Rev. angel: Right. We don’t. We’re having a spiritual crisis, and spiritual discipline and practice and growth take time—and training. Spiritual vision is very much a long game and I think when we get sucked into the singularity of the short-term vision we lose.
The MOON: New Age people are fond of saying, “What you resist persists.” If you’re opposed to something, you should just withdraw your energy from it and focus on the positive. Which has always frustrated me because I’ve thought that, “If your house was on fire, you’d damn well call 911 and get out the hose.”
On the other hand, Brian Swimme, the proponent of Big History, says that evolution progresses by means of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. By holding our oppositional positions, we create the tension that results in a third alternative that catapults us forward.
And then there’s the 100th monkey theory of change: that when enough people adopt a new behavior, or worldview, change occurs almost by acclamation. It seems to me that this is what happened with the LGBTQ movement: enough people knew and loved people who were not heterosexual that they just got fed up with trying to deny them equality.
What is your theory of change? How do we honor diversity of opinion—and the legitimacy of that diversity—and still move forward towards “liberty and justice for all”?
Rev. angel: Complexity is a key word. We need a long-term vision that inspires and unifies us, as well as short-term tactics that move us forward without doing violence to the long-term vision. For example, how do I stand in a place in which I can say “We have to seriously evaluate capitalism, and slavery, and racialization, and how they have created this divide among us,” while also expressing that I am not angry at Joe White Guy Capitalist, and that I am doing my best to understand his worldview as best I can.
Personally, where I can empathize with him is by understanding that his world is coming apart. The worldview that people in this country have held for generations is coming apart and that is very, very painful; very disorienting. Certainly Americans’ drug use and suicide rates are not the smallest indicator. How do we feel then? How do we feel their pain?
Most people aren’t looking for more pain to experience [laughs], so it takes commitment first to accept and acknowledge your own pain so that you can begin to soften around it enough to be willing to receive another’s pain. That’s the thing that promotes the third view you’re talking about. When two of us monkeys have done this and articulated a third way, then others see it and try it; then the two monkeys become four, and then 10, and then finally, we have a critical mass of monkeys embodying a Third Way.
So we have to be able to both stand firm in our resistance without standing against the humanity of another. We must never shut down or disregard other people’s humanity even as we challenge fundamentally the systems and structures that are simultaneously limiting to other people’s humanity. We don’t necessarily need to expect politicians to have these conversations for us, but we need people from different faiths, different communities, different perspectives, to usher in a new vision for what it means to be a human being in this incredibly diverse country. It’s ridiculous that we even expect a two-party system to represent us all. No wonder so many people don’t feel that they have any voice in government at all. Instead, they feel shut out for four or more years, until they have a chance to grab power back again—and each time the grabbing seems to become more vicious and more desperate. So we need conversations that are not left versus right, but inclusive.
As long as people feel as if they have to defend their positions, they don’t have the opportunity for self-reflection. They don’t have the opportunity to examine whether some of the beliefs they hold are, in fact, true. For example, that “I got here on my own.”
When we shift to a more inclusive conversation people have a chance to realize, “Oh, that’s not actually what happened, I got help from Uncle Paul. Man, my life would have been so different if I hadn’t gotten it, so I can understand what it’s like to need help. Which doesn’t make me a slacker, or a leech. We all need help on occasion.” Now we’re having an entirely different conversation than when we’re trying to defend a false story line that people who work hard get ahead and that’s how the country got built.
Or, here’s another example. Since the recession, a lot of white men have had a very hard time getting jobs. That’s something that a lot of black men can seriously relate to. We could have a healing conversation around that. Not being able to get a job is crushing; earth-shattering. It not only means you can’t take care of your family, it robs you of your identity. It makes you question whether or not you’re even a man. This is something we could come together over and address the root causes of, rather than falling back on a false narrative that says simply that people who can’t find jobs are scum, or that if you’re white and can’t find a job, it’s because an immigrant took it from you.
The truth of our collective and individual identities is far more complex than that. We need to start telling each other the complicated truth. America has had its great moments but at a great cost. It cost black people, it cost immigrants, and it cost me. Until we really know who we are, we can’t appreciate our complexity. If we can begin to appreciate our complexity as a nation we can perhaps also appreciate the complexity of ourselves and our own realities. Within that complexity, I believe we’ll find more understanding of failure, and we’ll make more room for change.
The MOON: OK, but how do we get those conversations to occur?
Rev. angel: I actually have more hope right now than I’ve had in a long time, and it’s because “neutral” people of privilege—by that I mean, people who aren’t obviously targeted because of their race, or sexual orientation, or religion, or immigration status—are feeling so agitated. My white friends, colleagues, and allies are more agitated than I’ve ever seen them: unable to sleep at night; short-tempered; really distraught.
The MOON: And that’s a good thing?
Rev. angel: Right. They’re upset because they see that the world they thought they were living in was a deception. They can’t remain comfortably neutral any longer. They’re going to have to take action.
The reality is that most liberal progressive white folks have contact with some not-so-progressive white folks. If they were trained to have a conversation with their conservative friends and family members that didn’t denigrate them, or patronize them, while also standing solid in their own life-affirming and inclusive view, they could begin to shift something. But instead of doing that, we avoid those conversations. We tell ourselves, “My family. They’re just backwards and I can’t talk to them.” That’s where the work comes in.
