John showed us another Qigong exercise at the start of class today, more complicated than yesterday's was. A kid who came in late had trouble figuring out how to do the arms and the legs at the same time, because he hadn't seen the instructions. Next, we met Charles Howard, the super-eloquent University Chaplain at Penn. It became pretty clear then that today would be spent discussing religion and its positive and negative social justice applications. We started with religion in general, then for a part of the discussion covered its effects on gender roles and labor. Andy brought up the divine right of kings as a source of power to transition into a discussion on the 1381 peasant revolt in England (we read a book on it as a part of our required readings before class). He wrote on the board the names of four significant people in the revolt, two oppressors, and two rebels, and showed us that there were religious and non-religious people on both sides; for a hierarchy and for equality. Then he drew a triangle with an H (the hierarchy), and an arrow (a liberation struggle) pointed toward a circle with an E (equality). Then he added a triangle within the circle. A contradiction. Something that had been missed; I realized that this wasn't a single process, it was a cycle, though Andy never directly pointed this out. The arrow from the E circle to the H triangle that would complete the cycle was when the equality established proved to be imperfect, and then another liberation struggle would come seeking a more equal state.
|This is where the justice happens|
We returned to religion. A teaching fellow named Eliana told us about the Book of Ruth in Judaism, a story about welcoming strangers. Charles answered some questions for us about religion, ending a lecture with "Good guys and bad guys use hammers: you can break something down with a hammer, and you can build something new with a hammer."
Did I mention that Charles is awesome?
We talked about the difference between faith, religion, and spirituality (Charles asked us to define them before he did), and spent a long time on questions from the class. Then we moved on to a problem we spent a while discussing: what's wrong with religion? Hands shot up to say that the fault is not in the doctrine but in the followers and the way religion has been used. Charles talked about the idea that there isn't room for other beliefs, giving examples like the Crusades and the Inquisition. We followed that with the question: what's right with religion? We all knew that religion created positive communities, but Charles pointed out the contradiction: the same thing that fuels oppression and hate also fuels acceptance and freedom.
After a break, Andy played us a song from Sun Ra, a musician who said he was from Saturn because he wanted to help others be more open to radical ideas. Then a big question: will religion ever die? Andy prefaced his response with a sentence about how this was a Marxist answer, and said that as long as there was suffering in the world, there would be religion. They took more questions before bringing up the Occupy Movement and Francisco "Pancho" Ramos, who was arrested for meditating in front of City Hall. Charles told us a story about his experiences with people refusing to hear his opinion and said that by not fighting back, Pancho Ramos is doing a better job of fighting for his cause. We discussed the need for love in these kinds of movements, and, thinking about why, I realized that there is no fear of love, where there is fear of hate and violence. We broke into small groups to discuss whether our religion matched our actions, which was interesting, and we ended up having a conversation about how religion shapes people.
|Our guests sat here and spoke to us|
We had another break, and then came the moment of the day I had been looking forward to. In an optional evening session, were going to hear from a handful of people from India about the caste system in Hinduism. I was pretty enthusiastic about it, so I made sure to get there early after dinner with Amiiy (a Canadian girl in our class) and Julia. Andy started the evening session by telling us about the body as a symbol of class, and how that ties in to Hinduism.
In Hinduism, there are castes that everyone is born into, and each caste comes from a different part of Man, from the mouth of Man (the Brahmins) to the feet of Man (the Sudras). But there is a lower caste, a caste that does not come from Man. These are the Dalits, the "untouchables." They are given the worst jobs, they have no dignity, and they are treated as though they are below human: they may not even be touched by members of higher castes.
It was shocking to me to realize that there are people in the world now who aren't recognized as people...human beings who aren't supposed to exist.
We were taught that Gandhi was not the hero of the Indian people, that B. R. Ambedkar, who fought the caste system, was the hero. Manjusha Kotkar, one of our guests, told us about him. Still, one of them said, "Things have not changed." In India, your last name tells what caste you have been given. Manjusha told us about an experience she had renting an apartment: she was asked for her last name and was denied the room because of her caste. We were told about the need to prove that you are better, and Chitra Somavanshi said that people in India think that, "When I have somebody beneath me, then I am powerful," and that that is an unfortunate goal. She said that people didn't even realize that the caste system was a system of discrimination.
It was frightening, but it was something I needed to hear, something that everyone needs to hear. I loved it.
Oh, I'm sick, by the way. I honestly don't think my nose has stopped running since noon. I could have mentioned that earlier, but everything else was just far more important.
I just hope that tomorrow will be as intense and enlightening as today was.