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"Consciousness Precedes Being," by Zachary Helton

Psalm 51:10-17

Create in me a pure heart; put a new and right consciousness within me. Open me to your presence; as I let go of all else, flood me with your holy Spirit. Restore me to the joy of your enlightenment, and sustain me with a diligent spirit. Then [and not a moment sooner] will I be able to teach your love to the ignorant; then will the lost will have a chance to find their way home. Deliver me from the battles raging within me, and my tongue will sing of your salvation. When you change my heart, then you will open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise. But right now, you have no delight in outward shows of righteousness or hollow praise; you don’t want our shallow sacrifices or our righteous indignation. The sacrifice acceptable to you is an open spirit – a soul willing to be transformed. A clean heart, willing to let go of judgment, is one through which you can work. This is one of our sacred psalms, Thanks be to God.


The deeper we get into election season, the more acutely many of us long for a national, political revolution. This year has felt like an escalating apocalypse, a revelation of just how many of our national policies rooted in nothing more than fear, ignorance, and short-sighted greed. An unveiling of just how poorly equipped too many of our leaders are for the tasks to which they’ve been appointed. On Tuesday morning, I turned on the news while I made breakfast and the top report of the morning was on President Trump’s response to the latest wave of wildfires devouring California and Oregon. I heard audio of Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary for natural resources, pleading for the president to respond to the imposing reality of climate change, and then heard the president respond by saying, and I quote, “It’ll just start getting cooler. You just watch.” “I wish science would agree with you!” Crowfoot quipped. And to that, the president said, “Well, I don’t think science knows, actually.” Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, whatever your posture towards fiscal policy and foreign relations, this cavalier denial of an impending crisis should not be acceptable. I was reminded of the first time I heard him say that COVID-19 could just “disappear!” That was 197 thousand deaths ago. I was also reminded of our national response to the revelation of the white supremacy in our DNA and how it has borne the fruit of oppressive policies, of the widespread realization of toxic masculinity bearing the fruit of sexual assault, and of our utter political failure to address them in way that is healthy and just. Each of these things is fuel on the fire for our ache for a political revolution, for someone, a figure, a party, that will step up and defeat the bigotry and denial, that will enact new laws and polices and fix the things that need fixing! Now, those of you cringing right now at how politically this sermon has started off, fear not, because here’s what I’m trying to say: As much as we want it, the kind of political revolution we crave so badly… it won’t work. Voting is important. Policy change is essential. But for the kind for the kind of revolution a follower of Christ longs for, both are, unfortunately, insufficient. In the 1860’s, an entire civil war was fought in the name of political revolution. People died to change the oppressive structures, powers, and policies that undergirded life in the United States. When the union won, those laws protecting slavery were re-written and slavery as an institution was abolished. Ignorant and narrow-minded people were removed from power, and the pieces were all re-arranged as the victors wanted them to be. Here’s the problem, though: It didn’t work, not in the way we wanted it to. By the logic of political revolution, that really should have been the end of racial oppression, but, of course, it wasn’t. Though slavery was abolished, the racist consciousness of the South (and the North, for that matter!) went largely unchallenged, and so it was not difficult for the nation to quickly make the transition to segregation and criminalization of blackness. The pieces on the surface were re-arranged, but those egoic notions of us-versus-them, of separation, of the need for supremacy and fear of insignificance… these went unchallenged and untransformed, so the wheel kept on turning, keeps on turning, unhindered. The truth is that if we want a revolution, one which leads to a lasting change, a change for the better, then it cannot be a revolution of politics alone. If we want to change things as followers of Christ, then we must pursue, first and foremost, a revolution in consciousness. In 1990, Václav Havel stood before a joint session of congress to speak. In a previous life, Havel was a playwright and a political dissident before landing in jail as a prisoner of the communists in Czechoslovakia. When communism in Europe fell, though, Havel and his powerful voice would become the first president of the newly formed Czech Republic, and as he stood before the United States Congress, he gave the following speech: “The communist type of totalitarian system has left both our nations, Czechs and Slovaks, […] a legacy of countless dead, an infinite spectrum of human suffering, profound economic decline, and, above all, enormous human humiliation. […] It has [also] given us something positive: a special capacity to look, from time to time, somewhat further than those who have not undergone this bitter experience. Someone who cannot move and live a normal life because [they] are pinned under a boulder has more time to think about [their] hopes than someone who is not trapped in this way. “What I am trying to say is this: we must all learn many things from you, from how to educate our offspring and how to elect our representatives to how to organize our economic life so that it will lead to prosperity and not poverty. But this doesn’t have to be merely assistance from the well-educated, the powerful, and the wealthy to those who have nothing to offer in return. “We too can offer something to you: our experience and the knowledge that has come from it. […] The specific experience I’m talking about has given me one certainty: Consciousness precedes Being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim. For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human modesty, and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better… and the catastrophe towards which this world is headed, whether it be ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization, will be unavoidable.”