August 28, 2016
Valerie Luna Serrels
Perhaps like many of you this week, I’ve been riveted by stories of the alliance of various indigenous tribes coming together to oppose the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.7 billion project which will run through sacred ancestral land in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Seeing photos and video of 60 different native American tribes standing together in solidarity on the banks of the Cannonball River gives me hope, but it also brings me back to another time in the not-so-distant past when white colonial powers first expropriated land and destroyed an entire civilization for our own use and profit. Not much has changed in our imperialistic mindsets, pointing to the hard truth that we seem to have a knack for not learning from our past sins and failures. The greed and subjugation that defined our nation’s founding remains unchanged generation after generation, showing up in different scenarios and contexts, but repeating the same pattern of disconnection.
Of course, this knack for not learning from our history is not limited to the United States, but seems to be a universal theme. Throughout human history, underneath this unchanging orientation toward imperialism and domination is a system of economics, based on a philosophy of mind that values profit and advancement for the few over relationship and the common good for all. And at the heart of this system are human beings who have become so disconnected within, from one another, and from the Earth, that we now face cataclysmic unintended consequences.
CALL TO JOURNEY:
This morning I’d like to talk about this connection between the state of our world right now, the greed that drives the injustice of our dominant systems, and our unexamined, unintegrated psyches. Perhaps we’ll get a glimpse into why our patterns of greed and domination seem to be stuck on repeat. And maybe we’ll see a way to liberate ourselves from the demands of these old patterns. Looking at these connections requires us to take a journey. Not to a foreign land, not with a passport, but with courage and a roadmap to our own psyche, to integrate what Depth Psychology founder, Carl Jung described as our Shadow. This path is not linear, but has many windy turns, ups and downs. It’s actually more of a descent, to the underneath of the soul. It is a journey at the core of our faith and at the core of being fully human, fully alive, fully connected with God and all things. It is the path of individuation – this quest for wholeness.
The backdrop for my talk today comes from the gospel story of Luke, on which I gave a sermon a few weeks back at my home church, Community Mennofolk. I understand that you don’t often use scripture here, but I found some interesting twists when I was studying this passage and think you might too. Plus Joni said it was ok. (smile, joke, look up at them)
It seems, throughout the gospel stories, that Jesus takes any every-day opportunity, and especially normal conflicts and difficulties, to invite people to this inner journey and into a different consciousness – during dinner with family and friends, walking on the road, or in an argument over inheritances. The invitation to journey comes in the midst of our circumstances, and invites us to look in the mirror – examine our own behavior, choices, and actions, and follow them inward to the truth about who we are. Both the good and the bad. Most of the time, the invitation is misunderstood in the gospel stories, when the disciples and the people in the crowds wind up confused and miss the point altogether. The same is true today.
In the story of the Rich Fool, Jesus befuddles his inquisitor who was trying to draw him into an argument over rightful inheritance. He refused, like he usually does, to engage with him on the level of his conflict. Instead, he calls him into a deeper journey through the telling of a parable, to look into the core issues beneath the conflict.
Here, he is confronted with a voice from the crowd. “Jesus, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” This is an ordinary, every-day, FAIR request. I’m sure he expected Jesus to agree with him, after-all, his brother was being greedy! Share with your brother! But no. Jesus isn’t interested in conflict resolution. Instead, Jesus rebukes him about the hazards of greed. The guy’s probably shaking his head, pulling his hair.. yah, I know, that’s why I’m here asking you! But he cannot understand Jesus on the same level of consciousness as his surface-level request. Instead, Jesus invites him to look more deeply not at the one with whom he has conflict, but to look at his own heart, to take a journey into his own psyche.
What brilliant, early, conflict transformation! Jesus isn’t interested in finding a quick answer to this conflict, as an arbitrator would do to determine a fair settlement, but addresses the man’s own underlying issues, perhaps even his relationship patterns with his brother, and maybe even the social structures that have set up a system of inheritances. Of surplus for the few. He knew conflict was an opportunity.
In the parable Jesus tells, God says to the man with too much stuff, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” What does he mean by this? You can’t take it all with you because…Death? He who dies with the most toys still dies? Well, America does need to hear this bumpersticker. But, honestly, No big revelation there. We’ve all heard the well worn explanation that the man’s death is coming and he can’t bring his stuff with him. But, maybe Jesus is talking about another kind of death and a different kind of life.
In researching this passage, I found that the word “life” here comes from the Greek translation “psuche,” meaning the human soul, which is also the root of the English words “psyche,” and “psychology”, a person’s distinct identity. I wonder if instead of God reminding the wealthy man about his inevitable bodily death and his resulting emptiness, he is calling him on a journey into his own soul, to relationship with the uninvited guests from Rumi, and find transformation in the process. Then, regardless of the outcome of this inheritance, he will have the ability to love and live out of his best Self instead of becoming more greedy with the inheritance, or enraged or bitter without it.
There are 104 occurrences of the word psuche’ in the NT, showing up in every gospel text, most apostles letters and in Revelation. The original word is translated into English as life, soul, mind, heart, person. Your soul will be required of you this night. Your mind will be required of you this night, your heart, your personhood will be required of you. More than any other time in history, these words are a prophetic call to our full, mature consciousness.
Jesus invites him to take an honest and merciful tour of the inward places, to wrestle with his own greed, his own messed up priorities, his own deep needs. Sit with it. Feel the pain of it. Grieve it and be transformed by it. We don’t know if he accepts this invitation, but I’d like to imagine he does. If he did, he may have been shocked to find the greed in himself, and the needs and anger and shame beneath it. He may have found himself weeping, mourning for the loss of the person he thought he was. And also weeping for the truth of himself – that freedom that comes from truth telling. He may have had an awakening into what lay beneath his own greed as he welcomed the unexpected visitor who violently sweeps his house empty of its furniture. And…he may have found his gift to the world on the opposite side of that, and the riches he was seeking, in himself, in the mystery that is God.
I hear Rumi’s poem here – “Every morning a new arrival, an unexpected visitor: a Depression, a Meanness, a crowd of sorrows come to sweep our house empty.” I am familiar with these visitors, and usually want them to go away, and I have developed my own patterns of denial or repression, as we all do. But, Rumi and Jesus say, we must treat each guest honorably, as hard as that is. Every morning. Invite them in and be grateful because they have been sent as a guide from beyond. This use of imagination and metaphor – inviting our darkness as guests – is heroic individuation praxis.
Jesus in this gospel story and Rumi in his poem are addressing a psychological phenomenon centuries before modern psychology began to study and understand it. Carl Jung, the founder of Depth Psychology just a short 100 or so years ago, differentiated between the outer structure of our personality, our everyday self, and the deeper darker parts of ourself that we reject or hide or lose conscious touch with. He called it our Shadow. Jung advocated for this spiritual journey to unveil and bring to consciousness the shadow parts of our psyches….to integrate the discarded parts of ourselves we decide sometime early in our lives are unacceptable. In fact, he is quoted as saying, “We need more understanding of human nature. Because the only real danger that exists is man himself.” The truth is, we are killing ourselves through our own ignorance and greed, going so far as to destroy the very life systems of which we are a part and on which we depend for our survival.
When we disown parts of ourselves that we think, or our culture says, are bad or wrong or sinful, (and we do do that, whether we are conscious of it or not) we think that thing goes away and isn’t part of us. Whether it’s greed, or grief, or lust, or lying or some other characteristic. It could even be a positive trait if it is de-valued or ridiculed. This is our Shadow. But, these characteristics don’t just go away – they can’t – they are part of our being human. Only the mystery of God, through our courageous journey within, can transform this into a new way of being human through our openness, acceptance, grief, and integration of that characteristic. Without this, there are two options of what happens to these… things, this energy. Option one: We repress it, where it may lay dormant for many years, as it festers and grows and becomes something much stronger, often expressing itself as harmful behavior against ourselves or others. And we wonder where that came from at the most unexpected time; or Option two: We project it outward onto others. But it doesn’t go “away” there either. What happens to all that projected greed, jealousy, covetousness, and hatred out there? Where does it manifest?
Walter Wink, a theologian and activist, describes a manifestation such as this on an institutional level in his landmark book, The Powers That Be. His analysis springs from the truth that there is both an internal and external reality in all things, and describes a real but intangible force at the core of our structures and institutions that have the capacity for good and for evil, much like the human soul. And, of course, there’s a connection between the individual human being and the institutions we create. It seems plausible that the core powers that Wink refers to are created by our massive collective projections over the centuries, which then take on a life of their own.
