Monday, January 20, 2014

The Perennial Philosophy (Sophia Perennis)

When I came to Islam, I had come out of a period of searching that caused me to recognize a certain universal pattern to reality. This was particularly true after a near-fatal car accident in 2009, when I found that my consciousness had changed. I began to realize that for all of my life my vision had been narrowed. I had become insular in faith and life. Yet, how was I to proceed down a deeper spiritual path, and what road was I to take? I wanted something bigger, and at first that seemed to involve picking and choosing from different ideologies/faiths/philosophies. I didn't immediately understand that I was skimming an exoteric surface. This was not taking me any deeper, but was simply showing me the outward appearance of different manifestations of the ONE or the Absolute. After much searching, my commitment was to Islam, and as I often tell people when I'm asked about my conversion process, there are many factors which led to the decision, and had my life path been different, I might have easily adopted a different faith without falling out of step with the universal or ultimate "being". I realize this at my deepest level while being no less committed to the Islamic path. Yet I also know that to go deeper I needed to be on a specific path - one that had its roots in a universal reality that transcends all of the patterns and "progress" we see in human societies and existence.

My goal when committing to a particular faith path was/is awareness, knowledge, love and unity with the underlying divinity, the reality, the ONE, Allah, God, Being, whatever name we choose to call it. I believe that all of us are at base concerned with some sort of ultimate reality, whether we claim spirituality or not, and that ultimately we are searching for the same essence, whatever symbols, linguistic terminology or philosophies we use to describe it. For in the end, we all want authenticity, we want to know the true nature of things.

This also resonates with what has become known as the "Sophia Perennis" or Perennial Philosophy. There is nothing new about this "Philosophy" and I hesitate to even give it a label, but for purposes of commenting on the ideas contained, it is necessary to do so. This Philosophy, is not concerned so much with what humanity can accomplish, but what it is meant or created to accomplish. It is described as:  "both absolute Truth and
Frithjof Schuon
infinite Presence. As absolute Truth it is the perennial wisdom (sophia perennis) that stands as the transcendent source of all the intrinsically orthodox religions of humankind." It is concerned with underlying truth - a truth that has been obscured by modernity in an overwhelming emphasis on the exoteric, down to the way that religion itself is manifested. Yet the perennial philosophy does not discard religion (or as it describes it "tradition"). In fact, the need for this new articulation of something that has never left us is - as Frithjof Schuon describes it - because of the "totalitarian rationalism" of modernity, post-modernity.

It is not a reactive philosophy, in the sense that the reactivity of the various fundamentalist strains - particularly as seen in certain quarters of the Abrahamic faiths - are reactive to modernity by becoming more insular and violently protective of exoteric notions of faith. This protection is lacking of the esoteric. The Perennial idea seeks to expand our vision by allowing us to realize that there is a universal truth expressed by one Creator. This Creator manifests itself in different exoteric ways throughout history in this lower world, the world of forms. Diversity is a part of the universal plan. Diversity in fact points to the true idea of unity, which is a unity of foundation if you will, or better a unity of a higher foundation. As we progress through levels of consciousness we realize how illusory are the forms through which we perceive our world. These forms though, serve as symbols pointing to the ultimate and can also serve as a delineation between those things that lead to the ultimate and what can pull us away from that ultimate into the illusory world of forms or the world of the ego. More simply expressed, these symbols serve as a guide to right and wrong, good and bad in this lower form of consciousness where forms assume a dualistic manifestation. So, precisely for that reason, there is truth in traditional forms, and the traditional forms in faith - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc., cannot be discarded. These faiths have survived throughout the centuries because they are of the nature of divine revelation. They are self-contained systems of living that share a universal truth.

The Sophia Perennis expresses the idea that a focus on forms in the modern world is to the detriment of the underlying symbolic truth of these revealed faiths. Yet there is a yearning in the modern world for this truth. We all look for purpose in life, and we all want to achieve a higher state of being, despite the language we might use to describe what "higher" means. From the equality of humanity expressed through the ideas of Socialism, to the attainment of success of the individual in Capitalism, we can see it in the world of economics and politics. There is equally a desire to return to a "purer" form of life, before "agrarian civilization" that we can find expressed in the ideas of Jared Diamond and others. What is lacking in this modern world is the esoteric. We are back to the totalitarian rationalism that Frithjof Schuon speaks of. The exoteric dominates our lives, and it is precisely this fact that is at the base of the argument which the Sophia Perennis makes against the idea of evolution as the nature of the universe. While it is true that humanity is making progression in the exoteric world through outward "innovation" in technology, it is at the expense of the esoteric, and in this sense there is a DE-evolution in humanity. We have lost the sense of who we are - of our humanity. This is exemplified in the way religions practice and clash in our world just as much as it is in the lack of the idea of the transcendent altogether.

The reason that there is conflict in our world is because form by nature will delimit parts of the universal archetype. Yet we live in this world, so we cannot escape form. Traditional faiths allow us to get past the form to the higher reality, and we cannot break these revealed forms. They are the sole route to truth in this world. Therefore, it cannot be stated enough how important it is to respect the revealed forms. As a Muslim who believes in an underlying unity, I must still practice my Islam. This is the key to Perennialism. It is not a new idea in that it proposes a new faith. Again, Sophia Perennis is not some system which brings a new faith, religion or tradition. It is more of an articulation of reality. It is pointing out more than ever why it is important to follow a revealed path. Yet it also equally emphasizes that there is a deeper understanding to a particular revealed path, and with this understanding comes a tension due - again - to the world of forms.

The tension can be seen here in that while practicing my Islam, I also acknowledge that this might not be the path for everyone, and that there is truth in other paths. I respect my Christian heritage and family knowing that it also comes from the same truth as Islam. The Qur'an itself teaches this, telling Muslims that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has come as the Seal of the Prophets and Islam has come as the culmination of all rightly guided faiths. Realizing and being able to hold this tension is key to the reduction of conflict through religion, and is key to the very fundamentals of the religion itself - virtue, love, humility, respect, etc...

There are three metaphysical truths which the Sophia Perennis expresses as doctrine, way and method. It describes doctrine as discernment of the truth from illusion. The way is a life "addressed to the soul" for conforming itself to the nature of the Real. The method is the technique that one uses to concentrate and focus on the real as one's ultimate life goal. When dealing with an Absolute that is bigger than any of us can conceive, there will be different manifestations of the Real in our world. We cannot follow all of these manifestations. Yet we can attain to the true reality while still realizing and respecting that there are other equally valid ways of attaining to that reality.


Lings, M. (2007). The underlying religion: an introduction to the perennial philosophy. Bloomington: World Wisdom.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Awakening: A Reflection On Restorative Justice, Religion and Racism

Introduction To An Awakening 

The path of my spiritual progression over the past few years has coincided quite closely with my overall awareness in what we in the West would normally consider more "intellectual" and "sociopolitical" areas. It is notable that we so often take special care to delineate the differences between the categories. The truth is that increased awareness corresponds quite closely with a clarity that illuminates the true interconnectedness of all facets of the universe. This is not a new idea, yet many are coming to the realization for the first time, and in that sense it seems particularly progressive. Rupert Ross (2006) is just one of many who have looked at ancient religious traditions - in his case among the aboriginal First Nations peoples of North America - and determined that the interconnectedness of the universe is not only expressed in their beliefs, but in their language, and in the way they experience community. With a language void of nouns, it is impossible to apply labels to people such as "criminal" or "black" that have had historical traumatic meanings for human beings in the United States. Rather, a noun-less language allows for descriptions of bad or "criminal" actions as a sign of being out of balance with the universe - and further allows for greater equality in viewing "other" human beings.

My own spiritual path has progressed along a study of Islam that has actually been going on for many years
now. I have been slowly studying the Qur'an and reading scholarly interpretations of the religion for quite some time. But recently I have become more vocal about these studies as I've become particularly inspired by Sufi mysticism and its meaning for making sense of events that have occurred in my own life - such as a 

definite experience of something bigger than myself when I first awoke after a near-fatal car accident in 2009. I have no doubt that there was divinity in that experience, as it has changed me in drastic ways regarding my purpose and worldview - which is now people focused versus career advancement - as well as my ability to live a disciplined, clean and sober life. What this means for me personally as far as religious commitment (to any faith) is another question. I don't feel advanced enough in my awareness, and further, the level of clarity that I believe has been granted by divinity has given me the sense that I need to use the resources at my disposal to take in more of where my heart is in relation to the religion of Islam - and specifically Sufi mysticism. Yet what draws me to Sufi mysticism - perhaps even the primary attraction for me - is its ability to focus on equality, justice, the true condition of the heart, and the pluralism it recognizes and honors in all who seek towards ultimate truth.  This is a much more accurate vision of the heart (metaphorically and literally) of Islam that is sorely needed in light of the blatant Islamophobia that is present in modern day American society.    Mysticism is a form of metaphysical awareness that seeks to unite rather than divide, that looks for common ground with other forms of spiritual higher awareness, and that discards any conception of a human vision of what the term "God" or "divinity" even means. That last point has been key for me, as I know there is something bigger than myself - even if now I only view it as the simple but profound energy of love - that I can see everyone relating to in some respect, and this includes atheists.

