Sunday, November 13, 2011

Who Is God Without Words?

Many of my Christian friends think I don’t talk enough about Jesus in my work. The other day I was talking with someone I’ve known for many years and he’d just read “Stepping Up.” He said “I saw all this opportunity to talk about Jesus but you didn’t do it.” He was concerned and even said he probably wouldn’t have read the book for this reason were it not for his personal connection with me. This is someone I respect and admire, and since I know that other Christians feel this way I think it might be beneficial to explain why I take the approach I do.
It begins with the desire to avoid any connection with the whole “Jesus Industry” that has sprung up. Jesus, as I told my friend, is too often turned into a commodity in our consumer culture. Our relationship with commodities, of course, is to acquire, possess and consume them and this is how Jesus is often presented — as a product to be acquired, possessed and consumed. Many of our religious programs on TV and even many actual church services are indistinguishable from infomercials: “ ‘Jesus-Wow!’ will wipe up all your spiritual spills with twice the absorbency of other leading brands. Get ‘Jesus-Wow!’ now and watch your problems disappear.”
So this is one reason I hold the view I do — to avoid any association with this craziness. I know, of course, that this is not what my friend represents. I’ve known him long enough to know his faith has far more integrity than this.
But he and I differ on where the line is between commercial and non-commercial Christianity. For me the whole emphasis on constantly selling Jesus (as if we’re sales reps fighting for market share with various other religious and secular forces) is across that line on the commercial side.
I am, of course, well aware of the commission to carry the gospel (i.e., Good News) to all the nations. The question is, what is this Good News? Is it an intellectual and theological construct as modern Christianity believes? (Often presented as the “ABCs of Salvation”: Accept Jesus, Believe, and Confess and you’re “saved.”) This is nothing but a theological product, a commercial packaging of profound mysteries for easy mass consumption. If this is the Good News, then it’s the kind of “Jesus-Wow!” good news that belongs, again, on a late-night infomercial: the kind of good news that brings in lots of consumers who are almost immediately disappointed and very soon off chasing the next “once-in-a-lifetime offer.”
So, what is the gospel, the Good News, if not a certain set of ideas or a theological formula?
This question, in my judgment, brings us to the heart of the matter. Rather than give my answer I would like to issue a challenge to anyone interested in deepening his or her spiritual life. lt’s a simple thought experiment: First, imagine that human language suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth. There are no more words. There is no more writing, no more reading, no more hand signing or braille. I’m not just talking about communication between people but language itself, which includes thinking in words.
Now ask yourself the following questions:
  • Does truth (God, Christianity, spirituality, etc.) still exist?
  • If so, what does it look like in my life?
In other words (ironically), what is God without words? What is a “Christian”? A “Buddhist”? A “Muslim”? What is truth without words?
The reason this experiment is valuable is because words are not reality but rather representations of reality. The word “cup” is not something you can drink from. It’s an abstraction, a symbol that represents a cup.
The same is true with mental images. When we think about a cup we don’t actually have a cup in our minds. We have an image of a cup in our minds.
This is fine as long as we’re aware of it. When we forget that words and images are mere symbols, we’re like a person who forgets that photographs are mere images. Such a person might then try to have relationships with the “people” in the photos, but what will be the result of that? We actually see this with pornography and one of the results is that it can cut the person off from real relationships. In the same way, a person who tries to relate to the image of God or truth represented by words or mental images will be cut off from the real thing.
This experiment will sharpen the line between words and reality if we conduct it seriously. Language is a powerful tool and an integral part of human consciousness. But both truth and consciousness exist beyond words. This realm is referred to in wholeness ethics as “the transcendent.” It can be experienced but never explained, encountered but never understood intellectually. This is where Jesus and God reside for me.
This doesn’t mean we can’t talk about these things. It just means that when we do, we must remember that our words cannot contain them. This, for me, is an expression of reverence.
The world might be better off if there were less talk about God and more talk about what God wants us to be doing: loving one another and living in right relationship on earth.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

An Open Letter to Occupy Wall Street

“The world revolves around the inventors of new values.” —Nietzsche
 Almost three decades ago, Ronald Reagan began a process of steering American values in a different direction. Things like self-interest were lifted up as virtues because they stimulated the economy, and a stimulated economy, in his worldview, was the ultimate good. Many Americans believed him and the people who came along behind him turned his thinking into an ever-expanding economic and social philosophy. And, bearing Nietzsche out, the world has revolved around this ever since.
All that changed recently with the birth of Occupy Wall Street. For the first time in decades, mainstream media is asking questions like, “Is greed really a virtue?” and “Is it fair that the wealthiest 1% are doing so well when everyone else can barely stay above water?” Previously, these questions were left to people like Bill Moyers and others who shared his “suspicious passion for social justice.” Mainstream media was talking about how deeply we should gut government and cut taxes for the “job creators” and whether those who questioned this were really socialists or just misled liberals.
You have managed to do what so many before you in the past decades have failed to do: you’ve changed the narrative. You’ve taken possession of a little thread of the story. Congratulations.
The question now is, what will you do with it? Already forces are gathering to reclaim this little piece of the story you’ve managed to lay your hands on. You’re being accused of not having a coherent set of demands or a “consistent message.” This in itself is an attempt to regain the narrative and manage the movement. Tell us what you want and we can either talk you out of it or give it to you — then we can all get back to “normal.”
CEO Peter Schiff recently brought a camera out to confront protestors and his question to one woman was: Wouldn’t you like to be one of the 1%? If I gave you the money to make you one of the rich you’re protesting, are you telling me you wouldn’t take it? I’m paraphrasing, but this was the spirit of what he said. What he was really asking was: Are you protesting the system or just the fact that you’re losing right now? This is the question at the center of all revolutions: Do you really want to change the system or do you just want to be on top?
And if you really do want to change the system and not just your status in it, do you realize that your task is not merely to change our politics, our economics or our power structures? You must become the “inventors of new values” Nietzsche refers to.
Whatever changes we make without changing our values will amount to nothing. I’ve learned this in prison where I’ve spent the 30 years referred to above. During this time I’ve seen an endless stream of men try to change themselves and their situations without changing their values. I’ve seen reformers spend their entire lives trying to change they system without questioning the core values upon which it’s built. Such groups have accomplished almost nothing and what changes they did miraculously make were immediately absorbed and undone by the system.
Everything we are is a reflection of our values. This is why I’ve spent my time here articulating new ones for myself and for anyone else who wants them. The result is wholeness ethics, a value system built around doing “only what increases wholeness in yourself and in the world,” and treating all reality with reverence, goodwill and justice.
Apply this system of ethics to our public policy and social structures and you get a society that includes everyone and in which people are more important than chasing money or any other agenda. You get a society that demands ethical markets, markets in which mindless greed is once again recognized as what wholists call “a-holistic.” In short, wholeness ethics is an ethical system that, once adopted, goes to the core of a society or a person and begins a process of complete transformation and healing.
I contend that this is the ethics for the world you envision. It is practical, consistent and coherent. It is a “people’s ethics,” an ethics of life, relationships and consciousness. I suggest that you adopt it, begin calling yourselves wholists and set about making it your own by applying it to both yourselves and the situations you’re trying to change. Your movement is about creating, maintaining and advancing wholeness. Wholeness ethics is a simple articulation of that. Take its language and the worldview and replace the old, obsolete economic worldview with a new, life-centered one.
Your “consistent message” is, “Do only what increases wholeness in yourself and in the world.” Claim it and call the country to wholeness. Let us revolve for awhile around a center that is worthy of us.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

More on the Ethics Project Cancellation

I was pretty brief in my initial post on the closing of the Kinross Ethics Project. I know many people are puzzled and upset about this decision and some have asked after me and asked what, if anything, can be done.

The first thing I want to say is that the ethics group always existed due to the grace of the Michigan Department of Corrections. So losing it isn’t a matter of losing something we had a right to. We’ve never had any sense of entitlement about it. I also know that from the DOC's point of view, all things must be considered in terms of maintaining order in prisons and preventing prisoners from using privileges for bad ends. These are legitimate concerns.

This doesn’t mean I agree with their decision. I believe the ethics group came under fire because I wrote the guidebook “Stepping Up.” In their legitimate concern for security, prison officials have created a situation and a system of rules in which good and healthy things (such as healthy relationships with ethical and successful people and the writing of a book imploring prisoners to act ethically) are treated with suspicion, condemned and prohibited. Since such things — not external control mechanisms — are the infrastructure of true security, condemning and prohibiting them in the name of security actually has the opposite effect: it decreases security.

Because I believe this, I’ve written to the MDOC director and offered the program to the department. I would love to see them accept this offer and implement the Ethics Project throughout the state. If any of you have anything to say that may allay their suspicions (about me or the program) or simply something to say about the program’s value, you can follow up with a letter of your own to Daniel H. Heyns, MDOC Director, PO Box 30003, Lansing, MI 48909. Maryann has a copy of the letter I sent, so if you want that for background she can email it to you.

As with all things, the most important question in this is how can we keep our response wholistic? How can our response represent what we're standing up for? Getting smacked often has the power to pull us away from our principles, so when we feel smacked we have to make an extra effort to stay on course. Thus, though I’m upset about this and disagree with it philosophically, I’m not going down the "us-vs-them" road. Or trying to win the case by proving that they’re “bad people.” They’re not. I know many who work here who positively support this work.

Some are obviously against it but they don’t represent all staff anymore than those prisoners who are constantly doing evil and who need to be suppressed represent all prisoners.

To keep it wholistic, we need to keep this in mind and deal with everyone involved with reverence, goodwill and justice. I’m trying to do this and will continue to do so.

I deeply appreciate the concern many of you have expressed. Wholeness ethics has always been more than a “prison program.” We need it in our schools, in our marketplace, in our agriculture, in our politics, and in every aspect of our lives. If wholeness ethics is not allowed back into Kinross Correctional Facility, this will simply free up more time and energy to take it into these various other places.