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.

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