pessimists among us.

They keep me honest. Case in point: My own Ms. Conroy.

Tocqueville is regarded as the most profound, astute and complex observer of a nation espousing the ideals of equality and freedom. He serves Bellah and company well; their book should inspire many readers to revisit his Democracy in America.

Like Tocqueville, the authors and subjects of Habits of the Heart concentrate on "our character," on "how to preserve or create a morally coherent life."

Tocqueville spoke of relying on "habits of the heart" to achieve this end. Looking at contemporary American society, the authors find nostalgia, without coherence, striving without goal, hope without plausible concurrent action. The result is a "cancerous" form of individualism.

Bellah hungers for wholeness in a world of overspecialization, fragmentation and restlessness. He knows enough about 20th-century political life not to look to integrators, engineers of consent or managers of totalist governments to provide wholeness.

In the book’s final pages he and his co-conspirators settle for "coherence." It’s difficult not to think of their closing paragraphs as a sermon: ‘‘It would be well for us to rejoin the human race, to accept our essential poverty as a gift, and to share our material wealth with those in need."

Somebody give me an 'Amen.'

Bottom line: I'd like to see this particular diocesan canon repealed and replaced with a more expansive canon - one that, perhaps, begins with an invitation (not mandate) to be part of a Crucial Conversation (as opposed to 'Dialogue').

I think we ought to begin with a conversation about what happened in the Garden, and then move 'Beyond the Apple' to consider what happened among the Sons of Adam and and the Daughters of Eve.

I think that sets the stage for a crucial conversation about the interlocking nature of oppression and how we must begin to dismantle the dominant social paradigms of prejudice and bigotry on all levels - economic, social, cultural - for all of God's people.

I think an invitation to all who seek to hold elected office in The Episcopal Diocese of Newark into a series of such discussions is a good place to begin.

If anything is 'flat-footedly' mandatory, it ought to be that everyone who runs for elected office signs an affidavit or 'pledge' which professes that, as an elected Servant Leader, they will work to dismantle all oppressive systems based on race, gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or emotional capability, age, or class status.

I know. Some of my friends - many of whom are either themselves, African American, or who (like me), came through the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement - are either shaking their heads sadly or raising an angry fist in the air and crying, "Elizabeth! How could you? You, of all people!"

I'm sorry. Truly. I know you experience this position as a retreat from a position of justice. I know you think that an expansion of the program is an attempt to water down, mothball, morph or mute the discussion about Race.

Let me try to assure you: It is not. It is an attempt to draw the circle wider.

I don't want us to 'do' church. I want us to 'be' church.

I fervently believe we can do more good by working together. Collaboratively. In the pursuit of 'liberty and justice for all'.

And 'all', as my own 'Saint Frank' would tell us, means 'all'.

You know, I don't want to change your mind. Like Jesus, I want more than that. I want to change your heart - more specifically, the habits of your heart.

I have come to believe that transformational experiences like that happen when we 'accept our essential poverty' and 'share the wealth' of our experiences in the movement up from prejudice and oppression and into the liberation of Jesus.

At least, that's how I hope to 'preserve or create a morally coherent life' among the people God has called me to serve through The Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Newark.

These are the habits of my heart.


Matthew said...

One of the reasons why I am opposed to these types of canons is that they are so inflexible. I know a parishioner in our diocese who is a widely recognized scholar in the area of race and gender studies. She has a Ph.D and is a professor at a university and teaches courses like "Race and Rhetoric." She has written in the field for 25 years. Yet, she was forced to sit through this workshop in order to get certified for a certain office she was otherwise eligible to hold. No exceptions. I am told the requirements now for this course are less rigid and not always required but it was still unecessary.

MadPriest said...

I agree with you entirely. Any attempt to create a hierarchy of oppression leads to the fragmentation of the campaign against oppression. This plays into the enemy's hand. The enemy rarely fragments and they can muster all there forces against each individual pressure group one at a time in stead of having to face a full army of people calling for justice. They can also, as has been demonstrated in the recent black versus gay voting, far too easily conscript members of one oppressed group to oppress another oppressed group.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, I think this has just become a Red Letter Day on the Calendar: the day Jonathan and Elizabeth actually agreed on something.

Well done, the two of us. Well done.

Let me just reiterate that I don''t think this is an intentional attempt to create a hierarchy of oppression; however, in effect, that's what it does.

So, what is it in the human psyche that wants to create hierarchies - even as a way to dismantle hierarchies?

MadPriest said...

Perhaps it comes from the oppressed themselves. By claiming that their group is more oppressed than another group, sub-groups give themselves worth. Although this a false worth it mimics, to an extent, the true worth that is denied them by their oppressors.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You may well be right, Jonathan. It does have its own logic, in a way, doesn't it?

There is power in being a victim. In the Christian tradition, we make heroes of martyrs. Give them their own day of prayer on the 'Calendar of Saints'.

I say that not to diminish one iota the sacrifice made by some of the saints, but to say that there is real power in martyrdom. I sense that's part of the dynamic.

So, to then create hierarchies of martyrdom ascribes even more power, doesn't it?

Who was it who said, "You can not dismantle the master's house with his own tools?"

MadPriest said...

I don't know. Was it Groucho Marx?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Actually, not a bad guess. I'm thinking it was someone like Angelo or Walker. . . hmm. . . will look it up.

Paul (A.) said...

Audre Lorde appears to be the source.