17 March 2008

Religious Education, War, And Sitting On Ski Slopes

In this month’s print issue of UU World (Spring 2008) there are two in-depth articles placed back-to-back, Prophetic Nonviolence by Paul Rasor and Home Grown Unitarian Universalism by William J. Doherty. This direct juxtaposition of how we are integrating our denominational responses to war and deepening our denominational vision for religious education struck me very powerfully.

In Rasor’s article about how we could integrate the “just war” and “pacifist” approaches to expressing our core value of peacemaking he observes that these two ideals have traditionally been seen as opposing positions that divide us and the debate has tended to effectively exclude some people from the process of coming to a denominational position. He proposes that we can overcome this traditional divisiveness by emphasizing the common ground we have in our core principles and in the power of including everyone in the dialogue.

In Doherty’s article about how our religious education systems can work better he makes light of the short-comings of the “traditional church-centered programs” that rely heavily on “service-providing or educational approaches” because they reinforce the mainstream me-first consumer culture that we, as a religious community, more generally reject. He is calling for new methods of engaging families in direct participation in the creation of religious rituals in the home that will enable children and youth to know more fully what it means to be a UU.

On the surface they appear to be about widely disparate topics, but I see a unifying theme. The power of the juxtaposition is a result of how I see our place in human history today. But, to fully appreciate the unifying theme and the power of the juxtaposition, I need to explain why as a 14-year-old I was prone to sitting down in my bright red insulated bib overalls halfway down the ski slopes at Kirkwood Resort in the last week of December in 1982. In case you are not familiar with the behavior of teenage boys on ski slopes sitting around halfway down a run is not normal.

Sitting On The Slopes

During the summer of 1982 I experienced occasional pain in my right knee. At a family reunion at the end of that summer a large group of us went hiking on Casper Mountain in Wyoming where the pain in my knee became a major problem. Back home in California I was finally taken to a doctor and during surgery on the Friday before school started the doctors found that I had torn cartilage. We still don’t really know what caused the damage to my knee, except that it must have happened at some unknown time long before our trip to Wyoming and the hike that finally prompted a visit to the doctor.

The surgery also eventually prompted my parents to let the cat out of the bag about a Christmastime surprise they had been planning. They wanted to send me to Kirkwood Ski Resort to learn downhill skiing, but the surgery looked like a serious wrench in the works. My orthopedic surgeon in consultation with my physical therapist, however, reassured us all. He reasoned that since I was young and had already made good healing progress, if I could continue healing and regaining my strength at a rigorous pace then I could probably be in adequate shape for learning to ski. Which I did. After having surgery in September I learned to ski in December. But there’s more to my odd behavior on the ski slopes than just the fact that I was recovering from surgery.

Fortunately, I have (like we all do) a magnificent body system that communicates it’s needs. The key message I learned to pay attention to as my knee was recovering from surgery was fatigue. Fatigue became an intimate companion. In physical therapy the goal was to push back against fatigue to continuously increase stamina, to be able to go just a little further each time. But out on the ski slopes I was challenged not just to push against my limits but to dance with fatigue. In order to get the most out of a whole day on the slopes I had to push and be pulled by fatigue to both spend and strategically recover my energy. I learned to pay close attention to the signals that my body was so elegantly designed to provide.

The result was odd behavior for a teenage boy on the ski slopes. There I was in my brand new bright red insulated bib overalls; on rented skis, boots and poles. Whenever I felt the pull of fatigue I would not only stop on the slope but would also sit down on the snow to rest my knee. Nearly every single time I sat on the slopes someone would stop and ask if I was injured. Attracting that much attention made it clear to me that my behavior was not normal.

Here are the three points you need to remember about my sitting on the slopes story:
1. I had surgery to correct damage that occurred at some unknown time in the past.
2. I was inspired by the thrills of downhill skiing.
3. In order to mitigate the risk of destroying my hard-won healing progress I had to pay extraordinary attention to the feedback I normally ignored in the course of youthful exuberance and enthusiasm for a challenging new adventure.

