After publishing my most recent blog post on dialog and listening (LINK), I came across a very interesting quote on John Fea’s THE WAY OF IMPROVEMENT BLOG (LINK)(LINK). Using historical references, the quote by Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian, speaks volumes about where many of us find ourselves today. I also came across two very interesting Facebook posts that triggered me to post this a bit earlier than I might have; more about them after the quote.
“One of the most important results of a spiritual discipline against resentment in a social dispute is that it leads to an effort to discriminate between the evils of a social system and situation and the individuals who are involved in it. Individuals are never as immoral as the social situations in which they are involved and which they symbolize. If opposition to a system leads to personal insults of its representatives, it is always felt as an unjust accusation. William Lloyd Garrison solidified the south in support of slavery by the vehemence of his attacks against slave-owners. Many of them were, with the terms of their inherited prejudices and traditions, good men; and the violence of Mr. Garrison’s attack upon them was felt by many to be an evidence of moral perversity in him. Mr. Gandhi never tires of making a distinction between individual Englishmen and the system of imperialism which they maintain. ‘An Englishman in office,’ he declares, ‘is different from an Englishman outside. Similarly, an Englishman in India is different from an Englishman in England. Here in India you belong to a system that is vile beyond description. It is possible, therefore, for me to condemn the system in the strongest terms, without considering you to be bad and without imputing bad motives to every Englishman.’ It is impossible completely to disassociate an evil social system from the personal moral responsibilities of the individuals who maintain it. An impartial teacher of morals would be compelled to insist on the principle of personal responsibility for social guilt. But it is morally and politically wise for an opponent not to do so. Any benefit of the doubt which he is able to give his opponent is certain to reduce animosities and preserve rational objectivity in assessing the issues under dispute.”
~ Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, p.248-249
We have all supported immoral systems to one degree or another. This is unavoidable regarding the way governments and other forms of organization are operated. The United States has been, and continues to be party to any number of immoral policies and actions, given that each party’s viewpoint casts a different moral lens. Niebuhr speaks of the need to recognize that the people in such systems are rarely as immoral as the system.
From this viewpoint, we have an opening to address those in systems that we oppose without demonizing them as people. Such demonization is seldom, if ever, a pathway to healing. We are in a time where there is a great need to have dialog across belief systems. Those who are aware of the dynamics involved need to take the lead in paving the way for such dialogs to occur.
An example of the kind of dialog that can be started was illustrated on CNN the other night when Van Jones hosted a show, “The Messy Truth” (LINK) where Jones, a Hillary Clinton supporter, spoke with a group of supporters of Donald Trump. It begins with a willingness to listen, then, the ability to apply Niebuhr’s concept that the people are not as immoral as the system, to open the possibility of dialog.
The other day, on my Facebook feed, a very long status update was shared that was, essentially, a rant about a division in a New Thought community that has remained unresolved. There was anger, woundedness, and, perhaps, a sense of despair. Each side made the other wrong, either by directly disagreeing, or by having their own set of facts. How often have we seen this in our New Thought movement?
Another Facebook post recently got my attention. A spiritual leader posted that they had been told that they were not very competent at their job (unclear which job, or from whom the comment came). There followed a long string of comments that could be boiled down to this: Oh no! Only you can determine your competence, do not listen to anyone else.
My thoughts at the time, without knowing the situation fully – I was limited to the Facebook post – were: REALLY? What if the assessment was accurate? What if the person was incompetent and needed to improve? What if the comment came from a mentor or a trusted friend? How would the outpouring of sympathetic comments all taking the position that the corrective comment was wrong help in any way (not one suggested that the person take a look at themselves and see if there was validity to the comment)?
The Green level of existence (Spiral Dynamics™ LINK) puts feelings ahead of outcome, which can result in a failure of leadership. Too often, no one is held accountable if it might make them or someone else feel uncomfortable. No one can be corrected or criticized, so dysfunction is enabled, even encouraged. I would suggest that a spiritual community which enables dysfunction would fit Niebuhr’s definition of an immoral system. Again, we must remember that the people in that system will tend to be less immoral than the system itself, but that the system is also the creation of those present. The only way out of the dysfunction is through championing and enabling of accountability and integrity – and that will likely involve upsetting and disturbing some people who are either convinced that they have the moral high ground, or who are in denial about their complicity in the immoral system. This is a way of thinking and being that cries out for sacred disruption to a new level of being in the world.
The spiritual lesson here, I believe, is that when we in New Thought are willing to develop the skills and abilities to heal our own house(s), we will become a more effective force for healing in the world. When we focus on things like the development of emotional and spiritual intelligence – and hold one another accountable from that way of being – we will be transformed. And when we are transformed, we will express what we truly are – a mighty moving force for healing on this planet.
Copyright 2016 – Jim Lockard