If There Is To Be Peace: Peace Between Neighbors by Taryn Strauss
I’ve only visited Iowa once in my life, and it was there I had an ominous encounter with a murmuration of starlings. Always vigilant to a “nature wow” encounter, I found myself so close to this murmuration in the dark winter sky, that I ducked and ran for cover, feeling more like Tippi Hedren in the Hitchcock horror The Birds, then I felt like a brave and wondrous observer of nature. Their transformative power cannot be understated, the way they duck and dive, leaderless, changing the sky, moving with purpose. This purpose is collective, and the movement is adaptive.
We humans tend not to move in this way. Either we form lines, following a leader, or else we move alone, in isolated chaos, each towards our lonely vanishing points.
How can we expect peace with our neighbor if we move through our lives in this way, competing for land, for traffic patterns, for our own needs in a scarcity-based economy that denies and destroys the abundance in the world.
What can we learn from the starlings? According to writer Adrienne Maree Brown, author of Emergent Strategy, the synchronized patterns of a starling flock are known as a murmuration. “Guided by simple rules, starling murmurations can react to their environment as a group without a central leader orchestrating their choices; in any instant, any part of the flock can transform the movements of the whole flock.”
What does the murmuration of starlings have to teach us about adaptability, and collectivism?
How can this make us more peaceful neighbors?
Our days are marked by polarization: bitterly laughing at the unfolding moral chasm of an absurdly cynical administration, we allow our anger to fuel our self-righteousness, and why not?
I agree with comedian/commentator Trevor Noah who believes Trump is not the cause of white supremacist violence rapidly spreading throughout our world, even to the far reaches of New Zealand.
However, Trump is a product of white supremacy, and ascribes to the same or similar belief system as the perpetrators of violent hate crimes across the globe. It’s an international tragedy and it takes effort not to wallow in disgust.
And like me, I’m sure some of your neighbors voted for the man, and some of your neighbors, your family members, and maybe your friends will vote for him again. If we are standing on two opposite sides of the same argument for dignity, safety, and justice for all people and the survival of our earth, then how can peace be possible?
I have experienced the murmuration of starlings in a human, systemic response to injustice, so I think I understand what Brown is talking about when she speaks of biomimicry in movements, strategic response that follows effective patterns in nature such as the starlings, or mycelium growth, or fern structures.
I remember when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and then a few months later Eric Garner died on a prominent street in Staten Island, in a chokehold administered by NYPD. In December, the grand jury failed to indict the officers complicit in his death. This was 2014, and I was a second-year student at Union Theological Seminary on the Upper West Side, near Columbia University.
I remember the mass die-ins we quickly organized outside the Seminary on Broadway, lying in the pavement in silence,
holding hands as the car horns blared and the journalists aimed their cameras at our faces. Suddenly, protests sprang up all over the city, and Union students were getting jailed overnight, terrified and determined to take a stand for an end to the brutal police murders of unarmed people of color in our streets.
Tensions were high, and each day at our noon Chapel, we sang spirituals through tears of outrage. In those days, the classroom became more of a battlefield of ideas. A group of students took over a prominent classroom in the center of campus, and someone brought in a rotary telephone, a lamp, and a cot.
We offered chaplaincy and 24-hour support to students who were going off to protest, and this week early in December you have to understand there were sit-ins, marches and die-ins each day and each night. Someone brought in more cots for people to sleep in who were “on call” or for protesters coming back to campus, needing pastoral care after clashes with police or counter-protesters. Slowly, the furniture in the room began to transform altogether. The tables and chairs used for classrooms were taken to some other place, and people began bringing in cushions, beanbags, and mats.
There was a brief kerfuffle as the administration attempted to push back, claiming the need for classroom space, but they quickly caved to the growing momentum and the students’ experience of praxis: a classroom had transformed into a ministry.
Someone hung a huge banner, declaring the space The Hub, and then more huge posters arrived, with the names of all the black people who had been killed that year and in prior years in police custody.
We recognize their names now as part of the impetus for the Black Lives Matter movement, but this was the infancy of the movement, at least in New York City. As the police and politicians waited for our collective energy to wane, we burrowed into this growing movement even more deeply. People began bringing in home-cooked food to serve to anyone in the Hub each day, and we began to hold teach-ins in the space.
Without clear leaders or organizers, the space was a hub of bold action, and very little debate or discussion, and let me assure you these were people who were used to talking. In this leaderless space, the vibes were good. We felt like these starlings must feel- swooping in, taking up all the space with our forward movement, casting our vision like a net of so many birds in the sky, taking shape together.
Which is not to say there was always peace between neighbors.
I remember one particular teach-in when a white man in his twenties excoriated many of us for going home at the end of the day, for not risking our safety and our livelihoods and getting arrested, and for having different methods and approaches within the same social action movement.
Many of the people who organized the hub were African-American women in their middle age, with children and families. All of us heard him, and then, a few of these women invited him to stay in the Hub and be quiet for a time. A number of people shared how his words made them feel as though their contribution was inferior to his, and their ideas were less worthy than his. He listened to the impact of his words, and after a long while, he quietly replied, “Thank you. I think I understand.”
He was different after that, a bit quieter, and thoughtful, and he developed this attractive sheen of humility that guided his words and actions. He was no longer a leader, but he became quite beloved by the entire community following that Hub experience. The capstone of the Hub was when Dr. James Cone wanted to hold his class in the collective space, with people standing or sitting wherever they were, because he felt the moment was historic and that it was where justice was happening in real time.
