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Highways in the Desert – 12/7/2014

In his retelling of the life of the Buddha, contemporary Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn relates many stories and episodes. In one of these, Siddhartha Gautama, who would eventually become the Buddha, was still young and living in the house of his father, a king. He married a woman named Yasodhara, and together they travel on a tour of the kingdom, in order to see and be seen. On their journey they stayed in the homes of very humble folk, and both of them saw for the first time what life was like outside of rich palaces. “Hardship,” Hahn writes, “went hand in hand with the life of the peasants. Siddhartha gazed at children with arms and legs as thin as matchsticks and bellies swollen from worms and malnutrition. He saw the handicapped and infirm forced to beg in the streets, and these scenes robbed him of any happiness. He saw people caught in inescapable conditions. In addition to poverty and disease, they were oppressed…and there was no one to whom they could complain.” This experience prompted Siddhartha to begin his quest to find a spiritual means of liberation from suffering to share with the world. His wife, however, was focused on the practical. Yasodhara believed in her husband’s spiritual search, but in the mean time she focused on trying to relieve physical suffering by physical means, distributing food and attempting to supply peoples’ basic needs. Siddhartha returned his wife’s support for him with his own for her, so each aided the other in their different attempts to solve the problem of suffering.

I planned some time ago that in my remarks this morning I would discuss compassion, which is the second of the Buddhist tradition’s four immeasurables, the four qualities which a practitioner is taught to cultivate in themselves. Compassion seemed like the sort of topic that would resonate well with the holiday season without being limited to it, allowing me to speak to a congregation where I expect that some of us are already giddy over Christmas, and some of us decidedly are not. And then came the word from Ferguson, Missouri, that there would be no indictment – no public trial, no hint of a thought of a reckoning of any kind – in the case of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot dead this summer by a white police officer. Nine days later, on this past Wednesday, another grand jury in New York also declined to indict the white police officer who strangled Eric Garner to death. Eric Garner, who was a 43 year-old black man, who also died this summer, and who was also unarmed. And around the same time that both of these judgments were rendered, a 12 year-old boy who was playing with a bb gun outside in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, was also shot by a white officer. The boy’s name was Tamir Rice, and he was also black.

This is not the first draft of this sermon. The first draft would have had no words in it – just one long, anguished howl. This isn’t the second draft, either; that one had too many expletives. Instead, this is the draft where I attempt to say something worthy of being said in the face of black bodies being buried and the white bodies that killed them going free. Not just right now, not just this year, but stretching back through the mere century and a half that there has been any premise of legal equality in this country between the white lives and black.

If any one of the cases that I mentioned before, or any of the others that I could have mentioned – Darrien Hunt, Kendrec McDade, Sean Bell, and far too many others – if any of these could be marked down as isolated incidents, they would be tragedies unto themselves. But they are not isolated, and instead they are symptoms of a pattern in our society, in what we call our system of justice, and in fact in ourselves. And before I talk about that pattern I need to ask you to focus with me for a second on this colossal insult which compounds the terrible injury of death itself. To have even one’s killing be a point in a pattern. W.E.B. DuBois wrote that, by virtue of his skin, there was an eternal unasked question always hovering between him and the white world. That question was, “How does it feel to be a problem?” We live in a society that treats every member of a marginalized, mistrusted, or minority group as emblematic of that group. As a white person I enjoy a sense of individuality – a sense that what I do and what happens to me reflects primarily on me – that is rarely afforded to black people by whites. So an unarmed black man or boy killed by the police does not get the same treatment of singular outrage that a white person’s death would elicit. Instead, there is a rush to argue over what this one death says about blackness or whiteness, about the police and the courts and guns and race in 21st century America.

A separate standard of living and of justice for people of color – this is one dimension of what DuBois was talking about. The pattern of looking at an entire category of people as a problem – indeed, of looking at any category of people as something which can be considered and judged collectively at all. We live in an era when explicit discrimination on the basis of race is broadly illegal and broadly condemned. But that is not enough to create an equitable society. Today the average white household has a net worth 18 times higher than the average black household. That is, horrifyingly, even higher than the racial wealth gap in apartheid-era South Africa. At the same time, our legal system criminalizes poverty and the sorts of things that poor people are likely to do to survive – Eric Garner was accused of selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. Broken windows policing is a crime-fighting strategy that focuses on using heavy police attention, and often force, on minor crimes and infractions to create an atmosphere of lawfulness in areas struggling with serious crime. It’s become a leading, if not the dominant, attitude in law enforcement in America, and it means that certain towns and neighborhoods bear the heavy hand of a police presence looking to come down hard on the most modest transgressions. And these are neighborhoods primarily populated by poor people and people of color. So it is that black people are more likely to be arrested than whites, just as they are more likely to be tried if arrested, more likely to be convicted if tried, and tend to serve a longer sentence when convicted.

