Dialectics can help sharpen our strategies, intensify our struggles, and push us past seemingly intractable odds. Simply put, dialectics are the ways in which our many truths and definitions of the world—including and sometimes especially our contradictions and dichotomies—contribute positively to greater collective consciousness. Social change activists should be better adept at dialectical thinking and, in many ways, revolutionary nonviolence might best be seen within a dialectical context. Radical Nonviolence is, after all, a still-developing experiment, noted by some as a series of experiments with truth. Within an inter-faith framework, dialectics can help us understand the special connections in our spiritual searching.
From a Jewish perspective, the first weeks of October 2017 were filled with the commandment to feel the joy surrounding us. As we gather in Sukkot, in the huts designed to remind us of nomadic exodus times, it is our duty to celebrate and affirm the joys of liberation—and an implicit call to increase freedom in today’s world.
It can be tough in these times to find and embrace joy, but I tried to do so in my recent reflections on moving “Beyond Trump, Beyond Trauma” published in Tikkunmagazine. Sukkot closes with the special time of Simchat Torah, a veritable field day for peace and justice education as the love of studying and reading is glorified. The end of our annual cycle of reading the Torah is spotlighted in grand fashion, as we immediately begin again in our reflections on the sacred texts.
In 2017, these special days coincided with another annual occurrence: what the Buddhist followers of Thich Nhat Hanh call Continuation Day. As the passing of one year’s study of the ancient holy books turned to the beginning of another, Nhat Hanh (affectionately known to friends as Thay, a word simply meaning “teacher”) turned 91.
As a Pan Africanist, it is impossible not to draw inspiration that this great man used that simple but deeply meaningful word to describe himself, just as Tanzania’s great Julius Nyerere similarly allowed only the title “Mwalimu” (teacher in Swahili) to be affixed to his legacy. In tribute to Thay, Simchat Torah, dialectics, and joy, the following passage on nurturing happiness written by Thich Nhat Hanh seems especially appropriate.
According to the creation story in the biblical book of Genesis, G-d said “Let there be light.” I like to imagine that light replied, saying “G-d, I have to wait for my twin brother, darkness, to be with me. I can’t be there without the darkness.” G-d asked, “Why do you need to wait? Darkness is there.” Light answered, “In that case, then I am also already there.”
If we focus exclusively on pursuing happiness, we may regard suffering as something to be ignored or resisted. We think of it as something that gets in the way of happiness. But the art of happiness is also the art of knowing how to suffer well. If we know how to use our suffering, we can transform it and suffer much less. Knowing how to suffer well is essential to realizing true happiness.
Few on the land we wrongly think of as America have suffered as much for as long as our Native, Indigenous sisters and brothers. It was thus an honor during Sukkot to connect with Standing Rock Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota peoples. With us also was the Right Rev. Dr. Douglas John Fisher, IX Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. Speaking on behalf of the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care, Bishop Fisher awarded the NRCCC annual award to “The People” represented by their Chief, connecting suffering, reparation, and redemption in a particularly mindful way:
We are painfully aware of the history of Christian participation in the oppression, marginalization, and murder of First Nations peoples. We recognize the tragic consequences of the Doctrine of Discovery, which gave the Church’s blessing when colonists claimed the lands of indigenous peoples we their own. The Episcopal Church has formally repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, as have several other Christian groups. Like Pope Francis, we grieve the “grave sins” and “crimes” of colonialism that were “committed against the Native people of America in the name of G-d…[We] come to you in humility, wanting you to know that we see your steadfast courage, and that we cherish your spiritual vision of an earth-centered, earth-honoring life. Yours is a vision we want to lift up across this country and around the world.”
Chief Looking Horse’s visit to Western Massachusetts brought traditional Native, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist traditions together in a weekend of resistance. Under the banner “Defend the Sacred” we discussed the ways in which—given the nature of the natural world—the phrase “Standing Rock Is Everywhere” goes well beyond the rhetorical. “The Earth,” Chief Looking Horse asserted, “is not a natural resource. It is the source of all living things.”
As Fall turns to Winter and the changes in season remind us of continuity, resilience, and our inter-connectedness, let us be one with the dialectic: eschewing false dichotomies and embracing the complexity and nuance in all things (including social movements). Between ends and beginnings, sorrow and joy, suffering and happiness, darkness and light, let us dance together to our diverse versions of the sacred, building upon our visions of a world born anew.