Atheopaganism: An Introduction

In recent months, hundreds of new Atheopagans have joined the Facebook group and followed the blog. Lots of folks viewing our path with new eyes, and many wondering how to get started. Accordingly, I thought I’d provide an overview of this Pagan path.

Today I posted a video, “An Introduction to Atheopaganism”, to the Atheopagan YouTube Channel. This is a talk I will present at Pantheacon next month. View it below!

 

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Bearing Witness to Social Injustice as A Spiritual Practice: Moving from Pain to Taking Compassionate Action, (Part 2 of 3) by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. [The Dionysian Naturalist]

  …. continued from Part 1.

Spirit of Life,

Limitless Creativity of the Cosmos,

Mystery of Mysteries,

Be with us now in this time of grave need,

When our governments inflict suffering,

When they shatter dreams and destroy lives,

And do not encourage broad-based human flourishing,

But instead promote discrimination and hatred.

We must lift up our sacred traditions

That teach that diversity is a gift,

That encourage compassion to all things,

And remind us constantly of our ethical responsibility to all people and to the Earth.

As people of faith and of moral commitments,

We must join the forces of resistance to fight these unjust actions.

Our traditions demand that we welcome the stranger and the sojourner.

The message of love and of freedom is strong and unswerving.

We must reject these forces of evil

And stand against the soul-harming hatred

It breeds and join in movements to stop the harm.

As people of faith and of conscience

We must stand against these policies and uphold values

That celebrate the fullness of the human family

In all its glorious diversity.

There are many of us, our voices are loud, our commitments are strong,

our will is tough as steel, and our faith unswerving.

May it be so.  Blessed Be and Amen.

III.      There have been many times in my life when I saw horrible suffering and had no idea what to do.  One night while walking home I saw a woman crawling out of her wheelchair to take refuge in a doorway. She said she didn’t want any assistance. Her hair was matted together and she smelled of urine. Wanting to do something, I reached into my pockets, located some bills and gave her a couple of bucks.  For a brief moment a flood of relief washed over me, but I was left with a terrible feeling that I hadn’t really done enough.

We often are numb to the suffering around us, unconsciously avoiding facing the harsh realities of modern life.  To navigate through our hectic lives we routinely turn on what I call ‘autopilot’, a deadened form of consciousness which encompasses modes of being, ways of acting and experiencing one’s existence to which we have become heavily familiarized.  The habitual nature of autopilot can feel good, often generating feelings of security and comfort through its solidly predictable outcomes. Autopilot is a central element in what I have elsewhere called the “cynical cycle of mindless inaction”5.

When we engage with the cynical cycle of mindless inaction:

We are closed to knowing about injustices;

We are numb to all the suffering of the world which exists all around us;

We don’t think that we can make any difference;

We mindlessly do what we have done before.”

When we turn off the autopilot of everyday existence and take time to deeply reflect on the ethics of our actions, we break out of that cycle.  We can become optimistic about our ability to change the world through the concrete ways in which we are leading our lives. Actions such as these, which are fully conscious of alternative courses of action, and which put our ideals into practice, are called “praxis”.

When our observation of another person’s suffering is not treated as a spiritual practice, we often turn away to not face the ugly and upsetting realities of our world, thinking that we should not watch other people’s struggles. We try to avoid and dispel the flood of emotions that come over us. We don’t want to think about other people’s ordeals. If we do observe another person’s suffering, it is polite to offer to help. These offers are impulsive reactions often lacking the deep reflection required for critical analysis, and tend to be more akin to charitable acts than to structural transformations which address root causes.

IV.

Bearing witness to the suffering of others as a spiritual practice is an essential component in movements for social justice and transformational politics.  It is a methodology for acquiring knowledge about certain phenomena which remain unknown to parts of the public.  It is also a means to bring such knowledge into the public sphere through the testimony of eyewitnesses and to therefore influence public debates about moral issues.

A witness is one who was there and saw for themselves what happened.  Their ability to observe events and situations allows them to testify to others about what they saw. Because they are eyewitnesses with direct firsthand information their testimonies are recognized in courts of law as evidence.  As anyone who has watched televised courtroom proceedings knows, these accounts are not flawless and are subject to numerous problems, including the failure of memory, selective perception, and deception.

Vision and truth have been linked to each other in Western Civilization since the time of the ancient Greeks.  Westerners supposedly assume that the truth isn’t readily apparent: it lies beneath the surface and things must be observed to be really understood.  With the rise of the natural sciences, vision becomes increasingly regarded as a central method for acquiring knowledge.  In the social sciences, approaches to objective reality range from more social constructionist concerns for how our mind’s use of interpretive practices frame the issues, to social positivists’ confidence in their ability to accurately capture the nature of objective reality. It is the objectivity of the data collection process that is up for debate. A problem inherent in observational approaches is validity, where observers rely exclusively on their own perceptions of situations and events. Another problem common in observational approaches is reliability, that the occurrence observed might be due to chance.

The information gathering aspect of bearing witness is similar to a qualitative research methodology.  As a way of knowing  it is based upon a technique that is similar to what is frequently called “naturalistic observation”.  While vision is crucial, naturalistic observation refers to a family of data collection techniques that are based upon the use of all of the human senses.  In observing we employ all of our senses to gather impressions of our surroundings. Archives across the globe contain important historical documents in which people give firsthand testimony about tragic events that have observed.

To be a rigorous methodology for researching empirical reality, naturalistic observation should be systematic, intentional, unobtrusive, sustained, non-interventionist, and take place in the natural context of the occurrence.  Two of those qualities which might be absent for bearing witness as a methodology are that it is typically unsystematic and usually not sustained over an extended period of time.  The unsystematic quality is due to a lack of formal training for those who witness and the absence of repeated professional experiences in the practice of collecting qualitative data.  However, witnesses can play specialized roles in unjust settings and thus are able to have sustained observation:  consider the nurse who bears witness to brutal battlefield injuries in scenes of modern warfare.  The moral imperative to speak truth to power based upon eyewitness testimony offsets any weakness in the efficacy of bearing witness as a research method.  For the people who become witnesses, they were there and saw for themselves what happened.  They do not care about whether their account upholds the demands of social scientific  rigor.  They saw for themselves the look of horror on the face of the abused.

The information is formulated into an descriptive account, a story in support of a political agenda.  It is a selective process that takes complex events and reduces them into more simple form, allowing us to use them for current political agendas.  How we tell the story about what we’ve witnessed is important.  The kind of context we invoke determines the meaning of the event and its reception.  We must carefully consider what types of information are needed to have these events advance specific agendas. What might be relevant details to the social scientist attempting to capture the nature of objective reality, might be extraneous matter the witness selects to eliminate because it does not serve the particular agenda being advanced.

Bearing witness enables us to publicly testify about the suffering of our world based upon firsthand observation.  It informs our actions to change the world and to alleviate suffering.  When possible we must remain committed to empowering those who suffer to play vital roles in the structural transformations required to end the suffering.  We must resist the tendency to take over and know that meaningful change must come from below.

As a formerly homeless person I understand just how challenging that can be.  For about a year I did community organizing on the streets and ran a “homeless” empowerment group.  People on the streets are often in “crisis” mode—so overwhelmed with their situation and just getting by that advocacy work seems impossible.  The work of cultivating a committed group of informed  and empowered activists who were without housing and able to show up and testify at the public meetings of policy decision-makers was formidable.  Yet when “real people” passionately tell their story the impact cannot be underestimated.  Without the empowerment of those who suffer we end up with a bureaucratic paternalism in which nice people who have never been there feel entitled to speak for us.

While structural changes which address the underlying issues leading to suffering are our ultimate goals as social justice activists, we must acknowledge the need for charitable acts.  People sleeping outdoors in cold winter months need warm sleeping bags and those who are hungry need food.  While some dismiss such acts as “mere band-aids” as they don’t change the circumstances, they are compassionate actions desperately needed for survival.

People who have been there know things that people who have not been there do not.  The quality of their knowledge is very high as it is based upon being an eyewitness to the events.  This disparate epistemology comes with burdens and obligations.  If you have important information needed to make the decisions made by your community you should not keep it to yourself.

To bear witness to unnecessary suffering is to see that which should not exist —the tragedy, the sorrow, the misery.  One does not look away, avoiding discomfort.  Quite the opposite, to bear witness one must pay close attention to what one is seeing, staying with the sight, allowing our minds to thoughtfully probe the situation, noticing details about what is occurring.  One must be fully present, and enter a state of mindfulness without distraction.  As a spiritual practice bearing witness is an act of intention and an act of attention.  While what we are seeing may be ugly and uncomfortable to experience we willingly stay with the situation.  We cultivate a mental framework of religiosity—openness, centered, respectful, compassion-filled–feeling our connection to the something larger than ourselves.

V.

Spiritual practices, such as rituals and meditation, may allow participants to enter into a ‘spiritual’ state of consciousness.  With the mind intensely focused on the holy work confronting it, we are able to fully experience the sacred.  In this frame of awareness we are able to focus on different phenomenon, including the interdependent web of existence, inner sources of wisdom, the common good, and the ideals of justice.  This special state of consciousness is an essential aspect of bearing witness.

For the Lakota Sioux this spiritual consciousness is initiated through the ritual use of “making a prayer”6.In contrast to the Protestant notion of prayer as a personal conversation with the Holy, the Lakota Sioux employ prayer as a means to initiate this state of spiritual awareness.  A spiritual schema, or “container”, is thus created which frames all that follows, infusing all actions with reverence, allowing a depth of purpose to permeate the occasion.  Maintaining this spiritual state of consciousness is no easy matter, and demands significant levels of concentration.

What makes bearing witness a spiritual practice is the enactment of such a container.  I have found that I can more readily enter this spiritual state of consciousness through the regular use of prayer (such as the one opening this essay).  In this state one can observe another’s suffering with a sense that one is doing holy work, able to continue looking at that which is hard to look at, maintaining a dignity which shines out to the world.  By creating a spiritual container, everything is held together and the focus required for the purpose can be sustained. The strength and courage needed to bear witness are enabled.

Cultivating bearing witness as a spiritual practice becomes easier through repetition.  As a ‘practice”, we repeatedly do it again and again, developing our own personal style.  While our minds are too fully present to use the word “habit”, the exercise becomes second nature.  Consistent repetition is essential to transforming observing suffering into bearing witness. But should we remember?  Perhaps in the name of reconciliation we would be better off if we simply forgot and moved on.  By socializing children to historical traumas we lock them into past loyalties and prescribed scripts.  Memories of injustice can be dangerous as disruptive to the status quo, even if that status quo is not the same perpetrator of the initial wrongs.

Along with the use of a spiritual state of consciousness, bearing witness becomes a spiritual practice when we take the time to deeply reflect upon what we have seen, allowing ourselves to be changed. To witness massive victimization or a catastrophic event is painful because the experience can shatter our worldview, thus radically transforming us. When we fully empathize with another, gather more information about the issue, and share our experience with our faith community, it allows us to examine how our privileges are cut from the same cloth as these people’s pains. Rather than seeking immediate “band-aids” we seek structural transformations which address the root causes. We contrast the “way things are” with “the  way they should be” and consider spiritual practices which might allow us to change the circumstances.  This is prophesy.

