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Putting a Shoulder to the Plow

Adam’s First Words

On the day I was born,
there were no words.

Only beings
resplendent and serene
and colors
vibrant and bold
and sounds
in a melodious weave
and shapes
of curves and beauty.

This was Life!
I stood in awe;
of myself.

Then, maybe I ate something I shouldn’t have.
I don’t remember how it happened exactly.
Words began to spew.
At first, just noisy sounds,
but they took on definition and distinction;
and distinction
gave them power.

Then, the words formed into assemblages
marching in horizontal lines
from top left to bottom right
ordered inescapably
from beginning to end,
of first to last,
or worst to best,
A hierarchy of preferences, privileges,
and prejudice followed.

The first ‘word’ was: ‘human’
and I separated every ‘one’ like me from every ‘thing’ else.
It seemed all was created for ‘us.’
And it was good!

Except, I had to share.

So came the word ‘man’
and I separated from ‘woman.’
Their bodies became a duty
I took for my own.
And this too was good.

For those who disagreed,
a pejorative, ‘queer,’ was conceived.
Clever of me.

Then came the word ‘owner’
and a deed of paper was wedged
between ‘the poor’ and me.
Their means to survive
I entitled myself to withhold
for another word, ‘money.’

Then came the word ‘citizen’
and I separated those born near
from those born far away.
‘Rights’ were bequeathed to me
but not to ‘them.’

But still, it wasn’t enough.

Finally, I spoke the word ‘white.’
Suddenly, sinfully pure and falsely justified,
I could bind and enslave flesh and land
and for generations ignore the suffering
of beings with whom I was once joined.

Now, it seemed, everything belonged to me.
Indeed, was created by me
All else had been separated and silenced
into anonymity. Or, so I thought.

I had ‘freedom;’
except there was no freedom
next to the imprisoned.
I had ‘equality;’
except there was no equality
next to the unequal.
I had ‘security;’
except there was no security
next to the endangered.

And I, I had become so narrowly defined
I no longer knew who I was created to be;
only who I was supposed to be; or not
‘I’ was erased, lost, or pretending.
I felt sick in my gut.

But that was not the end. There is no end.
For if words had the power to distinguish into extinction,
The Word had power to coalesce into existence.
This the prophets and poets well knew.
I wondered, “Someday, would they remind me too?”

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From Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Eight Years in Power”

But mostly I felt the expectation that if I was writing or talking about problems, I should also be able to identify an immediately actionable way out—preferably one that could garner a sixty-vote majority in the Senate. There was a kind of insanity to this—like telling doctors to only diagnose that which they could immediately and effortlessly cure. But that was the job of the black public intellectual—not to stimulate, not to ask the questions that kept them up at night, not even just to interpret the drums but to interpret them in some way that promised redemption. This was not work for writers and scholars, who thrive in privacy and study, but performance-prophets who live for the roar of the crowd.

Imagining the smallness of my own life span against the span of American history, and thinking how many lifetimes went into the creation of the problem of white supremacy, meant that any solutions I gave would likely require the work of generations. Moreover, my solution might seem crazy in the moment—much as abolition seemed ‘crazy’ for decades, right up until it happened—but must be considered anyway. It’s likely that should white supremacy fall, the means by which that happens might be unthinkable to those of us bound by present realities and politics. But part of the joy of writing in exploration was the freedom to think beyond the present and consider ideas roundly dismissed as crazy. Even when I had been part of the dismissal….

“We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. One World, 2017, pp. 152-153

First, Do No Harm

Let us consolidate all laws into one that reads simply, “No harm shall come to the planet, including its oceans and atmosphere, or the living beings who depend upon it, including human beings, by acts of commission or omission.”

Neither a dignified death nor an experience of fear, sadness, anger, or shame will constitute an occurrence of ‘harm’ but these may indicate a harm has been done. ‘Harm’ shall be defined as depriving the planet, or any one who depends on it, of safety, security, well-being, or longevity. Anyone can bring charges on their own behalf or on behalf of one without voice, agency, or recognition. Charges can be brought against any entity, public or private, individual or group, governmental or commercial. To bring a charge in bad faith, that is, bearing false witness, shall constitute an act of ‘harm.’ ‘Bad faith’ is to be determined after a verdict of innocence, or harmlessness, is issued. 

One mandatory and universal sentence will be applied to all who have harmed another: cease the behavior and make reparations to the one effected and the loved ones who depend(ed) on them. Reparations shall neither be lenient nor severe but always sufficient. All such decisions would be made by persons who know the history of and have hopes for the future of the victim and the perpetrator. 

Please put your shoulder to the plow and join a quiet revolution of the heart. The struggle continues and there is much to be done. 

From de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”

The people, surrounded by flatterers, find it hard to master themselves. Whenever anyone tries to persuade them to accept a privation or a discomfort, even for an aim that their reason approves, they always begin by refusing. The Americans rightly boast of their obedience to the laws. But one must add that in America legislation is made by the people and for the people. Therefore law in the United States patently favors those who everywhere else have the greatest interest in violating it. It is therefore fair to suppose that an irksome law of which the majority did not see the immediate utility either would not be passed or would not be obeyed.

“Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville. (1848) ed. by J.P. Mayer, trans by George Lawrence. Harper Perennial Press, 1969, p. 224

Is It American Hyp-o-cracy or Just a Little White Lie?

Growing up I recall hearing the question, “How could so many people allow the Holocaust to happen?” Lest we forget, the question presumes a small group perpetrated a massive atrocity while many people carried on quietly with their daily lives. For such a horrific event to occur, a critical mass of people must support and participate in the destruction, war, and extermination. And, the atrocity must begin small.

In such circumstances, a political leader, like Hitler, would campaign with rhetoric and promises to deport persons of one religious tradition. He would pledge to make a weak country great again. He would advocate for a national registry of his future victims. He would advocate the use of torture in order to normalize the heinous treatment of other human beings. Then, once elected, such a leader would implement a ban on travel to limit the movement of future victims. A critical mass of defenders and supporters would declare the ban is not based on religious belief but on nationalities which are too mysterious, unknowable, and scary. The leader would declare treaties with future enemies void. He would malign future victims, and stoke the fears of his base, by distributing false images of future victims perpetrating acts of violence. Detractors who stand up, speak out, or take a knee would be called “unpatriotic” and should be “terminated;” protesters laid out on stretchers. Defenders and supporters would describe local murders, such as those of three students of one religious tradition in Chapel Hill, NC, as “fortuitous.” The leader would escalate tensions and provoke violence from those whom they hate and fear by relocating a national embassy into disputed territory. Eventually, a war would ensue, and the destruction of a people, and the nations they occupy, would seem justified, and thus, unstoppable.

In America, a critical mass of 62 million voters, about 1/6 of the population, have elected a leader capable of such decisions and behavior. He is the leader of one factious political party which controls a majority of state houses, governorships, election boards (I presume), and two of the three branches of the federal government. They are now nominating and approving judges to the judicial branch who are almost exclusively of the same party, white, male, I presume Christian, and in many cases unqualified as determined by the American Bar Association. The world’s most indomitable military is at this leader’s beck and call and legally must comply with his orders to extend his brand of despotism; let’s call it American Hypocracy. Otherwise, to defy military orders, as an act of conscience, would be a mutiny, a peaceful coup, and the end of American Democracy.

About a year ago, my brother pointed out to me that a genocide is currently happening and Syria is the hot spot. To date, an estimated 465,000 have been killed and 12 million Syrians are refugees inside and outside of the country. Now, the Saudis, Israelis, Americans, and Russians seem loosely allied against several predominantly Muslim nations and are poised, not to protect the lives of those threatened by the new Holocaust, but to participate in the extermination.

How could a Holocaust happen again? This is how it could happen. Sixty-two million voters allied behind one political leader, and his party, whose bellicose rhetoric and dangerous decisions dehumanize and violate the safety, security, and human rights of another group of people. Tensions escalate, war ensues, and millions of people are killed.

Islam is not the enemy. Fear, hatred, greed, and violence are our common enemy and its allies are pocketed around the globe including here. Many are wounded, ill, afraid, and raging. Their conversion and healing, rather than their destruction, are called for. They have lost touch with the inherent goodness God created within them. Friends, neighbors, and allies we’ve never met cannot help us because their grandparents, veterans of the 20th century struggles for peace and freedom, never had the chance to become parents. Peace is our obligation; freedom our opportunity.

