Today, I want to tell you a bit more about my approach to pastoral care, maybe even try for a definition, and to give you an idea about why the perspectives I teach have led to my being invited by Friends Peace Teams to teach ministers and priests in the traumatized country of Rwanda.

There’s an old joke, although sometimes it is said seriously, about how great it must be to be a minister or priest and only have to work that one hour on Sunday. It turns out that the joke is not really that funny. The worship service and the sermon may be the most visible part of the job, but so much more happens during the rest of the week.

What the clergy do during the rest of the time is called “pastoral care,” and it’s not primarily or obviously about religious beliefs or behaviors. Pastoral Care might be defined as how belief and religion play out in human relationships and community.

Very often people come into a religious congregation out of a sense of need. These seekers may be wounded by life, or they might not be able to get by economically. They may carry guilt or fear that springs from past behaviors or experiences. They may be preparing for major transitions in their lives, often including preparing for death. In my experience, many people cannot even identify what it is they seek. They may simply have questions about life that the values of the surrounding culture don’t address Their families or culture may be telling them that they should be feeling happy, grateful, or fulfilled. People often don’t feel safe enough to reveal something about themselves that they believe is socially unacceptable or that makes them look weak or foolish. It is the job of pastoral care to create the safe container that allows people talk about the heavy burdens, or merely the questions, that they carry.

Another way to look at pastoral care is by recognizing that our behavior says more about what we believe than what we say. When I was a prison chaplain, there was a chalk board next to my office desk. I had written on it the word, “praxis.” People coming into my office would often ask me about that word. Why had I written it there, and what did it mean? My answer was: “Oh, that’s just a reminder to me that I want what my words say I believe to be consistent with what my actions say I believe.”

Pastoral Care is primarily relational. It looks to what is happening in the relationships between and among people, between people and their surroundings, between a person’s visible self and the hidden self, between the individual and the community, and between the individual and/or community with the divine.

  • It may be exercised in helping people meet practical needs,
  • Or in helping people identify the sources of help.
  • It may help to create an atmosphere where marginalized or isolated people can find a sense of belonging.
  • It may offer experiences where people find meaning for their lives.
  • It may offer people a way to discover the fun and not just the seriousness in religious activities.
  • It may happen with no overt religious references at all.
  • The list is endless.

Rwanda might be considered an extreme example of a traumatized community. Not only have the people been traumatized by violence, but without recognizing better options, they turn to “self-medicating by addictive substances and behaviors. The ministers and priests are on the front lines of what must be difficult work. They need tools, support, encouragement, and a healthy grounding to maintain balance in their vital work.

While I am glad to go there to teach and support them, our own communities are often traumatized as much. We could name weather events, shootings, wildfires, and many other crisis situations that traumatize us. But sometimes the traumatization is more subtle. It overwhelms us slowly and with subtlety. It has been argued by many that our radical American individuality isolates us from relationship, arbitrarily determining our value by how much we earn or how many times we “win.”

I have come to define trauma as “external circumstances overwhelming internal resources.”

Pastoral care helps strengthen internal resources, while at the same time, identifying and trying to address the culturally embedded external forces that weigh on us.

As I look at the political events and reactions from the last few days, it appears to me that fear and reactivity are, as always, narrowing people’s perspectives. I have certainly felt the pressure to narrow my own to fear and disgust. I can’t let myself stay there, though. Broadened perspective is necessary for us to move forward purposefully and ethically.

Healthy perspective comes not from our answers, but from the quality of the questions we ask. So a part of gaining perspective is working hard to get to the most useful questions. If we ask superficial questions, we will be left with a superficial understanding. For example, many Democrats are asking “What went wrong?” implying that some strategic mistake brought about this outcome, and if we only had not made the mistake, all would be well. This is a superficial question. Before going on, I confess to being horrified and terrified by a Trump presidency. I could easily be carried by those emotions to scream abuse at the other side. It would not be wise, however to allow those perfectly understandable emotions to get in the way of a deeper look into the situation affecting us all.

I am trying to unearth some broader questions that can be useful, perhaps even necessary, as we look for a way forward. Here is an example of how I try to identify a deeper question. I saw a meme a couple of weeks ago that equated Donald Trump’s political positions with the temptations that Satan offered to Jesus.

“American Christians should not take a deal Jesus rejected.”|By Samantha
It would be easy to jump on that, for there is some truth in it, without considering how it fails to address a deeper question: How do our accepted cultural beliefs square with the needs of a healthy community?

When I excavate that deeper question, I notice that Satan’s temptations are actually embedded in values that are generally accepted in our culture. I would suggest that it is not only Trump, but our entire political system, that tempts people with similar satanic promises. So what are these temptations, and what do they have to do with us? Simply described, the temptations include power, safety, comfort, and status. Wait a minute! Aren’t those exactly the values that we have been taught are the basis for healthy social functioning? Aren’t those the promises that come from most politicians?

It would be easy at this point to throw out this whole line of thinking because it seems to lead to ridiculous (anti-American?) conclusions.  Any line of thinking can appear ridiculous if the question behind it is inadequate. My concern as not whether these are useful values. Clearly they can be. For me, a more useful question is about why and how power, safety, comfort, and status might function as temptations?

In the context of Christian theology, how do these four perfectly reasonable values serve to distract from the mission Jesus found himself called to? One way to frame an answer is for us to ask what it costs, in the broadest sense of that word, to achieve power, safety, comfort and status. For the sake of brevity, I am only going to deal with one of these: power. I make the assumption that the definition of power that our culture accepts is central to our difficulties. We believe that having power is the means by which we exercise freedom. We believe that the only way to feel safe is by having power over others. We believe that without power we can’t be comfortable, and we believe that the only real way we have to measure our status (or national greatness) is by how much power (money) we have to direct or influence others.

There are two features of the way our culture understands power that must be challenged:

  1. Power is a “zero-sum” commodity.
  2. And power is primarily understood as individuals or groups influencing or being influenced.

If there is a limit to the amount of power available, then any power gained by one individual or group must be taken from others. “Zero-sum” means that there is no change in the total amount. It follows, then, that any change in the distribution of power generates the two-sided coin of entitlement/fear. If your “side wins” you increase your sense entitlement and the other side becomes more afraid. If the other side wins, they get more entitlement and you get to be more afraid. From this perspective, absolutely nothing fundamental has changed. There has simply been a redistribution of entitlement and fear. It further follows that fear focusses on the danger emanating from the other side rather than the validity of one’s own beliefs.

Let me clarify that I am not addressing the relative validity of one set of political ideas over another (as in Democratic vs. Republican ideas). Hopefully, thoughtful people examine their belief systems and try to adopt healthy ones. Still, if our basic understanding of power remains unchanged, real transformative change is unlikely, if not impossible. Something about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic comes to mind.

I think transformation is only possible if we adopt a different understanding of power that is not individualistic and is not primarily adversarial. We must also identify neo-liberalism as the primary economic model that infects our entire system, regardless of political ideology. Neo-liberalism claims that competition is one of its central features. We have been taught to believe that competition is fundamentally good. However, competition is necessarily adversarial, meaning that we must have, or even create, enemies, and that defeating our enemies is somehow noble. Much of our social prejudice and inequality is based in this largely unexamined belief about competition. For a useful articulation of neo-liberalism and its effects, reference this April 2016 article from The Guardian, “Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems.” I encourage you to read it.

In short, neo-liberalism normalizes and even morally sanitizes the tyranny at the hand of those who win the economic game over the relatively powerless. In reality, almost everyone loses, including the planet that supports us all. A tiny handful of people experience temporary success, but they too will be destroyed by the devastation this economic belief system inevitably visits on the planet. I believe the world situation is just as dire as I have described.

