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Friday, October 05, 2007


Yesterday I had a guest lecturer come to my class on South Africa during Apartheid, a black South African lawyer, here on an exchange program. She spoke eloquently about the changes she’s witnessed during her lifetime, and fielded questions on everything from poverty to the Iraq war. Then, since she had been talking about the constitution, I mentioned how many people were surprised that South Africa’s constitution guarantees equal rights for gays and lesbians, given that they are not accepted in traditional African culture. She became animated, explaining that her Christian upbringing had taught her that homosexuality was wrong, so it was difficult for her when the judge she worked for made her work on that issue when it came to the Constitutional Count (which is like their Supreme Court). She had to listen to the testimonies of people requesting marriage equal to heterosexuals’ and reread the part of the constitution that says people may not be discriminated against on any grounds, including among other things, sexual orientation. “It gave me a little taste of what it must be like to be a white person who is raised to be prejudiced,” she said, explaining her internal conflict. She got the biggest laughs of her talk when she said that some friends had rented Brokeback Mountain without telling her what it was about. She was shocked when the sex scenes started, but found herself crying when one of the men cried. “Wow, it seemed like he really felt love for this other guy!” she said. It was clear she was still conflicted, but that some wall had cracked in her that allowed empathy to flow through.

Her story got me thinking about how much easier it is to change laws than hearts—and that’s not forgetting that it took decades to change the laws in South Africa. But to change a law, all you need is political power. It can happen relatively quickly once the conditions are right. Changing a heart or a mind can happen quickly too, but it’s a more mysterious process. It’s something that can’t be forced. The Civil Rights events that happened fifty years ago, and the conflicts in Jena Louisiana that happened a few weeks ago illustrate this. So do the changes in South Africa, which have been dramatic, though they haven’t eliminated racism. That will take a bit more time.

Sometimes I wonder where I am called to put my energy: to change the objective conditions that cause human suffering, or to change hearts. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact things probably go more smoothly if they shift together, though as a practical matter I have to decide where to put my energy. As a writer and a teacher, I tend toward the heart and mind focus, though the political activist in me doesn’t want to forget laws and institutions.

Several hours after the South African’s talk I met a Buddhist man who told me that when brought down to its most basic level Buddhism says we should stop doing harm first, then start doing good. Only after that should we focus on purifying our thoughts. It’s an interesting perspective. It reminds me that instead of thinking about changing the world I’m called to change myself first, like the South African lawyer who changed herself while working to change her country.



Anonymous Brian Menendez said...

Right On Eileen!

2:06 PM  

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