Ignorance vs. Malice

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’  (John 8: 2-12, NRSV)

Between 2000 and 2004, I worked as a senior consultant for Mercer Human Resource Consulting. One of our clients was Option One Mortgage Company (OOMC). We had been hired to conduct their employee survey. The survey helped OOMC measure and track employee satisfaction and engagement. In addition, we conducted statistical analyses to help them know what to do to retain their employees.

ForeclosureOne day in 2010, not too long after the height of the financial crisis, I realized that I had participated in that debacle. The financial crisis had been precipitated by the housing crisis and OOMC had been one of the mortgage companies selling risky home loans and foreclosing on people who couldn’t pay. I had assisted OOMC through my work as a consultant.

I didn’t have any intention of hurting anyone. I was ignorant. I was just doing my job. However, unwittingly, I had been participating in systemic injustice. I had inadvertently helped a mortgage company take advantage of consumers and precipitate global recession. While without intent, I had participated in unintentional evil.

Malice is intentional evil. Some of the prisoners that I met with this past week have probably committed malicious crimes. They have most likely killed another person, stolen what was not theirs, and/or intentional harmed themselves or others. While some of their actions were not planned, others may have been.

This past Thursday, in our discussion, we wrestled with how we can be sure God is real or trustworthy given the extent of evil in the world. I got the sense that some of the men had come to prison, albeit indirectly, because they weren’t sure that God was real or that God loved them. Some of them shared that when they were children they had experienced the untimely death of a family member. Others conveyed that they had grown up in poverty. Due to these types of events, they may be more likely to think that they don’t need to follow the rules because there isn’t a God that is going to hold them accountable or because they don’t feel that God cares about them.

As I reflected this past week, I came to wonder which is greater, unintentional evil, the evil that grows out of ignorance, or intentional evil, the evil comes out of malice. My sense is that more harm comes out of unintentional evil, the injustice that arises out of living in a broken world.

I believe that this reality requires us to be willing to allow God to examine our hearts and to purify us from those things that keep us from knowing God’s love. When we know we are loved of God, we are less inclined to do things like work for large corporations, where impersonal cultures keep people from understanding the impact of their work on other people, and to commit criminal acts.

The scripture text above suggests to me that we need to be deeply circumspect before deciding that we are justified in hurting people who have engaged in immoral or illegal acts. We have all participated in evil. We would do well to examine our own lives and attempt to discover first if we are without sin, without separation from God and God’s love.

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Naming for Spiritual Freedom and Greater Service

In the initial post in this series, I offered that the first step toward “naming the spiritual condition of the world” is to name our own spiritual condition. I argued that our spiritual condition is important as it affects our ability to help accomplish God’s purposes. In the second post, I used physical fitness as an analogy for spiritual condition and concluded the post suggesting that our “body composition” is the element that most affects the other aspects of our spiritual condition. In this post, I discuss naming as a tool for improving one’s spiritual condition, as it changes our “body composition.”

When I started writing these posts, I thought that we needed to be able to describe our spiritual condition. Now, I believe that what we need to do is discover a means rather than accomplish a particular end. I believe that we are being called to name our own spiritual condition so that we might continue to deepen our relationship with God and be further enabled to help accomplish God’s Divine purposes.

There are different types of naming. The first type that comes to mind is naming babies. When new people enter the world, we give them a name. We associate a special word with them as a way of recognizing their being and including them in our families. While the name connects them with us, the name is also unique. We name our babies with trepidation and care, as we hope that the name fits them and is one they will be happy with.

I also think about the naming of animals in the Bible. God made birds and animals and then showed them to Adam to see what he would call them (Genesis 2:19-20a). When I read that story, I get a sense of God’s delight. I imagine God enjoying the human response to God’s creations. The first cow, the first giraffe, then the platypus and shark…! What fun they must have had sharing with each other!

