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Interfaith Lecture Recaps

Gretta Vosper delivers lecture on inclusive religious and spiritual practice — even as an atheist

Gretta Vosper

Despite the name of Gretta Vosper’s lecture, “Falling in Love with Being Together, Because We Can’t Afford to Fall Apart,” she and the audience were not physically together.

“There is one sadness I have today: that we cannot actually be together,” said Vosper, an atheist and ordained minister in the United Church of Canada. “We don’t get the chance to fall in love with being together as I know we would have done, had we been sheltered under that soaring roof of the Hall of Philosophy, surrounded by the mosaics of years gone by.”

Instead, she connected to her audience through the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, where Vosper said the highest value that religious networks can offer is to supplement the lives of individuals — not just within a congregation, but an entire community — in her lecture broadcast at 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, July 9.

The lecture was part of Week Two’s theme for the Interfaith Lecture Series, “Forces that Shape Our Daily Lives: The Contemporary Search for Spirituality.”

Vosper is a minister who first described herself as a “non-theist” in 2001 while delivering a sermon at West Hill United Church. When she realized some of her peers also called themselves non-theists but still believed in a theistic supreme being, she began to question the label she had given herself.

In 2013, she felt it was the perfect time to announce herself as an atheist, in solidarity with atheist bloggers facing violence in Bangladesh. The Toronto Conference chapter of the United Church of Canada investigated her due to public controversy, but ultimately approved her continued ministry.

She spoke to her Chautauqua audience from her vantage point as a minister who — prompted by her congregation at West Hill Church — has replaced the Lord’s Prayer with a similar set of words without mentioning a personified God, and the church welcomes anyone, including Buddhists and atheists. Vosper said those who no longer consider themselves to be religious often still crave the benefits of religion and spirituality. Most of all, they need a contact point for human connection.

Vosper said that stress, like any external force, could act as both a positive and negative force on a person’s life, and that many people turn to spiritual practices that have been distanced from their original religious source to soothe the burden of outside forces that shape daily life. Vosper herself starts and ends her day with martial arts movements intended for meditation and lists what she is grateful for.

“(Spiritual practices) help us cope with the challenges that seem to mount around us at every instance,” she said.

Vosper based her point on a 2017 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) study.

“Spiritual people — regardless of whether they are religious or not — report higher levels of satisfaction with their relationships, communities, and life in general than do nonspiritual people,” the study said.

The same study found that those who were religious but not spiritual were less happy than those who were spiritual, while people who were neither religious nor spiritual reported the lowest levels of happiness. But for people who were spiritual without religion, solitary ritual practices lacked the sense of community that religion often provides.

Through revisions of its statement of faith every five years, the West Hill United Church has gradually broken down “barriers (to) inclusivity we didn’t know we had,” Vosper said. The church has put in writing that it does not accept the Bible as the final word of God and “the way we lived was a greater testament of faith” than religious text. 

As a result of these changes, people with diverse beliefs have joined the West Hill Church, including — but not limited to — atheists and Buddhists.

Vosper said that studies charting declines in religion also show a decrease in social capital that would otherwise be accessed through religious groups. People in religious networks donate, volunteer and vote more often than their nonreligious counterparts. This is not dependent on belief, but on the numbers of social connections that people accessed through their religious network.

Vosper also cited philosopher Loyal D. Rue’s idea that the world needs a new “noble lie,” or a story that allows for self-reflection, which religion previously provided.

But she disagrees with Rue on religion being outdated.

“I think we have a noble truth that can pull all of us together,” Vosper said.

Hartford Seminary President Joel N. Lohr urges learning from outside one’s faith

Joel Lohr
Lohr
Lohr

When Hartford Seminary President Joel N. Lohr finds it hard to pray, he doesn’t seek words of strength from the Bible or another religious text. He refers instead to a line from “This Spinal Tap,” a 1984 mockumentary about an English rock band.

I will rise above it, I’m a professional,” says the character Nigel Tufnel, who is played by Christopher Guest in the movie.

Lohr makes a point in poking fun at himself, about not taking himself too seriously and learning to truly know himself.

Speaking with others outside of his religion and worldview, Lohr said, helped him understand himself and others more than any other human interaction.

This was the topic of his lecture “Finding Myself in the Other: Learning from Those Outside My Faith,” which was released on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform at 2 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, July 8. It was recorded during the week of June 28 on the grounds of Hartford Seminary, a nondenominational theological college in Connecticut. Following the lecture, Chautauqua Institution Vice President for Religion and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson spoke with Lohr in a live Q-and-A on behalf of the audience, who could submit questions for the live Q-and-A at www.questions.chq.org or on Twitter with #CHQ2020.

Lohr felt like an impostor while studying in higher education. Before he went to college for an undergraduate degree, he had trained as a carpenter. The only reason he pursued a Ph.D. was because a professor believed in him.

While in the basement of a library as a Ph.D. student, Lohr’s Ph.D. mentor spooked him — Lohr’s mentor intimidated him even when he did expect to see him — and recommended a book.

“Have you read Joel Kaminsky from Smith College?” Lohr’s mentor said. “He’s a scholar who knows who he is.”

Lohr didn’t know who Kaminsky was, or who he was. But he wanted to.

“Taking life and taking yourself too seriously keeps us from being who we should be,” Lohr said. “To be human helps us love oneself and others.”

When his daughter was around 3 years old, Lohr and his wife had started to teach her lessons from their Christian background, in addition to inspiration from Jewish religious thought. Lohr was focusing on the Jewish idea to love God with your mind, your soul and with everything you have, and Jesus’ addition to this principle to also “love thy neighbor.”

He asked his daughter, “What is the most important thing God wants us to do?” hoping she would intuitively say something from scripture.

“To laugh,” she said.

He didn’t correct her. This was just as important.

Lohr at first thought that he would complete his personal journey through studies of his own faith, but he realized he grew closer to knowing himself through encounters with others who don’t share his faith.

All of these stories involved risk, involved becoming vulnerable,” Lohr said. “In doing so, I came to understand the other. And in doing so, I came to understand myself and hopefully become a better person.”

One specific encounter was when he was a multifaith chaplain at a university. The school’s Muslim association didn’t have a supervisor, so Lohr was recommended as one. To offer a learning opportunity for himself and others, he created a multifaith event for students to present on their different faith beliefs.

A Muslim student, Farhiya, discussed her life in California as a Muslim who wears a hijab.

“My jihad has been great,” she said.

Lohr asked her if she could provide context for the word jihad, which means “struggle” in Arabic, since not everyone would know the true meaning. Then Lohr asked what her specific jihad was.

“My headscarf is my jihad,” Farhiya said.

Lohr asked for more details, thinking she was forced to wear it. But the truth was that she grew up in a moderate Muslim home, and her mother did not wear a headscarf. When Farhiya decided to wear one when she went to college, her parents worried for her safety as an identifiable Muslim in the United States.

Her jihad was going against her parents’ wishes because of the headscarf.

In another encounter, Lohr ate lunch with another Muslim student in the cafeteria. When they both sat down at the table to eat, Lohr was uncertain of what to do. Should they pray together? Should he say nothing?

“Do you pray before you eat?” Lohr said.

The student said he only did sometimes, but he always prayed after. He also thanked Lohr.

“What is a prayer you say for this?” Lohr said.

The student recited the prayer before repeating it in English.

“Well, let that be our prayer today,” Lohr said.

Hearing this distracted the student from eating. The student had never been asked questions like this by someone outside of his faith before.

In a class Lohr was teaching at Hartford Seminary, a Muslim student from Indonesia expressed her gratitude for the class trip to a Jewish synagogue, because she had never had a chance to meet a Jewish person in Indonesia. Her name was Ani.

Months later, another student from the class had invited students and staff to a Shabbat dinner at her home. Another student asked how she prepared the meal.

“I’ve had help all day,” the Jewish student said. “Ani helped me prepare. She was here at 8 a.m. this morning, and we chopped vegetables. And we put things in the oven. We worked together all day together on this meal.”

This was a moment for Lohr.

“Was Ani any less Muslim in that moment? Was the Jewish student, Gilana, any less Jewish in that moment?” Lohr said. “Absolutely not. They were coming to know who they were more fully through the other.”

The last story Lohr told was about a study abroad group he led in Italy to explore various religions, art and cultures. The group, which came from different backgrounds with and without faith, toured the Vatican with another student group they didn’t know. During the tour, the two groups merged and made small talk.

Mo — a nickname for Mahmood, who is Muslim — was speaking with someone from the other group. Mo asked him what the group was doing.

“I’m here to learn about Islam and how to deal with it,” the student said.

Mo looked to Lohr briefly with confusion as Lohr listened in on their conversation.

The other student didn’t know that Mo was Muslim, and Mo continued asking about the group. What were they doing? What were they learning?

The student was part of a fundamentalist Christian group that was in Italy specifically to learn about Islam and how to convert Muslims to Christianity.

Mo’s grace stood in sharp contrast with the horror on this other person’s face when he found out he had unkowingly said this in front of a Muslim.

“It’s OK. I understand,” Mo said. “At least you’ve met a Muslim. Have you met many Muslims? Have you been to the mosque here in Rome? Maybe we can go together.”

They never had the chance to go, but it was another story that highlighted how vulnerability allowed for growth in everyone involved. 

“All of these stories involved risk, involved becoming vulnerable,” Lohr said. “In doing so, I came to understand the other. And in doing so, I came to understand myself and hopefully become a better person.”

Instead of thinking about what someone outside one’s religion might see, Lohr said, “What might we see in them?”

To explain this, he quoted Luke 7:9, when Jesus speaks with a Roman centurion soldier — an enemy of the Israelites — who humbly asks for Jesus to not even enter his home, but to just say a word to heal his partner. 

“Never have I seen such faith as I have seen in this outsider,” Jesus said.

Judith Lief said the search for spiritual meaning can exist outside of religion in lecture “Human Longing and the Search for Meaning”

Judith Lief
Judith_Lief
Lief

Buddhist Acharya Judith Lief has never not questioned faith.

“I find questions more interesting than answers,” Lief said. “Questions open things up while answers close things in.”

In her lecture “Human Longing and the Search for Meaning,” Lief spoke on the importance of investigating what it means to practice a religion and what it means to navigate spirituality outside of a religion. The lecture was broadcast on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, as part of Week Two’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Forces that Shape Our Daily Lives: The Contemporary Search for Spirituality.” The lecture was recorded in Lief’s Colorado home on June 28, but upon its release at 2 p.m. EDT Tuesday, July 7, the audience submitted questions for the live Q-and-A at www.questions.chq.org or on Twitter with #CHQ2020.

Lief said those who leave or do not practice religion — a rising trend — do not lack spirituality, but want to find it outside of an institution.

“What is mainstream?” Lief said. And what does it mean to be part of a group in the mainstream?

Not all religions are in decline. While forms of Christianity have struggled with retention, religions that have been introduced later into the United States, like Islam and Buddhism, are on the rise.

Lief said before religions became institutionalized, they were loose groups of people often disenfranchised who had dropped out of mainstream options, both religious and secular, to follow prophets addressing human questions like, “What is suffering?”

Prophets and followers alike had to overcome daily challenges and invest their time to search for wisdom and understanding.

“I think that all humans have a longing for something meaningful,” Lief said.

In Buddhism, all living things have an inner spark or a longing to develop, grow and learn — a “tenderness, a quivering suspicion” that something is beyond the superficial level within our lives, which prods us to do things that nurture growth.

Lief said this search takes many forms, and religion is just one way to do that.

Her personal journey before she reached Buddhism started in a casually Protestant family and congregation. But religious leaders did not provide sufficient answers to her questions, and she looked into the studies of other religions.

“The more questions I asked, the more personally I took a spiritual search,” Lief said. “There was a lot of empty talk, and a sense of patterned answers.”

Her dissatisfaction took place at the same time as the anti-war movement in the 1960s. An experience with psychedelic drugs reinforced her questions. She was involved in religious groups that either disconnected from the historic reality of the time, or engaged in social action without spiritual depth. 