We do have access to some transformational models that can help us evaluate and develop a healthier way forward:

  1. I mentioned the temptations above. What Satan tempted Jesus with was not primarily power, safety, comfort, and status. The nature of the temptations was really about individual rights and ownership, which could serve to legitimized a grossly unjust system. Because Jesus was talented and was likely to be seen as special, Satan offered him entitlement to special treatment. Satan tempted him to exploit his individualistic rights and opportunities apart from the needs of the community (that Jesus later calls the Realm of God). We can argue that throughout his ministry Jesus challenged the existing understanding of the law so that people could not use it as an excuse for exercising individual rights in a way that exploited others and destroyed relationship. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Care for the needs of the least entitled among us. These teachings from Jesus challenge our notion of power, and we cannot act on any of them if power is primarily individualistic and adversarial. We have been taught to fear powerlessness, but scripture says that only love conquers fear.
  2. Bernard Loomer has redefined power as being more about the growth and development of relationship than either giving or receiving influence. Real power is about empowerment. Under empowerment, the amount of real power grows – not a zero-sum game. And empowerment is not fundamentally adversarial, except that it mitigates against people using their entitlement to exploit one another. Loomer’s essay, “Two Concepts of Power,” can be found here.
  3. Similar to #2, true feminism is not about “uppity women” taking the power that rightly belongs to men (zero-sum). True feminism is about the growth of empowerment, and it is designed to reduce the amount of fear-generating adversarial competition.

We can learn from and make use of all of these.

I have been disturbed by how much American Christianity has been infected by neo-liberal values. One explanation for this is that one’s definition of power largely determines ones image of God. One of the historically fundamental qualities of God is omnipotence – that God is all powerful. If, however, we see power as primarily relational as opposed to individualistic and adversarial, then how we understand the divine is radically transformed. If God’s power is the “power-over” variety, then obedience – for the two-fold purpose of staying out of divine trouble and being granted temporal power – is the only way to feel safe. Anyone else’s empowerment is then seen as immoral, treasonous, and subject to punishment. But if God’s power is understood as the “empowerment, power-with” variety, then healthy community is valued for generating true safety (read salvation) for all.

In our individual rights and entitlement-based culture, only the illusion of safety is possible because it is always built on a foundation of fear. As with many addictions, it promises what it cannot ultimately deliver and keeps the addict hooked on superficial wishful thinking in the process.

By challenging our neo-liberal economic foundations, we are more able to articulate a system that sees all people and all life as inextricably connected, truly in this together. The resulting compassion, empowerment, and mutuality can stimulate healthy community and create increased safety for us all.

This is how I see it. I welcome your comments.

Wayne Gustafson

Thinking, The Internet, Consensus, and Collective Consciousness

July 7, 2015

Recently I read an article that made reference to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s belief that technology would serve to connect people in a healthy way leading to a higher level of collective consciousness. The article got me thinking about how people tend to use the social media parts of the internet. Do Facebook, blogs and their comments, and Twitter connect people in a way that leads to a higher level of connectedness and consciousness?

Before we can answer that question, we need some sense of what a “higher consciousness” might look like. Here are a few factors to consider:

Higher consciousness gives us the means to recognize our connection with a living system – like with Gaia (the living earth) or even the Universe. This is by definition a spiritual connection that reminds us we are part of something larger than ourselves.

  1. Higher consciousness makes use of a diversity of people and ideas in a collaborative rather than competitive way.
  2. Higher consciousness accepts (perhaps avows) that life is fundamentally ambiguous. i.e. there can be no absolutely correct, one-sided answer to any of life’s questions.
  3. The goal of conversation and communication is to broaden perspective, not to argue about whose answer is correct. It is an additive process.
  4. Higher consciousness is neither monolithic nor totalitarian. Being of one mind does not mean that one set of beliefs is correct, thereby excluding all others.
  5. Higher consciousness allows us to address the purpose of life question in a collective way as well as in an individualistic way.

If we accept these principles and desire to evolve toward higher consciousness (a la Teilhard de Chardin), then how could we make use of our social media?

We would not vilify ideas—or the people who espouse them. Rather we would express respectful curiosity and invite elaboration.

