Holy ‘Affirmative Action’?

Here’s the question I’ve been pondering lately: How do lessons from faith traditions play out in secular society? What are the things we have done or can do to embody the best of what faith has to offer outside places of worship?

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the Native American philosophy of “seventh generation,” which encourages all of us to think in a broad context when making important decisions, examining the history surrounding a decision and what affect it will have in the future. It’s similar to karma, and the multi-generational view of time presented in the Bible. This concept is written into the Constitution of the Iroquois Nations, which states that leaders must weigh the seventh generation in “your efforts at law making, in all your official acts.”

Though no such mandate exists in the U.S. Constitution, I think many of our policymakers sense the wisdom of considering the long horizon when creating new laws and guidelines, particularly when it comes to decisions about the environment and overall health of the planet. While I find this encouraging, I believe our leaders should apply it to far more decisions, especially those that determine the quality of schools in our country. Doing so would be consistent with the teachings of every religion I journeyed through, and perhaps every faith on the planet.

The only other policy in the U.S. that I can think of with this kind of “seventh generation” outlook is “Affirmative Action,” which is the right for employers and universities to consider characteristics such as race and gender in their hiring and admissions to increase the representation of historically disadvantaged groups. So surprised was I in realizing how unique Affirmative Action is—it is rooted in taking accountability and making amends, which is unusual among American laws—that I felt compelled to learn how it came about.

It actually didn’t start with such lofty ambitions. It was a term coined from an executive order signed by President John Kennedy in 1961, which included a provision that government contractors “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson added to this. He signed an executive order that required government employers to take “affirmative action” to “hire without regard to race, religion and national origin.” He used the word “hire” and included “religion.” “Gender” was added to the list of characteristics in 1967.

These were anti-discrimination measures but they weren’t sure-fire diversity increasers. Employers could justify homogenous workforces as long as they based their hiring choices on qualifications alone—and it’s been shown that people are generally more inclined to see applicants that look most like themselves as best suited for a job. (It’s also difficult to prove instances of discrimination because they are usually not overt).

It wasn’t until 1989 that Affirmative Action as we know it today became official. That year, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, a special branch of the United Nations that was created in the 1960s and in which the U.S. is a member, ratified that affirmative action programs may be required of countries to rectify systematic discrimination. The decision stated that such programs “shall in no case entail as a consequence the maintenance of unequal or separate rights for different racial groups after the objectives for which they were taken have been achieved.”

The implication here was that instead of trying stay “blind” to characteristics such as race or gender, hiring committees and other gatekeepers should pay special attention to them. This flipped previous notions of affirmative action on their head: exercise unequal rights but in favor of underrepresented groups. The goal—to increase diversity—was the same but the approach was more active.

Some employers and universities were already using this version of Affirmative Action before 1989. When I began college at University of California Berkeley in 1989, it was a well-known fact that students who came from disadvantaged groups received special consideration during the admittance process. The results of these practices created a beautiful sight to behold: a student body with ample representation by race, religion, gender—as well as a spectrum of physical “disabilities.” Years later, when I worked for the federal government, I was again in an environment that had benefited from Affirmative Action policies.

Opponents of Affirmative Action say it is “reverse racism” and therefore unconstitutional. The practice has been the target of many lawsuits, usually filed by white students denied admission to a university, and often backed by The Project on Fair Representation, a nonprofit organization that provides legal defense for white people who feel discriminated against. Since the first of these cases—filed against the University of California system in 1978—the courts have maintained the right for state universities to design their own admission processes that take into account race as one factor to build racial diversity on campus. In 2003, the Supreme Court preserved this decision, but with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor saying she believed such policies would no longer be necessary in 25 years. This summer—about half way to that goal—the Supreme Court upheld the right for universities to use Affirmative Action, though it was a narrow 4-3 decision.

Walking on the Berkeley campus today is a different experience than when I was a student. The University of California stopped using Affirmative Action in 1996, not long after I graduated, opting instead to take into account other factors, such as income, to promote diversity. Unfortunately, this tactic has been accompanied by a dramatic decrease in racial diversity on campus. In 1997, the year it was enacted, admissions of Black, Latino, and Native American students plummeted by more than 50 percent. In 2012, 54 percent of California’s high school graduates were Black, Latino and Native American but they comprised just 16 percent of UC Berkeley’s freshmen class.

