Photo credit: Ryan Halloway
Readings: Micah 6:6-8, John 15:12-17, Divine Love and Wisdom #47 (see below)
Well friends, a lot has happened in the last two weeks, since I spoke here last. We find ourselves in the United States and around the world, grappling more intensely with the reality of white supremacy and systemic injustice than we have in a very long time. And this is a good thing. Our siblings of color have been raising their voices for so many years now about these issues, and they are justifiably exhausted and frustrated that their distress has gone unheard for so long.
I spent a while thinking about what might be useful for me to say today. We’ve all heard the sermons about the fact that we should love one another. I know you already know that Jesus says we should love one another. The pertinent question is *how* do we love one another. Love is not just a fuzzy feeling of positivity, for love to be real it must be ultimated in action. But what action? And in what way? We might recall here the Swedenborgian notion that the twin of love is wisdom; to love truly we need to be able to love wisely. But just to be clear, contrary to the way in which the word wisely is often held, to love wisely does not mean to love *carefully* it means to love *effectively.* It is not about reserving love for those we think deserve it, it is about taking on the work to figure out how to love someone in a useful way, in a way that actually serves them. It means paying attention to questions like: Are we loving in ways that serve others, and not just making ourselves feel good. Is the love actually felt by the person we say we are loving? Do they feel it in the way we hoped they would? Are we listening if they tell us the they don’t feel it? What is it in ourselves might be preventing us from loving others wisely and usefully?
An important part of actually being able love wisely, is being practiced at taking ourselves and our own agenda out of the equation. We need be in the habit of de-centering ourselves, so that we are not, even unconsciously, imposing our own notions of rightness or our own projections onto the people we are trying to love.
And it is on this topic of de-centering that I want to focus today. Because systemic racism and injustice doesn’t come out of nowhere, it doesn’t come from a few bad apples, it comes from a society that habitually, consistently and intentionally centers whiteness: white experience, white wholesomeness, white power and the white narrative.
So, in this context, I want to talk about an article that read this past week, that seemingly deals with something small, but has significant ramifications. The article spoke about the kind of social media responses to racial injustice that are actually helpful and those that are not. Often times, when well-meaning white people become aware of injustice, we want to express how that makes us feel. So for example, we might talk about how outraged or disbelieving or disgusted or ashamed we are, we might want say not all white people are that way, that we are not that way, or we might want to shift the focus to where kindness and progress is actually happening. What we don’t realize is that these kinds of responses actually center white opinion and white feelings, and are focused on establishing white identity (our identity) as good people. It focuses on ourselves and not on the experience of the people of color who are involved with the in injustice. It doesn’t center what has happened to them, or the systemic racism under which they must constantly function. So, the article points out that better examples might be to respond with “I see you,” “that’s awful," or even better “I’ve found an organization that helps in these kinds of instances and I’ve donated money.” (1)
I know this might seem like a kind of trivial example…why try to regulate genuine expressions of dismay and/or optimism? Because white centrality in our society is so baked into our everyday, so a part of our unconscious responses to everything, that even small things like how we individually respond to examples of injustice will reflect it. And so in order to actually practice love in real life, in ways that are useful, we have to become aware of and work against that default white centrality. And for white people that means working to de-center the self. In order to do that, we have to work on our awareness of our responses and reactions. We need learn to cope with our feelings in private and not burden people of color with our processing. We have to be willing to open our eyes to different narratives than we have previously heard, to listen to voices we wouldn’t otherwise have listened to. We have to engage in serious self-reflection and be willing to recognize our own complicity, no matter how unconscious, with honesty and courage.
And so by now, you might have noticed an irony which another reader of that article noticed. We’re not supposed to make it about us (white people), but we do have to pay a lot of attention to ourselves in order to have the wherewithal to…not make it about us. As the author of the article points out, in order to de-center the self, we first have to pay attention to our sense of self. It’s a bit of a paradox. But of course, where there is paradox, there is often a deeply spiritual principle.
Self reflection toward the purpose of de-centering the self is actually a really good synopsis of the work of regeneration. I’ve brought it up in this context of de-centering whiteness, but of course, it is a spiritual principle that has a much broader application. It plays a part in all of our relationships; marriages, friendships, parenting, and others, and all the ways we might try to be effective and useful in the world. This sense of de-centering is captured in our reading from Swedenborg’s Divine Love and Wisdom today:
Feeling the joy of someone else as joy within ourselves--that is loving. Feeling our joy in others, though, and not theirs in ourselves is not loving.
The pertinent question then is, how do we feel the joy of another as joy within ourselves in that pure and lovely way, without it actually being our own sense joy located in someone else? Our own sense of joy from loving how someone one else serves our own pride or happiness? We get there by practicing the de-centering of the self. By having relinquished our attachment to selfhood and self-identity enough so that the joy of another can actually flow though us un-impeded and un-interpreted by our own hang-ups and desires.
In fact, we might describe an angel, as someone who has very effectively de-centered the self, so much so, that their selfhood is entirely abdicated, and instead filled up and given life by the Lord. Swedenborg writes:
They feel the inflow of divine love and wisdom from the Lord, and since they feel it and in their wisdom realize that these constitute their life, they say that their life comes from the Lord and not from themselves. (2)
This is the spiritual work that is before us. It is before everybody in all of our relationships, but specifically in this moment, it is before white people to let go of our narratives, defensiveness, embarrassment, and fear, so that we might allow our default centrality to fall away. This won’t feel comfortable. We all have habits of mind that protect the primacy of our selfhood, that protect our notions of our own rightness and goodness. But it is imperative that we find the will to notice how our acquiescence to white centrality has formed our society and has formed our institutions in ways that disadvantage our siblings of color. Jesus tells us to love one another. Figuring out how to de-center the self is “step one” in loving another. Not loving how they can serve us, not loving how loving someone can make us feel happy, but actually getting ourselves out of the way enough to hear how they are asking us to love them.
Until this de-centering occurs, the Swedenborgian vision of the Grand Human cannot be manifested in its fullness. Our vision of heaven on earth, the New Jerusalem, of perfect inter-connection and inter-dependence cannot be actualized while one group of people hangs on to centrality.
The main challenge in this call, though, is that we first have to focus on and engage with the thing that we ultimately will need to let go of. And the temptation is to imagine that all this necessary self-reflection is the culmination of the work, or to get so distracted by it that we never get around to acting. But to quote the writer and activist Rachel Cargyle: anti-racism is not a self-improvement project for white people(3). The point is not to *become* a loving person, but to *be* a loving person. Or, in this context, the point is not about becoming anti-racist and how that might make us feel better about ourselves, but about being anti-racist and how that might serve our siblings of color.
To quote Cornel West: justice is what love looks like in public. Love cannot be a vague notion; it is a verb that needs to be actualized, personally and communally. This will likely make us feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. What if we do the wrong thing? News flash: we probably will. We definitely will, at some point. But a commitment to loving wisely and usefully (instead of a commitment to our own sense of goodness) means that we are willing to remain teachable and open and curious, it means that we are willing to apologize and try again, it means that we are willing to keep clearing out our own internal obstacles, over and over again. Not to arrive somewhere and be finished, but because the process of relinquishment makes room for God to lead us and guide us, makes room for a future that our selfhood alone could never have imagined. May it be.
(3) Rachel Cargyle, Public Address on Revoluation: Revolution Now, May 30 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leBPMyQ60HM&t=9s
6 With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
Divine Love and Wisdom 47
Divine love and wisdom cannot fail to be and to be manifested in others that it has created. The hallmark of love is not loving ourselves but loving others and being united to them through love…
The essence of love is that what is ours should belong to someone else. Feeling the joy of someone else as joy within ourselves--that is loving. Feeling our joy in others, though, and not theirs in ourselves is not loving. That is loving ourselves, while the former is loving our neighbor. These two kinds of love are exact opposites. True, they both unite us; and it does not seem as though loving what belongs to us, or loving ourselves in the other, is divisive. Yet it is so divisive that to the extent that we love others in this way we later harbor hatred for them. Step by step our union with them dissolves, and the love becomes hatred of corresponding intensity.