Living a Tradition

By Heather Hackman

I had the incredible privilege of being able to travel to Bodh Gaya in late December and it was amazing. If you are not familiar with this place, it is the home of the Bodhi tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment. It was constructed by Emperor Asoka 2,250 years ago (the current temple is from the 5th -6th c. CE). It is said to be the most important, most reverent place in the world for Buddhists and the reasons for that were evident as soon as I walked in. The Mahabodhi Temple itself is not terribly remarkable as structures go – roughly 55 meters high, a basic stepped design, and a range of tiers surrounding it that have trees, grass and ample area for practitioners to gather. Overall, it seemed to me like so many parks, public squares or communal gathering spaces all over the world save for one thing – the intention and earnestness with which people were practicing their devotion to Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy. The vibe coming off of the countless monks and nuns practicing there made this temple utterly compelling, energetic, enlivening, and full of hope.

I do not identify as “a Buddhist”, because that has the air of Western “try this cool thing out”-ness to me and so I simply say that I have a deep love and reverence for Buddhist philosophy and find great personal and professional value in so many of its tenets. Despite my attempts at being reserved and cautious, I completely and unabashedly fell in love with the Mahabodhi Temple and the practitioners around it. I could feel myself long to be among them. In fact, I visited a total of four times in the very brief time we were in Bodh Gaya. I wanted to better understand this place, but more so I wanted to soak up what felt like its unbounded hope, possibility and peace. In trying to comprehend what the essence of this feeling was I realized that it emanated from the fact that I was among folks who had completely surrendered to their “faith” and were not “practicing” anything but instead were truly living their tradition with their full selves. Their bodies, their minds, their hearts and their daily activities were completely bent toward following the Eight-fold Noble Path, thereby making their contribution to peace in the world. Buddhism suggests there is an end to suffering but it requires facing the depths of fear (aversion), greed (attachment) and delusion (false perception). I’m sure you can see the parallels between these and other traditions where they are labeled differently, perhaps, but speak to the same core elements of what makes us suffer within ourselves and certainly what makes us create suffering for others.

This living the tradition is the basis of the Dalai Lama’s invocation for peace, his tireless work for the freedom of Tibet from the oppressive and violent rule by China, his support for LBGTQI equal rights, his deep and increasingly pronounced call for environmental justice, and his work within his own tradition around gender liberation and equity. Buddhism, when lived, gives him no other option than to commit his life energies toward the end of suffering, and more specifically the end of oppression. Buddhism suggests that in oppression not only those targeted are hurt but those who are doing the oppression are also fundamentally dehumanized and thus liberation for some liberates all. Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Winona LaDuke, Cornell West and Gloria Anzaldua also put forth that base notion that everyone caught in systems of oppression are diminished and dehumanized by the very existence of oppression. This is not a new idea, bumper stickers abound with the slogan “no one is free when others are oppressed”. But, there is a profound difference between the tokenizing and weakly offered way that dominant group members often say this versus the way that people who are truly living their tradition actually commit their whole selves to this.

And in fact, that is what social justice is going to take. In racial justice trainings I often offer up the very simple point that if racial oppression is happening “this much” (and I fully raise my left hand into the air), but White people are responding only “this much” (and I hold my right hand at shoulder level) then a simple bar graph analysis should help us see that if the solution is not proportionate to the problem, the problem will persist. And so, what does it then take for White folks to move their part of the bar graph up? I suggest that it is the move from “doing racial justice work” to “living racially just lives” and that is where “living one’s tradition” can (not always, of course, depending on the tradition) be of assistance.

Case in point – I have been working with a group of Unitarian Universalists over the last two years and I have to say that this is a pretty earnest group. Historically, White Liberalism has abounded at this overwhelmingly White church, and so there was no dearth of projects and activities they have been doing to address issues of Race and help communities of color fight Racism. Importantly, however, that is not at all the same as doing racial justice work (which rigorously looks at White Privilege and White Supremacy as much as it does Racism), nor is it a pathway to living a racially just life. But, this is right where living their UU tradition of love, love and more love comes into play – many of them have come to a place of realizing that if they do not do RJ work, they cannot fully experience their faith. Conversely, by leaning more deeply into their faith, they will find the support and motivation to dig more deeply into their own Whiteness and work to dismantle it. In short, they will move to being White people who are living their tradition because they are actively seeking to live in racially just ways.

Similarly, I have been doing work for almost a year now with a Catholic University and it is through their commitment to Catholic social teachings and the guidance of their commitment to the tenets of Christianity that they have been able, as a roughly 90% White campus, to lean more honestly into racial justice work and move away from the seduction and safety of tepid and easy “diversity” work. They, too, see this movement as a way to live their tradition and in turn have their tradition support their work.

I am not naïve enough to think that these assertions are not fraught because of the historical use of “faith” as the simultaneous tool of and cover for racial oppression on the part of White people (as well as almost every other form of oppression globally – the Burning Times in Europe, Christian hegemony and colonization, and the denial of rights to LBGTQI folks to name a few). The work of Paul Kivel on Christian hegemony and its role in systems of oppression is well worth exploring on this point. Alongside these hugely problematic uses of various systems of faith and religion we can see the ways that these belief systems have the capacity to provide strength and hope and guidance in the quest for human rights and peace among living beings on this planet. Thus, I am not talking about doctrine or scripture, nor am I talking about the distortions of any belief system to serve the needs of dominant power structures. Having said this, I have seen in my own life and in my work with communities of faith that there is great power in the reciprocal nature of one’s tradition reinforcing one’s commitment to living a racially (socially) just life, and then the realities of living that life breathing substance and grace into one’s tradition. In fact, I think it would be quite refreshing if those who identified as Christian and “anti-racist” worked a little harder to reclaim the territory some in their faith have colonized in the name of Racism (and other forms of oppression) over the years. Not being a Christian this is an outside opinion, but I cannot imagine Jesus would agree with any of the marginalizing, oppressive and violent talk espoused in the name of being a good Christian, nor would he have been cool with “liberal” Christians’ tolerance of such claims.

Put simply, I have had the privilege of working with more and more communities of faith over the last few years and I can see that these traditions are indeed powerful sources of change, hope, and ultimately peace when they are lived in accordance with values of justice, equity and the lauding of core human dignity over all else. This is what I was able to experience at the Mahabodhi Temple as my friend Michael and I took half an hour to “sit” alongside the monks and nuns who were so deeply engaged in their practice. The shared commitment to growing and changing, the shared struggle embedded in that process, and the wisdom and compassion at the heart of it all was so inspiring I was crying tears of gratitude on more than one occasion while there. I want to connect to that power and source of strength within myself more, and so being in the presence of such wise and committed practitioners gave me increased hope and energy to suit up and show up in an effort to live a racially just life.

Racial Justice Work: A Spiritual Imperative

Over the course of the last few years, I have had the privilege of working with various communities of faith on racial equity issues and I usually title the training “Racial Justice: A Spiritual Imperative”. I do this for two reasons: First, the word “imperative” tends to stimulate curiosity among congregants and draws them to the training. And second, it is true. I explain it this way – in Karen Armstrong’s recent publication, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, she states that every major world religion or system of faith has at its core love, compassion, and service to others. Importantly, the centrality of these issues is not limited to the monotheisms, or to the Eastern religions, but is evident in a wide range of examples within various systems of faith. Even “spiritual” (but patently not religious) organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous have love and service at their core.

 

And so, if love, compassion and service are at the heart of many of the world’s systems of faith, then it stands to reason that the mere existence of something so hateful, so inhuman, and so toxic as racial oppression (or any form of oppression for that matter) is an affront, or even an impediment, to one actualizing their chosen spirituality. Conversely, and this is something that most congregants intuit, it is logical to presume that engaging in racial equity work draws one closer to the core principles of their faith or spiritual path. Putting all of this together, it does not seem too much of a stretch to assert that racial justice work is imperative to the lived experience of many of the world’s faith systems. And this is exactly the approach I take when training communities of faith on these issues, especially communities of faith that are predominantly white: I help congregants understand the ways racial oppression undermines their faith, and in turn how racial justice work feeds and strengthens it.

 

Once understood, many congregants are eager to get started and “jump right in”. However, there are two very important issues to be mindful of before a community of faith undertakes racial equity work. The first is the occasional notion in predominantly white congregations that, while this work is part of their spiritual path, they are really only engaged in it to help people of color – a paternalizing (sic) attitude that does more harm than good. In fact, when congregants understand that racial oppression is based on both the way systems of racism target communities of color and how systems of white privilege benefit white people, the white members realize that they are part and parcel to this system and begin to engage in it more honestly and effectively. As such, much of the work these predominantly white congregations need to do when embracing racial equity work as a spiritual imperative involves addressing both racism that targets people of color and an examination of their white privilege.

 

A second caution for predominantly white congregations when doing racial equity work as a spiritual imperative is that many in the U.S. (and perhaps other Western societies) tend to individualize systems of faith or religious philosophy, often with the result of distancing themselves from the suffering of their fellows. This results in a predominantly white congregation’s racial equity work having the feel of charity instead of real equity, thereby maintaining a certain privileged distance while trying to address racism. The solution is to reach deeply toward our common humanity and remember that there really is no separation between us – whether it be “whatsoever you do unto your fellows you do to me”, or the teachings of karma, or the notion of tikkun olam, or the pillar of hospitality, the base principles of many of the world’s systems of faith do not actually allow one to extricate themselves from their community of fellows. Thus, racial equity work is not about “charity” work for others, but personal work that deeply connects us to each other and to our essential humanity.

 

In the many trainings I have done for communities of faith, it has been deep and abiding faith that draws many predominantly white congregations to this work and buoys them as they do it – even though it can sometimes be intimidating, confusing or frightening. I witnessed this a few months ago while working with a group of Catholic teachers – the racial equity content was clearly challenging for this predominantly white group of teachers, but when I asked them to identify ways their Catholicism buttressed their racial equity work, it became immediately evident in their body language and what they shared that their faith was a source of courage and motivation to continue to lean in and learn about racism and white privilege. Let this be an example to all communities of faith engaging in racial justice work: this is not charity work, this is not only about supporting communities of color, it is about ending the dehumanizing impact of racism and white privilege on all of us so that who we aspire to be as people of faith lines up with who we actually are on a daily basis.

© 2013 Hackman Consulting Group – Do not reproduce part or all without permission.

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