Saturday, May 14, 2011

An IPPY for "Community of Promise"

Sometimes life intrudes in surprising ways on anticipated schedules. Too often those intrusions are negative, but not always. I have been trying to post once a week, but just recently a couple of intrusions have modified my writing schedule a bit. I am just finishing my first semester of teaching “Psychology of Personal Growth” at the local community college. Wrap up has been a bit more intense than I anticipated. But the bigger reason for the delay in my blogging is cause for celebration. Community of Promise has just been awarded the 2011 IPPY Silver Medal in the Religious Fiction category of the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Later in the month, I will travel to the awards ceremony in New York City. I am very excited, and now I have to learn how to make use of this award for improved marketing and book sales.

If you are interested in more information about the 2011 IPPY Awards, click here.

I promise that I will return soon to the topic of thinking. I hope you understand that I just can’t think right now!!

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Effect of Ideology on Thinking

I wrote last week about the value of obtaining reliable statistical data as a resource for thinking. I added the qualification that one must understand where the data comes from and one must assess what is actually being measured by it. But of course, statistical data has never been the only source of available information. Take the example of political discourse. We hear about values-based information, decisions made as a “matter of principle,” information that is based in loyalty to a particular ideological perspective. While people may believe that their values, principles, and ideologies are “true,” their veracity is always difficult to determine. In the absence of proof for their foundational beliefs, such people rely on the affirmation that their beliefs about the world should be true. Perhaps such beliefs could be seen as matters of “faith.”

Beliefs based in faith are extremely difficult to challenge and almost impossible to discredit, because the very attempt communicates disloyalty to the purported source of the information. (The source might be seen as God or some beloved charismatic figure.) One example of this dynamic can be seen in the basis of libertarian doctrine. Much of the detail about this belief system appears to come from the protagonist in Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged. The idea of super benefit being fair compensation for superior creativity may make for good fiction, but the way a novel turns out cannot produce the same quality of useful data as properly constructed research might. I say this with the humility of a novelist. My novel expresses a particular point of view that may invite people to look at life and its possibilities differently, but in no way can it be seen as a source of reliable data. It has value for what it is, but using it like research data would be completely inappropriate.

The main defense against challenges to current libertarian philosophy usually takes the form of a statement like: “Well, if our politicians ever had the nerve to try it honestly and completely, they would discover that an economic system based in free-market deserving would certainly work!” While it is true that libertarian economics has never been tried fully, that does not serve as a reliable indicator of its legitimacy. Some data does exist indicating that the limited experiments in libertarian economics have been disastrous, and from that I conclude that it would be unconscionable to subject the entire economy to such a radical experiment. (Now, just in case you’re wondering, that last statement is my opinion, and it should not be used as fact just because I said it. If you take the time to evaluate available economic data, you can then think it through to your own conclusion.)

One the consequences of any ideologically based information is that it tends to be one-sided and selective. Such information is chosen to defend an established position rather than offer new understanding or perspective that can facilitate the process towards more comprehensive truth. I don’t believe that any of us are capable of filtering all ideology out of our thinking. We all select the data we will utilize, albeit unconsciously. To borrow a phrase, the goal here is progress, not perfection. As individuals, perhaps we need to take more care in scrutinizing and validating the information that is available, and perhaps we can be more courageous in the process of further illuminating reality. But as individuals we can take the process just so far before unavoidably we become overshadowed by our preconceived ideas or even our prejudices. So let’s consider how healthy community can help facilitate healthy thinking.

Adding the participation of a community to the thinking process must be done with great care. Sometimes communities enforce ideology and will attempt to discredit the brave individual who dares point at “the Emperor’s new clothes.” There is plenty of that going on today in the arenas of religion and politics. But communities also are capable of providing a much broader set of perspectives from which to produce and evaluate information. If the objective of the community is courageous exploration to illuminate truth rather than the preservation or enforcement of ideology, then community can support healthy thinking.

You may have noticed that I end each of my blog posts with some version of “This is how I see it; what do you think?” I rely on other perspectives to help me evaluate my sources of information and to help me think more clearly. It is obvious that I write from a particular perspective, one that I believe is useful. But I know that it is not the only perspective, nor is it the only useful one.

Finally, the healthy sharing of perspectives does not determine who is right and who is wrong. In this post, I am referring to sharing that is a different kind of act of faith. It is not about faith in a particular ideological position. Rather it embodies faith in a process that can evaluate available information and use it to fill out our understanding of reality. In short, this process invites us to experience and embrace deeper and more comprehensive truth. I think it is a good plan.

(OK, here it comes:) “This is how I see it, what do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”

My post next week will address how we can obtain and utilize information from the realms of personal experience, the emotions, intuition, and spirit in the service of a healthy thinking process.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Garbage In, Garbage Out

You probably already know (even if you forgot it for a while) that it is impossible to reach valid conclusions if you begin with unreliable information. So, how can you discern what information to trust, particularly in the areas of research-based sources, religious persuasion, political rhetoric, and advertising information?

Let’s begin with research. If you get information that is based in research, it must be true, right? Well, maybe if it’s scientific. Or maybe its truth depends on whether you understand how research-based conclusions work. For example, how can you be sure that the apparent conclusions actually measure what they say they measure? Furthermore, statistical data from scientific research can be used in a wide variety of ways and the same data can even seem to support opposite conclusions.

Let me give you an example of how confusing research-based statistical data can be. I was the chaplain in a state prison for a number of years from the mid 1970’s to the mid 1980’s. At least a part of my job was to provide “rehabilitative” opportunities to the inmates. A common measure for those who addressed the viability of prison and its rehabilitative programs was called the “recidivism rate.” Recidivism measures the tendency of released inmates to re-offend. Depending on the source of the information, you might discover that the recidivism rate was about 67%, or maybe 33%. If you were in favor of rehabilitative programs, you would tend to believe the lower number, but many who were not in favor of rehab programs typically used the higher number.

One of these numbers must be wrong, right?
(NOTE: these numbers are 30 years old, are probably no longer accurate, and are used only to illustrate a point about statistical data.) Well, actually both results were correct. Let me explain.

Let's begin with these two questions: how can these very different numbers possibly come from the same raw data, and what then might they mean? The difference in the numbers results from two different ways of measuring recidivism. If you had polled the new inmates as they arrived at prison, you would have discover that about 2/3 of them had been in prison before, but if you had followed the people released from prison over the following few years, you would have discovered that only about 1/3 of them would offend again.

So, is one measure of the recidivism rate more correct than the other? Not really, as long as you know what the given study was actually measuring. But even you know what is being measured, there remain many more layers of complexity that might need to be considered. For example, the recidivism rate only measures the rate of repeat prison sentences. It does not consider the relative severity of the crimes. What if most of the people who returned to prison had been newly convicted of a lesser crime than the time before? Or what if most were convicted of a more serious crime this time? Without any observable variation in the Recidivism Rate, you still might make an argument for or against the effectiveness of rehabilitation, but how reliable is your data. I could identify several additional factors that might affect the validity of the Recidivism Rate, but hope you get the point from this illustration: if you want to think clearly, research-based data must be used with great care.

In my non-scientific observation of how research-based data is used, particularly in the worlds of politics and advertising, it is seldom intended to offer reliable information that helps voters or consumers make a more informed choice among alternatives. Typically, (in my experience) the point of advertising and political discourse seems to be to direct the choice of the recipient in a predetermined direction. In short, the point of such communication is manipulation.

You might wonder if I am using this blog to manipulate your thinking and your choices. Well, considering that I am a product of this culture, probably so. But I don’t want to do that. I invite you, therefore, to call me on any perceived (though largely unintended) manipulations. My intentional objective, however, is to stimulate your thinking, not manipulate you toward specific conclusions.

In the spirit of honest disclosure, I do believe that manipulation is minimized when one participates in the give and take of information and perspective that is characteristic of healthy community. In community, we help keep one another honest, or at least more aware. So if I want any particular result from my blog, it is that you will grow in your understanding and appreciation of healthy community.

This is how I see it. What do you see from your perspective?

Wayne Gustafson
The Promised Land is within and among us.”

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Thinking and Community

I live in a community that makes decisions by means of a consensus process. Deciding by consensus requires people to think together, but while there are many positives about consensus, unfortunately, the process can get bogged down, and sometimes it just doesn’t work the way it is designed to work. At a superficial level, one might conclude that the process should be abandoned, but but I prefer making an attempt to observe the quality of thinking that goes into it. I hope that greater understanding about the nature of thinking can improve how it functions. Rather than writing specifically about thinking and consensus, I plan instead to write a series of more general posts about some of the elements of the thinking process. I hope that these reflections can be useful in any setting where thinking is required or is at least useful. I do not intend these posts to be an academic exercise. Rather, I will try to keep them at a practical level so we can all improve the clarity and validity of our thinking.

Many people know the first three words of M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled: “Life is difficult.” Peck later asserts in The Road Less Traveled and Beyond: Spiritual Growth in the Age of Anxiety that “Thinking is difficult.” (Page 24) I agree with him, and plan to write about why that is true and how we can learn to think more clearly.

The first of these posts will begin to address the complex question, “What is thinking?” My essays will not be dealing with how the brain functions, although that might be interesting, too. I will, instead, look at thinking more in terms of its functions.

The later posts on the topic will address the ever-present barriers to clear thinking: that is, what gets in the way, and what skews our thinking, often without our being aware that such modification of the process is even happening.

So, let’s begin to explore what it is to think. It the most basic level, thinking is the process of collecting relevant information, putting it through some kind of analytical process, and producing a conclusion that we take to be true. If only the process were as simple as those few defining words seem to imply.

If we are to think clearly, we must first consider the accuracy and scope of the information we employ, including the validity of our sources. When computers began to be used for analytical purposes, the validity of the process was determined by the clever slogan “Garbage in – Garbage out!” In other words, if a thinking process is to be valid – either by machine or by human mind – the informational raw material we use must be accurate and sufficiently comprehensive.

Once we have accumulated sufficient valid information that includes a mix of scientific and experiential/emotional data, then we must analyze it by means of a reliably logical process. It helps if we know what kinds of logic we are using. When we reach what we believe to be a valid conclusion, we must then consider the situational scope of our conclusions. This might include present/future considerations, gender, geography, and an understanding of what specific measures can determine the quality of our conclusions. For example, a conclusion can be financially valid and be morally bankrupt at the same time.

Here is a list of some of the topics I will address in subsequent weeks. I may address several in a given post.
Regarding what it is to think:
  • The ability to gather relevant information
  • The ability to acknowledge and accommodate competing values
  • The ability to see the scope of a particular position (e.g. regarding longevity and geography)
  • Problem solving is not the equivalent of thinking.
  • How wants and needs affect conclusions
  • Opinions and logical conclusions are not the same
  • How honest are thinkers about their self interest ?
  • How does your given moral framework affect your conclusions?
  • What are the underlying metaphors representing “truth,” and how do they affect the validity of conclusions
  • Recognizing that we seldom have enough information to generate completely true conclusions
  • New information should lead to modification of our conclusions.

I will then write about some the barriers to clear thinking:
  • My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts”
  • How emotionality (as distinguished from emotional experience) blocks the validity of conclusions
  • What if I must be right?
  • How credulous am I in collecting information?
  • How much faith do I have in my conclusions even if they turn out to be uncomfortable (or “inconvenient”)?

Well, this post gives you a glimpse of what is to come. I hope you enjoy the series. Please read and comment. Let’s think clearly together about these matters.

Wayne Gustafson
The Promised Land is within and among us.”

Friday, April 8, 2011


Last week I did not post in this blog because I was attending the annual conference of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors in Phoenix, AZ. Last summer, just after Arizona had passed what many believe to be a draconian immigration law, the planning committee for the conference considered boycotting Arizona. In consultation with some of the religious and community leaders of the Mexican population in Phoenix, the committee learned that neither the hotel nor the state would be impacted significantly by a boycott, but that the immigrant poor who work in the hotels and surrounding businesses would be hurt badly. (The hotel would still have received its $60,000 cancellation fee.) Local leaders pleaded with conference planners to come to Phoenix.

Instead of a boycott, the planning committee arranged for conference attendees to participate in an “immersion day” at a community center in the barrio section of Phoenix where we learned about the complexity of the issues and about the impact of immigration law and cultural prejudice on the lives of the people.

I want to tell you about what one of the speakers, The Rev. José Valenzuela, taught us about his experience of “Nepantla.” I will also comment on its effect on community. He described his experience of growing up in an Arizona town, made up primarily of Mexican laborers retaining its Mexican culture. He was an American citizen, but his whole world was rooted in Mexican culture and identity. When his father, a Christian minister, was called to a church in the white, affluent part of Phoenix, José moved with the family into a new world. As a result of the experience, he became too “white” to be fully embraced by the Mexican Community and was still too “Mexican” to be fully accepted in white society. He experienced this new place “in the middle” as a kind of hell. In time, he learned about an Aztec word that describes the place where he found himself: Nepantla. In this middle place, this “no person’s land,” he could not find acceptance either from the Mexican or the white communities and so he fell into shame and self-blaming as a result.

Rev. Valenzuela has since learned that he cannot expect his personal validation and acceptability to come from these communities. He learned that what felt like “no place,” “hell,” a place neither fully Mexican nor white, had this name, Nepantla. The name made it a real place for him and it became possible for him to affirm his identity as the real person he had become through his bi-cultural experience.

Does his ability to affirm himself as a Mexican-American then let the people in the two constituent communities off the hook? I don’t think so. It is grossly unfair (although predictable from the perspective of fear) for either Mexican or white people to expect him to be more “like them” than is possible. Perhaps the naming of “Nepantla” can help people in each community to embrace the identity of those who participate in both. The Mexican and white communities can help transform Nepantla from hell to a real place that is a legitimate home to real people.

Hell on earth is created by arbitrary conditions and expectations that are impossible to fulfill. Heaven on earth is created by embracing people in their diversity and being willing to learn from their unique perspectives and experience. To condemn and exclude people simply on the basis of some perceived deviation from an arbitrary definition of acceptability is the embodiment of a great evil. In the short term, such evil creates hell for many people, particularly those who find themselves in Nepantla. But in the long run, the resultant destruction of the fabric of community creates hell for all of us.

It may be that all people experience some form of Nepantla: between adolescence and adulthood, between gay and straight, between sacred and secular, and between the old country and the new whenever our ancestors immigrated here, for example.

I invite us to recognize this systemic evil and by our loving acceptance of one another, however different or “mixed” we may be, put a stop to it.

This is how I see it. What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”

(The Rev. José Roberto Valenzuela is pastor of Alleluia Lutheran Church in Phoenix. He has written and lectured extensively on issues of culture and race in the Church and within the United States. He can be contacted at

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Compliance, Creativity, and Community

Many models exist that purport to describe the structure and functioning of a healthy community. To some degree, the diversity in the models can be attributed, at least in part, to the point of view of whoever has the power to define health and success for community participants. The preponderance of existing models are grounded in hierarchical structures, so that the accepted view is typically from the top down.

To illustrate: Much of religious thought posits a god “above” who determines what is best for all “below.” Such a god’s earthly representatives assume the superior position and promulgate the terms of morality and social success to those deemed inferior. That inferior group would include the rest of us. I might add, parenthetically, that these earthly representatives of the divine also assume the right to determine the use and fate of our planet, too.

Persons and groups with economic, political, or social power tend to replicate the top-down pattern of authority. (Corporations and super-wealthy individuals, kings and others with political power, and strict fathers, respectively.)

All who inhabit these superior positions assume as truth that they actually possess the vision, knowledge, and even wisdom to determine what is best for everyone else. With few exceptions, this model continues to hold sway in the present. Any person or group that attempts to challenge or de-legitimize this hierarchy of “benevolent dictators” is in for a fight.

There are many examples of creative, grass-roots movements and activities that have challenged the hierarchical status quo. Sadly, for the most part, they have ended up, either defeated, or more typically, co-opted into the prevailing model. Early Christianity, for example, was a threat to the culture of the Roman Empire, not because it represented some rival dominant power, but because the egalitarian nature of its community structure rendered unnecessary the prevailing pursuit of upward mobility. Because the Empire traded in coercive power, it could not countenance any system that devalued its might. The Empire eventually prevailed, not by destroying Christianity, but by embedding its own hierarchical power structure into the organization of the Church.

Several centuries later, The Protestant Reformation effectively challenged the Church’s presumption to divine power, and instead located that power in the faithful relationship between the the individual and the divine. Still, the system maintained the power structure by establishing the Bible as the incontrovertible word of the divine Father (up there!). The dominant power of interpretation simply re-rooted itself in new ecclesiastical structures.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the college-educated (G.I Bill?) middle class challenged the political and economic power structure of the “military-industrial complex,” particularly around the questionable morality of the War in Viet Nam. So, what subsequently happened to the energy of that extraordinary era of political activism? It appears to me that it got “bought off” by the lure of a kind of consumerism that kept people so focused on making money for their increasing standard of living (meaning, toys?) that there was no longer time left for nurturing or developing the capacity for ethical reflection. Wealth tends to speak with arrogance, teaching all other people and cultures that their cultural inheritance is less important than what they should be able to buy. At the same time, the power structure has put relentless pressure on our educational institutions, making them function more as skilled worker generators and less as places where people learn to think (or reflect on practical applications of ethics and morality).

For a time in the 20th Century, liberation theology and feminist theology began to have growing influence on public opinion with regard to the needs of historically disenfranchised groups. But the prevailing power structure continues to work very hard to undermine the legitimacy of such a position (no matter what Jesus said about faithful responsibility to the poor). There still exist creative proponents of these unorthodox positions, but world events in the realms of economics, climate change, and natural disasters have served to distract us all from the deeper issues that might turn out to be more relevant to our long term well being and even survival.

Each of the above examples has articulated a perspective different from the hierarchical model of dominance. The power of love in community, the spirituality of the individual, the moral and ethical perspective of those who are forced to pay for wars that do not reflect their personal ethics, and the valuable experience of the world’s disenfranchised groups each give us unique and useful ways to determine and assess the elements of healthy community.

In short, it appears that radical creativity is the enemy of compliance. I wonder, given the state of the world, if we will teach our children simply to comply and fit into the existing system or if we will encourage their creativity and capacity for a healthier vision.

What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Finding Hope and Vision in a Troubled World

Is it getting more difficult for you to watch the news? It is for me.
My problem is not that bad things happen in the world. Earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, and collapsing economic systems are really old news. The record of history shows that such events have happened constantly somewhere in the world for millenia. My problem with the news today is the difficulty in finding any compelling or fundamentally hopeful vision through all the dust and smoke kicked up by present events. Yes, we hear about outpourings of generosity in response to disasters, and we hear about the resilience of the human spirit, but those expressions seem to deal with a relatively superficial morality. To my mind, such rhetorical flourishes don’t rise to the stature of truly hopeful vision.

I find myself feeling scared and then angry at the state of the world – not at the natural disasters; those will happen; but at the general lack of profound reflection about the quality of community we might be capable of creating for ourselves – the kind of community that can maintain resilience in the face of crisis. In my anger, it’s tempting to point fingers in an attempt to identify who is to blame for this mess. It is no real surprise that blaming never really works, though according to Family Systems Theory the tendency to cast anxious blame in the face of crisis is normal enough. I find myself wondering if the time has come for me to throw up my hands in despair? Shall I toss a lifetime of optimism into the dustbin where it can hobnob with the rest of life’s disasters? Certainly, that is one option. But before doing it, perhaps I should explore exactly what I would be throwing away with my optimism.

If I choose to remain optimistic, it is necessary to determine the direction of my optimism. I have to figure out what vision operates as the foundation for my hope. I am reminded of all the high school valedictory speeches over the years that have exhorted fresh-faced graduates to create “a better world in which to live.” (The grammar of that phrase has never sounded quite right.) Still, that concept intrigues me: A better world! A better world? Better, how?

What is the direction of “better?” And is it possible to couch such a direction in profoundly hopeful vision rather than stale political rhetoric?

Humanity has always created (or discovered) visions that have been adopted by diverse cultures, often articulated and promulgated by charismatic figures. Too often, the power of the leader overwhelms the vision itself, and if it is being promoted on behalf of those in power, the vision can obscure, if not obfuscate, the often greedy self interest of the promoters.

Given these questions, I find myself wondering what validates any particular vision. Are some visions, then, better than others, or do the visions that find practical success merely reap the benefit of more effective promotion? Perhaps in this postmodern world where everything is subject to deconstruction, the variety of visions can all find themselves in the proverbial column with the heading: “There’s no accounting for taste.” Can all of our visions be reduced to the most potent combination of cleverness, intimidation, and wishful thinking (sometimes referred to as “false hope”)? Or can we evaluate our visions with more depth and creativity than that. The rest of this essay looks at some potential evaluative measures for our visions.
Here are three:
  • Does a vision deal with real people who face real life issues? Many of the visions that have emerged and held sway over the millenia have done so in conjunction with religion: “The Peaceable Kingdom,” and “The Promised Land” from Judaism; “The Kingdom (or Realm) of God” from Christianity; and “Nirvana” from Buddhism to name a few. Many visions are essentially worldly, some are otherworldly, and some don’t have a “world” view at all. How does "worldliness" affect the usefulness of our visions?
  • How does the relationship of the individual to the collective affect the usefulness of the vision? Visions vary enormously in how they deal with the individual in relationship to the collective. At one extreme is the importance of the survival of the individual or immediate family at all costs. At the other end of the spectrum is the value of individual sacrifice on behalf of the greater (collective) good. Some visions connect the extremes by positing the notion that healthy individuals make healthy communities and healthy communities foster the growth and development of healthy individuals. 
  • How important is it for a vision to be “forward-looking?” Some visions look at potential well-being in the short term only, while others promote a deep concern for the future, “even to the seventh generation.”

Putting it all together, what vision(s) inform(s) your life and your economic, relational, and political stances? And if you find hope in your vision, what does it look like when you evaluate it by the above three criteria?

I would be interested in your answers to these questions, and I assume that others who read this blog would be interested as well.

I hope you will let us know what you think.

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Putting Wealth and Community into Perspective

Well, big money wins again! Once again, the the wealthy are prospering and the rest of us are fighting over the crumbs. I read a disheartening statement in the news today. The article, by Geoff Mulvihill is called “Anger brews over government workers' benefits” reports, among other things, that government employees actually do have a slightly better economic deal than private sector workers. Here’s what the article says:
National data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that public-sector workers do better when it comes to pensions and benefits.
As of last September, professional and management workers in the private sector were making $34.91 in hourly salary; public sector professionals made $33.17 an hour.
The government entities spent 1.7 times as much on health care per employee-hour worked and nearly twice as much on retirement costs. Public-sector workers — who are more often represented by unions — are far more likely to have defined-benefit pensions with promises to pay for the retirees' whole lives.

So, here’s the deal: private sector workers make slightly more and public sector workers have better benefits. If we look exclusively at this data, we might be able to make a case for some adjustment. But first, let’s put these figures into some perspective.

Consider this: The richest 400 people in the country have a combined worth of about 1.37 Trillion dollars. That deserves a WOW, but there is an even more significant figure than that. Between 2009 and 2010 the net worth of our 400 wealthiest increased by 8%. First of all, who among the private or public sectors got an 8% raise between 2009 and 2010? In order to put the middle class wage struggle in perspective, let’s assume that 8% is the income for a year of the wealthiest 400.
An 8% increase from $1.27 trillion of $1.37 trillion is about $101.5 billion. That’s about $254 million for each of them.

There are 52 40-hour weeks in a year. So $254 million divided by 2080 hours per year shows us that each of our 400 wealthiest people made $121,995 per hour!!!!!!!!!!

(Someone might argue that the wealthy work hard for their money, so let’s assume, again for the sake of perspective that they work every available hour, never sleeping or taking any kind of a break from work. There are 24 hours times 365 days in a year, or 8760 hours. This means that this group makes $28967 per hour for every hour of the year! If the average worker’s whole economic package is about $50 per hour for 2080 hours per year, consider that the wealthy make more than 2400 times the amount the rest of us make in the same number of hours! (Try putting your own economic numbers into the calculation and see how you fare.)

Now, I ask you, given this obscene disparity, why should the $33 and $34 dollar per hour workers be encouraged to fight with each other about who has the better deal.

So Wayne, you might ask, what does this have to do with community? Well, in the political arena, it appears that the wealthy retain their power in part by fomenting a political situation that makes the rest of us enemies of each other as we fight over the economic crumbs. How can we ever build community when we are manipulated into such an adversarial relationship with the very people who should be our allies against a grossly unjust system? As long as we maintain our narrow focus on the tiny differences between the public and private sector, we will never even see the much more significant elements of systemic injustice.

That’s how I see it. What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”

Friday, February 25, 2011

Economic Struggles and Healthy Communities

I think everyone would agree that the news stories around the world are pretty startling. The battle over union rights in Wisconsin and the challenge to despotic governments in the Middle East and Northern Africa lead the list. While there are many perspectives that people use to understand and comment on these events, my perspective is that of healthy community. Very often political conflicts get framed as a battle between factions over the distribution of the economic pie. Clearly, that is a significant factor in Wisconsin as well as in Egypt, Libya, and other nations and states that find themselves in turmoil and upheaval. I certainly agree that economic distribution is a vital topic and a meaningful perspective, but it is not the only one, and ultimately it might not be the most important factor to consider as we try to figure out a healthy response to present conflicts.

