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Being For Ourselves and Others: Discerning How To Be Our Sibling’s Keeper

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? (Hillel the Elder, first century BCE rabbi)

The second [great commandment] is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Mark 12:31)

The invasion of Ukraine. Global climate change. The rise of authoritarian, anti-democratic movements around the world (including in the United States). Spreading conspiracy theories.

Increasing distrust of authority, including the authority of people with legitimate expertise. The refusal to wear masks or get vaccinated during a global pandemic. Protests against mask and vaccine requirements.

Laws and extra-legal actions to ban books. Banning the teaching of something dubbed “critical race theory” that isn’t actually taught in schools. Suppression of voting rights, and subversion of the power and well-being of certain groups of people.

Continued expansion of congregational commitment to the inclusion and flourishing of LGBTQI people at the local level even as denominational bodies either focus their attention on other topics or fail to make progress on sexuality and gender identity-related issues.

How to prioritize?

We live in strange and profoundly difficult times. I suspect that I am far from the only LGBTQI person of faith wondering what faithful discernment looks like in this time.

How do we know what to prioritize? Where should we put our energy, our money, our passion? How should we spend our time? Given the violent horrors of white supremacy in the U.S., for example, don’t those of us who are white have an obligation to live self-sacrificially into the work of overturning racism?

But then — given the legal, spiritual and physical violence against LGBTQI people, and especially youth — isn’t it reasonable for those of us in LGBTQI communities to commit at least some of our time, energy and resources to tending to ourselves and our communities?

And what about larger challenges such as global climate change? What about the trauma and exhaustion of living through COVID, losing friends, family members and our illusions about other people? What about the AIDS pandemic that is still not over for so many?

While there are many ways to think about what the next quarter century will hold for LGBTQI people of faith, the single word that feels most timely to me is “discernment.”

The call to discernment

We know that we need to love our neighbors as ourselves, which also means loving ourselves; we know that we must take care of both ourselves and others. How do we balance these two opportunities, these two obligations? How do we advocate for our own well-being, for our rights, for justice for our communities, even as we work for the well-being of those in devalued groups to which we do not belong?

When must we de-center ourselves and offer our gifts, passion, and resources in solidarity with struggles against forms of inequality from which we benefit?

When must we focus on the harm done to LGBTQI people to work against that harm most effectively? When are other challenges or struggles so urgent that they supersede working against systematic inequality based on (for example) race, gender/gender identity, or sexuality? When should our focus be local, modest, and based on the needs of those we know? And when should it be larger, national, or global, and based on the needs of those we will never meet?

I do not have answers to these questions, and I suspect that different people will answer them differently (and that different cultural and historical moments may require different responses).

That said, anything we can do to cultivate the ability to discern where we are most needed, where we are being called, and what we are being sent to do in each situation will help us serve others, ourselves, and the world most effectively.

Whatever other work we take on, then, must include the work of deepening our capacity to discern where and how our passion, resources and gifts must meet the world’s needs.

In the remainder of this brief reflection, I consider two types of practices we can take up to deepen our abilities to carry out exactly this kind of discernment, as well as one complex way of thinking about people that can assist our decision-making.

3 steps to discernment

First, we will deepen our discernment capacities through spiritual and religious practices, carried out alone and with others, in private and in corporate worship. Prayer and meditation, listening to silence, practicing waiting, reading, and reflecting on meaningful religious and spiritual texts, engagement with inspirational music and other art forms: these will nourish our souls and strengthen us for the work of discernment.

If we are part of religious communities, the ritual and liturgy of worship will similarly feed our hearts and give us practice in showing up, listening to one another, sharing our vulnerability, and holding ourselves and each other accountable for building Beloved Community.

Second, we are better able to discern the world’s demands on us to the extent that we work to cultivate core virtues in ourselves: Virtues such as love, compassion, courage, generosity, hospitality, and self-sacrifice.

Building our ethical muscles better equips us to run whatever race is before us. Moreover, how we decide what to do with our focus and capabilities will have a lot to do with the insights we gain from our capacity to love, or from the gut-clench of seeing someone else suffering and feeling a need to respond, or from the startling realization that we are not afraid to face our opponents in the service of defending the moral good. As our ethical resilience grows, so too will our ability to discern our work blossom.

Finally, appreciating the complexity of personhood at a deep level will help us determine what we are called to prioritize and do in each moment or situation.

Seeing people as they are

People are, of course, individuals — and sometimes our first task is to attend to someone else in their individual situation, or to attend to our own idiosyncratic needs.

At the same time, people are human beings — meaning that we share important traits, needs, and capacities. As embodied beings, for example, all people need access to bodily resources and freedom from danger to our bodies to live well.

As emotional beings, we need the space to feel whatever emotions we are feeling and to allow them to pass through us without becoming blocked; we also need the ability to avoid situations that will leave us fearful, despairing or rage-filled for extended periods of time.

These are only two examples of the kinds of beings that people are; when we recognize that being human entails several universal, non-negotiable aspects, we can better understand how social structures, individual situations, and the intersection of those two can either help people flourish or cause them avoidable suffering.

Often our ethical capacities, in tandem with our ability to discern, lead us to focus on helping ourselves or others flourish or to focus on mitigating avoidable suffering. When our work flows in these directions, even if we are tending to a small group of people (or an individual), we can rest in the knowledge that what we are doing is helping humanity.

No one is ‘damaged goods’

In summary, people are members of many kinds of social groups, including groups that are socially valued differently, leading to systematically different treatment. A particular challenge of discernment in my experience is focusing effectively on the ways that systematic inequality harms members of a particular social group without reducing the people in that group to the harm they have suffered — i.e., understanding and working against the damage of systematic inequality without stereotyping people as “damaged goods.”

That said, there are many ways to support communities in their work for justice and against the harm and devaluation of systematic inequality — whether that is a community to which we personally belong or not.

It is complicated and sometimes challenging to keep individuality, human being in its multiple aspects, and social group membership in mind at the same time, but all three aspects of being a person always hold true, even if some are more salient in certain moments.

When we are in a good discernment space, we will have a sense of which aspect of personhood needs our focus at a given moment or in a given context, and we will respond accordingly.

Since I began with a quote from Rabbi Hillel, it seems appropriate to end with one as well. When we are overwhelmed, when discernment seems to fail us, may we have the strength and humility to come back to Hillel’s other famous quote and to live into it:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn.