Dr. James Cone is one of the formative personalities in the living history of liberation theology, the spiritual/religious framework of knowledge and practice based around the ideal that God, and those who are devotees of God, should be primarily concerned with the social/political/spiritual freedom of the oppressed, of those who are marginalized due to their race, sex, class, nationality, or gender. Through such courageous and groundbreaking works such as A Black Theology of Liberation, The God of the Oppressed and The Cross and The Lynching Tree, Cone has resounded a daring truth which says that God is intimately and particularly concerned and active in securing the freedom of black people in America from the shackles of bondage which have kept them and held them over much of the last five hundred years. While Cone did not invent the idea of Black Theology, he is considered one of its “founding fathers,” as it were, and is a historically important and vital figure in the field of contemporary Christian theology
Dr. Cone's work has inspired many other liberation theologians across the spectrum of race, sex, and gender to apply this ideal of God's care and love for the oppressed to their own particular situations of oppression/marginalization. He has been teaching at Union Theological Seminary, the oldest independent progressive Christian seminary in America, for much of the last four decades. Union, where I am currently working towards a master's degree in religion and ecological ethics, is where I had the good fortune of participating in Cone's Systematic Theology course this past Fall.
From the very first class, Cone was encouraging us to find our own personal theological voice, but he was also clear that there was an objective difference between good theology and bad theology. I came to understand that good theology, a working theology, must include understanding and realization of the transcendent reality of God, who speaks to us and acts within us beyond the boundaries of the material world, helping us to transcend our own limitations. Good theology must balance this understanding of the transcendent element with a clear acknowledgment and commitment to confronting, within the material world, the structures and expressions of injustice, discrimination, and oppression which deny people their material and spiritual freedom and dignity.
Bad theology is removed from this balance. A theology which doesn't work gives a framework which compels a community to think itself above the problems of the world. Bad theology commits the “sin of silence” towards the injustice of the world, either by outright ignoring the pain and suffering of oppression, or by misinterpreting how to deal with this oppression with antiquated and insensitive forms of praxis. Theology will also not work when it is too concerned with justice work at the expense of the transcendent element. Our link to the transcendent reality of God allows us, as expressed in the thought of one of Union's most influential teachers and philosophers Reinhold Niebuhr, to understand the original freedom of our own spiritual nature in relationship with God, while also making clear to us the finite nature of our material existence and our limitations within that nature to express that original freedom. Any theology, or any kind of justice work, which does not keep the transcendent relation of God at its center, will not be able to comprehend or transcend its own limitations and the multifarious flaws of human nature.
Dr. Cone was also very clear that all theology, and that our own theological voice, comes out of the element of contradiction. A major part of this element of contradiction comes from the the understanding that if we have the conviction, courage, and intelligence to wrestle with and examine how our faith tradition is expressing itself in relation to the world, we will be able to confront ideas and frameworks in that expression which do not work, which are not relevant. From the confrontation of that contradiction we will be able to shape new ideas and frameworks which insure that our faith, our theology, speaks of the reality and love of God in a way that is meaningful, powerful, compassionate, and effective to the actual time, place, and circumstance which surrounds it. The element of contradiction, when processed in a healthy, intelligent, sincere, and surrendered fashion, helps to insure the proper theological balance between faith and knowledge of God's transcendent reality with a commitment towards the active work and service that can bring the just love of God into reality to break the bonds of injustice and oppression in our world.
I am beginning to understand, as my own theological voice begins to form, as a devotee who serves within ISKCON and identifies, more or less, as a member of ISKCON, who identifies as a servant of Prabhupada's mission, that I am also dealing with a serious contradiction. This contradiction begins as I understand that while I accept the fundamental and essential tenets of sastra as given to us by Prabhupada, I have many problems with how this essential spiritual understanding is expressed culturally and socially by our society of devotees. Let us recall the words of Yogesvara Dasa, a long-standing and well-esteemed disciple of Srila Prabhupada, who in our previous piece expressed his feelings that the Hare Krishna movement is largely invisible and irrelevant to society today:
“The most candid comment I can give about public perception of Hare Krishna in North
America is that I don’t think there is one anymore. The worst possible thing has happened,
namely indifference. There was a time going back 20 years perhaps when there was a public perception of the Hare Krishna movement in the sense that people felt accosted in airports or read reports of abuses or saw devotees chanting in public. Devotees were a more visible part of the landscape of American culture previously.
