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Nov 18, 2019

Sermon: The Courage of Being

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 17, 2019

The Trappist monk, mystic, peace activist, and scholar Thomas Merton wrote about how he decided to pursue saintliness. One spring night he and a friend were walking along Sixth Avenue in New York City. The subway was being dug. The street was torn up--there were banks of dirt “marked out with red lanterns” lining sidewalks and piled up high in front of the shops. This was the 1940s. It was before Merton became a monk, when he was still a young man. Merton and his friend, someone who went on to become a noted poet, were arguing, passionately, about something.

Suddenly, Merton’s friend turned to him and asked, “What do you want to be, anyway?”

Merton recalls his answer, “I could not say, ‘I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,’ or ‘Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English...,’ so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged.”

Then Merton tried to formulate his response. He said, “I don’t know; I guess what I want to be is a good Catholic.”

Merton’s friend was not satisfied, “What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”

Merton admitted that he was confused. And so, his friend continued to press him. “What you should say,” Merton’s friend informed him, “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”

“A saint!... ‘How do you expect me to become a saint?’,” was Merton’s reply.

“By wanting to,” his friend said simply.

Merton was filled with self-doubt. “I can’t be a saint. I can’t be a saint,” he answered back. He recounts that in that moment, “my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities; the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that the they must reach... cowardice.”

Merton’s friend would have none of it. He told him, “No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”

Merton described this story in his spiritual classic the Seven Storey Mountain. It was the first major work that he published. For many people, especially of the Vietnam War generation, he went on to become exactly the person who his friend was prompting him to be, a saint.

Merton’s Catholic theistic theology may not resonate with most you but his narrative touches upon the theme of our sermon this morning. This is my second sermon for you on courage. We might define courage as the midpoint between fear and confidence. We exhibit courage when we acknowledge our fears, admit that there are ills which might befall us, and act anyway.

Last week I spoke with you about collective courage. Collective courage is the way that we can collectively face our fears and struggle to find new ways of being. It is the expressed in the seventeenth-century universalist phrase, “turn the world upside down.” It is the act of working together to confront social crises--great and small--and then attempting to reorder society.

This week I want to speak with you about individual courage. What I mean here is finding the courage to become the person you feel called to be. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote about finding “the courage to be.” We humans are born with the knowledge that we will die. We witness the mortality of others and realize that death will soon come for us. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but each breath draws us closer to our moment of expiration. This can make us anxious. No matter what we do--no matter how carefully we eat, how much we exercise, or how many doctors we see--the threat of death cannot be overcome. “The basic anxiety, the anxiety of a finite being about the threat of nonbeing, cannot be eliminated. It belongs to existence itself,” wrote Tillich.

In the face of our individual impending extinction it takes courage to continue along with life. And it takes even greater courage to be and to attempt to become, to recognize ourselves as poised on the existential void and still strive to live a life of authenticity. For Merton, it took an extraordinary amount of courage to pursue the vision of sainthood that he found with his friend that New York City night. It meant rejecting all of anxiety that told him he could not or would not or was unable to or that his life was too insignificant. Instead, it meant somehow moving past all of that and coming to recognize, in his words, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.”

The courage of becoming has long been prized by our religious tradition. In the nineteenth-century, the Unitarian theologian James Walker preached, “We are not born with character, good or bad, but only with a capacity to form one.” Our characters might be described as the total sum of our virtues and vices. Virtues are things about us which are praiseworthy. They are the accretions of our actions. Our actions become our habits and then eventually our habits turn to virtues--or vices--and these become our characters. And we Unitarian Universalists have long taught that we are not born with our character fixed in place--born wicked as many a conservative religious tradition teaches. But rather we are born with the capacity to become, the capacity to develop our virtues and vices.

Thomas Aquinas, the twelfth century theologian, identified four principle virtues. These are wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage. Over the next several months as we explore how to develop the spiritual and resources that will allow us to address the grave crises of the hour and of our lives we will be examining some of these virtues. We have started with courage because developing the courage to be is essential if we are to pursue the other virtues. Without courage it is difficult to gather the wherewithal to figure out how to be ourselves. William Ellery Channing, another nineteenth-century Unitarian theologian, wrote that the courage to become ourselves might even “be called the perfection of humanity, for it is the exercise, result, and expression of the highest attributes of our nature.” When we find it we open ourselves to the rich possibilities of life and confront the truth that we have a responsibility for forming our own characters.

Bob Schaibly used to frequently remind this congregation of this truth. During the two decades he served here he often told you some variety of, “life... [does] not have a meaning; we give life its meaning, or rather we give our lives their meanings.” Bob’s death this week prompted me to go read a number of his sermons. Reading them I found that he also often told you some variant of, “You already have within you what it is you need, and what it is that we who know you need, and what all the living things in the world need.” The recognition that life does not have an intrinsic meaning, the realization that we are born with what we need to pass our time on our muddy planet, it takes courage to face these truths starkly. It takes courage to admit to them and then open ourselves to becoming ourselves.

I spent a portion of this summer thinking about courage. As some of you know, Asa and I were in Europe for about five weeks with my parents. You might remember that everyone else in our family is in the arts. My father is an art historian and photographer. My mother was a ceramicist in her younger years and then, after she retired from teaching, served on a musem board. She, incidentally, makes all of my stolls. My brother is a figurative painter. His girlfriend is fashion designer. And Emma is pursuing a career in fashion photography.

Traveling with my parents meant immersing ourselves in the arts. We spent about a week in Arles, France at the giant international photography festival there. Rencontres d’Arles is even larger than Houston’s FotoFest. It brings close to a hundred thousand people to the ancient Roman city where Van Gough painted. It is a premier event in the arts world, a bit akin to the Cannes Film Festival.

My parents go most years. This year was very special. One of their closest friends, the Czech photographer Libuse Jarcovjakova was one of the featured artists. She was given the former Saint Anne’s church as an exhibition space. The building has been stripped of religious iconography. The stones have been washed white and a blonde wooden floor put in. The side chapels and the nave have been converted into a gallery that allowed Libuse to exhibit more than two hundred of her images.

Libuse is about the same age as my parents. This was her first major show. It would something of an understatement to say that it was a smash success. During the week that we spent together in Arles there were major articles about her work in the New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and the Guardian. Walking around Arles with her was what I roughly imagine moving through Cannes with a well-known movie director. People stopped us in the street or came up to us and introduced themselves to Libuse while we ate in French cafes.

It would be fair to say that Libuse was in a bit of state of shock. In the space of a week she went from a complete unknown to an international art celebrity. And there are two things about Libuse and courage that I want to share with you. The first is about her art itself. And the second is about her life as an artist.

Libuse’s photography comes from straight from her life. It is her record of courageously becoming. Which is no small thing. She, as I mentioned earlier, is Czech. She came of age in Communist Czechoslovakia. She is also queer. To put it mildly, being a queer artist was not a form of authenticity that was largely tolerated by the Marxist-Leninist authorities. And yet, over the course of more than twenty years she took thousands of black and white photographs documenting her life, lives of those she loved and the lives of those she just happened to encounter. She used photography to attempt to make sense of her life. She told me, “Sometimes I was involved in very complicated situations. I used photography to get some distance for myself and to make some sense of the situation.”

The images that garnered the most attention were from the T-Club, which was one of only two gay clubs in Prague during the Communist-era. Never entirely legal, Libuse describes it as a place for: “Convulsive laughter and genuine tears. Insightful conversation and superficial coquetry. One-night stands and love for life. Beautiful young men and beautiful young women. Effeminate “B´s” and respectable-looking gentlemen, who rebounded from their families. Female footballers, waiters, taxi drivers and most probably the secret police too.” In this “place of eternal carnival,” as Libuse called it, people were able to find the courage to be themselves.

And Libuse took photographs of them as they lived that courage. This Transgender Awareness Week, one image in particular stands out. It is of a young postman from North Bohemia who traveled to Prague to visit the T-Club. He wanted to be a woman and gender transition was not possible for him in that repressive society. And yet, there is Libuse’s photograph. In it, the young postman appears as the woman he longs to be. She’s wearing a blonde wig, flirting with the camera, beaming in a long fur coat, courageously, fully, being herself.

Libuse empathy for her subject pops right out of the frame. I can only imagine the courage that was necessary to both take the photograph and be its subject. It is quite possible that either act could have cost the photographer or her subject their livelihoods. For Libuse, even the attempt to be an artist took courage. You see, she came from an artistic family. Both her parents were artists. But they were not the kind of artists approved by the Communist Party. They painted modern abstract canvases. The Party wanted socialist realism, which depicted working people living an idealized life under the Marxist-Leninist regime.

When Libuse graduated from high school the Party had its revenge upon her parents. They her made undergo what was called forced proletarization. In other words, they denied her a college education and tried to make her become a factory worker. She wanted to be an artist like her parents. She did not give up the courage to become. Instead, she told the factory officials that while she worked in the factory, she wanted to document the glorious life of working people had under the Party’s leadership. So, she took her camera and made photographs of people at work. But she did not do it in service of the regime. Instead of showing workers nobly toiling away, she took photographs of them engaging in their everyday acts of resistance--goofing, napping, ignoring supervisors, or doing whatever else they did when they showed up to the factory and did not work. I particularly like the images she made of the creative ways people found to sleep at work--under desks, in giant steel tubes, behind piles of wooden crates...

It took a lot of courage for Libuse to make such defiant photographs. Finding this courage was necessary for her to be herself--to become an artist when her society told her explicitly that she could not be one. It also helped her to develop a sense that courage and beauty are found in everyday life. In conversation with me, she explained a bit of her philosophy, “Doing photos of such normal ordinary things seems like it might be boring but photography changes things. Life is changing so fast that this ordinary thing will be very important. You don’t need to have some extraordinary adventure. You just need to be present to every day, normal, ordinary life. That is very special.”

It takes courage to recognize the specialness of ordinary life. We probably will not become famous religious teachers like Thomas Merton. And we probably will not become internationally known artists like Libuse. But we can find the courage to be ourselves. After all, this is what both Libuse and Merton recommend to us. It is also what the virtue of courage offers us. When we cultivate it we find within ourselves the ability to shape our character. We are born not good or bad but with the ability to choose and in order to do so we must be courageous.

I had initially thought to end our sermon there, but the events of the week require further observations about the courage of being. I speak, of course, of the week’s impeachment hearings. They have demonstrated extraordinary instances of the courage to be by civil servants. The women and men who have testified in front of the nation have offered case studies in how we can shape our own characters. They each have decided upon a profession and then performed its actions, cultivated its habits, and, ultimately, found them embodying its virtues.

