Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
— Martin Luther King Jr.
If you’re an empath, or even if you’re not, listening to stories of severe injustice is difficult but necessary for those who want to develop true compassion. Buddhist teacher Christina Feldman writes:
Awareness opens our hearts and minds to a world of pain and distress that previously only glanced off the surface of consciousness, like a stone skipping across water. But awareness also teaches us to read between the lines and to see beneath the world of appearances…. Awareness deepens because we hear more acutely the cries of the world. Each of those cries has written within it the plea to be received.
My dive into compassionate reading, listening, and watching went deeper after my fall into Unitarian Universalist infamy, which you can read about here, with a brief addition here. Being labeled racist led me to much reading, documentary viewing, and thinking about race and oppression.
A highlight (if that’s an appropriate word) was hearing the best speech I’ve ever attended in person, by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy, which I read after hearing him speak. Another excellent book on race, class, prison, and oppression is Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation, and of course there’s the documentary film 13th, by Ava DuVernay. These all point to a culture in which Jim Crow oppression against the black population of the United States is alive and thriving in a new form.
Oppression by agents of Customs and Border Enforcement is alive, too, and goes back before the current administration. One highly painful ABC documentary shows the death of Mexican teenager Cruz Velazquez after he was caught in 2013 at the border with two bottles of highly concentrated liquid methamphetamine. The 16-year-old apparently told the agents that it was just juice he was carrying, so they encouraged him to drink some. His death was worse than a state execution gone wrong. “Cruel and unusual” doesn’t begin to describe it.
Along the way, during my deep dive into injustice and oppression, I happened to learn more about my own (Jewish) family history in what’s now Belarus — the time during the First World War when my old and frail paternal grandfather was put into harness to pull a plow so German troops would have vegetables to eat. I already knew that my maternal grandmother spent her childhood in indentured servitude because her parents couldn’t afford to feed her. And I knew about my two uncles, two aunts, and five first cousins lost to the holocaust.
My most recent act of compassionate watching and listening was the Netflix documentary series The Keepers. It seems at first to be about the murder of a Roman Catholic nun in Baltimore in 1969, but some amateur and semi-pro sleuthing leads to a highly credible but still unproved story of sadistic sexual abuse of more than 100 girls in Archbishop Keough High School. The victims and perpetrators of this oppression were all white — living in a working-class neighborhood of Baltimore.
My Buddhism teaches me to respond to all victims of oppression (and all people everywhere) with metta, or loving kindness. Yet I’ve seen objections to the production of The Keepers because the story unfolds in a self-segregated white neighborhood and high school with almost no on-camera black faces. If I understand the objection, it’s that these working-class victims and their families are also part of the white supremacy culture that killed Freddie Gray.
That’s where my metta becomes harder to practice. Oppression and injustice are not competitive sports with winners and losers and a need to take sides. Oppression is a sickness that afflicts all of us, and compassion toward all beings is the cure.
— Mel Pine (Urgyen Jigme)
Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine