Thursday, May 6, 2021

Sincerity, Deception, and Protection...Thurman's Second Teaching

Who knew class with Howard Thurman would be reconvened so soon? The second ‘hound of hell’ he names in his book is deception. I actually stopped taking notes on this one, so I could get to his teachings on hate in the lives of the disinherited. That was the obvious phenomenon to explore in our civic settings today. Then life brought a complex happening into my week in which measured reflection on deception now seems warranted. So here we are… How does deception play in our public spheres today, and what might we learn from its forms and functions toward deepening awareness and more intimate human relationships across difference(s)?

Most of our news media outlets are focused upon deceptions surrounding The Big Lie--the former President’s continued grift-fest that he didn’t lose the election and his authoritarian demands for cultural and governmental power in utter disregard of the Constitution, shaking the pillars of our democracy. True to our broken political process, Liz Cheney--truth-teller and true patriot--may be the first Republican to pay any consequences for the Insurrection on January 6th.

But there are scents and senses of deception that come with marketing in a capitalistic economy, with positive-life-portrayals in social media when life is actually much more complicated than unicorns and rainbows all the time. It’s inordinately difficult to encounter an area of our civic life today that is not rife with deception of some sort.

Let’s begin with “an active hypothetical” then… An educational institution requires an administrative review of its doctoral research practices, to insure the protection and safety of any human subjects to be engaged in such research.  It’s a new process and very few have much clarity of the reach and scope of this new review process. Perfectly normal. All the actors in the evolving drama that unfolds are flawed human beings, doing their best to fulfill the responsibilities required by their roles, some long and established, others brand spankin’ new. Also perfectly normal. A student’s research project comes under review, not simply for protection of human subject ethical considerations, as it turns out, but toward a methodology and method not in alignment with the work or the project. Is that an institutional deception? Over a period of weeks, she becomes the casualty of the new and un-healed administrative process that cannot hear the integrity of her work, nor trust the 20-month journey of leadership and cohort that brought her there. What examples of deception unfolded here, or was it simply misunderstandings and impotence in a damaging process? An impasse forms over a period of several days. The student and cohort leadership finally relent so to move the work along, though now it has been altered and their goodwill has been damaged. The educational institution loses itself a bit more; the student’s effort and learning journey become eclipsed by institutional casualties in the process. 

My questions today: How does deception course through this entire narrative, if it does? Is the relenting to it an inevitable compromise, with little satisfaction for anyone involved? Is it too an act of deception? Do the parties involved live with their integrity intact?


Thurman’s chapter on
deception opens: “Deception is perhaps the oldest of all the techniques by which the weak have protected themselves against the strong. Through the ages, at all stages of sentient activity, the weak have survived by fooling the strong.” (48) The power of his work here is his placement of the discussion to come in the vice-grip of strong-weak relationships. Nature demonstrates deception between predator and prey. He names several species in nature that use biological means to fool the predators. Children learn deception of their parents early, at least if they want to experiment and explore beyond imposed boundaries, or if they behave to get something as they desire. Women have learned over centuries that deception, or less pejoratively spoken, power that is indirect, is necessary to be heard, sometimes simply to survive. 

Thurman then brings the scriptural wallop into view, specifically with Ezekiel. “When the children of Israel were in captivity in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel could not give words of comfort and guidance by direct and overt statement. If he had, he would not have lasted very long...He would have been executed. What did the prophet do? He resorted to a form of deception. ... He used what we would now call “double talk.”” Thurman sketches a pretty familiar scene for someone living in a world in which the strong regularly overpower the weak, sometimes to overwhelming and violent ends.

He recognizes that this question is not merely academic either. It is “profoundly ethical and spiritual, going to the very heart of all human relations. For it raises the issue of honesty, integrity, and the consequences thereof over against duplicity and deception and the attendant consequences.” (48) 


He charts three basic alternatives for the disinherited (which we should probably specify as people of color in our society, or queering folk, or the marginalized in poverty, language, etc. I’m considering it here as those with less standing-voice-recourse in academic settings, so again not me per se, but...). The first alternative is simply to accept the apparent fact that one’s situation (of disempowerment and even danger) being what it is, there is no sensible choice offered. There is no question of honesty because there is no sense of community, what he might call the fellowship identified in yesterday’s piece. Which also means the questions of morality cannot invade here, because the power-relation creates an impossible immorality in human being, personhood. (see yesterday’s post on hatred).