Menders Are Emerging From Our Breaker Society

I subscribe to a historical perspective of humanity developed by writers such as Daniel Quinn, Riane Eisler, Sharif Abdullah, David Korten, and Michael Dowd. This perspective puts us squarely in the midst of the magnificent adventure of life. Humanity is just one of a vast multitude of life forms that has succeeded in surviving and continuing the grand tradition of occupying the dynamic zone between an ocean of chaos and the stable shore of order. Straying too far into either order or chaos is a death sentence because we are built to balance in between.

The human story reaches back hundreds of thousand of years and throughout most of that time we lived as Keepers of the Sacred Hoop. We accepted the fact that there are cycles of power and influence in the universe that are beyond our comprehension and those powers and influences were accorded sacred status out of a combination of awe and humble respect. We left our fate in the hands of the gods.

Then at some unknown time in the past our ancestors were suffering greatly in a dire struggle to survive amidst scarcity and discovered a different way to live. We broke the sacred hoop and took our destiny into our own hands. We discovered that we could be powerful and influential in subtle ways that seemed miraculous. The gods were transformed into one God and that male God went far away (and even ceased to exist for some people) leaving us to take responsibility for our own fate. Eventually, some Breakers asserted that there is no power or influence in the universe that cannot be known, even though we might not know it yet. And other Breakers simply asserted that their God is the ultimate God, therefore their messiah and/or his duly authorized and anointed “servants” have special privileged access to the Mysteries of Life, The Universe and Everything. Either way the sacred hoop was irreparably broken when the Mysteries cease to exist with the arrival of some special elite person or class of people who have unique privileged access to knowing the universe through either scientific or religious “enlightenment.”

Regardless of your theological position it is safe to say that our Breaker society is based on taking responsibility for our own fate. And, the Breakers of the Sacred Hoop are clearly the dominant society on the planet since the aboriginal Keepers of the Sacred Hoop are nearly extinct.

But there is a new way of living that is emerging within our Breaker society. Many of us have realized that something has gone terribly wrong and we have resolved to become the Menders of the Sacred Hoop. I understand our need within Unitarian Universalism to address the issues of war and family life as mutually interrelated expressions of the necessity of mending the sacred hoop.

Our fate is not exclusively in the hands of the gods (or a God) nor is it exclusively in our own hands. Our fate will be the outcome of our intimate communion with the sacred. The outcome of that conversation will depend on how we honor our interdependence with all of life. Our destiny is determined by our participation in the larger processes of living.

The Breakers assumptions are wrong; there are significant and enduring powers and influences in the universe that are beyond our understanding and always will be. We will never resolve all Mysteries. And no one has privileged access to the Mysteries. The sacred hoop is mended by supporting everyone to participate in the conversation with life and death to negotiate the terms of our existence.

So let me restate my understanding of our situation more concisely:

Our society has an injury that occurred at some undetermined point in the past (the breaking of the sacred hoop), but the necessary surgery was done to survive (the inception of the Menders) and now we are well along the road to recovery. But we have also recently discovered some very thrilling ways of living (modern technological consumerism) and we are severely challenged to maintain a healthy balance between our thrilling new lifestyle options and continuing to support our healing process.

My confidence in our healing progress so far is based primarily on Steven Pinker’s TED conference presentation and essay entitled “A Short History of Violence” and Hans Rosling’s TED conference presentation entitled “Debunking third-world myths with the best stats you've ever seen” and his web site Gapminder.org. Pinker’s presentation suggests that our surgical intervention probably occurred four or five hundred years ago when there was a shift in our ideas about governance and the first inklings of democratic forms of governance began to take shape. Rosling’s presentation shows that globally we have made great progress despite the fact that we are largely unaware of it.

So here we are, on the path of healing, yet we are also flirting with disaster by taking advantage of the thrilling lifestyles we have recently discovered. The question is whether we are going to be able to pay close enough attention to the feedback signals we are getting.

How do we get the feedback we need to navigate into the future safely? How do we dance with fatigue as a society? If we simply act like a normal technological consumerist society we will surely cause more harm and could do permanent damage despite our progress so far.

Religious Education and War

This brings me back to the articles about how our denomination should integrate our thoughts and feelings about war and how our denomination can best support families with the task of faith formation in our children. Despite the apparent disparity of these two issues, I see the fundamental problems and solutions as the same; exclusion is the problem and participation is the solution.

Recall that Doherty is calling for new methods of engaging families in direct participation in the creation of religious rituals in the home that will enable children and youth to know more fully what it means to be a UU. And, Rasor proposes that we can overcome the traditional divisiveness of the “just war” and “pacifist” approaches to peacemaking by emphasizing the common ground we have in our core principles and in the power of including everyone in the dialogue.

In both cases we have inadvertently perpetuated subtle forms of exclusion and the answer is to renew our commitment to supporting others to be included in the process of participating. The point, as I see it, is not the precise position to be taken against war nor the precise rituals that families enact, the point is that everyone has the opportunity to participate and a system of support is in place that welcomes everyone into the discussion such that they are encouraged to contribute. It’s the very process of soliciting, gathering, organizing, sifting, sorting, and then deciding on positions and rituals (that we only accept as the best we can do for now) that mends the sacred hoop.

Exclusion Is Violence

Violence has 6 orders of magnitude based on the degree of exclusion that results:
1. Literal death which is the ultimate exclusion.
2. Bodily incapacitation as in physical injury which results in a lower level of literal exclusion.
3. Mental incapacitation as in emotional and cognitive damage which is exclusion of a subtle, perhaps abstract, kind.
4. Organizational incapacitation as in the disruption of relationships and disabling a group from meeting it’s members needs. This is a collective form of subtle exclusion.
5. Social incapacitation as in disabling a group from meeting it’s collective needs. This is also a subtle collective form of exclusion.
6. Ecological incapacitation as in interrupting the ecological and infrastructural services that a group relies upon for it’s well-being and continued survival. This is exclusion that can be obvious in the forms of human attacks on infrastructure. But it can be subtler when it takes the form of disease, pollution or global warming.

War is the most comprehensive expression of violence since it tends to achieve violence at all six orders of magnitude, simultaneously.

But violence, when understood in this way, is still a common, everyday fact of life for many people everywhere in the world. Although it may only happen at one or two of the subtle intermediate levels at a time instead of the most obvious levels of literal death, physical injury, and infrastructure disruption.

Violence in my understanding is the kind of evil that is always possible because we forget to pay attention to how insidiously it slips into our habits of thinking and acting without our awareness. Violence is the evil that occurs when we forget to pay attention to the corporate collective feedback that results from the inclusive participation that is designed into our democratic bodies. We run the risk of doing violence whenever we forget to, or sometimes never learned how to, pay attention to the feedback we have available.

Doherty and Roser are both pointing out how we UU’s have in the past fallen short of our ideals; we have enacted subtle forms of violence and we have the opportunity to get back on our healing path if we can listen and respond effectively to the feedback before real damage is done.

The insight that really made the juxtaposition of these two articles powerful for me is the insight that participation is the opposite of violence.

Inclusive Participation Is Peacemaking

Participation, or the lack thereof, is evident in three ways:
1. In the power structures in which we control our own and other people’s behavior for the common good;
2. In the exchange processes in which we trade material, financial, informational, and temporal resources with each other to meet our needs; and
3. In the patterns of consciousness that result from being embedded in those structures and processes.

The various forms of violence achieve the exclusion of some people from power structures, from exchange processes, and/or from being able to connect their patterns of consciousness (for both good and ill) with the power structures and exchange processes that caused those patterns.

The challenge of promoting participation as an antidote to violence is in figuring out how we still engage in subtle forms of violence without realizing it and encouraging people to discover how they can participate in reshaping the power structures and exchange processes to prevent the negative patterns of consciousness that contribute to the tragedies in the world. Doherty and Roser both help us uncover subtle manifestations of violence in our denomination.