And then we’re surprised by violence that seems to spring out of nowhere, and we wonder where that came from, or we’re shocked by the level of evil our systems are capable of. When millions/billions of people through the ages don’t own their stuff and practice transformation, they project it, where it becomes a collective force, capable of unlimited destruction. Much like trauma that is not addressed and transformed, is passed on, usually in harmful ways. Societies and nations do this, ascribing their own shadow over to that country, or that people, resulting in wars and violence and dangerous pipelines through sacred canyons and shocking developmentally stunted demagogues who become President of the most powerful country on Earth. Pause.
Going back to the content of our story – Greed. Covetousness. We all know greed. Our societies are shaped by it. I’m sure everyone in the crowd with Jesus that day knew that greed was not a virtue, most of them were peasants, or “People of the Land.” They only knew subsistence living, and were well aware of what it was to be oppressed by the powerful elite. The voice in the crowd calling out, however, represented the 1% of their time, someone with enough wealth to receive an inheritance. And so, he also represented part of the social structures of oppression. And Jesus is calling him out.
The word Greed in this passage comes from the Greek word Pleonexia – the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others. Wikipedia suggests a “ruthless self-seeking and an arrogant assumption that others and things exist for one’s own benefit”. What a helpful definition of the casino capitalism we have today. That everything exists for my benefit. This craving toward more and more material gain is the backbone of American industry, marketing, advertising, and wealth creation, regardless of the consequences for others. And it is the very path that is also leading to what could be the complete destruction of the ecosystems that sustain life on this planet. It is the system that oppresses others and divides people between the haves and the have-nots. It is the system that runs oil pipelines through sacred ground, valuing profit for the powerful over the well being of the Earth, and over a trusting relationship with communities of people we’ve already historically abused.
This lack of regard for our fellow human, as well as other species and the natural world, traces back to the ideology of our separateness from one another – the linchpin of greed. This ideology has historic roots in the human psyche. It is part of our collective unconscious. Greed has been around almost as long as civilization. At least as long as civilizations based on an economics that include surplus. Without surplus, there is nothing to inherit. In “primitive” clans where there was no such thing as surplus, there was sharing of land, resources, products, labor. Aggression and dominance show up around the same time as surplus, with tribal wars over limited hunting grounds, cannibalism, and slavery. The beginning of so-called civilization. The class-divided society has been with us for many centuries, somewhere around seven thousand years. That’s a long time to build an overgrowth and acceleration of projected greed whose trajectory is the eventual destruction of our planetary life systems.
Obviously there’s something about greed that we haven’t been able to just turn off. It’s vital that we take the journey into our own depths and see our own quest for wholeness and individuation as essential work for social change, alongside the outward path of direct resistance to the systems that perpetuate greed, hate, and violence. Because the stakes have never been higher for understanding and living out what it means to be fully human.
In closing, There are times when we are interrupted by life as usual, business as usual, church as usual. We can see these interruptions as irritating, something to avoid, deny, or repress, or we can see them as opportunities for our own, and others transformation. And for the transformation of the world. When we attend to this Hero’s Journey, we become more and more able to befriend and integrate our shadow, and project it less and less. We become more liberated to live into our full, mature Self, capable of love in the most trying circumstances. This is the basic core of Christianity and spirituality in a nutshell, and it takes great courage to practice. Our reward is living out the truth of who we are, our essence, and bringing the gifts we found on the journey back to the world. For our own wholeness and for the wholing of the world. Because the reality is, our private psyches are not private, they are actually a public resource, to be lived out of for the common good.
Travel to the inner world of the psyche, the soul, is not a vacation destination. The journey is often not a lot of fun, it is disorienting, and it can feel as if everything you thought you were is being destroyed. A kind of death. “But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it” says Jesus. And that is what we find in those depths…life. Wholeness. Transformation. And this is the job of religion.
I agree with Father Richard Rohr, who says, “Religion has largely become a confirmation of the status quo and business as usual. Religion should lead us into sacred space where deconstruction of the old “normal” can occur.
May it be so.