(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
At several political rallies for Bernie Sanders this past Spring, protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement interrupted his speeches. At one rally, two protesters even made their way onstage and took control of the microphone. They challenged Sanders for not speaking about racism, inequality and the shooting deaths of unarmed black men by police. Many Sanders supporters were deeply upset and said that actions by the protesters were both rude and misdirected. Sanders has, after all, been an advocate for civil rights most of his life, including being one of those at the 1963 Washington DC march with Martin Luther King. A few black commentators also criticized the protesters saying, as one did, that you should not “piss on your best friend.” It was a shock to many progressives that Sanders and, by implication, all of them, should be attacked as racist.
Importantly, however, Sanders responded to the disruptions not by attacking the protesters but by changing his campaign and beginning to speak about racism. On his campaign website, racial justice suddenly appeared as one of his top three concerns. He began to talk forcefully about the need for criminal justice reform and he frequently mentioned the inconsistency that over two-thirds of those in prison are men of color when they make up less than 8% of the population. He also began to directly tie his concern about economic inequality to racial discrimination.
Many Black Lives Matter leaders praised Sanders for these changes. But they also pointedly defended their disruptive tactics. They compared their actions to Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of a bus, the lunch counter sit-ins by blacks in the 1960’s, the sit-down strikes of steel workers of the 1920’s and the so-called “die-ins” held by AIDS activists in the 1980’s.
Numerous historians point out that civil disobedience has always been disruptive and it should cause discomfort. Chaos, they say, creates the space and mindset that shocks otherwise complacent people. Disruption is one of the most effective ways to cause change for the better. In the case of Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter protesters were highly effective in causing him to change.
As I noted last week, there are many ironies and paradoxes about life that both confuse and intrigue us. Studying a few of those paradoxes are the subjects of my messages this month. Why should we, as I discussed last Sunday, both avoid AND embrace pain? As a corollary to that question, why is disruption both difficult but ultimately helpful – in our personal lives, in politics, in business and with regard to social justice? That’s the paradox I want to consider today. Disruption is both chaotic AND productive.
For instance, in our personal lives, why is it so often the case that when we are at our lowest, when chaos seems to control, that something good almost always emerges? As guest speaker Matt Himm talked about two Sundays ago, he needed to hit rock bottom with his addiction disease before he could courageously recover and build a life characterized by redemption and positive change.
Using another example, new technology is a radically disruptive force. Computers and the internet are now displacing people from their jobs and creating massive dislocations in the workforce. This technology disruption will continue for many years and the chaos it will cause in many sectors of the economy – and in the lives of many people – will be profound.
But digital technology is also improving efficiency and enabling us to enjoy more leisure and increased social good. Uber, the ride sharing business, has forced thousands of taxi drivers out of work and disrupted their lives and the taxi industry. But Uber has also substantially lowered costs for riders, encouraged greater ride sharing, reduced pollution and traffic, and, interestingly, has helped address racism. African-Americans have historically had great difficulty hailing a cab. Because of Uber technology and the instant sharing of names, credit card information and ratings of both drivers and users before a ride is even begun, there is a new found equality in transportation. African-Americans say they now have access to taxi type services. Uber is therefore being hailed as an example of the social good that can paradoxically come from disruption.
In politics, Donald Trump has caused perhaps the most chaotic election process in our nation’s history. Nobody knows what will result from this election and if it points to a new era in American politics. No matter who wins the election, Trumps supporters – and the disruptive tactics they support – are not likely to go away.
But, just as important, his candidacy has caused many to examine the reasons why he is popular. One of those reasons is the fact that millions of people have lost hope in the economy. 75% of people say that the American dream of succeeding through honest hard work is no longer true. The next generation will, in fact, be the first one to be worse off than the preceding. If Donald Trump, no matter what we think of his actions and demeanor, has succeeded in highlighting the decline of the American Dream, then that is a good thing – especially if elected officials take action to address it.
Regarding social justice, the killing of innocent black men and women – and the visual evidence we have of such killings – are terrible tragedies. The protests that emerged and the retribution killing of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge have added to the disorder that now seems to grip our nation. But those disruptive events are also causing a new and much wider examination of racism and white privilege. No longer can white people ignore racism when they see it in videos of innocent black men, women and children being shot in the back, chocked to death on public sidewalks, killed in their cars or murdered on playgrounds. Such horrors and protests about them have disrupted racial complacency in our nation and forced many to honestly examine themselves. And that, ultimately, is a good thing.
The paradox I believe each of us must come to terms with is how we manage disruption so that even though it creates temporary chaos, it is not destructive – but is ultimately productive. In my own life, I’ve related to most of you the story of my coming out twelve years ago. By choosing to take a leap into unknown territory, to be honest with myself and others about who I am, I caused major disruptions in my life. I lost my first job, people in my previous church who said they loved me abandoned me, and my marriage ended. Other friendships were challenged and I was left feeling very alone. For nearly two years I was numb, depressed and at the lowest point of my life.