Given the scope of this essay, I will confine my remarks to the situation in America (presently being played out on the Wisconsin political stage), although some of what I have to say may translate into other arenas as well. The distribution of wealth is important, but it sometimes causes people to confuse “standard of living” with “quality of life.” Quality of life requires healthy community and ample tolerance, if not respect, for the diversity within that community. I think that the rise of the American middle class has promoted healthier community and diversity, but their contribution to community has been far more than just their increased power as consumers. They have promoted creativity and myriad opportunities for people to be creative and relate to one another.. When we focus too much on economics and not enough on the elements of healthy community, we lose our most potent motivating force, and our lives become impoverished in every way. But let’s talk first about the economic situation.

My particular bias is that the economic disparity has swung way too far in the direction of corporations and the super wealthy, but even if political pressure eventually results in swinging the pendulum back towards the people, we are still left with a highly adversarial situation. If power to get one’s way is the only consideration, then the “other side” will always be preparing to push back. I think it is fair to say that since Franklin Roosevelt responded to the Depression by enabling the populous to get an economic foothold, thereby allowing the rise and empowerment of the middle class, the corporate wealthy have been pushing back. Certainly since the Reagan era, the middle class has consistently had its economic foundation undermined. And now, the economic right wing is planning to put the final “nail in the coffin” of middle class power by destroying the unions. If that is successful, then all the power will be with the corporate interests of the wealthy. It seems likely that those who are impoverished by the unrelenting tyranny of the wealthy will probably be motivated to respond in some way. Remember, push-back can go in both directions, but I question if the push for economic fairness alone is enough to restore a healthier community.

While I think the complete victory of corporate interests would be a dire outcome, most obviously in economic terms, my greater concern is that it virtually eliminates the possibility of having a healthy community. It makes ordinary working families, the ones that used to make up an educated and engaged segment of the community, into mere cogs in the corporate machine, with the benefits accruing only the wealthiest people. As bad as impoverishment is (and it is very bad, indeed,) it seems to me that dehumanizing and mechanizing people is much worse and can only act like a cancer, destroying the very body that is necessary for survival.

In Northern Africa and the Middle East, the political upheaval is fueled by people who have been systematically mechanized by their despotic leaders. I am embarrassed to say that America has benefited economically from our support of those despotic governments. (It’s about the oil, remember.) And, now the cancer of economic despotism is targeting us as well. Unless we can restore the sense of community and mutuality than any healthy body needs, we are doomed. Already, money has turned a large proportion of the political world against the very people they are presumably elected to serve. How long can it be before the “community’s immune system” reacts or even over-reacts. Violence is often the last resort of those who have no power and no hope. Please don’t interpret my last remark as promoting or justifying violence. In my opinion violence seldom if ever helps. Usually it makes matters worse. But if you remove all other means for people to survive, violence may be the only response left.

Given this scenario, do you think we will be able to go back to treating one another with the respect that is appropriate for fellow human beings, or are we doomed to be mechanized economic consumers whose only fate is ultimately to be consumed?

I am worried. What about you?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

Friday, February 18, 2011

Family Systems Theory, Anxiety, and the Political Divide

I have found Family Systems Theory (FST) provides a most useful frame of reference for many of life’s dynamic and perhaps confusing situations. FST makes particular use of the function of anxiety in a system, demonstrating that the level of dysfunction in a system is directly related to its level of unprocessed anxiety. In my opinion, anxiety flooded systems have a hard time making wise decisions.

While the timing of dynamics may vary with the size of the system, the basic principles still apply. Anxiety has the same function in a whole country or culture as it does in a nuclear family. We live in a culture that is flooded with anxiety from a variety of sources. Some of it comes from the fundamentally dangerous nature of our current world. Danger from violence is the most easily identified source of our collective anxiety, but financial uncertainties and the cultural value of rugged individualism adds considerably to the mix. Furthermore, our arbitrary standards of “excellence” and productivity cause everything, and everyone, to be measured and compared. Can anything create any more systematic anxiety than that?

We can ask a couple of important questions about the anxiety problem:
  1. Who benefits from the prevalence of high levels of anxiety in our communities? And
  2. Is anxiety simply a natural consequence of our economic and cultural structure, or is it purposefully generated for unethical purposes?
For starters, it is apparent that anxiety generates lots of revenue. People don’t like to be anxious, so they will buy whatever product or service promises to reduce it. On the surface, it seems perfectly legitimate for a business to address such social distress, but of course, we need to ask whether the preferred remedy addresses the source of the anxiety or simply its symptomatic expression. Many remedies that work primarily at the symptomatic level can be addictive, physically, emotionally, or both. In that case, the remedy succeeds in creating more anxiety-based demand for the product or service. It is conceivable that some business interests might do this “in good faith,” honestly believing that what they sell is only valuable to consumers and is in no way dangerous to them. It also appears true that the more money is on the line, the greater the temptation to keep levels of anxiety artificially high.

While the above may be interesting, what does it have to do with the problem of the political divide?

It would be simple to conclude that the political right, with its obvious bias toward corporate interests, would have the greatest motivation to keep anxiety high. While the political left seems to champion the well-being of the people, it is unclear to me whether the left really addresses anxiety’s source, or if it, too, offers superficial, symptom-oriented solutions to troubled people, albeit unintentional.

What is crystal clear to me is that the two sides spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and money railing at each other about the shortcomings of the “enemy” position. Unless both sides can look more deeply at the sources of anxiety and not just symptomatic expressions and remedies, we will get nowhere. Of course, in the meantime, lots of money is still being made on goods and services. Hmmm?

That’s the dilemma as I see it. What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Moral Development and the Political Divide

There is no question that the human mind is capable of astounding levels of growth and development, particularly in the realm of the intellect and the exercise of ingenuity. Since the beginning of the industrial age, the advances in technology to create tools for living demonstrates just how clever we can be. Today, I want to consider if we are capable of a comparable development in our moral/ethical foundations

In my opinion, moral and ethical development has lagged so far behind our intellectual development that we risk becoming overwhelmed, if not controlled, by our creations. (I am reminded of the popular sci-fi theme about robots taking over the world and destroying or enslaving their creators.) In some ways, Western culture’s mad pursuit of the latest gadget has distracted us and has tied up the energy necessary for the development of a healthier moral/ethical structure.

