Report on the 2017 Theology & Peace Conference: Embracing We-Centricity

Article featured in the COV&R Bulletin (Now available with free and open online access!)

I’m not okay. When you ask me in passing how I am, I may answer ‘fine’… We all answer with the same line, ‘I’m fine. How are you?’ But none of us are okay. On 9/11, the American people experienced a massive trauma. We are suffering from a form of collective PTSD we have yet to address. We are not okay.
~ Sereta Richardson

Last May, Theology & Peace held our tenth anniversary conference: “Embracing We-Centricity: Practices that Nurture the Common Good.” Our theme was inspired in part by Vittorio Gallese’s use of the term “we-centricity” to describe our inherent openness to the other:

“Every time we relate to other people, we automatically inhabit a we-centric space, within which we exploit a series of implicit certainties about the other. This implicit and pre-theoretical, but at the same time contentful state enables us to directly understand what the other person is doing, why he or she is doing it, and how he or she feels about a specific situation.” (“The Two Sides of Mimesis,” Mimesis and Science, 100)

While mimetic theory helps explain our interconnectedness, it more importantly reveals why “we-centricity” is also problematic, why the “common good” has historically been a bad thing for those who have been victimized and excluded. Beginning with our 2013 conference, “Lynching, Scapegoating & Actual Innocence,” Theology & Peace has examined the history of racism, the inherited trauma of slavery and lynching, and the continued destruction to black communities unleashed by the War on Drugs. With the mass incarceration of black men, the American people are engaging in scapegoating on a horrific scale. As pastors, theologians and activists, our goal is to educate our faith communities on the sacrificial foundations which structure our corporate life. And going beyond diagnosis, we seek practical models for nonviolent action that subvert the deep structures of racism, that interrupt the negative rhetoric directed against immigrants, Muslims, and LGBTQ persons, and that de-escalate mimetic contagion before it sweeps us up in its wake.

A year ago, at this time, the board of Theology & Peace recognized that whatever the results of the U.S. presidential election, the American people would be deeply divided. Sick with rivalry and self-righteous contempt on all sides, our public discourse has been reduced to a circus of model-obstacle relationships. The language of universal rights is stifled by a growing rhetoric of hate and resentment. We do not have to accept this as the new normal. René Girard bequeathed us the tools not only to parse the mimetic dynamics fueling the rise of populism and “the age of anger,” but to set the stage for a new era of political and social engagement.

At this year’s Theology & Peace conference, we engaged spiritual practices which, repeated over time, can transform our habitual ways of being together. Drawing on a variety of faith traditions, our speakers provided us with tangible tools not only for building our resistance to the unconscious dynamics responsible for scapegoating, but for creating compassionate spaces for healing our individual and collective trauma.

Sister Rose Pacatte led us in “Watching Film as a Spiritual Practice,” an adaptation of lectio divina, the ancient monastic practice of receptivity to the power of scripture. Together we watched the film The Visitor about a man who arrives home to discover illegal immigrants camped out in his NYC apartment. Sr. Rose asked that we identify with a character in the film—that we reflect on a scene in movie which seemed to “choose us” and share with others the ways the film touched our hearts. Our ego-centric engagement with the film was suspended just enough that we found ourselves impacted in unexpected ways.

Theology & Peace board member Sereta Richardson presented on Circle Processes. A black woman, a single mother, a veteran, and a former police officer, Sereta recounted with unusual eloquence and honesty the pain of a life marked by trauma and PTSD. She described the release that comes with sharing with others around the circle the suffering that each of us has bottled up inside. Delivering the words quoted above, she warned us. As long as 9/11 and its unprocessed pain remains bottled up in the American people, our collective PTSD poses a threat to ourselves and to the rest of the world, too often seeking release by targeting others in our midst. Inviting us to join her in a circle process, Sereta asked that those who were willing vocalize what they’re most afraid of. As we went around the room, we could feel our shared space shift from fear to compassion.

Boston College theologian Brian D. Robinette shared his work integrating mimetic theory with Christian contemplative practice. Distilling the wisdom of the desert monastics and contemporary teachers like Belden Lane and Martin Laird, Brian described multiple ways contemplative practice loosens mimetic binds, freeing us from rivalry with our neighbors in order that we may truly love them. Turning the gaze inward, we come to recognize the many borrowed desires within us! In the “practice of stillness,” we don’t judge those desires or afflicted emotions, we just take notice, “this is what envy feels like,” and without commentary we simply let them go. Stepping back from the many mimetic hooks we encounter on a daily basis, we quietly observe their passage down the stream of conscious awareness. Over time, the contemplative learns “to become creatively ‘indifferent’ (or ‘non-reactive’) to the riot of mimetic comparisons”. Brian offered us this image: “we can become dispassionate witness to the thoughts and desires streaming though us, as though watching particles swirling in a snow globe.” (See his article, “Contemplative Practice and the Therapy of Mimetic Desire,” Contagion 24 [2017], pp. 73-100, quotations from pp. 87 and 89.)

Role Playing

Jonathan Brenneman, Coordinator for Israel/Palestine Partners in Peacemaking, Mennonite Church USA, presented on “The Spiritual Practice of Nonviolent Direct Action.” A member of Christian Peacemaking Teams (CPT), he stood with victims of aggression in Hebron (Palestine), at Standing Rock, and in South Africa. Jonathan shared faith-based strategies focused on de-escalating conflict and improving conditions for victims of oppression and violence. Following the poet Joy Harjo, Jonathan emphasized that we treat the enemy as worthy of engagement. Do not demonize the oppressors, but view them as mistaken. Include them in solutions understood as correction rather than victory. Jonathan described a critical moment in Hebron when the checkpoints closed suddenly, making it difficult for Palestinian school children to return home. CPT utilized their training to engage the soldiers as part of the solution rather than treating them as enemies worthy only of hate. Jonathan concluded by engaging us in role play between the victim, the aggressor, and active bystanders able to disrupt the status quo. He equipped us with an extensive list of best practices: “feel the discomfort, assess what’s happening, be aware of how many people are around, be aware of exists.…” (The entire list is on our website.) The final word: “Remember that the aggressor is loved by God and wants to act positively.” Jonathan quoted Thomas Merton: “The tactic of nonviolence is a tactic of love that seeks the salvation and redemption of the opponent, not his castigation, humiliation, and defeat” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander [Image, 1968] 86).

Elder CW Harris, founder of Intersection of Change (formerly Newborn Holistic Ministries), led an ecumenical worship service honoring his mentor, Gordon Cosby, founder of Church of the Savior in Washington, DC. His sermon described how he, a young black man, was “seized by a great affection.” Cosby introduced him not only to mimetic theory, but to a communal faith life shared with the victim—the homeless, junkies, ex-convicts. Cosby’s witness helped CW rise above anger and resentment, the collective response of many young blacks to the crushing reality of racism. Today CW continues to share that communal life in his community, Sandtown, Baltimore, a neighborhood ravaged by race riots in the ’60s and more recently by the War on the Drugs. Since the death of Freddie Gray, Sandtown has been at the center of the conflict between police and people of color. In the midst of the crisis, CW, building on the positive models he received from Gordon Cosby, has worked tirelessly to de-escalate the violence.

With recent events in Charlottesville, these are practices and models we sorely need.

Where do go from here? In our final conference session all those in attendance agreed we would create an online resource for those interested in cultivating the spiritual practices presented at the conference. We also invite you to join our Facebook page and participate on our Facebook discussion page. Please go to our website and consider becoming a member and/or making a donation.

Join us next year:
2018 Theology & Peace Conference
“Accepting the Invitation to the Beloved Community”
Monday, May 21 – Thursday, May 24, 2018
Hosted by American Baptist College, Nashville, Tennessee

Speakers include:
Dr. Forrest E. Harris, President of American Baptist College
The Rev. Dr. Thee Smith, EmoryUniversity
 Becca Stevens, Founder of Thistle Farms

About Sue Wright

I use Rene Girard's mimetic theory to read comics. It's amazing what comes to light. Comics are far richer than I ever realized.
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