It was at that low point, however, that I had to choose to accept the chaos and deal with it, or retreat back to a dysfunctional but relatively stable life. My coming out disruption would not have been successful had I not made the crucial decision to go forward. Because of the chaos, I found new friends, new work and a new sense of peace and self confidence. Like so many other people, I had to break down and disrupt the dysfunctional me in order to change for the better.
Interestingly, that disruption for me was ironically entwined with disruptions in the two congregations that now make up the Gathering at Northern Hills. Had I not come out, I would never have met – on a hiking trail in Sedona, Arizona of all places – a man from Cincinnati who listened to my story and recommended I visit a small downtown church that would be friendly and supportive. That church was the Gathering.
Two years later, the Gathering experienced its own period of disruption when its founding minister departed. And that directly led to the opportunity for me to become its minister.
Fast forward five years later, Ray Nandyal guest spoke at the Gathering one Sunday after a member, who twenty years earlier had been Ray’s landlord, recommended him as a speaker. Ray later described to me and our Board a church called Northern Hills Fellowship that held similar liberal spiritual views and was experiencing its own disruption with the loss of two ministers. As most of us know, that suggestion by Ray led to our congregations meeting and then exploring the possibility of merging. The rest, as they say, is history.
Many experts say the way to harness the paradoxical power of disruption is to not allow it to become destructive. Jill Lepore, an author who wrote a piece in the New Yorker magazine, suggests that chaotic disruption can either blow things up – OR create innovative and positive change. To succeed, disruption must fundamentally shift the prevailing and often complacent way of thinking. That is what happened to Bernie Sanders in his campaign and what Civil Rights protesters of the 1960’s achieved. It’s what happened for me when I came out and what Matt Himm described in his healing process from the disease of addiction. In each case, people had to change the way they had previously thought.
To be successful, disruption needs to be focused toward social good – greater efficiency in serving human needs, empowerment of those without power, and improved living conditions for everyone. Disruptive chaos, therefore, cannot be allowed to run amok. Author Richard Pascale, writes in his book The Edge of Chaos, that people and organizations must function during times of disruption on the razors edge of order AND chaos. Pushed too far, chaos becomes anarchy. Not pushed far enough, change does not occur. As he writes, “Nothing novel can emerge from systems with high degrees of order and stability.”
The balance for most organizations and people is to adopt what he calls “polyarchy”. Between the extremes of anarchy, where chaos is the only constant, and oligarchy, where too much order and control exists, lies a middle ground of dispersed control – or “polyarchy”. Power is not highly centralized but there is just enough organization such that productive change can occur. I believe this congregation comes close to matching that middle ground ideal. On a personal level, one must endure the period of disruption while channeling it into something good – a wake up call, an opportunity for a life reset, and a time to examine what is one’s life purpose.
The good that comes from chaos lies in its principle of randomness. Modern mathematicians and physicists have studied chaos theory and its popular comparison to the so-called butterfly affect. As that analogy goes, when a single butterfly flaps its wings in South America, weather in Texas is affected a month later. What that means is that one seemingly minor disruption produces a series of random events that cause significant but unpredictable outcomes. That’s why long term weather forecasts are so difficult.
Determinism, as the opposite of chaos, is a way to control and direct events. One stands at point A and determines that he or she will reach Point F by way of Points B, C, D and E – a linear and logical way forward. The problem with determinism in any of our lives is that we cannot control or predict events that happen to us. With courage, determination and a small application of wisdom, we must allow disruptive events to unfold as they come – trusting the outcome may not be known but it will be good.
Imagine the butterfly affect as it related to me and to this congregation. Disruptions that occurred in my life and in the lives of both former congregations each randomly led to where we are today. Had any of us refused to accept disruption – had I retreated to my former life, had the Gathering closed its doors when its founding minister departed, had Northern Hills panicked when it lost its previous ministers, had Northern Hills not come together to function without a minister for two years, we would not be here today. Even more, none of us could have put in place the random events that did cause the good we now have. Any one of those events – and many others that are too time consuming to mention – were unpredictable, random and seemingly chaotic. But with our determination and courage, good things happened.
Much like I said last week about pain, disruption in life is a force for good. We must refuse the impulse to fear it and flee from it. When the events of life seem to overwhelm us in their chaos, when life seems dark and perhaps even hopeless, let us remember to hang on. Let’s summon the inner strength we each have to persevere – while also importantly remembering that disruption is a cleansing and healing force if we channel it in the right way. We are people who yearn for all that is good and true in the world and in ourselves. Life is a paradox, it is often chaotic, but it can also be so beautiful and so very wonderful.
I wish us each disruptive peace and joy!