Adina Meyer Shares High Moments at the American Academy of Religion’s (AAR) Annual Conference
Such a very exciting first day in San Antonio. I spent it at the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education (CSEE) event, a gathering of high school religion teachers from across the country. We first heard from my old friend John Grim, from Yale, speaking about the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protest as a case study in Native American religious traditions.
John was truly amazing. His talk was passionate, dynamic, and well organized. He began by discussing the power of words like “tradition,” which is often used in courses about indigenous people. He pointed out that words like this can suggest a people “frozen in time”. These people do not see themselves as frozen, he reminded us, but as bearers of a living tradition.
He gave us a little background about his own work, of course mentioning his guru, Thomas Berry, and his Journey of the Universe project. He noted that the new website, emergingearthcommunity.org, lays out all of his previous projects together.
He then shared the five main points he wanted us to remember about the DAPL protest: Traditional values of the Lakota, the Discovery Doctrine, Treaty Rights, the colonialist background, and the problem of extraction and transport of petroleum. He went into detail on all these points, telling us the story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman to summarize the Lakota way of life, talking about the pressure on the Pope to reverse the Papal Bulls of the early 16th century, (such as the Treaty of Tordesillas – wouldn’t that be incredible?) and reminding us that indigenous people in North America are leading the environmentalist movement on this continent and yet are not on the register of the U.S. consciousness. He asked the audience where in our courses Native Americans come up. Though we do include them in our Humanities courses at Northwest, I wrote in big letters at the bottom of my notes, “WE NEED TO DO MORE WITH THIS!”
We then heard from Dr. Simran Jeet Singh, a professor from Trinity College, who just received the second annual Walter Wink Scholar-Activist Award on Sikhism. He presented his information on Sikhism while modeling how he likes to present it to students. His theory of teaching religion is to talk about its relevance to the present day first, then go into the traditions and the history. The tenth-grade faculty team at Northwest has been experimenting with this method more and more, and Dr. Singh reaffirmed my faith in it.
Turning to Sikh experiences in Modern America, Dr. Singh talked about students who feel the impact of Islamophobia in their own lives. He gave a short history of Sikhs in the U.S., and told us that xenophobia has always been a part of Sikh history. Of course, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Sikhs were targeted. The first post 9/11 hate crime fatality was a Sikh man in Mesa, Arizona. Professor Singh remembered being discriminated against in many ways, including being bullied in school, but after 9/11, this discrimination intensified. And of course, in the last year, the last week, these incidents have skyrocketed again.
He then moved into aspects of religious identity and faith for Sikhs. He talked about the outer signs of Sikh identity (the five Ks) introducing people to their meaning, as well as trying to relate to us, in part, the Sikh worldview. It was very informative and helpful to my own teaching. He gave us the names of some resources and told us pitfalls to avoid (like portraying Sikhi as a blend of Hinduism and Islam).
Two amazing sessions! After lunch, I gave my talk about teaching contemporary religious movements (also known as new religious movements, or NRMs) to high school students. We had a roundtable discussion, sharing resources, which was so much fun. Religion teachers from across the country sharing what they teach, how they teach, addressing challenges and solutions!
I woke up early to go see a new documentary about American Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. I confess that although some of my greatest heroes (including President Jimmy Carter) looked to Niebuhr for inspiration, I was mainly interested in him because he is the author of the “Serenity Prayer,” which I say multiple times in any given week.
I learned a great deal from the film about Niebuhr’s life and work, and now look forward to reading some of his books. The film’s director was there, as was the author of the companion book, and there was a little roundtable discussion afterward. One of the questions from the audience was something like, “Why is there no comparable public theologian today?’ I raised my hand and introduced myself as a high school religion teacher from Seattle. I said that my students and I considered Dr. Cornel West to be one such public theologian, both for his writing and speaking and for his moral actions. I turned around, and there was Dr. West sitting behind me! He stood up and thanked me for my kind words, and then said some things that I honestly don’t remember because he was staring intently into my eyes as he was talking and I was just nodding.
The next session was called “Love and Hate in American Religion,” and was a plenary panel called together by Dr. Serene Jones, the president of the AAR. Dr. Jones had chosen “Revolutionary Love” as this year’s theme. Dr. West was on that panel, as was Eddie Glaude from Princeton, Mayra Rivera from Harvard, and Amir Hussain, whose book, Muslims and the Making of America, was one of the featured texts of the conference. (Yet another book I need to get!) All panelists spoke very intensely and didn’t pull any punches, calling the next U.S. government regime “neo-fascist” in nature and describing some of the manifestations of the “hatreds of our day” as well as the role of intellectuals in disrupting their thought and power. Most moving was (who else?) Cornel West, who talked about himself as a lover of truth, goodness, and beauty, and about speaking the truth with love always.
After the talk, people were milling about by the front, trying to meet the speakers or shake hands with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who had come to listen. I noticed some people of color in line and I stepped back, joking with one man that I didn’t want to be one more white person barging in front of him. He laughed and took my arm, telling me we could go together. He asked where I was from and I told him Seattle. He said he was from Seattle, too, and that he owns an amazing barbecue restaurant. He was there with his wife, who teaches at Seattle University. She and I chatted but then it was their turn to meet Jesse Jackson, so I turned away and ran straight into Cornel West. I burst into tears at the sight of him and he embraced me. This is where “I sobbed in his arms,” letting my sadness and fear and feelings of depletion leave me and feeling the strength of his spirit revive me. (I know that’s corny but I can’t help it.)