VI.

Bearing witness is prophetic –a faith-based spiritual practice with religious commitment and values. Liberal theologian Paul Razor in argues that there is a growing misconception that conservative Christianity is the only valid religious voice in our public debates about social policy7. He insists that liberal religions need to re-engage with the spiritual practice of bearing witness to speak and act for justice complementing and strengthening secular voices.

Social critic Cornel West often uses the term “prophetic” invoking the Jewish and Christian traditions who “brought urgent and compassionate critique to bear on the evils of their day”8.  West observes: “The mark of the prophet is to speak the truth in love with courage—come what may’. West also links the term “prophetic” to the tradition of Karl Marx and the critical social theories which substantively deal with Marx’s critique of oppression and his emancipatory moral vision.  Abraham Heschel speaks of “their breathless impatience with injustice” and affirms that prophets experience “moments that defy our understanding”9.

I used to think that a “prophet” was someone ranting about the impending apocalypse, the coming “End Times” or some other dire prediction of the future.  It was from theologian Marcus Borg that I learned that Biblical prophets were involved with social justice, and of their essential role in transformational politics10. Grounded in a profound experience of the sacred, prophets have a particular mission and message. They offer a radical critique of “where we are” and promote a vision of “where we need to be” and tell us the spiritual practices that can transition us from the former to the latter.  Their accounts of their experiences of the sacred take the literary form of visions and ecstatic states. With them they muster the courage to deliver very unpopular messages.

To be continued …

About the Author

Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world.  Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues.  He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.

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The Super Blood Wolf Moon Lunar Eclipse Arrives! Here are some Ritual ideas. [Stardust, Contemplating]

Even though it will be more than 220,000 miles away, the stunning spectacle of the Super Blood Wolf Moon will soon capture the gaze of many millions of people.  What do you have planned for this magical time?

With the snow piling up here in Michigan, it’s easy to forget that tomorrow the skies will clear, opening just in time for the Super Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse of 2019.  Are you ready?  Can you share this with a child?  Like so much of our Universe, this is another opportunity celebrate our joy of life – with help from our world.  (all the details and contact times are in this link.)

Super Blood Wolf Moon

Let’s unpack our adjectives.

“Super” refers to the moon’s position in it’s orbit around our Earth.  Like any orbit, the Moon’s orbit is not a perfect circle (though it isn’t far from being a perfect circle), so it has a point where it is the farthest from the Earth (called the “apogee”), and a point where it is the nearest to the Earth (the “perigee”).  The Moon can be in any phase when it is at either of these points, so sometimes, things line up so that when the full moon occurs, it is near perigee (so the Moon is near it’s closest point to us -within 90% of it’s closest approach), and it appears larger in the sky (though the Moon is of course the same actual size all the time).  This difference, even from the farthest full moon (near apogee) compared to a supermoon, is only about 14% (and usually less) of the apparent diameter of the moon.  An experienced moonwatcher can notice this, but isn’t something that will jump out at most people.  In fact, the Moon Illusion is a much stronger effect.  Nonetheless, it’s a cool thing to happen.

“Blood” refers to the red color of the Moon during the umbral phase of a lunar eclipse.  I find the cause of this red color to be amazing!  Imagine that you were at the North Pole, watching the Sun just peek over the horizon.  You would, of course, see the sun as an orange disc.  Right near the horizon, this would deepen to a reddish color, and father away from the horizon, it would be yellowish.  Have you ever wondered why that is the case?  It turns out that many of the most common types of light scattering (including those from dust as well as air) scatter the shorter wavelength colors (the bluer colors) to the sides, and allow the longer wavelenght (redder) colors to continue in a straight line.  This means that when the Sun appears at the horizon, the Sun’s light is going through a long path of atmosphere, and hence being scattered more, so the overall brightness goes down, and with the blue colors scattered to the sides, the remaining colors are redder.  This is also why we humans (incorrectly) often draw the Sun as yellow in drawings.  The Sun’s light is white (otherwise white objects would look yellow in daylight), but we associate yellow with Sunlight because when the Sun is dim enough to look at,  it usually is lower in the sky, and hence, yellow.  In reality, because the Sun’s light is pure white, and no more yellow than it is, say, green, a yellow Sun high in the sky in child’s drawing makes as much literal sense as a green Sun does! 

 

So, back to the North Pole.  You can see now that the light from Sun which just misses your face to the right or the left would continue off into space, behind you.  In fact, the light which “just misses” the Earth – which goes through the most atmosphere possible – will be bent (refracted) “down” from your position.  When a lunar eclipse occurs, the the Earth fully blocks all straight paths from the Sun to the Moon – so the *only* light that can reach the Moon (and illuminate it, as the Moon makes no light on it’s own), is this light which is refracted into the Earth’s shadow.  The surprising realization is that when one sees the blood moon, one is seeing only light from all of the sunsets and sunrises happening around the Earth at the very moment!  (see the top image)  Wow! This incredible realization has made me wonder – why we haven’t put a remote camera on the Moon, which could continually broadcast the image of the view of the Earth from the Moon?  That image could be on a constantly updated webpage – and during a total lunar eclipse, the Earth would appear as a blazing ring of fire!  This would be dirt cheap – especially compared to things like the massive 2018 giveaway to the 1%, or the Iraq war.  Reminders, yet again, that we “don’t yet live in a scientific age”, as Dr. Feynman pointed out many decades ago.

“Wolf” Moon – this refers to the Native American practice of naming the full moons.  This is a great tradition as it helps us keep the year in perspective and be aware of the turning year as the Wheel of the Year turns.  In some tribal traditions, the first full moon after the Winter Solstice (Yule) is the wolf moon (because wolves could be heard howling around the village in this time of deep winter).  Other tribes and traditions have other names, but this is the one which appears to be popular now.