  1. We would learn the difference between opinion and perspective. Much internet chatter takes the form of “My opinion must be correct and all other thoughts must be wrong (and the people who hold them are clearly stupid!) How about if we tried to learn and grow by saying, “This is how I see this issue, and here is the data that informs my perspective and the logic that leads me to my view.”
  2. Our ideas could be contributions to the learning process rather than being imposed on others.
  3. We would go to social media sites because we desire to learn more than to instruct.
  4. We would welcome new perspectives that broaden our views rather than insisting that our minds are already made up. New data and views would not then be seen as threats to our opinions.
  5. We would stop trying to discredit or eliminate those who see things differently, but we would be curious about how their views were formed.
  6. We would value convergence—coming together—to give us all broader perspectives, and we would understand that consensus comes from sharing perspectives, not discrediting competing ideas. Single minded agreement is not useful—sharing perspectives is.
  7. We would stop equating our ideas with our personhood, so conversations would not feel like fighting for our lives.

These thoughts come from my experience with a community consensus process. Our culture has taught me that I should be able to get my way if I am smart or forceful enough. Consensus teaches me that a community is capable of creating much healthier approaches to human problems—including mine. A consensus process can often identify and meet my needs better than if I just pursued my personal desires. Consensus does not merely select the best of the presented ideas or opinions; the process creates something new that no individual could have reached alone.

I would like to see the internet social media tools operate according to principles like these.

This is how I see it. What do you see from your perspective?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise




Welcome to the new web home for Entos Press and “Community of Promise: The Untold Story of Moses.” I have included e-book versions of the novel in epub and mobi formats as well as the physical books that have been available for sale all along.

You might have noticed that I have not published a blog post since last May. Most of my writing during the summer was on my next novel, “The Wisdom Weaver.” I’m about half-way through the first draft. During the Fall, I was teaching three sections of Psychology of Personal Growth at a local community college for three days a week. The other two days were taken up with my counseling practice. I also taught a course for ministers during three Saturdays, and went to Riverside Church in NYC to co-lead a weekend workshop about the intentional community where I live. There was just no time (or psychic space) to blog.

Anyway, I’m back and will make a good-faith effort to write meaningful posts on a regular basis. Thanks for your patience and for your future interest.

Wayne Gustafson

“The Promised Land is within and among us.”


Sometimes life intrudes in surprising ways on anticipated schedules. Too often those intrusions are negative, but not always. I have been trying to post once a week, but just recently a couple of intrusions have modified my writing schedule a bit. I am just finishing my first semester of teaching “Psychology of Personal Growth” at the local community college. Wrap up has been a bit more intense than I anticipated. But the bigger reason for the delay in my blogging is cause for celebration. Community of Promise has just been awarded the 2011 IPPY Silver Medal in the Religious Fiction category of the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Later in the month, I will travel to the awards ceremony in New York City. I am very excited, and now I have to learn how to make use of this award for improved marketing and book sales.
If you are interested in more information about the 2011 IPPY Awards, click here.
I promise that I will return soon to the topic of thinking. I hope you understand that I just can’t think right now!!
Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
I wrote last week about the value of obtaining reliable statistical data as a resource for thinking. I added the qualification that one must understand where the data comes from and one must assess what is actually being measured by it. But of course, statistical data has never been the only source of available information. Take the example of political discourse. We hear about values-based information, decisions made as a “matter of principle,” information that is based in loyalty to a particular ideological perspective. While people may believe that their values, principles, and ideologies are “true,” their veracity is always difficult to determine. In the absence of proof for their foundational beliefs, such people rely on the affirmation that their beliefs about the world should be true. Perhaps such beliefs could be seen as matters of “faith.”
Beliefs based in faith are extremely difficult to challenge and almost impossible to discredit, because the very attempt communicates disloyalty to the purported source of the information. (The source might be seen as God or some beloved charismatic figure.) One example of this dynamic can be seen in the basis of libertarian doctrine. Much of the detail about this belief system appears to come from the protagonist in Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged. The idea of super benefit being fair compensation for superior creativity may make for good fiction, but the way a novel turns out cannot produce the same quality of useful data as properly constructed research might. I say this with the humility of a novelist. My novel expresses a particular point of view that may invite people to look at life and its possibilities differently, but in no way can it be seen as a source of reliable data. It has value for what it is, but using it like research data would be completely inappropriate.
The main defense against challenges to current libertarian philosophy usually takes the form of a statement like: “Well, if our politicians ever had the nerve to try it honestly and completely, they would discover that an economic system based in free-market deserving would certainly work!” While it is true that libertarian economics has never been tried fully, that does not serve as a reliable indicator of its legitimacy. Some data does exist indicating that the limited experiments in libertarian economics have been disastrous, and from that I conclude that it would be unconscionable to subject the entire economy to such a radical experiment. (Now, just in case you’re wondering, that last statement is my opinion, and it should not be used as fact just because I said it. If you take the time to evaluate available economic data, you can then think it through to your own conclusion.)
One the consequences of any ideologically based information is that it tends to be one-sided and selective. Such information is chosen to defend an established position rather than offer new understanding or perspective that can facilitate the process towards more comprehensive truth. I don’t believe that any of us are capable of filtering all ideology out of our thinking. We all select the data we will utilize, albeit unconsciously. To borrow a phrase, the goal here is progress, not perfection. As individuals, perhaps we need to take more care in scrutinizing and validating the information that is available, and perhaps we can be more courageous in the process of further illuminating reality. But as individuals we can take the process just so far before unavoidably we become overshadowed by our preconceived ideas or even our prejudices. So let’s consider how healthy community can help facilitate healthy thinking.
Adding the participation of a community to the thinking process must be done with great care. Sometimes communities enforce ideology and will attempt to discredit the brave individual who dares point at “the Emperor’s new clothes.” There is plenty of that going on today in the arenas of religion and politics. But communities also are capable of providing a much broader set of perspectives from which to produce and evaluate information. If the objective of the community is courageous exploration to illuminate truth rather than the preservation or enforcement of ideology, then community can support healthy thinking.
You may have noticed that I end each of my blog posts with some version of “This is how I see it; what do you think?” I rely on other perspectives to help me evaluate my sources of information and to help me think more clearly. It is obvious that I write from a particular perspective, one that I believe is useful. But I know that it is not the only perspective, nor is it the only useful one.
Finally, the healthy sharing of perspectives does not determine who is right and who is wrong. In this post, I am referring to sharing that is a different kind of act of faith. It is not about faith in a particular ideological position. Rather it embodies faith in a process that can evaluate available information and use it to fill out our understanding of reality. In short, this process invites us to experience and embrace deeper and more comprehensive truth. I think it is a good plan.
(OK, here it comes:) “This is how I see it, what do you think?
Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
My post next week will address how we can obtain and utilize information from the realms of personal experience, the emotions, intuition, and spirit in the service of a healthy thinking process.
You probably already know (even if you forgot it for a while) that it is impossible to reach valid conclusions if you begin with unreliable information. So, how can you discern what information to trust, particularly in the areas of research-based sources, religious persuasion, political rhetoric, and advertising information?
Let’s begin with research. If you get information that is based in research, it must be true, right? Well, maybe if it’s scientific. Or maybe its truth depends on whether you understand how research-based conclusions work. For example, how can you be sure that the apparent conclusions actually measure what they say they measure? Furthermore, statistical data from scientific research can be used in a wide variety of ways and the same data can even seem to support opposite conclusions.
Let me give you an example of how confusing research-based statistical data can be. I was the chaplain in a state prison for a number of years from the mid 1970’s to the mid 1980’s. At least a part of my job was to provide “rehabilitative” opportunities to the inmates. A common measure for those who addressed the viability of prison and its rehabilitative programs was called the “recidivism rate.” Recidivism measures the tendency of released inmates to re-offend. Depending on the source of the information, you might discover that the recidivism rate was about 67%, or maybe 33%. If you were in favor of rehabilitative programs, you would tend to believe the lower number, but many who were not in favor of rehab programs typically used the higher number.
One of these numbers must be wrong, right?
(NOTE: these numbers are 30 years old, are probably no longer accurate, and are used only to illustrate a point about statistical data.) Well, actually both results were correct. Let me explain.
Let’s begin with these two questions: how can these very different numbers possibly come from the same raw data, and what then might they mean? The difference in the numbers results from two different ways of measuring recidivism. If you had polled the new inmates as they arrived at prison, you would have discover that about 2/3 of them had been in prison before, but if you had followed the people released from prison over the following few years, you would have discovered that only about 1/3 of them would offend again.
So, is one measure of the recidivism rate more correct than the other? Not really, as long as you know what the given study was actually measuring. But even you know what is being measured, there remain many more layers of complexity that might need to be considered. For example, the recidivism rate only measures the rate of repeat prison sentences. It does not consider the relative severity of the crimes. What if most of the people who returned to prison had been newly convicted of a lesser crime than the time before? Or what if most were convicted of a more serious crime this time? Without any observable variation in the Recidivism Rate, you still might make an argument for or against the effectiveness of rehabilitation, but how reliable is your data. I could identify several additional factors that might affect the validity of the Recidivism Rate, but hope you get the point from this illustration: if you want to think clearly, research-based data must be used with great care.
In my non-scientific observation of how research-based data is used, particularly in the worlds of politics and advertising, it is seldom intended to offer reliable information that helps voters or consumers make a more informed choice among alternatives. Typically, (in my experience) the point of advertising and political discourse seems to be to direct the choice of the recipient in a predetermined direction. In short, the point of such communication is manipulation.
You might wonder if I am using this blog to manipulate your thinking and your choices. Well, considering that I am a product of this culture, probably so. But I don’t want to do that. I invite you, therefore, to call me on any perceived (though largely unintended) manipulations. My intentional objective, however, is to stimulate your thinking, not manipulate you toward specific conclusions.
In the spirit of honest disclosure, I do believe that manipulation is minimized when one participates in the give and take of information and perspective that is characteristic of healthy community. In community, we help keep one another honest, or at least more aware. So if I want any particular result from my blog, it is that you will grow in your understanding and appreciation of healthy community.
This is how I see it. What do you see from your perspective?
Wayne Gustafson
The Promised Land is within and among us.”
I live in a community that makes decisions by means of a consensus process. Deciding by consensus requires people to think together, but while there are many positives about consensus, unfortunately, the process can get bogged down, and sometimes it just doesn’t work the way it is designed to work. At a superficial level, one might conclude that the process should be abandoned, but but I prefer making an attempt to observe the quality of thinking that goes into it. I hope that greater understanding about the nature of thinking can improve how it functions. Rather than writing specifically about thinking and consensus, I plan instead to write a series of more general posts about some of the elements of the thinking process. I hope that these reflections can be useful in any setting where thinking is required or is at least useful. I do not intend these posts to be an academic exercise. Rather, I will try to keep them at a practical level so we can all improve the clarity and validity of our thinking.
Many people know the first three words of M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled: “Life is difficult.” Peck later asserts in The Road Less Traveled and Beyond: Spiritual Growth in the Age of Anxiety that “Thinking is difficult.” (Page 24) I agree with him, and plan to write about why that is true and how we can learn to think more clearly.
The first of these posts will begin to address the complex question, “What is thinking?” My essays will not be dealing with how the brain functions, although that might be interesting, too. I will, instead, look at thinking more in terms of its functions.
