Sermon Against the Resounding Gong

My first yoga teacher had a serious savior complex.  He was gifted at teaching the basic foundations of yoga poses, and is, in large part, why I practice yoga safely and intelligently.  But he was so messy—getting overly involved with his students personal lives, making the class about his humor and his experience more than the students’.   One time I heard him say to a young—attractive—woman:  You should be prepared to start crying in pigeon pose because women carry a lot of sexual trauma in their hips.  Don’t hold back if you need to cry.  That kind of crap sets my blood boiling—it abuses the power of suggestion and potentially keeps clients from getting real help for real problems.  At best, yoga can provide the physical counterpart to other healing processes, but it cannot cure cancer or quell mental illness, nor was it ever designed for such miracles.  Of course, that girl in class did start to cry in pigeon pose.   What other option did she have, really, if she wanted to stroke her teacher’s ego as he so clearly needed her to?

The yoga studio is fertile ground for such characters, because given the historical connection of yoga to religious practice, people often arrive to class with more than their physical well-being in mind.  They want their bodies and their souls healed.  Or, they want a bastardized version of yoga that gives them six-packs and defined deltoids, but compromises their bodies.  They want the Dalai Lama or David Koresh, and not a simple person trained to offer a student the tools to develop her own strength, heal her own body.    Nothing more, nothing less. 

Spoiler Alert: I’m not really a preacher.  Or a priest.  Or a deacon.  Or ordained in anything at all except, perhaps, my own experience if we think of our births as conferring holy orders on us.   

If you’re reading this blog, you know I’m living in a precarious space between tongue-in-cheek and sincere, between my instinct to poke and prod and provoke and my genuine desire to write about my own spiritual experience.  I’m often uncomfortable with myself here in the Cyberworld: on the one hand, I write from the persona I create, a persona that protects me; on the other hand, I expose myself dangerously to strangers.  I’ve longed believed that this straddling between performance and confession lends blogging, as a form, its tender credibility, its vibrancy in the hands of a decent writer, and its disproportionate draw for women writers.   Also, the ephemeral nature of the Internet—a place where one’s writing both remains and disappears into the void created by thousands of other users mimics, for me, the slippery way divinity works in my life.

I’m glad you’re willing to follow me into this shadowy territory.  I’m also appalled, the same way I’m appalled when my students turn on their peers because they’ve adopted a position I posited in class, when they’ve taken something I said while playing devil’s advocate and digested it as God’s own truth, usually because they want my approval more than they believe what they’re arguing.   If you’re reading my blog, you’re reading in part because of the personality my blog implies that I have.  You hear a voice and imbue the person you imagine behind that voice with an authority and respect I haven’t exactly earned. 

That puts me in disquietingly close proximity to that yoga teacher and those church leaders who assume a pulpit with very little education or formation, the ones that scare me silly.

As someone who grew up in the Catholic Church, I feel suspicious of informality and a lack of credentials.  I’m a snob that way.  I don’t care.  I want my priests and pastors, my professors, and my politicians to be smarter than me, more educated than me.  I do not want George W. Bush’s nicknames, for example, and I don’t want to call my reverend Billy or Ed or Mitch.  I prefer something more titular….like….I don’t know….Mr. or Mrs. President, Sister Bernice, or even Reverend King.   These titles protect us from the person while respecting her expertise.  Rather than create false authority, when used correctly titles promote healthy personal space and appropriate boundaries.  I do not have my students call me Casey, for example.  But nor would I have them call me Dr. Fleming if I haven’t earned a doctorate. 

I disapprove of any Cult of Personality.  I distrust leadership based on charisma and reputation, leadership that promotes a kind of hero worship that impedes true learning and undermines mentorship, informalizes and mythologizes the relationship between student and teacher, and makes the humble sailing vessel into the majestic sea upon whose depths it can only rest.

The high school classroom is equally fertile ground for such misguided heroism.  Teenagers are aquiver.  They vibrate.  They’re like exposed nerves, susceptible to even the slightest breeze’s burn.  They’re also hormonal and given to high drama, ripe for hero worship and indoctrination.  It’s no coincidence most religions have their youngest members confirmed or Bat Mitzvah-ed during the teenage years.   But in my opinion, students at that age need to be directed toward the big questions and then empowered to find their own answers rather than being baptized into certainty.

On this blog, I’m twisting the form, using the idea of a sermon to structure my writing for a while.  I have some things to say, and have ordained myself to say them.  But do not anoint me with an authority I have not earned except through voice and style.  You’ll be disappointed, because you’ll be the spectator of my spiritual journey instead of the protagonist in your own. 

We do not save our followers—in the church, on the page, in the studio, or in the classroom.  They do that.  And when we start to think we can be our students’ saviors, we’re playing God.  When we rely on our reputations or personalities rather than our knowledge and experience to keep our students afloat we’re really sinking their ships.  We’re also taking more love than we’re giving, since love is always active, not passive.  We’re acting out of need more than power.  We’re keeping them from finding other, equally important teachers by tethering them to our influence.  And we’re acting in direct opposition to St. Paul’s advice in Corinthians 13:1-3:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 Last, but certainly not least, many people who end up leading cults of personality didn’t start out superficial or twisted, the popularity turned them that way.  Hero worship is detrimental for followers, certainly, but it’s also a painful spiritual death for the leader.  

Beware and Amen.

 

Sermon on the Eve of Inauguration

Last semester, a group of 15 year olds sat around a seminar table and talked to me about their reactions to Peter Singer’s “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” a summary of his utilitarian philosophy about sharing the wealth.   His basic thesis: no one needs more than $30,000 a year to live on; everything else should go to other people in the form of charity.  This seminar discussion is without fail always one of my most heated and impassioned every fall semester.

