Evolutionary Revolution

For thirty years, I affirmed a “radical” activism and rejected “liberal” piecemeal reform. Then, one day, while listening to some recordings of speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one comment struck me like a lightning bolt. Dr. King’s point was simple: movements need to focus on winnable demands. I concluded that we radicals had been wrong when we attacked Dr. King for compromising.

Mahatma Gandhi, who influenced Dr. King profoundly, adopted a similar approach. He called it  “evolutionary revolution.” This visionary pragmatism acknowledges the value of short-term reforms that improve the quality of life for people who have been oppressed — as part of an ongoing, never-ending process that can eventually lead to the fundamental restructuring of our entire society. This evolution involves change in our way of thinking: a change of paradigm.

This perspective is not “either/or.” It integrates both liberal reform and radical transformation. It balances the short-term and the long-term, giving equal importance to each. Gandhi and King were neither radical nor liberal. They were both.

In biology, species are defined by their ability to reproduce themselves through interbreeding. Over time, biological evolution produces new species that become so different they can no longer breed with their predecessor species.

In a similar way, human societies evolve in ways that constitute a “revolution,” or transformation — a sudden, fundamental change in how we live, work, or govern ourselves. These transformations produce societies that are so different they feel “new.” They change the composition, structure, outward form, and appearance of a society.

Transformation, however, can also be taken to mean “to change (something)completely.” The butterfly emerging from the caterpillar is commonly used as a metaphor for this type of change. This definition of transformation is dangerous.

New species remain similar to other species within the same genus, including their predecessors. They are distinct, but they are not totally different.

Sustainable revolutions do not create new societies (or individuals) that differ from their predecessor as much as butterflies differ from caterpillars. That metaphor suggests change that is total, complete, not lacking anything, having all necessary parts, not limited in any way, not requiring more work, entirely done or completed, fully carried out, absolute, perfect.

This attitude is prone to totalitarianism, black-and-white thinking that demonizes opponents and attempts to use physical force to impose its will.

When we speak of transformation, we need to avoid language that implies “total” change. Individually, when we are “reborn,” we may feel like a new person, but we are not completely new. When we transform a community, it may look new, but it is not totally new. Transformation does not destroy. It builds on what preceded.

Gandhi and King were more than willing to compromise. Reconciliation and community were their ultimate goals. They saw revolution as a never-ending process. For them, “shut it down” was not a goal in and of itself — a reactiveoutrage against an injustice that would somehow spontaneously lead to revolution. Rather, such actions were part of a calculated, proactive strategyfor specific improvements in living conditions.

Their long-term vision was the beloved community. Their short-terms objectives were, respectively, independence and desegregation.

We need to update their vision by articulating it in contemporary language, and unite behind concrete, winnable demands concerning public policy that help us steadily transform our global society. To be winnable, demands must be measurable. It needs to be clear when we have achieved our objective. Movements build momentum with victories.

As I see it, the primary shift our society needs today is to move away from a selfish commitment to climbing the social ladder to a commitment to the common good of the entire Earth Community — the entire human family and all life. And we need to achieve that vision by democratizing our entire society with new public policies that establish new structures.

This transformation would discourage both selfishness and self-sacrifice. It would affirm that we can both love ourselves and love others. It would not reject ambition, the desire for economic security, and getting promoted to further one’s career. Rather, it affirms a balance between both self-interestand the common good, solidarity rather than isolation.

What specific reforms can best help us achieve that vision is another question. The list of demands forwarded by Ferguson Action  in response to the death of Michael Brown is suggestive. For instance, with regard to the use of deadly force by police, they call for “the development of best practices…, [including] the development of specific use of force standards … [and] a Department of Justice review trigger when continued excessive use of force occurs.”

When an officer feels threatened by someone who is 8-10 feet away, can the use of deadly force be justified? Aren’t there other options?

Thus far, most of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations are primarily acultural phenomenon that enhances awareness of important realities, as did Occupy. Hopefully consensus behind specific demands will soon help that movement develop into an effective political force.

Briefly blocking traffic and shutting down business gains publicity. But if that tactic becomes used more widely without a focus on winnable goals, it will backfire as resentment builds. Potential supporters want to know: what do the protestors want and how do they plan to get it?

Rejecting the need for incremental reforms is divisive and undermines unity. One correspondent, for example, recently told me:

The policy making process .. has rarely done anything good for [the marginalized]. …It has been curtailed, crippled, and suppressed into ineffectiveness. I do not think that we make sustainable progress with piecemeal policy change. What ever policy changes that are done to make liberal amendments to the current system are not sustainable because the whole structure and foundation is riddled. The whole house is burning; integration with that won’t get it.

Alas, however, in the foreseeable future, integration is inevitable. We cannot escape so long as our society does not completely collapse. That catastrophe may happen eventually, and we need to prepare for it as best we can. But to wish for it or try to help precipitate it would be morally irresponsible, due to the greatly increased suffering that would result.

In the late 1960s, we demanded “no more business as usual” and tried to achieve our goals by inflicting widespread inconvenience. Our primary accomplishment was the Reagan Revolution.

I would prefer to learn from those mistakes and push for specific reforms that steadily lead to the transformation of our global society into a compassionate Earth Community dedicated to preserving and enriching all life.

Transform and “Oneness”

The July 15 Transform: Spirituality and Social Change class focused on “oneness.” Conducted by Liza Rankow, it was another stimulating and rewarding event. A diverse group of sixteen individuals participated. As with the Faith and Feet training last weekend, three-fourths of the participants were women.

As I discussed in “Faith and Feet Reflections,” I failed to hear much self-criticism at that training. Last night, however, I heard more acknowledgement of personal weakness. In the full group, one participant referred to his falling short in his efforts to truly love others. One revealed a serious health issue. In my small breakout group which discussed “What does this worldview demand of you in your daily life,” participants spoke of their struggles with empathizing too strongly with the pain of others, reacting with too much anger at the actions of others, and becoming too self-centered. These and other instances of honest self-revelation were heartening, for I find the common reluctance to be open unfortunate.

One participant spoke honestly about his not understanding the key concept of oneness. “I get interconnectedness,” he said. “But I still feel separate. It’s still me acting.” I tried to help clarify the paradox by discussing my understanding of the difference between a distinction and a dichotomy (which separates). We can be full, distinct selves and still be at one with the universe. Afterwards, it struck me that I could have discussed my sense of being infused with that which I call “the Mystery that energizes and structures the universe,” or what others have called “the life force.” We can feel in harmony with that force and committed to honor its purpose: to evolve. Then, just now, I consulted the dictionary and found two helpful definitions for oneness: “the fact or state of being unified or whole, though comprised of two or more parts,” and “the state of being completely united with or a part of someone or something.” Regardless, the issue raised by that participant is crucial. It seems that we need to work on how to communicate more clearly our sense of oneness in a way to nurtures a “both-and” perspective rather than “either-or.”

For me, it does not work to say, as one participant did, “Ultimately we’re creating this oasis within ourselves.” That statement reminds me of Rumi’s, “There is no need to go outside.” That perspective is common among mystics. But those statements strike me as too individualistic. When I go inside I go outside automatically. And I feel that I am co-creating a communal oasis with the Great Spirit and my fellow humans in community.

At the moment, that co-creation is largely informal. The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples does provide me with some sustenance. But as I discussed in “A Meditation on Deep Community,” I would prefer a more intentional structure that provides a safe haven that nurtures deep spiritual growth, including a commitment to changing root causes of suffering, including national policy.

In my forthcoming book, My Search for Deep Community: An Autobiography, I discuss that issue extensively and suggest twelve concrete, practical steps for how we can move in that direction. But the dehumanizing forces of modernization are so powerful, I do not expect that kind of holistic organizing to flourish. Reporting on one’s honest self-examination to others, even if with trusted allies, can be a difficult barrier that most people decline to cross. As James Baldwin said:

A day will come when you will trust you more than you do now and you will trust me more than you do now. We will trust each other. I do believe, I really do believe in the New Jerusalem. I really do believe that we can all become better than we are. I know we can. But the price is enormous and people are not yet ready to pay.

But who knows? Maybe even within my lifetime I will be surprised. I did note some glimmers of hope in last night’s class.

In the meantime, I’ll try to be open, available, and responsive, and will continue to explore what others are doing, such as Generation Waking Up. I learned about that project from Joshua Gorman at last week’s Transform class and plan to participate in their intergenerational WakeUp Experience with artists, changemakers, and passion-filled community members of all ages Thursday, July 24, 6:30 pm, Humanist Hall 390 27th Street in Oakland.

Their impressive website, which affirms changing “the system,” declares:

Across cultures and generations, we are forming a planet-wide ‘Movement of movements’ including every issue, approach, and sector of society that is remaking our world…. Our generation’s calling is clear: to create a thriving, just, sustainable world that works for all, we must take bold and systemic action to transform our whole society.

