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Apr 1, 2020

Sermon: Illness is Not a Metaphor

as preached for the online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 29, 2020

I do not know about you, but in these strange days, I have found myself doing many new things. In the last couple of weeks, I have been invited to virtual dinners, virtual dance parties, and virtual cocktail hours. Recently, I was even invited to a virtual tea-time. There was a story on NPR about virtual first dates. My son is starting online--which is to say virtual--school on Tuesday. And, of course, right now you are joining us for virtual worship.

In essence, we are doing new things but calling them by old names. We are in a time of metaphors. “Metaphor,” Aristotle wrote many centuries ago, “consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” We use metaphors when we say that one thing is another thing. A metaphor is something that represents something else. Metaphor is essential to art and poetry. “And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Love is a stone / that settled on the sea-bed / under grey-water,” scribed Derek Walcott. “[V]erdad del río que se va perdiendo;” “the truth of the dying river,” we find in our morning’s reading by Amanda Berenguer. The sun is a bucketful of gold. Love is a stone. The river is dying. Each is a metaphor where one thing is said to be another.

I have come to realize, that for me, virtual worship is a metaphor for life as it used to be. This is our third week of recording our service in an empty sanctuary. There are only a handful of us here. We are practicing appropriate physical distancing.

We are also cleaning the pulpit, microphones, piano, and other equipment each time a different person uses them. In order to safely offer an online worship service, we are filming everything out of sequence. Alma and Scott recorded their portions of our liturgy prior to me recording mine. Mark recorded much of the music in his home studio. This week, he is not even here for the sermon.

Christian and Alma take this out of sequence audio and video and splice it together so that we can provide you with an approximation of our regular Sunday morning service. We want to offer our regular Sunday morning worship participants a continuing feeling of connection to the religious community that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And we want those of you who are joining us online without ever having entered either our sanctuary in Houston or sanctuary in Richmond to know that when we gather again in person you will be welcome among us. But we do so with the knowledge that virtual worship is not the same as in person worship. You are not sitting in a room filled with people. You are not joining your voices with a crowd of others in song--though I hope that you are singing along with Mark’s excellent arrangements of our hymns.

We do all of this in the hopes that our virtual worship will provide you with a sense of connection and comfort during these strange days. Our hopes for these online worship services remind me of a fable from the Hasidic tradition. In one of his books, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben recounts a version of it that he found in the work of the Jewish mystic and scholar Gershom Scholem.

The Hasidic tradition was founded by the Baal Shem Tov--the Master of the Good Name--in early eighteenth-century Europe. He was reputed to have been a pious, wise, and compassionate man. He was also supposed to have been a great worker of miracles.

It is told that when he had an insurmountable problem before him, he would go into the woods to a special place. There he would “light a fire and meditate in prayer.” And then the problem he had sought out to solve, the miracle he was hoping to perform, would be done.

After the Baal Shem died, his successor went to the same special place in the forest. He had forgotten a little about the ritual. He said, “We can no longer light a fire, but we can pray.” And then he was able to work a miracle.

The Baal Shem’s successor died. And the day came when the Rabbi of the next generation was faced with a great task. So, he went to the special place in the woods and said, “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we know the place in the woods, and that can be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.

The fourth generation came into being. And the Rabbi of that generation was called upon to perform a great task. But he did not even know the place in the woods. And so, he said, “‘We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayer, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of all of this.’ And, once again, this was sufficient.”

Our online worship services make me feel like we are somewhere inside Gershom Scholem’s tale. We cannot kindle the fire of our faith together. We cannot meditate together. We cannot go to the woods--or gather in our sanctuary--together. But we can offer you a video, a story, about what worship might like if we were to gather.

And we can hope that it is sufficient.

Most of the metaphors we are offering each other these days are offered in the hope that they will be sufficient. We provide each other the metaphors of virtual schooling, virtual dance parties, virtual dinners, virtual dates, and virtual tea times in the hopes that they will be sufficient to see us through these strange days.

But, in these strange days, we need to be careful of our metaphors. Some of them can be dangerous. It is unwise to let some things stand in for others. And here we come, at last, to the title of our service: illness is not a metaphor. Illness does not stand in for something else. Illness is just illness. It is not something that should be freighted with moral weight or political valence. It should be for what is, a global health crisis, and not imagined as something else.

For the virus is not a metaphor. The virus is only a virus. It does not represent something else. It is, like all viruses, a small organic infectious agent that replicates within living cells. It replicates and it spreads, from host to host, and bringing suffering to those who it encounters.

The virus is not a metaphor. It does not have consciousness that imagines, that dreams, that tries to discern truth from lies, or that refers to one thing by calling it by another name. The virus does not write poetry or create the metaphors of music, painting, and photography.

What is more, the virus does not care about human metaphors. It does not respect national boundaries, or religious beliefs, or race or ethnic identities. It is not, as some would say, a Chinese virus. It can potentially infect everyone. There is no cure. There is no vaccine. And while we must pray that these are found soon, we must also recognize that until they are everyone is vulnerable.

That, indeed, is one of the lessons of the hour. That we humans, no matter how great or powerful, weak or marginalized, we might be are alike in our human mortality. The Prime Minister of Great Britain has tested positive for the virus. Rita Wilson and her husband Tom Hanks have tested positive for the virus. The basketball player Kevin Durant has tested positive for the virus. The playwright Terrence McNally has died from the virus. Indeed, many people--rich and poor alike--have been stricken ill and died from the virus: people in Italy, in New York, in China, and here in Houston.

There is a way in which the global pandemic reminds me of a verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This was a verse beloved by many of our Universalist religious ancestors. It bespeaks the idea that God loves everyone, no exceptions, an idea that lies at the core of the theology of our Universalist forbearers and Unitarian Universalism today. It suggests a fundamental, non-metaphorical, truth: there is only one human family and we are each a part of it.