My focus here is a more difficult kind of naming, the type of naming required for improvement of our spiritual condition. Like the other two, this type of naming involves associating words with something that is new. But the difference in this case is that what we are naming is new to us only because it has been hidden. It was hidden so deeply that when we see it, it’s like seeing it for the first time. In this type of naming, we’re naming that which was previously too difficult to accept. We name it now so as to validate our experience, to accept it as our own, and move beyond it.

Through my experience, I have come to believe that a person’s spiritual body is very delicate. Many actions, events, situations and conditions, particularly those that are scary, can harm the spiritual body. When a person is scared beyond comprehension, the ego, as protector of this body, hides parts or all aspects of the experience from the person. The experience is pushed out of consciousness into unconscious reality through the creation of false but comforting beliefs. By keeping these experiences out of mind, the person is able to continue to function in the situations and relationships in which they find themselves.

As we mature, we become better able to process others’ actions and the events, situations and conditions around us, so the ego has less need to hide events and their meaning from us. However, the ego still keeps hidden from us what we could not understand or did not want to know when we were younger. While this keeps us comfortable, the harm is still there. The weight of this harm hinders us to greater and lesser extents, usually affecting our ability to manage the stresses of life and the challenges of relationship.

I believe that the weight of this harm also hinders our ability to be aware of, in communion with, and able to act in accordance with God’s desires for us. These false but comforting beliefs weigh us down spiritually. They are the fat in our spiritual body.

That’s where naming comes in. Through prayer, reflection and sharing with others, we can pull up then name the harm that has been hidden from us. Through this process, we reveal the truth to ourselves and become more free to act in God’s service!

For me, naming has been part of a difficult psycho-spiritual process. This process, while scary, painful and sometimes disorienting, has also been liberating. Early Friends called this process “the Refiner’s Fire.” Early Friends would have known fire, likely much more intimately than ourselves. Being close to a large fire causes fear, being touched by it causes intense pain, and, if its effects are devastating, disorientation. Through this metaphor, I believe early Friends were describing what it’s like for a person who contains unrealized harm to be touched by Spirit.

The metaphor also contains hope. Early Friends would have understood the refinement process – the process through which coarser material is separated from fine metals such as gold. This metaphor would have helped them endure the Spirit-driven process of becoming aware of the harm that had been hidden from them so that they could become free.

To some extent, we already know the refinement process that helps the harm to come to the surface. It’s what we do in Meeting for Worship. We sit in silence turning ourselves over to God, again and again, coming to rest in that Center of Peace.

Outside of group worship, many people find they need more structure to find their Center. This structure can be found through a variety of spiritual practices. I will name a couple that I’ve found helpful. Centering Prayer, a contemplative prayer practice that comes out of the Catholic Church’s mystical tradition, encourages letting go. Experiment with Light, recently developed by Rex Ambler based on the George Fox’s journal, is a more direct process for hearing or seeing what one needs to know. Dream interpretation and journaling are helpful complementary tools. While some of us can grow spiritually on our own, I’ve found other people, professional and otherwise, to be important aides as well.

If we engage in a spiritual practice, we encourage and support our healing and growth. Routinely and continually returning to our Center allows the ego to let go of its hold on our painful memories and helps us to connect with God. Feelings associated with the harm begin to rise up. If one is able to stand still in (to stay with) those feelings, memories may also rise.

I believe that our task to find the truth embedded in those memories and then name it. What could we not face or know in the past that we can handle now? What do we need to know now about those people and situations that harmed us? When we find, recognize and name the truth about our beliefs, the people and the associated situations, we become free to move beyond our fear.

Alone and together, through the One, the Lord of All, let’s name our spiritual condition so that we may become more free to be who we are meant to be and to be of service to our neighbor.

Thanksgiving without Indians

As a parent of a 4th grader, I was asked to decorate a feather to tell my son that I was thankful for him. Each of the other children in the class and their parents were also asked to decorate a feather. The stated purpose of the eventual display was to build community at the school.

The project felt wrong to me, but I didn’t know why. First, I called it inane. Later, I brainstormed ways to decorate a feather that would reveal my disgust. When I missed the feather decoration deadline, I searched more deeply to find the source of my discomfort. Continue reading