Before going any further with this thought, I want to clarify what I mean by moral/ethical. Too often, the idea of morality is used in a superficially judgmental way, resulting in what could be called “moralism.” Moralistic judgments are usually pointed at someone else’s behavior without benefit of sufficient context or experience. For example: It is being moralistic when a heterosexual person proclaims that homosexuality is wrong (or right, for that matter) without any knowledge about what it is like to experience same gender sexual orientation. There are even cases where people point moralistic judgments at themselves based on an arbitrary code of behavior without taking their own inner experience into proper account.

While moralistic codes may have the power to enforce behavioral compliance in a group, they do not build community. In my judgment, moralistic judgments actually undermine community. Clearly these last two statements reveal my bias: that building healthy community is a more worthwhile goal for humanity than enforcing behavioral compliance to arbitrary rules. A significant part of building healthy community involves the creation of a moral/ethical foundation that can grow as needed to balance our technological advances and to feed our souls and communities in ways that are impossible for technology. There’s that word “moral” again. Healthy morality is not the same as being moralistically judgmental. Healthy morality must be based on something other than rigid lists of dos and don’ts. Healthy morality, just like healthy community, must find a foundation in compassion and connection. Healthy morality is fundamentally relational.

The central question in this essay involves whether or not humanity is capable of growing and developing beyond moralism. I am particularly interested in how the development of a healthy morality is necessary to mitigate the excesses of the present world of politics. I am aware of two factors, at least, that can promote moral development. The first is time. Often the adolescent world view is relatively amoral, but people grow out of that view and into adulthood. The same process happens in groups, but the larger the group, the slower the process. Also, some people do not make it out of adolescence for a variety of reasons, and it is still not certain whether we will have time to outgrow our cultural adolescence. The second factor that can promote moral development is having to face consequences. The world is filled with challenges, and it could be argued that much of what we face is due to our cultural adolescent reactivity and lack of foresight. As we learn to deal with the effects of global warming, of the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and the fragility of the world economy and delivery systems for food and other necessities, we may discover a deeper moral foundation that demonstrates how connected we all are to each other and to the planet.

Clearly, we cannot simply wait for the “culture” to grow up. Healthy systems to some degree are products of healthy individuals who are capable of mutuality and non-coerciveness in their relationships. While I do not promote individualism (any more than moralism), individuals are still capable of maturing themselves. I would suggest that we each take responsibility for our ongoing moral development (none of us have yet arrived at full development because it is a lifelong process). I suggest that we develop the courage and ability not to be reactive to the reactivity around us. And finally, I suggest that we resist the temptation to think in a one-sided way about the political issues that have become so divisive.

I suggest a book that, while written for religious congregations, helps to define healthy, morally developed leadership: Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Remaining Calm and Courageous, No Matter What by Peter Steinke and also, A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman.

Among other things, these books remind us that we need not be alone when we assume our responsibility as individuals to grow into adulthood.

This is how I see it. What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
The Promised Land is within and among us."
Community of Promise

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Political Discourse and Images of God

Theological reflection can be used in a wide variety of ways. In many quarters it has gotten a bad name because of the way it sometimes makes apparently authoritative statements about the meaning of life’s events and its constituent parts (people, for example). The use of theology in this essay does not travel the authoritarian road, although I may imply something about the nature of that road. I am suggesting that how we see (or image) “God” has a direct influence on how we “do” politics.

Let me begin by articulating a few common images of God. The first one I call the “Santa Claus God.” According to this image, God is “making a list and checking it twice, going to find out who’s naughty and nice.” Furthermore, God brings good things to those who are deserving and visits lumps of coal (pollution and all) on those who are not deserving. To this “God,” obedience and good behavior are the highest values.

The second image of God is the “Genie in the Lamp (or Bottle).” According to this image, God’s role is to respond to direct requests, perhaps even orders, for whoever has the ability to rub the lamp properly. If you are among the uneducated or unskilled in “lamp rubbing,” or don’t have enough faith, then too bad for you.

A third image of God is an image most often described by the biblical prophets: God is like a nurturing mother who cares deeply for all “her” children. This “God” demands that her more affluent children carry out their responsibility to help the poorer ones.

A fourth image (that’s enough for now) sees God, not in human terms at all. This God is love, connection, relationship itself. The very principle of connectedness is divine.

Now that we have these four very different ways of conceptualizing or imaging God, lets return to Paul Krugman’s articulation of the “Two Moralities”(the full article can be found at
Once again, here is how Krugman defines our present political split:
One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state – a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net – morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

So, which of the images of God would you say is embodied in each “morality?”

Rather that answering the question myself, I invite you to try it yourselves. Use the comment button below to give your answer. Let’s begin a discussion about the possibilities. Our sharing should prove to be rich and informative.

You might be wondering about the purpose of this exercise. It is my hope that we can use conversations like these to get underneath the divide and develop a clearer understanding of the more obvious and often intransigent positions. There is much on the line in our political world today. And money is only one measure of our stake. Our very ability to continue to live and thrive on the planet is at risk and is in no way guaranteed. It may be that quality of life becomes a more useful measure than standard of living as we assess the success or failure of our grand political experiment.

Let the conversation begin!

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Political Discourse and Projection of the Shadow

As I promised last week, here is the next in a series of essays that attempt to identify ways to dialogue creatively about the present political divide. I will make use of several perspectives over the next few weeks to help us excavate a deeper and hopefully more comprehensive understanding of this intractable issue. I begin with an “archetypal” perspective in this essay.

No theorist is ever completely “right.” Inevitably, gaps in understanding a theory will exist and some speculations will turn out to be flat out wrong. Given that disclaimer, I want to credit Carl Jung for shining a useful light onto much of human experience, both on the experience of the individual and on the nature of relationship, when he wrote about the archetypal nature of reality.

An archetype can be seen as a symbol that carries a more complete meaning for human experiences and interactions than is easily seen. An archetype always represents a kind of wholeness, at least theoretically. But in actual practice, we tend to notice only the parts of an experience that we like, and we ignore (meaning, remain unconscious of) the parts that we do not like and do not want to accept as belonging to our personal being or experience. (Of course, there are some people who always notice the bad parts and leave the more pleasant parts in the unconscious realm.) Either way, the wholeness of reality always includes that which is conscious and that which remains unconscious.

