What if We Followed the Dalai Lama By Practicing Warmheartedness in Our Politics?

imageThe American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is described as a conservative think tank.  Recently AEI President,  Arthur Brooks, shared a message about how the problem with politics is really about how we talk to each other. He says we don’t have an anger problem in American politics, we have a contempt problem.

Brooks says contempt is defined by social psychologists  as “the utter conviction of the worthlessness of another human being.” According to Brooks, if you listen to people talk to each other today in political life, they talk to each other with pure contempt. We never totally get over it if someone talks to us with contempt, according to Brooks. Brooks postulates that if we really want to solve the problem with political polarization today, we need to solve the contempt problem. He related his conversations with the Dalai  Lama (with whom he sometimes writes) and how he asked the Dalai Lama for advice on how he can deal with this problem when he feels contempt. The Dalai Lama suggested Brooks answer somebody’s contempt “by practicing warmheartedness.”

Brooks thinks this is true and that practicing warmheartedness can be “utterly world changing,” asking us to  imagine if we had our leaders practicing warmheartedness, and if all of us choose to answer contempt with warm heartedness. Brooks asks if we are going to do the right thing and show true strength and answer somebody’s contempt with warmheartedness.

Having served as a Democratic state Senator, and being admittedly politically wired, I admit that my first instinct upon surveying our country’s broken political landscape is to trot out my Democratic talking points and accusations to blame Republicans for creating the political brokenness of today. And then Republicans would perhaps respond in kind because, well, that’s what we continue to do in today’s broken America. We appear to be tentative or even afraid of trying new ways of engaging each other in our broken politics.

Maybe the marches I have attended, and the millions who turned out to protest the path this country is headed down since President Trump took office,  is the catalyst required to motivate and propel us all to start practicing warmheartedness. What if the millions of folks who participated in the marches pledged to move forward practicing warmheartedness? Maybe that’s what is finally needed to be able to get anything done, to live together, and because at the end of the day it might just be the right thing for each of us to do as human beings.

Imagine Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, elected by us to represent us, sitting down together over a meal, regularly, with a commitment to practice warmheartedness.  To many this idea sounds  painfully naive, unrealistic and out of touch with today’s real world. Remember, a key to this is “practice.” We all need practice at doing things in our life to get better at doing them.

The older I get the more I struggle to intentionally push myself to practice those things I am not good at.  We seem wired to want to do things we have a competence at or comfort level doing. Practicing warmheartedness will push our comfort boundaries. We will screw it up and clumsily make our way forward. That’s how we learn, by practicing. Hopefully, by practicing we will become  more proficient. . . and warmer hearted.

I ask you in good faith to consider what is our workable alternative to “practicing”  warmheartedness to start the process of mending America’s  brokenness, before it can no longer be mended. More of the same? More marches? Uniting Democrats to change things? More demonizing of our neighbors who are a different color, religion, rich, poor or a host of other divisive and cold hearted practices we are used to following? More Tweets?

We should also be asking how we are educating the next generation, our children, with respect to the need and value of their practicing warmheartedness in the world. The Dalai Lama has said “I have always had this view about the modern education system: we pay attention to brain development, but the development of warmheartedness we take for granted.” The Dalai Lama believes a wam heart is teachable. Are we currently teaching our children how to practice warmheartedness? If not, why not?

It seems America is laser focused on trying to ensure that its children are educated in ways that allow them to “compete” globally,  taking great pains to emphasize the need to be more than just competitive in math and science. We can’t fall behind the rest of the world. I agree with the need for our children to be able to compete in the global work force and not be left behind. I wonder if we paid as much attention to teaching our children about the importance, the humanity, of practicing warmheartedness, if we might be preparing them to be more thoughtful global citizens, neighbors and even political adversaries.

I look to my Christian faith for guidance as to how I am called to practice warmheartedness. Where is our willingness as Christians to practice warmheartedness in our political interactions with our neighbors? Are self professed Christians intentionally ignoring the call in Mark 12:31 to love their neighbor as themselves? Did Jesus mean he was expecting us to love our neighbors as ourselves in our every day life, except for how we practice our party politics, because that’s really hard so we are somehow free to do whatever we please? I’m guessing not.

Following Jesus with a warm heart is hard.

Practicing warmheartedness will be be immediately tested. Reimagining how we meet the contempt that crosses our path in social media and our interactions with folks in the world by practicing warmheartedness will likely reveal our own human shortcomings and limitations. But it may also reveal and help us cultivate strengths we did not even  know we possessed. And that is both wonderful and terrifying.

Perhaps those strengths might include listening generously to understand and respect another’s contrary position and our need to be in relationship to get anything done. Perhaps it might lead us to the self discovery of new strengths and weaknesses we have not yet imagined.

Let the practicing begin.







The Great Migration of Six Million Black Americans From the South to the North and West – How Far Have We Come?

imageIsabel Wilkerson, in her Pulitzer Prize winning book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” tells the epic story of America”s great migration. She shares the untold story of the decades long (1915 – 1970) migration of black citizens, searching for a better way of life for themselves and their families, who fled the South for cities in the North  and West.

Did you know the South resorted to blockades and arrests to try and keep black people from leaving? I didn’t.  The South tried to stem the flow of information to blacks in the South so they would not leave town  and Wilkerson notes how at one point the chief of police in Meridian, Mississippi “ordered copies of the Chicago Defender confiscated before they could be sold, fearing it was putting ideas into colored people’s heads.”

None of this actual “history” was in any of the history books white America  was using to “educate” me in Minneapolis in the 1960’s and 1970’s or my children in high school or college in the 1990’s and into this new century. My educated guess is we are still providing  an incomplete and inaccurate history to our next generation. We continue to provide a white, sanitized,  and false  history because. . . we can’t handle the truth? As white Americans, we are afraid of what systemic change might look like for us personally and that limits, if not paralyzes, our desire to be curious, truth tellers on ourselves, or take action.

I am reading  only small parts of these stories at a time because they detail the blatant and systemic racism, violence and dehumanization that black Americans were subjected to during these decades of “migration.” It’s a painful and disturbing journey that, in many ways, continues to this day. Wilkerson interviewed some 1200 people for her book and my guess is that these stories represent but the  tip of the ugly iceberg that was part of the larger real American history that we did not want told. It makes white America, us, look bad, racist.

Now, in 2017, Republicans in five states have quietly introduced a number of legislative proposals to criminalize and discourage peaceful protest. In Minnesota, where I live, this comes in response to a string of high profile highway and road closures following the police shooting of a black man, Philando Castille, and led by Black Lives Matter and other activists. In Minnesota, the bill would dramatically increase fines and allow prosecutors to seek a year in jail for protesters blocking a highway.

In addition to the highway protest bill, Republican lawmakers introduced a separate bill that greatly increases penalties for nonviolent cases dealing with “obstructing the legal process.” Nonviolent obstruction of authorities would carry “imprisonment of not less than 12 months” and a fine of up to $10.000.

As a former North Dakota State Senator, I am embarrassed by the bill a Republican in the North Dakota House introduced this legislative session  that essentially made it legal for a motorist to drive over a protester with their car – if it was done “negligently” or “accidentally.”  Really. This bill was introduced in response to and frustration with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests by and in support of Native folks.

Jordan Kushner, a civil rights lawyer in Minneapolis, said the Republican motivation to penalize protests was likely in response to the general public hostility towards Black Lives Matter in the “overwhelmingly white suburban and rural districts they represent.” Maybe folks in suburban and rural districts will cry foul and say just give it a rest, stop trying to make everything about race. I’ve heard that before. Please don’t tell me all lives matter.

What I continue to experience is my fellow white citizens being offended by Black Lives Matter lifting up our white privilege (that most white citizens take for granted) as being a big part of the problem. When was the last time these white Republican lawmakers in Minnesota were inconvenienced because of their race? That is something people of color deal with daily. This is not the “Minnesota nice” that  those of us who are white like to imagine is everyone’s reality,  because it’s the version that’s more comfortable for us to accept.  But it’s not the reality of people of color, our neighbors, our fellow Americans. Their reality is “Minnesota passive-aggressive.”

One interesting side note. When these bills were being debated in the Minnesota House, the argument was being made by supporters of these bills that they were needed because Black Lives Matter protesters were not letting ambulances through on the highways, and lives were at risk. Yet Representative Ilhan Omar, America’s first Somali-American lawmaker, during her floor speech in opposition to such free speech and minority unfriendly legislation, showed a picture taken reflecting the protesters actually moving out of the way to let an ambulance through. Do facts still matter to the white Minnesota legislators who introduce such fear based and racist legislation?

The legislation still passed.

How far have we really come since the great migration? We may not be physically  keeping black people from leaving the South for the North in 2017, but these types of bills our white elected leaders pass unfairly penalize and target people of color for speaking out and protesting the shootings of young men of color  by police. Recently a Texas police officer was charged with murder after he repeatedly fired a rifle into a moving car and killed  15 year old Jordan Edwards, who is black, and was leaving a party (with his two brothers).

This all comes at a time when President Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has not just started to walk back, but run back, the Department of Justice’s commitment to federal oversight of police departments with discriminatory patterns and practices, a priority of the previous Obama administration. A coincidence?

A few weeks ago, Sessions ordered a review of all consent decrees between police departments and the Department of Justice. Most recently, a Federal Judge rejected Sessions’ after the fact attempt to intervene and locked in place a consent decree already agreed to between the city of Baltimor’s police department and the Department of Justice. The Baltimore police department wanted the decree. Despite that reality, Sessions expressed his grave concerns on how he thought some of the provisions of the decree will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and make the city less safe.

Less safe for who? An old white guy of privilege from Alabama who has  a checkered civil rights record?  Jordan Edwards, or his brothers who watched the teen murdered by a Texas police officer?

Jeff Sessions  is the man President Trump picked to head the Department of Justice, to be our country’s top law enforcement official. It starts at the top. The President is the “top,” and his words and actions have clearly emboldened white state legislators to bring legislation that has a discriminatory effect on people of color.

Like it or not, it does continue to be about race. Perhaps what history is still desperately trying to teach us is that when white Americans see a way for them in to benefit from an end to systemic racism, only then might real and substantive change begin to occur. We need to want to try and change.

What can I do as just one person you might ask? You can: listen; learn; read; ask questions; participate in Black Lives Matter marches and other protests; run for elected office; talk honestly with your white friends about their white privilege; make new friends; develop friendships and relationships with people of color; write letters to the editor; pray; repent; help organize forums addressing systemic racism in the community; join the ACLU; start a blog; volunteer with social justice based organizations; campaign for candidates that share your values; donate money to organizations and candidates that actively oppose and  fight racism; find new and creative ways to become engaged; don’t ever give up; and, above all, VOTE.

If I can do these things, you can too. Because if not us, than who?