The ultimate antidote to war begins in the family, it needs to continue into the school, and should also be integrated into the workplace, but will only be fully realized when participation is expected and supported in every nook and cranny of our communities. This means enabling democratic forms of participation in every possible kind of organization that exists in society; religious, political, economic and social.

If we can achieve a comprehensive system for welcoming everyone into the discussion of decisions that affect their lives and support them to effectively participate in the implementation of those decisions, then we will be living up to our principles. The feedback we need as a society is only available when we encourage and enable everyone to participate to the fullest extent they can manage.

We have a choice to make. Focus on paying attention to the feedback that is available or ignoring it. I accept that we have, as a society, already arrived at the top of the ski slope. There is no way to avoid the risks anymore. I prefer to dance with the feedback rather than try to live up to the expectations of “normal” behavior as a technological consumer society in an exuberant show of youthful bravado.

The UUA is ideally suited to the task of mending the sacred hoop if we can get clear about the Breaker habits of thought and action that we have grown up with. Doherty and Rasor’s articles remind us that the subtlest manifestations of violence are insidious and we are never immune.

But on the other hand, we also know exactly what to do about it. Pay attention, participate in the process, seek the truth to the best of our ability, and encourage everyone else to do the same. It is by illuminating our principles and holding each other in the light of those principles that we shall mend the sacred hoop.


Links to the good news about the healing progress we’ve made:

Steven Pinker’s History of Violence:
Video: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/163
Article: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinker07/pinker07_index.html

Hans Rosling’s Debunking Third World Myths With The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen:
Video: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/92
Site: http://gapminder.org/

The books regarding our place in human history:

Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael books; If you haven’t read them at all I recommend My Ishmael since it is the most recent and reflects his revisions and clarifications. The books are not a series and the basic ideas are presented each time in varying ways. He presents human cultures as either Leavers or Takers (the Keepers, Breakers and Menders is from Sharif Abdullah’s book Creating A World That Works For All, more information below).

Riane Eisler’s Chalice and the Blade and The Partnership Way: Eisler’s work is largely academic but presents the basic thesis that prehistoric cultures were predominantly matriarchal in contrast to the patriarchal power structures that have dominated the historical period of human history. She advocates a rebalancing of the gender roles.

Sharif Abdullah’s Creating A World The Works for All: Abdullah’s work is derived from lifelong activism and advocates for inclusivity, a philosophy that honors the sacred in all it’s forms. He has effectively applied his work in Sri Lanka through the Ghandian peace organization Sarvodaya.

David Korten’s The Great Turning: Korten’s work is derived from his background in international economic development. In the Great Turning he synthesizes a variety of work into an over arching vision of a mender movement that can weave together a broad variety of seemingly diverse issues.

Michael Dowd’s Thank God For Evolution: Dowd’s work is derived from his background as a minister and ecological activist. He also weaves together a variety of ideas to arrive at a spirituality that transcends the divisiveness of the recent debates about evolution. He refers to the history of our universe as the Great Story and makes the case for an integration of scientific and religious storytelling.

Statistics in Support of Our Recent Progress:

“By 1950, only 22 of the 80 sovereign political systems in the world (28 percent) were democratic. When the third wave of global democratization began in 1974, there were 39 democracies, but the percentage of democracies in the world was about the same (27 percent). Yet by January 2000, Freedom House counted 120 democracies, the highest number and the greatest percentage (63) in the history of [Breaker society]” http://www.hoover.org/publications/digest/3491911.html
Note: The quote above originally ended with the phrase ‘history of the world’ but that implies that Keeper society was undemocratic and if the surviving Keeper cultures are indicative then that assumption is probably inaccurate. Keepers probably did not have formal electoral structures but their decision making processes seem to be intensely participatory which I interpret as essentially democratic.

“The Stockholm-based ‘International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance,’ for example, lists only 78 elections across the entire decade of the 1940s, barely more than the total for 2004 alone.”

A Report on the Power of Participation:

“How Freedom Is Won” A report From Freedom House on the effectiveness of nonviolent civil disobedience as a means to achieving more political and social freedoms from data collected from 1973-2005. http://www.freedomhouse.org/uploads/special_report/29.pdf

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