Monthly Archives: March 2020

The Circus

I mean, of course, the political circus, the presidential campaign which is upon us even in the midst of all the other problems around us now.  Normally I would not be worked up by this political spectacle, but there are some deeper and more serious implications here that not many are paying attention to.   First of all, it does appear that Biden, the darling of the Democrat establishment, will be the candidate of the Party to go against one of the worst presidents in history—but I think he is tied at the bottom with a few dozen others!!  The Democrat establishment has jumped all over Bernie to defeat him, not that he is perfect—actually he is simply a watered-down version of where we should be at, but still he is pointing in the right direction.  Can’t say that about ANY of the others.  What a depressing situation!  But like I said there’s some much deeper issues than this or that political candidate.  The whole vision of who we are as a country is sadly visible, no more masks, and in fact our view of the human reality is also very much exposed.  Let me hit some key points and then get to some underlying themes.

Let’s go back in time a bit.  

Martin Luther King is sitting in a Birmingham jail.  It is Eastertime, 1963, and a group of white clergymen have called on him to become “more moderate” in his demands and tactics.  MLK writes a letter to them from the jail explaining his disagreement with them.  This is from that letter:

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Fast forward to this month and the primary season.  Nina Turner, a Black woman who is co-chair of Bernie’s campaign, invokes this message to counter Biden’s appeal to older Black people and other Dems with a message of “We don’t need a revolution”(Biden’s actual words), to counter that sneaky addiction to “moderation” that ultimately leaves people with the illusion of change.  She was immediately challenged by a white spokeswoman from the Biden campaign who said that Nina had “no standing”! to use MLK in his critique of moderates.  Interesting!

Recently Bernie got the endorsement of Jesse Jackson.  He also has reasonable support from young Blacks and intellectuals and artists in the Black community.  However, unfortunately older Blacks overwhelmingly support Biden (as do older white people but for different reasons).  In part that is understandable.  Think of this:  for centuries your people have been enslaved, abused, degraded, spit upon, pushed down, etc.   Then suddenly one day one of your people is elected president.  This has an unspeakable impact on your psyche.  Now the man who is running for president was his “sidekick,”  “had his back,” etc.  You are going to be “loyal” to him no matter what.  I get that; I can see the pull that would have.  However, it is still a mistake.  Furthermore, it is only a partial answer to the problem.  Bernie has a particular language and analysis of what is the core problem in the U.S., and the key word in that is “class.”  Black people would prefer to see “race” as an equally critical component of the analysis—they see racism as the driving force of negativity in their lives because it is so “in your face” in their lives.  The class thing is more subtle, more disguised, and much more pervasive.  In fact, it partially enables the racism.  But Bernie’s language has not made that clear enough for this segment of voters.

Then there are all the “moderate” white voters.  These are the ones I don’t get at all.  They don’t want any substantial change, or they are afraid of that or something.  Perhaps they only want a “little less corruption” with Biden than with Trump.  Lets get this clear:  both Dems and Republicans are rife with corruption.  Biden seems like a “kinder, gentler” corruption.  However, his track record is incredibly bad, and it is amazing to me that the Dem electorate is ignoring this—of course the national media is all in on him so you won’t see that in their presentations.

I will let others state the case more thoroughly—here are two very good ones:

Now I see this headline in Common Dreams about a Biden interview on MSNBC:

Hiding Behind False and Misleading Claims, Biden Refuses to Commit to Signing Medicare for All Bill as President

Incredibly Biden doesn’t seem to want to sign a Medicare for All bill even if it were passed by Congress!

I will let Chris Hedges have the last word on this election—his commentary is titled:  The One-Choice Election:

“There is only one choice in this election. The consolidation of oligarchic power under Donald Trump or the consolidation of oligarchic power under Joe Biden. The oligarchs, with Trump or Biden, will win again. We will lose. The oligarchs made it abundantly clear, should Bernie Sanders miraculously become the Democratic Party nominee, they would join forces with the Republicans to crush him. Trump would, if Sanders was the nominee, instantly be shorn by the Democratic Party elites of his demons and his propensity for tyranny. Sanders would be red-baited — as he was viciously Friday in The New York Times’ “As Bernie Sanders Pushed for Closer Ties, Soviet Union Spotted Opportunity” — and turned into a figure of derision and ridicule. The oligarchs preach the sermon of the least-worst to us when they attempt to ram a Hillary Clinton or a Biden down our throats but ignore it for themselves. They prefer Biden over Trump, but they can live with either.

Only one thing matters to the oligarchs. It is not democracy. It is not truth. It is not the consent of the governed. It is not income inequality. It is not the surveillance state. It is not endless war. It is not jobs. It is not the climate. It is the primacy of corporate power — which has extinguished our democracy and left most of the working class in misery — and the continued increase and consolidation of their wealth.”

So much for all that.  But what is at the root of all this social dysfunctionality.  To get a grasp on that is probably the most important thing you can do—more important than voting or protesting or complaining or trying to look the other way.  We are laboring under a dysfunctional vision of human life and human identity.  Age-old problem; universal problem.  But there is our variant of this disease.  

From the beginning Americans have always put “the individual” on a kind of conceptual pedestal.  We see ourselves as these atomized entities of selfhood, each with his/her own self-interest.  When there is a “group” it is as if it were like a bucket of marbles, simply rubbing against each other.  But there are also the inevitably more organic groupings based on race or nationality or religion—and these can also splinter into subgroups.  However, given the underlying and dominant paradigm of our vision, these groups become focused on their self-interest.  The whole social fabric becomes a struggle of competing self-interests.  Capitalism is built on this foundation and exploits it thoroughly.  Modern political theory from the Enlightenment onwards has been about the management of competing self-interests.  When someone runs for office today, whatever it be, he or she  needs to satisfy a whole bunch of conflicting self-interests.  

At the other end of the pole is a vision of goals not built on self-interest but on what is called “the common good.”   This is a term from Catholic social thought.  Interesting that this is close to Buddhist insights about our essential interrelatedness—we are not “marbles in a bucket,” seeking to maximize our own gain in a conflict of interests.   Interesting also that a Jewish politician is closer to Catholic social teaching than a Catholic one!

What ALL human beings share very clearly is a seeking of happiness, but authentic well-being and happiness is not achieved by “me” but by “us” because we are pure interrelatedness or as Catholic teaching puts it, “the Body of Christ.”  This has tremendous practical implications in the political and economic life of the nation.  For example, universal health care free for all or a for-profit health care for those who can afford it are stem from such fundamental difference in vision.  If we have a distorted view of the human reality, we will have a dysfunctional and distorted economy and politics.


Lent: Questioning Old School Spirituality

We are at the beginning of another Lent.  That means something if you are within the Catholic/Orthodox framework.  This is an important time for spiritual and liturgical reasons.  It is a time of clarification of our priorities and our vision and our self-understanding.  This is also at the heart of monastic life, and the monk is the quintessential “Lent person.”  This also happens to be one of my favorite times!

Now Lent can be understood in different ways, and in fact some of this can be very truncated, very superficial, even very distorted.  Unfortunately this is mostly true of a lot of traditional religiosity.   In my youth I was very much a devout follower, but as I got older I began to question more and more of it.  It is not that there aren’t great and profound truths in what I like to call “old school spirituality,” but it is so laden with misconceptions, misunderstandings, superficial concerns, etc., etc.   And so many people are burdened by a language they are so eager and docile to accept.  Granted, this is less true today than a few decades ago; but it still afflicts us in many ways.  

The roots of the problem is in our reticence to “question all authority”—as that old bumper sticker says.  The authority both of persons and the language of our tradition.  In the case of religious traditions, practices and structures, this becomes critical.  Otherwise we can easily become enveloped in a fog of superficial mythology and our spiritual path reduced to simply “trying to be a better person.”  In some cases we can be seriously fooled and badly damaged interiorly.  Recently I saw a report about Jean Vanier, that he was involved in the sexual molestation of a number of women associated with his community of disabled people.  He and the Dominican priest who built this community were hero-worshipped as almost saints, but it turns out there was a “dark side” to this story.  One writer who detailed this sad story correctly points out how certain ecclesial attitudes and structures and language enabled and shielded this situation.  

The hero-worshipping of Vanier and his Dominican cohort is a symptom that can be found in all religious traditions(that’s how certain Buddhist teachers got away with   The religious dynamic in us somehow always drives us to put certain people and certain religious language  and religious structures on a pedestal.  History shows us that is a big mistake with all kinds of serious consequences.  By the way, the “questioning of all authority” is not antinomian or anarchic, and it is as old as the hills.  Read the Desert Fathers, for example,  and you’ll find it there all the time—not of course if you institutionalize their words and turn them into a “fossil record” of conventional piety.  

But getting back to our Lent….  What is this all about?  Old school spirituality speaks of “penance, prayer, and fasting.”  We also hear about “giving-up” stuff during Lent.  That was real big when I was a kid in the ‘50s.  We also get a good dose of what I call “cross-language”—from the Gospel, using that historical moment of Jesus’ crucifixion as a metaphor/symbol of something else.  Ok, all this language has an authentic sense to it and it can serve a true spiritual purpose.  But….how truly sad it is to see that mostly it is handled in a very superficial way and at times in a very distorted way that ultimately leads people away from the depths and mystery of the spiritual journey.

Consider the following insight from a book on Plotinus (Return to the One):

“A person’s illusory and shifting sense of individuality thus must be distinguished from a true sense of self.  If one traces his or her I-ness back to its source, as one would trace a line (or radius) back to the center of the circle from which it emanates, then the core of one’s self will be found to be identical with the core of everything.”

Yes, and this insight is at the heart, one way or another, of all the major spiritual traditions.  Our real identity is not this “solid” isolated self entity that relates to all else via external relations.  Rather we are essentially a pure relationality—not an isolated entity (this is at the heart of the Buddhist no-self doctrine and as my Thomistic philosophy professor put it, our self is like a tunnel at one end of which is this sense of “I” and at the other end, if we look deep enough, is the ultimate reality which we call God and the two are this one tunnel of relationality).  Both Aristotle and the Dalai Lama say that all human beings seek to be “happy,” but if they have a mistaken sense of self their search for happiness will not only be frustrated but actually may cause more suffering and darkness to themselves and to others.  When we begin to realize the interrelatedness that IS our self, this also affects all our understandings of ethics, morality, politics, economics, etc.   So the real meaning of Lent isn’t about “preparing for Easter,” eating fish on Fridays or “giving up” something or going to church more often or even “trying to be a better person” whatever that means, but it has to do really with getting our priorities right and focusing on what is our core identity.  When we finally do get to Easter, we finally get to that symbolic point that is beyond all language, all concepts, all images…the Resurrection in Christian terms, where the Risen Christ manifests to us the meaning of our existence which is not bound by death or any other limitation of identity.  Paul has his moment on the road to Damascus….”Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me”—Paul discovers himself not as this individual trying real hard to “keep the Law,” and he is a real zealot at that, but now he finds a whole new sense of being—not “I” but “Christ.”  So, in the words of the Upanishads, our true Lenten journey is a journey from the unreal to the Real.