It is clear that one of the virtues of their profession is courage. In the face of intimidation by the most powerful man on Earth, the President of the United States, Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to the Ukraine, testified on national television. In a telephone call, the President of the United States had said to the President of the Ukraine that he was displeased with Yovanovitch and that she would “go through some things,” words that for me recall mafia movies. Yet there she was, in front of the world, offering information that may well lead to the impeachment of the President.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observed, to “be courageous is to be someone on whom reliance can be placed.” And in her testimony, Yovanovitch demonstrated that whomever the President might be she can be relied upon to perform her professional duties. It was a demonstration of how she had cultivated the virtue of courage. It was a demonstration of the courage of being--of embracing the role, the profession, she had chosen for herself.

Her testimony reminded me of words by the civil rights organizer, Ella Baker. Baker said, “I am here and so are you. And we matter. We can change things.” Baker’s words are an invocation of the courage of being. They remind us that we are here and that what we do matters. It takes courage to accept this, courage to admit, as Bob Schaibly taught, that we make the meaning we find in life. Yovanovitch was reminding the world that civil servants play a significant role in government. However much the President of the United States might slight her and her State Department colleagues, they remain actively involved in shaping the destiny of the federal government. And their professional virtues, of which courage is but one, are a significant reason as to why.

Not all of us are civil servants, just as not all of us are artists or great religious teachers. And yet, there is something about the courage to be that it is found in the lives of each person I have talked with you about this morning that recommends itself to each of us. It takes courage to recognize that we have within us the potential to be something and then courage to search for that something. It is the ordinary courage of life, not something extraordinary, and it is something we can find within us.

That is what Libuse tries to communicate with her photography. Her work is not of important religious leaders like Thomas Merton or successful government officials like Marie Yovanovitch. It is of regular working people like the woman from Bohemia dressed in her furs outside the T-Club, finding a space to courageously be the woman she knew she was despite having to live as a postman. It is of regular working people discovering the courage to be their human selves amid a brutal Marxist-Leninist regime--to goof off at work, to sleep on the job.

Can you find the courage to be and become? Such courage might mean admitting that you are uncertain of who you are supposed to be and living with that ambiguity. That is certainly something of what Bob Schaibly suggested in his sermons. Before we find the courage to be we must first discover the courage to recognize that it is we who make the meaning of our lives. In some times and places this is much easier to recognize that in others. Living in New York, the child of relative wealth and privilege, it was no doubt easier for Thomas Merton to accept that he could become who he wanted to be than it was for Libuse in 1970s Prague. Finding the courage to be a queer dissident artist under the Soviets and refusing to let the officials of a totalitarian regime be the people who made meaning from her life was extraordinarily difficult. It meant creating in secrecy, without recognition, for decades. And yet, she found the courage to be.

Can you find the courage to be and become? Have you found it? Can you accept that we make meaning in our lives? It is a significant responsibility. And it means accepting that our ordinary lives--yours and mine--can contain the meaning we give them. We might be hemmed in on many sides. We might not come from lives of privilege or have the advantages of a fine education or struggle with poverty. But we can find the courage to be and discover within ourselves the resources to make meaning in our lives. And to accept that such meaning will change over time. It is like Bob Schaibly said, “at different times the meaning of your life may have been to do God’s will, or to do justice, or to love mercy, or to enjoy the fruits of creation, to complete your education, to raise your children, to get these kids through college, and so forth.” Your meaning is your own if you can cultivate the courage to make it.

This belies the universe having cosmic meaning. And it takes courage to face that, as the poet Cristina Peri Rossi wrote:

“Se necesita mucho valor
para tanta muerte inútil.”

“One needs a lot of courage
for so much useless death.”

Death, like life, is only given the meaning we provide it. It takes courage to face that and to give our lives, and ultimately, our deaths meaning. And so, let me give the last words to Bob Schaibly who gave his life, and his death, meaning in part by serving this congregation, Unitarian Universalism, and our human world:

You already have within you what it is you need, and what it is that we who know you need, and what all the living things in the world need.

May we each, as members of this religious community and as members of the great family of all souls, cultivate within us the courage to find what we need within Bob Schaibly’s words.

Let the congregation say Amen.

CommentsCategories Contemporary Politics Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Thomas Merton Sainthood Virtue Virtue Ethics Courage Seven Storey Mountain Paul Tillich Existentialism Anxiety Death New York City James Walker Unitarian Thomas Aquinas William Ellery Channing Robert Schaibly Howard Bossen Kathy Bossen Liat Shore Jorin Bossen Emma Ray-Wong Rencontres d’Arles Arles FotoFest Houston Libuse Jarcovjakova Cannes Film Festival LGBTQ Marxist-Leninism Art Czechoslovakia Prague T-Club Photography Marie Yovanovitch Donald Trump Volodymyr Zelensky Ukraine Alasdair MacIntyre Ella Baker State Department Transgender Awareness Week Cristina Peri Rossi Unitarian Universalism

Nov 15, 2019

Sermon: Take Courage

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 3, 2019

For about ten years I edited “Workers Power,” a monthly column that appeared in the labor newspaper the “Industrial Worker.” It was a forum for working people to share their experiences organizing a labor union. The people who wrote for it worked all kinds of jobs. Over the years I ran pieces by baristas and bartenders, bicycle messengers and truck drivers, grocery clerks, nurses, teachers, and a host of others. One of the wonderful things about the column was that it put me in touch with a huge range of people.

The prominent historian and labor lawyer Staughton Lynd even asked me, at one point, if he could submit something for the column. He wrote a beautiful piece remembering his friend Vicky Starr, one of the women who had organized Packinghouse Workers union in the Chicago stockyards in the 1940s.

Staughton’s profile of Vicky was a portrait of someone who had lived a courageous life. The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined courage as the midpoint between fear and confidence. He wrote, “whoever stands firm against the right things and fears the right things, for the right end, in the right way, at the right time, and is correspondingly confident” is the courageous person. When we are courageous we name our fears and then we act to address them. We act not with the certainty that we can overcome what we fear. Instead, we act holding onto the possibility that we can overcome. We find such a sentiment referenced in Abdellatif Laâbi’s poem “Life:”

I have seen what I have said
I have hidden nothing of the horror
I have done what I could
I have taken everything from love
given everything to love

Vicky had courage. She knew that the only way that her life and the lives of her co-workers was going to get better was if they acted together. And she knew that doing so carried significant risks. But that did not stop her from acting. When someone Vicky worked with lost a finger making hotdogs, she convinced everyone on the production line to put down their tools and walkout. The company quickly put in safety equipment. Unfortunately, Vicky was identified as a leader and lost her job.

A little while later Vicky was back at the plant. She used the name of a friend to get rehired. Over the next few years, she led short strikes when people died or were injured on the job. Vicky found the women easier to organize than the men. In order to recruit men for the union she discovered she had to go to where they hung out after work. Though it made her uncomfortable, she started visiting the bars they frequented. She learned to shoot pool and bowl.

Eventually, the union was established. Recalling the experience Vicky told Staughton, "You had this sense that people were ready to get together, to protect each other.”

The courage that people like Vicky exhibited was a common thread that united many of the columns. Workers sometimes wrote about getting fired and the difficulty they had in making ends meet as a result. Other times they wrote about standing up to a bully of a boss. Often the writers would reflect on how the courage they discovered while organizing on the job helped them to move from “low self-esteem” to exuding “confidence.” They would be courageous, confront their employer, win a modest victory and gain a bit of confidence in their ability to improve their lives. Some of these victories would be extremely modest--winning an extra bathroom break or new oven mitts for the kitchen staff--but each little victory would help them gain courage for their next action.

In their courageous acts, workers often exhibited a lot of creativity. In one the author described how he and his co-workers had forced their employer to pay them back wages that they were owed. They worked at a bar and hadn’t been paid in some weeks. They put up a picket outside and began handing out flyers with the headline “Free Drinks.” The text explained that since the workers were not getting paid the drinks at the bar should be free. Some customers went inside, presented the flyers to the bar owner, and demanded their free drinks. He was not amused. The workers soon got the money they were owed.

Courage often sparks creativity. It frequently comes when, in Martin King’s words, we find ourselves needing “to make a way out of no way.” It appears when, as Vicky said, “people... [are] ready to get together, to protect each other.” In such moments the ordinary rules cease to apply. People begin to imagine new ways of being and new forms of action.

Seventeenth-century English universalists used to call this the experience of “the world turned upside down.” It comes when, in times of crisis, people realize that the regular hierarchies of life--hierarchies such as class, race, and gender--are no longer serving them. And that in order to confront the crises they face they have to try to figure out a new way to live.

Have you ever had such an experience? Where you had to stop what you were doing and reimagine the way you and those around you related to each other? Where you began to find, if only briefly, a new way of being? Where you witnessed the world turned upside down?

Over the last few weeks, some of you will remember, I have been trying to draw your attention to the situation in Rojava. Rojava is the region of Northern Syria where the Kurds and their allies have been working with the United States military to destroy ISIS. The people of Rojava are the ones who were betrayed by the President’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria.

Rojava is important because the people there have been attempting to turn the world upside down. That region of the world is traditionally a very patriarchal culture. The people of Rojava have come to realize that movements like ISIS are based in patriarchy; and that the only way such movements can ultimately be defeated is by liberating women. They have inverted the social hierarchy and placed women at the top. They believe women’s “freedom and equality determines the freedom and equality of all sections of society.” And so, they have created a remarkable system of governance, which they call democratic confederalism, which says that every unit of society has to have both male and female representatives. They have an army led by men and an army led by women. Their town’s have two mayors--one male and one female. And, in order to fully turn the world upside down, the women have veto authority while the men do not. Now, obviously, this does not include all genders. But it is a radical reshaping of society--an incredible instance of collective courage--for a society where the alternative is a brutal system of patriarchal rule where women are treated as objects--even bought and sold as slaves--rather than human beings.

My own experiences of turning the world upside down mostly come from my work in the labor movement. When an employer refuses to address a health and safety concern and workers organize to deal with it anyway they are turning the world upside down. They are inverting the system where their employer gets to make decisions about their working conditions. Instead of management determining, for instance, if they are going to work with insufficient equipment they decide they won’t work until such equipment is provided. Sometimes, they might even provide it themselves--I know of more than one worksite where workers came together, bought equipment they needed, and then presented their boss with a bill.

Turning the world upside is a form of what we might call collective courage. This month we are talking about courage. This week we are talking about collective courage. Next week I will talk with you about individual courage. I start with the collective for two reasons. First, we are in a period of great social crises. This year in worship we are focusing on developing the spiritual and religious resources necessary to confront the grave crises of the hour: the climate crisis; the resurgence of white supremacy; and the global assault on democracy. We can only confront them by joining together. We can only address them by developing collective courage.

Second, if we are part of a community that practices collective courage then we are much more likely we practice it as individuals. The workers whose stories I edited for my column were not acting by themselves. They were part of a labor union. Their membership in such an organization gave them the confidence, gifted them the courage, to act and try to turn the world upside down. It would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, for them to do so, if they had been on their own.

