THE DAY BEFORE PEARL HARBOR: A Meditation on the Spirituality of Social Justice

THE DAY BEFORE PEARL HARBOR: A Meditation on the Spirituality of Social Justice December 6, 2009


A Meditation on the Spirituality of Social Justice

James Ishmael Ford

6 December 2009
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island


A voice from the dark called out,

“The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.”

But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,

can’t be known except

in the words of its making,

grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.

A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.

A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,

questioned our needs, allowed

long pauses. . . .

A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,

an energy field more intense than war,

might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light–facets

of the forming crystal.

Making Peace by Denise Levertov

I consider this one of the more important days in our congregational calendar. Please don’t forget between one and five o’clock there will be tables set up for us to write letters on behalf of the unjustly imprisoned around the world. Come back for any part of that time, join with hundreds of people, friends, neighbors, strangers, all doing the good work. This is, as I see it, a central part of our ongoing work as a community of faith, which includes our food share pantry, our legislative ministry, the neighborhood projects committee, peace flags, micro banks, and much more. We say our project here is to stand on the side of love, and without a doubt, this is that standing.

Here the standing involves sitting and writing. As we sit down at those tables and compose letters on behalf of people like Justine Masika Bihamba whose life hangs by a thread in the Congo for the crimes of protesting violence against women, we are doing the work to which our faith calls us. It is about a deep love. I’ve found as we explore the meaning behind that assertion of an inherent worth in every person, while at the same time how each individual is created, sustained and finds their, our, being, only within a great web of relationship; we encounter love, the deep currents of love. And in a heartbeat, at that moment of encounter that is love, we, you and I, often discover a deep urge to reach out, to be of use.

As we look around we see how this world is on fire. So much hurt, so much need. And feeling the call of love we want to be of use. But how do we decide what to do and when? And, just as important and nagging and difficult, how much to do? Finding time for everything we feel is important is hard. The ordinary work of life is consuming. Many of us are parents, a more than full time occupation. Almost every one of us is busy, many mind-bendingly so. No doubt our plates are full. And, and the world is on fire. And love calls.

Now ours is not a faith predicated on guilt. The call is to look into our own hearts, to see the connections, and to frame our lives from that perspective. This is not about burdening ourselves, it is about liberation for ourselves and the world. As we find that liberating perspective what each of us does will be different. Most of us will be able to write a letter or ten. Some of us can organize this event. Thank you Marcia and the World Affairs Committee! Some can commit time to the food pantry. Others can join with the legislative ministry as we gear up to protect the human rights of gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered citizens. Again, just beginning the list. The litany of work is long, but with the right perspective we can find our place.

Today I want to reflect on that, on how we find our right perspective. As it happens, sixty-eight years ago tomorrow the Japanese attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. I see this as the perfect metaphor for our situation. Knowing that tomorrow the shit* hits the fan, what can we do today? Not wanting to push a metaphor beyond its usefulness, still, we can also note how the mess is in fact already flying. Everything is in motion. We need to reflect and we need to act, pretty much together.

It’s like that word practice, which means both to prepare and to do. That’s the situation we find ourselves in. So, let’s reflect on how we find our perspectives which both inform our decisions about what to do, and gives us the deep orientation to who we are that makes our work a more natural part of the rhythm of our lives. Or, perhaps more accurately fits us into the big picture in a more appropriate way.

It really all is a bit like a very large jigsaw puzzle, think the biggest one ever, one where the parts taken together become the cosmos itself. But like the smallest or largest, you turn over as many pieces as possible to see what’s there, then find a spot, usually along the edge and begin. I think about this, and us within this community and I find myself thinking about an encounter a few years ago.

Actually it was about four or five years ago. I was finishing up the manuscript for Zen Master Who?, my study of the establishment of Zen in North America. As it turned out a couple of years before that time one of the more famous Western Zen teachers, Roshi Bernard Tetsugen Glassman, had moved to Western Massachusetts. I decided to take advantage of our proximity to interview him.

Glassman was, is, at the more controversial end of the American Zen scene. Quite literally a rocket scientist, his PhD is in applied mathematics and he worked for time building rocket ships. He also became one of the early students of the Japanese missionary and Zen master Taizan Maezumi, training at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, and in 1976 receiving Dharma transmission, his own authorization as a Zen master.

Most Zen teachers here in the west settle down and run centers. Bernie, as he prefers to be known, has not. He starts centers. First he established a Zen center in his native New York, but quickly modified its focus adding social justice work to the curriculum. They rehabbed buildings to create affordable housing, provided HIV/AIDS counseling, childcare, job training, and most famously created the Greystone Bakery as both a job-training center and as a revenue stream for the work. A notorious hustler, Bernie fast-talked Ben & Jerry’s into using Greystone Bakery brownies in several of their products. He’s something of a past master of what I think is called synergies.