Affirmative Action is a complicated issue and it’s no wonder our society continues to grapple with it. Technically, it is unconstitutional; but when the constitution was crafted, slavery existed. Perhaps no modern policy gets closer to the philosophy of “seventh generation”—or better embodies a concept so fundamental to most religions. Yet, some individuals, who may have done nothing wrong personally, will feel unfairly treated because of Affirmative Action policies. That’s why the Native American saying goes “we must consider the impact on the seventh generation…even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.”

Can you think of examples of things taking place in a secular setting that you think represent the essence of faith teachings?

#Black Lives Matter

In response to my last blog post on accountability, a friend sent a link to information about the Native American philosophy of “seventh generation.” This is the concept that any decision made by an individual or collective should take into account its affect on more than just those who are presently living. As I dug around for more information, I encountered slight variations in how these generations were counted: seven into the future; yours plus three into the future and three into the past; seven into the future and seven into the past.

Whatever the specifics, the notion is consistent: we are asked to contemplate the results of our actions beyond our own lifespans. It is similar to the Jewish practice of standing in the shoes of generations both past and present, as well as the Buddhist concept of collective karma. “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation…even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.” This is a common saying, often attributed to the “The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations: The Great Binding Law.”

The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations says:

“In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right.”

As I read this, I wondered about the use of “nephews and nieces” instead of something more general like “children” or “youth.” I think the familial connection is key: it implies a close relation but perhaps without the emotional baggage one might have with his or her actual offspring. Maybe we are meant to consider all young people as our nephews and nieces. It applies to everyone, even those without their own children.

I found the wording significant in part because I have recently returned from a trip to the St. Paul/Minneapolis area, where I stayed with my sister-in-law and her family. My visit occurred a week or so following the death of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, who was pulled over for a minor traffic infraction in a suburb of St. Paul. After being asked for his license and registration, Castile told the officer he was a licensed owner of a gun and that his gun was in the car. Then, as he put his hands in the air, the officer shot him multiple times. The shooting was witnessed by Castile’s girlfriend and her young daughter, both of whom were in the car.

In response to this shooting, and others like it all over the country, my 17-year-old nephew and many of his friends began participating in a peaceful protest, more akin to a vigil, outside the Minnesota governor’s mansion as part of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.  When I arrived, he was still spending hours there every day as if it were one of his part time jobs.

My nephew, Simon, is white and clearly recognizes his privilege both racially and socio-economically. He speaks eloquently to this issue and without a hint of defensiveness. He embraces “Black Lives Matter” with such passion and clarity that spending time with him made me examine my own commitment to the cause.

When I first began seeing reference to Black Lives Matter in the news and on social media, I noticed the backlash about the wording. I read complaints by people who felt threatened, as if the statement implied that ONLY black lives matter. (I had to smile because these comments seem to reinforce the conclusion I came to as I made my journey through religion: each of us—no matter the degree of privilege we are born into—is inclined to think we are not good enough, that we’ll never do or be enough. This “original sin” is so deeply ingrained that when someone comes along with a radical statement of belonging, people tend to feel threatened by it. It’s the same thing that happened with the Jewish idea of being “chosen.” Instead of embracing this powerful notion of deserving one’s life—which, as I understand it, is meant for everyone—people feel more comfortable believing it excludes them. This better reinforces the natural sense of unworthiness.)

I understand this existential insecurity—I struggle with it myself—but that wasn’t the problem I was having. I believed the statement was too obvious, too basic. I thought, “well, of course black lives matter.”

When I brought this up to Simon, he made me see that the truth of this simple statement isn’t necessarily apparent. For people who have a history of being enslaved and marginalized (like the Jews), claiming worthiness is a radical act. When I looked at it through Simon’s eyes, I saw the statement for what it is: a beautiful and important declaration of belonging, one that invites healing for all sorts of errors and wrongdoings.

Accountability

One of the most important lessons I learned during my journey into religion is the wisdom of taking responsibility—and not just for my own decisions, but on a larger scale.

I’m thinking of teachings in Buddhism that would have us consider the consequences of our actions, how what we think and do affects the world around us, often referred to as “karma.” I feel inclined to also insert ideas from Judaism, how it encourages each of us to lay claim to a much broader identity, to see ourselves as the continuation of previous generations, just as future generations will be an extension of us. But I can’t stop there. I want to add a dash of Islam, specifically the notion that we all belong to a single society despite distinctions of race or gender or class or age. Islam would have us put our differences aside and be beholden to one another.