Even in groups with “just” causes, Lief observed that these groups were still based in a form of aggression, and power that was a mirror image of the side they were fighting against — which she felt was full of ego and jostling for power.

Lief said her disillusionment was healthy, because it removed her from complacency.

She discovered Buddhism by accident and found that spirituality is about uncovering a deeper understanding on one’s own.

“Spirituality is not about learning new stuff,” Lief said. “It’s about, ‘What is personally meaningful to me?’”

Some of Lief’s questions go unanswered in meditation, but that’s part of why it’s important. From meditation, she learned that wisdom does not come from running around and finding answers, but from stopping and sitting with questions.

She felt that no one had made the link to what Lief felt was a “wellspring” of human potential and wisdom, but meditation did. It was a glimpse of what everyone seeks, already within.

Anyone can possess this “simple, immediate, wholesome” state, Lief said, whether or not it is through religion. The trouble with studying religious texts, she said, is that they don’t always connect with real-life experiences.

“This way, you don’t really need to examine yourself,” Lief said.

She quoted writer Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s idea of some religions being “healthy” while some are “not healthy.” Healthy religions keep an open door to access outside religions.

Religions that are unhealthy become caught in power, money and fear of the other. They are threatened by questions and are unwilling to change over time.

Lief said institutions can positively impact people, but they need to be able to change and adapt with integrity, without being frozen in place.

“They need to pass on a living flame, rather than a relic,” Lief said.

Spirituality on its own, however, can have a superficial quality, Lief said. When spiritual experiences become a public merit badge, spirituality becomes tainted because it is meant to be an intimate experience.

Religion has potential for insights and good experiences, with a lifetime commitment to open one’s heart beyond a person’s individual ego to community. But Lief said the rise in suspicion of religion has to do with the close-minded elements of its messages. And giving oneself a religious label can become an embellishment to a sense of self, Lief said. It co-opts the ego and makes a person need to feel special to feel OK.

“Religion is presented as above the fray,” Lief said, but it’s just one part of a human experience.

The search to know is what is important, Lief said — while connecting through that search to the wonder of a beginner, even if someone becomes an expert.

Lief said that meditation reconnects to the beginner’s mind, and helps access a wellspring of shared human inspiration and potential.

She cited a Zen concept of shoshin as described by Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki to explain this.

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” Suzuki wrote. “But in the expert’s, there are few.”

Michael Hogue shares religious naturalism’s humbling view on humanity in first Interfaith Friday

michael Hogue
Hogue
Hogue

As a religious naturalist, Michael Hogue doesn’t think humankind is the center of the universe.

Hogue opened up the first of Chautauqua’s 2020 Interfaith Friday lectures with how centering nature as a religious naturalist has shifted his perspective. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion and senior pastor, joined him in this live virtual conversation at 2 p.m. EDT Friday, July 3, on CHQ Assembly. Audience members also participated by submitting questions through the www.questions.chq.org portal and through Twitter with #CHQ2020.

The Department of Religion’s Interfaith Friday series asks questions from each speaker that consider how their faith traditions describe creation, God, how humans fit into the universe and how they view humankind from their vantage point.

Religious naturalism is the wild and wonderful other side of spiritually and emotionally domesticated ways of thinking, Hogue said. It’s not intended to be anti-religious, just open to all influences, including science and philosophy.

The story of creation follows the science of evolution, he said. Nature is beyond God. Humans are not the center, but morality and justice are the work of humankind.

Religious naturalism was first developed in the Chicago theological school of thought in the 1940s, said Hogue, who is a scholar and professor at the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois.

Throughout his life, his view on how humans occupy nature shifted twice. The first time was when he saw a distant smudge on the water in North Michigan that made him hold his breath before it inched closer and closer, unfurling into rain moments later. Then later, when he returned to North Michigan as a college student of philosophy. He was driving around North Michigan with his cousin and pointed out where his friend’s cherry farm used to be before climate change’s early thaws and late freezes had weakened the multi-generational farming community, and before real estate agents had subdivided the land into “McMansions.”

“What used to be there before the orchards?” his cousin asked.

Hogue felt displaced.

“The land and people on the peninsula were continuously changing,” Hogue said. “And if this was the case, if everything was always changing, then on what basis was I arguing that the orchards and farming community, who, after all, were descendants of white settlers who had harvested forests and taken land from the Ottawa, were morally preferable to the front yards of affluent downstaters?”

Nature itself is the focus of religious naturalism, but nature itself has no center or intrinsic meaning other than what humans have assigned to it.

Hogue said the scale of the universe calls human-centered religion into question, so all levels of life are included. The drive of animals to live — hunt and forage for food, find water, care for their kin — puts them on the same plane as humans.

Religious naturalism does not have a harmonious vision of nature, Hogue said. It is beyond good and evil. There is predation and homicide in nature, but there is also birth, family and the joy of sharing a meal. Observing and reflecting on nature, he said, does not mean that we should pull lessons from nature to think about morals and ethics.

“We have to avoid what is called naturalistic fallacy — there is no reason to mimic nature,” he said. “We cannot navigate a moral dilemma informed by how we think nature works. Morality is a human practice.”

Moral stories and systems emerged out of prosocial tendencies, which Hogue said people “reified” and used to compare their institutions with those of other groups. 

“We survive together by dividing ourselves and reinforcing the validity of our stories compared with other groups,” Hogue said.

There are unanswered questions in religious naturalism that Hogue and others of the faith have to accept.

“Why the universe exists will forever remain out of reach for us,” Hogue said. “The question of God’s existence is not a question that naturalism tries to solve.”

However, sin does exist in terms of elevating one’s self, a group or even a nation above the rest. An inability to consider others above ourselves goes against the task in religious naturalism to take the responsibility to help and lift up others.

Robinson asked if Hogue ever felt guilt, and what he does about it.

“Of course I feel guilt,” Hogue said. “I sometimes ask for guidance for life from the universe, from mystery. … I don’t live up to my ideals, but I actively work toward them in daily life.”

And what is love?

“There are no pre-existing reasons for why we love others,” Hogue said, while acknowledging the prosocial tendencies he mentioned before. “Loving your kids provides a reason to care for them.”

And what makes a worthy life?

“All life has inherent worth, dignity and value,” Hogue said. “A life to be praised is one that lifts others up and is committed to ensuring a world that honors that.”

Jim Antal said “God’s Call” is to preach and act on the science of climate change

Jim_Antal
Jim_Antal
Antal

As Americans’ acceptance of the overwhelming science of climate change grows, only 9% view climate change as a religious issue. But Jim Antal said that congregations and people of faith have a responsibility to preach and act on the current crisis with urgency in his lecture, “God’s Call — Our Vocation — In a Time of Climate Chaos.”

Antal took up the Interfaith Lecture Series mantle for Week One’s “Faith to Save the Earth” on Thursday, July 2. Antal’s lecture nearly replaced Randolph Haluza-DeLay’s previously scheduled Monday lecture following a cancelation, before a system-wide shutdown moved Antal back to his original time slot.

Antal serves as Special Advisor on Climate Justice to the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ. Previously, Antal led the state of Massachusetts’ 350 UCC churches as their Conference Minister and President. In 2013, he proposed the UCC to be the first to divest from fossil fuels, and the resolution passed.

Early in his lecture, Antal said that climate change is an intersectional issue.

“Climate change multiplies and accelerates injustice in at least three ways,” Antal said.

Black, indigenous and poor communities are the most greatly affected by climate change throughout history and the present day, suffering the consequences of the exponentially larger carbon footprints of the rich. However, he said the United States is not willing to pay reparations to these communities, while annually subsidizing fossil fuel companies with over $20 billion a year with taxpayer money.

Antal also said that there is intergenerational responsibility to change systems currently in place, so financial investment and government policy will no longer support practices that are technically legal while damaging the environment and communities.

Referring to the Biblical story of Esther, who had to disobey the secular king to save her people from annihilation, Antal said the shared calling — which he asked individuals, congregations and all of humanity to consider and take action — should upend the status quo if done right.

Paraphrasing the popular quote from Esther 4:14, Antal said, “Perhaps our generation was born to put an end to these injustices.”

To achieve this over multiple generations, religious leaders play a role by using their platforms and speaking out against injustices. He read passages from his book, Climate Church, Climate World, which detail how religious leaders acted throughout history — or didn’t, as when Christian bishops failed to respond to the rise of Nazi Germany.

Antal also called for a sense of urgency, using examples of secular leaders from the present and the past.

In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Edsel Ford to stop making cars and instead use his factory for World War II efforts. In six months, the Willowrun Complex started churning out a new B-24 Liberator bomber every 24 hours.

“If the alarm of World War II can prompt the largest industry in America to willingly and urgently redirect its resources and change its business plan, then it’s up to our generation to muster the courage that climate change requires of us to create the new story,” Antal said.

Antal is a supporter of the Green New Deal, he said, because that proposal has courage, a sense of urgency, and the correct scale to address climate change — which, as an enormous problem, needs equally enormous solutions.

Antal had countless suggestions for religious leaders, congregations and anyone who wants to take action, with an emphasis on addressing economic causes of climate change on both the supply and demand sides.

Antal proposed the UCC’s 2013 decision to publicly divest from fossil fuel companies, the first religious organization to do so. At the time of the decision, he said he received calls from countless financial advisers telling him it was impossible to have a balanced portfolio without fossil fuel companies.

Since 2013, fossil fuel companies have lost $14 trillion in investments after the UCC decision prompted members of the church to pull those companies out of their stock holdings. And Antal said financial advisers now offer between 20 to 30 renewable energy alternatives for investors who are concerned about their investments’ effects beyond their finances.

Antal said campaigns can be executed by secular leaders and concerned citizens as well, and gave specific examples. Actor Jane Fonda, who has publicly protested on behalf of the climate and other issues, announced that she would cut up her J.P. Morgan Chase credit card if Chase Bank didn’t stop lending to fossil fuel companies, and encouraged others to do the same. 

Chase Bank, which has lent $268 billion to these corporations since the 2015 Paris Agreement, cut off the companies and set aside $50 billion for lending to green projects.

Antal said individuals could run similar campaigns by calling offices of their senators and congresspeople, asking how much campaign donations they accepted from fossil fuel companies, and using their leverage as voters and taxpayers. Callers can specifically threaten to not vote for policymakers next election if they don’t end subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, and prioritize boosting wind and solar energy.

Antal said that religious leaders should normalize social disobedience as another way to serve religious values. He cited the time that Jesus’ disciples Peter and Paul spent in jail after Jesus died on the cross.

“They were serving the church of the future,” Antal said.

Antal’s lecture was pre-recorded on June 22 in Antal’s Vermont home. The lecture’s release, while interrupted sporadically by technical problems, was completed in its original time slot, and a live Q-and-A still took place. Audience members could submit to the www.questions.chq.org portal and through Twitter with #CHQ2020.

Antal answered questions in front of the same background of a wall of books that he recorded his lecture in. He also wore the same green liturgical robe which is traditionally worn during the season after Pentecost to symbolize growth in the church

Rabbi Nate DeGroot links sacred to the science, covers climate issues in historically targeted communities compounded by COVID-19

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DeGroot

Climate change, the pandemic and systemic racism intersected in Rabbi Nate DeGroot’s lecture, “Tikkun Adam(ah): A Jewish Response to a World in Upheaval,” on Tuesday, June 30, on CHQ Assembly’s Video Platform. DeGroot was the first speaker for this season’s Interfaith Lecture Series, and for Week One — “Faith to Save the Earth” — after the Monday lecture was postponed due to technical difficulties.

DeGroot opened with how easy it is to misunderstand one person’s effect on the environment.

“At the end of the day, I can’t break the forest or raze a mountain,” DeGroot said.

But DeGroot cited the Arctic’s temperature rising to 100 degrees Fahrenheit a week prior, and that 19 of the last 20 years have been the hottest on record as reasons that people need to understand their effect on nature.