But he also has an itchy foot. I would occasionally hear about Bernie’s latest project. For instance when he had decided to stop being a priest and instead become a clown. And there it was. I saw a flyer for some event with him announced as Bernie the BoobySattva with a picture of the roshi sporting a large red clown nose. He started holding retreats in the streets. He would do regular pilgrimages to Auschwitz. One would never know where he’d show up, or what the project might be, although it tended always to blend Zen practice with social justice work of one sort or another.

Anyway there he was, is, in the Pioneer Valley. So I called and set up an appointment to interview him. Actually there are protocols in meeting Zen teachers. And, truthfully, I’ve never been great at them. I once visited a teacher and gave him an empty box. Turns out not all Zen teachers have a sense of irony. So, what to bring? Having read about him I decided a bottle of single malt scotch and a box of moderately good cigars should do the trick.

I arrived. It turned out the gifts were the right sort this time. He stroked the bottle with the familiarity of one who likes, but does not often get a sip of single malt scotch. The cigars quickly disappeared; I suspect there are others in his group who might have started bumming them if they were visible. As he showed me the campus, he launched into a history of Zen in the west. I suggested we pretend I knew that stuff. So, he turned on a dime and began to speak of his vision of spiritual activists who grounded in authentic practices of reflection and insight actually did more good in the world than harm. He tells a great story.

And I was completely captured. I began to imagine shifting my own Zen project and folding it into his. A lovely vision, no doubt. After almost three hours of his nonstop explanation of possibilities for Zen and justice, I had to leave to get back to Newton in time for a meeting. I noticed as I drove east that with each mile, a bit of charisma fell away from my eyes. I began to recall how he took up and set down projects, sometimes leaving people holding various bags. I also remembered his uncanny ability to empty his friend’s pockets for his projects. Also, this was a guy who wore a clown nose. By the time I got back to Newton I had fully remembered why I picked my own path of Zen practice and Unitarian Universalist spiritual community.

Here’s the deal as I see it. The world is on fire. Human hearts are blazing. Some of this is wonderful. Flame can be good; it warms us on cold nights and cooks our food. The fires that enter our hearts and drive us toward the deepest, most generous and open; those are terribly important. But some fires are horrific; they destroy homes and devastate communities. The fires of fear and anger and grasping and prejudice feed the flames that can burn the world down to cinders, to ashes.

And we are called upon to discern between the fires, between those passions that birth connection and respect and love, and those fires born of hatred and despair and want and greed. And we need to do this discerning on the run. The world is in motion, and we need to make our decisions while already acting.

That’s what I suggest brings some people to study with Bernie in Montague. And that’s what brings many people into our liberal religious communities. Frankly, we’ve been good at the reaching out, in wanting to do good; but less so with the looking into our own hearts in healthy and useful ways. And I think we can learn a couple of lessons from Bernie’s Zen Peacemakers.

He speaks of three tenets as the predicates for their work. I think they’re perfect for us, as well. The first is not knowing. It is a call to give up fixed ideas about the universe and ourselves. The second is bearing witness. Simply witnessing fully and without turning away, the joy and the suffering of the world. And last it is a call to loving actions. These actions are equally turned toward others and ourselves.

Denise Levertov says the work of peace is like writing a poem. It is. To stand on the side of love, sometimes involves sitting down and writing a letter. Other times it is throwing ourselves on the barricades. And still other times it is doing nothing. Sensing when to do what requires that we don’t know. Like writing a poem we need to draw upon resources we don’t really understand, so it involves surrendering certainty. This calls for a profound spiritual agnosticism, something we UUs should be good at. And this is a good thing. The great not knowing is the true source of wisdom. Only don’t know is the universal solvent of spirituality and the work of justice.

And this leads to bearing witness. If we don’t know, then we purely witness. We see what is going on. We see the fire around the world. We see the fire within ourselves. We see. Here the perspective we need begins to emerge. We start by witnessing. We continue by witnessing. We end by witnessing. To see is to know where to go. To witness is to find love.

And finally we must act. In this world of motion we must act. What we do, what we refrain from doing, everything has consequences. There are no bystanders in this world. But, informed by love, our actions will usually be helpful. And not knowing and witnessing births love. Whether writing a letter for Justine Masika Bihamba or taking a walk with a child or, don’t forget self and other, sitting down once in a while with a good book, if we find that deep not knowing, if we witness all along the way, then each act becomes an act of grace.

It becomes a poem. It becomes a dance. It becomes the work of God.


* For those concerned, I said “fecal matter” in the delivered sermon…

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