Their post on a workshop “Collective Liberation in Boston” reports:

Through both critical theory and experiential processes, they inquired deeply into what it will take to shift from chaos and disconnection to diverse, thriving community, and how to inspire political, cultural, and social transformations to make the vision of anti­-oppression and community a reality. Barbara drew the experiential content from Joanna Macy’s powerful body of work, the Work that Reconnects. The Work that Reconnects draws from deep ecology, systems theory, and spiritual traditions to build motivation, creativity, courage and solidarity for the transition to a sustainable human culture.

Though I find this project encouraging, I did note one item that concerns me. The site also quotes Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

The use of the word “never” is the first red flag. Absolute terms are usually a sign of sloppy thinking.

But more fundamentally, Gandhi and King would never have made that statement. I prefer the Gandhi-King approach. Nevertheless, I’ll go to the July 24 WakeUp Experience with abundant curiosity.

Developing a Theological Vision for Social Change

jakadaBy Jakada Imani

Excerpted from an essay by Jakada Imani, the Director of PSR’s Center for Spiritual and Social Transformation

The need for social and spiritual transformation is more critical now than ever before. It is important that we grasp the moment we now face to fully appreciate the peril and potential of the current age.

Most indicators underscore this point: the U.S. has the largest income gap of any industrialized nation; many of our communities have become re-segregated along class and racial lines; there are over 7 million people under correctional control in our prisons; America has been waging two major wars (and many “little ones”) for more than ten years. Perhaps most troubling, the hottest 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have been since 1998.

The current economic and social systems are oppressive, exploitative, and fundamentally altering our planet in ways that will have long-term, devastating consequences. These structures are maintained by time-tested method of “divide and conquer.” A “zero-sum game” only works if there is scarcity, whether it is real or perceived, and where there is an “us” and “them.”

At least two theological postures or assumptions fuel this current moment of challenge and opportunity. The first we might call “pop theology,” or what many people in the U.S. tend to believe rather unconsciously. One of the strongest tenets of today’s pop theology is the notion that the way things are is simply the way that God made them to be, including all the ways our society is stratified by the “undeserving poor” and the “deserving rich.”

hands_united_colorsA second explicitly theological posture, related to the first, is this: the mistaken belief that our differences reflect a divine plan to remain separate. Human beings tend to confuse what makes each of us distinct from one another to mean that we are and should be separate from one another and indeed from the rest of the world around us. This mistake leads to a host of horrific outcomes: racism, sexism, war, extreme poverty, and genocide, not to mention planetary-wide ecological disaster.

These theological problems demand theological solutions. And this will mean examining closely our various understandings of God, who humans are in relationship with and to God, and how God would have us live. In this way we can develop a self-aware and not merely an unconscious theology. We need, and urgently, a theology that respects the intrinsic dignity of all life on this planet. And I believe a range of theological traditions provides compelling sources for this approach, an approach to correct our mistaken ideas about God and thus transform the root causes of social and ecological devastation that threatens the future of all life on the planet Earth.

This great work could begin both modestly and profoundly with the three Abrahamic traditions, all of which share the opening words of Genesis in common: “In the beginning, God…”

These four simple words can be the anchor for a “reverence movement” that promotes respect for all of God’s creation. If we root our understanding in the truth that the entire universe is a divine expression of God, then everyone and everything we see is God manifest. None of it is throw-away. We are always in the presence of God to the degree we are conscious of it. If a theology for social transformation begins there and stays rooted there, we can work collectively to create shared prosperity, a fundamentally just society, and a sustainable ecology for our planet.planet

There are already thousands of organizations working to solve social ills. We have email lists, micro enterprises, online crowd-source funding platforms, Facebook, Twitter, blogs – all of these give us the ability to reach thousands of people in a moment’s notice. In addition there are more and more socially-engaged spiritual practitioners who are weaving together the “beloved community” in church basements, community gardens, clearings in the woods and start-ups.

Places all over the country are lifting people up, rebuilding hope, working to increase the peace, train new leaders who can lead with their whole self and live into a different vision of life. Places like: Urban Peace Movement, Pachamama Alliance, Home Boy Industries, Impact Hub Oakland, the National Day Labors Alliance. These and so many more are working out what it means to be with people and the world in a way that honors our intrinsic interconnection.

All of these are base camps for social transformation and we need strong spiritual practices and carefully honed theological ideas to expand these camps into an even broader movement for the thriving and flourishing of all.

Theology alone will not save us. But theologically informed and spiritually rooted leaders can help to lead us into a brighter future. That’s exactly what inspires me about PSR’s new Center for Spiritual and Social Transformation. Please join us – the future is now.

Original post.