“And so it is — clearly, I believe — past time to rethink our relationship to nature,” DeGroot said.

DeGroot serves as associate director and the spiritual and program director of Hazon Detroit, a city branch within an international Jewish environmental organization that encourages the Jewish community to reconnect to nature through its initiatives. In Hazon Detroit’s case, DeGroot said that it also serves a supporting role for the city’s Black and Native communities. 

During the Q-and-A, DeGroot said these communities have been underserved in the past and present due to white flight, including the Jewish community leaving for the suburbs after the 1967 Detroit rebellion. As a result, Hazon is reconnecting with those communities left behind, which have created self-sufficient networks like community gardens. 

DeGroot said that with a live audience, he often asks questions aloud for people to answer in real time. He did it anyway and asked his audience to answer to their screen as if they were watching “Jeopardy” while he called on imaginary audience members.

“What is the Hebrew word for nature?”

Whoever answered got it right on the first try — “teva.” The last two questions were harder to answer for his imaginary live audience.

“Teva” was first recorded in Jewish thought in the 12th century. It is never used in the Old Testament while describing creation, the Garden of Eden, or Noah’s Ark, nor used in the Psalms.

Jewish texts had no word for nature until then, because at the center of Judaism, “there was no distinction between God and the natural world,” DeGroot said.

No word could contain the eternal, but Judaism revolves around “intimate relationships with nature,” its whims and its weather patterns.

Agricultural seasons frame Jewish holidays. The setting of the sun until only three stars are in the sky marks the end of Shabbat, or Sabbath. Early prayers for rain were paired with dancing and holding willow branches and palm fronds.

Nature was only a “garb” in which God was dressed.

“(By this definition) how we treat nature is a direct reflection of how we treat God, and perhaps vice versa,” DeGroot said. “If God and nature cannot be separated, then every toxic fume that gets puffed into the air is filling God’s lungs with smoke.”

DeGroot quoted the fifth book of the Torah as a warning of what happens when people deny connection between faith and nature.

“If we follow the Commandments, then Deuteronomy says ‘The rains will fall in their season, our harvests will be abundant, our cattle will have ample food to eat and we shall be sated,’” DeGroot said. “But if we stray, and worship idols, and profane and forget what is most sacred in this world, God’s anger will flare up against us. Until the skies above our heads turn to copper, and the earth below our feet becomes iron, the rain of our land will be dust and sand will drop on us from the sky until we are wiped out.”

DeGroot clarified that this was not a “prescriptive” solution from God, but a natural outcome of people’s actions — or lack thereof.

“This is not God punishing us for straying; rather, these lines are descriptive,” DeGroot said. “The natural result of our own careless and callous actions — which, by the way, much like warnings from the latest U.N. Climate Report — teach us that when we neglect the sacred, the sacred will just as quickly neglect us.”

Linking science to the sacred, DeGroot suggested there is a new way to take God for granted.

“When we live outside the right relationship with the natural world, and puff toxic fumes and spew deadly toxins and etch the Earth with oil, we curse ourselves,” DeGroot said. “Is this not what it means to take God’s name in vain in a 21st-century context? And when we hurt nature, the Deuteronomy text makes clear that not only are we hurting God, but we are also hurting ourselves.”

DeGroot called for a Tikkun Adamah. Tikkun is a healing, while Adamah refers to “the dust of the earth” from which God formed Adam.

“Today we are in need of what in Hebrew is called a Tikkun, a kind of mending, fixing, repairing,” DeGroot said. “Tikkun Adam, a healing of the self, and Tikkun Adamah, a healing of earth.”

DeGroot said climate change has compounded recent events like the coronavirus pandemic and “other pandemics” of systemic racism, extractive capitalism and white supremacy.

COVID-19 specifically proved to DeGroot that the world is interconnected, and as a result, demands people care for each other.

“As a resident of Detroit, one thing was clear: that however bad COVID was going to get generally, Detroit would be hit harder than most because the largest majority of Detroit — the largest majority-Black city in the country, like the residents of many other industrial rust belt cities and urban communities — have seen their neighborhoods systematically divested from for well over 50 years,” DeGroot said.

He noted the breakdown of basic infrastructure, systems and support networks coinciding with white flight in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which left the remaining communities with little support.

“(This) means residents now are left severely lacking in what many of us probably assume are basic services, and (they) are therefore far more susceptible to COVID,” DeGroot said.

Finding healthy food and going to the hospital is more difficult due to the lack of public transportation. Water shut off in thousands of homes prevents families from being able to practice good hygiene or stay hydrated. Those who become sick might fear going to the hospital because they can’t afford treatment or are turned away when they most need care. 

Detroit also has had the worst broadband connection of all cities in the United States since 2015, according to the FCC. Detroit public school students suffer from the school system’s lack of funding, so continuing education without the necessary technology proves “basically impossible,” DeGroot said, while more well-off students continue unphased.

Detroit also has the highest rates of asthma in the state of Michigan.

“This is just one example of the many underlying health conditions caused by environmental racism that generations of Detroiters face,” DeGroot said. “Detroit has the highest Black population of any city in the U.S., (and) suffered from the third-most coronavirus deaths in this country.”

One pastor who Hazon Detroit works with has lost 14 family members to the coronavirus.

“None of this is by accident,” DeGroot said. “But rather, this is what happens when people put profit over populace.”

DeGroot told the story of the Tower of Babel, the second example in Jewish texts where humans challenged the divine. According to midrash writings (or narrative interpretations of the Torah and the books of prophets) as the tower to reach God grew higher, it took a year for someone to climb up to add a precious brick to the top. When someone would fall to their death by accident, “bricks became more precious than people” and those below mourned the ruined bricks instead of the person who carried it.

“It is not a sin to build,” DeGroot said. “It is a sin to build towards a perverted cause, to build towards any vision other than the holiness of life and the celebration of the sacred.”

DeGroot likened current affairs with the sin of Babel.

“Our country’s reality of this lived midrash began with genocide and the forced misplacement of Native people, and was built by the hands and ingenuity of Black people taken from their homeland and brought to these shores to be brutally exploited as property,” he said. “… While the circumstances have changed over the years, the structural underpinnings of our society have not.”

DeGroot quoted an opinion article by Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, the North America Director of 350.org which supports anti-fossil fuel organizers and campaigners in the United States and Canada, titled “If you care about the planet, you must dismantle white supremacy.”

She wrote that communities getting hit the hardest by COVID-19 and climate change are also affected by over-policing, incarceration and state-sanctioned violence, which includes “sacrifice zones” of neighborhoods near toxic factories and fumes that have increased multi-generational rates of asthma and other health conditions in these communities.

This adds a grim familiarity to the death-throe pleas of ‘I can’t breathe,’ made by both George Floyd and Eric Garner while they were choked to death by police in Minneapolis and Staten Island, respectively,” O’Laughlin wrote. “… Are you willing to hold accountable all of the systems built off white supremacy — from the fossil fuel industry to racist policing to the prison industrial complex — in defense of the planet? Are you willing to interrogate your complicity in the systems built on white supremacy and commit to dismantling it?”

DeGroot likened this to the exodus of the formerly enslaved Israelites from Pharaoh’s Egypt.

“According to the Midrash, the Israelites’ true and lasting liberation comes not only from the physical leaving of Egypt, but from the Israelites’ emphatic refusal to no longer worship the false idols of Egyptian rule,” DeGroot said.

DeGroot ended with one last call for Tikkun Adam and Tikkun Adamah — the healing of the soul of the people as well as the soil — to soften hearts enough to enact physical change; end false gods of extraction; and follow leaders of the new movement when the world reaches the other side of this moment.

“Nothing less will do,” DeGroot said.

Eberhardt reflects on social psychology of American racial biases

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Author and Professor Jennifer Eberhardt gives a lecture about racial bias and prejudice as part of the Week Nine Interfaith Lecture Series Thursday Aug. 22, 2019 at the Hall of Philosophy. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

When Jennifer Eberhardt’s son was 5 years old, he and his mother sat side by side on an airplane. With an eager and observant eye for his in-flight surroundings, her son pointed out a passenger, saying “that guy looks like daddy,” Eberhardt recalled.

The only other black person on the plane, the man looked “nothing at all” like Eberhardt’s husband.

“I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to have to have a talk with my 5-year-old about how not all black people look alike,’ ” she said.

But as Eberhardt prepared to give her son such a talk, she was met with a startling remark: “I hope he doesn’t rob the plane,” her son said, referring to the black man down the aisle.

“Why would you say that?” Eberhardt asked her son. “And he looked at me with this really sad face, and he said: ‘I don’t know why I said that. I don’t know why I was thinking that.’ ”

Using this memory as a starting point, Eberhardt, a Stanford University professor of psychology and 2014 MacArthur Fellow, expanded on her 2019 book, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, and delivered a lecture of the same name on Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy, as part of Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture Series, “Exploring Race, Religion, and Culture.”

“Even with no malice, even with no explicit hatred, this black crime association made its way into the mind of my 5-year-old,” Eberhardt said. “It makes its way into the minds of all of our children, and into all of us.”

As the co-founder and co-director of Stanford’s SPARQ — Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions — Eberhardt and a team of social scientists have gathered data on criminal justice, economic mobility, education and health disparities since around 2011. Initially called the Lewin Center, after social psychologist Kurt Lewin, SPARQ was established by the late Nalini Ambady, a Stanford professor of psychology, along with Eberhardt and social psychologist Hazel Rose Markus. The team consists of other Stanford faculty, as well as undergraduate and graduate student research assistants.

Using personal bias experiences, professional studies of national and city-specific bias data, Eberhardt took Chautauquans on a four-stop “tour” of bias in the United States: bias in the criminal justice system, bias in schools, bias in the workplace and, finally, actionable steps for confronting those biases. Acknowledging the prevalence of all types of disparities, Eberhardt clarified that she would focus on the “black-white dynamic, where the research is most advanced, where the disparities are especially extreme and where those extreme disparities seem to exist in almost every facet of life.”   

Bias in the criminal justice system, Eberhardt said, “changes how we see.”

“Although African Americans make up less than 13% of the U.S. population, they make up nearly 40% of the prison population,” she said.

To demonstrate the power of the association of black people with criminality, Eberhardt and her colleagues have conducted studies that explore how racial bias can function as a “visual tuning device,” altering the reality of a situation and affecting “what we see and where we look.”

“Racial bias can influence us more than we think; we can express bias unintentionally, despite our motivation and our desire to be fair,” she said. “And most importantly, bias does not require bad actors. Instead, bias can be triggered by the situations that we find ourselves in.”

Eberhardt turned to stop-and-frisk practices and “furtive movement” to further explain how racial bias is indoctrinated in the human brain. Furtive movement, which can generally be described as being shifty or unsure, is ultimately a subjective lens through which police officers see subjects they might consider stopping, she said. And furtive movement is a commonplace justification for stop-and-frisk incidents. In 2010 alone, City of New York Police Department officers made 600,000 stops, with over 300,000 of those stops based on furtive movement; “It was, by far, the No. 1 reason people were stopped on the streets of New York City,” Eberhardt said.

But importantly, the biases embedded in those policing practices have enabled lasting, disparate realities for black people, particularly black men, in the country’s criminal justice system.

“In all of the stops made for furtive movement, 54% were of African Americans, in a city that is only 23% black,” Eberhardt said of the 2010 New York City data. “And we found that black people that were stopped for furtive movement were more likely to be frisked and subjected to physical force than white people who were stopped for the same reason — even though black people were no more likely to have a weapon, and in fact, only 1% of all those stopped for furtive movement actually had a weapon.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the majority of New Yorkers at the time were supportive of “broad and aggressive stop-and-frisk practices,” so Eberhardt’s team followed up. Those follow-up findings revealed that “the more people were reminded of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, for example, the more black they thought the prison population was, the more they thought aggressive practices were necessary to keep order and to stay safe.”

“So the mass incarceration of African Americans not only affects those who are incarcerated, it affects us, it affects how we think and what policies and practices we are inclined to support,” she said. “It leads us to fear black men; it leads us to associate black men with criminality.”

And that association is inherently tied to biases that are born in school settings and “shadow our children as they learn.”

Continuing her tour, Eberhardt described the role of racial bias in school discipline, specifically in how teachers discipline their students.

“In the U.S., black students are more than three times as likely to be suspended or expelled from school than white students,” Eberhardt said. “And close to 70% of those black students who are pushed out of school end up in the criminal justice system at some point in their lives.”

Even with such extreme disparities, Eberhardt’s research considered: “To what extent are these racial disparities in discipline due to bias that teachers may hold, as opposed to the possibility that black children are simply misbehaving more so than white children?”

So Eberhardt and a colleague, Jason Okonofua, now a professor of social psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, designed an online study of teachers in regions across the country. They created a “race manipulation” scenario in which teachers were given hypothetical office referral records for two students — Greg, a stereotypically white name, and Darnell, a stereotypically black name. The referral records for Greg and Darnell were identical, save for the name listed at the top. Initially, the race of the students did not clearly influence how the teachers viewed the identical, minor infractions. But when the teacher read that the same two students misbehaved again, three days later, bias began to show.

“We found that when it came to Greg, the teachers were more inclined to view these two minor infractions as isolated incidents; so one had nothing to do with the other,” Eberhardt said. “But for Darnell, those incidents were connected. They were connected, they were related, they were indicative of a pattern of misbehavior that was problematic — and it needed to be shut down.”

Eberhardt used the word “troublemaker” to describe how the teachers participating in the study perceived Darnell — and that qualifier, especially when attached to black children in primary school or earlier, has enduring implications.

“It has real implications for the mental well-being of black students and for their ability to achieve in school; and over time, those students worry about how they might be treated in school environments,” she said. “Those concerns can influence their day-to-day interactions with teachers, it can influence their academic engagement and their identity as learners.”

On Eberhardt’s third stop, she examined the role of race in hiring decisions in the U.S. labor market — at both the low- and high-wage ends of the labor spectrum. In what Eberhardt described as a “now classic study,” economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan developed and sent 5,000 resumes to potential employers who were advertising jobs in Chicago and Boston. The results: Resumes with black-sounding names received 50% fewer callbacks than identical resumes with white-sounding names. And those results of disparity, Eberhardt said, are not limited to the United States; replicated studies in Canada, Australia and across Europe have been met with similar results.

On the higher-wage end of the labor spectrum, within an investment firm for instance, Eberhardt has found that highly qualified, black-led teams of venture capitalists are viewed more negatively in terms of their track record and expertise. Those qualified black-led teams are out there, she emphasized, “but they’re not seen, they’re not equally valued.”

On her fourth and final stop, Eberhardt cited California’s Oakland Police Department as an example of a powerful collaboration — between social scientists, police officers and the citizens of the City of Oakland. The Oakland Police Department implemented better-informed stop-and-frisk practices based on research recommendations from Eberhardt and her team. The number of law abiding citizens stopped by police from 2017 to 2018 decreased from over 32,000 stops, to less than 20,000.

“African American stops alone fell by 43%,” Eberhadt said.

The efforts involved requesting that officers ask themselves a question before every potential stop: “Do I have credible information to tie this particular person to a crime?”

“So they have to think about and answer that question to make the stop,” Eberhardt said. “So by simply adding that checkbox to the form that officers complete, they slow down, they pause, they think, ‘Why am I considering pulling this person over?’ It pushes them to use evidence of wrongdoing in place of intuition.”

But a paradoxical story serves as a reminder of the systemic work needed to affect both widespread and personal change. Eberhardt recalled a story a black police officer once told her. Working undercover, the officer walked the streets of a city and noticed a figure in the distance, who “didn’t look right.” Though he couldn’t clearly identify the figure, the officer knew he saw a black man, with his same build and height.

“So the officer decided he needed to keep an eye on him,” Eberhardt recalled.

As the officer approached a large office building with glass exterior walls, the man also approached, and as the officer looked closer, he realized the man was inside the building and was looking at him through the glass. Losing sight of the man for a moment, the officer panicked, but then he spotted him again. The officer’s pace quickened; and the man’s pace matched. Then the officer stopped, and so, too, the man stopped. Reflected in the glass, the officer was looking at himself.

“He was looking at his own eyes,” Eberhardt said. 

With a humbling sadness, that deep association of black people with criminality touches lives on all possible levels. But, Eberhardt said, reminded of Oakland’s success, “real change is possible in policing.”

“Real change is possible in many settings — sometimes the root of that change is hard and is complicated and expensive, but sometimes change can be produced by simply checking a box,” she said. “I’m hopeful that this Biased book can contribute to shifting the conversations that we’re having about race in this country right now, so that we don’t slip back in time, so that we remain hopeful and faithful — so that we have faith that we, as individuals in our institutions, can actually do better.”

In interfaith lecture, Sutton suggests 4 steps for racial equality

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Reverend Eugene Taylor Sutton speaks to a crowd of chautauquans on Tuesday, Aug 21, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy about the current atmosphere of racism we’ve been living in since the 2016 election, as well as how it is resembles and is different from the time of Martin Luther King and the initial uproar of the Civil Rights Movement. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

At the top of his lecture, “The Dream Still Lives: 50 Years after Martin Luther King Jr.,” the Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton warned the audience that they should “prepare to get angry.”

“There’s no need to walk out,” he said. “I just want you to stew where you are.”

As the third speaker in the Week Nine Interfaith Lecture Series, “Exploring Race, Religion, and Culture,” Sutton suggested how to move forward from a present plagued by social injustice and outlined the “the gap between where we are and where we want to be,” at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy. Addressing “his white brothers and sisters,” the 14th and current Episcopal Bishop of Maryland detailed the results of a Pew Research Center study that found that a majority of Americans think that race relations in the United States are “bad.”

After a brief musical interlude to sing “Age of Aquarius,” he recalled the generation of young people who attended Woodstock and crusaded for civil rights in the streets. What happened to that promised era of peace and harmony?

Born to parents “escaping the worst of segregation,” Sutton grew up in Washington, D.C., where he attended Mt. Bethel Baptist Church.

“In church, we could hold our head up high,” Sutton said. “We could be somebody there. Because a lot of the rest of the week, we were nobodies.”

His family eventually moved to a different part of D.C., becoming the only black family living in that area. Sutton and his brother played with the neighborhood children, until, within two years, all of them moved away.

“When I speak today … I’m speaking as one who had to overcome what a society was telling him and all of his friends,” Sutton said. “Where are we now, 50 years after King? Are we better now than we were when I was growing up?”

In many ways, he acknowledged, the nation has pursued racial justice in concrete ways: There are no more “White Only” signs, there are more black individuals on television and film and “the president has a black person in his administration.”

“There are fewer instances of, ‘She or he is the first black person to,’ and you fill in the blank,” said Sutton, who himself is the first black person to serve as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

“Forty years earlier, at the time of Martin Luther King Jr., I, with my dark, black, beautiful skin, would not be welcome as a worshipper in more than half of the churches in my diocese,” he said.

While celebrating the struggles of those who forced a greater commitment to racial equity in the United States, Sutton also recognized the “millions of descendants of slaves who are entrapped, this day, in a pernicious circle of hopelessness, poverty and rage” due to segregation, redlining and inferior schools.

“The widespread assumption that everyone and anyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is a lie,” he said, citing statistics proving racial biases in drug arrests and stop-and-frisks, as well as widespread reported anti-black sentiment. Everyone has implicit biases, Sutton contended, especially those who claim the opposite.

“I would love for a candidate to say something like, ‘You know, I was raised like you and everybody else — in a racist society,’ ” Sutton said. “ ‘I have to struggle against that racism in my own life every day.’ … We can’t be honest about what we’re struggling with. We know, if you’ve been to any of the other talks this week, a good case has been made that, basically, we swim, all of us, in an ocean of racism. (We are) just like a fish in the water who doesn’t know it’s wet.”

He referenced a sleep analysis study that found that doctors exhibit “more racist attitudes” toward their patients when they are sleep-deprived.

“Here’s what I want you to know, my white brothers and sisters: I am very invested in your getting to sleep,” he said. “I know some of you are going to begin right now. Rest up, people.”

Debunking the belief that a younger, more accepting generation will eradicate racism — “I’ve heard that for the last 50 years” — Sutton described a systematic structure that produces complicit citizens. He offered four suggestions for those interested in tangible, anti-racist actions.

The first is to commit to “civil conversations” — in other words, “no more name calling.” Sutton lives in Baltimore — the target of President Donald Trump’s July Twitter tirade about a population of rodents apparently overwhelming the city — and wrote a letter to Trump that every major Christian leader in Maryland signed unanimously.

“When you say ‘vermin infested,’ we know what you mean,” Sutton said. “Human beings don’t live there. It’s only said about brown and black communities. … We need to have civil conversations, but if we’re going to do that, stop calling names and stop that language.”

Sutton’s second suggestion is to “remind ourselves that social critique of our nation’s history and present life is both healthy and patriotic.” He cited his friend William Sloane Coffin, a chaplain and activist, who claimed that there were three types of patriotism, two bad and one good. Patriotism, according to Coffin, in the form of “a loveless criticism” or “uncritical love” is unproductive and harmful to democracy.

“The only chance that a liberal democracy such as ours (has to) succeed is if there is an informed populace deeply in love with their country, who love it enough to challenge, critique and protest when the nation does not live up to its ideals,” Sutton said. “The nation’s founders knew that dissent in a democracy is not a synonym for disloyalty. In fact, what is really unpatriotic is blind subservience.”

It is best, Sutton maintained, to participate in an extended “lovers quarrel” with the United States — a necessarily contentious relationship he connected to that of God’s love of the world.

“I can’t think of a more narcissistic, self-centered religion than, ‘It’s all about me going to heaven, and my God,’ ” he said. “What kind of religion is that?”

His third suggestion revolved around “(calling) out the perniciousness of racist language and behaviors.”

He explained how cognitive dissonance enables individuals to hold contradictory ideas in their minds simultaneously. For example: “I voted for Trump,” “I am not racist,” and “Trump made a racist comment.”

“Don’t leave it to black and brown people to say, ‘That’s racist,’ ” he said. “You, a Republican Trump supporter, you need to be the first out there to say that, but, sadly, where is that leadership?” 

Sutton’s fourth and final suggestion is for financial reparations, a word that literally means “to repair what has been broken.” The act, he testified, is not “throwing money at the problem of racism,” but it would help heal centuries of the “denial of humanity, jobs, education and any reasonable chance of wealth and livelihood in this nation.” This history of racism has “left a scar not just on black persons, but on the souls of white persons.” 

“I learned something in Sunday school, at Mt. Bethel Baptist Church,” he said. “I learned that if you steal something from someone, you got to pay it back.” 

Descendants of slaves are among “the most loyal group of Americans you’ll find,” Sutton argued, and black Americans are “not leaving.”

“We built this country,” he said. “We’re here. We’re going to stick around. Part of our thing is to make America squirm as much as we possibly can until she lives up to her soaring creeds about freedom and justice for all. You’re welcome.”

Reparations is not a transfer of money from individual white people to individual black people, he clarified. He himself would “pay to repair this damage” because “this is the mess we have inherited.”

“Now if you want to help me buy a house in Chautauqua…” he said. “We could GoFund this. That’s not reparations.”

He proposed $500 billion, half of one year’s worth of deficit, and contrasted it with the $6 trillion the U.S. government has spent on wars since 2001. That money could be allocated to schools, job training, housing, environmental sustainability and nursing homes. 

“How do you repay 450 years of abject degradation?” Sutton asked. “But unless we do something, we are in a moral ditch. That’s the problem between whites and blacks. Every encounter, there’s a background facade. It’s, ‘You stole from my people,’ or, ‘I know that my people did, or our nation did, but I am not willing to do anything about it.’ ”

Concluding with Micah 6:8 — a verse that asks, “What does the Lord require of you?” — Sutton urged the Hall of Philosophy audience to love kindness, do justice and “walk humbly before your God.”