Maybe then one could say there was a public perception because Hare Krishna was in the news, it was on television, it was in the papers for good or for bad...I believe that Vaishnavism as it has been historically will not be the same in the future for the simple reason that the world it lives in is not the same. There is a compulsion within Vaishnava faith to move into the larger society and to become relevant, and the Vaishnava community has yet to demonstrate its relevance. For 99.99 percent of the world we don’t matter. Krishna Consciousness is irrelevant to most of the world.”
I feel, and I am not alone in this feeling, that there is something wrong in how ISKCON, as the standard-bearer of Prabhupada's mission, relates to the world at large. Srila Prabhupada has given us the gift of a profound spiritual revolutionary movement which is to meant to strike at the very status quo of the oppression of material nature, yet our tendency is to speak in a overtly transcendent manner to the problems and complexities of the world, as if we are speaking down to people who are trying to spiritually work through these problems and complexities. It is difficult for us to speak to, to speak with, to speak along-side these sincere-minded and sincere-hearted people working for peace, justice, love, and meaning. As I wrote in my previous piece, this contradiction crystallizes for me when we communicate to people that “they are not their body” in such a way as to completely ignore or devalue their particular bodily or human existence in the world. Telling someone “they are not the body” when they are looking for spiritual shelter to help them work through and transcend their bodily situation of oppression is a particularly insensitive and irrelevant form of communication. This is compounded by the fact that when we consider the history and concurrent living experience of ISKCON in terms of how we relate to vulnerable and marginalized people, such as our women, our children, or devotees in our community in racial and sexual bodily constructs which are considered to be the “minority” or the “alternative” to the norm, we have a long and painful reckoning to deal with.
Let us consider two statements that Srila Prabhupada makes to us in one purport from the Madhya-lila of Sri Caitanya-Caritamrta:
“ ‘As far as religious principles are concerned, there is a consideration of the person, the country, the time and the circumstance. In devotional service, however, there are no such considerations. Devotional service is transcendental to all such considerations. Madhya 25.121
The transcendental service of the Lord (sādhana-bhakti) is above these principles. The world is anxious for religious unity, and that common platform can be achieved in transcendental devotional service. This is the verdict of Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu. When one becomes a Vaiṣṇava, he becomes transcendental to all these limited considerations. Madhya 25.121
Prabhupada is quite clearly expressing here that devotees should never define the essential values of Krishna consciousness, of bhakti-yoga, by the limitations of material consideration. The color of someone's skin or the nature of one's sexuality ultimately has nothing to do with anyone's eligibility to become a devotee. Therefore no one claiming to be a devotee should ever discriminate or prevent someone from approaching devotional service because of material or bodily considerations.
As Prabhupada mentions in the first passage, devotional service is transcendental to all such considerations, but the cultural principles which surround, express, and communicate the eternal, absolute values at the core of Krishna consciousness have to take time, place, and circumstance into account. Prabhupada did this himself actively in the grand spiritual/sociological “experiment” of bringing the tradition of bhakti-yoga from its original cultural context in India to the cultural context of the West. We know many of the alterations he made, such as allowing men and women to live together in the temple environment or initiating very young men into the sannyasa asrama, and we know the kind of push-back he received from his more conservatively oriented God-brothers. We know that every consideration he made around altering certain religious/cultural symbols was done with the exact and sincere motivation to maintain and enhance the free potential for everyone to properly encounter the eternal, absolute, and transcendental principles of Krishna consciousness.
To follow his calling for us, we need to understand that as devotees we are not to limit or define ourselves by material considerations in how we grow and maintain our communities and our society as a whole. Does this mean that we shouldn't be conscious of the material diversity of psychophysical situations we encounter in growing and maintaining our communities? Absolutely not. Prabhupada was also a tremendous genius at giving the reality of Krishna consciousness to each person as he consciously and compassionately understood the location of their being in this world, in the actual ground that they stood on. To have the capacity in our preaching, in our outreach, in our advocacy of the values and principles of Krishna consciousness, to learn and practice the art of revealing devotional service in the unique and palatable way that each person may desire it, is completely essential for us if we are to properly follow Prabhupada's calling for us.
Consider two more passages from this purport:
As far as different faiths are concerned, religions may be of different types, but on the spiritual platform, everyone has an equal right to execute devotional service. Madhya 25.121
The conclusion is that devotional service is open for everyone, regardless of caste, creed, time and country. This Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement is functioning according to this principle. Madhya 25.121
How can we say our movement is functioning according to these absolute values when we clearly understand the legacy and ongoing reality within our movement of discrimination against certain types of body, nationality, caste, and/or sexuality? There is a contradiction which exists, which we must confront, between these eternal values of openness and equality at the heart of bhakti, and the way we either share or don't share these values with people because of the discriminatory lenses we carry with us. This contradiction is one of the core reasons, if not the core reason, why we struggle to be as relevant are we are called to be in the world around us. There are of course individual devotees and communities of devotees who are exploring this contradiction and creating outreach which truly speaks
openly and equally to the heart and mind of the contemporary human being in the 21st Century.
One powerful example is the Gita Sutras (gitanyc.com) program associated with the Bhakti Center community here in New York City, which is attracting a diverse and dynamic spectrum of spiritual seekers whose intelligent minds and compassionate hearts are being enlivened by a presentation of the essential principles of the Bhagavad-Gita as given by Prabhupada. It is a presentation which meets them powerfully and profoundly in their psychophysical locations and which doesn't discriminate against those locations.
ISKCON as a whole, as a global body representing Prabhupada's body, must now courageously and specifically ask whether its cultural presentation is something that is directly relevant to the world we live in. Do the elements of the presentation of Krishna consciousness in our communities and in our society as a whole contribute to the discrimination that exists in this world, or does it help to liberate people from that discrimination? What do we need to do to translate the eternal relevance of bhakti so that it is practically relevant to the way people feel, think, live, and suffer? What do we need to do to translate this relevance so that it is not a scandal to the intellect and experience of the people we want to reach, touch, and affect?
As individuals and as communities we have the tendency to participate in “spiritual bypassing”, or to become addicted to “spiritual heroin”, in which we consciously/unconsciously ignore the difficulties in our own hearts, in our own communities, and in the world around us. To offer a balm to this affliction, I ask this question: do you, do we, do I, really understand how terrible and how painful the effects of the Kali-Yuga are to people suffering those effects? In the same way we can say to ourselves or tell someone else that “you are not the body” without fully understanding the full spiritual import of that statement, when we pass off the tumult of our time by saying its just the “Kali-Yuga”, we are ignoring our sacred responsibility to understand, confront, and redeem the pain of our age. We have to ask ourselves: do we want to be confronted by the realities of our age, perversities of divine nature which most certainly manifest in our own heart, or do we want to be an insular, provincial, “Hindu” religious society which has little practical relevance or effect upon society?
I know it is my experience, and the experience of a good number of devotees in our communities, that once one sees and encounters the vastness of the injustice and suffering which permeates our age, there is no longer anyway to bypass it or ignore it. It changes one's entire identity and calling as a devotee. It strengthens that identity and calling. It deepens that identity and calling. Some of the most formative influences on the shape of my own spiritual journey has been books like American Holocaust by David Stannard, which detailed the mass extermination of indigenous Native American peoples and cultures upon the “discovery” of the “New World” by European settlers/conquerors. Equally as powerful is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which explores and reveals how the contemporary criminal-justice system has created a underclass of people, largely Black and Latino men, whose standing as citizens in American society has been traumatically torn asunder. I would encourage any devotees to read these books to gain a better and broader idea of the kinds of demoniac forces we encounter in this age and on this planet.
Let me also share some food for thought from my recent participation in the opening workshop of the 2013 Immersion Experience of the Poverty Initiative, a clear and committed social justice organization working out of Union Theological Seminary. The workshop was titled Conditions and Consciousness: The Current Economic Crisis, and in the opening session we were presented with a number of facts that were meant to challenge and motivate us to grasp and understand a number of elements of exactly why and how so many people face suffering and exploitation because of certain economic factors that exist in our societal infrastructure.
I hope that by listing below some of these fact/provocations/questions that like-minded and similarly concerned devotees reading this may be deepened and challenged in their own motivation and conception of what it means to serve in this Kali-Yuga. We must understand the nature of what the term economic means. It is a measuring and a conceptual understanding of who gets what and why. It is an examination of the principle of the quota from the Isopanisad and how that principle is/is not honored in our current time.
We must understand and confront in our ourselves and in our society the gap between the factual reality of certain economic conditions and our consciousness of these conditions.
-As recently as 2010, a home was being foreclosed on every 15 seconds.
-The number of “Tent Cities” continues to rise since the 2008 financial crisis, exacerbated no doubt by the increase in environmentally related disasters. As devotees, how do we practically help the people living in these communities?
-Of course we tend to notice how machines/robots continue to replace human service/interactions in such places as the assembly line and the checkout line. What do we as devotees have to say to people whose livelihood has been replaced/is threatened by this effect of economic globalization?
-I am reminded of the time HH Devamrta Swami, in one of his visits to the Bhakti Center in NYC, showed all the brahmacaris the award-winning documentary Inside Job, which detailed the 2008 financial meltdown. He never explicitly explained why he was showing us this film, but the implication was clear: just down the road from the Bhakti Center, on Wall Street, are the kind of overt demoniac forces that Krishna spoke of the in the Bhagavad-gita, and that as devotees, we should be very aware of this and very clear about what they are trying to do.
-How much are we, as devotees, aware of how debt functions to keep this unjust economic system working? How do our own experiences of debt, as individuals and communities, define our viewpoint of how our society actually works? Do we understand that the current crises of debt inequality exist not because the system isn't working, but because that is how the system actually works?
-Through the combination of our own personal misuse and the ways the industrial food production systems work, half the food that is produced is eventually wasted/thrown out. This adds up to $165 million of food wasted per year, while 800 million hungry go around the world.
-Did you know that, despite the backlash that came after the 2008 economic crash, CEOs earns at least 185 times more on average that the workers under them at their corporations?
The main point of this workshop was to help us to begin to understand the structural and ideological roots of why our current economic situation is the way it is, from the most high corporate boardrooms on down to the people barely scraping by in slums left behind. As devotees, it is also our challenge to understand the roots of the way the Kali-Yuga is being expressed in the world around us. Understanding these roots will allow us to have a more accurate diagnosis of the problem, and it will compel us to offer the right prescription to help cure our ills as much as we possibly can.
What, according to Srila Prabhupada, is this right prescription?
Because of the increment in demoniac population, people have lost brahminical culture. Nor is there a kṣatriya government. Instead, the government is a democracy in which any śūdra can be voted into taking up the governmental reigns and capture the power to rule. Because of the poisonous effects of Kali-yuga, the śāstra(Bhāg. 12.2.13) says, dasyu-prāyeṣu rājasu: the government will adopt the policies of dasyus, or plunderers. Thus there will be no instructions from the brāhmaṇas, and even if there are brahminical instructions, there will be no kṣatriya rulers who can follow them. 7.2.11
Therefore, through the popularizing of hari-kīrtana, or the saṅkīrtana movement, the brahminical culture and kṣatriya government will automatically come back, and people will be extremely happy. 7.2.11
Having an effective consciousness and awareness of the suffering in this world will give us determination and courage to effect the change, to do what Prabhupada is calling us to do, to overcome this suffering. As devotees, we have a responsibility to always be asking ourselves if we are truly and comprehensively aware as we can be of the suffering in the world. We must always be critiquing and improving our understanding of our own responsibility and our own calling to free the world, as best as we can, from this suffering.
A few quotes to end, from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of course, and also from Jon Sobrino, an influential Jesuit activist and liberation theologian
"True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr
“Our theology has to be rooted in reality”
Jon Sobrino, S.J
The relevance of Prabhupada's mission as we move into the 21st Century depends so very much on standing firmly on the ground of suffering in this world, in this Kali-Yuga, and in giving effectively and compassionately the unique loving and spiritual balms and solutions that we have to give.