Last week I wrote that the goal of multi-faith work is institutional and structural change. We had a great response to that article. Thank you to all who communicated with us about it.
This week I want to address two of the challenges we see in larger culture around working for institutional and structural change: denial and defensiveness, and the search for purity. These challenges can separate us from one another and break down the multi-faith relationships that make institutional and structural change possible.
Denial and Defensiveness
No institution is perfect. No economic or legal system is perfect. But when we participate in and even benefit from them it can be hard to hear how far from perfect they are. We can identify so much with the institutions and structures around us that we feel like a critique of them is an attack on us. I think probably all human beings have a first reaction of denial and defensiveness when something we are a part of is shown to fall short of the ideal.
That reaction is okay. But realize that it is just a reaction. Then take a deep breath.
- Reflect on the stated ideals of that institution. Are they adequate? Could those ideals be clearer?
- Reflect on the lived reality of that institution. How does that lived reality fall short of those ideals?
- Ask those most negatively impacted by the institution’s shortcomings about their experience. Take time to listen, feel, and have compassion.
- Then ask how you could use your influence to make the lived reality of that institution more like the ideal.
When we can accept the imperfection of our institutions AND work for a more perfect institution we can take the energy required to stay in denial and defensiveness and use it to make things just a bit better. Working to create a more perfect institution or structure is, in my view, a deeper form of love for the institution than just defending it from critique.
Search for Purity
When we see the vast shortcomings of institutions and structures we feel anger.
Anger (I am not talking about rage or abusiveness!) is based in love. Someone or something we love is harmed, and anger is a reaction that something needs to change. This kind of anger is good and can lead to positive action to bring change to institutions and structures.
However, I can see among some activists a kind of search for purity. If someone uses the “wrong” language they don’t respond well. If someone doesn’t agree with their goals or strategies they don’t respond well.
As Dr. Loretta Ross wrote in her book and NY Times article, we never agree with someone more than about 90% of the time. We also need to know how to work with people who we agree with 75% of the time and even 50% of the time. We at least need to work on how to communicate with people we hardly agree with at all.
She teaches that movements that work for institutional and structural change need to welcome diversity. Cults need total conformity, movements do not.
Seeing the imperfections of an institution or structure is a gift to the larger community – even to those institutions or structures themselves. As we do that work (including talking with those who are in denial or defensive) we also need to remember three things:
- We are not perfect or pure
- Our ideas for how to change things are not perfect or pure
- Any outcome of change is not likely to be perfect either
Yet, despite this, it is still important, even vital, to work for such change.
The reality is that the institutions and structures in our world impact people far more than our interpersonal niceness. Using our influence to make the lived reality of that institution more like the ideal is a form of love.
Letting Go of Our Need to Be Right
When we can step back from our first reaction of denial and defensiveness and realize that our institutions are not perfect, we can do our part of work for a more perfect lived reality. When we can step back from our anger and realize our own imperfections and let go of our search for purity, we will find more partners to work for a more perfect lived reality.
In the end, both of these arise from our need to be right, from our very human desire to justify our own existence and identities. Wisdom traditions of many kinds help us to identify these very human desires, meet these needs, and help us learn another way to work together.
I think sometimes those doing interfaith work have limited our work to conversations and relationship because it is lower risk, it is safer. But our world, both our ecosystem and our society, will not be served by playing it safe.
When we can work through our denial and defensiveness and our search for purity, we can find a way to work for the common good together. When we set aside our need to be right, we can make a not-so-perfect world more perfect.