One girl, visibly upset, turned to me and said, “I mean, I think he’s right, I guess.  I feel bad.  But he’s so rude about it.  And I mean, what am I supposed to do to help?”

She felt moved but defensive, the way many people feel when they have their privilege pointed out to them by another person.

For those of you readers who do not already know or suspect, I teach at a prestigious college preparatory school.  Or, as so many of my friends say when I tell them where I teach, “Oh, the rich kids.”

They raise an eyebrow into a tight check mark on their brow that translates as one of two things: good luck with those brats or you’re not a REAL teacher, out of the trenches like that.

Both conclusions bother me.  Sure, I have some guilt about my luck given other schools I’ve taught in with needier, more damaged kids.  I often repeat the story of my first teaching job at 22 years old.  I lasted only one semester–it wasn’t the parole officers or 14 year old girls with their own babies that got me in the end, but the young student who had a dead cockroach stuck in his ear that, as he told me, “The doctor won’t get out, cuz we don’t got insurance.”  His English teacher–a 23 year old Teach for America volunteer–and I used our off periods to find a free clinic that would remove the cockroach from his infected ear.  I was completely unprepared for that job.  I was under the impression the students needed me to teach them Spanish.  They didn’t.  They needed a case worker.  It took me 11 years to return to teaching at the high school level.

My husband and I often worry whether our talents might be better spent in other places.  I have my days: I walk through the hallways aghast at casual conversations between teenagers that include throwaway comments about cruises through the Greek isles, $4,000 jeans, and box seats at Texans games with such-and-such CEOs or so-and-so politicians.

The longer I teach these “rich kids”, though, the more I realize the universe put me exactly where it needed me.  Turns out it’s easier to feel empathy for disadvantaged kids that it is to feel empathy for privileged kids.  But they need our empathy.  And this country needs us to have empathy for them.

Bear with me a second.

The first term of Obama’s presidency saw Occupation Wall Street, a movement that didn’t even reach the outer edges of my students’ little radars.  Obama’s biggest cage match wasn’t against bin Laden or any other foreign enemy.  The championship fight went to John Boehner and company.  The fight is about class, and the we’re still in the late rounds–no one has TKO’ed yet.  The major obstacles to bipartisanship in our country right now are obstacles of privilege: male privilege and economic privilege.

Privilege is tricky–people who have it often can’t see it.  Some never see it.  That’s one of the basic postcolonial arguments: those on the margins have a wider lens than those in the center of power.  My students didn’t ask to be born wealthy any more than a poor child asks to be born into destitution.  They didn’t have a choice, and most don’t have any real grasp on just how high they sit on the economic totem pole. But so often when they’re confronted with the reality of their privilege they feel shamed for something they didn’t do and can’t yet control.  And those that have managed to grasp their socioeconomic position often feel enormous amounts of pressure to live up to their parents’ standards of wealth and status.

As a class, we tried to work out why Peter Singer’s article bothered my students so much.  We finally agreed it was a matter of tone (they weren’t quite ready to talk about the possible limitations of utilitarian philosophy in general).  I used this realization on their part as a teaching moment.   The art of persuasion, I told them, is not only about appeals–ethos, pathos, logos–but about the tone that dresses those appeals, an awareness of audience and situation.  Singer, for all his intelligence, was tone deaf in that article if he meant to persuade rich people.  He shamed them and they reacted they way all of us react to shame.    “Shame,” as Brene Brown tells us, “corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”  When shamed, people resist change and dig in their heels.  They start to feel like people are out to get them, a fear I’ve seen in many rich people, one that makes even the most well-intentioned of them behave badly.  Witness a large part of the leadership of the Republican Party.  If we want privileged people–especially young people–to change, we better move away from shame and toward empowerment, away from bitterness and toward love.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s horribly unfair that we must ask the world’s disadvantaged people to resist anger and try empathy instead, to take the moral high ground.  Just. Not. Fair.   Also, there is a time and a place for anger.

Still, most of my students, those “rich kids”, are kind-hearted human beings.  They need mentors to help them look privilege square in the eye, recognize it, and then do something useful with it.   To this end, I have great admiration for a nonprofit called Resource Generation that aims to empower wealthy young adults to leverage their assets and create social change.

The best feminists have figured out that to transform our ideas about gender, we will need to empower men as much as women.  The same follows for economic injustice.  We will need to empower rich people as well as poor people if we want lasting change, and that empowerment requires us to check our tone.

I want to pull that student aside and tell her she doesn’t have to feel shame about her wealth.  I want to tell her: you’re beautiful, talented, intelligent, very, very lucky, and you have so much worth that isn’t born of and goes way beyond your pocketbook, because if I tell her that maybe–just maybe–she’ll see worth in other people too and she won’t begin to hoard her wealth, cast suspicious glances in all directions, because she believes without money she is nothing.

And in honor of the holiday and inauguration tomorrow, I want to offer a rationale for why I’ve come to accept and even love my job in that school of rich kids.  In the words of the tonally-gifted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

That’s it. There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet. Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few years ago, but most men and most women never discover it…

And oh this morning, as I think of the fact that our world is in transition now. Our whole world is facing a revolution. Our nation is facing a revolution, our nation. One of the things that concerns me most is that in the midst of the revolution of the world and the midst of the revolution of this nation, that we will discover the meaning of Jesus’ words…

As we look out across the years and across the generations, let us develop and move right here. We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better.

 

Amen.