Can Contemplative Prayer Help Address Racism, White Supremacy, and Hate?

What good is sitting in silence for 30 minutes of contemplative prayer every day going to do when there are racist groups in our communities?

It’s a fair question that I have pondered very often. I have a few responses:

Contemplation changes us into compassionate people.

Contemplation can help those in the grip of hate face their false selves—the false selves that drive so much of their hatred.

Contemplation re-centers us in God’s generative love for us and for other people.

Mind you, I’m saying that contemplation can “help” as one part of a larger action plan. I don’t want to oversell this here. Meditation and prayer have long been viewed as integral parts of Christian social justice work. Some groups make them essential aspects that members agree to incorporate into their daily lives.

When I have encountered hate speech or hateful events in the news, they can fuel a rage that goes beyond a productive righteous anger. As this burning rage takes hold, contemplative prayer provides a place to release my thoughts to God. Action is needed, but I won’t act from a productive perspective without a chance to disconnect from my anger and rage.

From a scientific perspective, mindfulness practices, which resemble contemplative prayer in many ways, help decrease our tendency to pursue conflict:

“Mindfulness studies show that practicing mindfulness for 8 to10 weeks changes the brain’s emotion regulation areas. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped part of the midbrain that hijacks the brain into “fight, flight, freeze” mode in which we start to see our partners as threats to our wellbeing or autonomy and automatically shut down emotionally or start to attack them with angry words and deeds.”

Speaking in terms of what we hope for in the longer term, my pastor challenged us to think about conversion—we need members of these racist groups to be freed from their hateful ideology. It’s often true that the leaders of these hate groups are too far gone in many cases. However, a former hate group member turned advocate believes those who join these hate groups as the rank and file “foot soldiers” are often joining for reasons that are more complex than adopting a hateful ideology.

Christian Picciolini shared in an NPR interview:

“I believe that people become radicalized, or extremist, because they’re searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose… because there are so many marginalized young people, so many disenfranchised young people today with not a lot to believe in, with not a lot of hope, they tend to search for very simple black and white answers.”

Contemplation can’t answer all of that, but it can become a tool to escape the endless loop of anger and resentment that helps fuel the hatred of others.

Contemplation can provide a new identity as God’s beloved child.

Contemplation can provide a new mission to tell others about the love of God.

Keep in mind that Paul was a violent extremist who was killing and imprisoning Christians. After his conversion, he penned letters where he wished that his readers could experience the height, depth, and breadth of God’s love.

Those who are nurturing their anger and fabricated resentment of immigrants and ethnic minorities are going to need a new community to offer them hope and a path forward. It would be tragic if white supremacists and racists only redirected their anger into a bitter and defensive fundamentalism. Many evangelical churches can provide activity to redirect them, but they tend to lack the spiritual resources and direction for those who need to directly encounter God’s loving presence. Contemplative prayer within a church community setting can offer the inner spiritual experience of transformation that is often so badly needed.

We need churches that speak of God as a loving father/parent and emphasize the loving relationship of the trinity in their belief statements. I participated in prison ministry off and on before we moved and had kids, and I was always struck by how the men were impacted by an encounter with God as a loving father.

I will always defer to experts like Christian Picciolini to offer a path forward amid white supremacy. Contemplation is no substitute for direct action, holding racists accountable, legal advocacy, and other measures that will stop their agenda. It wouldn’t hurt if police departments like the one in Charlottesville, VA were a little more proactive when racist groups start beating people up.

Again, I can’t emphasize enough that contemplation is but one part of a larger action plan. I also haven’t addressed the vital work of learning about our history of racism and white supremacy in America or amplifying and joining the activists who are doing the hard work on the ground each day.

Those targeted by racism and working to eradicate it need our prayers and support now more than ever. However, as a white man, I am also very aware that I have a role to play in offering racists an off ramp away from radicalization. I hope and pray that contemplation can offer them a path away from the fear and hatred that drives their movements.