“Nobody has all the answers,” he said. “But I have a feeling that if we can just be kind enough and committed enough to justice, the answers will come.”

The Rev. williams Talks Myth of Race and ‘Social Madness’ of Whiteness

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Author, teacher and founder of Center for Transformative Change Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams speaks about how culture and a social construct uphold racism in America as part of Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture theme of “Exploring Race, Religion, and Culture” Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019 at the Hall of Philosophy. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“This is at least 2.0, if not Advanced Placement,” said the Rev. angel Kyodo williams, prefacing her afternoon discussion on the intersection of race, religion, history and culture.

A multiracial, black and queer Zen Buddhist teacher, williams delivered her lecture, “Race in America: Myths, Madness, Redemption & Belonging,” at 2 p.m. Tuesday, August 20 in the Hall of Philosophy, continuing Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture Series, “Exploring Race, Religion, and Culture.”

“We often think about race and racial justice in terms of the law and … advocacy,” williams said. “But we all know that, actually, human beings don’t shift so much around the law as we do around hearts and minds. We have never had a conversation about race in America; we’ve had a lot of talking at it, we’ve had a lot of talking about it. … A conversation is where hearts and minds get changed.”

Heralded as “the most intriguing African American Buddhist” by Library Journal and “one of our wisest voices on social evolution” by “On Being with Krista Tippett,” williams has been transforming society through transforming individuals’ inner lives for over 20 years.

“Love and justice are not two,” williams said. “Without inner change, there can be no outer change. Without collective change, no change matters.”

America, williams said, rests upon myths deeply embedded in institutions, which leave out marginalized people who — metaphorically and physically — built this nation.

“We leave these people out of our history, and so we are left with the myth of an America that is and has been founded upon meritocracy,” she said. “The myth of our country is a country that has come about as a result of meritocracy, the hard work of people — a limited number of people — most often defined and relegated to a small corner of heterosexual, white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon males.”

With a nearly 400-year history of oppression in this country, williams said that these myths are blindly supporting ideas of opportunistic nationalism and freedom in the United States. This renders people confused and dazed by ignorance, she said, wondering: “What is wrong with people that are not able to take advantage of those opportunities?”

However, the metaphorical “race” — as williams put it — was never equal. People who are slow to cross the finish line are deemed incapable, ill-equipped and untalented; conversely, those who win the race, are dubbed talented and “endowed with great capacity,” she said.

“We have this enormous gap, not just in our sense of a race divide, but actually in our imagination of who each other are and what it is we are capable of — no one acknowledging the fact that, actually, the race began and the firing gun went off and a certain set of people were allowed to run and run, and run further,” williams said. “But before they were allowed to run and run further, they tied up the other folks. … They got to tie them up first, bind them, leave them behind the finish line and start running — 200 years, give or take.”

The result is a narrowed view of the “fruits of the meritocracy”; the success of some is to the detriment of others, she said. This is now imprinted in American culture, and “culture is not so easily unsettled,” she said.

The remnants are left in U.S. institutions like the justice system and even the U.S. Constitution, which intended to exclude women, people of color and immigrants — nearly 30% of Tuesday’s Hall of Philosophy attendees, she argued.

“(The Constitution) certainly didn’t intend for us to be in this space together,” she told the crowd. “And it certainly, certainly didn’t intend for me to be up here in front of you. We continue to reference this document and pin all our hopes and prayers, our sense of possibility and potential, on a document and the system and the myths, as if that does not … degrade us.”

Such a circular approach created a sense of madness for williams — that she continues to participate and pin her hopes and optimism in a system set out to belittle nearly 50% of the population. Such a system positions “whiteness” as the “height of human achievement,” she said — an unscientifically supported claim that has indoctrinated a population.

“It has created, for my white siblings, a reduced inability … and induced them into a kind of social madness, so that we’re not able to actually see and recognize that the brokenness in our society is — and not primarily a brokenness that affects people of color — a brokenness that affects all of us. … This is a large-scale social illness that has kept us from each other and kept us from being able to recognize and relate to each other with a … capacity for humanity that is our birthright.”

Comparing this phenomenon to taking a pill that would remove all feelings of empathy, compassion and humanity, williams said that “pill” has been passed on for generations, and such emotions are now obsolete. The pill has been so prolific, she said, that society can’t remember when it was “seduced” into the idea of whiteness.

“We no longer recognize, even though it’s written in the history books, the ways that laws were set up to induce us and participate in a system of enslaving human beings and treating them as property to be traded like currency,” she said. “We no longer, therefore, recognize that we have reduced our collective humanity to a system, to an idea, to a myth, that exists for no other reason but for profit or gain.”

But dismantling these myths is greater than tackling racism — it’s about attacking a culture rooted in celebrating whiteness, she said. Above the scholarly works, historical evidence, media, lectures and seminars, williams said the answer is an internal conversation.

“If we’ve been seduced into an idea of who we are …  or who we are not, I don’t know how it would be possible to be the fullest expression of ourselves or step into the fullest expression of our humanity, if we don’t actually know who we are,” she said. “If we’re happy with the pill that has induced us into this myth, then we should just carry on. But if we’re just a little bit curious as to what it would be like to not have the myth of race obscuring our vision, our sense of possibility, our sense of promise, … then we owe it ourselves to ask these questions, be in these conversations and redeem ourselves and generations behind us.”

History Hidden in Plain Sight: Debby Irving Speaks About her ‘Waking up Process’

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Debby Irving, author of the book, “Waking Up White,” speaks to her chautauqua audience about her experiences realizing that there was more she could, and should, be doing to make the world more equal for people of color and minorities during her afternoon lecture on Monday, Aug 19, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

U.S. history, at times, can be a distorted history. Everybody knows that Martin Luther King Jr. “had a dream” — that one day, all people would be free of race-based judgment. It’s a “beautiful aspiration,” according to Debby Irving, but it’s also one that is advantageous to white people.

“This is all I heard, that he had a dream,” Irving said. “And I could say it: That one day we would judge each other by the content of our character and not the color of our skin, which is a beautiful aspiration — and that’s also really convenient for people who want to be colorblind.”

Growing up, Irving, racial justice educator and author of Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race, never knew about King outside of how he was portrayed by white people.

“What I didn’t know about, for instance, with Dr. King was his incredible body of work around power,” Irving said, “and his power analysis, called the ‘triple evils,’ in which militarism, racism and poverty cycle together — it’s kind of a three-part synergy holding racism in place.”

Irving spoke to Chautauquans about her “waking up process” on Monday in the Hall of Philosophy. She began her process after the first inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009 — a time when she saw people in her “white circles and spaces” who were “clinking wine glasses to being a post-racial country.”

For reasons she couldn’t explain at the time, this didn’t feel right to her. As someone from the Norman Rockwell-esque suburb of Winchester, Massachusetts, she would need to build the necessary understanding and vocabulary to unpack this feeling.

Irving described herself as the U.S. “poster child” of the uninformed, and “waking up white” is how she describes her process of becoming more attuned to race and racism. As a child, she formulated ideas about race without anyone even uttering the word “race” — Winchester was an affluent suburb north of Boston, where talking about racism was considered rude.

“Now, imagine somebody coming to my town and saying to me, ‘Oh Debby, this is where you grew up? My God, all I see is racism,’ ” Irving said.

Had she chosen to respond, Irving would have said something like, “It’s comments like that, that keep (racism) alive. If you would stop talking about it, racism would go away.”

Her childhood normalized Irving into whiteness — everything and everybody around her resembled what she had learned to be all-American, from figures like Rockwell, a white illustrator whose work was regularly featured in publications like The Saturday Evening Post.

“I’m seeing these images, and how convenient for me that what I’m being told is all-American looks exactly like my house — and my neighborhood, and my parents,” Irving said. “Everywhere I go, I’m having my own version of the all-American life being reflected back at me.”

Irving never asked, “Mom and Dad, where is everybody?” She never asked why all her parents’ friends were white, why all her friends were white, why all the teachers and the doctors were white. Not asking these questions is what it means to be normalized into whiteness.

“When I use the term ‘whiteness,’ I don’t just mean the optics of whiteness,” Irving said. “I mean all of the cultural behaviors; the beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s appropriate and inappropriate. Who’s beautiful, who’s not. All of those norms are being baked into me and my belief system, without me knowing it.”

And like many children, she was taught to be polite, to never complain or be unpleasant. Talking about politics and religion, which are foundational to the perpetuation of racism, in polite company was, and still is, considered taboo, which severs any and all pathways to discussing racism.

“These are ways that I remained in an information vacuum my entire childhood,” Irving said.

This was the post-World War II era, amidst prevalent rhetoric about the possibilities of people from all over the world coming to America and seeking refuge. The United States was portrayed as a safe harbor for all people — those willing to put in the hard work necessary — to pursue the American Dream.

Because of her surroundings and environment, Irving unconsciously bought into the idea that one particular type of person — a white, cis, Christian man — was naturally, or biologically, more valuable than others.

“I think we need to meet the times where we are, and we are in a very tense time,” Irving said. “I am not going to mince words — I want to give you what my definition of ‘white supremacy’ is.”

Despite being raised by loving people, she believes that she was raised in a white supremacist household; a household that upheld the ideology that all people are not created equal. That white people are superior to others. And the modern era continues to uphold the idea that certain people have more value than others — Irving told Chautauquans to “merely look at the currency” in their wallets.

From day-to-day interactions, like Irving standing up at book signings to shake the first white man’s hand that she encounters, to the whitewashing of important historical moments and information, white supremacist ideology runs deep in American life.

The chosen narrative of King is just one example. Other aspects of American history, such as “Black Wall Street,” a thriving and affluent black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the early 20th century where numerous successful businesses existed, have been left out of the American historical narrative.

If people, like Irving, don’t understand Black Wall Street’s proliferation and ultimate disintegration as a result of white rage, in addition to the hundreds of situations that have disadvantaged black people, then they are “sitting ducks” in the level of discrimination present in the United States.

“The other thing that I am a sitting duck for is not even seeing the systems that have been structured all around me to advantage families like mine,” Irving said. “I don’t know anyone who had a harder time wrapping their heads around systemic racism than me. The thing that finally helped me understand it has to do with the G.I. Bill.”

Officially known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the G.I. Bill was designed to benefit World War II veterans in a number of areas, such as housing and education.

“I want to focus on the housing portion of the G.I. Bill,” Irving said. “Black and brown veterans were largely cut out of the G.I. Bill, even though it said nowhere in it that it was a white-only bill, because there were already barriers all through U.S. systems that made it nearly impossible for black and brown returning veterans to access it.”

These preexisting barriers stem back to the Great Depression, when the New Deal took a heavy focus on erecting new housing and infrastructure across the country.

“(The suburbanization of the U.S.) is all happening, and the FHA, the Federal Housing Authority, and also a loan-arm of the government, got created because, ‘How do we get people coming out of a depression to buy a home?’ ” Irving said. “We have to make a loan, and that loan gets named the mortgage.”

With the mortgage, the FHA needed a set of risk guidelines to assure the government and banks didn’t lose out on their loans.

“The FHA decides — and writes this into their document — that the presence of even one or two non-white families can undermine real estate values,” Irving said. “And so with that government warning in mind, private banks all over the country lay out maps of their cities and towns, and they engage in a practice known as redlining.”

Black neighborhoods were the ones redlined, or the ones whose residents were systematically denied financial services, leaving white neighborhoods to be advantaged.

Filling in these historical gaps, Irving said, allows people to change their perceptions on economic inequality, which didn’t result from white people working harder than others, but rather four centuries of governmental policies that have “intentionally and unintentionally diverted wealth to white, wealthy people again and again and again.”

History has been hiding in plain sight, according to Irving.

“It’s a horrific history,” Irving said, “and the longer we deny it, I believe the more horrible it becomes, and I’m all for leaning into that now.”