All of this leads me to stretch my concept of karma, to apply it to generations other than my own, to regions other than where I am, to people who are not me. The actions for which I am accountable transcend time and place. I encountered hints of this more far-reaching karma during my explorations of Buddhism. I heard mention of “personal karma” and “collective karma,” though how the latter played out was vague.

I understand it now as motivation to examine consequences extending well beyond those that result from my own actions. In a sense, this is an even greater challenge than considering personal karma because it means taking responsibility for anything that has created negative outcomes. It doesn’t matter if the actions were not my own; I am not exempt from sharing the blame.

It’s hard enough for most people to take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions, and almost unthinkable to ask anyone to be accountable for anything they didn’t do personally.

We are inclined to skirt responsibility. Maybe it occurred before we were born, like American slavery. Yet, the results from that horrible history continue to ripple out: anger at the injustices of the past and the current inequalities they have bred. If I am to truly take to heart the teachings from religion, I will do more than acknowledge the pain. I will collapse time to feel being both the slave and the slave master. I will experience the suffering of being dehumanized as well as try to understand the entitlement that allows a person to rob others of basic human rights. I will recognize how, in my current incarnation, I receive privileges left over from the favoritism woven into the fabric of this country. I also have to remain willing to recognize modern-day acts of racism, even if it’s my own subliminal thinking that I must pull to the fore and examine. If I go through life blind to these realities, I perpetuate inequality.

Okay, maybe that’s an easy one. As a white person living in the U.S., of course I should acknowledge the awful crimes of slavery and racism. Maybe it’s even a no-brainer that I would claim responsibility.

I want to take this exercise in accountability even further. How about his: I am not exempt from perpetrating sexism. Even as a woman who considers herself a feminist (Women Studies minor in college) I am not free from gender bias. I may be on the receiving end of it, but in small ways that I might not recognize immediately, it can influence my thinking. If I don’t own this, I can’t stay vigilant of the times this backwards ideology creeps in, which leaves me in the awkward position of firm entrenchment in a way of thinking I find loathsome.

So often, the examples we see in the media are of high profile people ducking responsibility for anything and everything, which is why, when someone in the public arena demonstrates accountability, my heart swells with gratitude.

One example is President Obama’s recent trip to Japan, specifically to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. As the first American president to visit there since we dropped nuclear bombs on cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 (killing well over 100,000 civilians), Obama was criticized by many who believed his presence there would be seen as an apology. As a result, Obama never uttered the word “sorry” but I agree to an extent: his visit was a public demonstration of accountability for military tactics so extreme that they seem to me to have risen to crimes against humanity. When I saw the video footage of Obama embracing a weeping old man who had survived his city’s obliteration as a young boy, I couldn’t help but cry.

Many people viewed Obama’s actions as exhibiting weakness—but I saw them as a sign of strength. When you own the wrongs and biases, you are no longer powerless. You are part of the solution.

Friday Livestream

Dear Readers,

On Friday June 10th the talk and reading I will give at Books & Books in Miami will be available to live-stream starting at 8 pm Eastern time (5 pm on the West Coast). Go to Booksandbooks.com and click the live-stream link under my picture from the main page (it is free). If you watch live, a phone number on the screen will be shown, allowing you to call in to ask a question for answer in real time. The video will also be archived for future viewing. I hope I don’t do anything too embarrassing!

 

An imagination of one’s own

How had this happened? I’m sitting in front of a small audience along with a Christian reverend, Muslim imam, and Jewish rabbi.

Technically, the reverend is Presbyterian, the imam is Sufi, and the rabbi falls on the less orthodox side of the spectrum. Together, they comprise the Interfaith Amigos, Seattle-based religious leaders who came together in the wake of 9/11 to demonstrate and encourage dialogue and cooperation between faith traditions. In addition to the work they do individually, they give presentations communally as well as write award-winning books, a new one of which is forthcoming. (Visit their website to learn more.)

Today, I’ve joined them. (Or, is it more accurate to say that they’ve joined me since the formal reason for this gathering is the release of my book, A None’s Story?). We are at the University Bookstore on the campus of University of Washington, on the second floor where there’s enough room for chairs: several rows for the participants and four facing the rest for the Amigos and me.

