Spiritual Foundations of Racial Justice

Howard Thurman. Photo Credit: Fourandsixty

At this time of bitter political division around the world, in this time of rising racial tensions, I find myself asking, “Who will bring healing to us? Who will bring us together?” As we have recently celebrated Martin Luther King Day and as we approach Black History Month in the U.S., I wonder, “Where did Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. find his strength? Where did he get support? How would he guide us in these times?”

Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown recently reminded me that Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman served as a spiritual guide to King.  Thurman helped King stay spiritually grounded in the midst of his struggles for racial justice.  King carried a copy of Thurman’s groundbreaking book, Jesus and the Disinherited, wherever he went.

Moreover, Thurman served as a spiritual guide for many others in the Civil Rights Movement.  He advised James Farmer, Sherwood Eddy, Pauli Murray, and A.J. Muste.  He reminded leaders that, like a tree, their strength and reach went only as far as the depth of their roots.

Howard Thurman was born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida. He experienced God in nature and was profoundly influenced by his grandmother, a former slave and a person of deep faith.  After graduating from Morehouse College as valedictorian of his class, he was ordained a Baptist minister and went on to study at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. Eventually, he became Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University and then Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University.

In 1935, Thurman traveled to India, where he met Gandhi.  The two conversed widely and deeply and Gandhi questioned Thurman closely about racial injustice in the U.S.  Gandhi opined, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

Thurman viewed his calling as being a spiritual support to the leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, and as helping them learn a nonviolent approach to working for racial justice.  He knew that the success of the movement depended upon its spiritual foundation.  He prayed deeply and worked tirelessly to build that foundation and nurture the leaders.

If we could ask Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King how to face the challenges of our time, I’m convinced he would point us to God.  He would remind us that we need to draw on our spiritual foundations to face the challenges of these times.  Racial justice will come only through deep spiritual transformation.  The healing of our political divisions, likewise, requires spiritual grounding.  King would urge us to seek wise leaders like Thurman to guide us in developing our spiritual foundation.  May we draw on the inspiration of King and Thurman and deepen our spiritual roots to face the challenges of our time.

 

(An earlier version of this blog first appeared in January 2017.)

8 Beatitudes of Good Politics: Pope Francis’s World Day of Peace Message

Photo Credit: Aleteia Image Department via flickr

Once again, Pope Francis has issued a challenge to world leaders to live up to their calling, and a scathing rebuke to those who abuse their power, all in the simplest and most familiar of ways.  Pope Francis’s message for the World Day of Peace on January 1, 2019, “Good Politics Is at the Service of Peace,” highlights 8 “beatitudes” of good politics, proposed by Vietnamese Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyễn Vãn Thuận.

First, Pope Francis points out that peace “is like a delicate flower struggling to blossom on the stony ground of violence.”  He then links peacebuilding to good politics.  Good politics, for Francis, involves heeding Jesus’s exhortation that anyone who would be first must be the servant of all. Thus, good political leadership involves service and can be a form of charity:

Politics is an essential means of building human community and institutions. . . Political office and political responsibility thus constantly challenge those called to the service of their country to make every effort to protect those who live there and to create the conditions for a worthy and just future. If exercised with basic respect for the life, freedom and dignity of persons, political life can indeed become an outstanding form of charity.

With this understanding of political leadership as service, he turns to the “Beatitudes of the Politician:”

It may be helpful to recall the “Beatitudes of the Politician,” proposed by Vietnamese Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyễn Vãn Thuận, a faithful witness to the Gospel who died in 2002:

Blessed be the politician with a lofty sense and deep understanding of his role.

Blessed be the politician who personally exemplifies credibility.

Blessed be the politician who works for the common good and not his or her own interest.

Blessed be the politician who remains consistent.

Blessed be the politician who works for unity.

Blessed be the politician who works to accomplish radical change.

Blessed be the politician who is capable of listening.

Blessed be the politician who is without fear.

At the same time that Pope Francis outlines his understanding of good politics in the service of peacebuilding, he doesn’t shrink from naming the forces that work against peace, calling out the behaviors of world leaders who aren’t living up to their calling. Although he doesn’t name names, he names attitudes and behaviors that identify particular leaders:

Sadly, together with its virtues, politics also has its share of vices. . . We think of corruption in its varied forms: the misappropriation of public resources, the exploitation of individuals, the denial of rights, the flouting of community rules, dishonest gain, the justification of power by force or the arbitrary appeal to raison d’état and the refusal to relinquish power. To which we can add xenophobia, racism, lack of concern for the natural environment, the plundering of natural resources for the sake of quick profit and contempt for those forced into exile.

Pope Francis concludes by challenging leaders to protect and include young people in peacebuilding and leadership, and by offering a vision of peace for the world that all can help build:

Peace, in effect, is the fruit of a great political project grounded in the mutual responsibility and interdependence of human beings. But it is also a challenge that demands to be taken up ever anew. It entails a conversion of heart and soul; it is both interior and communal; and it has three inseparable aspects:

– peace with oneself, rejecting inflexibility, anger and impatience; in the words of Saint Francis de Sales, showing “a bit of sweetness towards oneself” in order to offer “a bit of sweetness to others”;

– peace with others: family members, friends, strangers, the poor and the suffering, being unafraid to encounter them and listen to what they have to say;

– peace with all creation, rediscovering the grandeur of God’s gift and our individual and shared responsibility as inhabitants of this world, citizens and builders of the future.

As we approach the new year of 2019, let us heed Pope Francis’s words and rise to the challenge of being good leaders and people of peace.

 

 

America’s Dark Night of the Soul, Part 2

Photo credit: Michelle Geuder

At this darkest time of the year, both Jews and Christians celebrate holidays of light. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, commemorates one of God’s miracles: the long–burning oil that allowed the Jews to rededicate their holy temple in victory over foreign oppressors. Hanukkah celebrates the light of religious freedom after dark oppression.

Christmas also celebrates the triumph of light over darkness: God’s entering the world in Jesus, and the light of Christ overcoming the darkness in the world.  Both religions exhort the faithful to remember that the night is darkest just before the dawn, that we must not lose hope but that we must trust the God who has the power to deliver from even the darkest night.

Great spiritual teachers throughout the millennia have taught that any spiritual journey consists of ups and downs, and that sojourners on the spiritual path can experience a personal dark night of the soul. If the faithful persevere, they will discover that the personal dark night, like the historical darkness commemorated by Christianity and Judaism, is darkest just before the dawn, and the breakthrough to the other side is worth the walk through the darkness.

In institutions and societies, as in personal lives, the deepest darkness comes just before the dawn. If an institution or society perseveres, it can experience the great power and light that come with breaking through to the dawn.

At this time of bitter political divisions in the U.S. and around the world, of rising racism, terrorism, and scapegoating of minorities, of environmental degradation, and of wars and genocide, it’s easy to wonder where the light is.

One guide for me in this time of darkness is St. John of the Cross. John describes the personal dark night as a time of necessary self-emptying, not of our choosing. We fill ourselves with knowledge and accomplishments and loves and allow these to define us. Yet growth involves emptying. Constance Fitzgerald summarizes John’s understanding of the process of emptying:

Only when one becomes aware of the illusory and limiting character of this fullness in the face of the breakdown of what/whom we have staked our lives on, the limitations of our life project and relationships, the irruption of our unclaimed memories, and the shattering of our dreams and meanings, can the depths of hunger and thirst that exist in the human person, the infinite capacity, really be experienced.

John claims that this deep hunger and thirst, this infinite capacity for love, cannot be fulfilled by our human loves and accomplishments, but only by the transcendent.

Constance Fitzgerald extends John’s work to the societal level.  In this time of societal impasse, when it seems that our human attempts to figure out solutions to our overwhelming problems only run us into brick walls and tempt us to cynicism and despair, John, Fitzgerald claims, offers a way forward.  Fitzgerald claims that “paradoxically, a situation of no potential is loaded with potential, and impasse become the place for the reconstitution of the intuitive self.”

Fitzgerald believes that the insoluble crises we face are signs of transition in societal development and in the evolution of humanity.  These crises provide an invitation for us as a society to empty ourselves of rationally constructed answers that no longer work.  The crises invite us to humble ourselves and seek deeper wisdom, wisdom that emerges from letting go, from our collective intuition, from prayer.  In the words of II Chronicles 7:14, “If my people humble themselves and pray and seek my face. . .”

Fitzgerald challenges us to bring our societal impasse to prayer.  It is only through letting go and seeking God’s perspective and God’s way forward, she claims, that society will be freed, healed, and brought to paradoxical new vision.  Only in this way can we be set free for selfless action.  “Death is involved here – a dying in order to see how to be and to act on behalf of God in the world.”  Dying leads to new life.  Out of the darkness comes light.

In this season of darkness, let us respond to the invitation to let go of our egos and preconceived notions, and seek the deeper wisdom that emerges when we become empty.  And may our society humble itself, recognizing the limits of human understanding and effort, and seek a way forward guided by the emergent divine.

(This article first appeared on the Executive Soul blog in December 2016.)

 

America’s Dark Night of the Soul

Photo credit: Luigi Mengato via flickr

Abraham Lincoln said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside.  If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” Has America started down this road?  Yes. Irreparably?  I hope not.

We’re destroying ourselves in many ways, the most obvious at the moment being the way we’re handling our midterm election campaigns.  Experts estimate over $4 billion will be spent on midterm election campaigns, billions used to stir up fear and hatred, billions that could have been spent on the world’s crying needs.