Civil rights victories didn’t happen because people got mad and voted their way into power. A core group got trained in nonviolent resistance. They got trained in having respectful, but ardent, conversations and peaceful protests and demonstrations. When their nonviolent demonstrations were met with violence by the police and angry white folks, enough “neutral people” got incensed enough to act. Together, activists and “neutral people” inspired to action, got one of the most racist presidents in history, Lyndon Johnson, to sign the Civil Rights Act.
So the first step is training a critical mass of people who can speak in the language that’s necessary to reach different groups of people.
Trump did this in reverse. He’s sociopathic enough that he didn’t care about violating social norms. He did so with impunity—and when people saw that he was able to do it successfully, it emboldened them to act out on the basis of their true—but previously hidden—feelings, as well. He activated deep feelings within them that they’d previously suppressed.
We can do the same from a progressive standpoint. When enough trained people are able to articulate an inclusive worldview and then take action that violates social norms in order to draw attention to that worldview, “neutral people” on the sidelines can be inspired to join them. Especially if they’re agitated about the status quo. That makes them increasingly willing to say, “Yes, this is the world I want to live in. I’m getting off the sidelines to see it manifested.”
To bring about societal change, you need people willing to break social norms. Marginalized people are already operating outside of social norms, so they’re typically the leaders. They’ve got nothing much to lose. When they take collective action in a way that speaks to a deep, unexpressed longing in a critical mass of people, the great mass middle moves. The entitled, privileged people get inspired to act powerfully in a way that breaks them out of their own limitations.
I think we have the ingredients now for that to happen.
Take Black Lives Matter folks. They get out in the street and white folks say, “Wait a minute, they’re disrupting traffic. That’s not cool.” Which is just a way of saying “We don’t like to break the rules.” But the Black Lives Matter folks keep saying, “The rules aren’t working for us,” and ideally, eventually, enough white folks realize “Oh, I’m stuck inside the rules too. Let’s change them.”
The Occupy movement activated that principle, too. You had “law-abiding citizens” doing stuff that was against the rules. That released a lot of power. That was inspirational to a lot of people who never spent the night on the street.
The MOON: What about Standing Rock?
Rev. angel: Yes, the same thing. Standing Rock brought all of these people together to break the rules in a prayerful way that did its best not to denigrate or demonize the opposition, but rather to pray for them. Why you’re breaking the rules makes all the difference. Are you breaking the rules to “make America great again” or because “water is life”? That indicates whether we’re going backwards or forwards. And I think that that’s what we need that we don’t have: enough people on the left, or progressive, side to break the rules to inspire the middle to action. But I think the incoming president is about to change that.
You said you get impatient with people who act like it’s not their house that’s burning, so why should they resist? “What you resist persists.” But Trump’s about to set a bunch of houses on fire. I’ve never seen so many comfortable white people agitated.
However, we have a limited window of opportunity. If his actions become normalized, these agitated white people will go back to sleep again.
So it’s important for us to not let his administration become normalized. We need to keep the window of agitation open long enough and let it remain grating enough so that people learn to abide their discomfort to take constructive action from within it. That’s what the spiritual practice you witnessed on the webinar has helped me to do: to find a peaceful place for myself within the discomfort of conflict so that we can find a third way out of it, rather than just keep pushing each other back and forth.
If I can function in the midst of the challenge in a way that embodies what is possible, it gives rise to a vision where transformation occurs. People will say, “I can no longer reconcile myself with this reality. The unknown is better than figuring out how to conform with it. And I’m willing to put myself at risk for an unknown rather than to abide in this unacceptable reality.”
That’s what happened with the Civil Rights Movement. There were enough Christians who finally said, “I can’t abide in a Christianity that lets this injustice continue.” But first they had to see that the Christianity they thought they believed in was coming apart. It wasn’t protecting the meek; it wasn’t a force for brotherhood and love. It finally became too disconcerting for them to just stand by and let their identity as Christians be decimated by brutality against black people.
To get to that point, King had to organize marches in places where he knew that his activists would get beaten. And his activists had to be trained so that they could tolerate being beaten and not respond in kind. That’s how King kept the window of agitation open. That was also the strategy behind Gandhi’s work: keep the injustice visible until the masses begin to respond because they can no longer abide in the truth of that reality. They understand that it isn’t workable for them. They can’t live with themselves in that reality.
Ironically, people often have to be brought face-to-face with conflict to remind themselves that they are basically good. That they are basically courageous. That they, at some point, reach a place where they will no longer abide injustice, whatever the cost.
This is where the spiritual training becomes so helpful. No matter what your religion you can see your mutuality with your brother. And you can no longer abide by the marginalization of anyone, including the formerly awful racist basket of deplorables. You’ve got to shift how you think and figure out how to include them too.
The MOON: Do you think that the worst that is likely to occur with our incoming government is, ironically, our best hope for making a leap?
Rev. angel: I do. Absolutely. 100 percent. I am enthralled by the degree of agitation that I feel from my white accomplices. (I hope they become accomplices rather than just allies.) I have something that feels like hope that something can be done with this. The other alternative is sleep walking.
I think we have a perfect storm of factors coming together to take an evolutionary leap. We have the Black Lives Matter people, who have gotten some training. We have the marriage equality and Occupy people who have gotten some training. We have the climate change activists who have gotten some training. And we have enough people–folks of privilege–who are so accustomed to getting things their way who are pissed off and actually coming undone by the threat to all they believe in. It’s possible they’ll come off the sidelines and say, “No more. I won’t live in a country that turns back the clock.”
But the window is small. Human beings will acclimate to anything and especially the human beings who don’t feel the direct pain. But my hope is that we will realize how much we all stand to lose if we don’t resist this administration, and we will come together to create a new, more inclusive vision for our country.