When Nothing Is Holy, We Must Conscientiously Object
– “All-One” Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Bar Soap
I believe if we could just unify our country as one, with focus from the top down on getting through this pandemic, we would be so much more successful. But what has happened is the complete opposite. Division has separated our country and allowed the virus to cause so much more damage…it is unfathomable.
– Damien Shields, E.R. Doctor, (NY Times 8/10/20)
On a cool late-summer morning with a seacoast feel here in the landlocked Mohawk Valley, the air’s so sweet and fresh, it feels like I’m breathing health and well-being. But it won’t last. As the sun rises higher, the noxious, hot, humid, locked-in valley air takes over, a descending pall like depressing awareness of the pandemic. Odors – such as those that emanate from the sewer drain in front of our house, linger suggestively, sulfurishly. No wonder the fortunate flock to the shore, to their summer homes in Cape Cod or Kennebunkport in these months! I remember that salt-laden sea air of coastal Maine well, having spent several luxuriously long summers there in my childhood, and in my early adult years lived there working domestic service jobs. Though I long for it still, fortunes being what they are, mine, as far as seacoast summers go, went “south.” Whatever it might have taken to have a means to afford a month on the Maine coast in summer, I took the other road.
This was not all just a matter of “bad choices,” the term social workers teach to poor kids whose lives, the kids are to understand, could have ended up differently (better) if they’d made good ones. I think I have doubted the consensus “metrics” of “betterness” my entire life! Some underlying, never fully formulated infant conviction that did not quite reach the level of being positive and authoritative persisted stubbornly in me throughout the first half of my life, causing me to hesitate before many “better choices” I might have made! On the other hand, the fact that I was never fully at one among leftward political activists made me feel an outcast among those I believed were “my own kind.” The “pre-existing condition” in me – which now I might call my unasked-for-but-persistent individuality – prevented my slipping into the assured consensus among lefties. I remember well the summer when Orin and I, with our toddler in tow, visited my New Hampshire-born friend Bobbie on the back-to-the land place in rural Maine she shared with her boyfriend, an ex-pat Long Islander. Their hippie homestead, handmade and charming, appealed powerfully to both Orin and me.
At one point the boyfriend suggested ebulliently – but not originally – that returning to the land was the ideal response to our incurably ill society, everybody ought to do it. Orin and I, our consciousnesses influenced by three years in racially uneasy New Haven CT, and by the Christian social conscience then still outspoken at Yale Divinity School, from which I’d graduated in ’79, differed. What about all the people who never could do this (or want to!)?
Of course, the guy had no plan for a major reconstruction of society, nor was he thinking about urban poverty. Through their numbers and their idealism, the people of my generation who followed that powerful back-to-the-land dream to Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire in the 70’s, have probably influenced the policies of these states leftward. But they have not addressed the intransigence of racism. Racism is a disease of the heart; it cannot be addressed distantly. If there’s to be a bottom-up social change, not just more top-down policies that further divide the nation already alarmingly divided, it will have to be made within existing families and communities, however hopelessly damaged, in proximity, lives intermingling, where its possible to relearn and to practice respect for peoples’ othernesses (beginning with one’s own).
But, as I say, it was no clear insight like this, no principle, that prevented my joining the hippie migration to New England. It has taken the slow gestation of years and many decisions that diverted me off the paths followed by most of my peers, to begin to see my choices as possessing an inherent “positive loyalty” to my soul’s archetypal vision for a just and peace-making society, neither “Left” nor “Right,” but the “third way” of the creative spirit. Sustained by imagination, the vision of bottom-up community of individual “othernesses” that energizes me is consciously counter-culture to the dominant neoliberal establishment. And, through its loyalty to the inward soul, it is disobedient to the rigid liberal anti-authoritarianism that keeps activism on the left, however unintentionally, an exclusive club. My position now is “conscientious objection” to that dogmatic, indiscriminate negation that excludes the very source of strength needed for a genuine alternative to neoliberalism’s radical evil. This strength, in evidence in protests like Standing Rock that defend the sacred, isn’t so utterly mysterious. It comes from a conscious relation to inward, ceaselessly creative, intrinsically authoritative reality, the basis for lasting community.
Which is not to say I’m against other sorts of activism. But in these pandemic-stressed days, I feel distant from the activism going on, both the Citizen’s Action-sponsored protests here in Utica and the ones in Portland and Seattle. On the hopeful hunch that my unease doesn’t qualify me as racist (and “cancel-worthy!)” I’ll try to once more make my case for a “third” way that follows the authority of the heart. As far as the BLM protests, besides the fact many people and businesses in poor communities, alarmed at the call to defund the police, want and rely upon (non-militarized!) police protection (as Orin and I, and our coffeeshop, do), I do not feel at one with their reforming purpose. Harkening back to the civil rights activism of the 1960’s, the purpose then was framed for many of us in the visionary words and example of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. This suggested, for Christians and non-Christians alike, the civil rights activism was humbly love-inspired, and that love, being no accommodator to injustice, would make demands from love’s reality. Love-inspired activism, like indigenous peoples’, is quintessentially bottom-up, connective rather than divisive, intrinsically radical. Rooted in the relatedness of all people, it places equal value on the worth and integrity of the individual as in accomplishing the collective goal. When it is present its vibe is unmistakeable and unmistakeably inclusive.
The police, like Trump, are expressions of neoliberal society in which the idealistic aspiration to love – to see – one another, has withered. They access the half-lived, “vaporish” notions and feelings lying mostly unconsciously in the complicated, dis-spirited psyches of Americans. As with the soldiers who killed for us in Vietnam, or the U.S. Cavalry Indian-killers in the Old West, the vicious racism culminating in police killings is not peculiar to police. Rather, in them it is expressed, while from our spectator-seated, news-fed safety, horrified liberal society can cry “Reform!” In lives segregated by race and class, most of us do not come down to humbly serve the reality of interdependence (love) that would require us to trust the authority of conscience, and challenge the very root of white supremacy in ourselves.
In pointing out unconsciousness and banality in the liberal bourgeois world – my world – my purpose is not to feel superior to it; it is to voice support on behalf of peoples’ hearts that already are oriented in the direction of healing and unity – as mine was unconsciously for many years – within a dominant, egosyntonic liberal reality that forbids understanding the heart as authoritative. Trained either to mistrust authority, tossing it out with the evils of patriarchy, or to anathematize it (No masks! ) our stunted imaginations no longer can recognize legitimate governance. My deeper conviction goes beyond the need for protest. It’s different if protests of “No more!” are declared on behalf of the larger Dream of community carried in the heart. People following that ages-old Dream, once recognizing it as duty, as having authority, as making its demands from the reality of love/interdependence, know that peace is complicated. It’s won first, not at the barricades but bottom-up, in the individual heart and in relationships beginning with those closest. In turn, such dreamers will not quake and dissemble before words like “electability” or “too big to fail,” nor the accusation “Socialist!” because they know what they are defending.
For liberals trapped in banality, surrender to the authority of the heart is the means for knowing what must be protected, as well as what must be resisted, because it leads to legitimate, initiatory suffering. According to the unjust “bargain” of capitalism, for the underclasses suffering is inescapable and oppressive, while for the more affluent, suffering appears optional (for them) and its reality easily denied. But for those who serve the Dream of the heart, denial is no longer an option. Inasmuch as she exchanges the consensus-approved external positives of materialist, technological progress for the internal positive of the age-old Dream, the dreamer will be painfully aware of how far off that Dream is. She will be tested by nearly overwhelming oppositions, both internal (-i.e., doubt, uncertainty, personal shame and unworthiness) – and social –( condescension, rejection, exclusion).
The continued marginalization of the voice of the heart – of our prophets, artists, mystics, elders – in the liberal world, including in the media – makes liberalism complicit in failing to reflect the inconvenient fact that the change demanded by the reality of love/interdependence includes everyone. This omission, though unconscious, is part of the liberal “design” that must uphold the class divisions essential to capitalism. Liberal aversion to authority, in particular “religious” authority, masks a deeper fear of the dissenting authority of the heart, of the suffering the heart is uniquely made to bear, and of the change demanded by the authoritative heart that favors reconciliation and inclusivity. That voice is excluded at the liberal “table” in part because it offends liberalism’s defensive rationalism, but there’s a deeper reason.
The voice of the heart is excluded in liberal reality due to fear of its countermanding authority; the individual heart being the only serious threat to conformist and accommodationist neoliberal reality. Though liberalism highly values ethical conviction, and though many liberals pursue “spirituality” from yoga class to sweatlodge, terror at the serious suggestion that individual conscience is real and authoritative keeps liberal reality blind to the very meaning of “the sacred.” Thus incapacitated for esteeming the individuality – the other – in themselves or others, liberals are blind to their own behaviors that ought to terrify them far more than spiritual authority (i.e., illiberal complicity in “cancel culture”)!
In further contrast to liberalism, specifically its preference for themes of victimization, the authority of the heart assumes the strength inherent in human beings. It assumes as well that strength is to be used not for cruel, abusive, controlling and exploitative purposes, but for the arduous, patience-demanding, never-completed process of reconciliation (peace-making) between individuals. This is the long version of the process liberals try to accomplish by shortcut, imposing rules for correct ethical behavior, punishing transgressions, and reliably achieving the opposite of their good intentions.
What would liberal reality be like without unconscious repression of individuality and dismissiveness toward the social healing process of reconciliation? Would it not be more reflective, contemplative, and creative? Surely, it would be more socially complicated, slowed down to the degree that peace-making between even two individuals can be practically a full-time occupation! Inasmuch as material consumption is the addictive substitute for the slower human processes and pleasures of life at home and in community, would there not be less interest in consuming, beyond what is needed for sustenance and conviviality? (Are the severe social deprivations of the pandemic trying to teach us that we cannot live by “externals” alone, providing a “kairotic” moment for the reality of the heart to make itself known? Maybe it’s time to turn off the screens and tune in to the creative spirit!)
Today’s young white people, some protesting in Portland or Seattle, others partying without masks in Palm Beach, though seeming opposites, may be alike in one way: they’ve grow up without knowledge of the legitimate authority of the heart, its purposes embodied in community, interdependence and mutual obligation, and the sacrifice inherent in maintaining social bonds. Many do not know who or what they serve with their actions or with their sexuality (i.e., partying being the socially accepted platform for sexual “mixing”), for how could they? In the land of “rugged” individualism, neighborhoods are not tribal villages. In top-down neoliberal society, parents, however loving, are not elders abiding by the authority of the heart. The children have been abandoned, as they’ve been for many generations, to the consumerist culture, government schools, the ego’s supremacy and the emptiness of nihilism. Their rebellions, however genuine, and welcome for raising issues of justice to the headlines, are unlikely to achieve the inclusiveness and unity predicated in the heart until their elders step forward and risk speaking from that authority.
Perhaps we would-be elders tell ourselves they wouldn’t listen, anyway. Perhaps we’re uneasy about asserting our subjective truth against the greater consensus “wisdom” of the neoliberal totality and its fast-advancing technocratic arm. Perhaps we fear what will happen to the children if they do not get that college training, that job and its income, that career that will take them far from us and the enduring ties of family and home-place. Perhaps we’re not sure the hometown has much to offer them in the form of the externals they’ve come to expect – what can we offer instead? Good questions, all, and worth taking the risk to answer; the young may exactly be waiting to hear us speak with authority.