Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Compassionate Resistance

Regular readers of this blog know that I try to balance Christian spirituality and social activism. In my podcast and YouTube channel I focus chiefly on the spiritual dimension. I use the phrase “Christian nonduality” to describe my approach. I explore the mystical dimension of Christianity and other faiths. In my blog I often tackle the political and social issues. Inevitably the two areas intermingle.

Recently I received an unexpected email from Rev. Dr. Christopher Schelin, Dean of Students at Starr King School for the Ministry in Oakland, California. Starr King is a Unitarian Universalist seminary, a member of the Graduate Theological Union, affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Schelin also holds the positions of Director of Contextual Education and Assistant Professor of Practical and Political Theologies.

He wrote to inform me that he had written a research paper entitled “Compassionate Resistance: Opposing Trumpism in the Nondual Political Theology of Marshall Davis.”  This month he presented it to the Annual Meeting of the Western Region American Academy of Religion. For those who are interested in reading the paper, it can be found at academia.edu.

I was surprised – but pleased - at his announcement. Even though I had corresponded with him previously, I did not know he was researching my work. I certainly did not consider my work worthy of an academic paper. Furthermore I have never thought of myself as a political theologian. Yet … come to think of it … of course I have a political theology! All people who intentionally seek to live out their faith in the public arena are political theologians! Mine just happens to be more public than most.

First of all, Dr. Schelin did an excellent job in his research. He understands my approach better than most people, who know only bits and pieces of my writings. I also like his choice of the term “compassionate resistance” to describe my approach.  I have compassion toward those who disagree with me on political and social issues. I try to enter into the hearts and minds of those who hold views different than my own.

The key factor of this approach is the spiritual teaching to love one’s enemies. That is the essence of both the Apostle Paul’s and the Lord Jesus’ social engagement. This is what is missing in secular politics, especially the extremist forms gaining popularity today. Both the Right and the Left are afraid that listening to and understanding their enemies will undermine their position. Without someone to fear and hate, they think the motivation for their position will dissipate.

Fear and anger are the twin engines of politics these days. They are sources of disinformation and misinformation. One must demonize one’s enemy in order to justify them being enemies. If we turn our enemies into devils, it is easier to justify our own cause as righteous. So the facts become distorted in order to confirm our fears. In time we start to believe our own rhetoric.

The truth is that our enemy is more like us than we wish to believe. Enemies are mirror images of ourselves. They are us. As the comic sage Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That is why we fear them. That is why they stir such anger in us. They expose our true selves. There is nothing we hate more than seeing what we really are. We will do almost anything to prevent ourselves from acknowledging that painful truth.

When we love our enemies, we recognize our enemies as neighbors. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. We love our neighbors when we realize that at a deep level they are ourselves. We are one. Jesus said that the commandment to love our neighbor is “like unto” the command to love God. When we love our enemies we see God in them.

Loving our enemies tears down the “dividing wall of hostility.” That is how the apostle Paul described Jesus’ sacrificial love. Love destroys our enemies by turning them into brothers and sisters. As Abraham Lincoln said, “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.”

This does not mean that we give up on the political process. It means that we engage in political thinking and action out of compassion and love - not from fear and anger. We do it from a position of unity rather than division. We are one. As a country we are the United States of America. When we forget the “united” part, we have lost before we begin. When we keep the union front and center, all things are possible.  That is nondual Christian politics. That is compassionate resistance.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Beyond the Culture Wars

I struggle with how to address today’s culture wars from a spiritual perspective. These political movements use the language of religion, morality, family and patriotism. For that reason it is difficult to address them from a spiritual perspective. When I use spiritual language to warn about the dangers of such movements, my words sound like I am part of the culture war.  

The truth is I am not interested in fighting the culture wars. My loyalties are not to parties, leaders, or ideologies. My loyalty is to the Peaceable Kingdom. I can see the Kingdom of God from where I stand. I stand in it. It is here now, and it is breaking into history for those with eyes to see. I endeavor to speak from a Kingdom perspective.

At times I speak in the language of the biblical prophets. “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God!" At other times I use the language of the mystics, speaking of union with God. At such times it is tempting to remain neutral, to abide in a lofty spiritual realm that transcends earthly battles.