An American Eclipse

Just like the 2017 Solar Eclipse, this eclipse is uniquely aligned for America.  Take a look at the map yourself!  It seems to me that it would be hard to position the eclipse better for the Americas than this one is positioned.  Unless you are in the Aleutian island – which I can see from my house! ; ) – if you are in any of the Americas, you can see the whole eclipse.

One special feature of Lunar Eclipses, is that because these are on the Moon, everyone can see them at exactly the same time.  This is a little hard to explain.  By contrast, solar eclipses are visible in different places (say, Nebraska vs. Illinois) at different times.  But because everyone sees the same Moon, everyone see the lunar eclipse simultaneously!  This can be an important part of everyone’s rituals – to know that as you are conducting your ritual, many millions of people are watching this same moon – and many are conducting their rituals with you.

Links in Time

While total lunar eclipses are more common than total solar eclipses (especially when one remember that solar eclipses are regional, as mentioned above), they are still uncommon.  The next lunar eclipse won’t be until 2021.  Think about what life will be like in 2021.  Who, in your life now, might not still be alive?  What new lives may have entered your life?  Who will be president?  What else might be different?  This eclipse, like all eclipses, is a moment we and look at time on a longer scale.  Do you want to incorporate this into your ritual?

Ritual ideas

An eclipse is a powerful time that forever strengthens one’s bond to the rest of our Universe, and thus a sacred time for us Naturalistic Pagans – and a good time for a ritual.  Rituals are often more powerful if we feel connected to them.  To gain that connection, it helps to be involved in the writing and planning of the ritual – whether that’s from scratch or just making minor tweaks.  So here are some ideas for rituals – and more can be found with some looking online.  For instance,  this site has several good rituals, and this closing:

With this eclipse, I am made new again.

I am untarnished, whole, and true.

There is nothing weighing me down,

I am free to fly and break through.

One nice thing about a lunar eclipse is that nothing happens horribly fast.  There is plenty of room to go slowly.  Holding the first part of the ritual in the long partial phase at the beginning of the eclipse (between first and second contacts),* and then holding the ending of the ritual in the long partial phase at the end of the eclipse (between third and fourth contacts)* encloses the maximum eclipse within your ritual, while also leaving you fully focused on the eclipse experience during the whatever the maximum of the eclipse will be for your location.

Set up your altar, with a red or black cloth, quarter cauldrons (typical cauldron contents include incense or a feather for East, a candle for South, a seashell or water for West, and a rock or earth for North, many of these on a bed of sand) , and items to be charged by the eclipse shadow.  You may want to mark the wider ritual circle with a stone at each quarter (and perhaps each cross-quarter).

Charging Objects

Like other eclipses, anything under the light of the eclipse can be considered to be charged with the power of the eclipse.  In this case, all objects will be charged by the reflected light of all the sunsets and sunrises around the world!  Wow!!

As I write this,   That reminds me that a song or chant would be a nice addition to this ritual, too.  Whether you celebrate in the path of totality, far from it, or at some other time, may your celebrations be blessed.

The Author: Jon Cleland Host

Starstuff, Contemplating: We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.

Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997.  He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature.  He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University.  Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org).  Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality.  He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.

See Starstuff, Contemplating posts.

See all of Dr. Jon Cleland Host’s posts.

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Bearing Witness to Social Injustice as A Spiritual Practice: Moving from Pain to Taking Compassionate Action, (Part 2 of 3) by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. [The Dionysian Naturalist]

  …. continued from Part 1.

Spirit of Life,

Limitless Creativity of the Cosmos,

Mystery of Mysteries,

Be with us now in this time of grave need,

When our governments inflict suffering,

When they shatter dreams and destroy lives,

And do not encourage broad-based human flourishing,

But instead promote discrimination and hatred.

We must lift up our sacred traditions

That teach that diversity is a gift,

That encourage compassion to all things,

And remind us constantly of our ethical responsibility to all people and to the Earth.

As people of faith and of moral commitments,

We must join the forces of resistance to fight these unjust actions.

Our traditions demand that we welcome the stranger and the sojourner.

The message of love and of freedom is strong and unswerving.

We must reject these forces of evil

And stand against the soul-harming hatred

It breeds and join in movements to stop the harm.

As people of faith and of conscience

We must stand against these policies and uphold values

That celebrate the fullness of the human family

In all its glorious diversity.

There are many of us, our voices are loud, our commitments are strong,

our will is tough as steel, and our faith unswerving.

May it be so.  Blessed Be and Amen.

III.      There have been many times in my life when I saw horrible suffering and had no idea what to do.  One night while walking home I saw a woman crawling out of her wheelchair to take refuge in a doorway. She said she didn’t want any assistance. Her hair was matted together and she smelled of urine. Wanting to do something, I reached into my pockets, located some bills and gave her a couple of bucks.  For a brief moment a flood of relief washed over me, but I was left with a terrible feeling that I hadn’t really done enough.

We often are numb to the suffering around us, unconsciously avoiding facing the harsh realities of modern life.  To navigate through our hectic lives we routinely turn on what I call ‘autopilot’, a deadened form of consciousness which encompasses modes of being, ways of acting and experiencing one’s existence to which we have become heavily familiarized.  The habitual nature of autopilot can feel good, often generating feelings of security and comfort through its solidly predictable outcomes. Autopilot is a central element in what I have elsewhere called the “cynical cycle of mindless inaction”5.

When we engage with the cynical cycle of mindless inaction:

We are closed to knowing about injustices;

We are numb to all the suffering of the world which exists all around us;

We don’t think that we can make any difference;

We mindlessly do what we have done before.”

When we turn off the autopilot of everyday existence and take time to deeply reflect on the ethics of our actions, we break out of that cycle.  We can become optimistic about our ability to change the world through the concrete ways in which we are leading our lives. Actions such as these, which are fully conscious of alternative courses of action, and which put our ideals into practice, are called “praxis”.

When our observation of another person’s suffering is not treated as a spiritual practice, we often turn away to not face the ugly and upsetting realities of our world, thinking that we should not watch other people’s struggles. We try to avoid and dispel the flood of emotions that come over us. We don’t want to think about other people’s ordeals. If we do observe another person’s suffering, it is polite to offer to help. These offers are impulsive reactions often lacking the deep reflection required for critical analysis, and tend to be more akin to charitable acts than to structural transformations which address root causes.

IV.

Bearing witness to the suffering of others as a spiritual practice is an essential component in movements for social justice and transformational politics.  It is a methodology for acquiring knowledge about certain phenomena which remain unknown to parts of the public.  It is also a means to bring such knowledge into the public sphere through the testimony of eyewitnesses and to therefore influence public debates about moral issues.

A witness is one who was there and saw for themselves what happened.  Their ability to observe events and situations allows them to testify to others about what they saw. Because they are eyewitnesses with direct firsthand information their testimonies are recognized in courts of law as evidence.  As anyone who has watched televised courtroom proceedings knows, these accounts are not flawless and are subject to numerous problems, including the failure of memory, selective perception, and deception.

Vision and truth have been linked to each other in Western Civilization since the time of the ancient Greeks.  Westerners supposedly assume that the truth isn’t readily apparent: it lies beneath the surface and things must be observed to be really understood.  With the rise of the natural sciences, vision becomes increasingly regarded as a central method for acquiring knowledge.  In the social sciences, approaches to objective reality range from more social constructionist concerns for how our mind’s use of interpretive practices frame the issues, to social positivists’ confidence in their ability to accurately capture the nature of objective reality. It is the objectivity of the data collection process that is up for debate. A problem inherent in observational approaches is validity, where observers rely exclusively on their own perceptions of situations and events. Another problem common in observational approaches is reliability, that the occurrence observed might be due to chance.

The information gathering aspect of bearing witness is similar to a qualitative research methodology.  As a way of knowing  it is based upon a technique that is similar to what is frequently called “naturalistic observation”.  While vision is crucial, naturalistic observation refers to a family of data collection techniques that are based upon the use of all of the human senses.  In observing we employ all of our senses to gather impressions of our surroundings. Archives across the globe contain important historical documents in which people give firsthand testimony about tragic events that have observed.

To be a rigorous methodology for researching empirical reality, naturalistic observation should be systematic, intentional, unobtrusive, sustained, non-interventionist, and take place in the natural context of the occurrence.  Two of those qualities which might be absent for bearing witness as a methodology are that it is typically unsystematic and usually not sustained over an extended period of time.  The unsystematic quality is due to a lack of formal training for those who witness and the absence of repeated professional experiences in the practice of collecting qualitative data.  However, witnesses can play specialized roles in unjust settings and thus are able to have sustained observation:  consider the nurse who bears witness to brutal battlefield injuries in scenes of modern warfare.  The moral imperative to speak truth to power based upon eyewitness testimony offsets any weakness in the efficacy of bearing witness as a research method.  For the people who become witnesses, they were there and saw for themselves what happened.  They do not care about whether their account upholds the demands of social scientific  rigor.  They saw for themselves the look of horror on the face of the abused.

The information is formulated into an descriptive account, a story in support of a political agenda.  It is a selective process that takes complex events and reduces them into more simple form, allowing us to use them for current political agendas.  How we tell the story about what we’ve witnessed is important.  The kind of context we invoke determines the meaning of the event and its reception.  We must carefully consider what types of information are needed to have these events advance specific agendas. What might be relevant details to the social scientist attempting to capture the nature of objective reality, might be extraneous matter the witness selects to eliminate because it does not serve the particular agenda being advanced.

Bearing witness enables us to publicly testify about the suffering of our world based upon firsthand observation.  It informs our actions to change the world and to alleviate suffering.  When possible we must remain committed to empowering those who suffer to play vital roles in the structural transformations required to end the suffering.  We must resist the tendency to take over and know that meaningful change must come from below.

As a formerly homeless person I understand just how challenging that can be.  For about a year I did community organizing on the streets and ran a “homeless” empowerment group.  People on the streets are often in “crisis” mode—so overwhelmed with their situation and just getting by that advocacy work seems impossible.  The work of cultivating a committed group of informed  and empowered activists who were without housing and able to show up and testify at the public meetings of policy decision-makers was formidable.  Yet when “real people” passionately tell their story the impact cannot be underestimated.  Without the empowerment of those who suffer we end up with a bureaucratic paternalism in which nice people who have never been there feel entitled to speak for us.

While structural changes which address the underlying issues leading to suffering are our ultimate goals as social justice activists, we must acknowledge the need for charitable acts.  People sleeping outdoors in cold winter months need warm sleeping bags and those who are hungry need food.  While some dismiss such acts as “mere band-aids” as they don’t change the circumstances, they are compassionate actions desperately needed for survival.

People who have been there know things that people who have not been there do not.  The quality of their knowledge is very high as it is based upon being an eyewitness to the events.  This disparate epistemology comes with burdens and obligations.  If you have important information needed to make the decisions made by your community you should not keep it to yourself.

To bear witness to unnecessary suffering is to see that which should not exist —the tragedy, the sorrow, the misery.  One does not look away, avoiding discomfort.  Quite the opposite, to bear witness one must pay close attention to what one is seeing, staying with the sight, allowing our minds to thoughtfully probe the situation, noticing details about what is occurring.  One must be fully present, and enter a state of mindfulness without distraction.  As a spiritual practice bearing witness is an act of intention and an act of attention.  While what we are seeing may be ugly and uncomfortable to experience we willingly stay with the situation.  We cultivate a mental framework of religiosity—openness, centered, respectful, compassion-filled–feeling our connection to the something larger than ourselves.

V.

Spiritual practices, such as rituals and meditation, may allow participants to enter into a ‘spiritual’ state of consciousness.  With the mind intensely focused on the holy work confronting it, we are able to fully experience the sacred.  In this frame of awareness we are able to focus on different phenomenon, including the interdependent web of existence, inner sources of wisdom, the common good, and the ideals of justice.  This special state of consciousness is an essential aspect of bearing witness.

For the Lakota Sioux this spiritual consciousness is initiated through the ritual use of “making a prayer”6.In contrast to the Protestant notion of prayer as a personal conversation with the Holy, the Lakota Sioux employ prayer as a means to initiate this state of spiritual awareness.  A spiritual schema, or “container”, is thus created which frames all that follows, infusing all actions with reverence, allowing a depth of purpose to permeate the occasion.  Maintaining this spiritual state of consciousness is no easy matter, and demands significant levels of concentration.

What makes bearing witness a spiritual practice is the enactment of such a container.  I have found that I can more readily enter this spiritual state of consciousness through the regular use of prayer (such as the one opening this essay).  In this state one can observe another’s suffering with a sense that one is doing holy work, able to continue looking at that which is hard to look at, maintaining a dignity which shines out to the world.  By creating a spiritual container, everything is held together and the focus required for the purpose can be sustained. The strength and courage needed to bear witness are enabled.

Cultivating bearing witness as a spiritual practice becomes easier through repetition.  As a ‘practice”, we repeatedly do it again and again, developing our own personal style.  While our minds are too fully present to use the word “habit”, the exercise becomes second nature.  Consistent repetition is essential to transforming observing suffering into bearing witness. But should we remember?  Perhaps in the name of reconciliation we would be better off if we simply forgot and moved on.  By socializing children to historical traumas we lock them into past loyalties and prescribed scripts.  Memories of injustice can be dangerous as disruptive to the status quo, even if that status quo is not the same perpetrator of the initial wrongs.

Along with the use of a spiritual state of consciousness, bearing witness becomes a spiritual practice when we take the time to deeply reflect upon what we have seen, allowing ourselves to be changed. To witness massive victimization or a catastrophic event is painful because the experience can shatter our worldview, thus radically transforming us. When we fully empathize with another, gather more information about the issue, and share our experience with our faith community, it allows us to examine how our privileges are cut from the same cloth as these people’s pains. Rather than seeking immediate “band-aids” we seek structural transformations which address the root causes. We contrast the “way things are” with “the  way they should be” and consider spiritual practices which might allow us to change the circumstances.  This is prophesy.

VI.

Bearing witness is prophetic –a faith-based spiritual practice with religious commitment and values. Liberal theologian Paul Razor in argues that there is a growing misconception that conservative Christianity is the only valid religious voice in our public debates about social policy7. He insists that liberal religions need to re-engage with the spiritual practice of bearing witness to speak and act for justice complementing and strengthening secular voices.

Social critic Cornel West often uses the term “prophetic” invoking the Jewish and Christian traditions who “brought urgent and compassionate critique to bear on the evils of their day”8.  West observes: “The mark of the prophet is to speak the truth in love with courage—come what may’. West also links the term “prophetic” to the tradition of Karl Marx and the critical social theories which substantively deal with Marx’s critique of oppression and his emancipatory moral vision.  Abraham Heschel speaks of “their breathless impatience with injustice” and affirms that prophets experience “moments that defy our understanding”9.

I used to think that a “prophet” was someone ranting about the impending apocalypse, the coming “End Times” or some other dire prediction of the future.  It was from theologian Marcus Borg that I learned that Biblical prophets were involved with social justice, and of their essential role in transformational politics10. Grounded in a profound experience of the sacred, prophets have a particular mission and message. They offer a radical critique of “where we are” and promote a vision of “where we need to be” and tell us the spiritual practices that can transition us from the former to the latter.  Their accounts of their experiences of the sacred take the literary form of visions and ecstatic states. With them they muster the courage to deliver very unpopular messages.

To be continued …

About the Author

Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world.  Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues.  He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.

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Bearing Witness to Social Injustice as A Spiritual Practice: Moving from Pain to Taking Compassionate Action, (Part 2 of 3) by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. [The Dionysian Naturalist]

  …. continued from Part 1.

Spirit of Life,

Limitless Creativity of the Cosmos,

Mystery of Mysteries,

Be with us now in this time of grave need,

When our governments inflict suffering,

When they shatter dreams and destroy lives,

And do not encourage broad-based human flourishing,

But instead promote discrimination and hatred.

We must lift up our sacred traditions

That teach that diversity is a gift,

That encourage compassion to all things,

And remind us constantly of our ethical responsibility to all people and to the Earth.

As people of faith and of moral commitments,

We must join the forces of resistance to fight these unjust actions.

Our traditions demand that we welcome the stranger and the sojourner.

The message of love and of freedom is strong and unswerving.

We must reject these forces of evil

And stand against the soul-harming hatred

It breeds and join in movements to stop the harm.

As people of faith and of conscience

We must stand against these policies and uphold values

That celebrate the fullness of the human family

In all its glorious diversity.

There are many of us, our voices are loud, our commitments are strong,

our will is tough as steel, and our faith unswerving.

May it be so.  Blessed Be and Amen.

III.      There have been many times in my life when I saw horrible suffering and had no idea what to do.  One night while walking home I saw a woman crawling out of her wheelchair to take refuge in a doorway. She said she didn’t want any assistance. Her hair was matted together and she smelled of urine. Wanting to do something, I reached into my pockets, located some bills and gave her a couple of bucks.  For a brief moment a flood of relief washed over me, but I was left with a terrible feeling that I hadn’t really done enough.

We often are numb to the suffering around us, unconsciously avoiding facing the harsh realities of modern life.  To navigate through our hectic lives we routinely turn on what I call ‘autopilot’, a deadened form of consciousness which encompasses modes of being, ways of acting and experiencing one’s existence to which we have become heavily familiarized.  The habitual nature of autopilot can feel good, often generating feelings of security and comfort through its solidly predictable outcomes. Autopilot is a central element in what I have elsewhere called the “cynical cycle of mindless inaction”5.

When we engage with the cynical cycle of mindless inaction:

We are closed to knowing about injustices;

We are numb to all the suffering of the world which exists all around us;

We don’t think that we can make any difference;

We mindlessly do what we have done before.”

When we turn off the autopilot of everyday existence and take time to deeply reflect on the ethics of our actions, we break out of that cycle.  We can become optimistic about our ability to change the world through the concrete ways in which we are leading our lives. Actions such as these, which are fully conscious of alternative courses of action, and which put our ideals into practice, are called “praxis”.

When our observation of another person’s suffering is not treated as a spiritual practice, we often turn away to not face the ugly and upsetting realities of our world, thinking that we should not watch other people’s struggles. We try to avoid and dispel the flood of emotions that come over us. We don’t want to think about other people’s ordeals. If we do observe another person’s suffering, it is polite to offer to help. These offers are impulsive reactions often lacking the deep reflection required for critical analysis, and tend to be more akin to charitable acts than to structural transformations which address root causes.

IV.

Bearing witness to the suffering of others as a spiritual practice is an essential component in movements for social justice and transformational politics.  It is a methodology for acquiring knowledge about certain phenomena which remain unknown to parts of the public.  It is also a means to bring such knowledge into the public sphere through the testimony of eyewitnesses and to therefore influence public debates about moral issues.

A witness is one who was there and saw for themselves what happened.  Their ability to observe events and situations allows them to testify to others about what they saw. Because they are eyewitnesses with direct firsthand information their testimonies are recognized in courts of law as evidence.  As anyone who has watched televised courtroom proceedings knows, these accounts are not flawless and are subject to numerous problems, including the failure of memory, selective perception, and deception.

Vision and truth have been linked to each other in Western Civilization since the time of the ancient Greeks.  Westerners supposedly assume that the truth isn’t readily apparent: it lies beneath the surface and things must be observed to be really understood.  With the rise of the natural sciences, vision becomes increasingly regarded as a central method for acquiring knowledge.  In the social sciences, approaches to objective reality range from more social constructionist concerns for how our mind’s use of interpretive practices frame the issues, to social positivists’ confidence in their ability to accurately capture the nature of objective reality. It is the objectivity of the data collection process that is up for debate. A problem inherent in observational approaches is validity, where observers rely exclusively on their own perceptions of situations and events. Another problem common in observational approaches is reliability, that the occurrence observed might be due to chance.

The information gathering aspect of bearing witness is similar to a qualitative research methodology.  As a way of knowing  it is based upon a technique that is similar to what is frequently called “naturalistic observation”.  While vision is crucial, naturalistic observation refers to a family of data collection techniques that are based upon the use of all of the human senses.  In observing we employ all of our senses to gather impressions of our surroundings. Archives across the globe contain important historical documents in which people give firsthand testimony about tragic events that have observed.

To be a rigorous methodology for researching empirical reality, naturalistic observation should be systematic, intentional, unobtrusive, sustained, non-interventionist, and take place in the natural context of the occurrence.  Two of those qualities which might be absent for bearing witness as a methodology are that it is typically unsystematic and usually not sustained over an extended period of time.  The unsystematic quality is due to a lack of formal training for those who witness and the absence of repeated professional experiences in the practice of collecting qualitative data.  However, witnesses can play specialized roles in unjust settings and thus are able to have sustained observation:  consider the nurse who bears witness to brutal battlefield injuries in scenes of modern warfare.  The moral imperative to speak truth to power based upon eyewitness testimony offsets any weakness in the efficacy of bearing witness as a research method.  For the people who become witnesses, they were there and saw for themselves what happened.  They do not care about whether their account upholds the demands of social scientific  rigor.  They saw for themselves the look of horror on the face of the abused.

The information is formulated into an descriptive account, a story in support of a political agenda.  It is a selective process that takes complex events and reduces them into more simple form, allowing us to use them for current political agendas.  How we tell the story about what we’ve witnessed is important.  The kind of context we invoke determines the meaning of the event and its reception.  We must carefully consider what types of information are needed to have these events advance specific agendas. What might be relevant details to the social scientist attempting to capture the nature of objective reality, might be extraneous matter the witness selects to eliminate because it does not serve the particular agenda being advanced.

Bearing witness enables us to publicly testify about the suffering of our world based upon firsthand observation.  It informs our actions to change the world and to alleviate suffering.  When possible we must remain committed to empowering those who suffer to play vital roles in the structural transformations required to end the suffering.  We must resist the tendency to take over and know that meaningful change must come from below.

As a formerly homeless person I understand just how challenging that can be.  For about a year I did community organizing on the streets and ran a “homeless” empowerment group.  People on the streets are often in “crisis” mode—so overwhelmed with their situation and just getting by that advocacy work seems impossible.  The work of cultivating a committed group of informed  and empowered activists who were without housing and able to show up and testify at the public meetings of policy decision-makers was formidable.  Yet when “real people” passionately tell their story the impact cannot be underestimated.  Without the empowerment of those who suffer we end up with a bureaucratic paternalism in which nice people who have never been there feel entitled to speak for us.

While structural changes which address the underlying issues leading to suffering are our ultimate goals as social justice activists, we must acknowledge the need for charitable acts.  People sleeping outdoors in cold winter months need warm sleeping bags and those who are hungry need food.  While some dismiss such acts as “mere band-aids” as they don’t change the circumstances, they are compassionate actions desperately needed for survival.

People who have been there know things that people who have not been there do not.  The quality of their knowledge is very high as it is based upon being an eyewitness to the events.  This disparate epistemology comes with burdens and obligations.  If you have important information needed to make the decisions made by your community you should not keep it to yourself.

To bear witness to unnecessary suffering is to see that which should not exist —the tragedy, the sorrow, the misery.  One does not look away, avoiding discomfort.  Quite the opposite, to bear witness one must pay close attention to what one is seeing, staying with the sight, allowing our minds to thoughtfully probe the situation, noticing details about what is occurring.  One must be fully present, and enter a state of mindfulness without distraction.  As a spiritual practice bearing witness is an act of intention and an act of attention.  While what we are seeing may be ugly and uncomfortable to experience we willingly stay with the situation.  We cultivate a mental framework of religiosity—openness, centered, respectful, compassion-filled–feeling our connection to the something larger than ourselves.

V.

Spiritual practices, such as rituals and meditation, may allow participants to enter into a ‘spiritual’ state of consciousness.  With the mind intensely focused on the holy work confronting it, we are able to fully experience the sacred.  In this frame of awareness we are able to focus on different phenomenon, including the interdependent web of existence, inner sources of wisdom, the common good, and the ideals of justice.  This special state of consciousness is an essential aspect of bearing witness.

For the Lakota Sioux this spiritual consciousness is initiated through the ritual use of “making a prayer”6.In contrast to the Protestant notion of prayer as a personal conversation with the Holy, the Lakota Sioux employ prayer as a means to initiate this state of spiritual awareness.  A spiritual schema, or “container”, is thus created which frames all that follows, infusing all actions with reverence, allowing a depth of purpose to permeate the occasion.  Maintaining this spiritual state of consciousness is no easy matter, and demands significant levels of concentration.

What makes bearing witness a spiritual practice is the enactment of such a container.  I have found that I can more readily enter this spiritual state of consciousness through the regular use of prayer (such as the one opening this essay).  In this state one can observe another’s suffering with a sense that one is doing holy work, able to continue looking at that which is hard to look at, maintaining a dignity which shines out to the world.  By creating a spiritual container, everything is held together and the focus required for the purpose can be sustained. The strength and courage needed to bear witness are enabled.

Cultivating bearing witness as a spiritual practice becomes easier through repetition.  As a ‘practice”, we repeatedly do it again and again, developing our own personal style.  While our minds are too fully present to use the word “habit”, the exercise becomes second nature.  Consistent repetition is essential to transforming observing suffering into bearing witness. But should we remember?  Perhaps in the name of reconciliation we would be better off if we simply forgot and moved on.  By socializing children to historical traumas we lock them into past loyalties and prescribed scripts.  Memories of injustice can be dangerous as disruptive to the status quo, even if that status quo is not the same perpetrator of the initial wrongs.

Along with the use of a spiritual state of consciousness, bearing witness becomes a spiritual practice when we take the time to deeply reflect upon what we have seen, allowing ourselves to be changed. To witness massive victimization or a catastrophic event is painful because the experience can shatter our worldview, thus radically transforming us. When we fully empathize with another, gather more information about the issue, and share our experience with our faith community, it allows us to examine how our privileges are cut from the same cloth as these people’s pains. Rather than seeking immediate “band-aids” we seek structural transformations which address the root causes. We contrast the “way things are” with “the  way they should be” and consider spiritual practices which might allow us to change the circumstances.  This is prophesy.

VI.

Bearing witness is prophetic –a faith-based spiritual practice with religious commitment and values. Liberal theologian Paul Razor in argues that there is a growing misconception that conservative Christianity is the only valid religious voice in our public debates about social policy7. He insists that liberal religions need to re-engage with the spiritual practice of bearing witness to speak and act for justice complementing and strengthening secular voices.

Social critic Cornel West often uses the term “prophetic” invoking the Jewish and Christian traditions who “brought urgent and compassionate critique to bear on the evils of their day”8.  West observes: “The mark of the prophet is to speak the truth in love with courage—come what may’. West also links the term “prophetic” to the tradition of Karl Marx and the critical social theories which substantively deal with Marx’s critique of oppression and his emancipatory moral vision.  Abraham Heschel speaks of “their breathless impatience with injustice” and affirms that prophets experience “moments that defy our understanding”9.

I used to think that a “prophet” was someone ranting about the impending apocalypse, the coming “End Times” or some other dire prediction of the future.  It was from theologian Marcus Borg that I learned that Biblical prophets were involved with social justice, and of their essential role in transformational politics10. Grounded in a profound experience of the sacred, prophets have a particular mission and message. They offer a radical critique of “where we are” and promote a vision of “where we need to be” and tell us the spiritual practices that can transition us from the former to the latter.  Their accounts of their experiences of the sacred take the literary form of visions and ecstatic states. With them they muster the courage to deliver very unpopular messages.

To be continued …

About the Author

Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world.  Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues.  He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.

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