“The Paradox of Difference”
Back when I was in my first round of seminary studies, I was privileged to be taught and mentored by Miriam Therese Winter – MT, we called her. A self- proclaimed radical feminist; a Medical Mission Sister who had traveled the globe serving the poor; a musician and songwriter; author and teacher. I learned much about gratitude and compassion under her tutelage. She was, around that time, working on a book entitled, Paradoxology: Spirituality in a Quantum Universe. I had gravitated in my coursework toward an exploration of the places where science and spirituality meet. For some this is a conundrum – the thought that you can’t be both scientific and religious at the same time; that they are at odds. You must be one or the other is the predominant idea – either/or – this or that – black or white - mutually exclusive. You probably know by now that I am not of this vein of thinking!
MT talks about the paradigm in which we live – which lives in us as well – something we touched on last week when thinking about our culture on the macro and the micro level. Within that paradigm she points to paradox – what America says it stands for and the realities that exist in the underbelly of it. We are this larger ideal of equality and freedom for all because it has been professed from our beginnings and has seeped into our DNA – that of our systems and ourselves – AND – we are this reality also that for some who exist most frequently on the margins there is very little equality or freedom in their day to day existence. It is not one or the other. It is both/and. We are both/and.
We can think of the prevailing paradigm as the status quo of our dominant systems and a paradigm shift would replace that with another. We often say that we need a paradigm shift – a new way of thinking about something; new way of doing something, be it in our nation or our work life or our church life. Maybe it is even a personal paradigm shift we consider from time to time as we decide to step out in a different direction. The thing that I find so fascinating about this practice is that it employs either/or thinking. We forgo one way in deference to another. We leave one behind as we head off down an alternate path.
Living in the paradox of both what was and what could be runs counter to our practice. Paradox is messy, contradictory, hard to believe. It points to a tension of opposites held simultaneously and is given little attention in the Western mind. Richard Rohr, who writes daily from the Center for Action and Contemplation, suggests that our ego selves want all paradox resolved in mechanistic ways using patterns of interaction that we are familiar with. We want it all cleaned up, nice and neat. We limit ourselves with this kind of one way or the other thinking. We leave no room for what is sometimes referred to as the gray area, lacking the crispness of black or white; the murky space where one bleeds into the other like watercolors on soft paper.
The truth is that we live at the intersection of many ways of being and thinking. If I asked each of you for an adjective to describe UUMH, I would have nearly as many ideas as I have people being polled. We are, at once, each of these descriptors and all of them together. This concept of intersectionality is not so much like a crossroads where divergent paths meet only
momentarily and then move off in their own directions. It is more of a connecting place where many streams and rivers converge in larger and larger bodies of water. Crystal clear meets the saltiness of oceans in brackish estuaries. I am not so surprised that in our common vernacular these terms are afforded a negative connotation – gray is considered without color; associated with clouds and ash and lead; somehow impure and unclean – brackish is defined as unpleasant or distasteful. We deny the culmination of all that we are as persons and as a people when we restrict ourselves to only one component of many, and yet this is what we are encouraged toward in the present paradigm.
I come upon this paradox of difference as I think about humanity as a whole; made up of individual human beings, cohorts of beings, the intersections of identity inherent in each of us and all of us. We are unique – each of us incredibly complex and possessed of our own compilation of nature’s building blocks; shaped by the myriad experiences that life has gifted us with. We are different; you and I and your neighbor; your sibling; your lover; your friend. And at the same time, we are not. Part of me is wrapped up in part of you and another and another it goes ad infinitum because those crossroads are indeed more vast than we often give them credit for; more impactful; rich and full of life like the marshy places we know and love here on the Cape.
Dr. Deborah Plummer, psychologist, professor, and chief diversity officer at UMass Medical School, who I have spoken with you before about and whose book, “Some of My Friends Are . . .” I am finally reading two years hence, notes this paradox of diversity. Diversity refers to differences in race & ethnicity, culture, gender and gender expression, age, class, ability, personality – the list goes on. We are diverse and we are the same in that we are all human beings with characteristics unique to that identity. She says that our traditional ways of understanding difference are rooted in a dominance model that posits some inherent differences over others. Male is better than female; white skin better than darker; able-bodied better than not; young better than old; heterosexual better than LGBTQ in orientation. It is the workings of our brains as they attempt to efficiently categorize and organize creating hierarchies of existence. The result is that we treat differences as independent variables. An intersectional mindset has come more to the fore as our world has become more economically and informationally globalized; our notion of identity challenged by the flow across seamless national borders. Ultimately, we become better able to navigate our multiculturalism as we realize the complexities of our intersections. We are different in equal proportion to our sameness.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point to the current backlash of this insertion of paradoxical thinking into our either/or paradigm. And perhaps this is a way of understanding some of what we see going on around us. Our very way of being is daily asked to consider a shift that isn’t even so clear cut as this method or politic over one entirely opposite. We are being asked to dive into the brackish waters; to acknowledge the intersections and that is exponentially more threatening than being asked to simply cross over to the other shore.
I am participating in a book study with a group of colleagues using Resmaa Menakem’s “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.” He is a licensed social worker and trauma consultant who has worked in communities and alongside the military in Afghanistan. Menakem acknowledges the cumulative trauma that exists in all of our beings and helps to unpack the racial violence that has become a hallmark of our American culture. Man’s inhumanity to man is ancient apparently – one of those things I knew in the deep recesses of my mind from breezed over studies of medieval times. We have been torturing one another as a way inflicting punishment or warning for eons of time; a fact which, as I hone in on it in this study, saddens me beyond what words can express because there is just a better way; so simple, so available. But what Menakem points to is the fact that we often treat others in the ways that we have been treated. Early Americans used the same techniques that they fled from in Europe when faced with opposition or threat. With the creation of race as a way to other and distinguish we turned to lynching and other atrocities as a means to take control of what was the potential to upset our paradigm. These were not new ideas. And it continues in the streets today. We are all victims in this cycle and we all carry the trauma in our bodies, whether we are black or white. The same part of our brain is triggered whether we are a young black man walking through a mostly white neighborhood or we are a white woman passing him on the sidewalk or we are the local police officer who is called to the scene. Menakem isn’t making excuses for any of it, but his explanation helps in understanding what is going on in our communities these days. And he offers somatic skills that we can use when triggered and our fight or flee response kicks in; a new means of healing for our current circumstances. At its core, white supremacy is white body supremacy; rooted in our bodies and inflicted on other bodies. His work is with people of all races and more recently with law enforcement agencies to train us in better responses that break the cycle so deeply embedded in our DNA.
This paradox of difference is a lens into race and privilege for sure. We are both different and not. And we are taught to fear what is different while not being given any insights into what is common among us; taught to position the former over the latter. Within the paradox of difference itself lies a deeper layer as we recognize that the very thing we need is the thing we are most afraid of; most apt to eschew.
Paradox strikes a chord for us here in Chatham, too. We have a different minister with a different style. We are meeting in very different ways these days. We are connected and disconnected both. We are navigating through a time of transition; of thinking about who we are as a faith community; of what we hope for. This is an invitation into complex conversations about the world we cherish. It is yet another entrance into the issues that we face every day.
Paradox suggests that we not think about these things in absolutes – what we were and some concrete and tangible other just over there that we can jump to, either personally or as a faith community. Paradox invites us to wade into the marsh and notice all the life that awaits us; to reshape ourselves at the intersections of what was, who we are, what is happening around us now, what we can envision of a future that gathers it all up fearlessly and unthreatened because we do it together, grounded in Love. May it be so and Amen.