The strategy that is emergent, according to Brown, looks like the Hub at Union Theological Seminary in Winter of 2014. Could we at UUCA become a murmuration of starlings? Could we make a serious impact on healing the wound of poverty in Atlanta?
What happens when we let go, and join a flock? What fears keep us from doing so? That our uniqueness will no longer be celebrated? That people will do things their way, and not, my way?
We all wrestle with our longing to be more virtuous, but what does that even look like as the needle on our moral compass in rendered haywire and off the charts by the growing global atrocities springing up like the great mycelium fungus, insidious and cunning. There are negative examples of biomimicry too.
In her recent piece in Time magazine, Atlanta writer Tayari Jones questions the fallacy of the moral middle in time such as these.
The middle is a point equidistant from two poles. That’s it. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being neither here nor there. Buried in this is a false equivalency of ideas, what you might call the “good people on both sides” phenomenon. When we revisit our shameful past, ask yourself, Where was the middle? Rather than chattel slavery, perhaps we could agree on a nice program of indentured servitude? Instead of subjecting Japanese-American citizens to indefinite detention during WW II, what if we had agreed to give them actual sentences and perhaps provided a receipt for them to reclaim their things when they were released? What is halfway between moral and immoral?
The search for the middle is rooted in conflict avoidance and denial. For many Americans it is painful to understand that there are citizens of our community who are deeply racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic. Certainly, they reason, this current moment is somehow a complicated misunderstanding. Perhaps there is some way to look at this–a view from the middle–that would allow us to communicate and realize that our national identity is the tie that will bind us comfortably, and with a bow.
The headlines that lament a “divided” America suggest that the fact that we can’t all get along is more significant than the issues over which we are sparring. -Tayari Jones
Waging peace does not look like the American melting pot, all of us getting along in a blur of allegiance to getting along.
It’s important not to conflate neighborliness, and peacemaking, which I hold as religious virtues, with political activism, which is not religious.
In Rebecca Traister’s fabulous interview with Stacey Abrams in the most recent issue of New York magazine, Abrams’ perspective aligns with Tayari Jones’ ideas about working with people with whom you share a basic moral intuition.
As part of her decades-long project to assume high office, Abrams carefully studied the history of the Democratic Party in the South, and became convinced that Democrats have spent too much time focusing on middle-of-the-road or right-leaning voters at the expense of others. “When you go after someone who has a deep ideological belief set that is contradictory with your own, it’s conversion,” “Conversion is hard. Conversion is miraculous. We have entire religions built around the idea of conversion. Politics is not a religion. Politics is about persuasion.”
Abrams believes that persuasion works best on those predisposed to share Democratic values, which still doesn’t mean it’s easy.
We can find a way to love our neighbor while honoring the personal and real casualties of our political and cultural wars taking place in real time.
One way to wage peace between neighbors is to be brutally hard on your own opinions. Fully examine them, test them.
One of the most formative experiences of my life was a friendship I shared with another student in my small Clinical Pastoral Education class in the summer 0f 2013. He was young white man in his early thirties, recently converted t0 Eastern Orthodox, was whipsmart and charismatic, and one of the most simultaneously fascinating and frustrating people I’ve known.
It seemed like we spent hardly any time in pseudocommunity and dove right into opening up our truest selves. About halfway through the eight-week course, we were arguing about abortion. I’m not sure who introduced the topic, probably it was our professor, a consummate instigator. Our small group had bonded fairly well, and just as suddenly we drew our battle lines and jumped on either side. Each afternoon after class, he and I met to discuss it further. The more we argued, well, the more we argued.
I do remember a moment of profound humility when I knew I was reaching for the upper hand more than I was reaching towards him. “Well,” I harrumphed at him, “for me it’s a human rights issue.” “Don’t you see?” He replied. “It is also a human rights issue for me too.”
I fell deep into the well of my own opinion, and I came out of the rabbit hole with my perspective more courageously defined and more widely applied, but just as importantly, I came to respect his moral intuition.
Though I found his facts misguided, I felt like I could love his conservative heart because I found it moral. I had never wondered what it would be like to befriend an Eastern Orthodox priest under 35, but I found out!
My heart rages that we are holding small children in captivity along our borders, in overcrowded detention centers under inhumane conditions. Most days I can never answer “fine” when someone asks me how I am, because I know our legislatures are voting to arm teachers rather than regulate firearms. Heck, as a white-cisgender person, I’m not nearly the most terrorized, and I’m not fine.
But wherever we can make peace, we must try. Our UU faith calls us to practice Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; which does not mean we sacrifice compassion for those humans who are not directly in our midst. Making peace with neighbors is holy and difficult work.
My commitment to my Eastern Orthodox friend is the same commitment we make to each other here in our congregation: to stay in relationship. I believe he and I could have spent years in a debate, but our shared moral intuition kept us connected to a primary commitment that we hold as Unitarian Universalists:
We belong to each other, and we must do the hard work of examining our own opinions and finding a moral thread linking us to our neighbor.
Our culture is at war, even as many of our nations are at war. To wage peace is to seek a moral intuition in someone’s position, to surrender to the collective wisdom like a murmuration of starlings, staying open and curious to the adaptations we will need to survive these times.
Many of the writers I love are disciples of the science fiction black woman writer Octavia Butler, who writes:
All that you touch
All that you change
The only lasting truth
God is Change.
Remembering the powerful flight of the starlings in that dark Iowa sky, I long to join with you in murmuration, moving as one collective vision, emerging from individualism, becoming the change we wish to be in this world.