Posted by: Renee | October 2, 2012

The Heart of the Matter

This was Connie’s speech for Gandhi Day at Millsaps College.

I was asked to speak today because they wanted to hear from folks of various faith traditions.  This puts me in a bit of a predicament since my Christian roots are steeped in violence – violence toward others and ourselves, from instigating to justifying to simply ignoring the suffering and oppression of others.  I have seen way too much about how not to go about “peace-making” from my own faith tradition.   Indeed, it reminds me of the sentiment I’ve often heard attributed to Gandhi – your Christ I like, your Christians, not so much.

So, today, I want to qualify that what I’ll be saying is not coming from Christian tradition so much as from the life and teachings of Jesus – a 1st century Jewish peasant who was so in tune with God that many, myself included, have viewed him as God among us.   

He was executed by the Powers of his day because his life and message posed a real threat to the world they had created – a world of domination by physical force, economic exploitation, and religion that bought into the status quo.   Wow, sounds familiar.  We just keep repeating that same old drama over and over again, at our own expense. 

So much of the world throughout history has bought into the myth of redemptive violence – not just the belief that violence can save and war can bring peace, but that the end justifies the means, retribution brings justice, and destructive words and hate-filled hearts are necessary weapons against our opponents.   But philosopher Sam Keen points out that “History is littered with the remains of civilizations that chose to die rather than change their organizing myth.”

But history is also arrayed with prophetic leaders like Isaiah, Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and with nonviolent revolutions that show us a better way to live in this world.   People who have showed us that we don’t have to respond to force with force, that an eye for an eye really does make the whole world blind, and that you can indeed stand up against oppression without hating the oppressor.  I believe at the core of this better way is the realization that we are all connected.  As Desmond Tutu says: “my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours…I am diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”  I also believe we have to keep trying this better way, applying it both personally and globally, until it becomes our new organizing myth. 

Maybe I’m preaching to the choir here, if you’re attending a Gandhi Day ceremony chances are you’ve already realized the importance of nonviolent resistance in lieu of violent force.  Perhaps we don’t hurl insults at others or perpetuate stereotypes of groups folks like to hate, but what do we do when others do these things?  What do we do when our classmates, colleagues, preachers, or politicians diminish others? What do we do about the injustices in the world, locally and globally? 

Certainly, non-action and apathy are nothing new, they inspired Edmund Burke in the 1700s to say “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  How many times do we say in the face of injustice:  “somebody ought to do something” without owning that we are somebody

So, how can we get inspired to act?  A point of beginning is certainly interpersonal and intercultural competency, where we learn how to effectively communicate with others.

But knowledge and skill alone are not enough.  We are in dire need of moving from the safer territory of our minds to the more vulnerable territory of our hearts, where competency can give way to connection.  Where we are open to the stories of others – where we have a curiosity that allows us to hear another’s story without judgment and maybe even start to recognize ourselves in them.  I believe it is in this heart space, that we will experience the sense of interconnectedness that our world both testifies to and longs for. 

One powerful story about Jesus which is recorded in the gospels is when he was approached by a Syrophenician woman, a gentile, who asked him to heal her daughter.  His response in the moment was harsh and disturbing, saying, “it’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  But when the woman responds to Jesus with humility and truth, rather than anger or giving up, his eyes are opened to really see her and his heart expanded.  The power of this story is in both the woman’s courage to speak her truth and in Jesus’ willingness to listen and learn from her. He showed us what it means to really listen to someone – to stand, even in a moment of potential conflict, with an open mind and heart, allowing another to move you.  

Now it’s one thing to practice this kind of listening with those who differ from us but are not deemed an “enemy,” yet, practice it with our “enemies” is exactly what we must do.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks claims “The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation, speaking our fears, listening to the fears of others, and in that sharing of vulnerabilities discovering a genesis of hope.”

Walter Wink points out “Violent revolution fails because it is not revolutionary enough. It changes the rulers but not the rules.”  And Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized that changing the laws was not even enough, we have to change the hearts and minds of individuals. Gandhi understood this, for him nonviolent revolution was not about seizing power but about transforming relationships.  Nelson Mandela could not envision a new South Africa, free of apartheid, that didn’t include the very people who had kept that oppressive system in place for so long. 

The ultimate goal is not victory over an enemy but a transformation that only love can effect.  Therein lies the wisdom in Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies.” Listening to others tills the ground for love to grow.  As love does its transformative work, it may change us every bit as much as those whom we oppose.  It invites a miracle.

And miracles happen every day when we share our stories and listen to the stories of others.  When we listen with our hearts open, seeking to understand as much as to be understood, we set the stage for transformation.

I hope you will leave here today with a renewed spirit to be open to others.  To intentionally listen, engage in love, and “be the change you wish to see in the world!”

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