Today, we might consider re-casting the words from Galatians as there is neither Christian nor Muslim, neither Italian nor New Yorker, neither citizen nor undocumented migrant, for all are alike to the virus. There are some religious leaders who are saying that the virus must be understood as God’s judgement upon this country and the world. If it is, then the only interpretation that I can find is that we are being reminded, in the words of the Christian New Testament, “that God is no respecter of persons”--words meant to suggest that the divine does not care about human status but instead loves, and calls upon us to love, everyone the same. We are being reminded, in the sense of the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that we all part of the same interdependent web of existence. That we are each, in William Ellery Channing’s famous words, a part of the great family of all souls.

Yet, historically, people have often draw, precisely the opposite lesson from pandemics. They have turned illness into metaphor. One of the oldest ideas in human history is to view pandemics--which we sometimes call plagues--as forms of collective punishment. In such a narrative, one group of people, usually the powerful, label another group of people as responsible for the pandemic. In Europe, during the Black Death, Jewish people were often blamed for outbreaks of the plague. As a result, many Jewish communities were destroyed and many Jewish people were killed. And, of course, the truth was that Jewish people had no actual connection to the plague. They were just blamed for it because they were different from the rest of the population.

Some years ago, at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, before there was a treatment for HIV, the philosopher Susan Sontag wrote insightfully about the dangers of using illness as metaphor. She observed three dangerous things about illness as a metaphor. The first two I have already alluded to. The pandemic is cast as a form of collective, and sometimes individual, punishment. Responsibility for it assigned to “a tainted community.” And, finally, “the disease invariably comes from somewhere else.”

Over and over again, human history has shown each of these ideas to be false. Illness is not punishment. It has the potential to impact all alike. Cancer, one of the diseases that Sontag wrote about, can strike anyone. People across the world have been infected by HIV--babies have been infected with it by their mothers; and, though it was once cast as “gay cancer,” everyone must practice safer sex if they want to reduce their risk of contracting it.

Illness happens because we have organic, permeable, human bodies that can host viruses and bacteria. Illness happens because to be alive is to be mortal and subject to the possibility of pain and suffering. Illness is not a metaphor.

Responsibility for illness cannot be borne by a single community. The virus that causes COVID-19 might have started in China but it is not a Chinese virus. It does not recognize the imagined human community of nation. Instead, it reveals the truth that human beings are far more alike than we are different. Whether you live in Italy, China, New York, Houston, or Fort Bend County, you are vulnerable to the virus. Little can be accomplished by assigning blame for it to one group of people. Illness is not a metaphor.

The disease might have started in Wuhan, it might have come from there, but the virus is teaching us, again, that disease cannot be contained. Quarantines may slow the spread of the virus--and staying home continues to be one of the best things that non-essential workers can do--but they will not stop it. China has paused the spread of the virus and is now trying to prevent its resurgence by isolating anyone who visits from outside the country. This may slow the spread of the virus. But it will ultimately prevent it from continuing to inflict people in China.

Eventually, the virus will reach every corner of our globe. The virus is no respecter of nations, just as the scripture says God is no respecter of persons. It can only be slowed. Pathogens have always spread across humanity--smallpox might have started someplace in the Mediterranean but it eventually spread throughout the globe; syphilis could have originated in the Americas but it is now found everywhere. Every lifeform can become sick. Illness is not a metaphor.

Illness is not a metaphor. Illness is simply illness. But we can learn from illness. It can teach us that the entire human family is in this together and that each of us is vulnerable. All of us are mortal and our bodies are vulnerable to the virus. The threat of the virus will only end when a vaccine is found--not a vaccine for some of the people of the world but a vaccine for all of the people of the world. The spread of the virus will only be slowed when we all act together--engaging in only essential work and practicing physical distancing.

And that will only be possible when we recognize that in these strange days, when all but essential work must stop, most of us are economically vulnerable. I already know of people who are members of this congregation who have lost jobs. I have friends who are wondering if they are going to have to make the choice between paying rent, paying for medical bills, and eating. Some economists are anticipating that the unemployment rate will soon hit twenty, or even thirty, percent.

Such a high level of unemployment threatens massive social disruption. Many people who might, in other times, think of themselves as economically secure will suffer--I know of scientists with PhDs who have already lost their jobs. At such a time, we cannot afford to think of illness as a metaphor. The virus is not a respecter of persons. And the disruptions it brings do not care about your level of education or your current level of economic security. If this pandemic continues for twelve or eighteenth months--as many think it might--it will most likely upend the lives of many people.

At such a time as this, when illness is not a metaphor, we are challenged to rise to meet the situation with compassion. As Scott told us at the beginning of the month, “Sympathy is the ability to recognize that a person is in pain.” “And empathy is the ability to... experience some [of] their feelings,” he continued. But compassion is putting “those thoughts and feelings into action.” We demonstrate compassion when we move beyond simply worrying about other people, or the state of the world, and try to do something about it.

When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor, we come to understand that the only response to the global pandemic is a compassionate one. We do this, in part, because we recognize that we must protect the most vulnerable among us. It is the moral thing to do but it is also the necessary thing to do. In some cities, but not in Houston, homeless people are being given shelter in closed hotels so that they do not spread the virus. Such an action protects both the homeless and everyone else. For the virus does not recognize rich or poor.

The disruptions can impact everyone. And because of this, the disruptions will only be mitigated if we work to provide for all people during this time. And, here, I am reminded of another passage from the Christian New Testament, this time from the Gospel of Matthew. There we find Jesus say, “Truly I tell you: anything you did for one of... [the people] here, no matter how insignificant, you did for me... A curse is on you... [if I can say] For when I was hungry, you gave me nothing to eat; when thirsty, nothing to drink; when I was a stranger, you did not welcome me; when I was naked, you did not clothe me; when I was ill and in prison, you did not come to my help.”

Those ancient words speak a truth in a time of crisis like this, when illness is not a metaphor and when all of us are vulnerable. And that truth is this: we can only address the health and economic dimensions of this crisis by acting together and protecting everyone. That means that everyone is vulnerable. Everyone must be protected--and that everyone who needs them be given access to personal protective equipment. Such equipment is now, to slow the spread of the virus, a need for all people and something that federal government should be mobilizing to produce on a mass level. If it will not, then local cities and counties must step into the gap.

Here in Houston, we had a troubling illustration of what happens when we personal protective equipment is not available to all. On Thursday and Friday, the Houston Independent School District had to shut down its food distribution sites. A lack of personal protective equipment made them unsafe for both people distributing and collecting food.

At a time when people are food insecure at greater rates than every before a lack of equipment, here in the richest country in the history of the world, made it even more difficult for people to get food.

When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor we also recognize that the only way the virus will contained is if we have a coordinated health care policy that makes treatment and testing available for all. And that the state of Texas is wrong for declaring that some essential health care services, such as abortion and family planning, should not be available at this time. Such actions will prompt to travel. And that brings the risk that they will spread the virus further. If we do not treat health care as a human right, in this time when illness is not a metaphor, then it will be impossible to coordinate efforts to slow the spread of the virus and, eventually, find and distribute a cure.

It is only by recognizing that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to end this time of living primarily in metaphors. It is only by acknowledging that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to return to actual shared dinners, dance parties, tea times, and cocktail hours. It is only by rejecting illness as a metaphor that school and non-essential work will resume. And it is only be casting off illness as a metaphor that we will be able gather together, as a religious community, in worship and in fellowship and physically unite in the difficult, though rewarding, work of building the beloved community.

These are my words for you, offered to you from Houston, Texas, in the midst of a pandemic, as part of a virtual worship service, that is a metaphor for religious community. In this time of anxiety and illness, I pray that they are sufficient. And so, I invite you, wherever you are, to say Amen.

CommentsCategories Contemporary Politics Human Rights Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston NPR Metaphor Aristotle Edna St. Vincent Millay Derek Walcott Amanda Berenguer Alma Viscarra D. Scott Cooper Mark Vogel Houston Richmond Baal Shem Tov Giorgio Agamben Gershom Scholem Illness COVID-19 Boris Johnson Rita Wilson Tom Hanks Kevin Durant Terrence McNally Paul Galatians 3:28 Acts 10:34 Unitarian Universalist Association New York Italy China William Ellery Channing Black Death Plague Antisemitism AIDS HIV Susan Sontag Cancer Wuhan Compassion Matthew 25:40-44 Houston Independent School District Abortion Reproductive Health

Feb 17, 2020

Sermon: When Enemies Become Friends

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, January 12, 2020

I am thrilled to be in the pulpit with you this morning. I am excited to be staying on as your developmental minister for the next five and a half years. And I am deeply appreciative of all of the enthusiastic notes of support that the Board and I have received via email and through Facebook. I am also aware that there are a few of you who are not keen about the news that I will be staying. I also know that a few of you are concerned or unclear about the process that the Board used to reach its decision to hire me. If you do feel that way, I hope that you will attend this afternoon’s congregational town hall or come and share your concerns with me. I am your minister and this your religious community. And while I am here, whether you are excited about me staying or not, I will do the best I can to meet your spiritual needs and to serve all the members of First Unitarian Universalist. And the Board will do its best to democratically govern the church.

I believe our time together will be an opportunity to develop a powerful shared ministry that is devoted to building a compassion filled beloved community and confronting the urgent tasks of the era. These, I have suggested, are dismantling white supremacy, revitalizing democracy, and addressing the climate crisis.

The next several years will be some of the most crucial in human history. They will determine whether or not we, as a human species, address the causes of global warming. We will choose our collective legacy. It will either provide our children a vibrant and sustainable future or calamitous one.

The fate of Unitarian Universalism in the next years will be determined by whether or not we live up to our commitment to be a relevant religion. We will thrive if religious communities like First Unitarian Universalist equip people with the spiritual tools to confront society’s challenges and adjust to its changes. We will fade into irrelevance if we do not.

While we answer the question of whether or not we are a relevant religion on a grand scale, we will also have to continue answering this question individually, on a personal scale. No matter what happens, in the midst of all the world’s changes, some things will remain constant. The cycle of life and death, birth and aging, will continue. The Earth will orbit the sun as it always has. The Moon will bring tides to the water. And people will need to find meaning in the rich mess of our lives. They will ask questions about the meaning of life and the power of love.

First Unitarian Universalist’s challenge over the next few years will be this: Can we be a religious community that is relevant to the great crises of the hour while at the same time providing a spiritual home for people throughout all the days of their lives? I think we can. And so, I also think that the brightest days for both Unitarian Universalism and the congregation are in the future. I look forward to seeing how it all unfolds. And because I believe this, I am incredibly excited to serve as your senior minister as we continue together in the work of collective liberation and the task of building the beloved community.

One of the central missions of such a community is the cultivation of friendships and the deepening of connections. This month in worship we are exploring friendship as a spiritual practice. Ralph Emerson argued, “Friendship demands a religious treatment.” All this month we are attempting to give it one. This morning, I want us to consider one of the most difficult kinds of friendships: friendships between enemies.

The friendship between Jacob Taubes and Carl Schmitt was one of these. It must have been one of the strangest of the twentieth century. Taubes was a rabbi and philosopher. He taught for many years at the Free University of Berlin. And Schmitt, well, Schmitt was a Nazi. And he was not just any member of the Third Reich. Schmitt was one of the regime’s chief legal theorists. After World War II, he remained an unrepentant fascist and bigot. He lectured in Fascist Spain and refused de-nazification.

Taubes knew all of this. He and Schmitt met after World War II. Taubes survived the Holocaust because his family moved to Switzerland. Studying at the University of Zurich while the world around him burned, in the early 1940s Taubes came across Schmitt’s work for the first time. It inspired him to take a new line of argument in his own scholarship. One that was controversial enough that it earned Taubes a rebuke from the professor with whom he was studying. Taubes was taken to task for reading the work of an “evil man” and told that his own argument was “monstrous and unidimensional.” His professor’s response caused Taubes to question his own place within the academy.

Following the war, Taubes found himself in Jerusalem on a research fellowship at the Hebrew University. He encountered Schmitt’s work when he discovered that the Israeli’s minister of justice had taken an interest in it. This was immediately after the founding of the state of Israel. Much of Jerusalem was under the supervision of the United Nations. For reasons that are unclear to me, the library of Hebrew University was “locked up on Mount Scopus,” outside of the city limits under armed guards. These guards changed every two weeks. Taubes recalls, “Contrary to the terms of the official true, which said that nothing could be taken from Mount Scopus, and nothing from the city to Mount Scopus, the decree was circumvented with the help of members of the guard who, when they came back to the city, filled their trousers and bags with books that the university library had labeled ‘urgent.’”

The minister of justice, it turned out, had urgently needed one of Schmitt’s books. He wanted to consult it in his efforts to write a Constitution for the state of Israel--a document, which, incidentally, still does not exist. Taubes was much surprised to learn this story from the chief librarian. He took out the book when the minister returned it, re-familiarized himself with Schmitt, and again began to consider the connection between Schmitt’s thought and his own. He wrote a letter to a friend of his, a man named Armin Mohler who Taubes had known back in Zurich when he was a student. The two held different political positions. “You could say that he was on the extreme right and I was on the extreme left. Les extrêmes se touchent--at any rate, we had the same views about the middle,” Taubes recalled about Mohler.

Taubes poised his old school friend a question, “It remains a problem for that... [Carl Schmitt] welcomed the National Socialist [as the Nazis called themselves] ‘revolution’ and went along with it and it remains a problem for me that I cannot just dismiss by using such catchwords such as vile, swinish.... What was so ‘seductive’ about National Socialism?”

So, here we have a point of unexpected engagement. Taubes, a self-described “arch-Jew,” approaching his friend the goyish, which is to say non-Jewish, arch-conservative with a query of interest about a lethal enemy. He wanted to know the answer to a question that perplexes so many of us today: How is it that intelligent, even brillant, people can devote themselves to ideologies and political movements that are obviously evil? I suspect that many of you have asked such questions of scholars, intellectuals, politicians, business executives, clergy, friends, family members, and neighbors that you respect.

I know I have. More than once in my life I have found myself struggling to understand how someone who was obviously intelligent, who was educated, could subscribe to odious ideologies. I often find myself wondering this about climate change deniers--especially now when Australia burns, when we are experiencing some of the warmest, weirdest, weather on record, and when there is a scientific consensus that the changing climate is driven by the human consumption of fossil fuel.

Back in September many of us participated in the global climate strike. We turned out about seventy-five people from the congregation for the event organized by local youth and 350.org in solidarity with the movement inspired by Greta Thunberg. Some of you might remember, that in support of the climate strike I published an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle. You probably do not know that the next day the office got a call from someone named Dr. Neil Frank who wanted to urgently talk with me. He wanted to clarify some things for me about climate change.

Now, I am relatively new to Houston. I had no idea who Dr. Neil Frank is. So, I asked Jon Naylor, who is one of my sources of knowledge for all things Houstonian. Neil Frank, Jon Naylor told me, is the much beloved retired weatherman from the local CBS affiliate KHOU. He is also the former director of the National Hurricane Center. I asked Jon to set-up a meeting for us. And so, Dr. Frank came by my office one afternoon and tried to convince me that the changes in the climate we are now experiencing are driven by something other than human action.

It was a fascinating conversation. Dr. Frank has PhD in meteorology. His goal, it became clear, was to convince me that everything I knew about the scientific consensus on the climate crisis was false. He admitted that the planet is warming. This, however, he told me was a result of natural climate cycles. High CO2 levels, he also wanted me to know, was good for plant life and was, ultimately, nothing to worry about.

We had a long discussion about the role of peer-review in research. He told me that critics of the thesis that climate change is human caused had been locked off academic journals by something he called “the global warming industry.” This industry has, through some unspecified means, taken control of the peer review process. It is part of a conspiracy by, in his words, “some very wealthy people” to create one world government. This one world government would be birthed when people became convinced that they could only address the climate crisis by forming it. The one world government would start with treaties like the Paris Agreement which would both undermine national sovereignty and redistribute the world’s wealth. Inequality, he told me, is the great creator of prosperity and creating a more economically equal society would be disastrous to human progress.

A shadowy group of unspecified individuals conspiring to create one world government, undermine national sovereignty, and redistribute wealth... As someone who has spent many years studying white supremacist movements I have to admit that I was a bit taken back. It is classic antisemitic claim that there is a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world. I am not saying that Dr. Frank is an antisemite. But his argument against taking action on the climate crisis certainly reminded me of one of antisemitism’s root mythologies.

We can learn, surprising, sometimes distressing, things when we try to reach out in friendship with those who we disagree. I am not sure that I would describe Dr. Frank as my enemy. And we did not end our session together as friends. However, we stand on the opposite side of two vital issues--Dr. Frank is also an evangelical Christian--and I learned important things from our conversation. We can expand our ways of understanding the world when we engage across difference. At the very least, we can gain clarity into what motivates people with whom we disagree. And that clarity is valuable in and itself.

Such clarity was what Jacob Taubes sought in his letter to his friend Armin Mohler. This was in the pre-internet days but the written word, in whatever form, has long had a capacity to move beyond its original audience. Mohler showed the letter to a friend. Who showed it to a friend. Who showed it Schmitt himself. This prompted Schmitt to write Mohler and ask him for Taubes’s address. Thus began what was for many years a one-sided correspondence. Schmitt would send Taubes inscribed copies of his books and the texts of articles. Taubes would not answer them.

Taubes’s refusal to respond to Schmitt did not prevent the rumors from circulating that the two men were friends. One evening at Harvard, after Taubes made a presentation, a young scholar came up to him and said, “Oh, I am so pleased to meet a friend of Carl Schmitt!”

Taubes responded, “Me? Friend of Carl Schmitt? Never seen him and don’t even want to meet him.”

The young scholar replied, “But I know of your letter to Carl Schmitt!”

“Me? A letter to Schmitt? Never wrote one, don’t even know where he lives,” was Taubes’s retort.

“But I have read it!,” the young scholar insisted.

It turned out that the letter Taubes had sent to his friend had become, through the grapevine, a letter directly to Schmitt.

Taubes still refused to meet with the unrepentant Nazi for many years. His friends throughout the academy kept pushing him to do so. Yet, even when he was in Schmitt’s neighborhood Taubes would not drop him so much as a card.

One famous philosopher finally wrote Taubes taking him to task for his insistence that he would not meet with Schmitt: “Put a stop once and for all to this ‘how did he say that’?--as if everything were a tribunal--you... and Schmitt, you are all the same, what’s the point?”

Taubes finally concluded, “Listen, Jacob, you are not the judge, as a Jew especially you are not the judge... I know about the Nazi period. ... You are not the judge, because as a Jew you were not party to the temptation.” He decided that because there was no possibility of him ever becoming a Nazi, a possibility foreclosed to Jews, he could only attempt to understand Schmitt’s decision to become an antisemite by engaging with him directly.

And so, Taubes finally went to visit Schmitt. The two men had, in Taubes’s words, “the most violent discussion that I have ever had in the German language.” And Schmitt showed Taubes “documents that made my hair stand on end--documents that he still defended.” Years later, Taubes wrote, “I really cannot bear to think about it.”

Schmitt, Taubes realized, was primarily motivated from a fear that society around him would collapse and that dangerous change would come. Schmitt was a lawyer and he feared more than anything disorder. Schmitt came to understand that law, however, was not based on some set of abstract principles. It came, he believed, from a strong state and a strong ruler. Without such a structure to support it the law, Schmitt thought, would become meaningless. His support for the Nazi regime had come because, he believed, in a time of chaos liberals were unable to ensure that the law endured.

During the course of their conversation Taubes came to understand Schmitt and in doing so came to understand something about why people can come to defend the indefensible. Taubes even decided that he was willing to call Schmitt his friend. This was not an insignificant statement on two levels. First, and foremost, the friendship between a Jew and Nazi is not one without a little controversy. I suspect that a few of you might even be disturbed by the concept of it. For, after all, Taubes and Schmitt were, in Taubes’s words, “opponents to the death.”

Second, one of Schmitt’s primary contributions to philosophy is the claim that politics begins with the distinction of friends and enemies. In politics, he argued, we struggle with our friends, with whom we share a common interest or identity, against those who are enemies, individuals that oppose our interest or identity. Politics, he believed, was primarily about making this distinction. By naming Schmitt as his friend, Taubes was in some sense undermining Schmitt’s political project. He was calling into question the kind of politics practiced by Schmitt.

The political projects of people like Schmitt requires that we divide the world into enemies and friends. In such a world, politics is not necessarily a domain separate from the rest of our lives. It occurs anytime we decide that we must divide ourselves into opposing groups and then struggle for dominance, one group over the other.

Certainly, this is what is happening today. We live at a moment of sharp political division. For many of us, political identity has divided the country into friends and enemies. Politicians seek to block legislation not on the basis of policy implications but rather from the fear that they will allow political enemies to score points with the electorate. Democrats do not trust Republicans. Republicans do not trust Democrats.

Perhaps the first step out of such an impasse is to attempt to understand what motivates each other. We might find ourselves surprised or disturbed. It might be that we discover that our motivations are irreconcilable--I am not going to become a climate crisis denier based on the idea that there is a global warming institution conspiring to create one world government. But it might be that we discover surprising basis for connection.

Carl Schmitt found that Jacob Taubes shared with him a common devotion to scholarship and that the two men understood each other. Maybe it was not enough to heal the world of political division. But it disrupted it. Today, Dr. Frank and I did not end our conversation as friends but I gained greater clarity into a crucial issue. And we spoke to each other, despite our differences--just as Taubes and Schmitt finally did.

In her poem “Who Said It was Simple,” Audre Lorde reminds us that in the world of politics nothing is simple. Those who proclaim themselves to be our friends are sometimes not entirely on our side. Her poem was written in response to the civil rights movement, which Lorde supported, and the complexities of the alliances between people who struggle on the same side of an issue. She asks, “which me will survive / all these liberations” to raise the question of who really is her friend. Are the women at the lunch counter actually on her side? Or are they serving some of other interest, one which she fears will ultimately destroy her?

Lorde’s question prompted her to consider the power of difference in the struggle for social justice. Like Taubes, she ultimately rejected the friend enemy distinction, instead coming to see that it is our differences that make us who we are. In the face of those who divide the poor, the marginalized, or any of those who struggle for a better world into different groups with competing interests, Lorde challenged people to “take our differences and make them strengths.” She warned, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

The philosopher Hannah Arendt urged us to converse across difference. She said, “We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.” Taubes learned something of Schmitt’s humanity through their discourse. In some way, he overcame Schmitt’s most deeply held bigotry, his antisemitism, by his conversation with Taubes. He decided that Taubes, his supposed arch-enemy, understood him more fully than anyone else.