That night, we heard Serene Jones give her presidential address on the conference theme of “Revolutionary Love.” She, too, discussed how the neo-liberal economy is giving way to a neo-fascist state. She was an enthralling speaker, quoting Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939”:
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
She used the language of religion to describe the “curse of collective sin” that we live under today in the United States, a nation built on genocide and slavery. She talked about revolutionary love as a deep, fierce social force that has the power to tear down and to build up. She named features of love: the assumption that all human beings are creatures of equal value, the concepts of fairness, inclusion, to care deeply about the other, curiosity, and wonder. She said, “Our classrooms may have been the spaces where the biggest lies have been told – but we can crack them open so that new forms may emerge – new ways of being human together.”
It was an incredible talk, and I walked out, dazzled and hopeful. My spirit was being revived by these remarkable academics of faith.
I went with my friend Asif, who teaches humanities, religion, and AP calculus at a large prep school in Los Angeles, to see one of the old missions by the San Antonio River. This was a very informative visit, where I learned all about the Texano people, the descendants of the original Mission Indians who still live in the same neighborhood and attend Mass at the missions!He dropped me back off at the convention center just in time to attend the plenary address by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. What was she doing at a religion conference? She was co-presenting with Rev. Dr. Kelly Douglass, author of Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. (Yes, another book I need to get.) They had a public conversation, asking each other profound and pertinent questions about the political climate as well as about their own personal spiritual journeys. Rev. Douglass talked about the various myths of America, which resonated with me because that is what I use in my Visions of America class. Michelle Alexander talked about her own personal “spiritual awakening” when she was on the road lecturing about The New Jim Crow, and how this awakening is leading her into Union Theological Seminary.
In answer to the question, “Is America Possible?” both scholars agreed that it could be – but it will require a leap of faith. A truly inclusive democracy that recognizes the worth of every human, built on the ashes of slavery and genocide, requires radical imagination and great courage.
After dinner, I attended a special roundtable session on “Critical Thinking, Inclusion, and Moral Responsibility in the Wake of the 2016 Election.” It was supposed to be a discussion of ways in which the AAR can respond to the election moving forward, both in the classroom and beyond.Comments were flying left and right about the role of academics in the presidential election as both students and faculty shared their feelings, fears, and hopes. I got up at one point and exhorted them to tell their students to become K-12 educators, for which I received a hearty round of applause.
Was I finished with “Revolutionary Love?”Should I go to a panel on another topic?Or should I learn about Mormon food storage?ISIS? The collapse of a hugely sexist mega-church? There are so many options at the AAR that often I don’t choose one until I am at the threshold of the convention center. In the end, I decided to go to the panel on love because it seemed more relevant to my work, including this year’s “trint of love”, and next year’s “summit of love”, which I’ll be team teaching with two other Northwest faculty members.
In the panel titled, “What’s Love Got to do with It?”, four scholars were asked to address the question of love as a political, public, and/or scholarly force, questioning Christian privilege in the AAR and asking if love is a universal value.
First we had a middle-aged white academic man from the University of Alabama, who was very witty during his short talk, “Perhaps Not Love,” in which he claimed that love has no analytic utility and is therefore of no use to the scholar. Then we heard from David Gushee, the president-elect of the AAR, worrying about Christian privilege and the idea that Revolutionary Love might be an idea thought to be “owned” by Christians. Professor Amy Hollywood, of Harvard, (my personal favorite) quoted Toni Morrison’s latest piece about the election. She spoke about “love of the USA”, which she and Morrison would contend is nothing but love of “whiteness.” She says that unlike most people in the AAR, she knows many Trump voters and is appalled at the “othering” of these people by journals such as the New Yorker and the New York Times. “I want to find a way to help them see they are killing themselves, killing the America they purport to love,” she said.
Sarah Elantawi, a professor from Evergreen College, talked a lot about love. She said that, in the Islamic tradition there are eight types of love: the love that entwines two people; the love that nests in the heart; the love that wanders the earth; the love that makes you lose yourself; the love that carries sorrow; the love that exudes from your pores; the love that shares its name with air and falling; the love that is willing to pay the price.
Sarah equated this final love with a sacrificial love that is also a love of the law. (This reminded me of Antigone, from Sophocles’ tragedy written in or before 441 BC, in that she held tight to the law and was willing to pay the ultimate price for obedience to it.) Sarah told us that law is the only pillar left after the ravages of colonialism, so in the United States during these times, it is crucial to hold tight (with love) to the law.
During the Q and A, I brought this question to professor Hollywood:How can concerned citizens intervene with people who claim to love America, and American values, as much as we do, but who seem to have voted in this election against their own interests? She told me she had the same question: How could she speak to her relatives who had voted for Trump without sounding as if she was coming from a place of privileged access, a place of condescension? How could she avoid sounding like “you don’t know what’s good for you, and I do”?
Hers is an important question we all have to grapple with. In the meantime, the conference reinforced my sense of purpose as a high school teacher in these troubling times. There I was among venerable academic scholars from colleges and spiritual leaders like Cornel West and Jesse Jackson who were all telling me how important it was to have a high school teacher like me teaching adolescents the principles of justice and advocacy and the power of love. I’m grateful and inspired to be that person.