22. Let’s Talk about the Protests
Hi there. Welcome to Journey On. I’m Dave Schmelzer.
So what a time we’re living in, where a global pandemic that caused almost the entire world to stay sheltered in place becomes a distant second-biggest-story to the demonstrations that broke out in response to, among other things, the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police.
Like many of you, my sheltering-in-place family has had some memorable points of contact with the protests. As two of my family members were at a protest when pandemonium broke out, I found myself wondering what some of the people we’ve talked about here who’ve led their people through tremendous injustice would have to say about the moment we’re in.
So today we’ll note that Thich Nhat Hanh, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama have a particular, unyielding and at times uncomfortable emphasis on compassion to all parties, even as they encourage action. I’ll start by offering a series of disclaimers, not least about the challenges of saying anything about this as a majority-culture man. I’ll let you in on a series of online conversations I’ve had about this where a big question has been about whether--in all this compassion these spiritual leaders talk about--there’s any place for righteous anger. And we’ll look at plenty more, including the role of your spiritual practice in these times.
Each week I mention that you might enjoy a couple of online groups I help lead around this spirituality that include some brief coaching, some time for your own practice, and some really fun breakout groups connection with like-minded people from around America and beyond. One group meets Wednesday nights at 9pm Eastern and another meets Sunday evenings at 6:30pm Eastern time.
This week, let me also mention that, starting this upcoming Monday at 2pm Eastern time, so you’ll have to act soon, my wife Grace and I will be hosting a 6 week STARTER GROUP for people who’d like to join other newbies to all of this. We’ve had strong initial response.
If you’d like more information on any of these groups, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Okay! Kick us off RyanHood for: Let’s Talk about the Protests
So God bless you and yours this week with however the protests and the injustice that they’re about affects you all. Who knew that a worldwide pandemic would become a distant second most compelling story?
As you’d imagine, I’ve been having conversations in our online groups as we’ve kicked around perspectives from some great spiritual teachers on justice in light of the George Floyd protests, and I thought you might enjoy being let in on how some of those conversations have gone.
Our conversation here is not meant to compete with anything helpful you’ve learned from anyone. Three cheers for the great voices you’ve heard from in these times! If anything, the great teachers here are trying to offer context to those things you’re learning.
Among the benefits from having the online conversations I’ve been having about this is realizing that we can’t consider the thoughts from the great spiritual leaders I’ll be bringing up without a whole lot of disclaimers.
Like, for instance, that I’m clearly in a tenuous position to say much at all as a white man who hasn’t lived through this oppression directed towards me and those in my family. I’ve had brief windows into this, for sure, like many majority culture people. I spent two years after college living and working in a 95% minority community with a high crime rate. I headed up a national task force on diversity in churches.
But even in the face of my tenuous position it seemed to me that it would be copping out for me not to say anything and to leave that exclusively to those of us in the affected groups.
And let me say up front that, like all of you, I’m entirely outraged by the murder of George Floyd, the unconscionable empowering of it by the other officers present, and the outrage that it’s not an isolated incident, but is one of a long, consistent line of such incidents. I cheer on the protesters--some of my family members have joined them, including on what turned out to be a pretty crazy day in my city, as a ton of stores near us were looted, something that, happily, has died down here and around the country.
And, in my sea of disclaimers, let me say about that that while I, like everyone, of course am appalled by any store being looted--not least small businesses and those owned by minority owners--I am sympathetic that, while absolutely a bad thing, compared to the systemic injustice towards African American brothers and sisters--not to mention towards other minority populations--this is not the big story here.
As a resident of Los Angeles county, it feels unbelievable and outrageous that fifty years after the Watts uprisings and thirty years after the Rodney King uprisings, here we are again.
Let me also flag up front the big thing you’ll see in the perspectives I’ll touch on from these great spiritual leaders who also have led oppressed people--Jesus (of course), the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Archbishop Desmond Tutu-- they all talk a whole lot about compassion, both for the oppressed people that they’re a part of but also for the oppressors. I’ll give brief bios in a moment, but they’ve all led people through tremendous suffering and oppression.
But among the very spiritual people I’ve talked to in and outside of the online groups, who by no means reject these thoughts, there’s a consistent question about the place for righteous anger. Isn’t there any teaching about that? Is there no place to say “no justice, no peace?”
At least as a part of the conversation, the Bible at the very least does have a place for this. One friend pointed out that that’s a lot of the message of the book of Jonah, which certainly ends with compassion as the bottom line, but gives real space to anger. And the wellspring scriptures for this tension are the Psalms, a representative one of which we’ll touch on a little later on.
Anyway, just to note that the compassion/ righteous anger continuum has been a big part of the conversation.
A final disclaimer as we look at these perspectives: As I looked at how Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu addressed the injustices their people have faced, I kept deciding against including otherwise powerful things they said as being inappropriate for someone in my position even to quote in such a time, because of course they were immersed in speaking to their own oppressed communities and they hoped that that their remarks might be relevant beyond their communities. But where they could tell their own, oppressed people to, say, turn the other cheek, it seemed iffy for me as an outsider to note their advice on behalf of oppressed people groups I’m not a part of.
So! All that said! First let me give some brief bios, likely not needing to tell you much about them, and you’ll be aware of them if you’ve heard earlier Journey On podcasts.
[Relevant bios of Archbishop Tutu, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.]
Again, they have remarkably consonant views of how to live well in an unjust world.
Let me summarize their big message before getting into specifics and reading you a bit from them.
The big message:
We thrive when we are compassionate both towards victims of injustice and towards oppressors.
Here’s the Dalai Lama:
We need unbiased love towards entire humanity, towards sentient beings, irrespective of what their attitude is towards us. So your enemies are still human brothers and sisters, so they also deserve our love, our respect, our affection. You might have to resist your enemies’s actions, but you can love them as brothers and sisters.
We’ll talk a lot about this, but here’s a starting point corollary they offer about the dangers of being right, particularly if you are an ally, rather than a member of the oppressed group. This is a Buddhist text that the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu talk about a lot together.
As long as you are too focused on your self-importance and too caught up in thinking about how you are good or bad, you will experience suffering.
Their focus is away from rightness and towards getting the job done with compassion.
If you heard our podcast on healing divisions, this would be a key point in the things the philosopher Ken Wilber was contending for there.
Here’s more from the Dalai Lama, who’s talking about how it’s possible to develop compassion for someone who’s not the current brunt of suffering, but is on the other side.
You can develop compassion for someone who is creating the conditions for their future suffering. These people who commit such negative actions that create pain for others, in the Christian tradition, don’t you say they risk going to hell? In our view, these people who commit atrocities, including murder, are creating karma that brings very serious negative consequences. So there are many reasons to feel real concern for their well-being, which leaves no place for anger to grow.
Thich Nhat Hanh says:
During the Vietnam War, I meditated and prayed that Vietnamese soldiers would not be killed in battle. But I also meditated on the American soldiers and felt a very deep sympathy for them. I knew they had been sent far away from home to kill or be killed and I prayed for their safety. Having prayed those prayers, there was only one path to take, to work for the end of the war. The idea of “enemy” vanishes and is replaced by the reality of someone who is suffering and needs our love and compassion.
The only thing that will bring happiness is affection and warmheartedness.
They talk at length about how science tells us we’re hardwired to be compassionate, that that’s our nature and things go wrong when we violate it. (251, 258)
Your diligent spiritual practice matters.
Thich Nhat Hanh:
If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.
Peace is all around us--in the world and in nature--and within us--in our bodies and our spirits. Once we learn to touch this peace, we will be healed and transformed. It is a matter of practice. We observe many aspects of happiness inside us and around us. We can really enjoy touching our breathing and being alive. Otherwise, we will only repeat our suffering.
Dalai Lama: Every day, as you wake up, think “I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it.”
Back to TNH:
My well-being, my happiness, depends very much on you and your well-being, your happiness, depends on me. I am responsible for you and you are responsible for me. Therefore, in order to take care of you, I have to take care of myself.
If a cruel and violent person disembowels you, you can smile and look at him with love. It is his upbringing, his situation and his ignorance that cause him to act so mindlessly. Look at him--the one who is bent on your destruction and heaps injustice on you--with eyes of love and compassion and don’t let a ripple of blame or anger rise in your heart. He does these things because he can’t see the way to peace, joy or understanding. If someday you receive news that I have died because of someone’s cruel actions, know that I died with my heart at peace.
We want to think about the hateful aspects of the person who has made us angry. The more we think of them, the more our anger flares up. Their hatefulness may be real, imaginary or exaggerated, but the root of the problem is the anger inside of us. Like a fireman, we must put water on the blaze immediately and not waste time looking for the person who set the house on fire.
On the subject of anger, let’s look to open-heartedly process our anger with God.
I mentioned that the Bible balances righteous anger and compassion. One key place it does this is in the Psalms, which often encourage us to pray uncomfortable things that turn out to be helpful. Contemplatives talk about praying Psalms slowly and non-evaluatively, as if sitting with the emotions of the Psalmist--King David in the one we’re about to look at--has power. As I’ve mentioned, for 3,000 years, this was the central way that both Jews and Christians were trained to pray at all. The things we sit with are often uncomfortable, but turn out to be quite helpful. So consider what it would be like to contemplatively pray Psalm 58.
Justice—do you rulers know the meaning of the word?
Do you judge the people fairly?
No! You plot injustice in your hearts.
You spread violence throughout the land.
...Break off their fangs, O God!
Smash the jaws of these lions, O Lord!
May they disappear like water into thirsty ground.
Make their weapons useless in their hands.
May they be like snails that dissolve into slime,
like a stillborn child who will never see the sun.
God will sweep them away, both young and old,
faster than a pot heats over burning thorns.
The godly will rejoice when they see injustice avenged.
They will wash their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Then at last everyone will say,
“There truly is a reward for those who live for God;
surely there is a God who judges justly here on earth.”
Now, yes, King David does ask God to accomplish these things! And I think that contemplatively praying Psalms like this can encourage us that we don’t need to fear our anger at injustice, but that God can be with us in it.
You can open-heartedly suffer and experience life at the same time.
Archbishop Tutu talks about how, for him, not protecting himself from feeling sad was a key step towards not falling into depression. He talked about how, leading The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he’d hear about tremendous atrocities with both the perpetrators and the victims present and then would consistently start to sob. He called himself a crybaby. But then he and the Dalai Lama both applaud the power of open-heartedness during injustice.
Thich Nhat Hanh says:
The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy. When one tree in the garden is sick, you have to care for it. But don’t overlook all the healthy trees. Even while you have pain in your heart, you can enjoy the many wonders of life--the beautiful sunset, the smile of a child, the many flowers and trees. To suffer is not enough. Please don’t be imprisoned by your suffering. When you have suffered, you know how to appreciate the elements of paradise that are present. Without suffering, you cannot get the peace and joy you deserve. Embrace your suffering and let it reveal to you the way to peace.
So, to summarize these perspectives:
Our target is bone-deep compassion.
As we act, we focus less on our rightness or goodness than on getting the job done.
We are diligent with our own spiritual practice and growth, sometimes embracing anger before God as part of our journey.
And we learn that open-hearted suffering can exist alongside new life.
Again, God bless you and yours in these fraught and promising times! I’m praying for your experience now even as I’m praying with the prophet Amos: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Talk with you again soon and, again, do join in with our 6-week starter group this next Monday if it’s of interest. Email email@example.com for more information.