Thriving for All, Part 1

Recently, I published a post about the Four Necessities—water, food, shelter and community, and health care (both physical and mental). These four are the basic necessities for all human beings/bodies to survive (see https://thenakedtheologian.org/2020/07/28/the-four-necessities/ )

Of course, each of us needs more—freedom to think and act for ourselves, to believe what we believe, to feel empowered to be our best selves rather than confined by the straitjackets of social expectation, oppression, invisibility and silence. 

But without the full functioning of our bodies it is extraordinarily difficult, even impossible to go beyond survival to thriving. 

What do I mean by thrive? This is far more than survival, important as that is. And shamefully, not every one in the world has enough water and food to even survive at the most minimal level. And the root of this reality lies not with those with too little but with the rest of us who refuse to create change that serves all. 

Thus, I am writing about these four necessities in order to propose an new ethic for our world—namely that rather than creating and relying on systems which provide some with more than enough to thrive while others struggle and too many barely survive, and too many of those don’t—to one in which our universal goal and practice is for all to thrive.

At this point, I am working on a definition of thrive. But there are a variety of synonyms: flourish, prosper, grow vigorously, develop well, burgeon, bloom, blossom, do well, advance, make strides, succeed, shoot up, boom, profit, expand, go well, grow rich. 

I don’t know if everyone can grow rich, at least in terms of money. But I do believe everyone can grow rich in experience, in achievement, in meaning, in love, in joy, in caring. I do believe that everyone can become their best selves, to be and to do what they are called to be and do, to be their true selves. 

I am proposing a clear systemic shift in the world, a profound reordering, restructuring, how each of us and all of us approach our own well-being—namely to accept, and live by, a new ethic which says that my well-being is very much dependent on the well-being of others, indeed of all others. What I believe, in an echo of Dr. King about freedom, is that none of us can truly thrive unless all are thriving.

This is a clear repudiation of capitalist views of “getting ahead” and the American idea of rugged individualism. It contradicts the social Darwinism doctrine of survival of the fittest (which in our world so often defines the fittest as those who are rich, white, male, already privileged). 

It is not that each of us is not an individual but rather that our ability to actuate our own bodies, character, potential is directly linked to, dependent on, the ability of all others to be able to do the same. 

I can hear someone say that surely Michael Bloomberg or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg do not need any of the rest of to do all they want to do whenever and wherever they want to do it. There is truth in that. 

And yet, even they depend on the ability of people to buy what they sell, to access their products, to entertain their ideas and their schemes to further build and burnish their empires. 

But more than that, do they not depend on the constant uprising and inflow of talented people to maintain and grow their economic and social engines? 

How many Einsteins. how many Edisons, how many Kings and Mandelas and Wells and Obamas, how many Domingos and Sills and Picassos and Kahlos, how many Morrisons and Baldwins and Lordes and Faulkners, how many Curies and Salks and Barnards, how many Platos and Arendts, Rawls, de Beauvoirs and Foucaults—how many of the very people we always need are we losing when people not only die of thirst and hunger and absence of protection of their bodies and their minds but also when more of them lose hope that they will ever be able to rise above the misery and limitations of their life situations even if they survive?

Which one of the malnourished children we see in pictures not only from so-called Third World countries but even our own might be the genius, the leader, the inventor, the artisan, the performer that will transform the world. How many of the parents we see in such pictures with eyes pleading for someone, anyone, to help them and their families could create whole new understandings of how we can all live better lives?

I raise these questions as a way for us to think that no matter our own level of privilege, our own ability to thrive, we are diminished by what others are unable to do because what they need is kept from them. I encourage you to think about your own interests, your profession and work, your community, and ponder who/what is missing. 

In my next installment I will discuss how I came to this view via the workings of what we call nature, or the natural world. 

Dark(?) Times

Friends and others lament these “dark times,” meaning for them one or all of these: the ugliness of Trumpism and our politics in general; and the scourges of four Pandemics— Covid-19, racism and White supremacy,  economic despair and devastation for too many even before the virus struck, and a burgeoning climate crisis. 

I share this lament, but not the negative value associated with the this usage of “dark.”

Why is the devil so often portrayed as black/dark?

As one who feels at home in the dark, the phrase “dark times” troubles me. There is so much that is good about darkness—whether it be darker-pigmented people or the underland where fungi and other creatures deepen and extend life in the soil or even the overland beauty of leafless trees in winter against the night sky. Or what about the things we learn as the result of “being in the dark” and the feeling of revelation, sometimes even elation, when we see what we had missed before? 

I experience darkness as almost always a gift, a break from the light pollution to which we are exposed every day. For example, there is more than enough light created by our neighbors and us in our small court of co-op homes as we leave our porch lights on at night to discourage criminals from breaking in. We also  live across the street from city hall, the community center, and the library, which are overlaid with light each night. 

When I go outside at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. to meditate and pray, all this light, not to mention the noise of twin-interstate highways and a local parkway that meet just outside our town, reduce the number and brightness of stars visible in the sky and compete with the chorus of cicadas.

Why is Jesus so often portrayed as white, non-Semitic?

Often it feels to me life is an unending contest where light keeps trying to overcome, even erase, dark. And light wins all the time—a system of light supremacy to which our society is addicted. Why can’t we accept, and celebrate, the reality that there is life, good life, in darkness, and that we can learn from its multitude of gifts?

White racism, White Supremacy, is a good place to start. Despite the beauty, strength and resilience of darker-skinned people even in the most ugly times, Western Civilization insists on the primacy of Euro-American positive valuation of light and the negative valuation of dark. 

In the United States, we connect White Supremacy with the subjugation and domination of African peoples. And yet, coupled with an Enlightenment mindset—namely the value of the rational over the mystical, the scientific over the intuitive and artistic, and the valorization of the individual (often to pursue their own interests over the well-being of community), White Supremacy supports and sustains the subjugation and domination of other groups as well. 

For example, Arab learning—at one time the zenith of mathematical and scientific reasoning and knowledge in the world—was discounted to justify Christian crusades against Muslim people. That same strain of Christian imperialism and the belief that Western (northern European) ideas, culture and systems are the apex of human achievement unite in capitalism and colonialism to undergird and justify the conquest of indigenous people in the Americas as well as the importation and breeding of slaves for the profit of their owners. 

A central method of the capitalist/settler colonialism drive to subdue and own land and all it contains is to label the wisdom and practices of indigenous people as primitive, without value in the modern world. Thus, today we can see not only how African Americans and Spanish-speaking peoples from Latin America continue to be oppressed, but also how the Middle East, other than Israel, is viewed as backward, and even nations and peoples further east are the victims of negativity.  

Further, this intersecting series of belief systems produce the subjugation of nature, degradation and elimination of species, and denial of what is happening in the Climate Crisis. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, non-indigenous people are trained to devalue the teaching of nature.

In short, “we” have created a worldview that highlights only some parts of reality and casts the rest into the dark—not listening to BIPOC people (Black Indigenous People of Color); not paying attention to that which makes life possible for all, namely the earth and all its parts; and refusing to build a world in which all have what they need to thrive (rather than some having far more than they need and too many not having even enough to survive).

Thus, I believe we must begin the practice of Endarkenment, to value not only things that appear dark but also the wisdom we have cast into the dark. In future posts, I will discuss this concept but suffice it to say at this point that I believe if we continue to refuse to acknowledge and accept and even celebrate the equal partnership of dark and light, we, and certainly our children and grandchildren and their children, are doomed. 

These are not “dark times.” They are times of pain, fear, anxiety, injustice, and crisis—and thus times of challenge and opportunity to radically change our ways to save us all. 

Sorry to Bother You

. . . if we do not let ourselves be bothered and challenged, things will never get better.

I have now seen “Sorry to Bother You” (see previous post, “When Do I Use My White Voice?“), a film that in my judgment is a powerful commentary on white supremacy and capitalism—and a superb creative achievement.

There are so many powerful, often disturbing moments in the film that is hard to know where to begin. 

So I will begin with something that happened to me as I sat in the theater watching. At some point, I don’t remember exactly when, while the screen images dominated the room, I also saw, in mind’s eye, faces of African American friends and colleagues in ministry (clergy and lay people). I felt a sense of awe at how they navigated the white dominant world we share. These are people of considerable achievement and strong personal character, wise people, clear-headed people, who have made a difference in my life. 

At the time, I did not know what to make of this moment. Then, in a conversation with one of those people about the film, I shared that experience. They said, “Oh yes, we, people of color, and not just Black people, are used to “commuting” between the worlds of our own lives and the white social system that insists that we find ways to conform if we want to both survive and thrive.”

Commuting.

In linguistics, this also is known as “code switching.” Check out this video, “Is ‘Talking White’ Actually a Thing?” to learn more.

I teared up, realizing I had never thought about the price this dear friend and colleague as well as so many others in my life, and everywhere, have to pay. White supremacy is revealed by that necessity. But it also is confirmed in its power by the very fact I, with some real background in studies of racism and whiteness, had never had to think about what they go through. 

Talking WhiteHere are some parts of the commuting map: white voice, white mannerisms, paying attention not only to using the best English but also body language, and tone of voice and even volume. That does not even begin to deal with subject matter—how this friend and others are aware of just how far they can go in describing the pain and anger they have to carry, not only for themselves but also for all the other people in their family, social or religious group, neighborhood, professional orbit, and the world. 

All this is revealed in this film through the experience of Cassius Green (powerfully performed by Lakeith Stanfield–certainly deserving of Oscar consideration). This young African American man needs a job. He finds it working for a telemarketing company. His job interview was very odd because it seemed the company would hire anyone. Later, I realized that this signifies how little they think of their employees. Cassius was just another cog in their master profit wheel. 

He fits into their money-making system because he needs money. They need him to make them money and he needs them to make his. The filmmaker, Boots Riley, has, in interviews, made it clear that he wrote and directed a film to focus on both racism and the ways it is linked to capitalism. 

The title of the film reflects how Cassius begins every call, but it is at the same time an evocation of the system of whiteness that insists that “we” not be bothered to hear the cries and anger of people of color. Over the years, I have heard people say to me, and others, “You may not want to hear this, but . . . “ then going on to describe something I, or another, did or said that was insensitive or worse. Sorry to bother you. 

But the power of whiteness is much bigger than denial and refusal to hear or see. It also involves setting the rules for how people of color are to not only speak but also act. There are codes, and they have power. Cassius shows us at a party, thrown by the owner of the company he works for, that there are times when Black people are called upon by white people to perform their blackness (he is taunted until he does rap for the assembled white people, something he really doesn’t do well).

He also discovers through his seat mate in the office (played by Danny Glover) that his white voice on the phone is not exactly how white people sound, but “what they think they’re supposed to sound like.” In other words, it is a caricature designed to avoid causing discomfort for white customers. And Cassius learns to do that so well (in the film it is a voiceover by actor David Cross) he becomes highly successful, and thus a favorite of the corporate hierarchy. 

PerformingBlackness performing whitenessWhat this says to me is that whiteness is a performance, not only by people of color but also by white people. This is especially so in the worlds of finance and various professional and public environments. And of course, there are always class distinctions. The brilliance of this film is that it shows us all of that.

In that sense, this is a film that unsettles us, white people, both because of racism and capitalism. Indeed, historians, especially Edward E. Baptist, show us that from the very beginning of our national experiment, capitalism and white supremacy/racism are inseparable (see his The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism).  

What we see in the film are the high costs that people incur as they seek to rise financially—not only Cassius, but so many others. I won’t give away the many creative plot twists that make this film so distinctive, but I can say that we are shown how the alliance between corporate greed and personal need is disastrous for real people. There is violence in the film, although not the sensationalized violence we so often see of shootings, car chases ending in gruesome death, and the like. Indeed, it shows us how easy it is to become more beast than human as the pressure to succeed accelerates. In that sense, most everyone is a victim of a system designed to squeeze humanity out of the willing and the unwilling.  

I urge every white person to see this film—it will challenge you as it seems to go over the top at times but if you stay with it you will find deep wisdom. 

A final note: I have entitled this post “Sorry to Bother You,” because of the film and because I realize, given how few people in my intended audience for this series of posts that began with “Unlock the Trap – Part 1“ on May 4 seem to notice and how even fewer ever respond. Many of the white people in that audience probably wish I did not bring any of this up. Sorry to bother you. 

Actually, I am not sorry. 

Frankly, if we, “the relatively conscious whites” James Baldwin wrote about, do not let ourselves be bothered and challenged, things will never get better. Indeed, the power of white supremacy and capitalism, working together, just becomes more sophisticated, more lethal, and seemingly more hidden all at the same time. There are winners, of course, folks at the top seemingly, but even they pay a price. I for one want to stop paying it. 

I hope you will join me on the journey. Feel free to write me at RevDrRobin@comcast.net if you would like to share more dialogue, or post your thoughts on this page.