It is very rare that I would write anything political, and I am quite sure that right now the very last thing any of you want to read is anything political.
So instead, I want to talk about a two subjects we often visit in healthy male spirituality. The first is the white male system, and the second is the need for dialogue, the sacredness of the circle of council, a circle of trust, of belonging and containing and holding and hearing.
It was Anne Wilson Schaef, an American therapist, who coined the phrase “white male system” in the 1980s. She described it as an addictive system – hence the now ubiquitous presence of addiction – because it is a closed system that creates a distorted perception of reality. Its four tenets are:
1. Money, status, power, are everything. Winning is the goal and these are the measures of winning.
2. White men’s ways are superior. Everyone who does not abide by our ways are wrong, either inferior or threatening.
3. Everything outside the system must be excluded. Other perspectives are dismissed as stupid; all policy, economics, religion, even morality is defined by those within the system and refer back to points one and two. Fear, sorrow, loss, failure, weakness – these must be eliminated, so can only be expressed as rage.
4. Everything is either this or that, right or wrong, logically and rationally provable and expedient to the cause of the system. Nothing exists outside this black and white world where being in control is paramount. This makes the system powerfully addictive. It assures success and eliminates dissension, it silences all other perspectives and protects the system from any critique. Awareness of other views is not even comprehended.
The white male system is running on fumes. It is bankrupt, but it is not going to die quietly. In 2014, USA turned a corner we could not have imagined when I was a boy. More non-white children were born than white children. Within half a century, caucasian Americans will be a minority group. Similar statistics are reflected in Europe and Australia. The world is not only changing, it has changed. This is experienced as a threat to the white male system and all who unconsciously subscribe to it. Note that I said “is experienced as a threat.” For in truth, it is an opportunity.
The need for dialogue is more clear than ever. But never mind dialogue, it seems we are even losing the capacity to argue well at a civic level (or if Facebook is considered, even socially). New York Times journalist David Brooks recently observed that we have become civically illiterate. Our media are largely to blame, as they chase an audience with click bait to earn revenue. The politics of obstruction seem to be the only recourse for those “not in power.”
Associate professor in American politics from the United States Studies Centre Brendon O’Connor said that there is “increasingly less contact with people who see the world differently from you.” ABC reporter Chris Uhlmann, on the ground in West Virginia, observed that “people feel frustrated because they don’t feel heard.”
It is so easy to mock the enemy. The white male system is alive and well in me when I make fun of Donald Trump, or Hilary Clinton, or our own Pauline Hanson. It is easy to ridicule, it expands the rift between their supporters and me, but it’s using the same impotent consciousness of the white male system. It can only end in a deeper rift, which ulitmately can only end in the final separation, war. Irish philosopher Peter Rollins observed that war is not the absence of conflict, it is the inability or unwillingness to hold conflict.
In a fortnight, about 30 facilitators and future facilitators of men’s groups from around Australia and New Zealand are gathering to be trained in the Way of Council, an ancient sophisticated wisdom about how to deeply engage each other in dialogue. I affirm this video on the work they are doing and we are embracing. I have been trained in this way and experienced first hand its profound power to reconcile.
A core tenet of Council is to hold the tension within us when we hear another’s experience as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ or ‘stupid.’ When we hear those internal judgments, that’s the addictive mind at work, excluding and scapegoating, reasserting my clearly superior understanding. It is retreating to the smallness of the rational mind to explain away and exclude their experience. It is, in effect, to always be building walls.
But pain is pain. It isn’t right or wrong. When we hold that tension within us, extraordinary things happen. Things we cannot yet imagine. Walls come down. People rejoice.
It is not Trump or Clinton (or Hanson, or insert your most hated politician here) we need to pay attention to. They represent a system that has nothing to do with anything about life. It is the human beings who have voted for them. It is through dialogue that we need to understand their very real pain and fear.
Surely it would seem that politicians need to hold council with disenfranchised people. But we don’t need to wait for them. Let’s start now.
However, if we stand in the rift, will not people on both sides tear us apart? Quite possibly. This is the place of the prophet, the third way, the place of the crucified one. How often I return to this verse in Scripture:
“So let’s go outside, where Jesus is, where the action is—not trying to be privileged insiders, but taking our share in the abuse of Jesus. This “insider world” is not our home. We have our eyes peeled for the City about to come. Let’s take our place outside with Jesus” – Hebrews 13:13-14, The Message translation.
On this Armistice day, my eldest son shared with me these words:
“It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.” (From Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Breakfast of Champions’)
The image I have included with this blog is “hands across the divide”, a striking bronze sculpture at the entrance to the city of Derry in Northern Ireland. It symbolises the spirit of reconciliation and hope for the future and was unveiled in 1992, 20 years after Bloody Sunday.
