Part of my current angst is to retrieve and unpack the cultural baggage I have around my spiritual beliefs. I imagine big heavy suitcases covered with the customary black scuff marks that indicate multiple trips through baggage claim. Some of mine probably have tattered “Gate Check” tags because I keep trying to drag them on board while the flight attendants shake their heads and everyone behind me in line sends me poisonous glances.
Ok, maybe I’m getting carried away with the metaphor. But you get the idea.
I wonder if part of our society’s unconscious racism is that we think only indigenous people have a cultural spirituality. Some wanna-be-native white people natter on about indigenous connection to “the land” (cue the soaring music) and the “ancestors” (pan a shot of firelight) and the “animals” (zoom out on moose, elk, salmon). I don’t mean to minimize the differences between indigenous religion and euro-american religion.
George Tinker says:
Did you know that trees talk? Well they do. They talk to each other, and they’ll talk to you if you listen. Trouble is, white people don’t listen. They never learned to listen to the Indians, so I don’t I suppose they’ll listen to other voices in nature. But I have learned a lot from trees; sometimes about the weather, sometimes about animals, sometimes about the Great Spirit.
When we talk with non-Indians about nature, there is really nothing you can say in universal Western concepts that is going to make a lot of sense. I think that Western people who come into an Indian environment and attempt to preach take along their own set of categories and use it to deal with Indian people they meet.
(Source: “The Stones Shall Cry Out: Consciousness, Rocks, and Indians”, Wicazo Sa Review 19.2 (2004) 105-125)
The thing is, while we need to take responsibility for them, those western/scientific/enlightenment categories aren’t all we white people have. The lie of whiteness is that all white people are the same, that our pale skin strips us of our connection to the land, ancestors, and animals of our origins.
Maybe I feel this way because I have a strong connection to land, more specifically, to trees. I have seen plenty of nice trees in my life, but the pine forests of my Oregon home ring in me like nothing else. I thought I was just romanticizing it until I went back to my ancestral home. Near Gdansk/Danzig, Poland where my grandparents are from, the forests meet the sea. The rhodies bloom among the trees near the house in Lamstedt, Germany where my father was born. My body remembers.
I went to Marienkirche in Gdansk where my Tante Ursula remembers praying as a child. It was nice but it didn’t ring in me. The forests rang in me. The sea rang in me. I am still navigating my way through what this means, but my suspicion is that when we started writing big thick theology books and stopped praying to Our Mother, we lost something. I’m a good Protestant who adores systematic theology. All that organization. Tidy, neat boxes. It makes for good theologizing… and empty prayer and stale worship.
So that’s what I mean about my cultural baggage. My baggage isn’t actually my culture: it’s the veener of whiteness that masquerades as mine. That baggage includes believing that I don’t really come from anywhere or have any place, so it is ok for me to steal someone else’s land or religion or both when land and religion are one interconnected thing. I don’t want to steal, or let my community steal in my name. I want an authentic relationship to land and religion, however messy, complicated, guilty and confusing it might be.
The forests ring in me. The sea rings in me. Mama God knows my name. I just keep listening, letting that sound echo its way through my body, following it back. If I follow it long enough, maybe I’ll find my way clear to a kind of being and believing that isn’t just good for me but good for the world.
How does your culture influence or intersect with your spiritual beliefs and practices? I’d love to hear from you!
Applying for a social security card for my daughter, my hand stops over the voluntary ethnicity section. I know that these categories have changed over time (the boxes used to say ‘free’ or ‘slave’ or ‘mulatto’) and reflect a global system of white supremacy.
While I know this history, when I fill out forms for myself I rarely think twice. But this time I am answering for my daughter. I check the boxes for “White” and “Hispanic” and then I stop.
What is the government going to do with this information? Will my daughter be targeted if I make her visible to the government in this way? I think of “Operation Wetback” in the 1950s, of the ICE raids in Portland in 2007, of the families who are still, this moment, in danger.
Then I think about affirmative action programs and college scholarships. I think about my hometown near LA and its increasing Latino majority. Isn’t it important to be visible?
I’m acutely aware that all of my angst is about the box labeled “Hispanic.” I don’t feel any uncertainty about checking the box labeled “White.” I’ve never had to think about these boxes before and how they relate to me or my family. There was never a box for “German-American” or “Rural Poor White Class.”
If I refuse to give this information, does that mean that I am ashamed of my daughter’s heritage? Paranoid about racism? Trying to opt out?
As I reflect, I begin to wonder if I am using my daughter to examine my own complicity and place in the system. Is that fair to her or helpful to me? I don’t know.
After much internal debate, I print out a new application. This time, I don’t check any boxes. I leave them all blank.
What do you do when you fill out these types of forms? I’d love to hear your thoughts or insights.
You can’t get there from here. That’s what I think about this academic stuff.
It only goes so far, and then it runs out, like an asphalt road built along the surf line. The ocean does not work with asphalt roads. You need a boat, a tree or something that will float. You need your body, your arms and the motion they make against the waves, pushing you along, a little speck in a great sea. Don’t be afraid. All things that are wild have your heart at the core.
I began this work because I wanted to heal myself and my people. My people (white people, German people) created this system of injustice and I need to do my part to destroy what we built, what we keep on building.
But how do I destroy this system, the house that I’m living in, the one that shelters and protects me? I must be a lunatic.
I fight with my ancestors at night when I’m lying in bed not sleeping. “Be quiet,” they say. Then louder: “SHUT UP. HOR AUF.” But I can’t stop. How can I?
I’ve seen the pictures: people, parents and children, their bodies stacked like firewood, naked and ashen. This is mine to fix. (It is yours, too.)
“Not our problem,” some of my ancestors hiss. They left their country. When war changed the borders, they moved on.
What kind of fiction do we have to invent to make this history okay?
A big BIG story. An underbrush, a thicket, each lie overlapping lie.
My ancestors came to this continent, carried inside my father, but they didn’t know about me yet. I am what came next. I feel it here in this country, in the forest by the ocean that looks like our old home. All the people whose land this is, they talk to me.
Maybe I wouldn’t be able to hear them if the forests weren’t clear cut. But I do hear them, at night when I am arguing with my ancestors. They whisper: “You don’t belong here. Be useful or go away.” Some of them are angry. Some are gentle. Some look at me like they know who I am.
Where does it come from, this need to make it right?
I have to make it better for myself.
I can’t live here anymore, in this house I’m trying to destroy. I know it has stout, wide-timbered walls, but it is not my home. Yet it is SO big. Where can I live where I am not under its roof?
I go small and I gather friends. I am part of the resistance.
And there is a bigger part of our life, one I know…even though no one has told me it’s true:
Our Mama God, Mother of the Cosmos, is bigger than this house, this roof we’re living under. Nothing the germans (or english or french or spanish or dutch…), nothing any of us could make, even hundreds of years old, is bigger than the
BODY OF OUR MOTHER.
You can’t contain her.
She will hold us all, she will shelter us, when the house finally comes down.
Look…a hole in the roof! I can see the stars. LOOK! There’s proof.
None of it is hopeless.
All of it is worthwhile.
Don’t be quiet.
Step up, speak out, keep moving.
This is the first half of a meditation I wrote recently while struggling through my thesis on white religious racism. I am trying to find a vision for what sustains me to do my work for racial justice.
Three weeks ago I hurt my back. It has been hard to walk, to sit, to write. I stumbled around and stopped writing, and when I finally picked up my pen again, I wrote this:
There are many types of offerings in the world’s religions. Some people leave cups of grain or lentils, made into stew, flowers or rice or coins, creased dollar bills or slips of paper with ‘please’ written in pencil and ‘thank you’ written in ink. Some people sing or dance or feed the hungry.
I tell the truth. That is my offering. Here is a story that cannot be proven:
But I can’t tell you that story. Not yet. I can barely hold it. Every time I think of the story I shake, my stomach rises in a wave of sickness, my lip trembles, my eyes fill. I feel crazy and I should know from crazy. I should know.
While I’m holding this story, I’m also working on a project for school on homosexuality and the church. I forgot how it feels to be called an abomination. objectively. morally. disordered. I’ve been living insulated, passing for safe.
But my body knows. All the stories my body carries and want-needs to tell. Not yet, not yet. Shhhhhhhhh.
So while my brave writer friends keep their pens moving, I stop. I make tea. I watch the rain. I rock a little. I remember my pen is not the enemy. My body did not invent the stories. I am not alone.
Pema Chodron says: “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” She says: “When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way.”
So I am praying for tenderness. I am old enough to know the story my body knows will not destroy me. I am praying for tenderness. So that when I do speak that story, I will not punish myself for talking. For telling the truth.