What Are We Mad about This Week?

2016-07-Life-of-Pix-free-stock-man-aged-bar-MAXMARTIN

I have been taking the weekends off from Facebook, and something strange has been happening on Monday morning. Feeling like Rip Van Winkle, I open up Facebook and review the news from the weekend. I catch myself wondering what people are angry about this week.

It’s strange to feel so detached from the passionate debates of the past two days.

Of course there are many things that we can legitimately become angry about. The world is rife with injustice. I’m not doubting these things or suggesting that we embrace complacency.

Rather, I’ve been noticing that the daily use of Facebook can lead my mind into a kind of ongoing angst and anger, if not a sense of anxiety. In light of the injustices and problems in our world, I’m concerned that despite the benefits of awareness that comes through Facebook, it’s also creating a mindset of anger and anxiety that leaves me unable to thoughtfully engage the problems of our world in a constructive manner, let alone the people who disagree with my perspective.

I will never doubt that Facebook has been a great tool for sharing worthwhile causes and events. Heck, even the much-derided ALS Ice Bucket Challenge led to major research innovations and potential breakthroughs. I follow causes such as the Preemptive Love Coalition primarily through their Facebook page. Social media can do more than raise awareness for a cause—it can help us take organized action.

However, social media isn’t as great for fostering empathy, hosting complex, nuanced conversations, or creating a mindset that can take measured steps toward solutions. It’s so very easy to assume the worst about others, to lament what “those idiots” think, and to demonize people who post smug memes mocking what I hold dear. More to the point, I’m sure I’ve done all of these things to others plenty of times as well.

I am committed to being constructive, redemptive, and action-oriented within my resources. I don’t want to go through my life critiquing and criticizing others without ever getting involved in a cause. In fact, for many years I’d been involved in prison ministry, and I immediately noticed that I wrote with far more snark and divisiveness online compared to the way I reached out to the men in prison. I wanted my in-person words to guide my online words.

This brings me back to the weekend breaks I’ve been taking from Facebook (and all other social media channels). I don’t know how long I’ll keep this up, but I feel the acute need to know what I am like without any social media interactions. I need to feel the gnawing desire to check in and to ask what’s driving that and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. The more I’m driven to check in, the more I need to examine that drive and where it’s coming from.

I need solitude each day, and a big part of creating that space means learning to cut myself off from distractions and time wasting activities that eat up precious blocks of five, ten, or fifteen minutes.

I need solitude in order to hear the still, small voice of God.

I need solitude in order to recognize when my mind is spinning off track into anger, fear, and frustration.

Rage can become a lifestyle, a habit that we cultivate by constantly feeding it tidbits of injustice and fear from our circles and from the news cycle. In fact, news outlets and social media sites have every incentive in the world to push outrageous events into our faces. That isn’t to say there aren’t journalists doing good and essential work. Rather, the people running these companies need to attract viewers in order to maximize profits, and rage works.

The worst part about today’s outrage culture is that we need solitude in order to actually address it, but we’ll no doubt hear guilt trips that we’re putting our heads in the sand or acting irresponsibly if we disconnect for an extended period of time. The pursuit of an actual solution appears to be just another part of the problem.

Activists and saints surely figured out ways to address injustice before social media, and I trust that a bit more mindfulness and consideration about the way forward will help us take better steps forward together.

I care deeply about the injustice that America has inflicted on the Middle East (see the Preemptive Love Coalition for more ways you can help the most desperate refugees today). I think often about our criminal justice system, and I still associate names and faces with sentencing laws and parole policies. I very much want to stay engaged. I want to feel the anger of the injustices people continue to suffer. I can use Facebook to raise awareness about these issues, but I need something more than rage.

I need the focus and direction that comes from silence and contemplative prayer.

I need a still small voice to speak in the midst of the storm, or I’ll most likely become just another voice in the storm.