How are we going to overthrow the world? What’s the nature of the revolution? Civilization has always been at odds with the way it ought to be done. You can call that “the way God would do it,” or “the way God would have it done,” or “the way of God.” Or, you could call it “the way it ought to be done.” It’s all the same, and civilization exists to desecrate the way it ought to be done. The “more” advanced the civilization, the greater the desecration.
Civilization is concerned with the acquisition and accumulation of wealth, of goods and services. It is a social, political, economic invention to ease our way. It is an approximation of our idea of “the good life,” but it doesn’t have anything to do with the good. We don’t know what is good. We only know what is good for us. And, we create civilization to help us get it.
Civilization is at odds with God. Civilization is a substitute for God. Civilization is our way of getting what God wouldn’t give us. Civilization is our way of taking care of ourselves. Of course, that is always at the expense of some other selves. But, that is too bad for them, and it really isn’t our problem. Somebody has to pay for our good times. That’s just the way it is.
Talk to the destitute in any civilization since the beginning of civilization about how things ought to be, and you’ll get the vision of the Heavenly City, with no tear in any eye and a chicken in every pot. It’s the same utopian vision across the board. Everybody has enough. No one has too little or too much. Everyone loves one another as they love themselves. Everyone lives in the service of everyone else. Everyone does right by everyone else. It’s a sharing, caring culture, and things are exactly as they ought to be. Of course, if the destitute have been banged around enough, there is also the idea of sweet revenge where the stupid bad guys get what is coming to them.
We have to take our consolation where we find it, it seems. The utopian vision keeps us going in the face of the complete absence of anything worth having and then some. The wealthy amass more than they could possibly need, or use, and the poor long for the day when they just have enough. That is the story of civilization. What keeps the story going? What chance do we have of changing it? It seems to be the inevitable outcome of “the human condition.” We are built, you might say, to “lord it over” one another. How do we overthrow ourselves? What is the nature of THAT revolution?
When we get down to the heart of the matter, we discover that we are talking about your heart, and mine. Civilization is a mirror reflecting who we are to the core. If we are going to change civilization, we are going to have to change us. How different can we be? How far into transformation can we go before we draw a line and say, “This is all I can stand”?
The far extreme might be a vow of poverty and celibate asceticism. That’s about as counter-cultural (in any culture) as it gets. Communal living is somewhere on the continuum. Writing checks to charity is somewhere else. Having an occasional twinge about homelessness or the destruction of the environment would have a place. What form shall our protest take? How shall we register our opposition to the way things are done? How shall we clarify our vision and express our emerging sense of how things ought to be? And, what do we do about the realization that we don’t have what it takes to do what needs to be done? We like the idea of disposable income. We know from personal experience that having enough lends itself to imagining what we could do with more, and that train never stops at a station. What shall we do with us?
The old spiritual saw, some would say “cop out,” says “Start with where you are. Work with what you have.” Feel that twinge. Write that check. Carry those old clothes to Good Will. Help build that Habitat House. Serve food at the homeless shelter. See the poor around you. Live consciously, mindfully, of the children who have no books at home, no computers or game boys to develop the skills that would get them beyond minimum wage in the world. Pay attention to the way you are living and to the way life is being lived around you. See what happens. See where the path—any path—walked attentively, with awareness and mindfulness, leads.
The old spiritual saw, some would say “absurdity,” says, “The nature of the revolution is a life lived with awareness.” Begin the revolution! Open your eyes! Of course, you know there is a catch. There is always a catch.
The catch here is that once we see, we have to live as those who have seen. We have to live as those who cannot forget what they have seen. Seeing things changes things. Hearing what must be heard changes things. If you want to change the world, see, and hear, everything, including everything about yourself. If you want a plan for changing the world, develop a plan for seeing the world as it is, for hearing the world as it is. Look and see! Listen and hear! That’s the plan!
George Bush cannot hear Cindy Sheehan because he knows what she is going to say. Cindy Sheehan cannot hear George Bush because she knows what he is going to say. The Israelis cannot hear the Palestinians; the Palestinians cannot hear the Israelis; because both know what the other is going to say. They all have heard it before. If we only hear what we have heard before, we are not listening to the heart of what is being said. If we are only repeating what we have always said, we are not saying all there is to say. The trick is to sit with one another and speak from the heart, and listen to the heart, with understanding and compassion for what is to be said. Where, in your experience, have you been heard all the way to the center of your soul? Where have you listened that deeply—to yourself or someone else? It is this level of deep listening, with understanding and compassion for what is said, that transforms the world.
The Danish cartoonists who drew Muhammad-themed cartoons in September of 2005 for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten as a deliberate experiment testing the limits of freedom of speech were within their rights as western journalists to express themselves in print. And, they were beyond the boundaries of civility, mutuality of respect and common decency, but no one in the west is likely to understand what’s the big deal. Everyone in the west is likely to recoil with horror and disgust at the reaction of the youth branch of Pakistan’s largest religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which offered a bounty for murdered cartoonists. Which is more offensive, to draw a picture of Muhammad or to murder the cartoonist who drew the picture? Your answer will depend upon where you sit, upon where you live, upon what you think and how you came to think it.
Forgetting, for the moment who is right here, and who is wrong, and how we know, and who is to say, let’s put you in a room with the Danish cartoonists and the offended Muslims. How long do you think it will be before they are able to hear one another? Which side, do you think, is most likely to listen deeply to, and care sincerely about, the perspective of the other? What could you do to facilitate that listening with understanding and compassion for what the other has to say? Do you begin to appreciate the difficultly in simply listening deeply, with understanding and compassion, to what is to be said?
At what point is the right to—and not only the right to, but the absolute necessity of—free speech compromised by the other’s ability to hear what we have to say? By the other’s willingness to permit us to say what we have to say? If we “bite our tongue” out of deference to the other’s sensibilities, where do we go to “spill our guts”? There are some things that cannot be said in some places, to some people. But, there must be some places in which, and some people to which, anything and everything can be said. Do we live to invoke gag orders or to enable deep listening?
It seems apparent to me that some members of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Task Force cannot hear anything negative about the Communist Workers’ Party and its part in contributing to the events of November 3, 1979—or allow anything negative to be said. To say that the CWP was at fault in any way is to be seen as “blaming the victim,” and labeled a white, privileged, middle-class, Southern, racist. So much for truth or reconciliation. How do we get past the barriers to hearing in order to listen one another to the deep truth of our perceptions and perspective? When there is something that cannot be said and heard, where is the hope of transformation? As long as we tip-toe around the egg shells, and carefully ignore the dead elephant on the dining room table, and pretend there is no stench in the air, nothing changes. At what point does our sensitivity to the needs of the other to be protected from the truth of our perspective begin to poison our own souls and become detrimental to our ability to see, and hear, and know the truth of our own perspective? Where do we go to be able to say what must be said? And, where are we, like the offended Muslims, cutting off the possibility of conversation because we cannot consider the perspective we are bound to hear? What must people not say to us? What are we unable to hear? What can we not allow ourselves to see?
Are you beginning to understand how difficult it is to change the world? It is so much easier to tell the world what it must do to change. Listening the world to the truth of its own perspective requires us to hear things that change us. And, as long as that is a door we will not open, things will remain exactly as they are, in spite of all of our protests and denunciations.