I had the honor of sharing coffee and conversation today with my dear friend Rev. Melissa Bennett and new friend Dr. Dapo Sobomehin. We talked for a long time. We talked about isolation and the lack of accountability, how white and brown and black people are afraid of one another, how white people think and act like we’re better than other people, how people of all colors often forget that the person in the other shade of skin is a human being. We talked about war and poverty and education and violence and community.
And we talked a lot, a whole lot, about God. Dr. Dapo quoted a lot of scripture. He said the word J—- out loud so everyone could hear. [Wait, don't quit reading yet! Bear with me.] This is not a normal part of my everyday experience. The J word has been a weapon of violence against people who I deeply love, from individual friends to my larger queer community. I use that word with extreme caution.
It made me realize that while I’m nervous talking about race, I am terrified talking about You-Know-Who. I’m hyper-aware of the ways my protestant christian privilege goes hand-in-hand with my white privilege and systems of oppression. (The conquistadors, the slaveowners, the boarding school missionaries, the nazis, Matthew Shepard’s murderers — all christians.)
But I realized today that I need to talk about spiritual stuff if I am going to do activist work. (Fortunately I have lots of words for the Holy that don’t make other people twitch or reach for their coats.) I can’t do this work of authentic connection, this work of open-hearted listening, of taking responsibility, owning my mistakes, being present, and keeping hope without my spiritual life. Because I am limited by my blind spots, my fear. I am limited by my oh-so-excellently-trained-in-white-privilege-automatic-conditioning, my ivorytower education. The problems are too big, the challenges too complex, the solutions evasive.
In conversation with remarkable spiritual people today, I felt how the Divine is manifest in a unique way in each person. Each human being is this expression of G*d-Love in a specific intersection of time/place/culture/language/skin/shape.
Think of all the billions of people on this planet. Not just the friendly people but the broken people, the people who hurt and damage others. The mystery is that somehow, the Holy is in those people too. I think this is what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. meant by “beloved community.”
At first glance, it may seem like a cheap cop-out, but in the end what I come back to is this connection that each of us has to the Sacred. Spirit is unlimited resources of Love, moments of everyday grace, miracles of reconnection and reconciliation, all rooted in the powerful full-body knowledge that I, and you, and each of us is deeply known and beloved.
None of these realizations are new or remarkable (except to me, of course). Other people have said it much more eloquently than I can. Tonight I am reading Womanist scholar Emilie M. Townes. In her book Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil she writes:
“We have dreams that can be more powerful than nightmares, possibilities more radical than realities, and a hope that does more than cling to a wish or wish on a star or sit by the side of the road, picking and sucking its teeth after dining on a meal of disaster and violence in our lives…
To combine challenge with hope is powerful. For together they enable us to press onward when we are at the verge of giving up; to draw strength from the future to live in a discouraging present. Challenge and hope make it possible for us to see the world, not only as it is, but also as it can be, so that it can move us to new places and turn us into a new people…
Hope cannot simply be given a nod of recognition, for it demands not only a contract from us, but also a covenant and a commitment. When we truly live in this deep-walking hope, then we must order and shape our lives in ways that are not always predictable, not always safe, rarely conventional, and protests with prophetic fury the sins of a fantastic hegemonic imagination (and theological worldviews) that encourage us to separate our bodies from our spirits, our minds from our hearts, our beliefs from our action…
We cannot hide from responsibility or accountability for we are never relieved of the responsibility that we have to our generation and future generations to keep justice, peace,and hope alive and vibrant…
Ultimately, somewhere deep inside each of us we know that perhaps the simplest, yet the most difficult, answer to the challenge of what we will do with the fullness and incompleteness of who we are as we stare down the interior life of the cultural production of evil is live your faith deeply.
This is not a quest for perfection, but for what we call in christian ethics the everydayness of moral acts. It is what we do every day that shapes us…these acts that we do say more about us than those grand moments of righteous indignation and action.”
Today as I sat at the coffee shop in conversation, part of me itched with frustration at the lack of answers, at the need to DO more. Conversation seemed like such a little thing.
Talk doesn’t replace the necessity for action. Yet Townes reminds me that authentic listening and presence in connection to Spirit are not little or less. Everydayness is essential. And speaking about the Holy is necessary, even though it is the very last thing I feel comfortable or ready or able to do.