Freedom is both the opportunity and the responsibility to make choices. Freedom is not the power to specify choices one can or should make. Freedom is government protection of a wide range of options and citizen’s wise and careful choices: From violence to peace, from greed to generosity, from destruction to preservation. Freedom requires a wide tolerance for divergence; and peace a strict limit on harm.

As a free people, the choices are ours, not our government’s nor its leaders, to make. As a free people, rather than those who would be ruled by despots, we live our values every day in ways large and small. Do you try to earn more money than you need? Do you consume more matter and energy, and therefore spend more, than you must? Do you share your gifts and services generously or do you regretfully withhold them because your neighbors cannot afford them? Do you comfortably control the climate inside your home at the expense of the climate outdoors? Do you heap disdain on persons who seemingly deserve it or extend patience and understanding to those who may not? Do you punish people to coerce ‘better behavior’ or do you teach them why you believe such behavior would be more helpful in the future? Do you encourage political leaders to act with courageous restraint or with quick and stunning force? Are you afraid or are you secure? Are you courageous or are you violent?

Hypocrisy is the act of telling a lie in hopes that both speaker and listener will come to believe it to be true. It is one step removed from unconscious denial and another from conscious deceit. Which leads us to the perennial questions, “Who are we?” and “Who are we becoming?”

Please, put your shoulder to the plow and join a quiet revolution of the heart. Many have and there is room for many more. Blessings to you and to all those you love.

“We Are Not Responsible” by Harryette Mullen

We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives.
We cannot guarantee your safety if you disobey our instructions.
We do not endorse the causes or claims of people begging for handouts.
We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.

Your ticket does not guarantee that we will honor your reservations.
In order to facilitate our procedures, please limit your carrying on.
Before taking off, please extinguish all smoldering resentments.

If you cannot understand English, you will be moved out of the way.
In the event of a loss, you’d better look out for yourself.
Your insurance was cancelled because we can no longer handle
your frightful claims. Our handlers lost your luggage and we
are unable to find the key to your legal case.

You were detained for interrogation because you fit the profile.
You are not presumed to be innocent if the police
have reason to suspect you are carrying a concealed wallet.
It’s not our fault you were born wearing a gang color.
It is not our obligation to inform you of your rights.

Step aside, please, while our officer inspects your bad attitude.
You have no rights that we are bound to respect.
Please remain calm, or we can’t be held responsible
for what happens to you.

from “Of Poetry & Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin” edited by Philip Cushway and Michael Warr (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, p. 136)

I wish I had known of this poem when I posted “On Personal Responsibility.” I would have placed them beside one another.

Are You Of The Majority, Minority, or Free and Equal At Last?

Let us declare Election Day a national holiday, a day of civic duty freed from commerce for all citizens. On that day each year, in addition to electing our representatives, let all citizens (yes, all) cast four votes. The first vote, as a sign of support for our chosen form of governance, would be to endorse the Constitution of the United States of America; consider it a pledge of allegiance, if you will. The second vote would likewise be for one’s state constitution. If more than one-third of citizens disapprove of our democratic institutions enshrined in the federal and state constitutions, let a constitutional convention be held to address the changes necessary that we may be a cohesive, well-functioning civil society. Every generation would cast their vote and pledge their support for the government we co-operate within.

The third and fourth items on the annual ballot would ratify the legislative work of the federal and state governments for the year. Legislation duly passed by the legislative branch and signed by the executive branch would be put before the citizens for an up or down vote. A simple majority vote would ratify the work of our representatives and pass it into law; or, send them back to try again. To begin a legislative session, citizens would grant authority to representatives to represent them and then ratify the representatives’ efforts to conclude. Our permission and approval would begin and end the yearly legislative cycle.

Currently, those we elect act as unequal entities in American democracy. Winners, known as the majority party, exercise the privilege to impose their will. Losers, known as the minority party, attack, obstruct, or plot for the next election cycle. When competition, victory, and defeat become the defining principles of a supposedly democratic society based on the values of freedom, liberty, equality, and justice for all, it is proper to reflect on the meanings and roles of the terms majority, minority, and equality.

The purpose of the so-called ‘majority’ is to stabilize us in the present. The majority is a conservative force (a course of action, not a party) meant to promote the common good, to slow our impulses, and to provide for continuity, stability, and predictable futures. The majority is like the rudder of a ship sailing in a dark night. Without a steady majority, democracy becomes fractious and disintegrates. However, if the so-called majority becomes zealous, and attempts to suppress the minority, demands for conformity, even uniformity and homogeneity, ensue. These demands are enforced through economic and physical coercion, detention, and deportation. Such power negates liberty; that is, the freedom from oppression. You will recognize the enemies of democracy by their craving for military and economic power. 

The purpose of the so-called ‘minority’ is to oversee the protection of our individual freedoms, to ensure the pursuit of happiness and self-interest, and to promote our evolution into the future. The minority is a liberal force (again, a course of action, not a party) responsible for pointing out our civic weak spots and advocating new solutions. The minority is like the wind in the sails of our ship and the light upon the bow. Without a vibrant minority, democracy becomes stagnant and dies into totalitarianism. However, if the so-called minority becomes zealous, instability, chaos, and anarchy ensue. Violence becomes a means to an end. Beware, some anarchists are better dressed than others. You will recognize them by their hatred of government.

Due to the modern connotations of these words, ‘majority’ as ‘superior winners’ and ‘minority’ as ‘inferior losers,’ I hope they will soon fall out of favor as repugnant descriptions. In the meantime, keep in mind, neither entity, majority or minority, are monoliths nor can they be subsumed one into the other and disappear. Equality can never equate to uniformity or homogeneity. Nor can anarchy provide the stability necessary for true freedom and equality to exist. We need both the stability of equality and a cooperative freedom in order to reach our highest potential. Sadly however, there are people in our country who consider domination, power, greed, and violence as legitimate means to achieve the end of freedom and equality.

A stable equality and cooperative freedom cannot be achieved in a society of competition, profit, debt, poverty, wealth, and the power differentials which follow. There is a natural inequality among beings who lack access to daily sunlight, fresh water, fertile soil, and cooperative relationships. Unnatural inequality occurs when adequate resources are over-consumed by some and competitively withheld, with weapons and money, from everyone else. This inequality human beings call ‘injustice.’ Only those raised in a state of unnatural inequality would perceive sharing as loss and hoarding as success. In America, many, but not all, of our elders, children, women, persons of color (both American-born and those born elsewhere), same-sex partners, persons in material poverty, and persons with differing physical/cognitive abilities are equal only in their lack of access to security, resources, and rights as compared to a minority of people of privilege, power and wealth.

God freely gives all matter, energy, courage, compassion, and wisdom necessary for us to participate in the web of life. We are meant to share these gifts freely as well. Indeed, you are a gift meant to enhance Life and Love for all of God’s Creation. If we are to be one nation, of equal citizenship, and inalienable human rights, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, we must change some aspects of our culture. If we cannot cooperate in our freedom, share in our equality, and mutually uplift a stable majority and a vibrant minority, then we undermine our nation, our society, our communities, relationships, and the health of the planet and all those who depend on it, including us. We have much work to do. Please put your shoulder to the plow and join a quiet revolution of the heart.

From Rousseau’s “The Social Contract”

“I shall close this chapter and this book with a remark which can serve as a basis for the whole social system: …Instead of destroying natural equality, the fundamental pact [the social contract]…substitutes a moral and lawful equality for the physical inequality that nature imposed upon [people], so that; although unequal in strength and intellect, they all become equal by convention and legal right.*

“* Under bad government this equality is only apparent and illusory; it serves only to keep the poor in their misery and the rich in their usurpations. In fact, laws are always useful to those who possess and injurious to those that have nothing; whence it follows that the social state is advantageous to [people] only so far as they all have something, and none of them too much.”

“The Social Contract and the First and Second Discourses” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Edited by Susan Dunn. Yale University Press, 2002, p. 169.

Communicable Ease

Malevolent power will never voluntarily yield without violence and therefore cannot be peaceably defeated; an oxymoron in and of itself. Either it must be forcefully replaced, likely with a better-dressed version of itself, thirst to death, or be converted.

To perish by thirst, benevolent ones must attend to the sources of Malevolence’s strength. Selfishness and greed, expressed in the currency of doctrinal rules of law and order, competition, wealth, and weaponry, satiates Malevolence’s thirst. Benevolent ones could opt for a social agreement to consume only what is necessary and share God’s gratuity freely. In doing so, Malevolence would be deprived of its strength and die of thirst.

To convert the heart of Malevolence, restore unity with Benevolence, and thus for all to experience the perpetuity of Life, benevolent ones must attend to the source of Malevolence’s weakness. Until Malevolence has become so entrenched in its separateness as to be pathological, as having lost all connection to empathy, compassion, and interdependence with others, its conscience still rings. Whereas Malevolence comes to prefer power, certainty, control, and stark dichotomies such as black/white, rich/poor, & winning/losing, which oddly both generate and assuage its fear, the intrinsic, common values of creativity, life, love, welcome, security, courage, freedom, and equality will always prevail. Hearts broken open to emit these waters never perish.

When Malevolence hears the dissonance between the brain’s left hemisphere and the heart’s right atrium, a change, something like a sunrise, occurs. Malevolence must then consider, with courageous willingness, its nearly-blind grasp of certainty. Presently, Malevolence has lost sight of the trust that the scaffolding of Life holds “him” as well. For example, if Malevolence were at one with Life, the world’s most formidable and destructive military would seem macabre and useless. To Malevolence, raised in a state of competition and inequality, hurting others is always an option and helping others always comes with a cost. To a Heart raised in a state of cooperation and equality, helping others is as easy and natural as flowing water. No experience of loss occurs because there is no experience of selfish possession to precede it.

Our defining metaphor of Life as a ‘competition’ may be a monstrous distortion, misguided propaganda. Death ought not to be considered as defeat for one and victory for another. In as much as death is so ubiquitous as to be universal, and clearly contributes to the emergence of new life, it may be evolutionarily advantageous to reconsider the metaphor chosen to describe our relationship with Life, and therefore death, as well.

As the most complex creature on the planet, we could stop competing for the podium upon which the evolutionary buck stops, and begin to cooperatively claim our responsibility to reach into and around the web of Life. Rather than to expedite death through creative destruction and over-consumption, we could choose stable creativity. We could gently care for the elders of all species, including our own, to ensure a dignified death. We could discourage the harried upbringing of children into premature adults and encourage a slower, seamless development that they may age into skilled and compassionate beings. Rather than to invest our adulthoods in the conversion of matter into money to tally a pixelated scorecard, we could devote our energy to freely provide food, shelter, security, rest, play, healing and understanding to all species, including our own.

To achieve these ends, benevolent ones must also recognize their own weakness. Currently, we divide ourselves along a strict categorization of male and female. Even those who daily live with the fluidity of gender identity try to demarcate themselves as one or the other. Regardless of our anatomy at birth, we are all human beings in varying degrees of masculine and feminine.

In a competitive world where persons are ascribed a status as objects for another’s gratification, and thus targeted for subordination, they often begin to see themselves as potential prey. Gazes are averted. Kindness cues suspicion, approach fear, and touch terror. Or, disgust. For protection, we have evolved into a culture of consent where the default position is ‘Interaction: Not allowed.’ If permission is properly requested and unequivocally granted, then relationship, even in superficial passing, can proceed. I understand why this has happened. Indeed, from my teens through my thirties, I surely made a fair share of contributions to the why. For this, I hope I am forgiven. But the what of what has happened concerns me deeply.

In a culture of consent, a woman’s power is grounded in her isolation. A man’s prudence is exercised in withholding attention and kindness from strangers until permission to do otherwise is granted. Opportunities for cooperation and unity are lost. Both male and female acquire a gnawing loneliness that resembles hunger; or thirst. Our primary motivations become the avoidance of rejection and the pursuit of some ‘thing’ to quench our thirst.

The question becomes, “What to do to change it?” To this question, I do not know a precise answer. I suspect there is not one but many. But this I know: When we no longer see each other as predator and prey, but as beings mutually sharing in God’s gifts, the metaphors through which we view the world will become dramatically more clear. Please, won’t you too put your shoulder to the plow and join a quiet revolution of the heart?

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