In 2008, our second Rites of Passage was weaved by a dear and beloved elder of this work, Belden Lane. In response to the US election result, Belden penned the following. I invite you to read it. This is our commission, our work to do. We will always be few, always seem powerless, destined to fail. But as you know, winning is not the point. There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. So long, Leonard.
After reading Belden’s reflection below, I invite you to watch Joel McKerrow give a stirring recitation of his own poem “For Tomorrow”.
Finding Words after the Election of Donald Trump
Like many others last night, I felt as if American democracy had been slapped in the face. Bigotry and meanness had triumphed. Women demeaned, minorities threatened, immigrants told to go back home, the rest of the world warned that America would focus now on taking care of itself (becoming “Great” again).
The political analysts last night observed that non-college, rural, white men were a huge force in responding to Donald Trump’s message. As a threatened majority, they were making a last grasp for holding onto power. As a white male myself, growing up in a non-college, rural setting, I was appalled. But I also understood the powerful appeal of Mr. Trump’s message.
I found myself reaching for Robert Bellah’s now-classic book Habits of the Heart, a reflection on the impact of rugged, male individualism in American democratic life. Donald Trump has been the epitome of the American hero as the loner, bucking the establishment. He’s the gun-packing cowboy who rides into town, like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti Westerns. Not being part of the community, he can take care of the bad guys. He may play fast and loose with the law, but he gets the job done. He’s admired for his grit, his nasty temper, his readiness to stand up to anyone.
Mr. Trump has also echoed the role of the detective as loner (like Sam Spade, Al Pacino in “Serpico,” or Jack Reacher). This is the guy who aims at getting rid of all the crooks…not just the “little runts sneaking over the Mexican border” but those unexposed in high places who are part of a corrupt establishment. Again the tough-guy “private eye” is effective only when he stands outside the system, going it alone.
As a brilliant sociologist, Bellah talked about the genius and the curse of American individualism. (He builds on the insights of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French historian who visited the U.S. in the 19th century and wrote about Democracy in America.) They admit that the individualistic spirit of American society gets things done. It inspires entrepreneurs. It celebrates those who are successful, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, making it on their own. These are the great captains of industry, the CEO’s of huge corporations.
But individualism, they warn, also involves a dangerous isolation from others. Beyond one’s individual family, it discounts the importance of a larger community—especially of those who might be different from themselves. Its tendency is to think, “I made a success of myself; what’s wrong with these others that they can’t do the same?” It further discounts the importance of a body of tradition carried on from the past. A “self-made man” doesn’t need a larger body of wisdom. He’s his own master. He has no past or future.
Hence, Bellah bemoaned the loss in American life of what de Tocqueville had called “Habits of the Heart.” A body of ideals and moral values to which Americans are committed, above and beyond their individual concerns. Things like human dignity, equality, and justice—based in a broad sense of religious commitment—forming a common ground for public discourse in a society. These are broader and deeper than the individual ego. If we lack them, we end up with a fractured society, stripped of any moral integrity.
A few weeks ago I delighted in listening to David Brooks and E. J. Dionne, two distinguished conservative and liberal journalists, talking about this common ground with Krista Tippett on her NPR program, “On Being.” Their exchange was so stunning because we’d heard nothing like it during the entire presidential campaign. It was a unique instance of people speaking across ideological lines, engaging in a conversation based on common convictions of what America should stand for.
Bellah (and de Tocqueville) argued that when you lack this respect for tradition—for a shared moral life—you simply look to others to confirm your individual opinions or to overpower you with their own. Thus, the man who speaks the loudest, catching the attention of others in the most outrageous way, is the one most able to mold the opinions of the masses. Ironically, in a culture of individualism, conformity becomes the nemesis of the social order. The true individual who might emerge as prophet, speaking out for those whose rights are guaranteed by the moral common ground they share, is shouted down by the tyranny of the majority. By those who are aggrieved by the rising threats to their own power and influence.
These, in short, are the white men who are threatened today by women, by men of color, by their gay brothers, by foreigners and outsiders of all kinds. THESE are the white men I have to love and to challenge on this day after the election. I’m a white man myself, formed by the values of the men’s work with which I’m involved, through Illuman and the ManKind Project. I’m especially committed to the touchstones of the Illuman organization, grounded in the work of Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM.
• We are men transforming men through a power greater than ourselves.
• We are seeking a life-changing spirituality.
• Our primary concern is inner work that makes a difference in the world.
• We are fed by the wisdom traditions of forgiveness and radical inclusivity.
• Our work recovers traditional patterns of male initiation, affirms a masculine path to healing, reveals the true and false self, and honors the path of descent.
• We do this through the power of ritual, image, story and council.
We also are committed to speaking the truth in love. That’s why I’m reaching for words on this day when I’m feeling the same dread I felt on September 11, 2001. A nation (a world) is at risk. Men of compassion who know how to value the tradition have to speak. May it be so.
–Belden C. Lane
November 9, 2016