Listening to the news about Confederate statues, Black Lives Matter, and systemic racism, I have been reminded how institutions take on a life of their own and will vigorously defend any perceived threats to their continued existence. For example, I still hear southerners talk about the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression – with a tone of resentment in their voice. They seem to be unable to accept the fact that African Americans are still upset over slavery, yet refuse to let go of the idea that the Confederacy lost the Civil War. Even though this force of institutionalization may be subtle and subdued, it is very powerful. Simply look at the reactions to the Confederate flag.
I'm not simply judging the desire to keep the statues or the flag from the vantage point of 20/20 hindsight, but to remind me of the power of institutionalization. To the extent I remain oblivious to the institutions and cultural mores I use to define myself is the extent I remain stuck in my ego-based perceptions and Felix’s (my ego) belief that he’s really in control of my life.
I spent a significant amount of time in my book explaining how the early Church, as it began to be institutionalized in the early 2nd Century, focused on the documents/writings that became more and more important to include as the powers-that-be were finalizing the NT contents. What were these documents/writings? Those that supported the growing embryonic church and its focus on appropriate organizational structure, theological doctrine, paternalism, and social mores. I even concluded that the power of institutionalization is an underlying force in the New Testament that needs to be recognized and acknowledged in order to understand its content.
When we look back on the past decade or so, we see the power of institutionalization in the Roman Catholic Church as they attempted to deal with priests that horribly abused their power and influence with young boys and men. The Church's initial response? Keep it from the public. Keep it hidden. Keep those contributions coming in. Hope and pray that it will magically go away.
It is rather normal that, after a while, your security (job, salary, bonus, retirement), your identity (your house, car, neighborhood, investments, eateries, vacation destinations) and your self-worth become confused with the institutions significant in your life. A threat to one of these institutions can become a threat to your self-image (your ego's definition of who you are). Slowly, your concept of self and your institutional positions meld into one. Consequently, your initial response/reaction to a threat is to defend, deny, or minimize – for the sake of the institution. Under these circumstances, the lure of institutional identification dulls our awareness of our inherent Spiritual Nature.
In addition to institutional identification, the same process can be documented for identification with race, with nationalism/patriotism, with economic class. For example, I grew up in a small town in West Texas about 30 miles south of Lubbock. I went to some Texas colleges and experienced a little cultural broadening. All in all, my college experiences reflected a life basically the same as high school – same attitudes, same foods, same white students, same worship of sports.
Then I went to graduate school –Princeton Theological Seminary. Since I had to work, I took a position as a Student Assistant Minister in a downtown Trenton (NJ) Presbyterian Church on Prospect Street. I worked with the congregation's youth and began an outreach program into the mostly black, mostly impoverished local neighborhood. After Seminary I took a position as a Street Gang minister – a position that was new and uncharted. I did that for two years before it almost destroyed my marriage.
Working as a street minister, however, taught me several very important lessons:
A group of concerned citizens in Princeton wanted to host a fund-raiser for my ministry. Most were members of Princeton's Episcopal Church. I was very grateful. However, for the first time in my life I was the VERY conspicuous minority. These Princeton residents, most of whom were black, were medical doctors or PhDs in biology or chemistry with the World Health Organization (WHO), senior analysts or managers with the United Nations, the World Bank or IMF, planning consultants with UNESCO, policy wonks with the Princeton Testing Service, physicists at Einstein's Institute for Advanced Study or with Princeton University itself. From the aspect of race I was the only white person there. From the aspect of economics, I was the poorest paid. From the aspect of education there was only one other person – an Indian woman – who, like me, only had a Masters Degree. In terms of race, economic status, and education I was the little, poor, undereducated white boy. Talk about a blow to my ego! What kind of world was I living in? This was definitely not the world of "Leave It To Beaver."
I learned that Christianity is not synonymous with being a good little middle-class Boy Scout. If I could've told churches that was my goal – to transform these angry young men into good little citizens, I would never have had a problem raising money for my independent-of-any-single-congregation ministry. But these were not aspiring little Boy Scouts. These were 17- to 24-year old, angry, young black men. They were proud of who they were and they violently resented attempts to make them Oreo cookies – black on the outside and white on the inside.
It was in Trenton, as it rioted following Martin Luther King's murder, that I came to understand:
The matriarchal nature of ghetto society: I saw firsthand the inequities built into the administration of our political and religious/moral codes that kept husbands and fathers away from their homes so mom and the kids could get the help they needed. These policies applied to governmental assistance programs, as well as to private charitable organizations. So, in effect, our moral, Christian society was forcing the break-up of the family unit in order to "help" them. In similar ways, our morality destroyed the culture of Native Americans and then condemned them because they didn’t function well.
The middle-class American whiteness of my interpretation of Protestant Christianity: I had learned, for example, to share my lunch with someone less fortunate. That's what loving your neighbor as yourself meant. What do you say to a whole group that has no lunch to share? To a group that steals to pawn to get money for lunch? To a group that steals to "get back at the system?" So I said, "Why not steal cereal, powdered milk, fresh fruit? At least you can have some lunch and you can take the remainder home for your little brothers and sisters."
The power of acceptance and the meaning of "caring and sharing," which became our motto: During the MLK riots, there was a curfew at night. During the day I would conspicuously walk the streets so people could see I was still there – I had not retreated into the suburbs. One of my guys, named Ronnie, came running after me one day, trying to drag me back to the pool parlor where I made my headquarters. His cousin had gotten a pistol and was looking for me. Ronnie was willing to risk his life (and his familial relationships) to shield me.
All of this played a significant role in laying the groundwork for my desire for a spiritual path as opposed to the pursuit of a religious sense of "rightness" stemming from biblical dogma. In short, what I learned is the critical importance of always trying to use 2 little words: "…for me." I came to understand that my thoughts of "right, normal, accepted, and Christian" were influenced more by my cultural/racial/educational/economic sense of identity than by dogma or some form of religiosity. So, if I could simply add the prepositional phrase "for me" to the end of most sentences, truth would begin to penetrate all the way to my True Self. For example, instead of saying “the Bible is the source of Truth,” try saying “the Bible is the source of Truth for me.”
Those 2 little words, “for me,” began opening the door for me to accept someone else's different perception of the rightness of things – cultural or spiritual – as being just as valid as mine.
That was the beginning of my spiritual journey. That's how it all started for me. If what's real about my world is simply my perception of it, then my world really doesn't exist. Your perception of the rightness of things for you can be as valid for you as my perceptions are for me. That was the beginning of oneness for me.
However, if I am already a loved/accepted spirit simply having a human experience right now, it is easier (but not easy!) to keep my True Self separate from the institutionalization from which I garner self-image, self-definition or from limiting concepts of nationalism, political persuasion, or perceived economic standing.
Although these messages are mostly for me, thanks for listening. As always – feel free to forward this message to those accompanying you on your spiritual journey.
It's okay to forward this, if you choose. Please, though, forward all of it.
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Blog #3 June, 2020 Copyright, 2020