Time For Deep Listening: An Interview with Rita Nakashima Brock

Theologian Rita Nakashima Brock has been a voice for social conscience for decades. She is director of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, TX. She is widely known for her work in moral injury – a dimension of trauma that refers to the shame or turmoil one feels for the morally compromised part one might have played in an episode of extreme violence in wartime or other conditions. She is co-author of Soul Repair: Recovery from Moral Injury After War (Beacon, 2012) and Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire (Beacon, 2009), among other books. A native of Japan, she received a Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University, the first Asian- American woman in the US to earn a doctorate in theology.

REFLECTIONS: Many old racial and economic conflicts have been churned up this election season. Are we learning to face our problems?

RITA NAKASHIMA BROCK: From our western European heritage we have a deeply embedded way of thinking about ethics: Goodness is subjective. We evaluate an action based on whether we feel good about it inside. If you don’t have evil intent when you harm someone else, then it’s easy to feel you have done nothing wrong and don’t have to make amends. This way of thinking dominates how we look at legacies of harm in the US.

One way or another, virtually every non-European who lives here has been touched by white supremacy – the history of slavery or the theft of native lands, forced labor, or colonialism. But if the nation says we didn’t intend harm, then the nation deems itself innocent. That innocence plays into our deep sense of exceptionalism. Every day, we talk about goodness in a way that protects our innocence. We need to be asking, What harm has been done, and how do I attend to it?

REFLECTIONS: How do you regard our racial politics today?

BROCK: In some ways we’ve been witnessing the last gasp of white supremacy. What I see, though, is white people who once were dominant and now feel increasingly marginalized. Many are good-hearted people who are struggling economically and watching their world slip away. Human beings want to feel respected. That’s why I think there’s a bigger problem here: the skewed power of corporations and wealth.

Working-class income has slipped, with lowpaying jobs that make a person feel worthless. The economy has shifted to make rich people richer. They own the government now. You have to be a millionaire to run for high office. There’s no magic fix for our problems and divisions. But if we don’t take care of the common good, we will go into terrible decline.

REFLECTIONS: What would a healthier public life look like?

BROCK: We need to learn what it takes to be a society and not just a collection of angry individuals. We’ve been taught for decades to hate the government, but I think we must attend far more to certain fundamental rights, expectations, and responsibilities in society where we need good government – for instance, universal single-payer health care and free college tuition.

Connected to this would be universal conscription – compulsory service to the country, a young person’s two-year commitment to serve in some way. It could be the military or the Army Corp of Engineers or Americorp or the Peace Corps. In return, they would get free education at a college or a trade school.

This would serve many purposes. One good result would be interaction with others – people who you’d otherwise shun or never meet. This kind of interaction happens in military service, which is why the military has been an agent of social change. It was the first US institution to integrate, in 1948, and it recently dropped all barriers against women and gay and trans people too, and it allowed gay marriage before the Supreme Court acted.

There’s so much to be done that universal conscription could address! It would teach us the power of common goals. We’d discover that personal success is such a paltry ambition. Why not make a difference for the good of others?

REFLECTIONS: Does the church have a role?

BROCK: Churches could become places where honest conversations and deep listening can happen and where we don’t have to make everything a political debate that derails trust.

The easiest thing to change is the discourse. It’s much harder to change our embedded feelings like fear or hostility and embodied ritualized behaviors that protect ourselves from an honest encounter with someone else. Look at what the 24/7 news cycle does to us. It is relentless bad news; the nonstop images of terrorism, violence, angry politics are so corrosive. I’ve been watching the Olympics, and I feel the time is a spiritual break. Just to be able to cheer for something beautiful and excellent is uplifting.