A colleague of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Laura Hassler, related a story during the Vietnam war about an American journalist who was excited to have an interview in France with the noted peace activist. But as she cued up her then state-of-the-art cassette tape recorder it kept jamming, and a couple cups of tea later she became more and more agitated and frustrated with her new technology (sound familiar?). When she finally left, and the room was quiet, Thich Naht Hanh remarked, “Americans cannot be peacemakers until they learn how to breathe.”
I thought about that story as I, and others I know, find we often seem to feel even busier, more pressured and anxious as the weeks of lock down press on, in spite of so many diminished activities in our Covid-framed lives. Perhaps we just need to remember to breathe deeply more often. I was pleased recently when one of my colleagues here on Whidbey encouraged us to take time before an organizational meeting on Zoom to breathe and relax before we waded into the emotional challenges related to racism. I was again reminded that we are almost always better prepared to be creative and caring when we take the time to slow down our anxieties and fears, to relax our bodies and minds, and to attune to the creative movement of spirit and heart-felt discernment. I especially appreciate the initial hush of the silence of our Quaker meetings for worship and our moments of quiet before committee and business meetings. And I personally always take time before my morning prayers and reading to simply sit quietly and pay attention to my breath. Attending to our quiet breathing is a metaphor for the practice of freeing ourselves from emotional and physical tension and stress and inviting us into a deeper place of self-awareness and self-acceptance that, in turn, opens us to a deeper sense of awareness and acceptance of others. Thich Naht Hanh is right: until our own souls are settled and safe and quiet we are limited in our peacemaking with others and our world.
But there is another, intense reference to the word breathe these days, as in “I can’t breathe!” The suffocation murder of George Floyd has led to the “I can’t breathe” rallying cry that represents not only outrage for an individual’s violent death, but for a larger demand for the end of police violence, long reported and largely ignored, from the Black community. More importantly, perhaps, it has defined a heightened awareness, especially among White folks, about the extent of racial suppression and oppression that has suffocated generations of our Black population with poverty, limited education, disenfranchisement, inadequate health care, and second class citizenship, among other profound grievances. The image of the white policeman's knee at the neck of an incapacitated Black man audibly heard crying “I can’t breathe” is such a powerful metaphor for visualizing the cruelty imposed by decades of White privilege, sanctioned neglect, and calculated suppression suffered by so many Black Americans and their families. Like our physical need to breathe air, our political and social lives also need to be able to breathe in a society that provides safety and respect.
Writing like this, of course, can easily slide into hyperbole and hackneyed jargon. But my thoughts these past couple of weeks have led me to conclude that we can no long define the extent of racism nicely to make it palatable for White people. If we are to make progress in dealing with the generations of the repercussions of our nation’s failure to reckon and atone for the “original sin” of slavery, we need to seek a path of difficult truth and meaningful acts of reconciliation. We need to be clear about the scope of American history that has intentionally created the policies, practices and prejudices that have sustained - and continue to sustain - the oppression of Native People, Blacks, and all minorities whose exploitation and labor has created so much of American wealth and infrastructure. Without clarity about the magnitude of historical racist abuse we will not have the crucial conviction to make necessary systematic changes. Can each of us Americans - all Americans - truly "breathe" the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and the promise of “justice for all" we are supposed to celebrate on this Fourth of July? I am imagining that each of my readers are, in fact, taking this type of question quite seriously.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a form of planetary sabbath, a time for humanity and the planet itself, to breathe some fresh morality. It can be a time that provides an opportunity - or even a demand - to reset values and practices that may well redirect and reground our nation’s morality around the issue of racism, climate change, militarism, and wealth disparity. It is unlikely we would be having serious conversations if this Covid sabbath, the time to breathe new life into our nation, had not forced us to do so. Like the reality that our American culture normally no longer observes a Sunday sabbath as a day of rest, but rather as a day of distractive TV football, athletics for children - and, of course, shopping - our culture was simply not be able to easily remember how important it is to have regular close family time, time for precious communal time with friends, for worship and for deepened relationships, time for recreation, perhaps time for quiet reading and contemplation - essentially time for renewal from our very busy lives. To the failure of sabbath observance I personally must plead a good deal of guilt. Covid is trying to offer a remedial course on how to observe the sabbath, how we might breath new life and perspective into our personal and communal lives and political practices and policies. How far can we go with the Covid as a positive opportunity for change without it also becoming only a memorial of loss, regret and resentment?
Assuming you have now taken the time to read my SEP, among your other intentions this day, please now take time to breathe deeply, long enough that you feel more open to the opportunities and tasks that wait for you this sabbath day.
Blessings and peace,
As a coda to my SEP this evening, I would like to share a statement on dismantling racism written out of worshipful reflection and discernment by our Whidbey Island Friends Meeting. Many of you have already seen this, but it is worth a second read.
Statement for Dismantling Racism: A Faithful Ethical and Moral Framework
Whidbey Island Friends Meeting (Quakers) has prepared a statement out of our faith tradition and worshipful discernment that establishes the basic principles that will guide and support our actions as we now engage ourselves and the wider public in response to our heightened need to deal with racism in our own lives and the life of our community and nation. We share our statement as an invitation to others to make a faithful commitment to dismantle the structural policies and personal ideas that perpetuate racism.
June 14, 2020 — Whidbey Island Friends Meeting (Quakers) joins with others across the nation in decrying the deaths of African-Americans through police violence that has specifically affected this portion of our population. We support the cry to stop the racial killings and address the underlying attitudes of white supremacy that perpetuate racial violence.
Our faith recognizes the equality and dignity of all humanity. We commit to confronting our own entanglement in racist systems and structures. We acknowledge the rage that fuels the protests and demands for justice. We will continue Quakers’ historic advocacy for racial justice through the practice of active nonviolence, which we believe offers a loving opportunity for healing the sin of racism for future generations.
It is equally important to develop an ethical and moral framework to provide an alternative vision that supports our work addressing the evils of oppressive discrimination. Toward that end Whidbey Friends invite all people to join us in a commitment to seek a society that:
• Teaches us to recognize, acknowledge and take action to heal our own racism.
• Protects human rights.
• Offers all persons the opportunity for their potential to be fulfilled.
• Is free from discrimination whether due to race, creed, gender, ethnic or
national heritage, age, sexual orientation, disability, or medical condition.
• Assures voting rights and a representative political voice.
• Transforms our criminal legal system and its pipeline-to-prison for people of color.
• Promotes educational, economic and employment opportunities.
• Offers medical care for all.
Whidbey Island Friends Meeting is holding in the Light the family of George Floyd and others killed and diminished by the immorality and injustice of racism in all its manifestations. We also are holding in the Light members of law enforcement, those in positions of power, and each and every one of us who have knowingly or unwittingly been part of the problem. We believe that the transformational power of love and forgiveness is vital—perhaps now more than ever—for wholeness and healing.