So, what does this archetypal perspective have to do with the political divide? The answer becomes evident when we look at what happens to the unconscious part of the archetypal experience. According to Jung’s understanding, the unconscious part (the part of the experience we don’t want to own) still belongs to our reality whether we accept it or not. Jung referred to those unconscious contents of the archetype as its shadow – or I could call it “our” individual or collective shadow. Because all parts of the archetype will necessarily manifest in some way eventually, we need to identify where and how the shadow shows itself. Jung demonstrated that we tend to “project” parts of ourselves and our experience that we do not “own” onto other people. Think of an old movie projector. The film is in the projector; the light shows through it, but the picture is seen out on the screen, perhaps quite far away from the projector. If we simply conclude that the picture exists “out there” we typically do not imagine that what we see actually comes from us. We human beings function as the “screens” for one another’s projections – at least for the ones that loosely resemble similar characteristics in ourselves.

Assuming that Jung’s archetypal theory is true enough, let’s look once again at Paul Krugman’s articulation of the “Two Moralities”(the full article can be found here)
He defines the political split in this way:
One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state – a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net – morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.
Now, here is where this process gets difficult. Our job is to see the shadow side of each of these statements and see how that shadow is then “projected” onto the other. (This does not mean that all statements have equal value, either practically or morally. It is only to say that conversation is more useful if we can see the potential short-comings of our own position and the potential benefits of the other. Without such an admission, there can be no conversation at all.) By the way, it is always easier to see our adversary’s shadow than it is to see our own.

When we look at the shadow side of Krugman’s first statement, we might see that the practice of “welfare” can deal with material needs without ever promoting the growth, healing, or motivation of the recipient. Welfare, as helpful as it might be, also brings with it the danger of fostering more dependency. When that shadow is projected, it looks like the position of the other side hurts the very people who need help. It can objectify them and inadvertently restrict their freedom.

The second statement has a shadow side, too. Whatever that side “earns” in an atmosphere of “freedom” has to come from somewhere, and often the laws that support that kind of earning give a disproportional advantage to those who already have money. Said differently, laws always help some people and restrict the freedom of others So, that side can accuse the other of restricting their freedom while ignoring how much their freedom restricts the freedom of others.

These shadow statements are just examples. We could find other manifestations of the shadow in each of the statements.

The archetypal perspective implies that the only power we have to bring more health and well being to our discourse comes from looking honestly at our own shadow side, dealing with those realities humbly, so we can see reality more fully. I believe, and archetype theory implies, that every good plan comes with a cost. Our ability to make good choices depends on keeping those costs in our conscious awareness. If, however, we remain unconscious of the costs, surely our adversaries will throw them in our collective faces, but not in a way that we can own and integrate them into our decisions.

Jung once wrote that the most important thing anyone could do to promote world peace was for each individual to deal with the personal shadow. This approach requires us to have some appropriate humility, but perhaps the gain in community health turns out to make it a good deal for all.

We find lots of resistance to looking at the shadow side or our own position, perhaps because so much energy goes into vilifying the adversary’s shadow and denying the value of the adversary’s stated position. If winning the next election and remaining in power is the only value driving the process, the possibility of identifying and integrating the shadow is practically impossible. It is even more impossible if each side is waiting for the other to make the first overture towards wholeness.

I don’t know how to foster the archetypal perspective in current political discourse, but we can all start with ourselves. We’re not talking about nuclear disarmament here, but the stakes are almost as high. Let’s get to work. Withdraw those projections and integrate them into your wholeness.

You may think there are shadowy implications in this essay, but it represents the way I see things.
How about you?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Healthy Community and the Political Divide

Any culture (ours included) sets the stage for what people learn to expect from their communities. In our culture, we hear about the importance of volunteerism, civic duty, charitable giving, and patriotism all the time. What we don’t hear enough about (in my not so humble opinion) is relationship. I have come to believe that our most common (and not sufficiently explored) cultural value is individualism, and, further, that even all our talk about community ultimately rests on the spirit of (rugged?) individualism. I understand individualism to mean that individuals shouldn’t need anyone, and we certainly shouldn’t have to worry about the well being of anyone beyond our own small group (if even that far). It could be argued that our individualism has brought us to the extreme political divide that has hamstrung our political process. Even the groups with which we affiliate are energized by the spirit of individualism in the sense that only one group can be “right” or “powerful,” so the strategy for survival necessarily devolves into the elimination of “the other.” Clearly, such a strategy leaves no room for relationship. Even compromise is not about relationship. Compromise is a political strategy designed to get the best possible deal for “our side.” That the other side might get something out of the process of compromise is simply a distasteful political reality – a necessary loss, if you will. In no way does political compromise imply any concern for the well being of the other side.

Upon that foundation, I plan to write a series of essays on the foundational issues in our culture, beginning with the existing political divide. I found Paul Krugman’s editorial, “A Tale of Two Moralities,” published on January 13, 2011 to be a useful entry point. (click here for the full article)
He defines the political split in this way:
One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state – a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net – morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

It seems to me he has described the divide clearly and succinctly. If we continue the discussion at that level, however, there can be no resolution because the positions appear to be mutually exclusive. All that is left, then, is a political tug of war between pretty even sides where the slightest majority translates into winner takes all.
If we move down a level and look at the foundational ideas underneath the divide, we might find some possible ways through the apparent stand-off. The interplay between individualism and relationship as mentioned above can be useful. Along with that, several other perspectives could help us. So over the next couple of months, I will write at least some of my posts on the issue of the American Political Divide. I will look at the foundational issues from perspectives like The Archetype Theory of Carl Jung (particularly with reference to the projection of the shadow onto one’s adversaries), Moral Development Theory, Practical Theology, and Family Systems Theory.
If you think this sounds too academic, dry, and yes, boring, I will try to connect each of these perspectives with human experiences that you can relate to. My purpose is empowerment, not simply academic interest.
Remember, this blog’s purpose is to address issues related to healthy community. I hope to identify some useful and manageable approaches to our current political and cultural dilemmas. I plan to learn a lot and I hope you will join me.

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rhetoric, Abuse, and Community

I’ve been reading a lot in the last few days as politicians, pundits, and most of the rest of us try to make sense of the senseless shootings in Tuscon last Saturday. Writers from the “left” vilify the incendiary language of the “far right” (including their talk-radio spokespersons). Writers from the right vilify the “left’s” exploitation of the tragedy for political ends.

