Weekend mornings my husband watches cartoons with our sons while I take forever getting ready, enjoying a few kid-free minutes.  This last Sunday, I listened to NPR’s “On Being” as I dragged out my morning routine, and I’ve been ruminating on a disturbing segment of the show over the last few days.

During the episode, host Krista Tippett interviewed Reverend angel Kyodo williams, an ordained Zen priest who Tippett describes as “one of our wisest voices on social evolution and the spiritual aspect of social healing.”  According to Rev. williams, “we are at a time, so incredibly unique in human history, where there is a meaningful number of us that are not driven by mere survival, and we are not defined by the work that we do or the place from which we come,” unlike “former cultures and societies that were limited in transportation and had a necessity to be able to put food on the table, and so we farmed, and so we did a whole bunch of things that were about fundamental necessities.”

In Rev. williams’ view, however, some people still just “inherit” their identities, and this “is part of our great conflict in this country right now.”  She explains: 

“We are running into the conflict between people that inhabit an inherited identity with the place that they are — coal-mining country, and the work that they do as a result of the place that they are — up against people that have values and ways of perceiving the world that have shifted because they are not identified by their place and the work that they do in the same way that location and a fixed place tells you who you are and how you be in the world.”

Rev. williams argues that these coal-miners, farmers, and such other folk remain stuck “in survival mode,” which creates a problem because “our” values are “evolving at rates that are faster than can be taken in and integrated” by them:

“[O]ur values and what’s acceptable to us — enough of us — is shifting at a pace that is just outside of some of our ability to even take in. And the problem is — that’s always been true, but the problem is, now we have a meaningful number, a substantive number of people that have those rapidly evolving values in confrontation with people that are, understandably, still working with the location-, survival-based orientation. This means a lot of things for us. This means that, in terms of values, we can be more spacious. There are many of us that can afford, literally, to be OK with people that are really, really different. In fact, we can be curious about it, because our sense of threat is diminished, because our identity is not prescribed by sameness and being afforded belonging because of sameness.

Our own identities have evolved in such a way that, because we’re not merely trying to survive — I’m not saying we’re not trying to pay our rent and everything — but because we’re not identified with merely trying to survive, our sense of survival, our sense of thriving is embedded in a sense of movement and spaciousness and increasing allowance for more and more difference that is in direct conflict with people that are in a space-time continuum that is still place-based, survival-based, get-food-on-the-table-based. ‘If I don’t cut off the top of this mountain, where will I go? If those people are not beneath me, how will I know my own value?’ Et cetera, et cetera.”

Read these paragraphs again and let them sink in.  Rev. williams describes these people (presumably coal miners, farmers, and other rural people) not just as different, but as so much less socially evolved that they occupy a different “space-time continuum” than the “we” or “us” she considers herself a part of (presumably educated urbanites). 

What amazed me even more than these comments was that Rev. williams received no pushback from Tippett, only questions and remarks which indicated agreement.

The irony of Rev. Williams' argument is that it demonstrates little of the enlightened values that she and other “evolved” individuals are supposed to possess.  It is the antithesis of tolerance and equality to assume that the individuals in “our” community occupy some higher plane of existence than coal miners or farmers.  I wonder how much time Rev. williams has actually spent in the communities she judges so harshly, and whether she has questioned how much of her sense of value is defined by feeling superior to them?