This arrangement—me with them—feels like a strange experiment. They are familiar with each other, having worked together for many years, but I’ve just met them for the first time 10 minutes earlier in the bookstore’s café. There is no moderator, no real plan. We’re flying by the seat of our pants here.

Each of the Amigos was given a copy of my book to read in advance, so they know where I’m coming from. In a nutshell, I spent several years rummaging through each of their faiths, and emerged from my journey with the firm stance that—at least for the time being—I would claim no loyalty to any one faith.

Given this, the Interfaith Amigos appear to have more in common with each other than they do with me. They all come from a monotheistic or “Abrahamic” tradition. Their holy books overlap in obvious ways. From my point of view, it doesn’t seem so strange that they would get along with one another.

But what happens when someone outside of their tradition is invited to the table?

As if to underscore our less tangible differences, there are the more apparent ones: I am female. I am a good 20 years younger. Sitting with the Interfaith Amigos feels like a real life version of that old Sesame Street game, “One of these things is not like the other.”

I thought they’d change their minds about this event after reading my book. But each of them is here—having made time and substantial effort to drive from different parts of Seattle—to join me. If for this alone, I am deeply grateful.

To start us off, I read a small part of my book. At every reading so far, I’ve read from a section where I’m still exploring and haven’t quite figured out what my religious identity will be. Today for the first time I read from the conclusion. In it, I share the lessons I appreciate about each of their faiths (and Buddhism) but state clearly that I remain firmly planted outside.

After the reading, it’s time for conversation. This starts off awkwardly. The Amigos are practiced at talking to one another, but how are they supposed to include me? Audience members ask questions, which helps. Usually the comment is addressed to one of the Amigos who provides his own answer. I pipe up here and there, but we are not really talking to one another.

I have worried about what motivates faith leaders and believers to engage with me: is it a hope—even buried deeply—that I will come to understand their way of thinking as the truth? Or is it something bigger and more profound: a desire to connect and communicate regardless of the different points of view from which we come?

Some are very explicit in telling me that not only is their faith correct, but their version of their faith is also the most accurate. In addition, even the nuances within their version must be conceived of in a specific way. Often these righteous will couch it in the nicest possible way: love motivates them to share the facts.

With this in mind, I gathered the courage to pose a question to the Amigos that I haven’t yet asked any other faith leaders. Is it okay, I wanted to know, to understand their faiths—and even the details within their faiths—in ways that might be unique to me? Am I allowed to bring my own thoughts and twists to the task of pondering their religions?

I guess what I was getting at is if they thought I could try to conceive of God and still be me. Does faith require a surrender of one’s imagination?

The Amigos listened intently and then looked at one another to see who might want to answer this strange question. I suppose I was nervous that after reading my book they might not appreciate the quirky ways I had interpreted aspects of Christianity or Judaism or Islam.

Jamal, the imam, did the honors. “Only you have authority of your own imagination. Not only is it allowed, it is encouraged. It is the only way, really.” The other Amigos nodded their agreement.

This answer felt pure sunshine. No one resented me for my idiosyncrasies or was interested in explaining how I might be wrong.

In fact, they seemed to welcome my perspective—however unrefined it might be.

With that, I felt safe and the conversation grew deeper and more interesting.

But how will I approach a conversation like this with anyone whose worldview automatically invalidates my interpretations or identity? It doesn’t matter what religion or non-religion we come from, if we’re not given the freedom to be ourselves, I’m not sure a constructive conversation is possible.

As I am being invited to speak with of all types of believers and nonbelievers—some of whom I know will believe they have ownership of the one and only truth—this question is haunting me.

It takes an incredible amount of respect and compassion to go from, “I’ve chosen the path that’s right” to “I’ve chosen the path that’s right for me.”

The future of spiritual practice

The first six stops of my book tour under my belt, I’m starting to get a sense of some recurring questions audience members are eager to have answered after I speak about (and read from) the religious exploration I write about in A None’s Story. One common inquiry is something along the lines of, “What do you think the future is for religion in the United States?” (For book tour updates, “like” my author Facebook page.)

Many people, I believe, are expecting me to declare religion dead—or, at the very least, dying. I know some of the audience members are people of faith, a few have been current or retired leaders of religious congregations, and they fear what’s in store for their communities in the next decade or two. Others are concerned for the growing number of citizens who appear to be operating in a world increasingly devoid of spiritual grounding or guidance.