Restorative Justice As A Universal Principle 

I present this backdrop for a reason as I intend to show how the concept of Restorative Justice - which is one that seeks to restore or unify broken relationships out of past wrongs - so closely connects to an overall vision of love as well as any religion/ideology/basic belief that expresses love as the ultimate awareness. This semester - my final in the classroom for my MA studies in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University - I've had the privilege of studying under the man who many refer to as "The Grandfather of Restorative Justice", Howard Zehr. 

Zehr's focus has been on the criminal justice system, which is very much broken in the United States and the world writ large, and how a concept of restoration of broken relationships rather than punishment is much more in tune with the universal love that we can all sense in our lives if we allow ourselves. This restoration is not an easy process, and it must be grounded in an advanced awareness to be facilitated properly as well as implemented in the larger society. This is where my studies of Islam and Sufism have brought greater clarity to the concept of Restorative Justice, in that Islam promotes awareness of right relation to divinity. 

Restorative Justice and Racism in America 

I am especially interested in Restorative Justice as it relates to racial divisions that are still very much alive in the United States. Zehr's focus on criminal justice is perhaps appropriate as a point of departure when discussing the historical treatment of Black Americans. Zehr himself has attempted to reach across the divide by enrolling in Morehouse College and becoming the first white graduate in 1965. He did so (as I understand it) for a couple of reasons, one of which was to support the Civil Rights Movement . Secondly, I believe he intended to show solidarity and a desire to right the broken societal relations in America that have existed for hundreds of years in the dehumanization of an entire segment of our population. The Civil Rights movement was certainly a part of this attempt at restoration, but it was only one step in the process, and this is very important to understand, and is also something that I believe is lost on most Americans today.

The attempts at breaking and replacing oppressive racist structures in American society did not end with the passage of the Civil Rights legislation, nor did it end with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Yet, for all practical purposes, it would appear that way to any observer of our country over the past five decades. After those two figures were murdered, we suddenly seemed to have advanced to a "colorblind" society in our discourse, and any attempts at further restoration of broken national relations between groups and classes of people - particularly whites and blacks - was pushed aside and deemed irrelevant in a "post-racial" Western world.

Of course nothing could be further from the truth, and one only needs to look at the prison system demographics, the War on Drugs, and the continued existence of gentrification, denial of equal opportunities in jobs and education and inner-city ghettoes to see that our systemic structures are still very much in place. They may in fact be stronger than before the Civil Rights legislation as they are now taboo to discuss, yet more complex and subtle in their manifestations. Attempting to zero in on one part of the structure of modern-day racism makes it difficult to describe the factors surrounding that particular structure as purely racist. For example, while it is true that black people are prosecuted at a much higher rate for drug offenses than whites (despite equal if not more use of drugs by whites), it is hard to pin down where the specific fault lies (Alexander, 2012). Is it with the judge's sentence? The police officer who used racial profiling to arrest the black drug offender? Or the increased patrolling of black neighborhoods by policemen? All are certainly contributing factors, but are very difficult to prove in isolated observation. It is only the view of the whole that gives us a sense of clarity as to what's going on.

Malcolm, Martin, Islam, Christianity, Justice, Love and Revolution 

Malcolm X was a man who recognized all this, even before the War on Drugs, and called this American racism exactly what it was - the product of a nation built on lies (X, 1965). Malcolm - along with black society as a whole - recognized that a nation that claimed to be based on freedom of not only peoples but markets, yet had a foundation of slave labor as the reason for its vast wealth, was one that was living with a dissonance or tension in the national consciousness. Many had seen this of course - particularly blacks - but Malcolm was the first to articulate it in not only an eloquent fashion, but one that was to the point and easily understandable by the masses. In fact, it was all too understandable for whites, and Malcolm derived much of his passion for justice and equality from his religion, which of course was Islam (X, 1965).
Islam not only represented the moral integrity in Malcolm's life, but it also provided a framework from which to formulate and articulate the necessary steps that would need to happen for America to restore itself in right relationship to the black community (Cone, 1990). He called for the destruction of the white way of life, and in this sense has echoed Black Liberation Theologians such as James Cone (1970). This destruction was not meant to kill whites existentially, but to kill whiteness as an oppressive condition in our society. Granted, Malcolm believed that solidarity and unity must first happen within the black community, but this was only so the oppressed could be as one in their understanding. This understanding was an awareness of what needed to take place to restore their full dignity as human beings in a racist society (X, 1965). After the unity of the black community, as reflected in Malcolm's later years, then anyone with a vision of a unified, equal, restored society could participate in the struggle. For the revolutionary struggle against racism and oppression is a world-wide battle, not one that is limited to one race. By virtue of the revolutionary ideal of restoring right relations between divided or hierarchical classifications of human beings, the true revolutionary resonates with the universal ideals of love, equality, justice, and in this case, restorative justice.

Malcolm understood this, and further understood that his religion of Islam emphasized this same vision of justice and equality. The true spirit of revolution against oppression recognizes this as well. This is one of the main reasons that Islam was so attractive to Malcolm, as the Western Christianity that he knew (and that I know as well) had been co-opted by white power structures for increased subjugation and even justification of oppressing an entire race of people. Further, this racist view of Christianity has expanded to foreign dominance of nations deemed inferior to our own in our vast grasp for resources - a fact recognized by both Malcolm X and notably MLK at the end of his life (King, 1992).

 In this sense, that religion must be destroyed (Cone, 1970). This is not saying that Christianity as a whole needs to be destroyed, as so many misinterpret this statement, but only that the version of Christianity that has developed out of a racist society built on a foundation of lies, enslavement, murder, imperialist expansion and illegal wars, and their often religious justifications, and the continued idea of a "chosen people" needs to be destroyed for racism to be destroyed as well.

Jesus, Mohammed, and all the great prophets, figures of divinity and teachers of ancient love traditions, religions and philosophies recognized this. A society built on lies will be corrupt throughout its entire structure. Certainly there is much good in America, but that good will always be tainted with the dissonance of racism, until these past wrongs are restored to proper relationship. What this means empirically might involve a movement of a revolutionary nature, but at the very least it must begin with America being honest with itself once and for all. The principles of the universal truth of love demand this. The great religious traditions demand this. Restorative Justice in its philosophical and existential reality demands this. Our own Constitution demands this.

Further, it is important to understand that this revolutionary re-structuring of American society will have to run quite deep. I'm not calling for violence, lest anyone misinterpret me. I consider myself a practitioner of nonviolence, but at the same time am not an absolutist in that respect. World conditions in the present day have shown me that nonviolence does not work in all situations. What I am calling for is a total restructuring of our society to rid this scourge of racism that has never gone away, but has only become stronger and more entrenched the longer we refuse to deal with the lies and the longer we refuse to own our past. This re-structuring will involve American Christianity writ large, as well as a re-structuring of our political and economic system. The latter is perhaps irrevocably corrupted and in need of a complete overhaul or overthrow and/or collapse. As for American Christianity, there are elements of the church that are already leading the revolutionary struggle, and it is possible to look at this sector of society from more of a reformist position as the religion itself is built on a foundation of universal truth.

But Capitalism by nature dehumanizes certain elements of society (by naming winners and losers), and it is arguably out of Capitalism that slavery and racism came to be in the first place (Shawki, 2006). Cheap labor was needed, and it was easier to make indentured servitude a part of our Capitalist society if those who were/are indentured are viewed as not quite human. Therefore, political structures - particularly in America - that were built on this foundation of racism cannot stand. This is not only true from a revolutionary perspective, but also from a perspective of true metaphysical justice and love. What is built on lies will eventually fall. What this looks like in reality, I cannot say. America is a powerfully established nation and world presence. Yet, the cracks are forming in our economic base. It might involve an economic collapse and the prior organization of positive change agents ready to step in and restore justice and equality in the wake of this collapse for racism to be eliminated, and imperial expansion and murder to stop.

Concluding Comments 

All of this shows us that Restorative Justice on the national level is incredibly complex, and will involve a great deal of pain in the proper implementation and steps required to restore relationships between races and classes. Nevertheless, it is something that I believe is inevitably necessary for our very survival as a nation and as human beings. The religious faith of both Malcolm X and MLK gave them a point of departure for their own struggles for justice both personally and as leaders of their people, and it is starting to do the same for me. Spirituality is something that should be constantly evolving in a person if it is legitimate and true. My own evolution in this respect is ongoing, as is the corresponding truth and reality of Restorative Justice in my own life. Yet both have given me a better understanding and clarity of the world around me, as well as my relation and responsibility to that world, and for that, I am eternally grateful.


Alexander, M. (2012). The new jim crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
Cone, J. (1990). A black theology of liberation: twentieth anniversary edition. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Cone, J. (1990). Martin, malcolm and america: a dream or a nightmare. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Jr., M. L. (1992). I have a dream: writings & speeches that changed the world. New York: HarperCollins.
Ross, R. (2006). Returning to the teachings: exploring aboriginal justice. Toronto: Penguin Canada.
Shawki, A. (2006). Black liberation and socialism. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
X, M. (1965). Malcolm x speaks. New York: Grove Press.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Nonviolent Foreign Revolution and the American Role: Self-Identity and Awareness

When I was reading through the book Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America, I found myself wondering what my role was as a Northern/Western peacebuilder in relation to the oppressed areas of the Southern Hemisphere and Third World nations in general. I believe we often tend to think of our purpose for nonviolent social movements to be in helping those oppressed - and perhaps rightfully so. But for me, this often leads to thinking about those "less developed" countries and peoples such as the ones I read about in the book, the extraordinary movements that they helped initiate, and what I can do to "help" - and this can easily lead to a somewhat patronizing mentality. As soon as I began to critically think about what kind of action I would take, I immediately became conscious of the limits of my identity. I had to question what that identity has done to shape the way I think, and I knew I must challenge the inherent assumptions that come with that identity.

For as much as I've desired over the past number of years - both in thought and action - to escape the restrictions of "society" (and by that I mean Western society with all its faults in the materialistic/consumerist/Capitalist sense), the fact remains that the nature of my identity has been shaped by being an American. The way I speak, the way I think, the things with which I'm familiar, and most importantly, the way I am viewed by others throughout the world, cannot help but be permeated with a Western influence and the exceptionalist way of thought that is inherent to American society. This fact carries with it a great responsibility, but it is a very particular kind of responsibility. I believe this is extremely important for all of us in the West to understand: we cannot rush into situations of oppression in Third World countries and practice the most nonviolent methods of battle alongside the oppressed while ignoring the position our identity places us in relation to local indigenous/native populations.

We must remember that our position as Americans is a part of our identity. It has placed us in a peculiar place. On the one hand, we have the ability to sit and reflectively think through strategies, methods and our level of conscientization - such as I am doing right now by putting these words to paper - in an environment that has filled us with knowledge, information and the mental tools for advancing and bettering ourselves and others. On the other hand, that ability to become educated has not come without a price. From the easily accessible food we eat to keep at our peak mental ability, to the funds we are able to receive for education, to the resources for basic subsistence that we are able to obtain with relatively little effort in relation to those our nation exploits, it is on the backs of others that we have arrived at these luxuries. These two sides have given us what I term as responsibility with limitations.

What I mean by this is that we have the responsibility to make things better for those in the world around us, but we must be extremely cognizant of the techniques we incorporate in doing so and incorporate the values of empathy and equanimity. As with any situation of conflict, we must first start with an analysis, and in nonviolent situations, this analysis has the critical element of self. There must be an analysis both of the external situation, but most importantly, we must have a deep self-knowledge and respect combined with a deep understanding of how we are viewed by others who will be participating in the struggle.

Lisa Schirch (2004) has identified the first stage of analysis in peacebuilding as understanding the local context. Local can also include national depending on how foreign one is to a particular environment. I am thinking of the example given by Gerald Schlabach (1991) when he discussed a trip to the Philippines and his encounter with a group of guerilla revolutionaries that turned confrontational. Schlabach's mistake was to not have done the proper work of self-identity analysis before discussing the issue of nonviolence with these violent guerillas. If there was any doubt about his identity as it was perceived by the Filipino revolutionaries, that was settled after they put him in his place as one of those Americans "...who come and ask us why we are violent..." when those Americans have "...barged in and stole our country from us..." (1991, p. 254). In this situation, Schlabach's lack of self-identity awareness and analysis of the local context caused him to be blind to the fact that he carried the entire foreign policy of the United States as a part of his identity.

There is an arrogance that we carry - conscious or not - simply from virtue of our being American. It is something that cannot be escaped other than through time and the process of "becoming one with...". The very title of the book Relentless Persistence bears witness to this fact. Nonviolence is a long, arduous demanding process that requires great prior preparation. If we as outsiders want to become a part of a particular foreign struggle with which we feel called to participate, then we'd better understand that it will require time for us to be in a position to identify with that struggle. We must first become one with the people before we can become one with the struggle. Father Domingo Barbe (1991) would likely agree with the idea that this form of identification was first accomplished by God through Christ who became one with His creation by appearing in human form, and paying the ultimate sacrifice and price of the oppressed by giving up His life in the cause for justice and redemption. Although I do not claim Christianity, I agree with this conception of justice, as it runs with the grain of love and truth.
The true nonviolent revolutionary spirit is no different. There may not be a place for us in certain nonviolent struggles other than for us to do what we can at home in order to change the kinds of conditions that have led to the struggle in the first place. Some foreign struggles are so spontaneous, and have arisen out of such a place of desperation, that we do not have time to properly identify with the local population in order to become immediately involved and present in the form of truly understanding and being able to become one with the people.

If we want to be nonviolent revolutionaries in a foreign context, my personal belief is that we must first have a deep understanding and participation in the struggle as it exists in our own country. We are all interconnected, and the decisions we make affect not only our neighbors, but ultimately the world at large. This is true for every member of the human race. The Third World revolutionary also elevates the general condition of humanity by continuing and uniting with the love force that is a part of all true and just revolutions - and this is not something that American hubris is even remotely equipped to fulfill "for" somebody else. Once we have done all we can to understand the role the United States has played in foreign policy as it relates to a particular country and/or people, and we have made clear through conscientization (theory and praxis) our responsibility for this policy, then we can look to foreign contexts and identification.

It is only then that we can begin foreign nonviolent action by becoming one with the people. This can only happen with time, and it is not glamorous work. It is likely the impatience of modern civilization that is partly responsible for bringing about the "quick solution" of violent intervention in the first place. There are no quick solutions for long-term nonviolence. It must be a lifestyle, and in a foreign context, this means living among the people. We must love the people and become one with their way of life in order to stand alongside them in struggle. This will likely mean that we enter their context when no immediate struggle is occurring. The struggle cannot be our focus, it must be love of the people. For without this kind of love, nonviolence loses its deep truth, and the coming struggle will be empty of the foundation required for its sustainability.

Barbe, D. (1991). The spiritual basis of nonviolence. In P. McManus; G. Schlabach, Relentless persistence: nonviolent action in latin america (pp. 268-281). Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

McManus, P., & Schlabach, G. (1991). Relentless persistence: nonviolent action in latin america. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Schirch, L. (2004). The little book of strategic peacebuilding: a vision and framework for peace with justice. Intercourse: Good Books.

Schlabach, G. (1991). Epilogue: more than one task - north american nonviolence and latin american liberations struggle. In P. McManus; G. Schlabach, Relentless persistence: nonviolent action in latin america (pp. 252-265). Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Monday, July 23, 2012


To be white in America means that I don't know what it's truly like to have thoughts like the one I saw posted by my Cape Verdean-American friend Mery concerning the Colorado shootings this past Friday: "I was just praying that the suspect wasn't black." On a slightly more macro scale, to be an American of any color means that we don't have to experience in the existential present of our daily lives the virtual slave labor that goes into creating the cheap and abundant products that we feel we couldn't live without. Both situations are indicative of existential conditions that are deficient of conscientization.

Paulo Freire's idea of conscientization is roughly the awareness of our condition in life as that condition is informed by social myth. To eliminate the myth and arrive at the true nature of our being requires the processes of critical reflection and action in non-dualistic application (Freire, 1970). In the case of the Colorado shooting, it was Mery's post that spoke to the ever-present violence of racism that permeates the social fabric of American life. She went on to protest the unequal media coverage of events such as this, in that the suspect - being white - was looked at as an example of potential mental illness, or possible prior victimization, but not as fundamentally flawed due to race, religion or ideology. In other words, there was no racism or bigotry in the media's examination of his psyche. He wasn't Muslim, he wasn't black and he wasn't a communist or otherwise overtly "anti-American", so he didn't play into any of the dominant societal identity myths of who the enemy "is".

For me, the attempt at greater conscientization of this particular incident requires stepping back even further and taking in as much of the absurdity of a violence driven society as possible. The irrationality of the nation that continues to insist on war despite all evidence of its inefficiency, wastefulness and disregard for the sanctity of life is seen in how we treat those who kill. The suspect in Colorado is labeled a criminal (and perhaps rightfully so), but what about the President who authorizes the drone strike that kills innocent villagers in Afghanistan? Is it absurd to live in a society that claims to be free - to respect the dignity of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - yet justifies the killing of wars?
Thich Nhat Hanh says that we must "perceive our political and economic systems correctly in order to see what is going wrong" (2012, p.245). In the comparison above, this means that I must evaluate why life is considered sacred in one situation, and disposable in another. Where did the error occur in the narrative of civilization that taught us that killing to solve international or intra-national disputes is acceptable while the killing of an isolated madman is not? Why aren't both unacceptable? Some of course would respond that it is in the base nature of humanity to react violently in order to maintain self-preservation. William James (2012) might even agree with that and say that we must find other outlets for the traits we carry. Hanh would say that what we are dealing with is a powerful energy that can be used for either good or bad. In either case, it is implicit that we as humans carry the potential to make a choice and redefine our lives, our social myths, our civilization and achieve greater conscientization as rational, thinking, intelligent evolving beings.
Jessie Wallace Hughan (2012) has shown us that - theoretically - a nation committed to complete disarmament and pacifism is possible, and not only possible but could and would win a war against a violent enemy. Yet the degree of commitment required makes her vision seem utopian in anything resembling modern day society. Complete ideological adherence makes many "isms" seem possible, including Communism, but the real world and real life get in the way of these ideologies. So how do we change the narrative of civilization and work at eliminating or re-directing the energy that is used in violent action? Is it even possible? What does "success" in this area look like? Is it necessary to change the entire planet, or do the actions of individuals matter?

These questions have been at the very foundation of my search for meaning over the past number of years. They are also closely connected with my search for the existence of the divine. I have come to the conclusion that there is an inescapable energy of love or a particular force, a direction in the universe. In this sense, my thought parallels Hanh. I believe that every human is capable of aligning themselves with this force - which is ultimately the natural direction or way of things - and that it takes conscientization to be able to see this force or way. Hanh would give conscientization the name of non-dualism, and conscientization is very much a form of becoming - of uniting - with one's very nature, which is shared by all others. To unite with the particular direction of nonviolence, exemplified, enacted and consistent with the practices of love is to identify ourselves with our true nature, or the highest form of mental, physical and spiritual evolution - conscientization - that we can achieve. Once internalized, this belief is at the center of my own mental and physical self-preservation, for without knowledge of my true nature, life is meaningless.

It wasn't easy for me to arrive at this level of my own conscientization. It took a near-death experience in the form of a car accident to shake me awake and to truly begin the process. Previously, I had accepted much of the terms of my life from external sources, and had not done my own reflection nor had I lived my life consistent with the principles corresponding to a knowledge of the universal energy of nonviolence and love. Like Gary L. Francione (2012), I have extended the respect for life to animals as well. If we are to practice nonviolence, we must be universal in its application, and any being that can suffer pain must be treated with the utmost dignity. Yet I'm still at a philosophical block with thinkers like Francione in where the biological line of "animal" as distinct from "plant" or non-feeling life should be placed.

This brings us back to my friend Mery and her struggle combating racism in a society that still has a long way to go to achieve conscientization in that area. She and I had a discussion about the topic, and she mentioned how she has been an advocate her entire life - through teaching and leading community workshops - against issues of race. I broached the issue of large scale social change with her as in: what will it take to achieve large scale differences in the way we view race, or the way we view guns, violence, war and defense budgets? Of course we were at an impasse, we weren't going to save the world in a Facebook discussion. But I believe her point of advocacy is key in how we live nonviolent lives. Freire would also seem to agree as would VeneKlassen and Miller (2010). Advocacy is one way in which we can directly apply the principles of nonviolence to the world around us. We can choose to keep the energy of love alive in our own lives through extending it as much as possible to the world as it exists in our immediate reach.

I agree with Mery that our lives are all interdependent, and advocating for those who suffer, and against suffering in general is advocating for that human dignity that we all deserve. It shows respect for others, but it just as much shows respect for our own being in recognizing that being in others. This is what has given me hope and meaning in my own life. I know that there is a purpose for my being here, yet at the same time I know that I can shape that purpose and make it what I want it to be. Therefore I choose nonviolence, and I choose to do what I alone can do, and by choosing to do so, I aim for the understanding that Hanh refers to and the conscientization of Freire. 


Francione, G. L. (2012). Nonviolence and animal rights. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 326-331). Long Grove: Waveland Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Hanh, T. N. (2012). Feelings and perceptions. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 243-246). Long Grove: Waveland Press.

Hughan, J. W. (2012). Pacifism and invasion. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 219-232). Long Grove: Waveland Press.

James, W. (2012). The moral equivalent of war. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 176-185). 2012: Waveland Press.

VeneKlasen, L., & Miller, V. (2010). New weave power people politics: the action guide for advocacy and citizen participation. Sterling: Stylus Publishing.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Black Liberation Theology and Holistic Human Development

               There is a universal thread of love which runs through the world's most respected religious, philosophical and ideological traditions - a thread which serves as a call to action - and though it might look slightly different in practice, the focus of this particular love element is very similar in attending to the needs of the poor and oppressed in a given society.  In the Christian tradition, Jesus was not only poor but according to the New Testament chose to identify and surround Himself with those who were the poorest and most oppressed of his time.  The life of Christ serves as a call to Christians to not only address issues of oppression, but to make the concerns of poverty, social marginalization and therefore positive human development a direct part of their lives if they are serious about following Jesus' example.  Further, it is argued here that it is incumbent upon those who carry a love ethic of any kind - religious or otherwise - to stand up, identify and fight with the oppressed against the structures that control their lives and threaten existential destruction. To not do so, or to do otherwise is a denial of humanity and indicates a lack of love. 
                This analysis will focus on the modern radical black theology of the Christian tradition, as first articulated by James Cone in the form of Black Liberation Theology (Cone, 1990).  Cone is arguably the first African-American theologian to present an entirely American black philosophy of religion based upon the idea of oppression, and the inseparability of theology from the here and now of social conditions inhibiting the full development of humanity in general and the oppressed in particular.  What this means pragmatically is that history, consciousness and praxis inform each other in a confrontation with oppressive structural conditions in the social, political and economic arenas of our present day society.  It means that liberation (and salvation) can only come through confronting these structures - directly and forcefully - in a deliberate attempt at their destruction.  Cone (1990) directs his confrontation towards the "white" structures of power as related to the African-American condition in modern times.  His theology - first articulated in 1969 in his book Black Theology & Black Power - has created a modern theology which very much concerns the present, and is centered on an existential concept of the application of spirituality, not some future glory in the form of an afterlife.
                As Cone's theology was first formulated a number of decades ago, I will incorporate his principle of bringing things current by applying his idea of liberation to the 21st century.  To do this, I will utilize corollary philosophies in the tradition of Liberationist Theology and secular theory, as well as looking at the present day example of the prison-industrial crisis in America as it relates to full humanity or full development.   This will provide a context for present day issues of racial oppression, which of course are still very much alive albeit in much more politically correct forms of articulation. 

History Informs The Present:  Oppression and Liberation
                Amartya Sen (2000) argues that development "can be seen as a process of expanding freedoms" (p. 3).  Sen's view of freedom is wide-ranging and all inclusive, focused on political, social and economic opportunities, as well as transparency in structures of power, and the freedom for protective security from violence/oppression.  This wide-ranging micro and macro view of freedom leaves no room for oppression, racism or discrimination of any kind - as they all serve to negate one's humanity.   Freedom is referred to in human-scale (i.e. the individual, micro level) development as the very essence of being a fully developed human, or unfolding to our full potential according to  Johan Galtung (2010).
                It is the understanding of freedom as inseparable from one's humanity that Cone utilizes in his historical narrative of the African-American (Cone, 1990).  Tying this to the Christian theology of the crucified Christ, the historical becomes the existential current in that freedom means becoming free in the present through shaking off the structures applied externally, from the oppressor's interpretation of a historical narrative concerning who one is.   It is through the reclamation of freedom and dignity that the African-American casts off the dehumanized objectification applied to them by a racist society and thus helps the society itself to be re-born.  The oppressed person disavows the society that has sought to strip their humanity, and through doing so acknowledges that their own physical being could cease-to-be in the process of revolutionizing a society that does not allow their full humanity, and considers their claims to humanity to be a threat (Cone, 1990). 
                The historical narrative of the African-American slave as the present target of racism is the modern-day representation of the historical oppressed Christ.  It is through who Christ was that Cone (1990) identifies who He is in the present, and who the professing Christian must now be if they are to be a follower of the Christian faith. 
                Given this understanding of the historical Christ-as-one with oppressed humanity we recognize that the present day structures of American society dictate Christ assume the condition of the African-American and become the black Christ.  The personification of American oppression in Cone's time of 1969-1970 as well as today possesses a face of color.  Thus, it is only through identification with this face of oppression that the Christian can hope to exemplify and follow Christ's teachings (Cone, 1990).  The co-optation of the Christ figure as the oppressor god  traced back to the time of Constantine accounts for His portrayal in modern America as the white Christ - someone who is un-relatable to the black condition (Cone, 1990).  From the Constantinian perspective, Christ is viewed as the god who gives justification to the actions of the nation-state. 
                In the face of Constantianism or the religion of the oppressor class, Cone (1990) uses language similar to Malcolm X in that a religion of oppression is not a true religion nor one that he will acknowledge.  Cone uses powerful imagery to convey this point, stating that the white Christ - the god of the racists - must be killed, destroyed, eliminated as a false god - along with all who follow that god (Cone, 1990). 
                There is no room for existential non-dualism or neutral ground in the position of black theology.  Modern versions - sometimes referred to as prophetic Christianity (West, 2010) - reiterate Cone's emphasis of choosing sides in situations of injustice.  Everyone from Cornel West to South African leader Desmond Tutu have made remarks to indicate that neutrality in unjust contexts means assuming the side of the oppressor (West, 2000).  West in particular has followed in the tradition of Cone by comparing the modern empire of imperialist America directly to the Roman Empire of Jesus day and its identification as the power that executed Him (Morrison & West, 2006).  West along with Cone stands against these nation-state empires which signify oppressive power.  This is not to say that Cone or other black theologians are looking to exclude through dualistic perceptions of the nature of race relations, but that a challenge is issued to all who are looking to manifest justice in the face of racial oppression to become one with the oppressed. 
                This unity of the spiritual with the existential is where space can be found to insert the non-dualism of love into a theology that demands identifying with a particular side.  It is also the place where I can claim Black Liberation Theology as part of the universal nature of my own spiritual thinking.  For it is through love that we become fully human, and the ultimate example of love in Black Theology is the Christ example of becoming one with oppression in order to transcend it in the achievement of a non-dualistic humanity for all.  At the moment of claiming liberation for the black person in America - not merely approving of it, but becoming the liberating aspect - we are fully realized spiritual and existential beings.  Cone (1990) quotes Marx in this respect in that "freedom is the essence of is not something outside one who freely is, it is the specific mode or structure of being" (p. 89). 

The Responsibility of Consciousness
                By truly recognizing freedom as an intrinsic part of our human nature, we have no choice but to side with the oppressed, and this is true whether we consider ourselves Christians or not.  It is at this point that the historical narrative of African-American oppression through slavery, Jim Crow and the modern prison system touches consciousness as an awareness of these structural conditions demands a response.  Once we can clearly see the racism in our society, we must seek to destroy it, or risk our own humanity by continuing to participate in this racist society, thus giving validation to its existence as an oppressive entity that inhibits development.  Later, we will explore how this consciousness is being challenged in the modern day through the denial of continuing racist structural conditions. 
                Much of what I've been saying is not only central to an understanding of Cone, but applies equally to the more secular liberation theory of people such as Paulo Freire (2007).  While Freire would not use language involving Christ, I would argue that the difference between his philosophy and Cone's is semantic.  In books such as Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire (2007) discusses love and universal humanization in parallel to Cone's Christ and the assumption of blackness.  Freire's philosophy is the more general description of the contextual Black Liberation Theology in modern day America.  Philosophies such as Freire's and Cone's mix so well because they all point to the same universal truth and unity that I express as the ultimate divinity or love.  Cone (1990) would seem to make allusions to people such as Freire as effectively being Christian in action through scriptures such as Matthew 25:31 which shows the surprise on the part of those welcomed into heaven by a Christ who commends them for identifying with "the least of these".  In other places, Cone continues this thread of theology by confronting the modern Western conception of Christianity and its focus on codes of morality and theological intricacies at the expense of engaging and living the life of Christ through loving action (Cone, 1990). 

Praxis Through Identification
                From a development standpoint, the full unfolding of humanity as described by Galtung cannot exist in a dualistic setting of dehumanization.  Freire (2007) emphasizes that humanity is not something that one can determine for another, or something that can be assigned or taken away from a person as it is the essence of being.  It is the oppressed themselves that must be conscientious of the structures they are under, even though this awareness can produce fear in the responsibility it carries.  But it is this responsibility, I believe, that provides the full opportunity for self-actualization and agency.  Both Cone and Freire describe this awareness which by nature leads to the praxis of revolution as an expression of love towards the humanity that has not only been denied to the oppressed revolutionary, but to the oppressor as well through their warped worldview. 
                The possession of the humanity of the oppressed is not something that the oppressor can own and yet remain human themselves.  Humanity is only available to the individual as self-humanity.  It is not something that one can "own" from another and still retain their own humanity.   The two do not mix, for the process of owning creates a commodity and takes away the spiritual element of our human condition.  The oppressor may possess and even kill the physical body, but the humanity itself is something that they have no control over.  Cone (1990) would say that this is where God is evident in Black Liberation Theology, and particularly in the Godly concept of freedom.  We are each the possessor and along with God, the only possessor of our humanity.  The key is awareness of this fact, and what it requires of us. 
                We are now beginning to see how history, consciousness and praxis are so intertwined that it is very difficult to talk about one without including all.  The historical condition of "being black" in America gives the black person alone the ability to obtain freedom from racism for all of us through the conscious awareness and praxis of liberating revolution.  However, it is not enough for those of us whose historical narrative is not identical to the African American to simply show support without active involvement.  The black American is the only one able to obtain a society liberated from racism through revolution - Black Liberation Theology states this as a fact tied directly to the meaning of liberation in the life (and death) of Christ (Cone, 1990).  What this means for the rest of us is that we must assume this same "black identity" or be on the side of the oppressor.  In this sense, blackness is freedom, blackness is a calling to be "Christ-like" in modern America.  Blackness in America equals liberation precisely because of its oppressed nature (Cone, 1990).  If we are going to be serious about the development of all on a global scale, then we must start at home, and we must do so by being aware that our identity as humans is inextricably tied into all of us "becoming black".  This then will restore humanity to all so that domestic development can truly begin in a unified liberated communal structure of freedom rather than oppression.  

Modern Racial Dialogue
                One of the biggest threats to consciousness that I have observed in personal experience is the masterful re-articulation of post-racial colorblindness combined with racial fatigue in many people, both white and black.  I have black friends who recognize and acknowledge racism, but I have just as many who are ready to move past the rhetoric in the age of Obama and are honest in saying that they are tired of the debate.  This makes it very difficult for me as a white man to engage in dialogue concerning issues of race with my black friends.  It is a bit unnerving as well in that this can create issues of uncertainty as to the proper role for those of us who are white and concerned about total human development in America. 
                For me, this has become especially true over the past few years as my awareness has increased in that individual freedom is contingent upon universal freedom.  It is an all or nothing approach to freedom as expressed in full human development that has been brought to me through the knowledge that my own human development has come out of personal trauma and the concomitant responsibility that I have seen placed on me as a result.  This awareness showed me how de-humanized I had allowed myself to become by too closely identifying with and being a part of a system of excess which obtains its benefits through oppressing others, and particularly African Americans in the United States.  The structure of racism in the existential sense is current, but the current condition is only possible through the historical narrative, which continues to point to the fact that this country was built on the shoulders of black slave labor. 
                Racism has become incredibly well integrated into the complex structures of modern American society and rhetoric, and it is often difficult to recognize since an open expression of racial bias is taboo in the present day.  Many who think like me want to believe that this scourge is gone from our present day structures, but the statistics - particularly in rates of African American incarceration - show otherwise (Alexander, 2010).  The elimination of widespread openly racist language would be welcome in a different context, but considering that the racism itself has not disappeared with the rhetoric, this lack of overt racism is dangerous in that it evades the issues and allows ignorance to the fact of continued racism.  Better to have racism out in the open - even if it is openly offensive - so that we can know what challenges need to be met, rather than having to deal with a structural oppression that works quite effectively because the exact structures are so intelligently disguised. 
                American society has gained a consciousness of denial through justifying its declaration of post-racial conditions by pointing to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. (honored by a holiday/national monument) and the election of a half-black President.  It is a phenomenon that is similar, and in fact very closely tied to the spirit of dissatisfaction with the oppressive structures of Capitalism that became a global revolutionary movement in the 1960's, and then faded into obscurity as it came close to overturning but ultimately succumbing to the power of global Capital and its continued exploitation of the poor.  From my vantage point, it would appear that Capitalism gained a societal currency and justification in its defeat of communism.  As communism was the portrayed great evil and enemy, the sins of Capitalism were much easier to ignore and bury. 
                In the case of racism, Capitalism simply assimilated and introduced small tokens to justify its new "recognition" of past injustices by providing programs such as affirmative action and outlawing segregation and overt legalized discrimination of African Americans (Alexander, 2010).  Yet Michelle Alexander (2010) has illustrated just how much of a smokescreen this illegality of discrimination has become by pointing to several legal precedents, such as the Supreme Court case Alexander v. Sandoval in 2001 that effectively eliminated the opportunity to challenge criminal convictions on the basis of racial bias. 

Modern Racism as Incarceration
                Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness (2010) is a concrete useful analysis of racism in the midst of a complex modern America.  In the present day, structural components of racism are perhaps stronger than ever, but their strength lies in their interconnection, not as individual elements.  It is because of the interconnectedness of modern structural racism that it so difficult to isolate components of the larger system in an attempt to eliminate or even identify them (Alexander, 2010).    This makes constructive dialogue surrounding racist issues frustrating in our time as we are often hard pressed to define specific examples of what racism looks like. 
                Racism has been so integral to the existence and origin of America (e.g. elimination of the Amerindians as a threat and a people combined with black slave labor in the colonies), that the historical narrative of the nation is impossible to discuss without reference to the Indian or the black person.  One of the factors in covering up the atrocities in the national consciousness - I believe - is that the narrative has presented itself in the past tense, dealing with racism as a topic which time itself has eliminated.  The skillful manipulation of rhetoric and presentation of the glorious American narrative has allowed it a mythical status comparable to the Bible in the minds of many nationalists (and as such, it is a topic that is not to be challenged).  Therefore, since racism is woven into the Indra's Net construction of all that we call "American", it is inextricably a part of everything that involves tangible national dialogue.  It is no longer necessary to discuss race precisely because it is so ubiquitous.  The lack of dealing with racism is not a matter of apathy, it is a subconscious matter of survival to the nation as we know it.  To properly deal with racism would require the unraveling of a national narrative and the reconstruction of a new honest one.  In fact, from the very beginning of our nation, The United States has been living a lie.  Martin Luther King has famously called America to account for not living up the creed of its founders (King, 1992), which of course states that all are created equal. 
                Michelle Alexander (2010) has used this underlying component of racism in our national narrative to help explain why the new Jim Crow is the disproportionate incarceration and resulting demonization of African Americans.  In her book, she walks us through the various stages of the penal and justice systems, showing how money, legal precedents, national rhetoric and most importantly, the war on drugs all add their own layers to the system of containment that surround the African-American both figuratively and literally (Alexander, 2010). 
                As Alexander (2010) herself states, it is impossible to examine all the ways that racism is tied into the structures of American society in an abbreviated fashion, but the war on drugs is a particularly illustrative example.  In major American cities, up to 80% of young African American males have criminal records directly tied to their use or possession of drugs (Alexander, 2010).  This is despite the fact that the rate of drug use among African Americans is no higher and sometimes less than that of whites.  Yet 80-90% of people incarcerated for drug use are African American (Alexander, 2010).  If this alone doesn't cause suspicion at the injustice and racism of the system, it's hard to imagine what it will take to convince the willfully blind. 
                But the incarceration of African Americans is not the worst part of what we call the "criminal justice system" in America.  Once a person has been labeled a felon (and in some states - including Nevada, my home for ten years - even marijuana possession is a felony), they are stuck with that label for life.  So one joint, one smoke in the presence of a police officer has the potential to effectively ostracize a person from being able to function as a self-sufficient individual for the rest of their lives.  The label of "felon" bars people from employment, college loans, voting, housing and numerous other areas that are essential to day to day existence and long-term human development (Alexander, 2010).  It doesn't take a great deal of critical thinking to realize that when a person is left with little or no choice to feed themselves or obtain money, then they are much more likely to return to crime, particularly if they have already committed similar crimes in the past.   Given these facts, issues surrounding the prison system as it relates to African Americans is far from being irrelevant to development questions.  It is at the very heart of what it means to develop modern American society into its full potential. 
                This is also the case when considering - as Tim Wise does in his book Colorblind (2010) - the continued discrimination against minorities in the workplace.  Using multiple studies, Wise points to the fact that 600,000 African Americans annually experience blatant discrimination that directly affects their ability to find gainful employment (Wise, 2010).  These studies do not even take into consideration the challenges faced by former felons (the study only tracked applicants with non-criminal records), nor do they identify the indeterminate amount of informal application processes where it is impossible to gauge the factor that racism plays.

The Cross Of The Modern Black Christ
                Having spent my younger years growing up in the Christian church, the depth of the sacrifice that Jesus made was constantly emphasized to us by the fact that crucifixion was reserved for only the worst of criminals in the Roman Empire.  In other words, it was the most degrading punishment and form of death that one can imagine.  Jesus chose to become the lowest and most ostracized of human beings - even in death - in order to assume a liberation that would give freedom to all. 
                Understanding this nature of the death of Christ, what do we find when we combine it with a foundational theology rooted in the black experience, and articulated by James Cone, Cornel West, Martin Luther King Jr, and even Paul Freire and Malcolm X among others?  Keeping in mind that Black Liberation Theology places a great emphasis on the here and now tangible, flesh and blood application of Christianity,  I put forth the argument that the cross of the black Christ in modern day America is the prison.  No other structure has such power in stripping away the life and humanity of an entire community of people.  No other structure creates such disdain for its inhabitants and effectively marginalizes them and makes it socially acceptable to hate and avoid them.  Jesus was despised at the time of His death by the powers and society that He was a part of, yet it was through this that He transcended all and obtained a liberation for those who identified and continue to identify with Him. 
                Alexander (2010) has stated that the most damaging aspect of the justice system is the permanent stigma placed on the convicted felon.  It is not hard to understand why, for not only does it bare the person from employment in the face of an already discriminatory system as stated above, but it increases the chances that the felon will become a repeat offender simply to survive.  In addition, the chances of the person turning to drugs and/or alcohol as a means of escapism from an existential nightmare is substantially increased.  Thus, the former felon once again risks arrest for possession and use of illicit substances in the senseless and cyclical "War on Drugs".  Of course their poverty continues as well in that they find it harder and harder to make money through legal employment. 

Setting The Captives Free
                In looking for answers in dealing with modern issues of race, we have come full circle in our discussion of history, consciousness and praxis.  Racism has been deeply embedded in America by way of European culture, colonialism and institutionalism over a process of centuries.  It will not be dismantled simply from a couple of decades of intense activism and legislation in the mid 20th century. In the post-counterculture era of carefully chosen rhetoric and politically correct public personas, the lack of discussion has created a cover for perhaps the most dangerous manifestation of racism to date as it intertwines itself through structures culminating in the prison system.  Each individual component is visible from afar, but is very difficult to identify as we try to look closely at it.  This is true - as both Tim Wise (2010) and Michelle Alexander (2010) inform us - in the way that the police (legally) place undue emphasis upon monitoring "poor urban" (read: "black") communities looking for drug offenders as it is in judges imposing disproportionate sentencing guidelines based on race. 
                For those of us in modern day America, the road is a long and difficult one, but it is attainable through a continued emphasis on history, consciousness and praxis in all areas of human development.  This means that we must be aware that racism is a part of our national fabric, that it is this racism and the human objects of it that hold the very keys to liberation, and that any praxis of development which doesn't identify directly with the oppressed - the African American and other minorities - will be a futile spiritual and existential exercise. 

Concluding Thoughts:  How Will We Answer The Call?
                For the Christian and those of other love traditions, the challenge articulated by Cone cannot be ignored.  What will we do when made conscious of the oppressed African American?  Our consciousness is an awesome responsibility.  In my own life, my political and social awakening created a restlessness in me that culminated in the ending of a career for a life of activism and peacebuilding.  The more conscious I became, the more I was unable to ignore the spiritual nature of the call upon my life.  While I would not identify it as coming strictly from Christ, I wouldn't disavow the Christ-like nature of the call.  Cone is another of those authors who has effectively articulated what I have long sensed in my own being - that is to say that there is unity in the natural order of all that exists, and that the free nature of existence is only as strong as its weakest member, which is why we find liberation to achieve full human development and the key to obtaining it for all at the very place where oppression exists and in the actions of those who are subject to it.  We can then begin by fully identifying with the oppressed as possessing the same humanity we find in ourselves (by not doing so we in fact become oppressed ourselves) and re-igniting the national consciousness and dialogue surrounding issues of race.  We have to not only re-start the racial dialogue, but re-frame it for those who are racially fatigued.   Fatigue could be looked at as another component in the perpetuation of racist cultural dynamics, and is an effective tool in the oppressor's hands in the fight against racial equity. 
                How we overcome racism will require some creative revolutionary thinking in addressing centuries old problems.  The system as it now stands will need to be reconstructed or at the very least re-storied.  We must develop a new national narrative and dialogue that properly accords issues of race its place in history.  As we trace racial dynamics back to the founding of the country, and follow their path through our history, perhaps then we can recognize how the historical has informed the present and created the structures that we have today.  If necessary, and if we have the will, those structures may have to be completely destroyed and rebuilt again in order for the country to survive.  The future of America depends upon full human development which cannot be attained until we achieve full racial liberation through identifying and realizing what it means to be the least of these in our society.  

Alexander, M. (2010). The new jim crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
Cone, J. (1990). A black theology of liberation: twentieth anniversary edition. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Cone, J. (1997). Black theology and black power. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Freire, P. (2007). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Galtung, J. (2010). A theory of development: overcoming structural violence. Oslo: Transcend University Press.
Jr., M. L. (1992). I have a dream: writings & speeches that changed the world. New York: HarperCollins.
Sen, A. (2000). Freedom as development. New York: Random House.
West, C. (2010). Brother west: living and loving out loud, a memoir. New York: Smiley Books.
West, C. (1999). The cornel west reader. New York: Basic Civitas Books.
West, C., & Morrison, T. (2006, August 26). Toni morrison & cornel west in conversation. Retrieved April 2012, from You tube:
Wise, T. (2010). Colorblind: the rise of post-racial politics and the retreat from equity. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
X, M. (1965). Malcolm x speaks. New York: Grove Press.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ozzie Guillen and Cuba

The actions and public position taken by the Miami Marlins against manager Ozzie Guillen have a lot more to say about politics and the elite of this country than it does baseball. Guillen was suspended for five games for stating that he loved Fidel Castro and respected the fact that he stayed in power for so long without being killed.  What Guillen said must be understood in context, and here are some important dynamics to consider:

1. Latin America has been brutalized over the decades from the U.S. Our support of Rios Montt in Guatemala (responsible for 100,000+ Mayan deaths - all with material support from the Reagan administration) being just one example. Others include CIA orchestrated coups in Chile, Nicaragua (Contras), El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina. Support for atrocities in all of those countries, and multi-national corporation seizure of resources are just the beginnings of what we've done. People like Castro, Chavez in Venezuela (Guillen's home country) and Morales in Bolivia have nationalized North American business interests upon assuming power, which has sealed their demonization in American discourse. You won't hear the same negativity applied to past regimes such as Rios Montt from Guatemala, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, or the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua - all extremely oppressive. The national narrative around those individuals is simply non-existent or filled with misinformation as they were supporters of the United States.

2. Given this context, support for Castro's revolution was and is common if not widespread. He is a leader who has stood against all that the brutal U.S. tied Latin American regimes of the past half century have represented. He has trained more doctors in Latin America than anyone in the world, and has also spread his literacy programs across the Southern Hemisphere. U.S. foreign policy has not been so friendly nor even remotely interested in true development or resolving conflicts/promoting education throughout Latin America's history. Every country we've touched, the situation has become worse - not better for the poor and disenfranchised.

3. Human rights violations? Yes, freedoms have been curtailed, Cuba is far from perfect, but mass killings and torture? Hardly. If anyone has done mass human rights violations and murders in Latin America over the past century, it has almost all been done either directly or with the support of U.S. foreign policy. Look up United Fruit Company from sites outside the U.S. and see what you find in the history of Central America, look at the ruthless human rights violators who have been trained at the School of the Americas in Georgia. Research the coups in Central and South America, or read books by Latin American authors - even American authors who are willing to step outside the mainstream.

4. The Cuban-American community in Miami (especially its voice and lobby influence) has grown largely out of the elites who were sent into exile as Batista's supporters, beneficiaries and cronies. This community is still heavily influenced by the same imperialist ideology that Batista supported - all aligned with international business interests. They have a reason to hate Castro - he nationalized their businesses, which were stripping the country's finances and resources - and took their exploitation of the poor and turned it around. Cuban literacy is nearly 100%, life span and overall health is dramatically improved since before the revolution, and the peasant classes saw their first opportunities for self-sustainability (all this despite a stifling U.S. embargo that has greatly hampered access to resources and further development). As I said, Cuba also has many faults, the lack of a free press being one of them as well as the lack of opposing political parties or national elections.

I do not claim Socialism as my ideology nor do I support Castro, but I too have respect for him. I do not claim any political ideology exclusively. But I think it is a suppression of free speech to punish a man from Venezuela, a man who has seen the OTHER side of our foreign policy in Latin America for expressing a political opinion that has been overblown and ultimately irrelevant to his performance as a manager. Our media truly does control our thinking if we fail to see this situation and possible support of Castro from another perspective - that of the Southern Hemisphere, even if that support is not unconditional or universal (which it certainly isn't). Context is crucial, and our media does a very poor job of describing the dynamics surrounding Cuba from the viewpoint of those in Latin America and other places quite adversely affected by U.S. foreign policy, and does an even worse job of attempting to understand those who come from such places.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Linguistic Conceptions of Love and Idenity

This essay is the culmination of a semester's study of identity in my MA program on Conflict Transformation. I realized that it became a bit of a personal manifesto of belief as well. Identity does reach to the core of who we are, so that would seem to be a natural route for a reflection on the topic.  

     Whenever I'm asked about my religious beliefs, I say that love is the ultimate. I respond that love is God, which is one example of where my beliefs coincide with The Bible. We can see the thread of love in the makeup of all the world's great traditions, but is it enough to say that "I believe in love" and leave it at that? I say no, as not only will there be different ways of applying and defining love, but the universal nature of that small word opens up an entire new language that we can use; and much like language in the broader sense, love creates its own concepts by the very fact of its existence. It gives shape and clarity to everything that is. Its universal nature requires it to, and because of all that it envelops, "love" can seem impossible to harness into something neat and compact that we can categorize in our minds. There is a need to contextualize and explain what we mean when referring to love as related to identity.

     Perhaps then it is best to see how love looks in various situations. One of my favorite quotations comes from Cornel West (2010) when he says that "justice is what love looks like in public". There is so much in that statement, including something unsaid: that love takes on a different "look" depending on context. So how then does love manifest itself in issues of identity? Better, what are some of the words and/or statements that we use in this love language of identity? Looking back on a semester, I can see where my worldview of love as the ultimate has found itself enhanced by new additions to my vocabulary. These new words/concepts have sparked corresponding new ideas and potential ways to enact love in our world. It has created new entry points to tap into the energy described so well by Pierre Tielhard De Chardin - who portrays my metaphysical conceptions best - when he sees love as an energy of attraction or coming together of consciousness, humanity, knowledge and biology in a process of evolution that will ultimately culminate in "God" (Chardin, 1976). So, let's look at love as it appears in some of the words we associate with identity. 

Love and identity as dignity

     In my reading of Donna Hicks, I have not seen her name it as such, but her message is consistent with the idea that dignity is the essence of ourselves that is at base inseparable from and a part of universal love. It is where love resides in the individual, and tapping into that essence comes about through a process of self-reflection and discovery. Once we are able to see it in ourselves, then we can see it in others. This ability to see that internal space where love resides in humanity allows us to see true identity. I appreciate how she teaches us that dignity is not part of basic human needs, it is part of basic human essence. To deny someone's dignity is to deny their humanity (Hicks, 2011).

      From my own experience, I have found that it's when I'm most violent to myself that I'm violent to others (that is not to say physically violent, but violent in words/thoughts). It's when I'm least capable of overlooking personal faults that I'm also incapable of overlooking faults in others, and I tend to make sure the other knows about whatever "wrong" they've done in my eyes. My vision has been blocked in those moments. I fail to focus on the truly human and instead pick out external conditions and tie them to the person's identity. I have not placed dignity at the forefront in these situations, and because of this I identify myself and others in relation to the external or a particular context, instead of seeing a human in the midst of and irrespective of a context. Yes, we exist in relation to the world, but in and of ourselves we are still autonomous humans defined by the very dignity that is often denied by others. We learn from those others, and denying their humanity is to deny our own.

Love and identity as mimetic desire

     Vern Redekop (2002) gives shape to a concept we all use called mimetic desire. We learn to relate to the world by sent and received messages and signals in relation to others and through imitating positive responses that meet our needs, including the needs around identity. Mimetic desire or the desire to imitate can be positive or negative, but at base it is a desire for connection to something we see in the other. Redekop argues that what we are looking to connect with is at the very essence of what it means to be human, and it is here that I would agree. Notice the consistency with the other aspects of love which we've already addressed, such as Chardin's love energy working through evolution to bring us into tighter relation and consciousness as inter-connected humanity. Also, the desire to reach the essence of the human is the desire for dignity which is inseparable from essence.

     Redekop himself refers often to dignity, and it's concomitant element of autonomy. Both Redekop and Hicks are consistent in their descriptions of the seeming tension between the dual needs of individuation and integration. This tension is not so difficult to resolve when love as the mimetic as brought in. What we desire in imitating the other is that which defines us all as humans. It can be as simple as learning the appropriate way to dress or as complex as connections at the deepest emotional level. Thus, once we attain those desires/needs, we are then fully realized in our individuated humanity while at the same time we have achieved connection with the humanity around us. The two cannot be separated, as seemingly disparate as individuation/integration look at first glance.

     This makes sense when we continue to keep in mind that love is universal. Therefore ultimate love would by nature be fully capable of realization in the whole or part of the whole. However, the part only retains identity in relation to the whole. Identity cannot happen in a vacuum. There must be a relation in order for the individual to stand out or identify to humanity. If humanity or larger societies were universally homogenous, there would be no individual identity as there would be nothing to relate to. Love as mimetic desire fulfills the need for relation and autonomy in its healthiest manifestation by allowing us to be truly present witnesses through an awareness of others and how we identify in a continuous give and take. Thus the individual continues to combine and work towards higher levels of consciousness, unity and love by having their needs fulfilled while at the same time offering back to others those parts of one's self which we are able to give. In this way, mimetic desire works in all areas of the human experience and makes clear why healthy self-care and knowledge is inseparable from the love of others.

Love and identity as biology 
      I have already referred to Chardin's metaphysical paradigm of evolution as love, but I want to expand on that idea a bit and bring in thoughts of biologist Mary Clark as well. The idea of evolution as love and what that means for our identity is a profound departure from the normal discourse of evolution as natural selection. Both Chardin and Clark argue that we have evolved into beings that are by nature social and not competitive. 

      Clark (2002) takes this somewhat novel idea of evolution as a point of departure and argues that our minds are essentially "meaning-making" organs (p. 62). She illustrates this by showing us how language itself has evolved out of relationship in that it is a shared system of making sense of the world. It is through coming together that we come to a greater knowledge simply by the mere fact that we have a common basis for understanding in linguistic terms. This is a refreshing departure from survival of the fittest as a paradigm for increased intelligence. How often have we seen the power of ideas in a group of thinkers being superior to the individual, even if that individual has a higher singular intelligence than any one member of the group? 

     This is but one example of what I take from Clark in that biological evolution is a relation of love, and that the coming together of cells mimics the coming together of humanity. At this point, we enter into the metaphysical, as we cannot see the end of our evolutionary road. Chardin posits that the ebbs and flows of power structures, the errors and violence, the love and hatred are but the normal process of humanity's evolution towards the highest or ultimate realized for him in Christ and for me in love.

     Chardin died before the invention of the internet, but the advancement of technology is another example of evolution at work, and a form of evolution that unites us rather than separates us. Further, It is from imperfections in learning to deal with new and unfamiliar others - and their corresponding identities - that violence can occur. As technology makes the world smaller, we are facing new challenges of how to continue to come together. But Clark argues that it is in our nature to be social beings, and in this I find agreement with her. It is natural to unite, and the violent reactions we see in our world when diverse identities first engage in the trial and error process of unity are a result of earlier evolutionary processes that form the makeup of our individual cells. To continue to evolve, the human as organism will "learn" that going with the grain of the universe means learning to unite, not divide. Their evolution is centered around the ultimate goodness at the heart humanity, which I call love/divinity.

     So as Redekop (2002) and Clark (2002) both point out, we have evolved towards self-preservation, but when we bring that idea together with Chardin's ultimate metaphysic of combined humanity-as-one, we see that the self-preservation will eventually reach to a much greater macro level than anything previously envisioned. For in the end we individual humans, now seen as a whole in and of ourselves, will become - and in many ways already have become - the makeup of a higher form of life, much like the individual cells which make up our bodies.

     This evolutionary energy of love that drives life at all levels is what we must learn to tap into as we become ever more physically closer on this planet. This is my conception of becoming closer to divinity - working towards the divinity in ourselves as united with others - and this is where I see and understand the Christian concept of God in man as Christ. This vision of Christ as the ultimate evolution - which is the true view of Chardin and all Christians - is really a vision of the highest stage of humanity and consciousness. Our identity and purpose as humans is to be part of the greater whole that is driven by love. So, to me, love and Christ are inseparable, and to say that I believe in love would also carry a form of belief in Christ, but additionally would include other energies of love that can be seen in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. All are attempts to identify humans as tied to this energy of love, and that's why I cling to love as the ultimate force and God of the universe.

     Additionally, since all humanity contains the grain of divinity within their very biological essence, then is it too far of a stretch - given all that we've discussed thus far - to envision different autonomous expressions of God in the diversity that is the makeup of humanity? To take it further, isn't it this diversity contained within an even larger whole that will culminate in God? Cannot this God then be diverse as a part of its makeup? Does this not mean then that the energy of love is great enough to be all-inclusive and uniting and even has a destiny to unite? I say yes, and these questions are the kinds that I've grappled with in my own mind in attempts to make sense of the metaphysical. Furthermore, they are all directly related to the very core of who we are as humans, and how we identify with the universe and particularly the "others" around us.

Love and identity as politics

     At first glance, you the reader might think this statement oxymoronic. Politics is traditionally thought of in terms of governments, deal-making and power struggles. Yes, this is a part of politics, but Kenneth Hoover (1997) reminds us that there are power dynamics in any human relationship. If we are alive, we have power, and therefore power is a part of our identity. It cannot be ignored and it cannot be avoided, so awareness of the critical importance that power carries in human identity is crucial to our further evolution and survival.

     Interactions of power-containing individuals and societies, in Hoover's conception, are meant to draw off of the same energy of love that we've been discussing. Proper use of power as political relations is pragmatic application of the energy of love. Politics also encompasses far more than the macro government level. Politics is human relations. Therefore for these relations to remain healthy rather than self-destructive to our species, we need to focus on providing the kind of environments that will contribute to mimetic exchanges that allow diversity, tolerance and equanimity. Stifling mimetic desire as described by Redekop (2002) is to try to counter-act the process of evolution. Eventually this is doomed to failure if we accept everything posited thus far, yet this is what many governmental power structures attempt to do in our world today.

Love and identity as revolution

     Further, it is the stifling of these rich mimetic exchanges, in their ideal form, that becomes a threat to identity and is a direct contributor to violence. This is easily perceived when we remember that mimetic desires help define and shape our identity, and to be aware of our identity is to be aware of our dignity. When governments or power structures establish environments that try to homogenize or restrict this identity formation, they are also engaging in an indirect or direct denial of human dignity. Those subjected to this denial will often rebel and become violent, and these environments are the atmospheres from which revolutions are born.

     Granted, revolutions are not necessarily a bad thing, and much like the evolution of humanity, they can be seen as an evolution of the conditions that contribute to the positive evolvement of human structures of power. The problem is in the violence. Revolution by nature does not equal violence, but it of course often includes it. Revolution at base is about change, and the kind of change that revolutions work towards is to bring conditions that not only provide room for human dignity to shine, but to enhance and grow the dignity of humans; ultimately, it's about increasing awareness in the lives of the oppressor that the oppressed are claiming back their identity. This may sound like some grand statement, but isn't any revolution a progression, which is born out of a desire that a certain group has to elevate their worth as humans?

     While I cannot endorse the methods of a Che Guevara, he did capture the essence of revolution in his statement "at the risk of sounding absurd, a true revolutionary is motivated by love for the people" (Franklin, Hsu & Kosanke, 2000, p. 20). What I find admirable about Che's writings is that he was seemingly driven by the lack of dignity that he recognized in his fellow Latin Americans. He had seen how the machinations of power and imperialism had de-humanized the people with which he identified, and he felt this de-humanization in his deepest core essence. Ultimately, he identified himself as one of those people which the power structures of the Northern Hemisphere, particularly the United States, were oppressing.

     I am convinced that Che's revolutionary motivations were as much an effort to restore his own dignity as they were to elevate the dignity of others. His methods became extreme, and he acted violently to keep the revolutionary movement progressing forward. This I can no longer agree with, although there was a time when I did. However, I have come to a greater empathy of the reasons for the actions of a Che Guevara, or at least the actions of the Che that I've read about and that has been presented to me through Cuban and other leftist literature.

     Che's actions as presented were an effort to restore equality and dignity in all people. Theoretically, this is the message of Marxists everywhere. However, the dark side of power inserts itself into dialectic materialism by not acknowledging the fact that one power class ends up replacing another. A purely Marxist message is not one of equanimity and dignity for all humanity, it's only for those who were formerly oppressed. If the Marxist revolution succeeds - at least in the real world outside of Marxist literature - the oppressed becomes the oppressor.

Love and identity as divine revolution

     We can see from the preceding statement how identity can instantly take on a different form when conditions are not created for the proper dignity of all, including the former oppressors. When this happens then we as the greater body of humanity have arrived at the position we held before the revolution. The death and violence involved in the cleansing of the old guard has done nothing to advance the evolution of the new guard. The new guard has separated itself from the greater body by attempting to elevate itself above the previous oppressor. This separation from the larger body of humanity is a form of identity loss, and is akin to a branch being separated from a tree. By refusing to recognize the dignity of the whole, the dignity of the part is lost as well. As previously mentioned, the part can only maintain its identity in relation to the whole.

     However, divine revolution, the revolution that goes with the energy of love recognizes the dignity of all and must by that fact alone be a revolution of non-violence. For how else can we respect our common human dignity but to remain non-violent? Any form of violence is at base a de-humanization. It is a judgment placed on a particular human life, stating that in this situation that human no longer has a place in the greater body of humanity. It is a denial of dignity - of identity at its very foundation - which is the identity of being human.

     Revolutionaries such as Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Cornel West and many others, like Che Guevara have also fought for the oppressed. But they have done so in a way that keeps the dignity of the oppressor intact. For the revolution means nothing if it is not universal, and for it to be universal it is absolutely necessary to stop the cycle of violence not later, but now. Forgiveness is necessary to restore the dignity of the oppressor, and it is necessary for the restoration of the dignity of the oppressed. The bond comprising the greater human identity has been ruptured in situations of oppression, and to restore it both parties must be reconciled. Forgiveness by the oppressed is at the base of this process as well as the acknowledgment of the rupture committed on the part of the oppressor.

Concluding remarks

     In addition to the methods above, I'd like to close this reflection on the love language of identity by stating that love and identity are also knowledge and awareness. Love grows out of knowledge and awareness. Anything we as individual autonomous members can do to increase our awareness extends itself to the whole through the mimetic exchanges with which we are constantly engaged. We have no choice but to intervene in our world, as the very essence of being human is to interact. Even an inaction is still an action.

     Therefore, when we increase our own awareness, we work towards increasing the awareness of others. At the same time, we cannot increase our awareness separated from others. Awareness, like human existence itself, is individuated yet integrated. Without a cultural base, a frame of reference, linguistic terms to make sense of what's around us, and interactions with others, whether it be in print or in person, our awareness is nothing; it is a vacuum. Even the contemplatives, monks, Buddhists and other ascetics are ultimately trying to tap into the same divine universal energy of love that we all seek and find in ourselves and through our relations with others. Their seemingly isolated search is actually a very intense process of reaching towards the whole. Those who are able to achieve the feeling of ultimate connection of being at one with the universe have tapped into divinity. They have found love, and they are now speaking its language. May we all work towards finding this connection in our lives, for there is no truer way to define our identity than through love.


Chardin, P. T. (1976). Activation of energy: enlightening reflections on spiritual energy. New York: Harcourt, Inc.
Clark, M. E. (2002). In search of human nature. New York: Routledge.
Franklin, C., Hsu, R., & Kosanke, S. (2000). Literary studies east and west: navigating islands and continents: conversations and contestations in and around the pacific. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Guevara, C., & Deutschmann, D. (2003). Che guevara reader. Melbourne, Australia: Ocean Press.
Hicks, D. (2011). Dignity: the essential role it plays in resolving conflict. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Hoover, K., Marcia, J., & Parris, K. (1997). The power of identity: politics in a new key. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, Inc.
Redekop, V. N. (2002). From violence to blessing: how an understanding of deep-rooted conflict can open paths to reconciliation. Ottawa, Canada: Novalis.
West, C. (2010). Brother west: living and loving out loud, a memoir. New York: Smiley Books.