Monday, December 8, 2014

Black Lives Matter

It would be hard not to talk about racism right now. In the wake of "no indictment" decisions in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner trials, thousands have taken to the streets in mass protests - and here in Berkeley, the word "riot" has been bandied about and added to the mix, thanks to violent misbehavior during what should have been peaceful, non-violent demonstrations. But cop cars and buildings are being vandalized, windows broken and (embarrassingly), stores looted in the midst of it all. And while yes, emotions are running high and people are frustrated, it sounds like the more disruptive elements of this are from small clusters of anarchists and others using the protests as a cover for their own desire to create chaos and do damage - not from the people, many or most of them students, who are standing (and sitting and lying down) to show solidarity and trying to shine a light on the ugliness of systemic racism. So shattered windows, looting and fire being set to things in the street are made to look like a product of the protest, and the media has jumped on "look how violent Berkeley protestors are". Truly, it's a mess.

Texting to us from Telegraph on Saturday night, my step-daughter related how police were in riot gear and respirators, throwing tear gas and flash grenades into crowds they intentionally boxed in on both sides and beating people with billy clubs - not trying to stop or contain the vandals and looters, but taking out their frustration on peaceful protesters holding signs that said "#BlackLivesMatter" and chanting, "I Can't Breathe".

Photo, taken on Dec. 7, 2014, by Pete Rosos
Photo by Pete Rosos via Berkeleyside
People, students near her... a few people away... were shoved to the ground, clubbed and sometimes stepped on as they tried to flee and couldn't get away in time. Reports flooded in through Twitter with photos and even video clips, as witness to what was going on (#BerkeleyProtests). Big armored vehicles rolled down University Avenue and across Shattuck, and rubber bullets were fired into the crowd... as thousands gathered to protest that our country's over-militarized police forces have become brutal and harmful to the citizens they are sworn to protect. This... is not helping. My husband and I sat up, not willing to go to bed until we knew for sure that our daughter was safe and home with most of the tear gas washed off her face and flushed out of her eyes. It was after midnight.

Let me back up a moment here and say that - raised by hippies and all - I am "pro-cop"; in order to be a civilized society (we can debate that later if you like... plenty of tinder to work with) we need laws and those who enforce them, and I'm not looking for an excuse to verbally abuse decent police officers who are just doing their jobs.  I believe that most of them are "good cops", defending the peace, acting in the interest of the common good and doing their best to keep our communities, streets and people safe. I know that they risk their own safety and even their lives every time they start a work shift, and I truly appreciate and honor (and am in awe of) that. These are not the officers I'm talking about. And lest one think I'm being particularly harsh on local law enforcement, many of those out in force this weekend were State Troopers, not just Berkeley PD. It would seem that we've come to a place where whole portions of a force - and the leadership at the head of it - are not "protecting and serving" the people in their communities; and much of that is spurred by deep racism and a misguided sense of privilege or even superiority based on skin color and race.
Embedded image permalink
Photo by John Zangas via Twitter

On Sunday night the protests continued, with police action escalating faster and huge clouds of teargas or smoke bombs seen migrating across streets, choking and stinging, as more than 300 - then 450 - then 600-plus marched in the streets, demanding justice and fair treatment. The police managed to escalate matters further and quickly, angering hundreds of people at a time and hurting many, while the media continued to share sensationalized stories with headlines like, "protests at UC Berkeley turn violent", reporting "a wild and destructive protest" with participants smashing in windows and looting stores... never mind that while a few hangers-on were admittedly doing just that, many more were trying to stop them, shouting, "peaceful protest!" and physically blocking access to stores and bank windows.  The chant had turned to "Eric Garner, Michael Brown - tear it down, tear it down" - which, while intended as a cry against a corrupt and violent system, didn't help in the light of damage being done. Concurrent protests and demonstrations across the country managed to remain peaceful, while Berkeley took on the guise of the L.A. riots; but we have to take this as a whole.

It has all and already gone too far.

I sat safe at home, watching escalating on-the-spot reports through Twitter, Berkeleyside and online news feeds, offering prayers for everyone's safety and sane conduct and wondering what else I can do. I changed my Facebook icon to "Black Lives Matter" in support, and received mostly tangible silence online. Yes I know - ALL lives matter; of course they do. And right now, being pale-skinned and privileged on account of birth, I don't think people who look like me are in particular need of defending, uplifting or understanding; high or low, we get that in due course because of the way the system is set up. So yes, ALL lives matter - and right now it's especially important to remind the world that that means people of color - any color. 

Embedded image permalink Photo, taken on Dec. 7, 2014, by Kelly Owen
Photos by MattLukas1968 via Twitter & by Kelly Owen via Berkeleyside

I am a woman of faith living in a representative government and right now I am even more conscious than usual of "the sins done on our behalf" by people in power. Will the protests be heard, will changes be made in a system that has gone so far corrupt it needs many people at the top extracted like bad teeth? I don't know. But I have to hope that change is in the air, that justice held in abeyance and disregarded will be brought to bear, that the systemic, intrinsic racism my country runs on will be purged and damage begun to be repaired, lives healed. This is not a collection of misguided angry mobs that need to be quieted - it's a voice of thousands, a cry of injustice that needs to be heard and heeded. How can we bring healing and peace to our nation and the world? What can we do - in community, as church, as the hands and voice of Christ in the world; as individuals; as white people representing the majority in this country (though not for long, thankfully) - what can any or all of us do, here and now, to create the change that needs so desperately to happen in our world?

I don't have the answers - but I'm willing to ask the questions and see where they lead.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Sitting at the Master's Feet (Let them eat parables)

I love reading the parables. Not just the stories themselves - though I definitely have favorites there and can probably go on about one or two at some point - but I love reading about Jesus' more intimate teaching moments with his disciples. He spoke to crowds, sometimes huge crowds of people, and when he taught them it was in parables - allegorical stories with lessons embedded in them, meanings to be found between the lines. He said things that made people think, mull over his words, take home concepts to ponder; and then the crowds would dissipate and most folks went back to their homes or jobs. But there were some - more than a few it sounds like - who stayed to hear more.

I picture Jesus sitting cross-legged on the ground or on a large rock perhaps, with a smaller group of people who have stayed behind, eager to hear more. Maybe they have questions about what their teacher has just been saying, or want to go off on tangents that tickled at their brains while he was speaking... maybe they know that once the crowd leaves, the rabbi will continue with a deeper teaching for those who stay to hear it. So we have Jesus in front and others gathered around, sitting on the ground, on rocks or fallen tree limbs, on the sand by the Sea of Galilee... or maybe indoors at someone's house with everyone gathered on the floor and in whatever chairs were available... what matters isn't the location... this is the group that stayed - those "with ears to hear", who wanted to know more and sought to truly understand. Teaching in this way is a time-honored practice with spiritual leaders in many traditions, including some that I have been a part of prior to becoming a Christian.

Teaching the Disciples Under an Olive Tree - Painting by James Tissot

For many years I practiced Vedanta*, a Hindu philosophy based on the Vedas - ancient scriptures of India. As a child I would go to the pujas, (a word used to describe both worship and the religious festivals around it), and later I sat in temple services with my father, my step-mom and sometimes my little brother. You would leave your shoes at the door, come forward to prostrate in front of the shrine if you're able, find a seat and attend a service that in many ways is similar to a Jewish or Christian service - worship, a sermon or lesson, stand in a receiving line to greet the swami or take the dust of his feet, and then sharing prasad - food (often sweets or fruit) that has been offered to God and then shared amongst the devotees. We didn't go often, and I loved opportunities to be there. The best times to me were after or sometimes before services, when a small group might have the good fortune to accompany one of the swamis on a walk through the gardens or in a smaller chapel. This was a time of darshan, blessings or grace that come from being near holy people or places. Sometimes it would be a quiet, companionable walk and other times the swami would address us, to answer questions or share thoughts that weren't spoken to the larger, more public crowd. These times were magical for me, and I absorbed as much as I could.

[Puja in Mother's shrine - Portland]
When I became older I went to study with the teacher I had chosen - a very old guru at the Vedanta Center in Portland, Oregon named Swami Aseshananda, and became an initiate. I stayed in one of the "Women's Houses" with other devotees a couple of times, which I loved. These were cooperative intentional living spaces near the temple (there were places for men to stay as well), and the permanent residents lived as "lay monastics" with a Rule of Life, but no formal ordination.

We did service at the Center, helping to prepare food and setting up chairs and such before Sunday services or special gatherings, but the "real stuff" happened when there were only ten to twenty devotees there. We would walk with him** or sit in the small chapel while our teacher did the daily worship and sometimes we'd meditate or sing or just observe, as he bid us.

[Swami teaching after services]
Often after Sunday services, Swami Aseshananda would retire to a sitting room off of the main hall. He would settle into a chair and those of us who had stayed would gather around, sitting on chairs, cushions, or the rug. His sermons  involved anecdotes, stories and sometimes parables (or even jokes - he had a wonderful sense of humor), and during this more private time he would take questions about things he had said, answering and going into greater depth; he explained the day's lesson, subtle meanings, translations of passages that he had spoken in Hindi - (his native tongue, which he had a tendency to slip into) - things he wanted to be sure we understood.We listened and hoped we had ears to truly hear.

[With love & humor - Boston]
So as I read about Jesus teaching the parables and then explaining about them to a smaller group of devotees who stayed behind to catch whatever words he cared to share - I see myself there. I imagine I'm sitting on the ground, surrounded by others who want to be closer to him, and to discuss and understand the deeper meanings of things; sitting at his feet and feeding on his words, being nourished within and filled with the joy of his presence.

 I try to be in this place as often as I can when I'm reading scripture; but it's especially easy with the parables, when Jesus' disciples gathered around after the crowds had gone to hear what's really been said and to gather the darshan of sitting at the master's feet.

* As a note - even after becoming a Christian, I still tend to view things through a Vedantic lens, especially in seeing all the major world religions as different paths to the same end. Happy to expound on that as asked.
** I found this footage online; Swami Aseshananda in the rose garden at the Portland Center, c.1980. Video credit: Mondaymedia (YouTube)
*** Photo credits (in order): Vedanta Society of Portland, Mother's Trust Ashram Michigan, Vedanta Society of St. Louis. The caption behind Swami in the Boston photo is from the Rig Veda: "God is one. Men call Him by different names".