The second alternative is a bit more confusing (at least to me today), as it suggests both positive and negative deception. I’m not quite sure I understand which is which, to be honest. I think negative deception can be described as follows… Those with less power may decide “to juggle the various areas of compromise, on the assumption that the moral quality of compromise operates in an ascending-descending scale.” Not all issues require all-in response, in other words, so some interactions or challenges of lesser significance can become an inevitable “compromise.” It is still a deception from what is true and observable in experiences, but this deception aims to sustain connection over an irreconcilable divergence between strong/weak. Ordinary deception, that which can be regarded as “deliberate strategy,” has no scale to it, it would seem. It’s a clean deception, fooling the strong completely. The more negative deception, the compromise(s), is sliding down a slope of “picking one’s battles” in a losing war. I feel like my hypothetical might be demonstrated in this alternative, an inevitable compromise.

The third alternative therefore startles, and challenges: complete and devastating sincerity, says Thurman. He quotes a letter from Gandhi to a Muriel Lester: “Speak the truth, without fear and without exception, and see everyone whose work is related to your purpose. You are in God’s work, so you need not fear man’s scorn. If they listen to your requests and grant them, you will be satisfied. If they reject them, you must make their rejection your strength.” 

Two facets draw my attention and wonder immediately. “...see everyone whose work is related to your purpose. You are in God’s work, so you need not fear man’s scorn.” This foundational charge has guided my footsteps through the trials and tribulations of higher theological education for over two decades. Thanks to a coach, an elder in my earlier professional life, I learned the freedom known in my Work when it is held to be quite distinct from my Job. The job is to serve the Work, not vice versa. Ever since, I’ve known to pursue my Sacred Work within the institutional-organizational containers that would serve it, serve me. I’ve learned to see all those whose work is related to my purpose...and, its not-see all those whose work is not related to my purpose. Outgrowing containers over the years has been exquisitely painful, but those who will serve the Sacred Work always breathe and grow with me. Those who won’t or can’t? We part ways as amicably as possible. There is an incredible integrity, freedom, even passion that can breathe into the world in such a living understanding, held in communities willing to evolve, grow.

My hypothetical could also feasibly rest here, in this sense of utter sincerity. The relenting of the immediate ‘battle’ is a protective side-step so to move the truthful speaking into a collective channel, the institutional roles/responsibilities slated with resolving internal disputes or learning curves. Time will tell whether the individuals and colleagues will show up as collaborative voices, worthy of the conversation, or whether they will insist upon a power-over process that dehumanizes them and those within their care. But this protective side-step is also an act of not-seeing those who have proven themselves unworthy or irrelevant to the sacred Work at hand. This doctoral student’s project, in this case. Those who have rejected it cannot see or hear it, and their rejection will become a chosen strength in the end. The community has an opportunity to grow, evolve, or to defend and narrow. It is a gift on our part to offer our experience toward growth and evolution. Time will tell what the community decides to choose.

The second facet, however, is where the fire and challenge lie: “If they listen to your requests and grant them, you will be satisfied. If they reject them, you must make their rejection your strength.” And later… “In the presence of an overwhelming sincerity on the part of the disinherited, the dominant themselves are caught with no defense, with the edge taken away from the sense of prerogative and from the status upon which the impregnability of their position rests. They are thrown back upon themselves…” The spiritual jujitsu movement required to make a rejection one’s strength is becoming more apparent, but still takes emotional effort and political-communal skill. Sadly, the more practice one gets, at least if held within supportive communities that can see you and hear you into stronger voice, then the better you get at this movement. 

It’s the utter sincerity, to catch the dominant with no defense…? This is what feels too risky and even politically unlikely in my several decades of experience in both church and academy. Institutions bring all previous and collective resources to bear against those perceived as less powerful, or those who have less political-social capital in the system. Whatever Thurman may mean by utter sincerity--and he lived within the currents of higher education while at Boston University, for sure--I cannot but imagine he grew savvy to how to be in God’s work, disregard “man’s scorn”, and live the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves. I cannot imagine he intends by these words literal honesty that would disempower someone in the face of those who hold power over someone else’s academic process. In the seduction that it would be the act of integrity for her, for us.

I landed here because the really good question of integrity came up as we have labored in this whole process. Does relenting to a process that has damaged the work bear a fruit of lessened integrity? Does our integrity suffer because we discern to relent in order to do no more harm than has already been done here? Perhaps it is an act of ordinary deception in an institutional culture that is both blind and deaf to the cohort’s relational norms and values? Therefore ‘positive’? Or is this the inevitable compromise in a world where connection is affirmed only when no one is truly satisfied with the outcome? I wonder…

I’ve been thinking about my own doctoral dissertation defense, almost exactly 20 years ago this past month. I knew that my advisor was in support of the project. I knew that I had invited a powerful woman’s voice to help me defend this work that was a bit more creative than the traditional top-down, linear-argument kind of work the practical theology department expected or desired. I planned intentionally to finish before the other departmental colleague returned from sabbatical, as he and my advisor were renown for disagreements, with doctoral students as casualties of the discussion. I also knew that my comprehensives exams had been costly for my advisor to uphold, though he’d never said so directly. This set up a rather more antagonistic departmental interaction for my dissertation defense. Those who’d been talked down before would come with more ammunition to exact their view on my advisor, with me as the potential casualty. Though at the time I was completely insecure about my work, I also didn’t really have a choice but to proceed anyway. So I used the gifts I’d been given, which are primarily intuitive, perceptive and relational.

Knowing that most established professors at my doctoral institution on the East Coast are emotionally insecure, particularly in how their work may or may not actually contribute to the life of the church, I invited every single well-respected ecclesial leader and nationally renown Christian educator to my defense. These were always “open to the public,” so I brought every single feminine-fierce elder I knew into the room with me: Moderator of the PCUSA General Assembly, educators of the year, national curriculum writers, and more--each of whom knew her work was useful to the church. I knew it was going to work when each department member entered the room of the defense, visibly startled, and made some nervous comment before sitting down. Most were men, and were not anticipating having to do their conceptual violence in front of a bunch of well respected church women. I also  insured that the scheduling of the defense was about an hour and fifteen minutes before lunchtime. No one would want it to go overlong that way. And, of course, I prepared my responses to anticipated, expectable questions.

I know in that instance, so long ago, I was utterly sincere. I know I spoke the truth of what I knew of my work at the time, and I could see everyone whose work was related to my purpose. Not my departmental members, who were not intent upon my own contribution, but my advisor and all of the fierce-feminine elders who protected me by simply being present with me. There was no deception, in other words.

Does this hypothetical happening, this week, have deception within it, or is there an utter sincerity accompanied by an advisor and a fierce-feminine elder presence of protection? I hope and pray for the latter. Sincerity within institutional processes is complicated, but so far so good, in my view. Time will tell.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Anyone Want to Talk about Hatred?

Who here wants to talk about hatred? In a loving manner…?

Hate is not a topic ever covered directly in my classical seminary education as a clergywoman or as a theological scholar. There were glimpses of various sins, given by some mystics and some ethicists, but by and large, hatred itself was never considered a suitable topic for practical theological investigation. There is a conspiracy of silence about hatred, its function and its meaning. (Howard Thurman). For something that is so everpresent in our world today--considering the utter lack of civility on social media or in the news, politics--I realized I’ve never really thought deeply about the anatomy and power of hatred. And perhaps it would behoove us all to do so...gently...lovingly...but honestly too.

In a different stream of writing unrelated here, I wound up using the word hate to describe my own antipathy toward the phrase child of God. Wanting a rather sing-song kind of tone and cadence, I wrote: “I hate the phrase being a child of God. I hate it in worship. I hate it in Sunday School. I hate it in scripture; I don’t care if it’s a Psalm or from Paul or straight out of “Jesus’s mouth.” I hate it in public prayer. I hate the phrase being a child of God, Sam I am.” (a bit of Dr. Seuss smile here, lightening the mood). I have a whole seminary-professor rationale for this antipathy, of course, which my pastor-husband sadly knows all too well. 😆But...

It’s patronizing. 

It’s enabling and disempowering. 

It centers the Patriarch and encourages childishness (refusal to grow, yearning for protection, etc.) , which is different than childlike-ness (wonder, curiosity, joy). 

But the gift in the piece for me was more an awakening to some energies of grief and sadness underneath the rationale. The anger or rage that was driving the rationale (which is not really germane here). I rarely use the word hate after all, but in this case, I had used it at least six times in one paragraph. When I asked a spirit-friend for feedback, she mirrored back what she saw and heard, which startled me into curiosity. 

Hate is a very real feeling in you that runs deep, she said. 

It stung of course, to be seen so, and yet I could not really deny it, especially in the matter of that phrase. The word hate had the energy I was feeling for such a rant, topic, observation.

So imagine my surprise when in an incidence of book providence--a book that finds you right when you have an itch that it can scratch--Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited landed in my heart, mind, soul. I’d read it a long time ago, for some purpose I’d been assigned to read it. But I did not receive it like I needed to receive it this time. I literally could not put it down. I highlighted. I took notes. I’ve sat with it for a couple weeks now. He breaks the Christian conspiracy of silence about hatred, its function and meaning. I cannot imagine a more timely wrestling-topic for reconsidering citizenship today…


Thurman opens his overview with a blunt statement: “Hatred cannot be defined. It can only be described.” Over a couple pages, he begins to breakdown the anatomy of hatred into its constitutive elements:

“Hatred often begins in a situation in which there is contact without fellowship, contact that is devoid of any of the primary overtures of warmth and fellow-feeling and genuineness.” (65) Here he is quick to clarify that there is such a thing as false fellowship, a kind of shallow nicety shared between human beings imprisoned into categories of weak and strong, dominant and minority, white and black. “It’s easy to have fellowship on your own terms,” he says, “and to repudiate it if your terms are not acceptable. It is this kind of fellowship that one finds often in the South between whites and Negroes” (sic, remember, he’s writing in 1949).

Second, “contacts without fellowship tend to express themselves in the kind of understanding that is strikingly unsympathetic.” He continues with a remarkable point with impact beyond even my original desire to talk about hatred. Imagine you are an educator, reading these words: “It is a grievous blunder to assume that understanding is always sympathetic,” … [LIGHTBULB] He continues: “There is the kind of understanding that is hard, cold, minute, and deadly. It is the kind of understanding that one gives the enemy, or that is derived from an accurate knowledge of another’s power to injure. There is an understanding of another’s weakness, which may be used as a weapon of offense or defense. Understanding that is not the outgrowth of an essential fellow-feeling is likely to be unsympathetic. Of course, there may be pity in it--even compassion, sometimes--but sympathy, almost never. I can sympathize only when I see myself in another’s place.” (67) 

The larger context in which this will now sing for me is in my own teaching settings. A popular Christian refrain is that you can love someone if you simply understand where they’re coming from. We presume understanding will lead to love, but that’s a false assumption. Clearly. Moreover, I find this ordering completely backwards for Christian devotion, in my experience. You will only come to understand that which you have already begun to love. Love has its own ‘insufficient reason’ or ‘rationality.’ (Jean Luc Marion). Can I love first? Am I loved? are both elemental questions in a quest for assurance, not certainty. (see October posts). What you decide to love, you will come to understand with sympathy, compassion, wisdom.

Thurman’s point, however, is that hate can form in contacts without fellowship, which tend to express themselves in the kind of understanding that is strikingly unsympathetic. It is an understanding disconnected from any commitment or connection of relationship, belonging, interdependence. What happens to you happens to me. Disconnection from all that. Unsympathetic understanding.