The later posts on the topic will address the ever-present barriers to clear thinking: that is, what gets in the way, and what skews our thinking, often without our being aware that such modification of the process is even happening.
So, let’s begin to explore what it is to think. It the most basic level, thinking is the process of collecting relevant information, putting it through some kind of analytical process, and producing a conclusion that we take to be true. If only the process were as simple as those few defining words seem to imply.
If we are to think clearly, we must first consider the accuracy and scope of the information we employ, including the validity of our sources. When computers began to be used for analytical purposes, the validity of the process was determined by the clever slogan “Garbage in – Garbage out!” In other words, if a thinking process is to be valid – either by machine or by human mind – the informational raw material we use must be accurate and sufficiently comprehensive.
Once we have accumulated sufficient valid information that includes a mix of scientific and experiential/emotional data, then we must analyze it by means of a reliably logical process. It helps if we know what kinds of logic we are using. When we reach what we believe to be a valid conclusion, we must then consider the situational scope of our conclusions. This might include present/future considerations, gender, geography, and an understanding of what specific measures can determine the quality of our conclusions. For example, a conclusion can be financially valid and be morally bankrupt at the same time.
Here is a list of some of the topics I will address in subsequent weeks. I may address several in a given post.
Regarding what it is to think:
  • The ability to gather relevant information
  • The ability to acknowledge and accommodate competing values
  • The ability to see the scope of a particular position (e.g. regarding longevity and geography)
  • Problem solving is not the equivalent of thinking.
  • How wants and needs affect conclusions
  • Opinions and logical conclusions are not the same
  • How honest are thinkers about their self interest ?
  • How does your given moral framework affect your conclusions?
  • What are the underlying metaphors representing “truth,” and how do they affect the validity of conclusions
  • Recognizing that we seldom have enough information to generate completely true conclusions
  • New information should lead to modification of our conclusions.
I will then write about some the barriers to clear thinking:
  • My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts”
  • How emotionality (as distinguished from emotional experience) blocks the validity of conclusions
  • What if I must be right?
  • How credulous am I in collecting information?
  • How much faith do I have in my conclusions even if they turn out to be uncomfortable (or “inconvenient”)?
Well, this post gives you a glimpse of what is to come. I hope you enjoy the series. Please read and comment. Let’s think clearly together about these matters.
Wayne Gustafson
The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Last week I did not post in this blog because I was attending the annual conference of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors in Phoenix, AZ. Last summer, just after Arizona had passed what many believe to be a draconian immigration law, the planning committee for the conference considered boycotting Arizona. In consultation with some of the religious and community leaders of the Mexican population in Phoenix, the committee learned that neither the hotel nor the state would be impacted significantly by a boycott, but that the immigrant poor who work in the hotels and surrounding businesses would be hurt badly. (The hotel would still have received its $60,000 cancellation fee.) Local leaders pleaded with conference planners to come to Phoenix.
Instead of a boycott, the planning committee arranged for conference attendees to participate in an “immersion day” at a community center in the barrio section of Phoenix where we learned about the complexity of the issues and about the impact of immigration law and cultural prejudice on the lives of the people.
I want to tell you about what one of the speakers, The Rev. José Valenzuela, taught us about his experience of “Nepantla.” I will also comment on its effect on community. He described his experience of growing up in an Arizona town, made up primarily of Mexican laborers retaining its Mexican culture. He was an American citizen, but his whole world was rooted in Mexican culture and identity. When his father, a Christian minister, was called to a church in the white, affluent part of Phoenix, José moved with the family into a new world. As a result of the experience, he became too “white” to be fully embraced by the Mexican Community and was still too “Mexican” to be fully accepted in white society. He experienced this new place “in the middle” as a kind of hell. In time, he learned about an Aztec word that describes the place where he found himself: Nepantla. In this middle place, this “no person’s land,” he could not find acceptance either from the Mexican or the white communities and so he fell into shame and self-blaming as a result.
Rev. Valenzuela has since learned that he cannot expect his personal validation and acceptability to come from these communities. He learned that what felt like “no place,” “hell,” a place neither fully Mexican nor white, had this name, Nepantla. The name made it a real place for him and it became possible for him to affirm his identity as the real person he had become through his bi-cultural experience.
Does his ability to affirm himself as a Mexican-American then let the people in the two constituent communities off the hook? I don’t think so. It is grossly unfair (although predictable from the perspective of fear) for either Mexican or white people to expect him to be more “like them” than is possible. Perhaps the naming of “Nepantla” can help people in each community to embrace the identity of those who participate in both. The Mexican and white communities can help transform Nepantla from hell to a real place that is a legitimate home to real people.
Hell on earth is created by arbitrary conditions and expectations that are impossible to fulfill. Heaven on earth is created by embracing people in their diversity and being willing to learn from their unique perspectives and experience. To condemn and exclude people simply on the basis of some perceived deviation from an arbitrary definition of acceptability is the embodiment of a great evil. In the short term, such evil creates hell for many people, particularly those who find themselves in Nepantla. But in the long run, the resultant destruction of the fabric of community creates hell for all of us.
It may be that all people experience some form of Nepantla: between adolescence and adulthood, between gay and straight, between sacred and secular, and between the old country and the new whenever our ancestors immigrated here, for example.
I invite us to recognize this systemic evil and by our loving acceptance of one another, however different or “mixed” we may be, put a stop to it.
This is how I see it. What do you think?
Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
(The Rev. José Roberto Valenzuela is pastor of Alleluia Lutheran Church in Phoenix. He has written and lectured extensively on issues of culture and race in the Church and within the United States. He can be contacted at
Many models exist that purport to describe the structure and functioning of a healthy community. To some degree, the diversity in the models can be attributed, at least in part, to the point of view of whoever has the power to define health and success for community participants. The preponderance of existing models are grounded in hierarchical structures, so that the accepted view is typically from the top down.
To illustrate: Much of religious thought posits a god “above” who determines what is best for all “below.” Such a god’s earthly representatives assume the superior position and promulgate the terms of morality and social success to those deemed inferior. That inferior group would include the rest of us. I might add, parenthetically, that these earthly representatives of the divine also assume the right to determine the use and fate of our planet, too.
Persons and groups with economic, political, or social power tend to replicate the top-down pattern of authority. (Corporations and super-wealthy individuals, kings and others with political power, and strict fathers, respectively.)
All who inhabit these superior positions assume as truth that they actually possess the vision, knowledge, and even wisdom to determine what is best for everyone else. With few exceptions, this model continues to hold sway in the present. Any person or group that attempts to challenge or de-legitimize this hierarchy of “benevolent dictators” is in for a fight.
There are many examples of creative, grass-roots movements and activities that have challenged the hierarchical status quo. Sadly, for the most part, they have ended up, either defeated, or more typically, co-opted into the prevailing model. Early Christianity, for example, was a threat to the culture of the Roman Empire, not because it represented some rival dominant power, but because the egalitarian nature of its community structure rendered unnecessary the prevailing pursuit of upward mobility. Because the Empire traded in coercive power, it could not countenance any system that devalued its might. The Empire eventually prevailed, not by destroying Christianity, but by embedding its own hierarchical power structure into the organization of the Church.
Several centuries later, The Protestant Reformation effectively challenged the Church’s presumption to divine power, and instead located that power in the faithful relationship between the the individual and the divine. Still, the system maintained the power structure by establishing the Bible as the incontrovertible word of the divine Father (up there!). The dominant power of interpretation simply re-rooted itself in new ecclesiastical structures.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the college-educated (G.I Bill?) middle class challenged the political and economic power structure of the “military-industrial complex,” particularly around the questionable morality of the War in Viet Nam. So, what subsequently happened to the energy of that extraordinary era of political activism? It appears to me that it got “bought off” by the lure of a kind of consumerism that kept people so focused on making money for their increasing standard of living (meaning, toys?) that there was no longer time left for nurturing or developing the capacity for ethical reflection. Wealth tends to speak with arrogance, teaching all other people and cultures that their cultural inheritance is less important than what they should be able to buy. At the same time, the power structure has put relentless pressure on our educational institutions, making them function more as skilled worker generators and less as places where people learn to think (or reflect on practical applications of ethics and morality).
For a time in the 20th Century, liberation theology and feminist theology began to have growing influence on public opinion with regard to the needs of historically disenfranchised groups. But the prevailing power structure continues to work very hard to undermine the legitimacy of such a position (no matter what Jesus said about faithful responsibility to the poor). There still exist creative proponents of these unorthodox positions, but world events in the realms of economics, climate change, and natural disasters have served to distract us all from the deeper issues that might turn out to be more relevant to our long term well being and even survival.
Each of the above examples has articulated a perspective different from the hierarchical model of dominance. The power of love in community, the spirituality of the individual, the moral and ethical perspective of those who are forced to pay for wars that do not reflect their personal ethics, and the valuable experience of the world’s disenfranchised groups each give us unique and useful ways to determine and assess the elements of healthy community.
In short, it appears that radical creativity is the enemy of compliance. I wonder, given the state of the world, if we will teach our children simply to comply and fit into the existing system or if we will encourage their creativity and capacity for a healthier vision.
What do you think?
Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”