Rev. angel Kyodo williams is an ordained Zen Buddhist priest, spiritual maverick, author, activist, and founder of CXC (Center for Transformative Change), in Berkeley, California, which is dedicated to “changing the way change is done.” Rather than encourage spiritual seekers to become more politically active, CXC supports social activists in becoming more spiritual. Rev. angel believes this is the only way we will “flip the switch” in people’s hearts so that we treat each other and the Earth more compassionately. She sees this as America’s “next great social movement: the application of inner awareness practice to broad-based social change.”
When I previously interviewed Rev. angel, for the January 2014 issue of The MOON, I was taken with several of her statements. “The only way the world is going to change the way we want it to, is for us to show up in that same way,” she said. “If we want sustainability in the world, we have to live in sustainable ways. If we want peace in the world, we have to live in peaceful ways. If we want justice in the world, we have to be just in all our dealings.” Under her leadership, the CXC has slowly evolved a model of “being the change we wish to see” in as many forms as it can tackle. And keeps taking on more.
I was also taken by the fact that, as a result of her meditation practice, she knew that, “The universe loves us. It radiates love. It’s like being an infant in your mother’s arms, knowing that your mother loves you because you exist. It’s not about what you do.” Having tasted that universal love, I have found her willing to share it generously with others–of all races, religions, and practices.
In addition to being the founder of CXC, Rev. angel is the author of Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace, which has been called “a classic” by Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, and “an act of love” by novelist Alice Walker. She is also the co-author, with Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah, Ph.D., of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation. She recently has been invited as the first Buddhist member of the Senior Fellows of Faith-Centered Justice Leadership at Auburn Seminary, joining an impressive group of other faith leaders including Rev. William Barber II of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Sister Simone Campbell, of Nuns on the Bus, Pastor Raphael Warnock, of MLK’s Ebenezer Church in Georgia…and Valarie Kaur, a Sikh woman, along with other representatives of the Jewish, Muslim, Evangelical, and other faiths. An encouraging prospect for us all. — Leslee Goodman
The MOON: After the election you gave a webinar entitled, “The Reckoning: How Good People Let Bad Things Happen and the Truth Needed to Reclaim Connection.” The description referenced emotions many of us were feeling: Anger. Confusion. Guilt. Despair. Why “the reckoning”?
Rev. angel: “The reckoning” were words that kept coming back to me in the days following the election. I interpret the November 2016 election as a moment of reckoning that we’ve needed for a long time in this country, but we’ve put it off because that’s easier. Until humans are forced to look at something and reckon with it, we don’t. But it was our country’s entire history, built on a foundation of slavery, Native American genocide, and capitalist exploitation—which converts everything into a commodity for maximum commercialization—that ultimately gave us the November election results. We’re a people deeply divided on who, or what, we think this country is; and what we want it to be. Some people say this election gave a platform to hate, but I think there are deeper historical forces at work that we’ve never acknowledged—even those of us who think we’re better than “the haters.” From my perspective, the election made perfectly clear what has always been the case in this country: It was founded to favor—to make central—white, wealthy, heterosexual males.
That’s not surprising: white, heterosexual males were the founding fathers. They didn’t consider women their equals. They didn’t consider African-Americans or Native Americans full human beings. Yes, the history of the country also includes the effort to expand who the country is for—women, former slaves, and in just the last few years, the LGBTQ community. Progressives have called this progress, but there’s obviously a large segment of the population who think differently. You can’t “make America great again” unless you think there was something great about America in the past that has been lost through all these years of what some of us think of as progress.
“The reckoning” is how we come to terms with that fact. I don’t think it’s something we can do politically. It’s something that has to be done spiritually because it’s actually an identity crisis. Politics is concerned with expediency; with winning; with “winner take all.” To do that, we too often demonize our opponents—say those very same, white heterosexual males. We can’t keep doing that and expect to shift things. We have to recognize our underlying unity. We have to viscerally understand that we’re all in the same boat.
There are people who truly believe, as a result of their worldview, that they are rightfully entitled to a better lot in life than others—and taking power, jobs, or access away from them and sharing them with others won’t address their belief. Many of them, by the way, don’t “hate” these inferior “others,” so long as the others know their place. But if those others think they can occupy the same place of entitlement as white heterosexual males, white males will react. And they did react. Their allies will also react. That’s why we saw white women also vote for Trump; they too believe in the rightful primacy of their husbands and fathers; white males. I don’t think this election was so much about Trump; I say it’s about asserting white supremacy; white nationalism. Yes, we’ve made strides towards including more people, but the basic underlying belief has never shifted; never been reckoned with. Progressives wanted to look at white nationalism as a fringe movement; as “a basket of deplorables,” as Hillary said. But if we could address this racial divide—if black, white, immigrant, and so forth could see that we have much more in common with each other than with the wealthy elite—we could make structural changes that would benefit everyone.
So Trump and the powers that be have been effective at keeping all of us “marginalized” groups fighting amongst ourselves, rather than changing the system that keeps the existing power structure in place. We’ve bought into seeing that power structure as ultimately legitimate. Yes, a few minority members can make it to the top—President and Michelle Obama, for example—but only by denying how rare they are; only by keeping the rest of the marginalized in their places. No one is allowed to challenge the notion that America is the land of heterosexual white males—and that this is as it should be.
That’s why Trump was able to direct white anger towards blacks, immigrants, Muslims, minorities, foreigners, women, who are not “real Americans,” rather than at the supremely wealthy, who are actually controlling the resources and calling the shots. He was able to channel their anger at feeling disenfranchised by saying their rights were taken away by those who don’t really deserve the full benefits of being American.
Meanwhile, people on the other side of the aisle, so to speak, remained asleep. That’s the “good people letting bad things happen” part of the subtitle. They were able to convince themselves that this country is not racist; that we’re post-racial now. The election pulled the veil off that illusion. We’re able to see very clearly now a lot of things that are frankly embarrassing for many people to realize.
The MOON: Yes, the Trump candidacy was so outrageous, it was hard to believe he could win. He said so many things that would have imploded any other candidate’s chances, but he just kept on going. Yet I still find it hard to say it was only racism that got him elected. I heard Jon Stewart say that he thought there were a lot of more mundane fears, as well, like one’s health insurance premiums going up. Like Clinton being such a poster child for neoliberal policies and incessant warmongering that progressives—and others—were not excited by her candidacy.