Third, ill will is not far behind an unsympathetic understanding. That which you are not connected to, those whom you see as other than yourself or your own, can easily become objects of ill will, unconscious injury. All who are held in unsympathetic understanding become other, therefore vulnerable to human ill will. And when all this “is dramatized in a human being”, you see “hatred walking on the earth.” (67)

Thurman’s summary: “The outline is now complete and simple—contacts without fellowship developing hatred and expressing themselves in unsympathetic understanding; and unsympathetic understanding tending to express itself in the exercise of ill will; and ill will, dramatized in a man or woman, becoming hatred walking on the earth.” (68)


So let’s begin to flesh this out in terms that should seem familiar and even obvious by now. Contacts without fellowship. Is there any better description of social media today? The range of contacts we human beings can have with one another have increased exponentially (it seems), yet there are few ‘containers’ within which to experience these contacts with fellowship. The fellowship we do know with one another is implicit or within previous historical-geographical containers: family, schools, churches, jobs/work, etc. Yet the fellowship available overall in physical time-space has lessened. Even before the pandemic, but particularly in the pandemic too. Contacts without fellowship.

Unsympathetic understanding. This is not only visible within social media or news media outlets predisposed to the most salacious or violent kinds of portrayals, understandings. The divorce of reason from the humane, the technological from the scientific, the individual from the communal has crafted an understanding valued when it is most unsympathetic. When most objective. When least connected to the humanly subjective or anecdotal. Understanding today aims for unsympathy. And we wonder why we feel so cold, separate, lost to one another?

Unsympathetic understanding tending to express itself in the exercise of ill will. It has become second nature to see ill will everywhere today. Distrust of institutions. Distrust of leaders. Distrust of one another. The understandings we have lash out at those who do not share our experience, share our wound, share our outrage. We gather with those who agree with us, and portray as unsympathetic all those who differ from us.

At this point, Thurman’s description of hatred helped me to break the ingrained taboo against even considering the topic. I could begin to see hate everywhere. 


Thurman’s brilliant contribution for me, today, however, was beginning to see the positive underbelly of this phenomenon, even as it is ultimately destructive. He tracks hate in the violent dance of the strong and the weak. He pushes us further to inquire into the strength that hatred gives to the weak for self-realization, for survival. He mirrors one of the reasons that hatred can run so strong, appear so valiant, be so seductive in the violent, dangerous world in which we live, collectively. In his words:

“In many analyses of hatred it is customary to apply it only to the attitude of the strong toward the weak. … Such an assumption is quite ridiculous. Hatred,in the mind and spirit of the disinherited, is born out of great bitterness--a bitterness that is made possible by the sustained resentment which is bottled up until it distills an essence of vitality, giving to the individual in whom this is happening a radical and fundamental basis of self-realization.” (69) Hatred makes (a) sort of profound contribution to the life of the disinherited, because it establishes a dimension of self-realization hammered out of the raw materials of injustice. (italics mine)

The vitality he describes expresses itself in the quality of endurance. Hate gives an energy of survival that cannot be ignored or denied. 

Also, an illusion of righteousness can emerge, just over the cusp of the bitterness and resentment. For the disinherited (which it should be said is not ‘me’) to know the feelings and power of righteousness is no bad thing. Even if Thurman says it’s an illusion. To be unprotected and greatly at risk all the time in a particular society, yet know righteousness anyway can nourish, even protect.

The logic of the strong-weak relationships in society also places all moral judgment of behavior out of bounds. Behaviors that under normal circumstances would be questionable become perceivably necessary and defensible for self-realization, for survival. Thus hatred can become a device by which an individual seeks to protect himself against moral disintegration. He does to other human beings what he could not ordinarily do to them without losing his self-respect.

In all this, I’m not providing a rationale for hate in a civil society, an argument for why it should remain or not be redressed. But I am grateful for such a clear description of the purposes it can serve toward self-realization for those society has denied, maligned, neglected, abused, even killed. To bear up under systemic forces already slated against you, from the time you were an infant to the year you’ve been blessed to live to? 