Irving said she believes in shifting resources, and that reparations have to be “both material and psychological.” But she also said there’s more internal work that white people can start now and continue to work on every day: to normalize talking about race in a productive and progressive manner; to understand the prejudices and social normalization that not only live within society, but also oneself; and to understand that this work is a layered journey.

“I have come to love the truth, no matter how painful — and it can be incredibly painful — because of that old adage that ‘the truth will set us free’; there’s also something about when the truth gets told,” Irving said. “It unleashes a kind of energy that propels us to the next layer.”

Heather McGhee Speaks on Journey to Uncover Racism’s Impacts in Society

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Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow and former president Heather McGhee speaks to a crowd of Chautauquans about the hazards of racism not only to racial minorities, but to white people and the world as a whole also, recounting a story of a man named Gary from North Carolina who came to her, admitting his prejudices and wanting to change to, “become a better American,” during her afternoon lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

For the past two years, Heather McGhee has been on a walk — one that has taken her from Mississippi, to Alaska to California — a walk that began after an unexpected phone call.

McGhee, author and distinguished senior fellow at the think tank Demos, began her interfaith lecture on Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy by taking Chautauquans back to the “racially charged” summer of 2016, when she made her first appearance on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” The show invites guests — typically journalists and policymakers — to discuss current issues, and viewer calls are a staple of the program.

Originally, McGhee planned to touch on issues like rising student loan debt, raising the minimum wage for low-paid workers and voting rights during the program.

“But about halfway through the show, I got a call with a question that I was absolutely not expecting,” McGhee said.

The call was from Garry Civitello — a white man from North Carolina who openly admitted his prejudices, particularly toward black men, on live television. But Civitello wasn’t seeking to spread his prejudiced preconceptions; he was trying to change them.

“ ‘I want to know what (McGhee) can do to help me become a better American,’ ” McGhee said, quoting Civitello. “So there I am, in this seat, with this earpiece, … and I just said the first thing that came to mind, which was, ‘Thank you.’ ”

She thanked Civitello for his courage to admit something most would never admit.

“I also thanked (Civitello) because I felt that he had opened up a conversation that, at the time, was becoming electrified and charged; and in the static and the noise of all that, we weren’t hearing each other at all,” McGhee said.

But most importantly, McGhee was thankful for Civitello’s acknowledgment that overcoming his prejudices would make him a better American. So she offered him advice on how to do just that — she recommended he get to know black families, read about the contributions African Americans have made to the United States throughout history, and if he’s a religious person, to join an interracial church.

And then her discussion with Civitello was over, but his journey was not — his journey, or “walk” as he described it, had just begun.

Civitello later told McGhee, “It was like you wiped the dirt from a window, and let the light in.” He held himself accountable for his discriminatory fears and anxieties — prejudices that affect the daily lives of black Americans.

“He has a responsibility to get over (his fears) and he knows that,” McGhee said. “One of the other things he did was to start taking little pictures on his iPhone of all the Confederate flags he saw on people’s jackets, on their bumper stickers, on people’s lawns. For him, before his ‘walk,’ as he calls it, he didn’t really think about (Confederate memorabilia).”

Civitello is on a walk to overcome his prejudice for personal reasons, according to McGhee. Through his walk to rid himself of what he described as a weight on his chest, McGhee was forced to ask herself: What are the costs of racism to white people?

She said she needed to focus on this question because American society has been sold into “a zero-sum way of looking at the world.”

“What’s good for you is bad for me; my gain has to come at your expense,” McGhee said. “That’s really the worldview that’s being sold so often right now, particularly when it comes to race. ‘If there are more immigrants of color in the country coming from … Central America and the Caribbean and Asia, well — that must be why the factories are closing. That must be why the schools have less money.’ ”

McGhee thought extensively about this zero-sum paradigm and had an “a-ha” moment — many racial and economic justice advocates have only been talking about how racism benefits white people, and not how it harms them, as well. If this sentiment holds true, then McGhee asks, “How can a multi-racial democracy thrive?”

Currently, Americans — especially white Americans — are buying the idea that “some groups of people are simply worth more than others.” It’s an old belief that McGhee said is not just present in modern America, but is vigorously marketed. 

“My journey these past two years has been to ask the question, ‘Yes, they are buying it; the Garrys of the world are buying it,’ ” McGhee said. “But what are they paying for it? And what have we all paid for it over the course of our history?”   

Two years ago, McGhee began her own walk — she has traveled throughout the United States to uncover the ways in which racism is strategically and politically employed to divide neighbors. She has been exploring how this deliberate use of racism alters everything in U.S. society, from wages down to the air different citizens breathe.

“One of the most profound ways that this zero-sum lie has shaped America has been to make cross-racial solidarity between working class people almost impossible,” McGhee said. “This has happened — it’s been a tool of division to undermine collective action for all of our economic history.”

As this zero-sum lie exists and thrives in the United States, workers frequently act against their own best interests. She witnessed factory workers at an auto-manufacturing plant in Canton, Mississippi, vote against unionization. It was a divisive vote, and had the majority of workers voted in favor of unionizing, they would have received higher wages, health care and other benefits. McGhee wanted to know why the majority of workers turned these benefits down.

Many of the factory workers viewed unions as a system to benefit black people.

“It seemed that the word ‘union’ itself had become a dog whistle with code for the North,” McGhee said, “for undeserving people of color who need the union’s help to compensate, perhaps, for some flaw in their character.”

Elsewhere, she has talked with fast food workers of all races and ethnicities at restaurants like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Popeye’s and Domino’s Pizza who have come together to advocate for a $15-hourly wage. One worker, Terrence, said the uniting factor between all the employees is that “they all get up and work,” that all of the employees, of all races, are struggling and should fight together for what’s right.

So these are the material costs of racism, but what about the spiritual ones? In the midst of discussions centered on systematic financial racism and how segregation is to everybody’s detriment, McGhee said people would “turn to how they felt, on a soul level.”

She quoted Jim Wallis, American theologian and activist, who referred to whiteness as an idol, something that separates people from God.

“ ‘It gives us an identity that is false, one filled with wrongful pride, one that perpetuates both injustice and oppression,” McGhee said, quoting Wallis. “He says, ‘For American democracy to be real for all its citizens, we must die to whiteness.’ ”

The identity of whiteness was created to establish who holds societal privilege.

“It was identity created for violent, oppressive profit, to say who had the privileges of our society and who did not,” McGhee said. “So (Wallis) says, ‘Only if we die to whiteness, can we become alive to our true identity, as human beings of one race, the human race.’ ”

McGhee believes that the zero-sum paradigm can be rejected, and everybody can be welcoming to people of all races, and come to realize the societal benefits from that inclusion. She visited Lewiston, Maine, a rural town that had been depopulated due to mills and factories moving out of the area.

“But towards the end of the main street, you could see it came alive,” McGhee said. “And it came alive with the shops and businesses of black, Muslim immigrants from Africa. … And they have reanimated this town.”

Lives are being transformed across the country by interracial community relationships in towns like Lewiston, according to McGhee — a narrative subverted by rhetoric leading many Americans to believe that immigrants are dangerous, or that there should be a Muslim ban.

“But that doesn’t have to be our story, does it?” McGhee asked. “It doesn’t have to be our story. If a man named Garry, who spent most of his days, and still today, watching TV with his dog, can reach out to the most unlikely person — a black, dreadlocked, progressive woman from Brooklyn — and forge a friendship and change, well then for Garry’s sake, don’t you think we all can?”

Hardy Merriman Calls for Nonviolent Resistance as Method of Change

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President of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, Hardy Merriman speaks during the Interfaith Lecture Series about “Power From the Bottom Up: Civil Resistance as a Driver of Rights, Freedom, and Justice,” on Tuesday, August 13, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy.
MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In his first visit to Chautauqua Institution, Hardy Merriman had something to prove: Nonviolent civil resistance is a more effective sociopolitical strategy than violent insurgence.   

For the sustainability of democracy, for women’s rights, immigrants, labor, minority communities — for all human rights causes — Merriman believes nonviolent resistance is an essential collective tool for any activist.

“There’s clear evidence to show that civil resistance movements have a crucial role to play in advancing peace, democracy, accountability, justice and human rights in the world,” Merriman said.

Merriman, president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, delivered his lecture, “Power from the Bottom Up: Civil Resistance as a Driver For Rights, Freedom and Justice,” on Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy, as part of the Week Eight Interfaith Lecture Series, “The Power of Soft Power.”

Using social science methods and a data set commissioned by the ICNC in 2007, Merriman explored the differences between nonviolent and violent action, the relative effectiveness of those actions and a new conception of what it means to be an “activist.”

To begin, Merriman first described civil resistance movements as having a concerned-citizen structure, one that is based on two types of acts — acts of commission and acts of omission.

“In all these movements, people voluntarily mobilize; no one paid them to mobilize, they weren’t forced,” Merriman said.

That mobilization, Merriman said, can either be predicated on acts of commission — people doing things they are not supposed to do, not expected to do, or forbidden by law from doing — or acts of omission, when people “refuse to do what they were supposed to, expected to do or required by law to do.”

These acts can include strikes, protests, boycotts — more conventionally “seen” methods — as well as divestment and withdrawals of support for particular institutions, all of which, Merriman said, challenge the status quo and the fact that “power comes from obedience.”

Hardy Merriman speaks during the Interfaith Lecture Series about “Power From the Bottom Up: Civil Resistance as a Driver of Rights, Freedom, and Justice,” on Tuesday, August 13, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy. MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“When we do the things we’re supposed to do, this creates the status quo, and certain people and groups have learned to really benefit from that, profit enormously and then sometimes take that power and use it in ways we don’t like,” Merriman said. “When we withdraw our cooperation and obedience, we can make that status quo costly, and shift the balance of power in society.”

Perhaps inherent in all people is the desire for change — even before it bubbles over into wide and collective action, Merriman said, citing John Adams, who described this concept in 1815 with respect to the American Revolution.

“A history of military operations is not a history of the American Revolution,” Merriman quoted. “The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people. It was substantially affected before hostilities commenced.”

Providing examples from the last few years, months and days, including nonviolent movements in South Korea, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Sudan and Hong Kong, Merriman said nonviolent civil resistance is “not culturally specific” and is a “global phenomenon.” As part of the ICNC and directed by American political scientist and professor Erica Chenoweth, a research project was developed in 2007 to help characterize this phenomenon. A data set of events spanning from 1900 to 2006 was compiled and analyzed for the effectiveness of nonviolent and violent movements; the research was used to develop Chenoweth’s award-winning book Why Civil Resistance Works, co-authored by Maria J. Stephan.

The findings offer a better understanding of maximum objectives, which “fundamentally change a government or who is governing,” and what it takes to fulfill them. On average, Merriman said, “nonviolent civil resistance movements were able to achieve their stated goals 53% of the time over the last century,” whereas violent movements achieved their goals 26% of the time. According to Freedom House, authoritarianism has been rising and democracy has been declining in the last 13 years, Merriman said.

But Adams’ perspective that “the revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people,” is not something young people are being exposed to in formal education settings, Merriman said.

“Should children learn this?” Merriman asked. His answer: “Absolutely.”

And the need for educational reform is not limited to educating people about nonviolent civil resistance; it pervades every aspect of moving toward a more nonviolent-oriented world, including in what makes an activist, an activist, and how those activists can be better assisted.

Activists are not just “people with bull horns,” Merriman said. Rather, activists are all types of citizens with diverse skill sets.

“Numbers really matter,” Merriman said. “If you want to win, you need a lot of people, which means you may have to reach out to people who are different from you. You may have to build coalitions; you may have to build unity in a society that’s been divided and ruled.”

To become more effective activists, better organizers and dissidents, Merriman said, an “enabling environment” for nonviolent resisters must be created. In an effort to create that environment, Merriman co-authored Right to Assist with Peter Ackerman. Preventing Mass Atrocities From a Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) to a Right to Assist (RtoA) Campaigns of Civil Resistance, or RtoA for short, is part of the ICNC’s special report series and was released in May. The report provides an extensive outline of needs for nonviolent civil resisters, mostly focusing on a reimagining of how activists can be trained. 

We should not shrink away from these challenges, even though they’re complicated. We need to develop these ideas further. We are at our strongest in the world, and our safest in the world, when we work in solidarity with others and fight together for rights, freedom and justice.” Hardy Merriman President, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict

“Consider this, in any other profession — a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a soldier — they have institutions and established processes to support their learning, development of skills and the practice of individuals in those professions,” Merriman said. “Activists have virtually none of this.”

RtoA suggests a more vocational style of education for activists, one that could be implemented in schools, professional associations, unions, clubs and religious groups.

Merriman returned to the data, pointing to the relative success of nonviolent resistance over the last century and emphasized how remarkable it is for those activists to have achieved their goals “learning on their own time, with very little support.”

“What would it mean if they had much more rigorous support of their cultivation of knowledge, skills and mentorship with other activists?” Merriman asked.

But the assistance shouldn’t end at education, he said. Nonviolent civil resistance movements could benefit from receiving support during transitions of power and in the aftermath of those transitions. 

“Many people who have been living under an authoritarian state have been divided and ruled,” he said. “It takes time for people to build the bonds, to come back together and think about how to unify, not just about what they’re against, but also what they’re for; what do they want to win afterwards?”

The transition is the “first step,” Merriman said, and can require engaging international groups and nongovernmental sectors. That engagement, though, often presents situational challenges, including where and how transition assistance is given, and what parties — international or otherwise — offer that assistance.

“We should not shrink away from these challenges, even though they’re complicated,” Merriman said. “We need to develop these ideas further. We are at our strongest in the world, and our safest in the world, when we work in solidarity with others and fight together for rights, freedom and justice.”

Without that solidarity, a more authoritarian world is imminent, one that is “more prone to warfare, to violence, humanitarian crises and atrocities.”

“It’s a world in which human rights abuses and spreading corruption are more likely to happen, and it hampers the international community’s ability to respond to a whole other range of issues,” Merriman said.

The bad news: Democracies are backsliding and authoritarians are “on offense.”

“Some good news is that the data is very clear that grassroots activists and organizers waging nonviolent struggle are a cornerstone of defending and advancing accountable government,” Merriman said. “We need to take their work seriously and treat it with the same seriousness as any other vocation, build infrastructure that supports the development of skills and knowledge related to this work and provide much more coordinated support to these movements when they face repression and their human rights are being violated. These steps, among other approaches, can help us turn the tide.”

Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede Discusses Years of Experience with Zen Buddhism

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Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede talks about Zen Buddhism and the relationship between evil and humanity during the seventh interfaith lecture of the season. Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson and Kjolhede continue the conversation after the lecture Friday, August 9, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

On Aug. 3 in El Paso, Texas, 22 people lost their lives after a man armed with an AK-47 assault rifle opened fire at a Walmart. Just a day later, another armed gunman killed nine and wounded more than two dozen in a deadly attack in the Oregon District in Dayton, Ohio. These acts of mass violence, like the famine in Yemen, the AIDs epidemic and other global crises that affect millions, are examples of the evil that exists in this world.

Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
“Evil, suffering, violence and tragedy have been around since the beginning of humankind,” said the Rt. Rev. V Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, who opened the Interfaith Friday lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.

So how can evil be explained? How is it that bad things can happen to good people, and vice versa?

Before joining Robinson for the Interfaith Friday conversation, Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede, abbot and director of the Rochester Zen Center, approached these questions with the three most famous words in Zen Buddhist practice.

“I. Don’t. Know,” Kjolhede said. “I don’t know, and I think this takes us into the depths of the mystical traditions of all the different religions, … ‘mystical’ meaning that which is beyond the intellectual, beyond the conceptual, that which is the intuitive or contemplative. This is what unites all religions that have a mystical aspect to them; this realm of not knowing.”

Kjolhede began his lecture by quoting a famous Chinese Zen master who once said: “To speak of a thing, misses the mark.”

“That’s what I’m up against, and that’s what anyone in speaking about Zen is up against,” he said. “Anything I say falls short, because the true essence of Zen cannot be encompassed in words — it’s beyond words.”

The Zen school of Buddhism has historically been known as the school that doesn’t rely on words, or “the school of direct experience.” Kjolhede said the point of Zen Buddhism is to get behind the words.

The word “Zen” is the transliteration of the Chinese word, “Chan.” These two words simply mean “meditation” — Zen is a practice based entirely around meditation.

“Now here comes the hard part,” Kjolhede said. “If we’re talking about God, or evil or any noun, we’re always left with what that really means.”

Buddhists believe that all truth has two sides — the conventional and the ultimate, joined together to create a two-fold reality. The conventional side is the dualisms people face throughout life: time and space, success and failure, etc.

“But then there’s this other side, which you could call the undifferentiated,” Kjolhede said. “The eternal, the absolute. And reality, or I could say enlightenment, is seeing these two sides as just two sides of reality.”

In other words, this “other side” of reality is the unknowable side.

“But you can’t speak about either side as anything except half the truth,” he said. “The truth is ‘this,’ the whole thing. In addressing the matter of evil or God, or anything … we have to talk about it from these two sides.”

Reaching the unknowable side of reality requires emptiness. According to the Buddhist belief of emptiness, nothing in the world is fixed — everything is in flux. For example, an audience member who walked into the Hall of Philosophy 20 minutes before Kjolhede’s lecture began, wasn’t the same person when they left as they were when they walked in.

Everything is insubstantial, according to Kjolhede, including God and evil. Not that evil things don’t happen — he recognizes that heinous crimes and cruelty occur all over the world — but evil is not a fixed thing, it’s not permanent, it’s not a thing as it is in other religions.

“That’s not just what I believe; it doesn’t matter what I believe,” he said. “It’s what I’ve experienced.”

Kjolhede’s experience with Zen has spanned 49 years. Like his teacher, Philip Kapleau, Kjolhede became invested in the practice after an experience that left him “shredded.” He was arrested after being caught with peyote as a 21-year-old, and his night in prison was one Kjolhede described as a “night in hell.”

“I was with 13 other convicted prisoners convicted of murder; heroin addicts screaming and vomiting all night,” he said. “This is the suburban kid who grew up in Rochester, Michigan, by the way. … I realized that I had to change my life.”

Originally, Zen bored him — he was looking for stimulating philosophy, rather than rigid practice. Now, he believes, “a little bit of understanding inclinith one’s mind to philosophy, deeper understanding inclinith one’s mind to religion,” once said by Francis Bacon.

“I believe that,” Kjolhede said. “I believe it because to go to the depths of reality, to the depths of our own nature, requires us to go beyond this rational, logical mind.”

When addressing the question, “How can bad things happen to good people and vice versa?” Zen Buddhists don’t rely on any doctrinal points such as reincarnation or Karma, which states that everything results from a chain of cause and effect.

“In Zen, we don’t need to stay there in talking about Karma,” he said. “I would say that in Tibetan Buddhism, (Karma) is more of a thing. In fact, I’ve seen real, serious debates between Tibetan Buddhists about whether you need to believe in reincarnation to come to enlightenment. In Zen, that’s beside the point. In Zen, it’s this moment, it’s now. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in rebirth, or past life or future life. It’s, ‘Are you present now?’ That’s the important thing.”

Katherine Ozment’s Lecture on Grace Illuminates Secular Journey for Answers

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Katherine Ozment began her interfaith lecture on grace by harkening back to a time when that word wasn’t part of her vocabulary.

She was watching a Greek Orthodox ritual in the church across the street from where she and her family lived, when her son asked, “Why don’t we do that?”

“I said, ‘Because we’re not Greek Orthodox,’ ” said Ozment, a journalist and author of Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age. “My son asked, ‘Well what are we?’ And I blurted out without thinking: ‘We’re nothing.’ ”

At 2 p.m. Thursday, August 8 in the Hall of Philosophy, Ozment discussed “Grace without God,” part of Week Seven’s interfaith lecture series, “Grace: A Celebration of Extraordinary Gifts.”

Ozment, who was raised Presbyterian, said she and her husband assumed they’d find the answers to life’s questions outside of organized religion.

“(But) when I said that, I felt like I’d really failed my son,” she said. “Not just because I hadn’t given him a clear sense of identity and belonging, but also as a writer, because I didn’t have the words for what we were doing and how we were living, and the values we were trying to impart. I felt like I had really shirked my responsibility.”

After that realization, Ozment said she went to her editor at Boston Magazine and pitched an idea for a story about how Boston families were raising children in the absence of religion.

“(My editor) had two young children, so he said, ‘Please write that story,’ ” she said. “ ‘Because I need to know, everyone I know needs to know. There are so many of us doing this right now.’ ”

While researching the story, Ozment said she encountered statistics from Pew Research Center that showed a dramatic increase in the amount of “nones” — people who check “none of the above” in surveys about religion affiliation — in the United States.

“When Pew came out with their new numbers in 2012, they’d lept from 5% to 20% (of ‘nones’),” she said. “Since then, the number has grown to 25%. In addition, millennials are driving this movement. At that time, 2012, 33% of millennials said they were religiously unaffiliated. Now, that number is up to 39% or 40%.”

After Ozment wrote her article, she went to give a talk to a group of atheists in Boston who had become her friends.

“One guy I’ll never forget raised his hand at the end of the talk and said, ‘I know why I left the church, and I know why my wife left the church,’ ” she said. “ ‘We don’t really want to go back; it doesn’t really feel like home to us anymore. But I don’t know where to go instead. I don’t know where to find a place for my two young children where we can escape the commercial forces in society.’ ”

Ozment realized she didn’t have an answer for him.

“I had presented the issue, but I realized I had to focus my energy on going out and finding out the answer to the question, ‘What do we do now?’ ” she said. “Because to walk away from something that has provided so much for so long, without asking ‘What are we going to do instead?,’ I think, is a shirking of responsibility. I think generations to come deserve more thought than that.”

So Ozment began her three-year journey around the country, researching the answers to the questions she’d uncovered.

“I traveled around to meet people either in houses of worship, in families’ homes, in gatherings of Humanists and atheists and secular Buddhists, trying to find examples of what I termed ‘grace without God,’ ” she said. “The things that religion once gave us — how do we find it in a secular way?”

During her journey, Ozment said she encountered many people who were burned out by the rituals common in many faiths, despite their possible benefits.

“I discovered a professor at Harvard named Michael Pewitt who studies ancient Chinese philosophy,” she said. “In a talk I attended, he talked about how what rituals really do for us is allow us to create an ‘as-if world.’ We walk into a ritual space, we enact a ritual that allows us to act as if we are living in harmony with one another, as if we are in harmony in ourselves, and we are rising to the occasion.”

By way of example, Pewitt described how after a monarch died in ancient China, there was a need to bring in a new leader.

“There might be rivalries or potential violence,” Ozment said. “And there was a ritual in which the leaders would stand in the formation of the celestial bodies during this handover of power. That reminded people, in a ritualistic way, the importance of harmony and of keeping everything together. That here, we act as if we live in harmony. Here, we act as if this is a smooth transition.”

In a ritual, Ozment said it’s possible to find “an elevation, an increase of yourself in the direction that you want.”

At the end of her quest for answers, Ozment published Grace Without God, and included in the epilogue a letter to her children concerning the things that she’d learned.

“For years you’ve been asking me the big questions, like miniature Greek philosophers, Catholic theologians or Buddhist monks,” she read. “You walk up to me as I wash dishes, or unpack groceries, or pay bills, and say, ‘What happens when we die?’ ‘Why are we here?’ ‘Who is God?’ ”

Ozment said, while she fears she knows very little, she wanted to dedicate the letter in her epilogue to the answers to those questions.

“No. 1: Your life is a privilege; live it well, and seek to help others live well, too,” she said. “No. 2: Find your people. Find friends that share your values, but not necessarily your beliefs. No. 3: Learn the religious stories. They are part of your heritage and your history, whether you like it or not. Study, too, the rich history of non-belief. Learn about the doubters and atheists and secular Humanists, who have likewise shaped our world.”

For her fourth point, Ozment said she encouraged her kids to “mark time with ritual.”

“Rituals help us feel connected through time to those of us who came before, and those who will come after,” she said. “Create new holidays, solstice parties, harvest festivals, baby namings, that speak to where you’ve come from, who you are and who you want to be.

And for Ozment’s fifth point, she reminded her children to “open yourself to awe and wonder.”

“Visit art museums, climb mountains and read poetry,” she said. “Pay attention, too, to the mundane. Notice the cracks in the sidewalk, the green of the leaves. Marvel at the full harvest moon, low in the autumn sky. The two-week-old baby in her mother’s arms. Don’t get so busy that you forget that we are all living in a mystery.”

Rabbi Saul Berman Discusses Role of Prayer, Free Will and Divine Intervention in Judaism

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Rabbi Saul J. Bernam speaks to the chautauquan congregation on Aug 2, 2019, as a part of the Institution’s Interfaith Friday series, on the purpose on evil and suffering, and what roles free will and divine intervention truly play in our indivual lives, and in the spiritual bug picture in the Hall of Philosophy. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

For Week Six’s Interfaith Friday Series in the Hall of Philosophy, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, posed a series of questions to Rabbi Saul Berman, who spoke on behalf of Modern Orthodox Judaism.

Berman attended Yeshiva University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree and was ordained. He then studied law at New York University, and earned a master’s degree in political science at the University of California, Berkeley. Now, Berman balances teaching as a professor at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva, and at the Columbia University School of Law.

What follows is an abridged version of Berman’s conversation. Berman and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.


Robinson: Was the call to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac — was that asking Abraham to bend over backwards for God?

Berman: No. The Jewish tradition views that as a divine test and the test to Abraham was two-fold. One, would he be obedient? Two, would he use his judgment at the final moment to turn away from such action and to know that neither he nor anyone else could claim the right to take life at the sound of God that only he heard? Different Jewish commentators place greater or lesser emphasis on one or the other of those sides in the Bible. I believe that was a dual test and that Abraham succeeded. He succeeded, first, in his expression of willingness to submit to the divine command. But he also succeeded in gaining the understanding out of that experience that one could not be justified in taking the life of another human being simply because he believed that he had heard God tell him to do that.


Was it a bad thing for Adam and Eve to want to eat of the tree? Was that just a test, or is there something inherent about the knowledge of good and evil that God wanted them to steer clear of?

There are centuries of discourse around that particular issue. My own sense is that was not a test, but rather a description of the process by which we became human. And, humans needed to understand that, in fact, we had to be able to hear God’s command; we had the freedom to choose to disobey; and there are consequences to disobedience. In order for us to be fully human and in order for us to ultimately achieve God’s will in this world, we need to know all three of those things: that God’s will can be known, that we have the capacity to either submit or reject and that there are consequences to that decision.


If I have a seriously ill friend and I want to pray for her, what do I have a right to ask God to do, and what might God do in response to that request? And then, what is my responsibility?

First of all, the rabbinic thought in fact identifies the notion of inappropriate or wrongful prayer; that is, we do not have the right to ask God to reverse what already is factual. So, as the tongue would express it, if someone is returning home and sort of sees a fire in the distance, he should not pray to God, “Let that not be my home.” There are two reasons for that. First of all because, if it’s not yours, it’s somebody else’s. So, you should not pray in a manner that would simply shift the burden to somebody else. Secondly, because there’s a fire there already, it’s burning in a particular home. So, if it’s already burning in your home, you can’t ask God to reverse that and make it be that the fire never existed in your home. What you can ask God in prayer is that those who can still be saved will be saved; that those who are not injured should not be injured; and that the fire should be extinguished rapidly.

You can pray for things that are still possible, even though some of those things also related to the future may appear to require miraculous intervention. It might take miraculous intervention for somebody who is at risk to be saved. But, so long as the event has not yet occurred, you can still pray for God to intervene to prevent a particular event from occurring. A part of that also requires a sense of awareness of one’s own responsibility in relation to that circumstance. So, the prayer needs to give you the strength to comfort, the strength to give hope, the strength to manifest empathy, the strength to call that person and say, “How are you? I’m praying for you.” Rabbis insist that visiting the sick relieves one-60th of the illness of the suffering.

There was no question in my mind that people visiting someone who is sick take away a little bit of that. Sometimes it’s momentary and sometimes it’s long-lasting, but it takes away a little bit of the pain because it takes away a little bit of the isolation. For any one of us who have experienced illness ourselves or of those we love, we know that one of the deepest feelings in such an experience is the experience of being alone. And the ability to alleviate that sense of loneliness is a critical element that we can contribute.


So, you can want God to change what is, but it’s not right to expect it?

Expecting God to respond to our individual prayers is, of course, an extraordinarily difficult challenge. I struggle with that all of the time. The text often appears to us to be sort of a script. It’s a monologue; it’s us talking to God and then we ask ourselves, “How come he hasn’t responded?” The more I study the Jewish prayer book, the siddur, the more I realize that implanted into the text of the siddur is really a dialogue, not a monologue. Every few paragraphs, there is a paragraph which quotes what God said, as it were, on the assumption that God’s words are eternal. If God’s words are eternal, then they continue, as it were, to reverberate throughout the universe continuously.

So, when the Prophet said in the name of God, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth and I will fill it,” those are in the text of the siddur. That’s not us speaking to God. That has to be our hearing God say to us that God hears our prayers, that he is responsive to our prayers, that he is with us. “I am with you,” says God, “in your times of trouble.” We have to be able to hear and know the truth of that because we believe that God is responsive in that way. So does that mean that God will cure every illness and prevent any disaster from occurring? No. It doesn’t mean that, because God created the natural order and grants it, as it were, the maximum possible liberty to act in accordance with its rules — as he gave us free will and enables us to act as fully as we choose to in consonance with our free will, even when that is against the will of God. He allows that to take place except in those moments when he intervenes. And, thank God we do not know the moments of intervention, but we continue to pray for them.

Gibran Saleem Shares Journey and Importance of Laughter in Personal Faith

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Co-member of, “The Laugh in Peace Tour,” Gibran Saleem, speaks about his personal journey with religion in his lecture “What’s So Funny about Religion from a Muslim Perspective: A personal Journey,” on Thursday, August 1, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy.
MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

 

One has to go through experiences in life’s journey before they reach their destination.

“Whether you know good deeds or sins or confusion or internal conflict, all that leads to something,” Gibran Saleem said. “We’re always growing in a direction whether we know it or not, and we don’t necessarily need to be there as long as you’re kind of working towards something, and sometimes you’re working towards something on a subconscious level.”

Saleem, a stand-up comedian and one-third of the Laugh in Peace Tour, presented his lecture, “What’s So Funny about Religion from a Muslim Perspective: A Personal Journey,” on Thursday, August 1 in the Hall of Philosophy, as a continuation of the Week Six theme, “What’s So Funny About Religion?”

Saleem talked about his childhood and the obstacles he faced as a young boy, being the only darker-skinned child in his class, sitting alone at lunch because of the food he brought to school and the split that existed between his life as a “regular child” and his life within the Muslim community.

“I’d go to Sunday school on Sundays,” Saleem said. “I even went to a karate class in our local Masjid, which was a very interesting experience because there was a Pakistani man with a thick Pakistani accent, and when we’re doing karate … can you imagine a thick Pakistani accent trying to speak Japanese? We’d get kicked out because we were just laughing so much at the wrong time. So, it was weird. There’s this dichotomy between me just being a regular kid at school and then me being a Muslim kid.”

As this dichotomy remained throughout his childhood, Saleem became more resistant, not wanting to pray as his family did — five times a day in the household. Some days, when he was sent to his room, he would genuinely pray, or he would do a Dua, a type of prayer Saleem described as a “personal confessional” or “a direct connection to God at your fingertips.”

“It was just my own personal dialogue, and that was me kind of exploring the world of religion and the different ways to connect to God through various lenses,” Saleem said.

Prayer was not all Saleem rebelled against. One time in school, a young boy approached Saleem and asked if he was Pakistani. Saleem said he wasn’t and that he was from North Carolina.

“Basically everything in my life, I just wanted to run away from,” Saleem said. “I was constantly embarrassed by my family, like most kids are.”

As Saleem grew, he started to think about his community and the similarities shared between all religions — one being the sense of community that religion creates.

“Part of what’s so funny about religion is that it’s not funny, and that makes it so much more funny,” Saleem said. “But also, what’s so funny is the communities, because within the communities is its own culture that’s part of the community, your own personal culture. And within that culture and within that community, there’s an arsenal of punchlines from people that you know and see all the time. There’s so much funny there, rooted from the people, that’s rooted from the culture, from the community, from the overarching religion.”

Saleem began to realize this, and he began to feel this sense of community when he went to college. Saleem went to Virginia Commonwealth University, where he was exposed to a great deal of diversity.

Again, Saleem wanted to distance himself from his religion and community. Part of the reason was that he didn’t want to represent Islam in a bad way, as many people tend to see one example of a group and use it to define the whole group. He also wanted to feel like and fit in with everyone else.

“There was a lot of internal conflict, and part of that conflict is learning how to unwind and take that ball of conflict, and turn it into a thread of clarity,” Saleem said. “Part of that was going through experiences, learning who I am, learning part of what the world is and what is my identity versus what is perception; what is someone’s perception of my identity?”

Finally, Saleem learned that he needed to stop fighting himself and stop rebelling against his identity. He said he was once washing a strainer, and there was a spot at the bottom that he could not get out. He flipped the strainer over and realized it was his own hand through the bottom of the strainer.

“Maybe those holes in the strainer really just represent an opportunity for my family to come through,” Saleem said. “Maybe that’s the way that I want to go. Rather than focus on negative or internal conflict, the solution is to just look at it positively and find a resolution within myself.”

Saleem began to have positive experiences in college with people of different religions, as well as people of his own religion. He said he began to create his own sense of community, and he also reconnected with his own community through the Muslim Students Association at his university. He even created his own university organization, PASA, which stands for Pakistani American Student Association.

After graduation and some time living in New York City, Saleem decided to pursue his master’s degree. While earning that degree, he went to England to work as a cognitive behavioral therapy coach at an obesity camp.

One day, he and a girl he met through individual counselling were skipping rocks. She could not skip the rock for anything, and at first, neither could he. But, from watching how she was skipping it wrong, Saleem was able to learn how to properly skip the rock. From this experience, he said, he learned a spiritual lesson.

“Your goal isn’t to give them the conclusion,” Saleem said. “It’s not to give them an answer on how to handle your situation or conflict. The goal is to help someone to arrive at their own conclusion, to help guide them along their way; it’s their journey.”

Saleem also learned that meeting and interacting with people enhances one’s journey and allows people to learn from one another.Because of his interactions, Saleem became more socially and spiritually attuned.

“Faith comes even when you’re not looking for it,” Saleem said. “Sometimes, there’s things around you that are there to teach you, to help you, to save you. … I started realizing that if you don’t keep an eye open or an open heart, … things in life happen that force you to think on a spiritual level.”

Everyone is on a path — a journey — to a destination, Saleem said. And, though everyone will face obstacles and be pushed to learn serious lessons, all people need laughter to make the journey a bit more enjoyable. Laughter doesn’t deviate one from their path, it only makes the passing time sweeter.

“Without conflict, without understanding, I wouldn’t be able to arrive to where I am and do comedy,” Saleem said. “So I get to laugh all the time along the way. And that makes me feel good. And when I feel good, I feel like I’m a better person to other people. I try to make people laugh; I try to make myself laugh because I know when I’m in that funny place, I get to be my best self, and I get to share my best self with every other faith, community and culture. … That positive feeling, in a way, feels like it helps everyone head towards the path that they’re headed toward anyways.”

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