Yet biblical spirituality does not allow for that option. The prophetic witness of scripture will not let me. To remain neutral when evil surges is to side with evil. As Martin King said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

Jesus spoke out against the collusion of “church and state” and was tried for treason in the culture wars of his time. At his trial Jesus declared, “My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to keep me from being handed over…. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” I choose Christ’s Kingdom over the worldly kingdoms. The Kingdom of God is not the possession of any nation, religion or political party.

From the Kingdom of God I watch earthy kingdoms rise and fall. There will always be wars and rumors of wars. There will be always be earthquakes, fires, floods, and natural disasters. Jesus said the poor will always be with us. Scripture says there are antichrists and false prophets in every age.

Human history is a play of good and evil, light and dark, right and wrong, yin and yang. It has always been this way. As actors in this drama of history we play our roles. We work for good against evil – as we understand them – always realizing that we see through a glass darkly. We might be wrong, yet we must persevere nonetheless. To do any less is to surrender to fatalism.

In the midst of it all we remember that our citizenship is in heaven. We are children of God. The flesh is temporary, but the Spirit is eternal. It is important to keep an eternal perspective on temporal matters. The great causes of our day will be forgotten. When the earth is swallowed by our dying sun and humankind is a distant memory in the mind of God, it will not matter if Republicans or Democrats prevailed in 21st century America.

I will still speak out, vote, contribute to causes, and protest in the streets when necessary. I will write, blog, podcast and record videos. As I do, I will keep my eyes focused on the Kingdom of God. I will not trust in leaders, armies or political parties. I will not trust ideology. I will trust the God who is beyond my human understanding. As the apostle Paul says:

“For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Amen. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

I Am Not Dust

Even though I am a pastor, I am not much for religious rites. I am more interested in the spiritual meaning. Ash Wednesday was always out of my religious comfort zone. That changed during my last year in fulltime ministry when I participated in an ecumenical Ash Wednesday Service.

I told the host pastor I would not be receiving the ashes, but when she offered the option of having ashes placed on our hands rather than on our foreheads I changed my mind. That felt safe enough for this old Baptist preacher. Now I love Ash Wednesday and the words, “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”

Dust is everywhere, especially in these final weeks of winter when our homes are longing for a spring cleaning. I get ashes on me daily as I tend to my woodstove. I scatter sand on our driveway. I track dirt into our entryway. Dust cohabitates our home with us, in spite of our attempts at “dusting.” Dusting just moves the dust around.

Likewise ashes are everywhere. They are piled in the ash bucket next to the woodstove in our living room. They coat my eyeglasses. Daily I find soot on my hands, arms and clothing. Sometimes I feel like Job “covered in dust and ashes.” The omnipresence of dust and ashes make them excellent symbols for the omnipresent God.

Dust is also an apt metaphor for our human nature. Our bodies are made of dust. Carl Sagan called it stardust. God told Adam in Genesis that one day our bodies will return to dust. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as the burial ritual says. That truth was made real while I was writing this post and got news that a friend and colleague in active ministry here in New Hampshire died suddenly while returning from vacation.

Contemplating our mortality points us to the immortal. Contemplating our material nature points us to our spiritual nature. Having my face smudged with ash points me to my True Face, which is not made in the image of my simian ancestors but made in the image of God.

A Zen koan says, "Show me your original face before you were born.” My ashy face points me to my unborn face. Ashes remind me of the inevitable dissolution of my physical form, which leaves only the unformed, which is my true nature. There is a poem I have often read at graveside services. It reads in part:

I am the thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glints in snow
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle, autumn rain.
As you awake with morning’s hush,
I am the swift, up-flinging rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight,
I am the day transcending night.

The refrain “I am” reminds me what I am. Jesus called himself the “I am” that precedes all predicates.  Jesus was pointing his hearers to the Divine Nature that was revealed to Moses in the burning bush. The bush on Sinai burned but did not turn to ashes. “I AM” is indestructible. “I AM” is in the body and beyond the grave. “I AM” is in human forms and beyond form.

Tonight I will be attending a contemplative Ash Wednesday service. When the pastor places ashes on my forehead and intones “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” I will remember that though this body is dust, I am not this dusty frame. I do not have to return anywhere. I am here now. I remember who I am. I am what I was before I was born and after I die. So are you. Remember.