The victory of the civil rights movement was in making official and overt racism publically unacceptable. But almost fifty years after its high-water mark, our legal and political systems, and much of our public discourse, seems satisfied that the problems of the past have been corrected – that everything is alright, now. The unanswered deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and too many others should make it clear to those of us who didn’t already know from our daily lives: things are not alright. People are not supposed to face the real prospect of being killed by agents of the state while walking around their own neighborhoods. Families are not supposed to have to train their children to avoid contact with the authorities at all costs for fear of those children’s lives.

In the systems that perpetuate racial injustice and in the department policies and individual choices of police officers that lead to two different sorts of justice being meted out in this country, part of what is at work is implicit bias. This is subconscious preference for or against a group, or the reflexive association between that group and some quality, image, or idea. This bias is the result of deep, persistent cultural training and it is common enough to be called universal. What the bias is, who it is about, and the degree of it all vary, but it is there in all of us and needs to be dealt with. Researchers have been studying this for some time now. One test for such bias tries to measure the subconscious association between black faces and words with bad associations like ‘awful’ and ‘danger.’ A study with over 2 million participants found an average degree of bias somewhere between slight and moderate. This is the human mind doing unconsciously something that our society often does subtly. On the basis of race, people are treated with different expectations and different standards of evidence, funneled towards different neighborhoods or different sorts of work. This teaches us to associate certain colors of skin with certain essential qualities and outcomes – our individual choices make up the culture, and the culture feeds back into our individual choices.

The research indicates that this implicit bias doesn’t just help create the ongoing racism of our society: the stronger this sort of categorical thinking is in a person, the harder they find creative thinking and problem-solving. But the research also points toward some ways to combat this bias in ourselves, and one of the most promising is the experience of difference and diversity. I don’t only mean that direct relationships with people from another group helps to break down your preconceived ideas about that group – that’s relatively obvious. But the research also suggests that direct interactions with people from any other group helps to mitigate bias against all groups. Stepping outside of our comfort zones and experiencing others across boundaries helps to better align our unconscious and conscious selves.

What is really at issue in all of this is compassion. In the Buddhist understanding, compassion is the wish that another being should be free from suffering. That wish is grounded in a sense of the realness and valuableness of the other person. For most of us, our sense of who is real and valuable begins in our self and works outward, based on relationship: family, friends, community. There’s an emotional proximity that impacts the reach of our compassion. The goal in Buddhist practice is to cultivate total compassion towards all beings, but below the plane of spiritual perfection, it is easier to care about, to show compassion towards, those who feel closer to us – because we know them personally, or because they match some identity we feel connected to. Without such a connection, it is as though there is a great distance or obstacle between one person and another – like a mountain, a desert, or an ocean. The 40th chapter of the book of Isaiah is one of the pieces of scripture associated with the season of Advent, which we are now in, by the Christian calendar. We heard a musical rendering of its first lines earlier in this service: it begins, “Comfort ye, my people.” A few lines later, the text declares, “Clear in the wilderness a road for the Holy. Level in the desert a highway for our God! Let every valley be raised, every hill and mount made low. Let the rugged ground become level and the ridges become a plain.” We need to forge highways to connect us across the spiritual deserts that divide us.

Meditation, that essential element of Buddhist practice, attempts this with a focus on mindfulness, a particular sort of engaged attention. It contends against distraction, and the things that interrupt such attention. There are different approaches to meditation, and so there are different strategies for dealing with distraction, but doing so is a part of any meditative practice.

This is where we come back: to the racial iniquity in our society, to what our response can be and needs to be, and to the story we began with, of Siddhartha and Yasodhara. Their hearts were awoken to the injustice and the sorrow that surrounded them, that was baked-in to the society of which they were apart, because they met people experiencing it face-to-face and they did not turn away. Nationally, we have had a lot of Siddharthas and Yasodhara’s these past few weeks: people who are seeing what, at least to them, feels like a first deep look into the wrongs with which many others are living day-to-day. The discipline of attention called for in meditative practice also needs to be mirrored in this experience. There are lots of ways to be distracted from the profound suffering and cosmic wrongness of parents burying their children and families spending a first holiday without a loved one at the table. I’m going to point to two of them.

The first is to focus on the details of one case over the implications of it and many others like it. To argue about whether the person now dead brought that death upon themselves because they broke a small law, or played with the wrong toy. To point at conflicting witness accounts and throw up our hands. To complain about protests – too loud, too angry, too uncontrolled – so as not to have to grapple ourselves with the terrible and righteous anguish that the drove the protests in the first place.

The second is to grasp at and rush towards a false and hollow resolution. To use any bright moment, no matter how small or tangential, to look away from the bleakness and refuse to turn back. To allow our insulation from this struggle – for those of us who do feel insulated from it – shield us from having to think about it, wrestle with it, and play our part in its resolution.

The desert is a hopeless place. Its nature is harsh and unforgiving. Its possibilities are narrow, and few. The desert of misunderstanding and disconnection that divides us from each other is no place to live. Crossing the spiritual expanse between ‘us’ and ‘them’ requires hard work and creativity. It requires recognition of another person’s suffering, the appreciation that it is real, and deep, and the determination to do what we can to reduce that suffering. Compassion is the road across the desert. It’s not a path that we walk only one time – the road is always there, always in need of being re-measured, re-shaped, and travelled anew.


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