Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Principle of Harmony: Grace in Action?

At a meeting recently, as we were going around the table giving personal updates, one of the people related that she recently got hooked on sports radio.  For years, she had ignored sports on principle.  Billions are spent in sports, and countless hours of human capital are spent on sports instead of things such as war, poverty and climate change.  Many sports are also violent (hockey, football and boxing), and at the college level, teenagers are exploited while academics often suffer.  In addition, there are the countless TV and radio hours of blather that has questionable social merit.  But her curiosity led to enjoying the chatter, and she was hooked.  What she reflected on was that it is this new-found knowledge of sports that is now the catalyst of her relationship with her father, who has alzheimers.  It gives them something they can talk about, despite a breakdown of communication capability.

It was her comment "I had to sacrifice my principles (of not giving any fiscal/human capital to sports) so that I could have a relationship with my dad" that really resonated with me.

For the past few months, as I have been clerking the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Peace and Social Concerns Committee and grappling with a minute connected to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I read a quote that Peace is made up of Justice and Harmony.  Many of us are good at standing on the principle of Justice.  Many of us on the left are enamored with the idea that, as Quakers say, we "speak truth to power."  We often do so without any consideration for what others think.  We at times do this with arrogance, as if we know what The Truth is, and perhaps by pointing the finger at those who we claim to be in power we ignore our own power.  We become righteous victims, which can alienate us further from people who might align with us but don't like the action we are demanding.  We apply this to so many aspects of our life - from where we shop, to the car we drive, to the TV/radio programs we listen to - to almost every aspect of our lives.  All of this is standing on the principle of justice.

But what if we were to stand on the principle of harmony?  What if we really did not only consider what our neighbors think about social justice issues, but let their opinions influence what we do.  When I have mentioned the notion that Peace is made up of Justice and Harmony, the retort is often that it is important to take principled stands, and somehow justice would be sacrificed at the expense of harmony.  But the more I think about it, harmony is not just a principled stand but the more difficult of the two (justice being the other).  I am reminded of the opening lines of the 2011 movie The Tree of Life comparing nature and grace: "Grace doesn't try to please itself; it accepts being slighted; it accepts insults and injuries.  Nature only wants to please itself, get others to please it, and likes to lord it over them.  No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end."  Grace is that moment when we are at with one another, calling on us to put ego aside, and is the bedrock of unity.  Grace, essentially, is like unconditional love,  As is written in 1 Corinthians 13:13, "three things will last forever - faith, hope and love - and the greatest of these is love."

This, to me, does not mean that other principles get sacrificed.  I do believe that we can stand firmly on the principle of harmony but also stand firm for what we believe.  It is a challenge for people whose faith - religious or secular - is embedded deeply in social action.  Conversely, to be completely and solely standing on the principle of harmony is hard for me to even fathom.  I have way too many opinions about what can and should be done.  I do think, however, that it is worthwhile to consider not brushing harmony off as an impediment to principled action, but to instead start to see that harmony is a very principled position grounded in grace and love, and that it perhaps has more power than many of our other well-intended efforts to bring a true, sustainable peace to the world.  

Friday, September 7, 2012

What really is this spirit?

by Josh Wilson, Intern

I have recently been doing a lot of reflecting about the state of my own spiritual affairs. As a member of the William Penn House staff, I often interact with religious groups to which I previously did not. Now I must state before continuing this blog post, that I have tried everything in my power to believe in this god business. Religion itself has always been very interesting to me. I have seen its many benefits and its many faults and wanted to make it work in my own life, but have come to realize that feat is rather tricky. To me, most religious beliefs were often things people told themselves to help them face the grim facts reality so often presents. I could not for the life of me come to accept with my head that any of this nonsense could ever make sense to anyone.  While I could admit those who had such beliefs to be rational individuals, I just couldn’t believe it would work for me. 
In my initial journey through religious exploration in high school, I found myself in a Quaker meeting.  Upon discussing and thinking about Quaker beliefs and testimonies, I found that at least Quakerism might give me ground to explore religious belief with my head.  I have heard the Quakerism is less about a dogmatic faith and more about getting in touch with the spirit of the divine.
I find it greatly enriching to interact with groups as they come to the WPH for service trips and that, with or without faith, these groups certainly are able to work in the sense of spirit that so many declare as belonging to the divine. It brings me to wonder then... what really is this spirit? What is this sense of belonging that unites us to help our fellow human beings? What is it that allows us to empathize with those who are so greatly different from us?
These are topics I have been struggling with my entire life and I guess it wasn’t really until I recently had two experiences that I found a working model of an answer. The first was a trip I with the William Penn House to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. There our group of fourteen was able to help a clan prepare for their family Sundance ceremony. In that process we were allowed to join them in a few of their ceremonial purification sweat lodges.
During that process I started realizing that there are some things in life you cannot approach with clear thinking. During my first Sundance experience I told myself that I would just “tough it out”. After sitting in the lodge for an hour, I realized that it was not so easily done. In my second experience, I joined the prayer songs that were going on and trusted with my heart that I would be able to make it through the whole experience. After singing with all those present, I found that it wasn’t so difficult and, in fact, it went much quicker than expected. It was through being around and engaging with the community through a shared experience that I grew close with a group I had never known and was able to make it through something difficult with the help of something much greater than myself.
The second experience was a conversation with one of our guests. As my shift was ending, a guest came in late and we began talking about her work. We then began talking about my job and my recent experiences with Pine Ridge. This forced the topic to religion and then to my awareness of my agnostic existence. We discussed mainly the communal nature of religions and my understanding that in Quaker meetings there is a sense of the personal and the communal, but that the spirit in Quaker meetings often transcends both in an interesting way.
For some reason this resonated immediately and made me think of our senses. I had heard someone speaking about how we take our senses for granted and think we only have five (sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing), but we really have more than that. The speaker said we also have a sense of balance, a method in which we gain information about the world that has absolutely nothing to do with any of the other senses. Another example is exteroception, how we understand the existence of spacial relationships in our “sphere” of being without seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting the intruding object. Ever close your eyes and then have someone walk close to you and you could feel their presence without using the above senses? That’s your sense of exteroception. My point in all this is that there are many senses that we take for granted but haven’t exactly pinpointed.
Scientifically, there is still much yet to be discovered concerning our health and our bodies. To me it seems that maybe we have another unknown sense. One that we can use to feel and understand more social or emotional connections with those around us, which changes our physical state through hormonal interactions when we engage this sense in different ways. To me it makes sense, when someone says something that is upsetting, it puts forth a series of hormonal interactions that lead to anger or another emotion.  After feeling these emotions for a long period of time, it can have a major effect on our bodies. So doesn’t it make sense that there are certain experiences that can affect this other sense? That by feeling the good nature of those around me, that other physical and psychological effects can then take place? 
It seems to me that this is a far more temporal understanding of what spirituality is... this other sense of what is around us, being part of a communal and spiritual whole. Knowing our place in the greater spectrum of things. To me this is a very rough understanding and maybe I am making something too complicated, but for some reason right now this explanation works for me.