Key amongst the master’s tools that Lorde knew would not save us was the division of the world into friend and enemy. The simple act of seeking to converse across differences can help us to subvert this division. It is not easy. Sometimes, in the heat of conflict, it is impossible. And, yet, breaking down divisions between friends and enemies might be the only thing that can ultimately save us, the human species, from the destruction we are wrecking upon this planet and upon each other. The truth that climate crisis teaches is that we are all--whether friends or enemies--in this together.

And so, my challenge to us this morning is this: Let us seek out dialogue across difference. Not seeking, as is so often the case, to argue with our enemies but to understand them as we might try to understand our friends. For it is only, ultimately, by understanding what divides us that we might learn to come together as we must--a human family living at a crucial hour.

That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

CommentsCategories Climate Change Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston White Supremacy Climate Crisis Democracy Developmental Ministry Friendship Ralph Waldo Emerson Jacob Taubes Carl Schmitt Nazism Judaism Holocaust Switzerland University of Zurich World War II Political Theology Hebrew University Jerusalem Israel Armin Mohler National Socialism Greta Thunberg Neil Frank Climate Change Denial KHOU Jon Naylor Antisemitism Paris Agreement Harvard University Audre Lorde Hannah Arendt

Sep 9, 2019

Sermon: Disrupting White Supremacy

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, September 8, 2019

Some years ago, I found myself in the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix, Arizona. I was there with a group of Unitarian Universalists--clergy and lay folk--who had been arrested while protesting Arizona’s newest anti-human immigration law. Most of us were from out of town. We had come to Phoenix to participate in the protests against Arizona’s vile legal code at the invitation of the senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, who now serves as the President of our Association. She had been urged to ask Unitarian Universalists from across the country to travel to her state, and participate in protests, by a coalition of local immigrant and indigenous activists who had come together in opposition to Arizona’s latest anti-immigrant legislation.

Broadly speaking, the law authorized state law enforcement officers to demand to see the immigration or citizenship documents of anyone they stopped. The consequences of the law went like this: Imagine that you are an undocumented immigrant. You have a broken taillight on your car. The police pull you over for this minor traffic infraction. They force you to reveal your immigration status by demanding to see your papers. And you quickly find yourself on the path to deportation.

The law also criminalized people who provided shelter to, hired, or offered transport to undocumented immigrants. Imagine this: Your neighbor is an undocumented immigrant. They ask you for a ride to the grocery store. You drive a little too fast and get stopped for speeding. Your neighbor is forced to reveal their immigration status to the police. They find themselves headed for deportation. You find yourself headed to jail for transporting an undocumented immigrant.

The law was, in essence, the precursor to the draconian, anti-human, immigration policies of the current President. It also served as inspiration for similar anti-human legislation here in Texas. This summer the current President attempted to take the law nationwide. He has praised its chief Arizona enforcer, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, for offering “admirable service to our nation.”

The protest organizers asked those of us who had citizenship status, and were willing and able to take a risk, to commit civil disobedience and get arrested. On the day the law went into effect, we attempted to shutdown both Maricopa County Jail and downtown Phoenix. We did this by blocking the major city intersections and the entrances to the jail.

I was part of a group that committed to occupy one of the intersections. We were about a dozen strong. We linked arms. We walked into the middle of the street. And we sat down, and we sang songs until the police came and dragged us out of the intense summer heat and off to jail.

I was photographed, fingerprinted, charged, and briefly placed in a general holding cell with a mixture of protestors and folks who been jailed on other charges. There was one young man, maybe twenty, who was wearing his soccer uniform--baby blue shorts and a baby blue short-sleeve shirt with white stripes. He had been stopped that morning driving back from practice. He was undocumented. He had come to the United States as a young child. His minor traffic infraction was likely to be translated into deportation to a country he barely knew. He despaired. There were others who were in a similar situation. I did not get much of their stories. Those of us who were in the jail for protesting were soon removed from the general population. We were placed in a cell together.

It was then that I met Arpaio. He came to gloat. Accompanied by a solid half-dozen stout Sheriff’s deputies, he entered the cell we were being held in and asked us questions like, “How do you like my jail? Would like to stay for awhile?” To be honest, he reminded me of one the cartoon villains I used to watch on television when I was a kid. They had names like Snidely Whiplash, sported absurd moustaches and ridiculous cowboy hats (Arpaio was wearing a large black one), and had penchant for tying people to railroads and chortling at their victim’s fate. Of course, in the cartoons the villain was always foiled. Not so with Arpaio. He was given a presidential pardon after he was convicted of breaking the law in his efforts to deport immigrants.

Things got tense in the cell. A couple of the younger protestors tried to argue with him. His minions bristled. I was afraid there was going to be physical violence. A few of us managed to defuse the situation, largely by praying. Arpaio got bored and left. And we were stuck in our cell.

Jail is fine place for theology. Paul of Tarsus wrote at least two of his letters while in prison. Henry David Thoreau penned his famous essay on civil disobedience after spending the night in jail for failing to pay a war tax. Antonio Gramsci’s prison notebooks are some of the most important works of twentieth century political theory. Martin King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” And, of course, Piper Kerman wrote “Orange is the New Black” following her prison stay.

It might not surprise you that we choose to honor the tradition of jailhouse theology. We began by reflecting on our encounter with Arpaio and his henchmen. We thought about the nature of jail and what it exactly it was that we were protesting. Soon, I found myself talking with one of the local leaders of the protests, a Nahuatl-Xicano organizer by the name of Tupac Enrique Acosta.

Tupac and I found that we agreed that white supremacy was at the root of Arizona’s immigration law. We speculated that it provided the motivation for Arpaio’s behavior. White supremacy is a belief. The philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois once cheekily summarized it this way, “I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”

Race is not a natural category. It has little biological reality. Skin color has about as much to do with someone’s overall genetic makeup as their eye color or hair color. There is no such thing as the white race. Whiteness is an idea that been created over time to justify the power that some people exercise over other people. It is a belief that is used to justify the violence that people who believe themselves to be white enact upon people with brown and black bodies as they despoil land to create white wealth.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has described this process clearly. He writes that whiteness is “a modern invention.” Before people “were white” they “were something else... Catholic, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish... the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; [and] the destruction of families.”

In that jail cell, Tupac and I talked about the political moment we were in and the process by which whiteness was created. He explained the purpose of Arizona’s anti-human immigration legislation succinctly. Its “purpose,” he told me, “was to consolidate the perceptions of some white Americans around the idea of an America that is white in a continent that belongs to them.” If we were going ever defeat the legislation in Arizona and prevent families from being ripped apart and end the violence men like Arpaio inflicted upon society then we had to disrupt and deconstruct these beliefs. We had to disrupt and dismantle white supremacy. We had move past the idea that there was such a thing as the white race. We had to prove lie to the thought that America belonged to white people.

Now, you probably know that I carry around a fair amount of history, theology, and philosophy in my head. The same is true for Tupac. Together we traced out the history of whiteness. We talked about its origin points and the moments when the belief that there are such things as separate races came into existence. We talked about how it was that some people came to believe that they were white, and that whiteness was superior to blackness, brownness, redness, yellowness, or any other skin color. We talked about how colonizers came to believe that they were better than indigenous people. And we talked about all these ideas were lies. And that the truth was that there is only one human race. And that we are all indigenous to Mother Earth.

It was a very long conversation. We began it there, in jail, and continued it for many months afterwards, once we had been released. It was filled with lots of technical details, fancy terms from philosophy and theology, narratives of historical events, and discussions of the relationship between the human imagination and human reality. It would take me hundreds of pages, dozens of hours, to fully recount or accurately reconstruct. So, let me just share with you the four major points.

The human imagination is the most powerful force in human life and human culture. We imagine our reality into being. Race, religion, economics, politics, begin as stories that we imagine. We use these stories to organize our communities and our lives. We use them to create things that had not existed before. This is true on a mundane and a profound level. On the mundane level, let us pretend that you are hungry. You decide that you want a sandwich. You get some bread--I prefer crusty sourdough. You get a tomato--there are still a few in season if you know where to look. You get a bit of arugula--I guess this actually my sandwich. Anyway, I get some argula and a bit of eggplant I fried the other night. I put it all together and viola, I have a delicious sandwich. I imagined something and then I brought it into being.

The same is true of all of the great institutions and categories that exist in the world. That jail cell that were we in began as someone’s idea. Some architect imagined and designed it before construction workers built it. Before that some people imagined that there should be such a thing as jails. They imagined things like laws and then imagined a category of people they called criminals who did not live in accordance to those laws. And then they imagined police who would enforce laws and place criminals in jail.

One of the primary expressions of imagination is religion. Religion might be partially be understood as those stories we tell each other about: what it means to be born; the purpose of our time on Earth; and the reality that we must die. There are lots of religious stories in the world, lots of ways that communities attempt to narrate the meaning of this rich mess we call life. One of the most powerful of these is Trinitarian Christianity.

Trinitarian Christianity is organized around the story of sin and salvation. At the heart of the Trinitarian Christian imagination is the idea that we are born sinners and that unless we overcome our sin our destiny is an eternity of torment in Hell. The path to overcoming sin, in this story, is by achieving salvation through Jesus Christ. It is only by having knowledge of Jesus, and the salvation he offers, the story goes, that you can escape eternal suffering—sometimes imagined as the pricks of sharp pitchforks wielded by grotesque demons. It is the historical mission of Trinitarian Christianity to save human beings from such a fate in the afterlife.

More than a thousand years ago, in Europe, this imagined story of Trinitarian Christianity brought into being the idea of the racial other. This happened through a series of events we now call the Crusades. The Crusades were launched to conquer Jerusalem. Trinitarian Christianity had within it ample resources that suggested it was supposed to be a religion of peace. In the Christian New Testament, we find Jesus saying things like, “do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” It was a long-accepted practice that Trinitarian Christians were not to launch aggressive wars.

In order to overcome this theological tendency, theologians created a legal and theological framework to justify the attempted conquest of Jerusalem. They did this by first imagining that since all people did not know about salvation through Jesus were doomed for eternity in Hell they had a moral obligation to spread Christianity throughout the entire world. In their imagination, this moral obligation came with global legal jurisdiction. Only Trinitarian Christian governments, they reasoned, could have legal standing in their political order. All other lands, like Jerusalem which was then ruled by Muslims, effectively did not have governments and were essentially empty until and free the claiming until such time as they were ruled by Trinitarian Christians.

An immediate consequence of this idea was the categorization of Jews and Muslims as “other.” Trinitarian Christians no longer viewed adherents of other religions as humans in the same way that they viewed themselves. They were to be converted and saved. And if they failed to convert they were to be removed from society less they corrupted it, rendered it less Trinitarian Christian, less pure, and endangered it. The first victims of the Crusades were not Muslims in Jerusalem. They were Jews in Europe. The Crusades launched with a massive pogrom directed against Europe’s Jewish population. This attempt to cleanse the continent of Jews resulted in the deaths of about a third of the European Jewish population.

The idea that non-Trinitarian Christian lands were empty and that they were free were taking was codified into something called the Doctrine of Discovery. This is the idea that empty lands, lands without Trinitarian Christians, belong to the Trinitarian Christians who “discover” them.

You have heard, of course, that Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas. What that means is that when he arrived the lands that he found were empty of Trinitarian Christians. Without a government that he recognized, the land, by the logic of the narrative that we have been tracing, became Spanish land because Trinitarian Christians from Spain were the first to encounter it.

This process of “discovery” was accompanied by a process of declaring the people who the Trinitarian Christians encountered was a racial “other.” The indigenous peoples of the Americas were imagined to be something other than European and, therefore, something less than fully human. They were not Trinitarian Christians so they were not human in the same way that the Trinitarian Christians viewed Jews and Muslims as less than human. At the same time, Europeans were imagining that people from Africa were not entirely human. The lands that were being “discovered” in the Americas required human labor to exploit them. The indigenous populations were vulnerable to European diseases, refused to cooperate, ran away, committed suicide or took up arms, when the Europeans tried to force them to work the lands. Europeans decided it was easier to create the Transatlantic slave trade than attempt subjugate the local population. They justified all of this by arguing that by taking the lands from the indigenous and enslaving Africans they were able to convert them to Trinitarian Christianity, save their immortal souls, and free them from an eternity of torment. In return for losing their lands or their freedom the indigenous and Africans gained, the Trinitarians told themselves, eternal salvation.

At the core of the creation of race lie religious ideas like the Doctrine of Discovery. And less you think that this is all ancient history let me tell you something that I learned from Tupac. The Doctrine of Discovery forms the basis of United States property law. As recently as 2005 the United States Supreme Court used it to affirm that the United States government, which is a linear descendent of a European power, has the right to control the lands that make up the United States. It is why when you sell or buy a house you own it outright--at least once you are done paying off the bank. The land was empty, free to be discovered, when it was first purchased and, therefore, you can buy and sell all of it. In Europe, in contrast, much of the land is still owned by the feudal order. When you buy or sell a house you are often just buying a long-term lease. The land itself is still understood to belong to some European noble.

Imagination created religious ideas that then were used to justify the theft of the land and birthed the belief of race and racial other. Imagination leads to ways of being. When we talk about disrupting white supremacy, we are talking about imagining new ideas that will lead to new ways of being. Some of these ideas are actually very old ideas. As Tupac told me repeatedly during our conversation, we are all indigenous to Mother Earth. Disrupting white supremacy requires us to develop narratives that remind us we are all part of the same human family. And that we are all dependent upon the Earth, the land, for our continued existence.

Disrupting white supremacy is not about people who are believed to be white like me choosing to be in solidarity with black and brown people out of some noblesse oblige. It is about understanding that we are in a period of profound crisis and that the white supremacist narratives found in the Doctrine of Discovery--the myth that the land can belong to anyone, the myth that we are racially different--must be disrupted if we are to survive that crisis.

This year in worship, we are going to be acknowledging that we, as human species, face three interrelated crises that threaten our continued human existence. These are: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy. At the root of all of these crisis lie our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth. At the center of worship this year we are going to place the questions: How can we develop the spiritual and religious resources to face these crises? How can we imagine new ways of being and overcome our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth?

This is deep work. It is scary work. It challenges us to question who we are, how we do things, why we do them, and what we think is possible. But the hour is urgent. As I will be talking with you about next week, the climate emergency is dire. We need to imagine and then create new ways of being or we may well cease to be.

One of the spiritual resources that we will be using in our efforts to create new ways of being is song. As I move towards the close, I want to invite the choir to the refrain from our earlier hymn. We will be using it as a sort of anthem this year, Mark.

We will be taking this hymn as something of an anthem over the year. I invite you to think about a few of its words:

It is time now, it is time now that we thrive
It is time we lead ourselves into the well
It is time now, and what a time to be alive
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love

It is time now. We are at a decisive moment in human history. What we do now will resonate through the centuries. And we have the human power, the power of imagination, to make choices to thrive and to lead in love. It is our human power that has created the world that we live in and it is our human power that can change it.

This is why I choose our readings for today. They both are suggestive of other ways of being, ways of being that we must move beyond. The wisdom text of Ecclesiastes, a beautiful text that I love, suggests that the world is permanently as it is. Humans do not change it. Only the divine can change it. While there are many magnificent teachings in the Hebrew Bible, this is one that we need to now reconsider. The world is fluid, not static. The things we do and the stories we tell, matter. We have to accept our responsibility and recognize that our actions impact those who will follow us.

Revelation is a text that suggests that only the divine can bring about justice. It tells the story of a cosmic war between good and evil which ultimately ends with the divine creating the most wonderful of all societies. It is divine action that brings justice or injustice, and not human choices. This, again, is a narrative we must reject.

Instead, as we pursue our new ways of being, we need to recognize that “It is time now.” And what time to be alive. You may know that I am not a particularly hopeful person, but I want us to close on a note of hope. For there may just be a chance, against the odds, that we can disrupt white supremacy, survive the crises that we face, and learn to lead in love. The impossible has happened before. And so, as a reminder of that, I will invite us to sing, shortly, “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that helped inspire the end of the slave trade. A hymn written by a former slave trader who realized that there was only one race, the human race, as he transported Africans along the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, from freedom to slavery, and came to understand that he, like you and me, could find a new way of being.

Let us pray, that now, such realizations may come for all of us. Let us pray, that we will find Amazing Grace, and create new ways of being. And let us pray that we can do that work together.

I invite the congregation to say Amen.

CommentsCategories Human Rights Ministry Sermon Tags Maricopa County Phoenix, Arizona SB1070 First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Susan Frederick-Gray Joe Arpaio White Supremacy Unitarian Universalism Immigration Donald Trump Snidely Whiplash Paul of Tarsus Paul Antonio Gramsci Henry David Thoreau Martin Luther King, Jr. Piper Kerman Tupac Enrique Acosta W. E. B. Du Bois Ta-Nehisi Coates Imagination Jesus Christ Crusades Indigenous Jerusalem Christianity Trinitarianism Antisemitism Islam Doctrine of Discovery Christopher Columbus Ecclesiastes Revelation Amazing Grace Middle Passage

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