I can empathize with those in the throes of hatred’s force. I can share in a fierce commitment to the self-realization of each and every one of us, all of us together. I can see, as Thurman names it, how “the oppressed can give themselves over with utter enthusiasm to life-affirming attitudes toward their fellow sufferers, and this becomes compensation for their life-negating attitude toward the strong.” (75) I can honor the exhausting both/and of it all, even as I am not one of the disinherited in Thurman's work.


None of which is to say that "hatred is a Good" in our society today. “Despite all the positive psychological attributes of hatred we have outlined, hatred destroys finally the core of the life of the hater” Thurman teaches. “While it lasts, burning in white heat, its effect seems positive and dynamic. But at last it turns to ash, for it guarantees a final isolation from one’s fellows. It blinds the individual to all values of worth, even as they apply to himself and to his fellows. Hatred bears deadly and bitter fruit.” (76)

Contacts without fellowship. Unsympathetic understanding. Ill will. Hate. We see the disintegration of humanity, its blindness to its own moral divisions. And we see the barrenness of creative thought in those enthralled to hate, only able to see the failings and voids of the hated.

Those who travel with me for any period of time know that I will eventually turn the topic around toward the archetype of the Circle, wherever She is welcome. ;) But circle does have two main practices that mirror our frailties and provide new directions to explore that will both allow our hatreds to be seen and to gently diffuse them in a love shared across violence. 

Story-councils, for one. Listen to a person’s story, held with reverence and care by a whole community of listeners, and fellowship simply happens. I won't try to argue the point with those who've not been in circle, or who won't enter into circle. It simply happens, every time willing human beings face one another, held in a co-created trust, allowing themselves to be seen in all frailties and fierceness. If you disagree, try a circle of trust or a series of circles that are well held by certified/trained facilitators. I dare you.

The second pathway is one from a particular community, Women Writing for (a) Change. We've learned over the years this powerful practice, but not without its Achilles heel: presume good will. Listen deeply to whomever is speaking. Note your own reactions, attractions, aversions. Get curious about your own aversions, especially the most energetic-charged ones. Do not assume you know others' feelings or reactions, even watching their bodylanguage. Then presume the speaker is doing her/his work, is speaking what needs to be said. Presume good will. The more we can learn to presume good will, the more good will there will be around us, in the world beyond us. We are co-creating our worlds more and more, after all. How may we meet ill will with compassionate goodwill? Again and again?  

The Achilles heel, of course, is that it’s easier for people in power to presume goodwill than it is for those with less power. Particularly over longer periods of time with more opportunity for systemic dynamics to play out with well-intentioned, but wounded-healing persons. Even with the best of intentions, the presumption of good will can be abused. It can serve as an excuse to refuse the experience of those we cannot see, for whatever reason (be it race, or legalities, or whatever). I've learned to look for this dynamic when I'm asked to presume goodwill by someone in greater power or authority than myself. Not to assume or presume anything, but to get curious about the power structure, enforced by what means, exercised legalities etc.


In the end, it will behoove us all to learn to see the entire anatomy of hatred in our public spaces today, noting the body language and the spoken/written expressions of contact without fellowship, unsympathetic understanding, and ill will...walking in human beings on the earth. The new energy for me here is honoring the positive role hatred may be playing in someone’s life, if that someone has faced literally unimaginable (by me) challenges and repeated slights, injustices, threats to their person, personhood. How can I honor that, especially if the hatred is directed toward me? How can I honor all s/he/they have had to endure...without losing my own boundaries, my own sense of self, my own self-realization path?

All of which I will only really come to know if she/he/they are willing to tell me their stories and I am willing to share mine. Whereby I can presume goodwill, and hope they will too. Whereby we may live in fellowship that is deepening, with an understanding that is birthed in love first. I am fine to not understand you, and I aim to practice loving first so to understand whatever it is I can be to know and be known.

Deep bow to Howard Thurman here, probably not for the last time.

ENACTING Beloved Community

This is a phrase that undergirds the work of C. Anthony Hunt (or here ) as well as a curricular goal of one of United Seminary’s Immersion...