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Apr 14, 2014

Notes on the City of God

Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans, trans. Henry Betenson (New York: 1984)

Augustine’s City of God was written in the wake of the 410 CE sack of Rome by the Visigoths. It consists of twenty two books and serves several purposes. Primarily, it seeks to distinguish the City of God from the City of Man and, in doing so, offer a Christian theology of history. Secondarily, it aims to show why Christianity cannot be blamed for the sack of Rome. Along the way, Augustine also tries to prove that pagan religion and philosophy are both inferior to Christianity and, in the case of paganism, demonic.

The rough outline of the book: Books I-X, criticism of pagan religion and philosophy; Books XI-XXII, explanation of Christian theology. The two subjects are intertwined and so the focus on criticizing paganism and advocating Christianity can be found in both sections. In a fashion the first part can be seen as giving a history of the City of Man and the second can be seen as giving a history of the City of God. Throughout God is understood as knowing the course of history, “he gives in accordance with the order of events in history, an order completely hidden from us, but perfectly known to God” (176). In addition, what appears evil to humans in only a result of our limited knowledge for “God turns evil choices to good use” (449).

Book I

Augustine begins by stating his purpose and method, “the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to the founder of that city. I treat of it both as it exists in this world of time, a stranger among the ungodly, living by faith, and as it stands in the security of its everlasting seat.” He defines “the city of this world, a city which aims at dominion, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by that very lust of domination” (5).

The balance of the book is spent explaining how the sack of Rome was not the fault of Christians and what Christians should do in the face of the sack. He tries to show that the Christians can’t be blamed because the Visigoths respected Christian churches and did not murder those who sought sanctuary within them. Then he turns his attention to the question of rape and concludes that women who were raped during the sack should not kill themselves since, “There will be no pollution, if the lust is another’s; if there is pollution the lust is not another’s” (27). This argument fits in with Augustine’s major claim about sin, it is the misdirection of the human will from God towards the human. This means that if one is ordered to kill by the authority of the state “it was not an act of of crime, but of obedience” (32).

In this book Augustine also makes an argument about God’s punishment in this life, “the sufferings of Christians have tended to their moral improvement” while “the wicked, under pressure of affliction, execrate God and blaspheme” (14).

Book II

The major focus of this book is to show that the worship of pagan gods has never benefited Rome. There is a particular focus on the pagan theater. He argues, “Rome had sunk into a morass of moral degradation before the coming of Heavenly King” (69). Also, “I shall do my best to demonstrate that that commonwealth [the Roman Republic] never existed, because there was real justice in the community... true justice is found only in that commonwealth whose founder and ruler is Christ” (75).

Book III

This book continues the previous argument, describing the history of the City of Man through the reign of Caesar Augustus.

Book IV

Augustine begins this book by emphasizing, “the false gods whom they used to worship openly and still worship secretly, are really unclean spirits; they are demons” (135). Then he offers an account of the growth of the Roman Empire. He sees the empire as just and asks the question, “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?” There is good parable here, which Augustine borrows from Cicero: “it was a witty and a truthful rejoiner which was given by a captured pirate to Alexander the Great. The king asked the fellow, ‘What is your idea, in infesting the sea?’ And the pirate answered, which uninhibited insolence, ‘The same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I’m called a pirate: because you have a mighty navy, you’re called an emperor’” (139). Also, “The increase of empire was assisted by the wickedness of those against whom just wars were waged” (154).

He also makes the claim that God is not immanent. God is transcendent.

Book V

Here Augustine inquires “why God was willing that the Roman Empire should extend so widely and last so long” (179). Again his purpose is to show that the sack of Rome has nothing to do with the rise of Christianity. There is an important discussion of the nature of free will and God’s knowledge, “Our wills themselves are the order of causes, which is, for God, fixed, and is contained in his foreknowledge, since human acts of will are the causes of human activities” (192). He also begins to make the argument that evil wills result from turning away from God, “they are contrary to the nature which proceeds from him” (193). A good summary of his position: “The fact that God foreknew that a man would sin does not make a man sin; on the contrary, it cannot be doubted that it is the man himself who sins... A man does not sin unless he wills to sin; and if he had willed not sin, then God would have foreseen that refusal” (195).

Book VI

This book presents a critique of pagan religion and philosophy, primarily as presented by the philosopher Marcus Varro. He tries to show here that both are insufficient for creating righteousness in this life.

Book VII

This book follows the argument of the previous. However, the emphasis here is on why pagan religion and philosophy offer inadequate account of how the divine operates in this life.


This book focuses more exclusively on pagan philosophy and makes the claim “the true philosopher is the lover of God” (298). He tries to show the Platonist school got things mostly right, “There are none who come nearer to us than the Platonists” (304).

Book IX

This book continues the previous discussion of Platonism. He also makes the claim that humans need a mediator, i.e. Christ, because “there can be no direct meeting between the immortal purity on high and the mortal and unclean things below” (364). He begins to describe angels and demons, both of which he believes to be real.

Book X

Augustine begins this book by summarizing his agreements and disagreements with the Platonists, “they have been able to realize that the soul of man, though immortal and rational... cannot attain happiness except by participation in the light of God... [yet] they have supposed... that many gods are to be worshipped” (371). He then moves onto a discussion of the nature of true religion and Christ. Christ is “our priest, his only-begotten son” through him people learn to offer God, “on the altar of the heart, the sacrifice of humility and praise” (375). Further, true love of self is understood to be love of God, “For if a man loves himself, his one wish is to achieve blessedness” (376). In addition, acts are understood to be righteous only if they are “directed to that final Good” (i. e. God) (379).

This is followed by a discussion of the nature of God, “he moves events in time, while himself remains unmoved by time” (390).

Book XI

This book concerns the origins of both cities. Augustine claims, “the existence of the world is a matter of observation: the existence of God a matter of belief” (432). He discusses the nature of time, “there can be no doubt that the world was not created in time but with time. An event in time happens after one time and before another, after the past and before the future” (436) and provides an account of the creation, including the creation of the angels and the fall of “some angels who turned away from... illumination” (443). These fallen angels “fell, by their own choice” (445). He claims that evil can be understood as necessary because it enriches “the course of the world history by the kind of antithesis which gives beauty to a poem” (449).

The City of God exists because God “founded it” and its structure can be found in the Trinity, “It exists; it sees; it loves” (458). Human beings mirror this as well, “We resemble the divine Trinity in that we exist; we know that exist, and we are glad of this existence and this knowledge” (459).

Book XII

In this book Augustine further explains the origins and natures of both cities, “We may speak of two cities, or communities, one consisting of the good, angels as well as men, and the other of evil.. We must believe that the difference had its origin in the wills and desires” (471). Evil is understood to be good which has turned away from God, “the turning is itself perverse” (478).

A second part of the book makes argument that human history is only 6,000 years old and that those who believe otherwise are following a false teaching. Furthermore, true history is to be found in the Bible. The when God’s creation of the world is understood to be a mystery, “it is certainly a profound mystery that God existed always and yet willed to create the first man, as a new act of creation, at some particular time, without any alteration in his purpose and design” (490). Various other theories of history are then rejected.


Here Augustine is concerned with the problem of death. He makes a distinction between the death of the body, “the first death,” and the death of the soul, “the second death” (511). Death begins “from the moment that... bodily existence” begins” (519). While asserting that the Fall was real, he also reads the Fall and paradise allegorically, “paradise stands for the Church itself” (535).

Book XIV

This book focuses primarily on the Fall and human nature. He begins by underscoring the differences between the “two cities... one city of men who choose to live by the standard of the flesh, another those who choose to live by the standard of the spirit” (547). The Fall be understood, in part, as a decision to reject the spirit for the flesh. This decision originates, however, not in the flesh itself but in the will, “it was the sinful soul that made the flesh corruptible” (551). Further, the “important factor in those emotions is the character of a man’s will. If the will is wrongly directed, the emotions will be wrong; if the will is right, the emotions will be not only blameless, but praiseworthy” (555). Because of these two factors the human life must be seen as full of sin, “anyone who thinks that his life is without sine does not succeed in avoiding sin, but rather in forfeiting pardon” (564).

Augustine recounts the Fall as told in Genesis. A fallen angel is seen as tempting Adam and Eve to leave the City of God. Disobedience understood as originating Satan then being transfered to Eve and finally, through Eve, to Adam. The Fall is also understood as a movement from being to nonbeing, “although the will derives its existence, as a nature, from its creation by God, its falling away from its true nature is due to its creation out of nothing” (572).

Augustine focuses on the orgasm and the erection as both proof of, and a symptom, of humanity’s fallen nature, “So intense is the pleasure that when it reaches its climax there is an almost total extinction of mental alertness” (577). The erection shows that lustful sinful men cannot control their own bodies. As a result, sex is shameful because it demonstrates a loss of control. When humanity is reconciled with God this will no longer be the case.

Book XV

In this book Augustine traces the history of the City of Man, and the City of God, from the story of Cain and Able through the Flood. He sees the Ark as a symbol of the City of God, “this is a symbol of the City of God on pilgrimage in this world, of the Church which is saved through the wood on which was suspended ‘the mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’” (643).

Book XVI

This book continues the histories of the City of Man and the City of God through the start of the time of the prophets.


This book continues the histories of the City of Man and the City of God from the time of the prophets to the birth of Christ. The history of the City of God in the world is to be understood, in part, as the story of “two things promised to Abraham... that his descendants would possess the land of Canaan... [and that he would be] the father... of all nations follow in the footsteps of his faith” (712). A great number of pages are spent trying to prove that the Hebrew Bible contains passages foretelling the coming of Christ.


This book continues along the lines of the previous three. The last chapters begin to explain the nature of Christ and the Church. People born before Christ had the possibility of belonging to the City of God, “I have no doubt that it was the design of God’s providence that... we should know that there could also be those among other nations who lived by God’s standards and were pleasing to God, as belonging to the spiritual Jerusalem” (829). Augustine sees the Christ event as, “After sowing the seed of the holy gospel, as far as it belonged to him to sow it through his bodily presence, he suffered, he died, he rose again, showing by his suffering what we ought to undergo for the cause of truth, by resurrection what we ought to hope for in eternity, to say nothing of the deep mystery by which his blood was shed for the remission of sins” (832).

Book XIX

In this book Augustine defines “Final Good is that for which other things are to be desired, while it is itself to be desired for its own sake. The Final Evil is that for which other things are to be shunned, while it is itself to be shunned on its own account” (843). This is the book that most clearly articulates Augustine’s ethics. The primary emphasis here is on the kinds of virtues and vices and what the good Christian life consists of, “eternal life is the Supreme Good, and eternal death, the Supreme Evil” (852). Happiness can never be found in this life. It will only come in the next “we are saved in hope, it is in hope that we have been made happy; and we do not yet possess a present salvation, but await salvation in the future, so we do not enjoy a present happiness, but look forward to happiness in the future” (857). Augustine returns to arguing against Marcus Varro. The themes of peace and justice, both of which have to do with alignment with God, are visited. Just war theory is partially articulated. And slavery to lust is described as a greater evil than slavery to a human being. Augustine summarizes his ethics thus, “In this life, therefore, justice in each individual exists when God rules and man obeys, when the mind rules the body, and reason governs the vices even when they rebel, either by subduing them or by resisting them, while from God himself favour is sought for good deeds and pardon for offences, and thanks are duly offered to him for benefits received” (893).

Book XX

The subject of this book “is a belief held by the whole Church of the true God, in private confession and also in public profession, that Christ is to come from heaven to judge both the living and the dead, and this is what we call the Last Day, the divine of divine judgement” (895). Much of the focus is on the scriptural evidence for the judgement and nature of “the resurrection of the dead” (900). The judgment is include a purifying fire.

Book XXI

This book focuses on “the kind of punishment which is in store for the Devil, and for all those of his party” (964). The “bodies of the damned [are] to suffer torment in the everlasting fire” (976). About the metaphysical conflict between the two cities he writes, “Better war with the hope of everlasting peace than slavery without any thought of liberation” (993). A small section is devoted to arguing against Origen and universal salvation.


The final book describes what will happen when the City of God comes, “in this City all citizens will be immortal, for human beings also will obtain that which the angels have never lost” (1022). Human will will be restored to its proper orientation and people will no longer sin, “this last freedom will... bring the impossibility of sinning... [it will be] that condition of liberty in which it is incapable of sin” (1089). He concludes by claiming that humans live in the sixth epoch and that the last judgement will bring about the seventh.

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Feb 20, 2014

Two New Preaching Dates

I am pleased to announce that I will be preaching at the Starr King Fellowship, Plymouth, NH on March 23 and at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Wilmington, NC on August 3. I hope to have further announcements about my summer preaching schedule soon.

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Feb 17, 2014

Over My Head (Carlisle)

as preached at the First Religious Society in Carlisle, February 16, 2014

This is my last Sunday with you. It has been a pleasure serving as your sabbatical minister for the last two months. Asa and I have enjoyed getting to know you. I have found my time with you to be something of a grounding break from graduate school. It is easy as an academic to get completely absorbed in the scholarly life. My time with you has provided me something of a ballast while I have been studying for my general exams. You have helped me to keep things in perspective and remember that there is a life beyond graduate school. I hope that you have found service as sabbatical minister to be useful.

The sermon I offer you this morning is a mediation on the question: What does it mean to be present to the holy? This question could be recast: where do we find God? God is, of course, one of the most difficult words to define. I was reminded of this difficultly while talking with friends a few months ago. They have a four year old who is just at the point of asking big questions. Recently, she was asking about God. My friends do not believe in a God that sits outside of the universe and human history judging us. They believe in what a theologian might call an immanent God, a God who is part of, who makes up, the universe itself. So when their daughter asked about God they told her that God lived inside of her. A horrified look came over her face. “No,” she replied. “There’s nothing inside of me. It’s just me.”

This story suggests the challenge we face when communicating about the holy. Language frequently fails us. It is difficult to talk about the holy because often people cannot even agree on what they are talking about. Words are gestures towards a larger reality. They frame how we understand the world but they are not the world.

A few years ago the physicist Stephen Hawking generated significant interest by claiming that the findings of modern science demonstrated that God was no longer necessary. Since we now have a fairly complete picture of how the universe came into being, how life evolves and how the physical laws of nature work, he reasoned there is no longer room for God in the rational mind.

Liberal theologians have long argued the opposite. God, they claim, is not a rational construct. God is a feeling. Friedrich Schleiermacher, described as the father of liberal theology, believed that “the feeling of absolute dependence” is the experience of “consciousness of God.” It is the moments that I am most aware of my dependence that I feel the presence of the holy.

I close my eyes and it fills my senses. The room dark, pitch even, illuminated only by the haze of medical machines and a blue string of Christmas lights. Hysteria, desperation, the sounds of panic and despair contrast the dimness of the room. On the bed, the thin, wan, retreating figure of a sixteen year old girl. Her Haitian mother wails, alternating between Creole and accented English, over her fading body. The words come back, a terrible litany of loss, “There will be no graduation for you. There will be no wedding for you. There will be no babies for you. There will be nothing for you, nothing.”

For the last five months the daughter has struggled with cancer. Tonight she has lost that struggle. The doctors and the nurses have told her parents it is over. Everything but the morphine drip and the monitors have been disconnected. This is it. The daughter is about to die, is dying, is dead.

Over the decade I have spent as a member of the clergy, I have witnessed many deaths and conducted many funerals. This one, the death of a young immigrant to cancer, remains one of the most memorable. Perhaps, because the mother’s wails echoed the famous line from the 22nd Psalm, words repeated by Jesus as he died on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Or maybe it because at that moment I felt an intense connection to life itself. The waning breaths of the young woman, the mother’s love, the prayers we said together combined and I knew that I was in the presence of something greater than myself. To be witness to death is to be witness to our absolute dependence.

Despite this it is at death, and in moments of pain, that the absence of the holy can be felt most profoundly. William Schulz, past President of the Unitarian Universalist Association and former Executive Director of Amnesty International, once gave a lecture entitled “What Torture Has Taught Me.” In it he challenged the concept of an immanent God, a God that is present in all things, by claiming “that no God worthy of the name is present in a torture chamber.”

Rabbi Irving Greenberg offered a counter perspective when trying to make theological sense of the Holocaust: “To the question, ‘Where was God at Auschwitz?’ the answer is: God was there — starving, broken, humiliated, gassed and burned alive, sharing the infinite pain as only an infinite capacity for pain can share it.”

African American liberation theologians like Kelly Brown Douglas make a similar point when they argue for the necessity of a Black Christ. In this view, Christ needs to be black so that he can accompany, in Brown’s words, “the Black struggle to ‘make do and do better’ in face of racist, sexist, classist, and heterosexist oppression.” As Brown puts it, “Christ is inside of my grandmother and other Black women and men as they fight for life and wholeness.”

I do not pretend to know whether Schulz or Greenberg and Douglas is right. What I do know is that one of the most political decisions that each of us makes, that each culture makes, is in how we define the holy. Rebecca Parker makes precisely this point when talking about the crucifixion of Jesus. She writes, “To say that Jesus’ executioners did what was historically necessary for salvation is to say that state terrorism is a good thing, that torture and murder are the will of God.” To choose between locating the holy in Jesus’ life or in his death is to choose between two radically different theologies. The option of finding it in both, or in all things, is yet another.

When we start to think about the holy we are confronted with questions beyond just the choice to find it in life or death. We also must ask: Does the holy only belong to some people? Is it only found in some places? Is it everywhere and everything? Is it a metaphor? Is it separate from the visible world? Does it act upon us? Do we act upon it? How do we know when we experience its presence?

These are not questions with rational answers. They are tied to feelings. I do not know how I know. I only know when I feel. I was fourteen. It was my first time away from my parents for an extended period. I was at a week long Unitarian Universalist youth camp in the Pacific Northwest. The grounds, abutting the ocean, were rich with immense trees. The camp was isolated and powered by its own generators. Each night after dinner and evening worship there was a hymn sing around a camp fire.

The last night of the camp we had a dance. It was a wonderfully goofy affair. People dressed in ridiculous costumes, painted their faces and flailed around to punk rock anthems by the Clash and disco jams like the Village People’s “YMCA.” After an hour, maybe two, the power suddenly went out.

The dance’s abrupt end found a number of us back at the fire pit, singing. It was the only place on the campground with any light and, besides, we enjoyed making music together. I don’t know how long we sang, twenty minutes, thirty minutes, an hour... It was a consuming experience. Eventually we reached the hymn, “Over My Head.” You might know it, “Over my head I hear music in the air. / Over my head I hear music in the air. / Over my head I hear music in the air. / There must be a God somewhere.” We sang that song for awhile, substituting new phrases for what was over our heads as we went. Laughter, joy, singing... Someone, a little snidely, finally suggested light. And when we reached the end of the, “There must be a God somewhere,” the power at the camp went back on.

It seemed like a minor miracle. It might have been someone from the camp’s idea of a prank. Whatever the explanation, the experience left an impression. Up until that moment I described myself as an atheist. Now I am not so sure. I am more open to the mystery of our lives and cognizant of the limitations of language. I understand that words like holy, divine and God are metaphors for the experience of connection to something greater than ourselves. The human mind, marvelous as it is, is quite small and in the end each of us can grasp but an infinitesimal fraction of the universe’s complexity. To speak of the holy is, I believe, to acknowledge this.

There is a certain timelessness to my memories of the holy. They fade far less than others. They come forward in vivid color rather than tattered grey, occasionally so strong that they blot out the present. There is a difference between ordinary time and holy time. The experience of the holy is more defined, placed in sharper relief. It marks me, changes me, even if the change is ever so slight.

James Wright’s poem “A Blessing” speaks to this. In his poem, Wright finds himself in a perfectly ordinary place “Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota” observing the ordinary. For what is more ordinary in rural Minnesota than two ponies “munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness”? And yet, it is here that Wright finds a blessing. Simply observing these ordinary ponies, the affection they have for each other and the peace they seem to feel while grazing alone, together, makes him realize that “if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.”

Wright’s poem suggests that the transformative experience, being in the presence of the holy, can be found in even the most unremarkable of activities. It is not what surrounds us that matters. We do not need to seek out the extraordinary to find the holy.

The poem is instructive on several levels. It reminds us that the holy can be found everywhere. James Wright discovered it in two ponies. Kelly Brown Douglas sees it inside her grandmother. I have felt its presence in the room of a dying child and at a youth camp. When we find the holy we must somehow engage it. It must be wrestled with. Wright did not look away from the ponies. Rabbi Irving Greenberg and William Schulz struggled to make sense of a world filled with pain, torture and the Holocaust. To be in the presence of the holy is to be open to change. Wright wanted to burst from his body. The music at youth camp shifted my atheism. This change can come at a cost--pain, the presence of death--but it does not have to. One suspects that the only thing Wright’s experience of the ponies like “wet swans” cost him was reflection.

The feeling of being present to the holy is helpful on another level, a moral level. It reminds us that the experience of the holy frequently requires an other. Each of the experiences that I have described is an experience of connection, not the experience of an autonomous and isolated individual. We each construct our theologies out of our personal experiences. Since each of our experiences are different our theologies are different as well. This might lead to moral relativism but it does not have to. If being present to the holy means being present to our feelings of dependence and connection then we know we have strayed when we disavow those feelings.

Moral clarity comes from understanding our dependence on the universe not on claiming a sense of independence from it. For me there is only one heresy worth interrogating, the myth of the autonomous individual. None of the experiences of the holy that I have described have taken placed in a vacuum. All of them are interactions between people or between people and the larger world. We need each other, or at least an other, to experience the holy.

It is like the hymn we sang that night at youth camp, “Over my head there is singing in the air.” Over our heads there is something in the air. It is through that something, because of that something, with that something that we know that we are present to the holy.

Amen and Blessed Be.

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Feb 11, 2014

Notes on Hannah Arendt's On Revolution

Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 2006 [1963])

Arendt’s comparative study of the American and French revolutions examines one of the two major political issues in the world (the other being war). She finds that war and revolution have an interrelationship and that at, in some sense, both require the glorification or justification of violence. She believes that revolutions are fundamentally about liberation and that the revolution process is two-fold. It begins with the effort to gain freedom and ends, if it ends successfully, with the foundation of new institutions designed to preserve that freedom. She believes that revolution is a modern concept that can be traced primarily to French revolution and “the idea [that] freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide” (19). French revolution was a failure because it got sidetracked in efforts to deal with the abject poverty in France and stopped focusing on freedom. The American revolution was successful because the colonies were wealthy in comparison to Europe. The kind of poverty that existed in France simply did not exist in the colonies. 

The last chapter of the book focusing on recovering the revolutionary tradition. Arendt traces both creation of political parties and councils to revolutionary periods and claims “political freedom, generally speaking, means the right ‘to be a participator in government’, or it means nothing” (210). The councils are the authentic spaces for political freedom that can be traced to revolutionary periods. They are crushed by the logic of the nation state while the parties are able to succeed. Ideally, the parties can be a space for knowing and the councils a space for doing. As she writes, “Wherever knowing and doing have parted company, the space of freedom is lost” (256).

A few synthetic notes: Like Theda Skocpol, Arendt believes that revolutionaries are bad at both organizing and predicting revolutions. Unlike Skocpol, she is not interested in what causes revolutions but rather in the course they follow after their advent. Human agency appears mostly in the events that stem from a revolution and the long term success of a revolution is dependent on the culture and institutions that proceed it. The American revolution was successful because it depended on the long standing institutions of local governance. The French revolution was unsuccessful because it swept away entirely the old order and sought to replace it. As she writes, “...the more absolute the ruler, the more absolute the revolution will be which replaces him.” (147)

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Feb 10, 2014

Basho's Road

as preached at the First Religious Society Carlisle, February 9, 2014

Haiku was the first form of poetry I learned. I encountered it in elementary school. I think I was in fourth grade. One of my teachers taught us to write the simple form. It was an exercise to help us learn about syllables. Three lines: first line five syllables; second line seven syllables; third line five syllables. No rhyming necessary. 

I have no memory of my first haiku. I doubt it was sophisticated. Most likely it was a concrete pile of images, sparked by something simple I observed on my daily walk to and from school. 

Blue jays fly over
my head. Green tree leaves are
everywhere I go.

It was not until college that I realized that haiku was a serious literary form. I engaged with it through the Beat poets Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. A lot of their haikus were not proper haikus. They captured the essence of the form, instead of following it precisely. What I noticed reading them is that haiku could be more than just a series of images. Instead, they could contain a compressed narrative like this selection from Gary Snyder's "Hitch Haiku:" 

They didn't hire him
so he ate his lunch alone:
the noon whistle. 

There is more packed into that little poem than there is in a lot of sermons. It offers many questions and few answers: Why didn't they hire him? Who was he? Where did he eat his lunch? Reading the poem I picture a grizzled itinerant worker, in dungarees, sitting on a flat large stone, sun shining over head, in a small woodland clearing behind a factory. I imagine the kind of factories I used to discover rambling through Detroit and Chicago. Brick, half-crumbled and pressed up against a spot of vacant industrial land slowly being reclaimed as wilderness. 

It was from the Beats that I eventually made my way to the Japanese haiku masters. I loved Kerouac's On the Road. Someone told me that Kerouac was inspired partially by the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho's The Narrow Road to the Interior.  

Basho was one of the greatest writers of haiku. He composed what is the most famous work in the form: 

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water
A deep resonance. 

Numerous commentaries exist on this text. Most observe that Basho was a Zen Buddhist. For him the pond was a metaphor for the mind. When water is clear and still it is like the mind when it is enlightened. Undisturbed, the reflections on its surface are the images of objects, not the objects themselves. The actual objects exist outside the pond, just as everything we perceive exists outside of our minds. 

Any motion of the water in the pond is produced by external factors. Waves come when wind riles up the surface. They disappear when the wind dies. Ripples emerge when an object pierces the water's calm top. They too quickly fade. 

In the poem, the frog can be understood as a thought. It appears from nowhere. Troubles the water with its splash, leaves behind a dissipating sound and then is gone under the surface. Perhaps it will reappear again, frog eyes sticking through duck weed and scheming their next step. 

The poem's popularity and such interpretations have led to parodies. There is this by Gibon Sengai: 

The old pond!
Basho jumps in,
The sound of the water! 

Haikus like these were presented either alone or as part of a series of interlinked poems called renga. Renga can contain somewhere between two and a few hundred haiku. Some of them are authored by a single poet. Others are written by many working collaboratively. One of my favorite pieces attributed to Basho is perhaps not even original to him. It appears in one of his texts as composed by a priest who traveled with him: 

Regardless of weather,
The moon shines the same;
It is the drifting clouds
That make it seem different
On different nights. 

This piece, like many other of Basho's haikus, appears in one of his travel sketches. This series of texts, which include The Narrow Road to the Interior, narrate some of Basho's travels around Japan in the late 17th century. They alternate, as I have been doing in this sermon, between narrative descriptions, philosophical reflection and poetry. 

They describe Basho's journeys as pilgrimages. Pilgrimages are a kind of intentional journey, undertaken with some sort of spiritual or religious purpose in mind. 

Usually when we think of pilgrimages we think of traveling to a specific destination. In the Christian tradition, people have long made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, to the sites of miracles and to the tombs of various saints. On such pilgrimages, the journey is completed when the destination is reached. Sometimes the object being travelled to is thought to have supernatural powers that grant  a blessing on the pilgrim. This blessing may be a healing that comes in this life or a cleansing of sins that leads to a better afterlife. 

Basho's pilgrimage was of a different sort. Instead of seeking a particular destination, he sought to travel for self-discovery. Within this kind of pilgrimage there is usually a recognition that life itself is a journey. As Basho himself writes:

"Days and months are travelers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives traveling." 

Within these sentences is the acknowledgement that to be human and alive is to be in motion. Think about it. We spend much of our lives traveling. Whether it is from home to work and back again or to some distant city to visit friends and relatives, our lives are filled with travel. Some days, it seems like all I do is move. Just Friday I went to school, rode the bus home, dug the car out of the snow in a blur of motion, rushed Asa to piano, and went to two different groceries and the pharmacy. Sound familiar? I imagine it does. 

Even when we are not navigating the way through our lives we are still in motion. The Earth spins on its axis and orbits the sun. The sun, in turn, circles the center of the Milky Way. The Milky Way rushes out from the origin of the Big Bang as the universe expands. On a smaller scale, the atoms of which we are comprised are moving too. Each of these trillions of particles that compose our bodies consist of tightly packed bundles of neutrons and protons surrounded by rapidly moving clouds of electrons. Existence itself is motion. 

The wisdom of Basho's practice of pilgrimage is to seize this moving reality and then use it seek enlightenment. For the Buddhist this means something particular, an understanding of the transitory and illusory nature of existence. For us Unitarian Universalists it may mean something else. Either way, a helpful tactic within Basho's practice of pilgrimage is to seek inspiration, what we might call the divine, in the ordinary. This leads to sometimes humorous results as in this haiku: 

Bitten by fleas and lice,
I slept in bed, 
A horse urinating all the time
Close to my pillow. 

Such a poem suggests that when life is viewed as pilgrimage every experience has religious potential. For most of us, it is probably difficult to imagine every experience as a potential religious experience. We can learn from every interaction we have and everything we encounter. Pain or joy, success or failure, extraordinary or banal, each moment and experience in our lives contains within it a kernel to reflect upon. It all depends upon what approach you take and how open you are to exploring your life. 

Take something ordinary like cooking. Within the act of preparing a meal there is the opportunity to learn about the ingredients themselves, the chemical processes which we use to prepare foods and the social dynamics around eating. You might remember a couple of weeks ago I brought a clementine for us to look at during the time for all ages. Gazing at the clementine was a way to reflect upon the chains of dependency which comprise our lives. The fruit came from someplace other than Massachusetts. It was picked by hands besides mine and transported to the store by many people. It derived from countless generations of cultivation. The clementine allows us to think about the whole structure of civilization and the dependent reality of human existence. Without food we cease to be. 

Such reflective wisdom might run counter to Basho's own spiritual tendency. He wrote, "Whatever such a mind sees is a flower, and whatever such a mind dreams of is the moon. It is only a barbarous mind that sees other than the flower, merely an animal mind that dreams of other than the moon." But then again, perhaps not. The contemporary Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh has written an elegant meditation entitled "Interbeing." In it he claims: 

“we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. We cannot point to one thing that is not here--time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper... 

Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be... The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of ‘non-paper’ elements. And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without non-paper elements, like mind, ...sunshine and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.” 

The religious quest is partially about reaching this state of awareness of interconnection. It certainly speaks to the seventh principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” The question is not if such an understanding is one of our goals as religious people. We can find such a goal attested throughout many of the world's traditions. Rather, the question is how do begin to reach such a goal. 

One consistent answer has been to practice asceticism and shed attachments to individual material things. At the beginning of The Narrow Road to the Interior Basho notes that before beginning his journey he sold his house. With this action then everyplace and no place potentially becomes his home. Rather than fixing his home as some place in particular it becomes wherever he his. As he writes, 

I felt quite at home,
As if it were mine,
Sleeping lazily
In this house of fresh air.

Similar advice for seeking the religious experience can be found elsewhere. In Luke, Mark and Matthew, there is a story about Jesus giving advice to a young rich man. Many of you, I imagine, remember some version of the text. In Matthew it reads: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and youwill have treasure in heaven; then come follow me." 

In our tradition, the life of Henry David Thoreau offers a slightly different example. Thoreau was a kind of ascetic. A resident of nearby Concord, he went to Walden Pond to try to live, as he wrote, "alone in the woods... in a house which I had built myself... living by the labor of my hands only." His famous book reflecting on his experiences is filled with his scorn for the material conveniences of civilization. The clear implication throughout is that such goods inhibit a life of reflection. 

I have thought about such advice the last year and a half since Sara and I sold our house in Ohio and moved to Massachusetts. Our living space is much smaller than it used to be. We have had to get rid of a lot of things we accumulated over the years. In the process I have reflected upon my relationship to my materials goods. How much do they really matter? How many provide nothing more than brief distraction and then sit on a shelf collecting dust? What do I really need in life? 

Again, turning Basho, I find some useful advice. At the start of his journey he dispossess of some but not all of his material goods. He writes, "the load I... carried... consisted of a paper coat to keep me warm at night, a light cotton gown to wear after the bath, scanty protection against the rain, writing equipment, and gifts from certain friends of mine." Even if we take the route of a spiritual ascetic some things remain essential. 

Any pilgrimage requires a certain level of material comfort to succeed. Even with his ascetic tendencies Basho did not wander the countryside naked. To journey through life material goods are to some extent necessary. As Thich Nhat Hanh would say we inter-are with them. That is not say we are dependent upon fancy sports cars for our existence. But we all need food, shelter and clothing. 

And it is worth remembering that even if try to walk life's paths alone we are never really completely independent. Reading "The Narrow Road to the Interior" one finds that Basho traveled in the company of others. Some of the haikus he records do not even originate with him. This one, for instance, comes from his companion Sora: 

Rid of my hair,
I came to Mount Kurokami,
On the day we put on
Clean summer clothes.  

With that observation, I think of my own path to Basho. It began with an elementary school teacher, wound its way through my college years and helped deliver me here. Along the way I have had companions. Not the least of whom has been my wife who, I discovered when I picked it up, peppered my copy of Basho with commentary. Another reminder that the journey we take may be our own but we do take in the company of others. 

We all receive help on our individuals journeys, whether we are cognizant of it or not. If we look at the practice of pilgrimage closely we will discover buried within it are justice questions. What is necessary for each of us on our journey? How much do we all need it? Can we have too much, so much that it prevents us from ever seeing what is really there? What obligations do we have to those who travel with us? Such questions are their own reminder that when we see things as they are a certain richness opens up. It is like the form of haiku itself, the poems appear simple but hide a wealth just below the surface. As another translation of Basho's frog poem reads: 


May we, like Basho, travel through life blessed with companions, and a religious community, that helps us to see things as they are. 

Amen and Blessed Be. 

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Feb 7, 2014

Pussy Riot: Putin’s Russia, Obama’s America

Two members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot are currently on an international tour. Their recent stop has gotten a lot of press. Wednesday they appeared at a Amnesty International Benefit concert in New York alongside a host of celebrities. Their tour has provided them with an opportunity to criticize the Russian government under Vladimir Putin and its intolerance of dissent and GLBT rights. 

I am glad that they are bringing attention to the lack of freedom in Russia. But I am afraid that the laudatory celebration of them by the news media in the United States is serving another purpose. It suggests that somehow the United States is a bastion of free speech and tolerant of dissent. This is not true. Obama’s America does not tolerate dissent, not real dissent anyway. Since 2012 multiple anarchists, four in Seattle and one in New York, have been jailed for refusing to cooperate with grand juries. In echoes of the McCarthy era, the anarchists have been asked to provide the names other activists and then thrown in jail when they have refused to do so. And, of course, there is the well publicized case of Edward Snowden who, after exposing the sweeping extent of illegal government spying, had to seek asylum in Putin’s Russia.

The attention that Pussy Riot is receiving should then be a reminder that governments are most inclined to tolerate dissent when it appears elsewhere. It is politically convenient for Putin to provide Snowden with asylum. It makes him appear more tolerant of dissent. And the same is true with Obama. It is politically convenient for the United States to welcome Pussy Riot. It strengthens the myth that this country is a haven for free thought and freedom of speech. That is not true of Obama’s America, just as it is not true of Putin’s Russia. 

CommentsCategories News Tags Pussy Riot

Feb 2, 2014

A Black Christ

as preached at the First Religious Society in Carlisle, February 2, 2014

Have you ever had an experience that caused a fundamental shift in the way you see the world? One that forced you to re-examine all of your previously held beliefs and develop new ones? I suspect that some of you have. Unitarian Universalism is, by in large, a religion of converts. Only about 1 in 10 of the adult members of our congregations were raised Unitarian Universalist. The majority of us were either brought up in another religious tradition or in no religious tradition.

As someone raised Unitarian Universalist I am naturally curious about the people who join our congregations. I never had the experience of leaving my faith community in disbelief or disgust. I find it helpful for my ministry to learn about why and how people come to our tradition. Broadly speaking, I have found that, people join a Unitarian Universalist congregation for two reasons. The first is that they become disaffected with the belief system of the religious community they were born into. They examine it under the cold light of reason and under that light it fails some fundamental test. Either they cease to believe in God or they cease to believe in that community's God.

The second reason people come to Unitarian Universalism is that they have a conversion experience. James Luther Adams defines conversion as "a fundamental change of the heart and will." We do not talk about conversion experiences very often. Perhaps this is because so many among us left our previous religious homes for rational reasons. The rational group find it difficult to understand how someone could have a conversion experience. Some think that such experiences, because they sometimes falter under reason's light, have little to teach.

Conversion experiences, disconcerting as they may occasionally be, do have something to offer. I find that they cause me to reexamine my faith and cast my understanding of Unitarian Universalism in a different light.

One powerful conversion story comes from the Unitarian Universalist minister Bill Breeden. As I remember, Bill started life as a fundamentalist Christian. His tradition did not require, or even value, clerical education and as a teenager he began preaching at a small Pentecostal church. At the same time, to make ends meet, he was working at a local grocery store as a stock boy.

It was there that Bill had his conversion experience. One of his duties was to dispose of unsalable or expired food. This was the 1960s and the food was destroyed in a burn pit behind the store. Once a day Bill would gather up the food, take it out back, douse it with gasoline and make a sort of bonfire. Often times the food that he destroyed was still perfectly edible.

One evening as he prepared to pour gasoline over the assembled pile and light it aflame he heard a voice. "Please, sir, could I have that cheese? I am hungry and I would like something to eat. I would like some food for my family." Bill turned and found himself facing a middle aged Black woman. He let her have the cheese and she went on her way.

Put before she did Bill saw Christ in her. Something about her, some manner in which he connected to her, caused him to see the world in an entirely different way. In that moment Christ was transformed from a blond haired, blue eyed, white skinned male to a poor Black woman standing in front of him. His universe, his understanding of the sacred was forever altered.

Over the next years Bill left his fundamentalist community and developed a theology of Universalist Christianity. He saw the divine in all people and upheld the human family as one. Eventually Bill found Unitarian Universalism.

I doubt most people have conversion stories that are quite as dramatic. Few, if any, Unitarian Universalists I know claim to have seen Christ. Many of us are not Christian and grow squeamish when the word is mentioned. Others, such as myself, would argue that the word Christ is a metaphor for the human potential and the possibility of perfection that lies within all of us. In this theological strain seeing Christ in someone else means sharing a moment of absolute connection and recognition; witnessing the impossible glorious mystery of the universe in the face of another. It is such a moment, I suspect, that Bill had when he encountered the woman behind the grocery store. In her he saw himself and all of the human family. He realized that the two them shared some sort of deep connection, some type of kinship, on an ineffable level.

A feeling of the kinship all humanity is lies at the heart of our religious tradition. The great Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing once wrote, "I am a living member the great Family of All Souls." In doing so he purported to claim kinship and connection with all of humanity. His tract continues "I cannot improve or suffer myself, without diffusing good or evil around me through an ever-enlarging sphere." The knowledge that all humanity is, on some deep level, one family and that we are all connected means that the actions of an individual can and do effect the many.

Drop a pebble in water and it ripples outward. Act, speak or simply live your life and you cannot know ultimately what effect you will have. The choices that we make effect not only ourselves and our families but future generations.

For Channing one of the purposes of religion was to help people gain insight into their impact on and connection with others. Religion could nurture the conscience and help individuals tune themselves to the "Infinite God...around and within each." The more developed the conscience, the greater the understanding of how each and every action effects those around us. The truly wise, he wrote, "will become a universal blessing." They understand how "an individual cannot but spread good or evil indefinitely...and through succeeding generations." Understanding this they weigh their choices carefully.

Channing's theology caused him to affirm that humanity's spiritual nature included "the likeness of God." Within each person was "the image of God" and by the choices one made that image would either be "extended and brightened" or "seem to be wholly destroyed."

Casting Bill's experience into Channing's theology it would appear that at the moment of his encounter, Bill was made aware of the image of God within both himself and the woman. Their differences were blotted out. Bill realized that, in the language of Channing, they were both members of "the great Family of All Souls."

The images we have of God can obscure the divine from our view. Each image is, by necessity, only partial. Yet often people mistake them for the whole.

Even the very word God is misleading. As Forrest Church writes, "God is not even God's name, but our name for that which is greater than all and present in each. God is a symbol expressive of ultimate mystery, meaning and power..." In trying to describe the ultimate mystery of the universe we naturally run across the limits of our human language and human imagination. God is a useful metaphor for those limits. Using the word allows a humanist like me ways to communicate with my friends who resonate with more traditional understandings of the divine. We are all trying to understand the same ultimate mystery, the unfathomable vastness and complicated beauty of universe, just as we are seeking to comprehend our part in that mystery. As Pete Seeger said, “I am no longer leery of using the word ‘God,’ though I have my own definition... ‘The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me.’”

Orthodox forms of Christianity try to make the mystery more fathomable by claiming that Jesus Christ was God. A human God is a God that we can relate to and, perhaps, understand.

But by making God human the orthodox imprison her within all of the various complexities of humanity. There is a paradox here. For if God is only fully present in one person then that one person somehow reflects what is of ultimate value differently than anyone else. Jesus is male so God must be male. God is male so males must have the highest worth. This theology of incarnation has led to a place where God is no longer ultimate and universal. Instead, God is partial and trapped in human images. God, the symbol, reinforces human hierarchies.

Here I find the recent controversy brought on by Fox News personality Megyn Kelly to be instructive. You might remember how, in December, she said during an on air segment, in response to calls for diverse images of Santa Claus, “...for the kids at at home, Santa just is white...” Later in the same segment she went on to claim, “Jesus was a white man, too. He was a historical figure. That's a verifiable fact -- as is Santa.”

In my house, this prompted, amongst other things, playing Teddy Vann’s soul classic “Santa Claus is a Black Man” on high rotation. The fantastic chorus, sung by Vann’s then five year old daughter, runs:

Santa Claus is a black man, Santa Claus is a black man
And he’s handsome like my daddy too
Santa Claus is a black man, Santa Claus is a black man
And I found out, that’s why I’m telling you.

There are significant stakes in how the divine is portrayed. The image of Christ, or for that matter Santa, as White suggests that because God choose to be embodied in as a white person whites are somehow closer to God than others. For some a white Jesus is the foundation of that most pernicious form of partialism, white supremacy.

The Black Christ is presented by black theologians such as James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, Albert Cleage and Kelly Brown Douglas as a counter to the White Christ. In various ways these theologians argue that if Christ must be a color that color must be black. As Brown Douglas points out, historically, "in the United States Blackness is synonymous with inferiority." By recasting Christ as Black the "bond between Blackness and inferiority" can be severed. This move also "fosters Black people's self-esteem by allowing them to worship a God in their own image, and by signifying that Blackness is nothing to be detested. On the contrary, it is a color and condition that even the divine takes on..."

For most of these black theologians the White Christ was a Christ of slaveholders. Brown Douglas explores the history and significance of the skin color of Christ in her book "The Black Christ." She identifies the Black and White Christs as having different theological significance.

"The White Christ," Brown Douglas writes, "is grounded in an understanding of Christianity suggesting that Jesus of Nazareth was Christ...because God made flesh in him. The incarnation itself is considered the decisive feature of Christianity." Through this Christ Christians view themselves as saved from original sin because of something called atonement theology. This system argues that we humans were born wicked and sinful but God, in his infinite love, choose to accept Christ's sacrifice on the cross as a substitution for the punishment that all humanity deserved.

Brown Douglas argues that this system has at least two major problems. "First, little is required of humans in order to receive salvation." One either accepts Christ as Lord and savior and is saved or one does not and is not. If one accepts Christ then no further action is required. There is no call to ethical living. Jesus's ministry to the poor and oppressed is of secondary importance. Right belief, and not right behavior, is the focus of the system.

This first observation lead Brown Douglas to a second: "in order for humans to benefit from God's saving act, they must have knowledge of Jesus as the divine/human encounter." Without that knowledge salvation was not possible.

The logic of this White Christ served as a justification for slavery. Enslaving Africans and introducing them to Christianity saved them from the eternal damnation they would have faced otherwise. As one pro-slavery advocate argued: "The condition of the slaves is far better than that of the Africans from among whom they have been brought. Instead of debased savages, they are, to a considerable extent, civilized, enlightened and christianized."

In contrast, the Black Christ, in Brown Douglas's analysis, "empowered the Black slaves to fight for their emancipation from the chains of White slavery." The important feature of this Christ is that not he somehow saved humanity. It is "that Jesus helped the oppressed in his own time." Importantly, for many, "Jesus was a living a being with whom the slaves had an intimate relationship." That Jesus, because of his own suffering, could offer succor and understanding in times of crises.

Starting in the 1960s, with the rise of the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, black theologians such as James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts and Albert Cleage further developed articulations of the Black Christ. These theologians, each in their own way, recast the Black Christ in terms that some Unitarian Universalists might find familiar.

Cleage, a minister in Detroit, argued that the historical Jesus was a black man. Further, he suggested that the bodily resurrection of Jesus had not occurred. It was a lie perpetrated by those who used Christianity as a tool for subjugation. The good life was not to be had in heaven after death but here on Earth. The myth of heaven was something that was used to oppress people. Jesus's resurrection after his death came through the continuation of his ministry by his disciples. This ministry had freedom from oppression as its central goal.

Cone, the founder of the academic school of black liberation theology, understood the Black Christ to be an ontological symbol. Ontological symbols allow humans to communicate imperfect knowledge of the divine. They are important because they point beyond themselves and suggest some fundamental truth about reality. God, for Cone, stands on the side of the oppressed. Therefore, he argued, God must have a black aspect.

Roberts, a professor at Howard University, used the Black Christ as a symbol for what he thought of as "Christ's universality." For him there was not just a Black Christ but a Red Christ and a Yellow Christ. Christ could be seen in all the colors of humanity. Re-imagining Christ in this way allowed for Roberts to try to free, in his words, Jesus from "the cultural captivity of... Euro-Americans."

There is significant overlap between these understanding of the Black Christ and much of Unitarian Universalist theology. Like Cleage traditional Unitarians affirm a human Jesus and emphasize his ethical teachings. Like Cone most Unitarian Universalists understand Christ as a symbol--one of many in the world--that offers to teach us something about the mystery of life. With Roberts, Unitarian Universalists affirm that God, or the divine, is present in all of the human races.

Unitarian Universalists might also agree with a criticism that later generations of black theologians have of their predecessors. For black women theologians such as Brown Douglas it is not enough to make Christ Black. Christ also has to become a woman so that the full spectrum of humanity can be represented in the divine.

These understandings of the Black Christ remind me of Channing's dictum that we are members "of the great Family of All Souls." While Unitarian Universalists hold to this ideal we often fail to make it a reality. Our congregations are largely white and our message reaches but a portion of the human family. For us, Sunday morning often remains the most segregated time of the week.

I suspect that the image of the Black Christ has something to teach us, regardless of the hue of our skin. This symbol is a reminder that the divine can be found in all. If we, like Bill Breeden, can learn to recognize that divine spark in others no matter how unlike we are we can take a step towards truly building a community that embodies "the great Family of All Souls." We do not know where such steps might lead us or how such recognitions might change us.

Alice Walker, in her novel, the Color Purple wrote: "Here's the thing...the thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else." With this in mind, in the coming weeks try the following spiritual exercise. Take five minutes each day as you walk down the street or drive in your car and try to see God in the people around you. Acknowledge that God, the metaphor for the mystery of creation and destruction, death and birth, that binds us together, is part of and beyond us, can be seen in each and every person that surrounds us. Apply this practice to those least like you and see if you notice a change or a transformation.

Perhaps you will. And who knows where that small change may lead. That it may be so, I say Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon

Jan 29, 2014

Some Notes of Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci, The Antonia Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, ed. David Forgacs (New York: New York University Press, 1999)

Gramsci was an Italian Marxist who argued that Marxism was primarily a moral tradition based on the “categorical imperative... ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ The duty of organizing, the propagation of the duty to organize and associate, should therefore be what distinguishes Marxists from non-Marxists” (36). He is the source of a number of important concepts, most notably hegemony and civil society. He was very critical of “mechanistic forms of historical materialism” (Forgacs 189). He believed that while socio-economic conditions created the possibility of political change they did not produce political change in and of themselves. In order for change to occur there had to be forces that could challenge the state and the reigning hegemony. He differentiated between the structure (economic dimension of life) and superstructure (politics and culture) and believed that superstructure was not determined by structure alone. One definition he offers of superstructure is “the terrain on which determinate social groups become conscious of their own social being, their own strength, their own tasks, their own becoming” (196).

Amongst other things, Gramsci emphasized the importance of ideology as a space for struggle. He differentiated between those ideologies which were “necessary to a given structure” and those which are “arbitrary, rationalistic, ‘willed’” (199). His rejection of a purely “economist” reading of Marxism led him to emphasize, again and again, that political change required “an initiative of will” and those who would change society must “systematically and patiently” focus on developing a force which can bring about change when the right conditions emerge (209).

A few key concepts from Gramsci defined:

Civil Society: one of two “major superstructural ‘levels’...that ensemble of organisms commonly called ‘private’” as opposed to “that of ‘political society’ of the state” (306). Civil society includes trade unions and other forms of voluntary associations.

Hegemony: “leadership of a class alliance” (Forgacs 422). It includes both proletarian leadership and other leadership by other classes. It’s features include “‘cultural, moral and ideological’ leadership over allied and subordinate groups” (Forgacs 423).

Intellectuals: “Gramsci defines intellectuals... as those people who give a fundamental social group ‘homogeneity and awareness of its own function.’ Intellectuals are educators, organizers, leaders. ‘Organic’ intellectuals are those who emerge from out the group itself: for instance a worker who becomes a political activist. ‘Traditional’ intellectuals are those who have remained from earlier social formations and who may attach themselves to one or the other fundamental class...” (Forgacs 425)


Jan 25, 2014

On Seeing Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror”

Last night I saw Andrei Tarkovsky's film "The Mirror" at the Harvard Film Archive. This morning, as I was workin in my journal, it brought a poem:

On Seeing Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror”

The cast of blue light on pale
blue walls;
transparent blue water colliding
on flickering
blue skin,
flecked with dark,
black like
blue moles;
thin blue shadows...

The moment ends.
The lights raise.
I stutter
out into winter’s cold.
A thousand tattered specks
of stars supervise
ice sharp snow shards.

There is no blue.
Only the colors
of midnight
in the city.

CommentsCategories Poetry and Creative Writing

Jan 19, 2014

Been Waitin' So Long

as preached Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday at the First Religious Society Carlisle, January 19, 2014

When she remembers the 1960s, the civil rights activist Zoharah Simmons tells a powerful story about organizing in rural Mississippi. She was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, the major African American student civil rights organization. Fifty years ago, during what was called Freedom Summer, she travelled to Laurel, Mississippi to organize African Americans to vote. Zoharah had never been to Laurel before and she knew no one there. When she and her two colleagues had been assigned the task of organizing in Laurel they were told, “Now you are going to have to drive up to Laurel and be as clandestine as possible and try to open up... the town... Try to find people who might want to be involved in this and who will give you shelter.” They were given a list of names to contact and little else.

When they got to Laurel they went to the home of one of the people on the list. She gave them more names. Zoharah picked Mrs. Euberta Sphinks’s name from that list and went to knock on her door. I can imagine the scene, Zoharah nervously approaching the house, pausing, drawing breath, and then knocking, tentatively, half hoping that no would answer. Someone did. Mrs. Euberta Sphinks’s came to the door. Zoharah introduced herself, afraid of being rebuffed, told that her efforts were futile, that Mississippi was never going to change, that she should go home. But Mrs. Sphinks did not tell her that. Instead, she looked Simmons up and down and said, “Girl, I’ve been waiting on you all my life. Come on in.”

Now, I love this story. It has so many rich strands to it that we could spend the next twenty minutes just pulling it apart. There’s Zoharah Simmons and there’s Mrs. Euberta Sphinks. They both have so much to teach us about what it means to change the world. I want to ask questions: what would have happened to Mrs. Sphinks if Zoharah had never come to her door? Would she have kept on waiting forever? What about Zoharah? Would she have stayed in Laurel, Mississippi and kept trying? Or would she have packed her bags and left? I also want to know, is there someone out there waiting for me? I am I waiting for someone? Maybe we all are...

Patience is something that is crucial for any form of social transformation. The world changes slowly, especially when it comes to moral issues. And yet we have to be ready for that change, for the opportunity for change, at any time. I had a professor in seminary who liked to underscore this point. He was a very devote Jew. He refused to close doors completely. He said, the messiah might come at any time. He didn’t want the door to be closed, and miss the announcement, when she arrived.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday I want to ask all of you two questions: What are you waiting for? How are you preparing? Hold onto those two questions as I proceed with the sermon.

Almost precisely a year before he died Martin King challenged this country with his sermon at Riverside Church “Beyond Vietnam--A Time to Break the Silence.” It was a sermon that changed the way he related to the domestic power structure and how he placed himself in relation to global struggles for freedom. In it he made a direct connection between the struggle for freedom, equality and economic dignity in this country and the struggle against American capitalist imperialism in Vietnam and other countries. In it he told us that we were “a society gone mad on war” and warned that this country “would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.” Not long after that, in a different speech, he made his point even more graphically: “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home.”

In that last year of his life Martin King warned us that the struggle for freedom, equality and economic dignity faced three triple giants: racism, militarism, and materialism. Unless we underwent a true moral revolution we risked being squashed by those giants.

Now, I am from Michigan and I spent five years as a parish minister in Cleveland, Ohio. I can tell you that in the last four decades bombs meant for all countries that the United States military has attacked have dropped on the cities that I love. The bombs meant for Vietnam have hit Detroit. Bombs sent to Cambodia landed in Cleveland. Those destined for El Salvador hit Roxbury instead. Bombs dropped on Iraq found their targets in Washington, DC. Missiles launched in Afghanistan brought death to Oakland. And rockets sent to Bosnia ended up on the South Side of Chicago. The list of countries that the United State military has bombed since 1968, the year Martin King was assassinated, is more than twenty names long. As a society we continue to spend the vastly more on war than on ending poverty.

The city of Detroit declared bankruptcy this past year. Its infrastructure is crumbling. In places the roads are little more than gravel, the street lights are broken, and the abandoned buildings stretch on for blocks. There are neighborhoods that are returning to prairie. I have seen poverty there, men in the street with open sores on their faces, that should not exist in the twenty first century, in the richest society in human history. There’s a skyscraper in downtown Detroit, a forty story building, that has been abandoned for so long that standing on the street you can see mature trees growing on its crown.

When the poet Amiri Baraka wrote about the African American freedom struggle he said, “we / vote among roaches.” Wherever we are in the struggle to build a just society, we still have a long way to go. The federal government has essentially abandoned Detroit. The city’s bankruptcy debt is about $18 billion. This country’s military budget in 2013 was more than $700 billion. For the cost of funding the military for about a week the federal government could have saved Detroit from bankruptcy. Not only did this not happen, there was no national conversation about it. Martin King would have been ashamed of this country. If he was alive today, on this day we celebrate his birth, he would say to us now what he said back in 1968 to his congregation, “The judgement of God is on America now.” And he would ask you, and he would ask me, “what are you waiting for?” He would remind us that he was willing to give his life for what he believed in. And he didn’t just believe in racial justice. He believed in economic justice--that everyone should have a safe place to live and job that gave them dignity. He would have cried with gentle rage about the chemical spill in West Virginia that rendered water undrinkable for 300,000 people. He would have been indignant that we bailed banks but left home owners in cities like Cleveland and Detroit to rot. He would have reminded us that he believed not only in racial and economic justice but in peace. He believed that men and women from this country should not go and kill men, women and children in other countries. It is hard to say these things in polite conversation anymore. But the question remains, why are we still waiting to build a world with peace and justice? What are you waiting for? What I am waiting for? Who are we waiting for?

Poet and civil rights veteran June Jordan famously said, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” She is right, there really is no one else. It is just us. If we do not figure out what needs to be done then no one will. What needs to be done? Martin King knew. He said, “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.” What might that revolution look like? Let me tell you a couple of stories. They come from my mentor Staughton Lynd, the historian and civil rights activist who served as coordinator of the Freedom Schools during Mississipi Freedom Summer. That was the same project that brought Zoharah Simmons and Euberta Sphinks together.

Staughton likes to share a story about James Farmer, who at that time served as SNCC’s Executive Secretary. One day Staughton and his wife Alice went to the SNCC office early in the morning for some reason. The only person they found there was James Farmer. He was sweeping the office floor. When Staughton tells the story he often remarks, “He is the only person in a similar position of authority whom I have ever encountered performing such a task. Alice and I attempt to act likewise.”

This might seem like a discordant note when placed alongside Martin King’s call for a revolution in values. It is not. Stay with me for a minute. I am going to go a bit further afield with another of Staughton’s stories before bringing my point home. This story comes from the Spanish Civil War, which was a struggle against fascism right before World War II. The anti-fascist forces included a lot of different groups. One of the largest were the anarchists who sought not just to defeat fascism but to build a new world, a world without poverty and war, as well. As Staughton tells the story:

“It seems that one day during the Spanish Civil War there was a long line waiting for lunch. Far back in the line was a well-known anarchist. A colleague urged him: ‘Comrade, come to the front of the line and get your lunch. Your time is too valuable to be wasted this way. Your work is too important for you to stand at the back of the line. Think of the Revolution!’ Remaining where he was in line, the anarchist leader replied: ‘This is the Revolution.’”

I want to suggest that there are three lessons that can be drawn from these stories. And that these lessons point to the kind of revolution of values that our society needs to undergo and what we as individuals can do to bring about such a revolution. First, and most important, a revolution in values begins in this moment, in the here and now. Yes, it has to be a focus on changing the structure of society. But we will only be able to make that change if we change the way we treat each other. If we want a more egalitarian society, we have to treat each other as equals. If we want a society without racism, we have to strive eliminate racism from our own lives. As the great peace activist A. J. Muste said, “There is no way to peace--peace is the way.”

Second, if we want a new society, a just society, then we have to create institutions that can serve as seeds for that society. We have to develop spaces where we can challenge each other to undergo a revolution of values and question how the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism operate in our lives.

The great Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams, thought that this was the purpose of our religious communities. He taught that voluntary associations, groups of people that came together united by common interests and bonds of commitment, were the most powerful force in human society. The revitalization of society stands or falls with such voluntary associations. We tend to fixate upon prophetic individuals but, the truth is, truly powerful prophets are parts of organizations. We know who Martin King was because of the organizations he participated in and led. The civil rights movement is much more the story of heroic organizations than heroic individuals. Without the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference a prophet like King would have found himself alone in the wilderness.

Most prophets have recognized this. Jesus, after he received his call, gathered up his disciples and created a religious community. Mohandas Gandhi built ashrams in both South Africa and India to serve as spiritual bases for his activism. The characters in Lynd’s stories are both involved in organizations. Zorah Simmons did not end up in Laurel, Mississippi on her own.

This brings me to my third point. Organizations need leaders. However we conceptualize them, organizations need people who can inspire others to act. A revolution in values requires a new kind of leadership. And I do not think that Martin King, as great as he was, necessarily exemplifies that kind of leadership. Instead, I think it is to be found in people like James Farmer, or the anarchist from Staughton’s story. Such leaders remain in direct relationship with others from the movement of which they are a part. They do not try to assert dominance over others. Instead, they try to build capacity in others. They are driven by the belief that anyone can acquire the skills to be a leader.

This is a lesson we can learn well if we look around on Sunday morning. It takes a lot more than a minister to make a powerful worship service. We have musicians. We have to people who tend to the administrative functions. We have to keep our space clean and inviting to guests. All of these people take us a little further down the road than we would be able to go without them. Elsewhere, I have observed that some of the most unappreciated leaders in the congregation are the people who get everyone else clapping to the hymns on Sunday morning. I always notice when such people are absent. The service is less lively, less renewing, without them.

Let me summarize my three points. A revolution in values requires us to build organizations that challenge us to develop a new kind leadership. This is a leadership that sees everyone as a potential leader and brings out the best in them so that they can bring the best in the community, and ultimately the world. Such an organization will challenge us to confront the triple giants of racism, materialism, and militarism both in the wider world and in those places where they are operative within our own lives.

Let me suggest that this congregation can be a starting point for such a revolution in values. To return explicitly to our Unitarian Universalist tradition, James Luther Adams, the theologian I mentioned earlier, liked to remind us that our congregational polity was one of the sources of democracy in this culture. He even joking referred to our religious tradition as “Spiritual Bolshevism” to signify the revolutionary potential within it.

I think that there is one thing, only one thing, that we need to do to start to realize that potential. And here I return to the story of Zoharah Simmons and Euberta Sphinks. There is a part of it I forgot to tell you. Euberta Sphinks had already organized her neighbors. When Zoharah showed up at her door Euberta went across the street and knocked on the door of her friend, Mrs. Carrie Clayton. I am telling you these names because today we should celebrate not just Martin King but all of the leaders, known and unknown, who made built the civil rights movement. Anyways, Euberta Sphinks went across the street to tell her friend, in effect, we are not alone. There other people out there struggling for the same things we are struggling for. And now one of them has found us. We are stronger than before and we can take our struggle, here in Laurel, Mississippi, to a new level.

And that is exactly what they did. People in those little towns in Mississippi had been struggling for African American freedom for hundreds of years. In the 1920s and 1930s they had organized sharecroppers unions. Their grandparents had fought with the union army to end slavery. Their great grandparents had resisted the slave masters in endless, untold, creative quiet ways. Each generation built on the struggles of the previous ones. When Zoharh and Euberta found each other they were able to take that struggle to a new level.

Let me close with a brief autobiographical note. I have spent much of my adult life as an organizer. In doing so, I have been part of groups working to bring about a revolution in values. Wherever I have gone to organize I have discovered that the people there were already organized. What they were waiting for, whether they knew it or not, was someone from another group to tell them, “Hey you are not alone. Together we can take this struggle to a new level.” This has been true whether I have been organizing truckers in the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, bike messengers in Chicago or taxi drivers in Cleveland. It has been true in every congregation I have ever served. It was true when I committed civil disobedience alongside other Unitarian Universalist clergy in Phoenix, Arizona and went to jail. If we, Unitarian Universalists, are going to help bring about a revolution in values then we need to get outside of our comfortable communities and find others struggling against the triple giants of racism, militarism, and materialism. When we do we will discover we are not alone.

We already have everything we need to change the world. We truly are the ones we have been waiting for. But first we need to find each other. Who are you waiting for? Who am I waiting for? Who is waiting for us?

As I leave you to contemplate those questions I say Amen and Blessed Be.

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