I understand the worry but, from where I stand, the view is not so bleak. I honestly believe that the core of religion is as relevant today as it has ever been because, despite all the changes we and our society undergoes, something fundamental remains the same. Each of us struggles to come to grips with being here on earth, and with the knowledge that we will leave—as if these realizations are a fresh new thing just added to the human experience. We are driven to makes sense of this knowledge, to come together with others who are also striving for greater understanding, and to work together to find ways to better care for ourselves and others. No, the basic impulse from which religion is born is intrinsically tied to our beings. The growth in the population of Nones does not spell the end of religion. But it does herald a change.

Before my reading in Washington, D.C. a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to join an evening of improvisation or “improv” as some like to call it. This is the theatrical act of spontaneous scene-making usually associated with comedy. Now, I have never in my life participated in improv. I have seen it being performed and simply imagining being up there among the performers would send my heart into a spasm of terror. Improv is most definitely not “my thing.” (I’m a writer—words take full minutes, hours even, to come out of me. It is very boring to watch.) But this improv experience piqued my interest because I had heard it mentioned on NPR’s On Point during an episode about religious affiliation and the growth in Nones. (It aired March 22, 2016 and is fascinating. I recommend it. Listen here.)

This particular evening of improv is part of something called “The Sanctuaries,” a community with this mission statement: “Empowering creative people to claim their own spiritual voice and collaborate on artistic projects that promote social change.” It’s a safe bet that some of its members are religiously affiliated in a more traditional sense and that others are Nones like me. The “lead organizer,” Rev. Erik Martínez Resly, graduated from Harvard Divinity School. He formed The Sanctuaries with his neighbors from various walks of life whose most common denominator appears to be that they are all relatively youngish (post-college and up). They invite the community at large to join them in coming together to tell stories—through art, music, conversation, and performance—with a purpose. The one event scheduled for when I would be in town was the “Soulful Improv” that takes place the 2nd Monday of each month at 7 pm. No experience required.

Improv as spiritual practice? The writer in me was more curious than the would-be comedian was terrified. I dragged along my good friend, Cassie, who had been my downstairs neighbor when I lived in D.C. She was even more reluctant than I about improv. Soulful Improv is held at a place a couple blocks from the apartment building where Cassie and I had lived called the Potter’s House, which in itself has an interesting history of being a meeting place in a secular setting, but infused with religious ideals.

In a large back room, men and women of every shade gathered. Cassie and I were among the oldest; several teenage girls in hijab were the youngest. It was soon apparent that most people present were not any more skilled at improv than me. The leader, a woman named Brittany, started us off gently with warm up exercises: in a big circle, after introductions, we “tossed” words or phrases to one another. They might be the same words said a little differently each time or new words inspired by what came previously. As nervous as I was, I could tell others felt the same—that and the initial brevity of our individual contributions put me at ease. Brittany eased us into longer “scenes” by degrees.

Surprisingly, I was having a darn good time, but what did any of it have to do with religion or spirituality? I had no idea at first, but as the evening progressed, it got clearer. Brittany helped by dropping hints as we went. “It’s about building trust,” she called out at one point. Or, as interactions grew more involved, she shouted, “To react, stay in the moment.” She also said that participating in these impromptu interactions forces us “to assess the situation from the other players’ eyes.”

Thinking back on all the worship services I attended during my religious explorations I realized, in these exercises, I was having similar feelings. The initial fear of being the outsider and idiot transformed slowly through group activity—communal prayer or singing—into something that more closely resembled teamwork or community. Each of us takes a risk in coming together, everyone shows up despite feeling vulnerable, to get on the same page for a shared goal for an intangible reward: a sense, however fleeting, of connection. How quickly one’s isolation can flip into expansive belonging! To suddenly become aware of one’s being present in the room, alongside the presence of others, to contemplate the world anew and then to consider it through alternate perspectives. Worship can help us do this and more; an evening of improv was having a similar effect.

Could improv be the new face of worship? Maybe. Or at least one of them.

So when someone asks what I think will become of religion, I tell them I feel hopeful about its future. Many of its teachings have seeped into our culture in ways we are only beginning to understand. The cross-pollination between the religious and the secular continues and I’m excited to see what blooms.