You can probably guess how easy it would be for me to jump on the bandwagon, and fueled by my own political leanings and perspectives, add my angry reactions to the boiling pot of public discourse. I would have no trouble finding enough angry energy to sharpen my words and aim them at what I perceive as the vulnerable places in my adversaries. While such an approach might feel satisfying in some personal way, I choose to address the issue from a very different foundation.

No, I’m not going to say that all sides are equally to blame and that everyone should just cool the rhetoric – at least while we are still grieving. Rather, I want to challenge the very idea of rhetoric’s practical persuasive purpose – to “induce belief or action” in others. The operative word here is “induce.” Let’s remember that induction is not designed to help people connect with their deepest values so that their behavior expresses their integrity. Nor does it invite people into a conversation or dialogue to help them learn, grow, or explore the depth of truth collaboratively.

No, induction’s purpose is to replace “your” integrity with “my” idea of what you should believe and how you should behave. Induction is the exercise of power over others so that their beliefs and actions will conform to the standard I (the powerful one) set for you. As I see it, rhetoric (as it is commonly employed), persuasion, and induction are fundamentally abusive and violent!

Do you think I’m overstating the case? Perhaps so, but not according to my general definition of abuse: “treating persons as objects.” It’s not hard to see plenty of that going on around us all the time, in families, schools, churches, businesses, the media, and certainly in the political arena. Words like “democrat,” “republican,” “liberal,” “conservative,” and particularly, “enemy,” and “terrorist” are used as “object designators,” not as terms of respect between persons. And we could add “consumer” and “potential vote” to the list of objectifying terms.

In my counseling practice I have learned that not only can people be taught to think of themselves as objects, but, it seems to me, most people in our culture are taught to see themselves as objects. If what I have said is accurate, then rhetoric helps create objects and it helps support a system where abusive treatment is the coin of the realm.

I suppose you are wondering what the connection is between the uses and purposes of rhetoric and my stated objective to write about community in this blog.

Consider this: communities cannot be made up of objects; they can only be populated by people! Persons! Souls! And to use more overtly theological language, communities are populated by unique expressions of the divine image! It troubles me deeply that our culture has made people into objects and has made corporations into people.

What do you think our so-called communities would look like if we saw others (and our own selves, for that matter) as persons, not objects? Perhaps this is our generation’s most challenging task:
to believe in the inherent worth of persons (whether we like their politics or not);
to respect persons (whether we think they deserve our respect or not);
to look for divinity in everyone we encounter (including enemies and other “despicable types”);
and to use our “power” in the service of a healthy whole rather than objectifying and abusing people with it. (See Bernard Loomer’s article, “Two Conceptions of Power”)

As I see it, healthy spirituality attends respectfully to connection and mutuality while rhetoric, persuasion, and induction are fundamentally violent because they are objectifying. There is no question in my mind that our culture teaches us to solve our problems either by overt violence or by more subtle induction. It is no surprise to me when overt violence bursts out of a culture that teaches violent communication.

If you’re interested in pursuing this idea further, I recommend the book “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life” by Marshall Rosenberg. A lot of work is needed to create healthier communities. Using more life-affirming language in place of rhetoric can only help.

This is how I see it, what about you?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Compassion and Community

I have been writing in this blog about community from a variety of perspectives. It is a complex, broad, and interesting topic. While community can be examined as a sociological phenomenon or as simply a practical survival technique, it is so much more than that. Any explorations into the foundations and motivations for community demonstrate both its complexity and its elegance. Such deep reflection on community unavoidably exposes its theological dimensions and moves the discussion beyond socio­economic principles like the generally practiced belief that individuals, acting in their own self-interest, will somehow create a fair and just society for everyone.

That approach reminds me of the scientific understanding of matter that held sway during the Enlightenment: small but discrete billiard balls that interact with each other according to the laws of motion and that combine with one another according to strict chemical laws. From Einstein on, modern science, including nuclear physics, has shown us that such a simplistic understanding is inadequate. There are no discrete “atomic” particles, and furthermore, the smaller an observed particle is, the more indistinguishable it is from energy. Additionally, particles seem to “relate” to one another, almost as if they “mattered” to one another. Quite a few “field theories” have emerged from these scientific observations. Field theories point to the depth of connection and influence we have with one another, no matter how unseen or unconscious.

I contend that a similar broadening of our thinking will be necessary for us to understand the nature of community, and to develop in our ability to embody healthier communities. For the sake of this essay, I will assume that the quality of “mattering” is akin to divine presence. (Just to be clear, I am not assuming the divine to mean some other worldly “person” who lives in “heaven” and who intervenes in life in response to human petition.) I am looking from the other way around. This concept of interaction and mutual influence that goes far beyond the mindless smashing of billiard balls is both mysterious and awe-inspiring. How mutual “mattering” plays out can also be paradoxical, like the concept of “enlightened self-interest” where the activity of doing good for “the collective” is ultimately good for the individual.

One way to think about what I have referred to as “mattering” is by clarifying the idea of compassion. Jesus says: “Be compassionate as your God is compassionate.” While this may be a stretch, I read this to mean that compassion is “divine.”

My question I am working on is two-fold: What does compassion mean? And can it be fostered in individuals and communities?

In many sacred texts, compassion goes together with love and mercy. One could say that “Agape (one of the Greek words for love is “an attitude of unconditional good will towards others,” Compassion is “the inner experience of that attitude,” and Mercy is “the outward expression of love/compassion”. As I think about it, Compassion might be the “animating force” that manifests the idea of love into acts of mercy. Compassion is the means by which agape lives in us and from which it is expressed. So, I wonder how can we increase our capacity to experience and embody divine compassion?

If we simply employ “rational self-interest,” we jump from the idea of a caring community directly to the “good” acts that we believe create that community’s environment. While this equation may make logical sense, I think it is hard to sustain in practice. The development of compassion may provide the inner motivation, the energy if you will, so that we will be able to create and nurture ever healthier communities.

It seems to me, also, that compassion is a necessary foundation for the development of a deeply ethical culture, one that is not motivated by survival-based fears. Fear has held sway too long in human history, including business, politics, and religion. I hope that the time for us to develop our deeper capacity for compassion, because Love/Compassion/Mercy is the only antidote for fear.

I had planned to write more about the process for nurturing compassion, but I’ve written enough for this post, so the process discussion will have to wait.

So, this is how I see things today. What do you see?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise