Big­otry, ig­no­rance, cor­rup­tion have no place in Amer­ica’s re­al­ity

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - ERICA GRIEDER

“Amer­ica, as it has done be­fore, has gone off the rails,” said Mar­i­anne Wil­liamson, the author and lec­turer, on Thurs­day evening.

Wil­liamson, a na­tive Hous­to­nian, was speak­ing at Unity of Hous­ton as part of her “Love Amer­ica” tour, which be­gan last month. I was among the sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple who had gath­ered in the pyra­mid­shaped sanc­tu­ary, to hear her talk about spir­i­tu­al­ity and pol­i­tics. For con­text, I really had no idea what to ex­pect. I had heard of Wil­liamson and knew that she writes about spir­i­tu­al­ity, but I’ve never read any of her books. The rea­son I ended up at the event is as fol­lows. Last week, I de­cided to visit a place called 59 Minute Photo, on Wes­theimer, to get a set of pass­port pho­tos. While en route, I hap­pened to drive past a church and no­ticed that its sign was pro­mot­ing Wil­liamson’s up­com­ing lec­ture.

That might be in­ter­est­ing, I thought. Our pol­i­tics are cer­tainly be­dev­iled lately. So, while wait­ing for my pass­port pho­tos to be printed, I con­sulted the in­ter­net to see what this was all about.

On Wil­liamson’s web­site, the tour is billed as an ef­fort to pro­mote po­lit­i­cal re­newal via “a revo­lu­tion in con­scious­ness.” Fear and ha­tred, the site ex­plains, have be­come pow­er­ful forces in pol­i­tics. In Wil­liamson’s view, we can har­ness the pow­ers of love and de­cency in re­sponse — and, if our democ­racy is to sur­vive, we must.

My cu­rios­ity was piqued. The ills of fear and ha­tred are an­cient, of course. Their po­lit­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tions, like big­otry and cor­rup­tion, pre­date the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump. But we’ve been con­fronted with them on a daily ba­sis since he en­tered the White House, and many Amer­i­cans have been ask­ing them­selves what they should do in re­sponse.

And this is a line of in­quiry that Trump him­self re­vived just

hours be­fore Wil­liamson took the stage.

“Why are we hav­ing all th­ese peo­ple from shit­hole coun­tries come here?” said Trump on Thurs­day, in a meet­ing with Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic law­mak­ers, ac­cord­ing to a bomb­shell re­port that ap­peared shortly there­after, in the Wash­ing­ton Post.

This was, per the Post’s sources, in re­sponse to the sug­ges­tion that pro­tec­tions for im­mi­grants from na­tions in­clud­ing Haiti and El Sal­vador be ex­tended as part of the com­pre­hen­sive im­mi­gra­tion re­form deal he has called on Congress to pass. The pres­i­dent went on to say that the United States should pri­or­i­tize im­mi­gra­tion from coun­tries like Nor­way in­stead.

Trump has sub­se­quently in­sisted, in a tweet, that al­though his lan­guage at the meet­ing was “tough,” it did not in­clude the ob­scen­ity at­trib­uted to him. I don’t see why that mat­ters, frankly. Let’s sup­pose that he re­ferred to “sub­op­ti­mal coun­tries” in­stead. That would still be ev­i­dence of big­otry and ig­no­rance, both of which are worse than cussing, in my view.

And I’d like to high­light a few points that Wil­liamson made in her talk, which I found very brac­ing. Virtues and flaws

She be­gan by em­pha­siz­ing how im­por­tant it is for Amer­i­cans to know the his­tory of our na­tion, and to be clear-eyed about both its virtues and its flaws, and the con­tra­dic­tions that they re­flect. We’re the only coun­try founded on small-d demo­cratic prin­ci­ples, for ex­am­ple, but many of the men who signed the Con­sti­tu­tion, which en­shrines those prin­ci­ples, none­the­less owned slaves.

Since then, in Wil­liamson’s telling, the Amer­i­cans who want to re­al­ize those ideals have been in a con­stant strug­gle against those who would rather not, for var­i­ous rea­sons. Per­haps they’re ben­e­fi­cia­ries of an un­just sta­tus quo, or are sub­con­sciously seek­ing to re-cre­ate a regime in which the peo­ple are sub­or­di­nate to an en­ti­tled aris­toc­racy.

The lat­ter, Wil­liamson con­tin­ued, cur­rently have the up­per hand. And so it’s in­cum­bent on spir­i­tual and re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties to lead the change — as, his­tor­i­cally, they al­ways have.

“Peo­ple just be­ing an­ti­slav­ery was not go­ing to end slav­ery,” she noted. They had to ac­tu­ally do some­thing, as the Quakers did in the abo­li­tion­ist move­ment, or as Martin Luther King Jr. did in the fight for civil rights.

But what struck me most in Wil­liamson’s talk was her ex­pla­na­tion for why spir­i­tual and re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties step up to the plate.

“We don’t be­lieve in a God out there, and a devil out there, that is stalk­ing the planet, try­ing to grab men’s souls. We be­lieve in some­thing in here,” she said, point­ing at her head.

That be­ing the case, spir­i­tual and re­li­gious Amer­i­cans agree that there is a world be­yond the world in which we live — a “truer re­al­ity,” ac­cord­ing to our be­liefs. A world in which peo­ple are equal, and truly free. Love and de­cency

Like all Amer­i­cans, we also be­lieve that’s how things should be in this world, or at least in this coun­try. But re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties have, his­tor­i­cally, been lead­ers in so many fights for change.

Be­liefs can’t be quan­ti­fied, mea­sured, or doc­u­mented; as Wil­liamson put it, the truth some­times “be­comes out-pic­tured” by the prox­i­mate re­al­ity. But when po­lit­i­cal lead­ers are flout­ing ba­sic Amer­i­can prin­ci­ples, spir­i­tual and re­li­gious Amer­i­cans of­ten ob­ject, be­cause our civic be­liefs are of­ten re­in­forced by our be­liefs about the truer re­al­ity.

Wil­liamson is right, I think, about the pow­ers of love and de­cency: They can har­nessed, for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses, and should be chan­neled into ac­tions ac­cord­ingly. Vot­ing is one ex­am­ple. Another would be point­ing out that Trump’s com­ments on Thurs­day should be of­fen­sive to all Amer­i­cans, re­gard­less of their po­lit­i­cal be­liefs. As Amer­i­cans, we be­lieve that all peo­ple are cre­ated equal, even if they come from sub­op­ti­mal coun­tries; that is a foun­da­tional premise of this one, which Trump sup­pos­edly leads.

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