While politicians argue that the system forces them to spend huge amounts of money, and that negative ads work, where are the voices pointing out the consequences of these actions? Where are the voices speaking up for the nation’s soul?

If an alien came to our planet and watched its wealthiest, most powerful civilization collapse, the alien would no doubt say, “They reaped what they sowed.” By the way we are spending our money as a nation, by the way we are focusing our energy on planting fear and hatred, we are sowing seeds of collapse.  Will we follow like lemmings to destruction? Or will we choose a better path?

Many are familiar with the concept of a dark night of  the soul, in which the seeker is plunged into a spiritual crisis, lost in a state of darkness and struggling with doubts and fears. Is it possible that countries, too, can experience a dark night of  the soul?  Perhaps America, itself, is suffering from this malady, as political strife, greed, and instances of violence shake its foundations.

Yet many of us have seen that even in times of darkness, God is at work.  Throughout the turbulence that our country faces, more and more people are waking up to the need for change.  As people become utterly dissatisfied with how broken the system is, they become more passionately motivated to alter it, making changes at the local and grassroots levels.

The dark night of the soul brings more than just pain; it can also bring new opportunities to engage with life more fully, to live by our hearts more deeply. Let us take the opportunity of this dark night of the nation’s soul to search our hearts individually and as a nation and to take the action that we are called to take.  The night is darkest just before the dawn.  Let us look for glimpses of God in the dark night and respond in the way that is ours to do.

(This is a further development of an article that appeared in Sojourners in November, 2010.)

3 Leadership Lessons St. Francis Taught me from his Failures

Photo Credit: Randy OHC via flickr

As St. Francis’ Feast Day approaches on October 4, I’ve been reflecting on what I can learn from his leadership failures.  Like all of us, Francis scored some wins and some losses when it came to leadership.  And like all of us, Francis didn’t always know in advance what approach to leadership would prove effective.

Francis’ failures can prove just as instructive as his successes.  As I reflect on Francis’ life, three lessons in leadership effectiveness that I can learn from his failures stand out to me.

1. Clarity of mission. When Francis returned home to Italy from his journey to Egypt in 1220, he found his brothers divided and in conflict.  Brother John had decided to organize the lepers the brothers were serving into a religious order and requested approval for the order from the Holy See. Brother Phillip had sought special protections from the Pope for the Poor Clares (defying Francis’ instructions not to seek favors in high places). Brothers Matthew and Gregory had imposed stricter fasting guidelines on the brothers, more appropriate for monks than for active friars. All of these measures had stirred up turmoil in the order and revealed a lack of clarity about the purpose of the life of the brothers.  Conflict-averse himself, Francis had avoided clarifying the mission of the order, either personally or in concert with his brothers.  Without clarity of mission, brothers had different understandings of what direction their lives and ministries should go.  As the order had grown and with Francis away, the situation had spiraled out of control.

           Clarity of mission can help a group stay focused through the stresses of growth and the temporary absence of the leader.

2. Preparation for leadership. In 1217 Francis had sent several groups of brothers out in ministry beyond Italy, to Germany, Hungary, England, and the Holy Land.  While the impulse was one of generous service, the missions failed.   Lacking preparation, the brothers couldn’t speak the language of the country they visited, didn’t understand the culture, and didn’t know how to translate their mendicant ways into a new setting.  Furthermore, many of these brothers had recently joined the order themselves and had no experience of leadership in their home context.

          Adequate preparation can help lessen the shock of a new environment.  And gradual introduction to leadership responsibilities in one’s own setting can prepare the way for greater responsibility in a new setting.

3. Leadership succession. Francis decided to go off on mission himself when other brothers left on mission in 1217.  He only got as far as Florence, where Cardinal Hugolino dissuaded him and he returned to Assisi, convinced by Hugolino of the order’s need for his leadership at home.  But the urge to travel in ministry returned and he left for Egypt in 1219.  Though Francis did appoint leaders to be in charge in his absence, he hadn’t carefully considered what was required to lead a religious order, much less groomed others to take on those responsibilities.  The result, combined with the lack of clarity in mission mentioned above, was disastrous.  This episode served as a precursor to what happened when Francis died, when the fault lines in the order revealed themselves and caused more serious division and an eventual split in the order.

          Careful attention to raising up leaders can help a group through the difficulties of transition and keep a group moving together toward its goal when a leader is away for an extended absence or when the leader retires or dies.

St. Francis, not always knowing what he was doing, succeeded in a number of ways as a leader and also failed in a number of ways. Both his successes and his failures can prove instructive.  By reflecting on both his successes and his failures, leaders today can learn how to be more effective leaders.

(An earlier version of this blog appeared in June 2015.)

3 Leadership Lessons of St. Clare

Photo credit: Chris Light

As St. Clare of Assisi’s (1194-1253) feast day approaches on August 11, I’ve been reflecting on her soulful leadership.  Best known as St. Francis’ “little plant,” Clare eventually emerged as a strong leader in her own right in thirteenth-century Italy and beyond.  While St. Francis took center stage with his extroverted charismatic leadership, St. Clare quietly built stronger structures behind the scenes.

As I muse on St. Clare and her contributions, three leadership lessons stand out for me.  Clare teaches me about prayer, community-building, and persistence.

First, Clare knew the power of prayer.  She knew that prayer provided the foundation for all of her leadership.  Without prayer, without her radical trust in God, she could do nothing.  She prayed for strength and guidance when she was called to lead her community of “Poor Ladies” as a young adult.  Later, when an invading army swarmed her vulnerable convent of San Damiano, outside the protection of the city walls, she prayed.  Upon praying, she felt led to stand at the window in front of the army, armed only with the host, the body of Christ, and her trust in God.  Faced with Clare’s shining strength, the army became confused and fled.  Thus, through prayer, Clare saved not only her convent but also the city of Assisi.  Finally, Clare’s prayer undergirded her day-to-day leadership in the convent.  When faced with lack of food, with illness, with cold, she prayed.  People brought turnips, medicine, and blankets, and year after year, all the Sisters’ needs were supplied.

Second, Clare knew how to build community.  Though she lived in an enclosed community at San Damiano her entire life as a Sister, she built community both at home and from afar.  She showed her 50 fellow Sisters how to live together in compassionate service in cramped quarters and difficult conditions.  Beyond San Damiano, she instructed Agnes of Prague, a princess who left behind wealth and status to found a religious community like Clare’s, in building a convent.  While Francis’ communities faced divisive conflicts, Clare taught her communities to work through conflicts in ways that built stronger relationships.  And she also built relationships near and far, with St. Francis and his brothers, with priests, with bishops, and with Popes.

Third, Clare lived perseverance.  Her entire life, she fought for a way of life like Francis’ in which she could be true to the gospel as she understood it.  For her, this meant living in poverty, in total reliance upon God.  She appealed to every Pope in her lifetime to approve the rule she had written to regulate life in her community.  When Pope after Pope said no, she didn’t give up.  Finally, on her deathbed, the Pope sent word that he had heard she was dying and he wondered if there was anything he could do for her.  When she said, “Approve my rule,” he relented, and she received papal approval two days before she died.

Leading with soul is never easy, whether one lives in thirteenth-century Europe or modern times.  The way is often fraught with stresses, discouragements, and obstacles that challenge our commitment to walk our path with faith.  However, we can turn to those who have come before us, those like St. Clare who embody the qualities of a good leader. They show us not only that it is possible to lead with soul but also that we are not alone in the journey.

 

(An earlier version of this blog appeared in April 2016.)

Freedom

Freedom is on my mind.  As the U.S. prepares to celebrate Independence Day several days from now, I’ve been contemplating my freedoms.

I enjoy the freedom to vote for the candidate of my choice.  I enjoy freedom of religion. I enjoyed the freedom of a good education, which gave me the opportunities to do work I love and to marry the person I chose.  I enjoy freedom from want, with a place to live and food to eat. I enjoy the freedom to live where I want to live and to travel to the places I want to travel.

As I consider immigrants at our border, I know that most of them enjoyed none of these freedoms in their countries of origin.  While poverty has long been a cause for immigration from Central America, added to that motivation now is gang rule in regions of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. With gangs in charge, murder, extortion, and sexual exploitation have risen dramatically. The asylum seekers at our border aren’t even assured the freedom to live, let alone the other liberties I take for granted.

The U.S. has long been a country that has promised freedom to those denied it in their own countries.  We take pride in being the land of the free and the home of the brave, with many of the free and the brave among us having made dangerous journeys to escape the oppression they faced in their homelands.

Now, however, America’s approach to refugees does not reflect the same welcoming spirit that, in the past, allowed many immigrants to seek safety and better lives on this soil. Dr. Fiona Danaher notes,

When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees interviewed 404 unaccompanied or separated immigrant children in 2013, they found that 72% and 57% of the children from El Salvador and Honduras, respectively, potentially met criteria for refugee protections under international law. Yet in recent years, only about one third of asylum requests by unaccompanied minors have been granted — and the proportion is likely to diminish under the current administration’s ever-narrowing asylum criteria.

Why do we Americans, who have such a long history of granting freedom to refugees, seem so hesitant to do so now? Asylum seekers deserve the right to a fair hearing.  Asylum seekers deserve the right to be considered for refugee protection in their search for freedom.

To be an asylum seeker does not make one a criminal.  

As we celebrate our many freedoms on July 4, let us remember all those who don’t live in freedom.  And let us not add further to their misery. Let us ask, “What is mine to do, to help offer the gift of freedom to those who lack it?”