[1] Consciousness precedes Being, not the other way around. For years we have proceeded with the vague notion that racism is bad without pausing to truly understand the consciousness that drives it: the belief that different is threatening and that profit supersedes wellbeing. For years we have proceeded with the vague notion that women and men are equal, yet how often have we reflected on what it means to us to be a man or to be a woman, and what stories, even our most sacred stories, have informed that? For years we have proceeded with the vague notion that we should take care of the planet without pausing to look deeply into our interdependence, or confronting the hungry ghosts inside our minds that are always consuming but never satisfied. It is our impulse, of course, to skip past consciousness and occupy ourselves only with being – to want to blame and change things on the outside rather than look inward at ourselves, to investigate the thinking and feeling within ourselves that may actually contribute to what is happening out there. We have a passionate desire to tear down monuments, dismantle oppressive systems, cast out those in power… but if we are not first able to undergo an honest change of consciousness, then as Havel says, nothing will truly change for the better. After I read this address for the first time, I began considering whether it was true, turning it over in my mind. It’s probably not surprising that the first arena my imagination was drawn to was that of religion. Communities of faith can be full of ambitious leaders excited about new missions and new vision. They’re full of committees coming up with new policies, trying to get the right people into leadership positions, trying to come up with exciting new programs to attract young people. It’s easy for religious communities to become obsessed with the structure of the thing, to believe that how it’s arranged from the top down will somehow influence the congregation for the better. The truth, though, as many of us have had to learn the hard way, is that no number of programs, no amount of institutional re-working, is an adequate substitute for a change of consciousness on the ground floor. There is no substitute for the inner work that leads us into hard, honest conversations, the self-examination that teaches us the art of reconciliation and grace. Give me this church over a well-organized church any day, because this is the kind of community that can heal, that can melt shame and ego and engage in lasting, meaningful work within and outside of their walls. Give me a community that has faced their shadows and learned what brings them to life, a church that has experienced a revolution in consciousness, because this is the kind of community that can manifest the Kingdom, that can give birth to a new way of being in the world. This religious world is, of course, a microcosm of what plays out on a larger stage. Excited leaders, committees coming up with new policies and programs… but as Jesus taught the Pharisees: “You might clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside it is full of greed and ignorance. Clean the inside of the cup, and everything that comes out of it will be clean.” Consciousness precedes being. Now, by this point many of us might be nodding in agreement. In fact, many of us may have started a list in our head for exactly who we think really ought to hear this, people who are politically gung ho but are blind to what’s going on in their own head. We all know these people. But hold on a moment, because I want to be clear. The consciousness we’re talking about here is collective, sure, but not collective in the sense that we’re talking about all of them. The consciousness we’re talking about, most fundamentally, is your own. This is, after all, the only consciousness you really have any agency over at all. It is our own spirits, our own thinking that I am asking us to examine, no one else’s. It’s difficult to think this way in a culture that perpetually tells us that the excitement and the importance is out there, in what’s happening on the national stage. That’s where it feels like the real significance is, the real work is being done. But that’s not true. That’s one more way we distract ourselves from the responsibility of our own consciousness. You are where your real work is being done. You are the best hope for the transformation of your world. If you do not begin with your consciousness, the inside of your cup and dish, then the things that proceed out of it are likely ineffective and insincere. As Richard Rohr is fond of saying, “transformed people transform people.” Consciousness is contagious. If you want to see a transformation in the world then you must, unavoidably, lead with the inner work of your own transformation. Could it be possible that the best thing you can do for our nation in this moment is to learn to meditate or find a counselor? Could it be that the world does not need your righteous indignation or your fear, but for you to have the courage to face your own shadows, and become the freedom you want to see? Could it be that the best thing you can do for climate change, for racial justice, for the political divisions we face is to investigate your thinking, the way you do battle with yourself? Consciousness precedes being, so People of God, let us get to work on our consciousness, individual and collective, so that the Spirit within us may be the source of a river of life that flows through the center of our city streets, watering trees that bear the fruit of just and equitable policy, and leaves for the healing of the nation. Let us move through this election season learning to pray in harmony with the Psalmist who sings: Create in us a pure heart; put a new and right consciousness within us. Then will we be able to teach your love to the ignorant; then will the lost will have a chance to find their way home. Amen.


Invitation to Respond

On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:

  • What do you believe leads to change for the better? How do you know this is true?

  • Who are you when you believe this thought? How do you treat yourself? Others?

  • What might you do in this season, practically, that could help you foster a Christ consciousness? A consciousness that is free and loving?

[1] Havel, Václav. Speech before US Congress, February 22, 1990. Washington DC. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1990/02/22/text-of-havels-speech-to-congress/df98e177-778e-4c26-bd96-980089c4fcb2/

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