The congregations that make up the Unitarian Universalist Association have been practicing collective courage and turning the world upside for hundreds of years. Our insistence that congregations should be run by their members was, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a profound act of turning the world upside down. The idea that all people had within the “likeness to God,” as William Ellery Channing taught, was a revolutionary one in a society that taught that people were born with original sin. The idea that congregation’s should select their own ministers was radical. It inverted the traditional hierarchy that placed the clergy in control of the church. Equally radical was the idea that ministers did not have a special relationship with the divine. We were understood to be people with special skills and a particular education that could guide the congregation in living its covenant and realizing its vision. Despite these skills, our congregants knew that they had the same relationship with the divine that we did.

At a time when kings still had divine rights, such a conception of a religious community was an act of collective courage. It was tied to our understanding of human nature. In the mid-nineteenth-century, the Unitarian theologian James Walker preached, “We are not born with a character, good or bad, but only with a capacity to form one.” People formed the congregations that became Unitarian Universalist as places to help each other cultivate good character. They believed that it was very difficult to develop good character on one’s own. It required participation in a larger collective.

Character, in the sense that our Unitarian forbearers used it, was not an idea unique to them. They were deeply influenced by ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle. Our character, Aristotle understood, was the sum total of our virtues and vices. Virtues are those habits of ours--those things we do over and over again until they become part of our very being--which are praiseworthy. Vices are, well vices, are the opposite.

We are a society more beset by vice than virtue. Voices of reason are telling us that if we are to survive as a human species we need to find collective courage and turn the world upside. This week the academic journal BioScience published an article signed by more than 11,000 scientists that declared “clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.” They warn that urgent action is needed if we wish to avoid “significant disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies, [and] potentially makes large areas of Earth uninhabitable.”

At almost the same time, the President notified the United Nations that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Paris Agreement is the major international agreement suggesting how the human species might confront the grave emergency we face. And the President has decided that the United States should not be part of it. The impact of the decision of world’s largest economy to not--on a federal level--act and confront humanity’s existential crisis is likely to be significant.

In this era of existential crisis, we need communities that will help us nurture the necessary virtues to respond to what Martin King called “the fierce urgency of now.” The climate scientists are telling us that, in King’s words, “This is no time... to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism... It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.” Chief among the virtues, the resources, that we need today, in this time of fierce urgency, is courage.

There are two practices of collective courage that we might nurture in this community and find helpful in our efforts to face the fierce urgency of the moment. Each of them was present in Vicky Star’s life. We can manifest each of them in our own. They are: fellowship and accompaniment.

The courage of fellowship is the courage of association. It means, building a community of people who might not otherwise come together. It is a core virtue of any congregation committed to the task of collective liberation. We find it described in the Christian New Testament as one of Jesus’s central activities.

For Jesus, it meant radical table fellowship. It was one of the most profound ways he challenged the powers and principalities of his day. He brought people together across social classes and across ethnic divisions.

The story is recounted in multiple gospels. Jesus had among his followers many tax-collectors and sinners. And they ate together. This might seem like a fairly innocuous activity. It was not. It was a great act of collective courage. In ancient Palestine, in the Jewish community, tax-collectors and sinners--by whom I suspect the text meant prostitutes--would have been some of the most despised people around.

In those days much of Jewish life was organized around ritual purity. Only the ritually pure could worship at the Temple. Only the ritually pure could find favor with the divine. Tax-collectors and prostitutes were not ritually pure. It was an act of social disruption to bring them together. It was an act of ritual impurity to eat together. It was a way in which Jesus turned the world upside down.

The Christian New Testament claims, Jesus, this great religious teacher, choose to eat amongst them and not amongst those who were already virtuous. I have suggested in the past that the key to understanding the Christian New Testament is found in Luke 17:20-21: “‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God will come. You cannot say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is!’ For the kingdom of God is among you!’”

The practice of fellowship is one way we bring the kingdom of God among us. In order to organize her meatpacking plant Vicky Star had to bring together, to engage in fellowship with, people who often hated each other. She brought people into the union who never would have talked to each other otherwise--black and white workers, Jewish and Catholic workers, Irish, Polish, Mexican, and Italian workers. It was by doing so that she and her co-workers were able to find the collective courage to address the challenges that they faced.

How might we apply the collective courage of fellowship to our lives and our religious community? After the service you will be having an opportunity to discuss my assessment report of First Church. We will be holding the first in a series of cottage meetings on the future of the congregation. Two of the things I have suggested you might wrestle with in the coming years as a religious community touch directly on the collective courage of fellowship. These are the questions, implied in my report: What is the vision of First Church? And who is First Church for?

That we will be having this conversation as a congregation is a legacy of our religious ancestors decision to, in their churches, turn the world upside down. For, it is ultimately you, the laity, who will develop your vision, your expression of collective courage, for this congregation.

This leads me to the collective courage of accompaniment. Staughton Lynd, and his wife Alice, have developed a theory of it. The Lynds names might be familiar to some of you. They are well known peace activists. Now in their nineties, they spent many years in late sixties and early seventies counseling draft dodgers. This experience led them to develop what they called the theory of “two experts.” They describe it this way: “The draft counselor was presumably an expert on Selective Service law and regulations, and on the practice of local draft boards. But the counselee was an expert on his own life experience, on the predictable responses of parents and significant others, and on how much risk the counselee was prepared to confront.”

The collective courage of accompaniment is one well suited for congregations like ours. Many of you are experts in particular fields--doctors, lawyers, social workers, human resource professionals, the list goes on. The theory of two experts is a way for those of us who have significant expertise in one subject to meet those we work with as equals. And in meeting as equals we practice the collective courage of turning the world upside down.

Staughton was able to write about Vicky because he and Alice had gotten to know her when they applied their theory of two experts to the field of labor history. Rather than presuming that they, Ivy League educated professionals, knew what the lives of working people were like they asked them. They gathered priceless oral histories of people coming together to collectively improve their lives and developed theories of organizing that have recently inspired Uber and Lyft drivers in their own efforts to create labor unions.

Members of First Church have practiced, without I suspect knowing it, aspects of the theory of two experts and accompaniment in your work with Neighbor-to-Neighbor. I have heard you tell me that when you work with partner organizations you follow their lead--offering the expertise and volunteer time that you have while letting them craft the agenda. This is an act of collective courage. For those of us who are used to being charge and making decisions, it means recognizing that people have an expertise that comes from their own experience.

I used my own understanding of the theory of two experts in my efforts to craft the assessment report that we will be discussing over the coming weeks. I met with more than forty of you to listen to your stories about First Church. And then, using my understanding of congregations and religious life, I attempted to use my expertise as a minister and a scholar to offer a portrait of yourselves. As the month proceeds and I listen to your responses to the report I will find out the accuracy of my portrait. And you will, as experts in your experience of First Church, get to decide how you want to cultivate character, craft collective courage, as a religious community in the coming years.

Fellowship and accompaniment can lead to the collective courage of action. That was certainly the case in Vicky Star’s life. By bringing people together and traveling with them on a journey she was able to help them act to improve their lives and to, perhaps only briefly, turn the world upside down.

In these days of existential crises, when the world can seem drear and dismal, collective courage comes to us well recommended. By practicing fellowship and accompaniment we might yet figure out how to make a way out of no way, and ultimately address the grave challenges of the hour. For, it is like the Unitarian Universalist minister Wayne Arnason has said:

Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
Take courage.
For deep down, there is another truth:
you are not alone.

In that spirit, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

CommentsCategories Anarchism Climate Change Contemporary Politics Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Workers Power Industrial Worker Industrial Workers of the World Staughton Lynd Vicky Starr Aristotle Courage Virtue Virtue Ethics Abdellatif Laâbi Labor Organizing Martin Luther King, Jr. Universalism Rojava Kurdistan ISIS Syria Democratic Confederalism Collective Courage White Supremacy Democracy William Ellery Channing James Walker Character Donald Trump Paris Agreement Jesus Christ Luke 17:20-21 Kingdom of God Alice Lynd Accompaniment Neighbor-to-Neighbor Wayne Arnason

Oct 4, 2019

The Religion of Democracy: Acts of Faith in Times of Crisis

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, September 29, 2019

Democracy is in crisis. This week brought what will almost certainly be the start of an impeachment inquiry against the sitting President of the United States. The week’s events were prompted by a whistleblower’s complaint that alleged: “that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”

I will leave it to Congress to adjudicate whether or not the whistleblower’s complaint justifies the impeachment of the President. And I will leave it to the pundits to speculate on whether or not Congress should impeach the President. Instead, I want us to investigate the nature of this crisis in democracy. It is not a crisis that suddenly developed last week. It has crisis that has been going on for a long time. If you doubt this, let me offer you a single observation: if the House of Representatives ultimately proceeds to draft impeachment articles it will be the third time in forty-five years that they have been drafted against a sitting President. We might well ask what is going on.

One place to start our inquiry is with the opening statements of Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes at the testimony of acting Director of National Intelligence Joe Macguire. They are a study in contrasts. Schiff, you might know, is the Committee chairman and a Democrat. Nunes, you may remember, is the ranking Republican on the Committee.

Schiff began by outlining the nature of the presidential oath of office. He stated that the President was to faithfully execute their office and defend the Constitution. And he claimed that the President cannot defend the Constitution if they do not defend the country. He said, “where there is no country there is no office to execute.” The Constitution is not merely a piece of paper, he observed. Instead, it is, he stated, “the institutions of our democracy... the system of checks and balances... and the rule of law.”

Nunes started his opening statement in a completely different place. He made no reference to the Constitution or the President’s oath of office. Instead, he said, “I want to congratulate the Democrats on the rollout of their latest information warfare operation against the President, and their extraordinary ability to once again enlist the mainstream media in their campaign.” He continued by claiming that the Democrats stood guilty of every crime or misdeed of which the current President has been accused. In 2016 it was not the President but “the Democrats themselves [who] were colluding with the Russians.” Today, he alleged, “there are numerous examples of Democrats” who are doing what they accuse the President of doing, “pressuring Ukrainians to take actions that would help... or hurt... [their] political opponents.”

The two men appear to inhabit different realities. In one, the President is a fundamental threat to democracy. In the other, the Democratic Party is subverting and destroying democracy. My own perspective is somewhat different. The crisis is with democracy itself. The President is one manifestation of the crisis. And the Democratic Party is another.

Democracy is not a set of institutions. It is not the Supreme Court, the Executive Branch, or the United States Congress. It is not the Constitution. It is not the United States of America, the state of Texas, Harris County, or the city of Houston. It is not going to a polling place and voting for a political representative.

Democracy is a fluid set of practices. In essence, it is found whenever a group of people embark together upon the project of self-rule. It is found whenever, in the words of philosopher Richard Rorty, people engage in the struggle “against bosses, against oligarchies.” Oligarchies are societies in which power rests with a small group of people. The meaning of bosses is probably rather obvious. Rorty uses it to prompt the questions: Can a society actually be democratic if people do not have democracy at work? Can a society be democratic if there is vast economic inequality? Can a society be democratic if it is essentially ruled by a group of self-perpetuating elites? Consider how money is used to buy political influence. The late comedian Robin Williams had a novel suggestion about how campaign donations should be accounted for amongst professional politicians. He said, “The voters should know who you represent, and if you represent special-interest groups, we should be like NASCAR. ...be in the Senate with our suits on, and if you’re backed by something, it’d be like little patches like they wear in NASCAR.”

To stand “Against bosses, against oligarchies,” to invoke Rorty, and to name democracy as a set of practices, is to recognize something vital about it. It is come to understand that democracy is not a merely political system. It is something you have to practice. It is something you have to do. And here is where we run into the core of the crisis in democracy we are facing. We do not practice it. Almost nowhere in American society do we engage in the project of self-rule. It is rarely found in our schools. It is largely absent from our workplaces. It does not exist in many of our neighborhoods or in most of our churches. In truth, much of American society is constructed precisely to prevent self-rule and to preserve the power of elites. There are massive monopolies that perpetuate economic inequality. The needs and safety of local communities are often sacrificed so that the owners of these monopolies might profit. And all the while we continue to talk about American democracy.

The problem goes back to the very beginning of the country. The problem is, as the historian Gordon Wood has claimed, that many of the nation’s founders used “democratic rhetoric... to explain and justify... [an] aristocratic system.” The Senate and the Supreme Court, in particular, were designed explicitly to stifle the self-rule of the majority and ensure the continuing power of the wealthy minority. This should not be surprising. The leaders of the American Revolution were largely wealthy landowners. Many of them owed their wealth to the exploitation of enslaved Africans. They did not want a true democracy. They wanted a society modeled after ancient republican Rome. Prior to the advent of Roman emperor, Rome was a society ruled by the Roman Senate. The Senate was an elite institution whose members held their seats for life. They came to hold their offices through a system that explicitly gave extra weight to wealthy voters. Rome was, in essence, an oligarchy rather than a democracy.

In ancient Rome, the Senate’s proponents maintained that it should be an elite institution because they believed that only the elite was fit to govern. Only the Roman elite, these men reasoned, had the leisure in which they could cultivate the knowledge, the skills, and the personal integrity to effectively rule their society. Everyone else, the ordinary people who struggled to pay their rent, who worked for wages, who farmed small plots of land, was too caught up in the struggle for life to acquire the necessary character traits to govern society.

Looking to ancient Rome for inspiration, the majority of the founders of this country came to believe that it was only elites who could successfully cultivate what they called public virtue. Their idea of public virtue was “endearing and benevolent passion,” as one of them put it. This passion came from “charity” and was based on the cultivation of private virtues like benevolence and truthfulness. It also required that one respected the established social hierarchy and knew their place in the social order. Public virtue could not be practiced by someone who was hateful, envious, or greedy. Challenging the social hierarchy, or failing to cultivate the appropriate private virtues, meant that someone would quickly lose, as one of the founders put it, their “sense of a connection to the general system” and with it their “benevolence.” When that happened the “desire and freedom of doing good ceased.”

Put differently, if someone challenged the bosses and the oligarchs, they threatened the social order. Their private virtues were out of alignment. They coveted social positions and economic goods that did not belong to them. And that rendered them ineligible to serve the republic. The founders created the Senate and the Supreme Court, in particular, precisely to ensure that the elites would continue to rule. If you doubt this, consider that the average net worth of a Senator is over three million dollars. If you doubt this, consider how routinely the Supreme Court rules in favor of wealthy corporations and against local communities or individuals. If you doubt this, consider the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission in which money was equated with free speech. It was a reminder that under our system, in the words of Senator Mitt Romney, “Corporations are people, my friend.”

This is the crisis we are facing. The sad reality is that we have conflated the rule of an elite with a democracy. The stark truth is that there are few places in our lives where we practice democracy.

Democracy could be understood as the political application of Jesus’s words in Luke 17:20-21. There he is recorded as having said, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed. No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!;’ because the Kingdom of God is among you.” Democracy is the constant practice of negotiating self-rule. It is never permanently established. It is always coming into being. It found in a set of practices, not frozen in an institution. It is the attempt amongst a group of people to figure out how to collectively meet their needs, set a vision for their community, and move together into the future. We might say that it is the effort of a group of people to create the kingdom among themselves.

Most people have little direct experience with democracy. In general, people think that if they vote or donate money to a political cause they have done their civic duty. But usually this means continuing to let the entrenched and wealthy, the powers and principalities, run society. It is only be organizing together, by directly attempting to govern ourselves, that we can experience democracy and, possibly, move towards a more democratic society.

One place I have learned about democracy is within the Unitarian Universalist movement. Unitarian Universalist congregations are self-governing institutions. It is you, the members, who decide the direction you want the congregation to take. Clergy like me might try to inspire but First Church is ultimately your congregation. This is true whether you are served by an interim minister who will only be with you for a couple of years. And it is true when you are served by a minister like Bob Schaibly who was here for twenty years. Ministers come and go but you, the members, remain.

First Church is governed by its Board of Directors. The Board is nothing like the Senate. Any member of the congregation can be elected to serve on the Board. Terms are limited and people rotate off each year. What is more, the Board’s ultimate authority rests in the congregation. It can set direction but you, the congregation, ultimately set First Church’s agenda when you do things like call settled ministers, pass vision and mission statements, and change your constitution.

I was reminded of the dynamics of congregational self-governance on Wednesday when the Board and I agreed upon our goals for the year. One of the goals that the Board voted on was the chartering of a Transformation Committee. This committee will report to the Board. Its job will be to lead in the congregation in the work of disrupting and dismantling white supremacy inside of and outside of our walls and building a more diverse and multiracial beloved community. Hopefully, it will prepare the congregation as a whole to hold a vote on whether or not to endorse the proposed eighth principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The proposed principle reads, “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

If you adopt it, it will be part of your long work towards becoming a more multiracial congregation. That work began as early as 1954 when you were the first historically white congregation to vote to integrate. That was an act of self-governance that occurred because democracy is a central part of our religious practice as Unitarian Universalists.

Let me share with you a story from another Unitarian Universalist congregation about how our tradition practices democracy. It comes from James Luther Adams, one of the great Unitarian Universalist theologians of the twentieth century.

In the late 1940s Adams was a Board member at the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. Unlike many pre-1960s churches, First Unitarian did not have any formal bar to people of color joining the congregation. It also did not have any people of color as its members.

Under the leadership of the congregation’s senior minister a resolution was finally passed at a congregational meeting. It read we “take it upon ourselves to invite our friends of other races and colors who are interested in Unitarianism to join our church and to participate in all our activities." Hardly, revolutionary sounding stuff. It was divisive and possibly even radical in 1940s Chicago.

Adams relates that in the lead up to the congregational vote there was a contentious Board meeting that lasted into the wee hours. One openly racist member of the Board complained that the minister was “preaching too many sermons on race relations.” Adams writes, “So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about... [Jews] and blacks?’

‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’

Then the barrage opened, ‘Will you tell us what is the purpose of a church anyway?’

‘I’m no theologian. I don’t know.’

‘But you have ideas, you are... a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of the church. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.’ The questioning continued, and items on the agenda for the evening were ignored.

At about one o’clock in the morning our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. And our friend gave a remarkable statement regarding the nature of our fellowship. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is... Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’

Someone... suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘mazing grace... how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’”

Democracy is a religious practice. Let me suggest that in Adams story we find the basic elements of religious practice. In order for something to qualify as a religious practice it has to have an element of practice. It needs to be something that you do. Like most things we do in life, and especially in community, democracy is a learned behavior. You have to learn how to do it. Think about the other, perhaps more blatantly familiar, kinds of religious practice: prayer, meditation, reading the scripture, or sacred dance. Each of these is learned behavior. You have to learn how to pray. You might spend years trying to master meditation--or coming to understand that meditation isn’t something that you master. The same is true with democracy. In order to practice it, you have to learn it. To meditate you need to learn how to breath, how to sit, how to unfocus your mind. To practice democracy you need to learn rules of order, how to run a meeting, how to bring silenced voices into the conversation, when to speak and when to keep still.

Like other religious practices, democracy contains within it the possibility of personal and social transformation. Our racist friend ended up realizing after hours of unpleasant debate that “the purpose [of the church] is to get hold of people like me and change them.” And he realized “I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.” And First Chicago became, as you may know, one of the most racially diverse Unitarian congregations in the country and a leader in the Northern civil rights movement.

The transformation of First Chicago has been on my heart this month we have been discussing the three great disruptions, the three great crises, of our hour. As I have mentioned before, this year in worship we are acknowledging that we, as a 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.

In some sense, each of these is connected to the underlying crisis in democracy. That crisis is that this society has been continuously ruled by entrenched elites since its inception. Elites have cloaked their rule in the rhetoric of democracy, claiming as the current President does, to serve the “forgotten men and women of our country” even as they pass legislation that solidifies corporate rule. They use the word freedom to mean freedom for the wealthy to do what they will while the mass of society is left disempowered and marginalized.

Historically, they spoke of freedom while they enslaved Africans. They spoke of democracy while they ensured that people of color could not have the vote and disrupt their manufactured white supremacy. Today, many of them speak of democracy and do nothing to confront the country’s skyrocketing economic inequality. In the last forty-five years inequality--the gap between the richest and poorest in society--has grown more than almost any other time in the country’s history. In our contemporary society there are people like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates who are so wealthy that they own more than whole segments of the country. This gross inequality almost certainly has something to do with the county’s political instability and the crisis we find ourselves in.

This inequality is not only connected to white supremacy and the crisis in democracy, it is related to the climate emergency. As journalists like Naomi Klein have carefully detailed, the entire industry of climate denial has been funded by energy tycoons such as Charles and David Koch. They owe their fortune to the fossil fuel industry. The have funded the climate denial industry to the tune of millions of dollars in order to stave off regulation that might impinge their ability to make more money.

Democracy is in crisis. It is in crisis because our system of government was designed to perpetuate the rule of the elites. The climate is in crisis. It is in crisis because our government continues to serve those elites. It passes legislation and issues policies designed to ensure that wealth from fossil fuels continue to accumulate. It fails to pass legislation that protects the Earth upon which we all depend because, I can only assume, the rich believe that they will never be poor. And that no matter how despoiled the environment they can always buy their way into safety and comfort.

We can overcome these crises only if we commit ourselves to the religion of democracy and engage in the practice of collective self-rule. A our racist friend from earlier observed, this religion of democracy gets ahold of people and changes them. It is not the self-rule of some but the self-rule of all. One of the places that this struggle has long manifested itself is within the labor movement. Our first reading this morning “Sermon on the Common” comes from the great labor organizer and poet Arturo Giovannitti. He wrote it after helping to organize a strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts that brought together people of all races to struggle for their collective good. It was a strike not led by an elite but by the workers themselves. To coordinate amongst more than twenty thousand people they formed a committee in which there were representatives of all the city’s ethnicities. The vision of self-rule he saw in that struggle inspired him to write:

Ye are the light of the world. There was darkness in all the
ages when the torch of your will did not blaze forth,
and the past and the future are full of radiance that
cometh from your eyes.

I know that in these days, as we face the impending crisis of impeachment, many of us feel like the poet Fatimah Asghar:

I build & build
& someone takes it away.

It is easy to feel that so many of society’s achievements are crumbling beneath us. It is easy to feel that we have lost so much that we have worked for. This may be true. But it is also true that there is another possibility. That we “are the light of the world;” that we can learn to practice true democracy and engage in collective self-rule. That we can learn to practice in our congregations and elsewhere in our lives. And we take this religious practice of democracy, this collective experiment in self-governance, and spill it over into society--becoming a reforming energy that challenges rule by elites.

If you doubt me, I invite you to picture this. Friday before last, at least seventy-five members of this congregation gathered to support the youth-led climate strike. A sea of yellow shirts, siding with love, children, parents, elders. Democracy not in crisis but in action. A community mobilized for democratic renewal to confront the crises of the hour. The religion of democracy made manifest. A religious tradition that understands, in the words of our closing hymn, “that it is time now.” It is time to move to self-rule and finally bringing about a true self-governance that so that we might confront the climate crisis and disrupt white supremacy.

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

CommentsCategories Contemporary Politics Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Impeachment Donald Trump Whistleblower Congress Adam Schiff Devin Nunes United States Constitution Democratic Party Republican Party Democracy Fifth Principle Richard Rorty Robin Williams NASCAR United States Senate Gordon Wood Rome Roman Senate Virtue Ethics Private Virtue Public Virtue Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission United States Supreme Court Mitt Romney Luke 17:20-21 Jesus James Luther Adams Civil Rights Congregational Polity First Unitarian Chicago Religious Practice White Supremacy Climate Crisis Inequality Jeff Bezos Bill Gates Naomi Klein Charles Koch David Koch Arturo Giovannitti Industrial Workers of the World IWW Lawrence Strike Fatimah Asghar Climate Strike

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

Aug 6, 2019

The Last Bottle in the Country

I have a great number of memories associated with whiskey, particularly scotch whiskey. My father became a scotch aficionado through the efforts of his late friend the Scottish photographer Murray Johnston. When I was nine or ten years old the two of them took me out one night to pub in Edinburgh that specialized in scotch. I remember staring up at the rows upon rows of hundreds of different kinds of scotchs as the two of them rambled on about photography. I have no idea why I was with them or what I did while they talked. I suspect that they were watching me while Murray’s wife Kate and my mother caught up.

Whatever the case, scotch has always been a deeply gendered drink in my family. My ex-wife hates it and my mother typically only tastes it. During my parents’ dinner parties there usually comes a point in the evening when the gathering divides along gendered lines—the men assemble to drink whiskey and the women, well, I am not actually certain what the women drink, port or armagnac or calvados or something.

Over the decades, Cadenhead’s scotch has been the second most special digestif served at these parties (the prize of most special belonged to a case of pre-Prohibition rye whiskey, now sadly gone, that someone found boarded up in the basement of a New York apartment building). Cadenhead’s is an independent bottler. They basically go around Scotland and buy casks of scotch which they then age further and bottle themselves.

Cadenhead’s has a storefront in Edinburgh. We go to it whenever we are there. They used to let you taste whiskey straight out of the cask, which was an amazing, if somewhat intoxicating experience. My father arranged for a whiskey tasting for me there the summer I turned 21. And last time I was in Scotland with him we went, and they bottled the scotch straight from the cask for us.

Scotland isn’t on the itinerary for this summer’s trip. Fortunately, Cadenhead’s has a London store. My father and I went while my mother and son slept in. Cadenhead’s London location is near the Baker St. station with its Sherlock Holmes statue. It’s on a street of very tony shops—something like the Marais in Paris but with significantly less grit.

The shop consists of three rooms—two rooms displaying wares and a third for storage. Unfortunately, they don’t sell scotch from the cask anymore. Apparently, the same government that is devoted to Brexit is also devoted to heavily regulating the whiskey business. They made it illegal for Cadenhead’s to bottle in the store and so they can’t offer tastes from the cask anymore.

They still give tastes and guidance. They also offer political commentary. One of the staff members referred to the current administration in the United States as the Fourth Reich and complained bitterly about Brexit and Boris Johnson. He told me that US trade policies have resulted in the cost American whiskey skyrocketing. And he showed me a bottle of 8-year-old Wild Turkey that he had on sale for 85 pounds, not because it was any good but because distributors can’t sell it in the UK anymore.

I love peaty scotches—my ex-wife described the scotch I like as tasting like dirt—and his colleague helped me select some. I bought three bottles: a bottle of the Islay that Cadenhead’s distilled themselves, a bottle of Old Ballantruan, and a bottle of 14-year Benrinnes that Cadenhead’s bottled themselves. The last bottle came from a cask of 264 bottles. It was final bottle they had for sale and they assured me it was good. So, I bought it, the last bottle 14-year Benrinne in the country. I am not claiming it super special, but it has a nice story behind it and, because it is Cadenhead’s, I know it will be good quality. I hope, though, when I serve it at a dinner party people won’t decide to self-segregate along gender lines. I suppose if they do, I have some nice cognac.

CommentsCategories Food News Tags Scotch Murray Johnston Kate Johnston Gender Cadenhead's Edinburgh London Marais Paris Brexit Boris Johnson Donald Trump Old Ballantruan Benrinnes Islay

Jul 13, 2019

Sipping Rose While the World Burns

The crisis in the United States keeps getting worse and worse. Today as I wandered through Arles members of my congregation in Houston participated in protests against President Trump’s planned ICE raids. His administration’s anti-human and anti-immigrant policies are part of the larger global crisis. I have been thinking about the crisis a lot since I have been in France. Much of the photography at Les Rencontres d’Arles is focused on the crisis. And my intention is to make it the major focus of congregational life when I return. I think that the moment we are in requires religious communities to confront it if they are to be faithful to humanity, God, and nature.

 Right now, though, I am spending my time in beautiful cafes in Arles drinking rose with my family. I guess that’s what privilege really is in the end, the ability to step outside or away from the world’s crises. And at this age, with my Harvard education, my many trips to Europe and on vacation in other parts of the world, my more than modest income, my significant cultural resources, and, of course, my skin color and citizenship status, I feel quite privileged.

When I return to the United States I will do my best to weaponize that privilege: preaching about the rise of totalitarianism, writing about white supremacy, organizing and attending protests and marches, attempting to develop and articulate spiritual practices and theological resources for confronting the intertwined economic, ecological, social, political, and, well, really spiritual crises humanity faces in these opening decades of the twenty-first century. But now, I just feel my privilege.

I feel it when I attend an exhibition like Philippe Chancel’s. His work emphasizes the global nature of the current crisis: the Republican destruction of the city of Flint’s municipal water system is seen as part of the same cycle of ecological destruction that is decimating parts of Africa or China. It is revealed to be a symptom of a political and economic class that is more interested in its own self-interest than in serving the needs of the vast majority of working people. While the conditions and the political systems are almost incomparably different Chancel is on point in his implicit comparison between a Michigan governed by Rick Snyder or a North Korea run by Kim Jong-un. In both situations the rich and powerful--the most privileged--are fine while poor and working people suffer.

In the midst of the global crises, I think that the for challenge someone like me is partly about holding onto my own humanity. In the end, privilege contains within it the possibility of shedding one’s humanity. I believe that there is only one human family and that we are all, ultimately, part of the same earthly community. Privilege is based on separation. The ability to step away from the experiences that most people have. And, well, in a world filled with refugees, economic exploitation, and many other kinds of discrimination and systematic violence, I feel quite privileged--which is to say separate and insulated--here in the South of France.

CommentsTags ICE Donald Trump Immigration Les Rencontres d’Arles Arles France Unitarian Universalism Faith Totalitarianism White Supremacy Photography Phillipe Chancel Rick Snyder North Korea Kim Jong-un Flint First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston

Jun 4, 2019

Sermon: A Modern Church for a Modern Age

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, June 2, 2019

Today is a very special Sunday. It is the Sunday of the annual meeting--a time when you will be making decisions about the future direction of this congregation. You will be electing leaders and voting on amendments to First Church’s Constitution. The importance of the annual meeting makes it the only time all year that First Church gathers together as one worshiping community. Usually, First Church is one church in two locations. Today, we are one church in one location. This Sunday we have members from the Thoreau present in the pews, both of First Church’s ministers on the same campus, and Thoreau’s staff musician Teru as our pianist.

Since I have you all together, and since you are making decisions about the future of First Church, I thought I would take the opportunity to talk with you about the future of the church. Not this church, specifically, but the future of Unitarian Universalism. I take this subject because as your interim minister, one of my tasks is to help you evaluate yourselves.

Since at least the sixteenth century, it has been an aspiration of our Unitarian Universalist tradition to be a religion that is relevant to contemporary life. Instead of believing that religious truth has been permanently codified in ancient scripture or perfectly expressed in the life of a single individual, we claim, “revelation is not sealed.” The universe is constantly unfolding its marvels. The starscapes overhead, fragmenting atoms, luminescent corals, the causes of cancer... human knowledge, and with it technology, is ever increasing. In such a situation, the claim that the sum of religious knowledge remains static for all time seems absurd. The challenge for Unitarian Universalist congregations is to build “a modern church for a modern age.”

“A modern church for a modern age,” these words come from Ethelred Brown, a Unitarian minister who was active in the opening decades of the twentieth century. I have spoken with you about Brown before. For many of the years that he served the Harlem Unitarian Church, he was the only member of the African diaspora who ministered a Unitarian congregation. Today, there are hundreds of Unitarian Universalist religious professionals who are people of color--our slow shift to being a multiracial movement being but one way in which Unitarian Universalism is changing.

Brown was part of a larger movement within the Unitarianism of his day called the community church movement. It was organized by the Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes in Manhattan and the Universalist minister Clarence Skinner in Boston to build religious communities capable of confronting the crises of the early twentieth century. Inside the walls of their congregations, they sought to create “the new church which shall be the institutional embodiment of our new religion of democracy.” Both men preached the need to substitute “for the individual the social group, as an object of salvation.” This experience of social salvation was available on Sunday morning when “peoples of every nationality and race, of every color, creed and class” became “alike in worship and in work.” In such moments the church instantiated the “‘Kingdom of God’--the commonwealth of” all before it was present in the secular world.

This was more than empty metaphor. Under Holmes’s leadership, the Community Church of New York was one of the earliest Unitarian congregations to meaningful racially integrate. As early as 1910, the congregation was multiracial. And its members, including Holmes himself, played important roles in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. They were active in creating these institutions because the crisis of their day were about racial justice and civil liberties. They understood that a democratic society rests on the freedoms of speech, belief, and assembly. These were not secular ideas for them. They were religious inspired realities based on the that proposition in order for religion to be meaningful it had to offer clarity, inspire compassion, and prompt action on the crisis of the hour. Inward piety, the deep of religious feeling of connection between each and all, was understood as best expressed as, in Holmes’s words, “a passion for righteousness.”

What are the crises of our hour? We must seek clarity about them. As a human species and as a country, we are in the midst of series of severe and interlinked catastrophes. There is the climate emergency. Scientists now tell us that we have, at most, twelve years to reduce carbon emissions by half and keep global heating to a non-catastrophic level. If our human habits do not change we risk the lives of hundreds of millions of people and the possibility of driving as many as a million species to extinction.

As a country, we are in the midst of crisis in democracy. We have a President whose party has consistently and persistently undermined liberal democratic norms. The President refuses to cooperate with Congress when the House requests his financial records or subpoenas members of the executive branch. The President celebrates autocrats and dictators while maligning liberal political regimes. Meanwhile, the President’s party plots to gerrymander legislative districts by fixing the census and suppressing the vote. Meanwhile, even those members of his party who claim to have the conscience of a conservative vote in favor of his agenda, and for his judicial nominees, over and over again.

Across the globe, and in the United States, white supremacist violence, white supremacist populism, and anti-democratic or illiberal regimes are on the rise. White men—and it always seems to be white men--have walked into mosques and synagogues and killed people as they gathered for worship. Antisemitism is increasing and, in this country, the police continue to kill and jail people of color at far higher rates than they do white folks.

In this country, the rise in white supremacist violence is mirrored by an overall increase in gun violence and mass shootings. Specters of carnage like Friday’s mass shooting in Virginia Beach are regular occurrences. Instead of moving towards action, politicians have reduced their responses to repetitive public ritual: thoughts and prayers are offered, a debate on the causes of the tragedy is truncated, and nothing happens.

The situation is reminiscent of the opening lines of William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worse
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats penned these words almost exactly one hundred years ago. He wrote them during the same period of crisis in which the community church movement was created. The First World War had just ended--taking with it the lives of millions. Europe lay in ruins. And Yeat’s own Ireland was in the Irish War for Independence--a war that would result in the loss of thousands of lives and would gain the Republic of Ireland political independence.

Yeats cast his poem in religious terms. The image of the falcon who cannot hear the falconer is suggestive of a humanity that has grown deaf to God. The falcon turns ever wider, moving ever further from the divine. And yet, even as humans move away from divinity Yeats finds himself believing: “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” It is just when all hope is lost, Yeats hints, that profound change comes.

Yeats’s poem is helpful to our sermon because it suggests, as I believe, that the root of all of these intertwined crisis might be understood as a religious crisis. Religion comes from the Latin word religar which means “to bind.” In its earliest English form, it was understood as what binds a community to God and what binds us together. It precisely this sense of collective ties--whether to the greater natural reality or to the larger human community--that is fraying today.

Human society has become global. Our species evolved living in small bands of, at most, a few hundred. It difficult for many of us to find our places in an interconnected world of billions. Our ancestors often had clear roles in the world. You were born into a social position with specific obligations and you stayed there for all of your life. Your parents were farmers, so you became a farmer. Your family owned a blacksmith’s shop, so you worked in a blacksmith’s shop. Today, such social determination is far less common. Instead of telling children what they must be when they grow-up we hand them texts like Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go” and suggest that what they make of themselves is their own doing.

This change in human life can easily lead to loss of sense of meaning. If you do not find the right role, the right job, the right partner, or the right community, it can easily feel like you are missing something in your life. People go looking for that missing something. One explanation of the rise of right-wing populism is that such movements offer the people who join them a sense of meaning. They can place themselves into the larger narrative of race, political order, or apocalyptic religion and discover that their life has meaning beyond their own individual struggles.

Our Unitarian Universalist tradition can also provide a sense of connection and of meaning. In an essay on the future of Unitarian Universalism, retired minister Marilyn Sewell writes, “The void at the heart of American culture is a spiritual one.” For many of us, we have become unbound, unfettered, disconnected. People come to this church so often seeking connection in moments of crisis. These crises are personal as well as social. First time visitors often tell me that they have come to us because of some tragedy in their own lives--the death of a spouse, the loss of a child, divorce, illness... Attendance often peaks in moments of social crisis: there are more people here on those Sundays when the great crises of the hour are unavoidable--when there is another mass shooting or political diaster--than when the news of the world is less dramatic.

I hope you will indulge me for a moment while I offer a bit of testimony about how this dynamic has played out in my own life. I ended up a Unitarian Universalist minister for much the same reason that people seek out our congregations and join our communities. It is true that I was raised Unitarian Universalist. My journey to the ministry was not all that meandering. But like a lot people raised Unitarian Universalist I almost walked away from our tradition.

When I was in middle school I began to drift away from the church. Some of my friends from elementary school stopped participating in religious education. And I started to feel disconnected from the community. At the same time, I was being ruthlessly bullied at school. School did not seem like a safe space and Unitarian Universalism seemed irrelevant to my life--though I doubt at the age of twelve or thirteen I would have articulated myself in just that fashion. I did not feel like I had a community to which I belonged. Sunday mornings I generally fought with my parents about coming to church.

One Sunday after church I told one of my older friends that I was planning to stop coming to Sunday School. My parents felt that I had reached an age where I could start to make my own decisions about my religious life. And if the church did not feel like it meant something to me then I did not need to participate in it anymore. I was just starting my freshman year of high school. My friend told me to hold off on quitting. She invited me to a weekend long event put on by an organization called Young Religious Unitarian Universalists or YRUU.

YRUU was a youth organization that believed in youth empowerment. Its principal activity was to organize what we, in the North, called conferences and what here, in the South, are called rallies. At these events, the youth led and developed the majority of the program. We created worship services. We organized small groups for fellowship and discussion where we shared about the difficulties and possibilities in our lives. We invited outside speakers to offer workshops on art and social action.

My first conference was a liberating experience. Suburban Michigan in the early nineties was not a socially progressive place. Yet the Friday evening I walked into my first conference, I saw a community devoted to making a space for people to be themselves. You could attend a conference and be openly queer, or be, as I was then, a science fiction geek, and no one would reject you. I made friends with young men who wore dresses all weekend and young women who wore combat boots and shaved their heads. I made friends with people who refused to reside in any gender category whatsoever. I got to discuss the fantasy novels I loved with others who loved them. I was encouraged to ask critical questions about religion: What is God? How is the each connected to the all? How might I deal with the pain in my young life? I experienced worship, for the first time, as communion. Singing together some hundred strong the youth at the conference felt united. I felt a sense of belonging and connection. I felt like a certain void in my life, a void I could not articulate, had been filled. And working to fill that void, collectively, with others, is one thing that led me to become a minister.

What about you? Have you ever had such an experience? If you are new here, is such an experience what you are seeking? If you have been here for years, is it why you continue to come? To build a modern church for a modern age is to create such possibilities for connection and meaning making. It is recognize, as Marilyn Sewell argues, that people “are coming to a church because their souls need feeding” and then work, together, to feed those souls by offering meaningful opportunities for connection.

We must do more than just feed souls. We must confront the crises of the hour. Texas poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico captures a bit of the current crisis in her poem “Buen Esqueleto.”

Life is short & I tell this to mis hijas.
Life is short & I show them how to talk
to police without opening the door, how
to leave the social security number blank
on the exam, I tell this to mis hijas.
This world tells them I hate you every day

Building a modern church for a modern age does not just mean creating a religious community for people of relative affluence and comfort such as myself. It means proclaiming that no one should be hated by the world. It means creating a community that is capable of including everyone who suffers from the weight of the world. It means working to dismantle--even if the task seems hopeless--the great structures of oppression in the world. In her same essay, Sewell asks, “Travel ahead twenty, or say fifty years into the future. What will our children and grandchildren say of us? Will they say, where was the church when the world came crashing down? How will history picture us…?”

And here, perhaps paradoxically, I return to my experience in YRUU. Why? As I mentioned, YRUU was organized around the premise of youth empowerment. It was largely youth run. We elected the people who organized the conferences. And those people had to then decide how to, democratically, create the events. This might seem like a small statement but it actually pushed us to gain a large number of skills. At the age of fourteen, fifteen and sixteen, we had to run meetings, design budgets, speak in public, and lead songs. This gave me and my cohort a set of skills necessary for democratic life. They were skills that, for the most part, we were not gaining in other parts of our lives.

Unitarian Universalist congregations, like YRUU, are self-governing entities. It is you, the members, who decide on the direction you want to take your congregation. It is you, the members, who decide how best to confront the crises of the hour. And in this act of self-governance, you gain the skills necessary for democratic life. These skills are often not developed within our working lives. But you can gain them here. Participating in a congregational meeting, you have the opportunity to experience direct democracy--each member gets a vote on important matters before the church. Joining the stewardship team, you can learn about fundraising. Joining the welcome team, you can develop important interpersonal skills. Joining the Board, you can learn how to guide a mid-sized non-profit with a budget of close to a million dollars.

These may seem like little skills. Across time they can have a big impact. I have spent more than twenty-five years intimately involved in struggles for social justice. And almost everywhere I have gone--be it to a union meeting, a center for GLBT youth, a session on the climate emergency, or an antiracist collective--I have met Unitarian Universalists actively, and skillfully, participating and leading movements. So often, they seem to be using skills they gained in congregational life to do so.

A modern church for a modern age, for me, it means creating a community where people can find connections and gain the skills necessary for democratic life. It means living out the religion of democracy, welcoming people of all races, classes, cultures, languages, and genders, into our religious community. What might it mean for you? I have offered a sketch of my own picture. But as your interim, I want to close with a question: What is your vision for this congregation? What kind of church do you want First Church to be? Where would you like First Church to be in ten years? In twenty years? In fifty years? What will your children or grandchildren say? How will they answer the question: Where was the church when the world came crashing down?

In the hopes that you will answer them wisely, I invite the congregation to say, Amen.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Museum District Annual Meeting Unitarian Universalism Ethelred Brown Clarence Skinner John Haynes Holmes Community Church of New York Community Church of Boston Kingdom of God NAACP ACLU Climate Crisis Donald Trump White Supremacy William Butler Yeats Dr. Seuss Marilyn Sewell YRUU Natalie Scenters-Zapico

Apr 15, 2019

Sermon: I've Been This Way Before

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, April 14, 2019

This morning’s sermon is about drawing spiritual lessons from the music of Neil Diamond. I will get to that in the moment. But first I want to tell you about one of my favorite artists, the French surrealist Marcel Duchamp. Do you know his work? He is perhaps most famous for his piece the “Fountain.” He entered it into an art show in New York City in 1917. The show had a simple selection criterion: anyone who paid the entry fee had their piece accepted. Duchamp, cheeky surrealist that he was, submitted a commercially manufactured porcelain urinal under the pseudonym “R. Mutt.” This enraged the selection committee. They complained that R. Mutt had not created the piece. It had obviously been produced in a factory. More troubling, the urinal was not art. It was an ordinary object that was used for, shall we say, basic human functions. Its presence in the show debased art. It placed one of the highest expressions of human culture alongside the ordinary, banal, and mundane.

Duchamp responded by publishing an anonymous editorial in an art magazine that he ran with a couple of friends. The relevant section from the editorial reads: “Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view--created a new thought for that object.”

The editorial gets at why I like the piece. I think it offers an essential religious lesson: all things contain beauty. It is a religious discipline to open ourselves to that beauty. An “ordinary article of life” viewed through the eye of the artist becomes art, becomes something beautiful. The artist has “a new thought for that object,” they see something new, something that challenges them, when they look at the familiar--perhaps the most familiar.

I invite you to try it. Pick an object in the sanctuary. A brick. A floor tile. A wooden pew. A section of the ceiling. Your shoes. It does not matter. Just pick something. The more ordinary the better. Look at it for a moment. Really look at it. Can see something of the beauty in it?

When I was preparing this sermon, I came down from my office, stood in this pulpit, and tried the exercise myself. I picked that brick. It is ordinary in its brown redness. There are a scattering of dark spots. These attest to the presence of the iron sulphate in the clay used to make the brick. A few of the spots are pock marked--evidence of where air bubbles burst when the brick baked. Some of the spots lack clear edges--they fade into the mass of red brown when the eye inquires for their ends.

As I stood in the pulpit, I watched light play off the brick. The beauty of the brick shifted as the sun’s rays filtered through the sanctuary window that sits above the choir. It had one set of tones when a cloud passed in front of the sun and another when the day star shone uninhibited. Looking at the brick, I thought of the canvases in Houston’s Rothko Chapel. Have you seen them? The chapel is under renovation until the end of the year. If you have not been, I hope you will go when it opens again.

Light in the chapel comes through the top skylight. As the earth spins on its access, as water vapor moves through the sky, the amount of light that hits each canvas changes. And with it the richness of the canvas--purple tones fade to black or move against pecan or hickory framing.

The roughness of the brick’s clay contains the same effect--it shifts as the light hits it. Looking at the brick, there is beauty in an “ordinary article of life.” There is “a new thought for that object.” Shall I name it? Perhaps, Seven Stars of Revelation--seven being the number of spots and a mystical number found over and over again in the biblical book of Revelation. That book attests, “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand,” and unfolds one of the grandest mystical visions in the Christian New Testament.

The Unitarian minister and transcendentalist writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson taught us “revelation is not sealed.” These words are to remind us that we can learn something new, something beautiful, from each experience, from each ordinary object, in our lives. When I look carefully at the brick with the seven spots I am reminded of Emerson’s lesson--seven stars which help me open to constant possibility of revelation--of the feeling the sacred--that is around each of us in each moment of our lives.

Another exercise, listen. Not to me. Listen in this pause to the sound that surrounds the silence. When I stop speaking what do you hear? The musician John Cage composed a piece named 4’33”. It consists of a pianist sitting on a piano bench for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The pianist just sits there. They do not play a single note. Cage’s intention with the piece is to prompt the audience to listen to the sounds that are around us at all times--your breath, and mine, the heart’s beat, the passing street car, the rustle of your shirtsleeve. What is music? What is beauty?

A musician friend of mine made a similar point in a piece they composed called “Up Train, Down Train.” For the piece, they rode the commuter rail up and down the San Francisco peninsula. Along the way recorded the sounds of their journey: the ticket collector, the jostling of the passengers, the clatter of rail, doors sliding open, and the rain on window glass. In their recording studio they mixed in a variety of other sounds--fragments from classical music, bits of Beethoven or Brahms, snatches of jazz, spoken threads of poetry. Incidental noise and carefully crafted songs were combined to create a haunting composition that pushed me to open my ears to the ordinary music of life.

The heart can turn any object, any sound, any song, into a prayer. Prayer, in my understanding, is the act of reaching out for connection with that which is greater than any of us, surrounds each of us, and infuses all of us. Prayer need not be theistic--God centered--in its orientation. It only need be the opening of the individual self--the I, the you--to the infinity without and the infinity within. This is an understanding I carry with me as I move through the ordinary world, encountering the ordinary objects of life. And it is a lesson I take with me when I have preaching assignments that are not quite of my choosing.

This year at the church auction, I auctioned off the right to give Mark and me a prompt for a Sunday service. This a well-worn practice in a number of Unitarian Universalist congregations. It is one that comes with warning from experienced clergy. One minister I know tells the story about the time they were assigned the Apollo moon landings as a service topic. Well, actually, the person who won the auction item was a conspiracy theorist. They wanted to a have service on why and how NASA’s moon landings had been faked.

My ministerial colleague managed to craft a service that somehow served their congregations from that assignment. Nonetheless, I was a bit worried when this year I decided to auction one of our services. So, I was relieved when I found out our topic was to be the singer songwriter Neil Diamond. I admit that I did not that much about Diamond or his music--or at least I thought I did not. But music is a well-worn path to the spiritual. I knew that if I listened to his music and read something of his life I could find a lesson in it.

When I found out the service topic the first thing, before I even turned to Google, was call my brother Jorin. Jorin, you might know, is a painter who lives in Los Angeles. He is also a fount of information when it comes to popular music.

So, I got him on the phone and asked him, “Jorin, what should I know about Neil Diamond?”

He paused for a moment and then began, “Well, some people call him the Jewish Elvis. You definitely know his music. He wrote, ‘Sweet Caroline,’ and ‘America.’ He also wrote the Monkees’ song ‘I’m a Believer.’”

As I listened to my brother I realized that Diamond is one of those musicians who music infuses much of contemporary life. In this country, you are likely to hear a song like “Sweet Caroline” almost anywhere. It has been featured in movies, sung by a contestant on American Idol, and used in television commercials. It is one of those pop songs that it seems like almost everyone knows. The tune might be familiar, Mark. You might recognize the chorus as well:

Sweet Caroline
Good times never seemed so good
Sweet Caroline
I believe they never could
Sweet Caroline

Mark already played the other Diamond song that my brother mentioned, “America.” Diamond’s parents were themselves the children of Jewish immigrants to New York. He grew up in Brooklyn listening to family stories about his grandparents journeys from Poland and Russia to the United States. Diamond’s immigrant heritage inspired him to write “America.” Its lyrics suggest two things. First, the United States has represented a land of freedom and opportunity for many people around the world for generations. Second, most people in the United States are the descendants of immigrants. As the song begins:

Far
We've been traveling far
Without a home
But not without a star
Free
Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream

The intertwined messages of this song are important today when we have a President who praises dictators like North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un and maligns liberal democratic political systems such as the European Union. The song is a reminder that the authoritarian values of the current White House occupant are not consistent with liberal democratic values--the values that Diamond celebrates in his tune. The song is also a reminder that immigrants have contributed enormously to the economic prosperity and cultural vibrancy of the United States. The current President should know this. His mother was an immigrant from Scotland. His grandparents were immigrants from Germany. Two of his three wives have been immigrants as well. I could pause now to make the observation that the President’s comfort with his European immigrant family and his antipathy or even hatred for immigrants from Latin America highlights his ties to white supremacist movements. That, however, is not the subject of this sermon.

Returning to Diamond, I note that like a lot of Jewish America singer songwriters of his generation he got his start writing songs for other people. He wrote four songs for the manufactured British band the Monkees, one of the boy bands of the seventies. They used have a television show that my brother and I watched as reruns in the early nineties. The lyrics of “Believer” suggest of the way that love, that profound and intimate connection with another soul, can spring up unbidden and unexpected:

Then I saw her face, now I'm a believer
Not a trace, of doubt in my mind
I'm in love, and I'm a believer

As I researched Diamond I began to see something of myself in him. As I suggested at the opening of the sermon, any object can be seen to contain beauty. Anything around us can open the marvels of the universe. The same might be said of human biography. Each of us has a great deal in common with the rest of us. On some level, all humans need the same things: clean air to breath, clean water to drink, good food to eat, shelter, love, and some work to call honest. This observation is one of the core conceits of our Unitarian Universalist faith.

And so, I was not surprised when I came across words by Diamond describing his own experience as a songwriter and his approach to his music that resonated with me. They are from an interview he did in 1975 with Rolling Stone magazine. There he says that his work is an artist stems from an attempt, “to gain an inner sense of acceptance of the self.” My own approach to the craft of preaching is linked to a similar attempt to both find self-knowledge and stir it in others. At the same time, I find myself agreeing with Diamond that music and art are not bound by tightly dictated rules. According to the interviewer, he believes that his songs do not “need to be explained. Or even understood.” He just wants people to open to the music and be stirred by it. About the composition of music he says, “There are no rules, you see. That’s the beautiful thing about it. And the best things I’ve done are the things that people don’t really understand.”

The interviewer describes Diamond as “the consummate searcher,” a sentiment that is familiar to many Unitarian Universalists. A sense of that appears in his song “I’ve Been This Way Before” which the choir performed earlier:

I've seen the light
And I've seen the flame
And I've been this way before

The search for meaning that I find in this song resonates with the Unitarian Universalist tradition of a search for truth and meaning. And if there is any message that I have been trying to communicate in this sermon it is this: we can find religious truth, beauty, meaning, in almost anything. It is more about the perspective we bring than it is necessarily the content, the object, that is already there. For Marcel Duchamp, beauty or art could be found in the ordinary objects of life. For my musician friend, it was found in the rocking movement of the train as it travelled up and down the San Francisco peninsula. And for lovers of Neil Diamond’s music, it is found in his songs.

And now, before I close, two brief pointers to our readings and two spiritual suggestions for you. The poems I chose are each about finding the sacred, the beautiful, in ordinary life. Allen Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California” is a personal favorite. It connects to the way I tend wander through the world: a head full of poetry and a rather ordinary life of grocery shopping, children’s basketball, and laundry. Like Ginsberg, I often find myself opening to the sacredness of the ordinary in the most banal of places: the Trader Joe’s on Shepherd Street or the HEB on West Alabama. And like Whitman in Ginsberg’s poem, I discover myself going from the most basic questions to the most profound: “Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?” What about you? Do you have similar experiences in your life?

Naomi Shihab Nye is a Texas poet and the child of a Palestinian immigrant. Her poem “My Grandmother in the Stars” recounts a similar experience:

Where we live in the world
is never one place. Our hearts,
those dogged mirrors, keep flashing us
moons before we are ready for them.

Looking at the night sky, she finds that she carries memory, beauty, art, a sense of the sacred ever within her. It is everywhere. In the stars. In the universe which connects all to all. And in her unnamed companion.

Any object can open us to the divine. Any sound can be music. I conclude with my two spiritual suggestions. This, afternoon, or tomorrow, or anytime, take a few minutes to do two things. First, find an ordinary object from life. It could be a urinal, a brick, a piece of asphalt, a cigarette butt, or the beam on a suspension bridge. It does not matter. Spend five minutes really looking at it. What do you see? Do you find yourself opening a little more to the beauty of the universe when you engage the object.

Second, listen to an familiar sound. Pick a pop song that you do not know or choose the ambient collision of wind upon leaf. What sense of connection to the universe do you find within it? Do you discover that revelation is not sealed? That each of us has an original relationship with the universe?

Again, Diamond:

For I've been released
And I've been regained
And I've sung my song before
And I'm sure to sing my song again

Again, Nye:

...there is only the sky
tying the universe together.

Again, Ginsberg:

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked
down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking
at the full moon.

Let the congregation say Amen.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Neil Diamond Marchel Duchamp R. Mutt Rothko Chapel Houston Mark Rothko Revelation Ralph Waldo Emerson John Cage Up Train, Down Train 4'33" Prayer Mark Vogel Jorin Bossen Monkees Kim Jong Un Donald Trump Immigration Allen Ginsberg Naomi Shihab Nye Walt Whitman

Jan 15, 2019

Homily: Christmas Eve 2018

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, December 24, 2018

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“for hate is strong
and mocks the song
of peace on earth,
to all good will.”

These words were penned by the great Unitarian poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He wrote them on Christmas Day in 1863. He wrote them in the middle of the Civil War, shortly after his son had joined the Union Army without his permission. He wrote them two years after his wife died. He wrote them when this country was in the midst of a profound crisis and when he was caught in his own personal crisis.

“And in despair I bowed my head,” these are good verses for tonight. Christmas 2018 finds this country and our world again in severe crisis. The federal government is shutdown. Migrants are dying at the border. Climate change continues to wreak havoc across the planet. Turkey threatens genocide against the Kurds of Syria. I do not have it within me to offer you a light and cheery Christmas homily.

Perhaps that is alright. Christmas is a complicated holiday. When we turn to the ancient texts we find much in them to suggest that the world was not right two thousand years ago. There is Caesar Augustus organizing a census to count the people of the Roman Empire. He did so not to aid the poor but to benefit the wealthy. There is Herod flying into a rage massacring “all the boys aged two years or under” because one of them might have threatened his rule. The names may have changed but the story has not. We can replace Caesar Augustus with the current President of the United States and the narrative will not be all that different. We can swap Herod with Basar al-Assad or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and our discussion of executed or planned massacres will mirror the gospel texts.

The fundamental conceit of the Christmas holiday is that two thousand years ago a child was born who threatened this great disorder of things. We are supposed to be celebrating the advent of a messiah whose birth meant that God was going to bring about peace and joy to the whole world. We are supposed to celebrating the coming of the kingdom and the reign of the divine. For Christians this event is so important that it actually divides time in two. First there was the era known as B.C., Before Christ. And now there is the era of Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord.

For Unitarian Universalists, the holiday is more convoluted. Most of us do not believe that Jesus was the messiah. A few of us wonder if he existed at all. And yet, we celebrate the holiday.

Sometimes this prompts people to tell jokes at our expense. A few of these are jokes are quite mean spirited. Others a bit more gentle, “What’s the Unitarians favorite Christmas movie? Coincidence on 34th street.”

Occasionally the holiday prompts us to poke fun at ourselves. One of my favorite bits along these lines is the late Unitarian minister Christopher Raible’s holiday hymn, “God Rest Ye, Unitarians.” Appealing to the hardcore rationalists among us it begins:

God rest ye, Unitarians, let nothing you dismay;
Remember there's no evidence there was a Christmas Day;
When Christ was born is just not known, no matter what they say,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.

A rationalist reading of the Christmas story would examine other aspects of the ancient texts as well. It would point out that their references to a census by Caesar Augustus and Herod’s massacre of the innocents are metaphoric at best. There seems to be little historical evidence that either occurred.

And yet, in 2018, Christian readings of the Christmas story that celebrates Jesus as the world saving of messiah and rationalist readings that offer “Glad tidings of reason and fact” both miss an essential point. The Christmas story, whether metaphor or fact, suggests something crucial about what we are called to do when in despair we bow our heads. It is a lesson of where we are supposed to look for hope.

When we read the story carefully we discover that the invention of Caesar Augustus’s census and Herod’s massacre of the innocents turn Jesus not only into a messiah. They turn him into a child of migrants fleeing political persecution. They turn him into a child of the least of these. The great messiah is not born to the high and mighty. He is born to outcasts so poor they must take shelter in a cave or a stable because they cannot find room in an inn.

This story suggests that we are to look for hope on the margins of society. We will not to find it by looking to the powerful. We will not find it by turning to Caesar Augustus or Herod or the President of the United States or Assad or Erdoğan. We will to find it by looking to the prisoners, the migrants, the refugees, the civilians who endure the horrors of war... all of those who bravely insist that there is another way.

I have been thinking of this dimension of the Christmas story over the past weeks as my heart has been burdened by the death of seven-year-old Jacklin Caal. She was the young Guatemalan migrant who died in the custody of the United States Border Patrol after being denied medical attention. If Jesus existed he was born into a family like Jacklin’s, a family that was fleeing violence and death.

And let me tell you, that is exactly what Jacklin’s family was fleeing. The countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are some of the most violent in the world. They routinely have murder rates that mirror those of countries at war. I have gone to El Salvador and interviewed the victims of that violence. I spent years doing human rights work in southern Mexico and spoke with migrants who passed through that country on their way to the United States. I could recount their stories and on this Christmas Eve push you to despair.

If were to do so, I might tell you that the violence found in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala was produced by the powerful in this country. Their histories of instability are a result of the United States government’s systematic undermining of their movements for democracy. Their recent spikes in violence a result of our government deporting Central American gang members back their home countries in the nineties. Addressing their widespread poverty would do more to stem the flow of migrants than Donald Trump’s quest to build a wall. The budget for building a wall is almost the same as the entire budget of the government of Honduras. The budget of the US Customs and Border Patrol is about five times the budget of El Salvador. Imagine how different the lives of people in Central America would be if the money spent keeping them out of this country was spent to improve their countries instead.

But I digress. The Christmas story does not just remind us that the powerful are so often responsible for the violence of the world. It reminds us that hope is to be found at the margins of society. It is to found amongst those who have the most at stake in changing the world: the migrants who flee violent lands with a dream of peace in their hearts; the prisoners who are bold enough to imagine a world without prisons; the labor militants who believe that it is possible build a world where there is prosperity for all; the peace activists who dream of the end of war; the ecological activists who hope that there is way that we might yet live in harmony with the earth... When the world changes for the better it will be because of the work of those on the margins.

When we remember that we can go beyond the third verse of Longfellow’s hymn, “And in despair I bowed my head:” and hear the bells of the fourth:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
“God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;
the wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
with peace on earth, to all goodwill.”

My prayer for us this Christmas is simple:

May we hear the deeper peals of the bells
and, rationalist or believer,
remember that the story tells us to look for hope
not among the powerful--
the architects of wars
and government shutdowns--
but at the margins of society.

It is there
that we might find hope
just as it was there
that the ancient texts
found hope in the birth
of a child
to migrants
fleeing political persecution
some two thousand years ago.

Merry Christmas!
Much love to all of you,
have a wonderful holiday
and Amen.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags Christmas Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Federal Shutdown Rojava Syria Immigration Caesar Augustus Basar al-Assad Herod Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Christopher Raible Donald Trump Jacklin Caal El Salvador Central America Customs and Border Patrol

Nov 5, 2018

Sermon: The Virtues of Conservatism

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 4, 2018

This is the Sunday before a truly contentious election. Many of us are deeply concerned about the future direction of this country. Some of us fear that it is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. The path forward for most, if not all of us, seems unclear. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday the United States will remain a divided country. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday, democracy in the United States and throughout the world will continue to be in crisis.

One aspect of this crisis is that it is difficult for people with different political opinions to talk to each other. Many of us self-stratify. We choose to live in communities where most people hold similar values to us. I am guilty of this myself. When I moved to Houston from Boston I selected the Montrose neighborhood. It is near the church. There are lots of art museums, restaurants, bars, and cute shops. It has good public transit. It is walkable. It is also a liberal enclave.

People like to ask me how I am coping with the culture shock of moving from the Northeast to the South. When they do, I have to tell them that so far it does not seem that different. I do so with the knowledge that the reason why it does not seem that different is that most of the places I find myself in are places filled with people like myself: liberal or left educated professionals. In such places I find that most people more-or-so less hold similar political, religious, and social values.

Last week I found myself at a Halloween party where not everyone held similar political views. And I was reminded of how difficult it is for people in this country to talk to each other. There I was, hanging out on a new friends’ porch as torrents of rain came and the kids ran from house-to-house trick-or-treating in increasingly soggy costumes. Someone came up to introduce himself to me. He seemed friendly enough. He asked me if I had tried the frito pie. I confessed that I did not know what frito pie was. He explained to me that it was a combination of frito chips, chili, and cheese--and pointed over to the table where all three items sat waiting to be mixed together.

Another person entered the conversation. Somehow, the topic shifted, and we found ourselves talking about the horrific events of the last week. It came up that I am in favor of some kind of gun control. And that completely ended the conversation. Full stop. No attempt to find common ground. No discussion. The man I had been talking to said something like, “The Second Amendment is what it is” and walked off. He was not rude or anything. He just made it clear that we had nothing more to talk about.

Have you had a similar experience? Or does this experience seem familiar: You post something political online. Pretty soon your Facebook wall or your Twitter stream becomes a mess of vitriol and bile. You unfriend your aunt. You block your cousin. No one convinces anyone of anything. Instead, everyone retrenches in their own enclaves. Or you decide to embrace the old maxim and refrain from discussing politics at the dinner table.

Some philosophers argue that this dilemma is inherent to our contemporary culture. Different moral and political positions are conceptually incommensurable. That is a fancy way of saying is that there is no rational way to sort out a disagreement between them. They begin from different premises or are rooted in different core values.

This is something you may have experienced on those occasions when you have been able to engage someone from a different political perspective in a debate. I remember one experience I had like this when I was on an airplane. I was on my way to present a paper at some academic conference. My seatmate struck up a conversation. He asked me what I did and where I was going. I told him. It turned out that he was a classics major from a conservative Christian college.

We spent the next two or three hours discussing philosophy, theology, and the classical canon. On the surface it appeared that we influenced by many of the same thinkers. Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Ovid, Augustine... We had read and appreciated each of them. But, it is like the Greek poet Sappho wrote:

If you are squeamish

Don’t prod the
beach rubble

We failed to follow Sappho’s warning not to go deeper. As the conversation continued, we discovered we did not agree on anything. Despite our common canon, we actually shared no ground. Any position that one of us took the other found objectionable. We did not agree upon racial justice, economics, women’s rights, GLBT rights, federal funding for higher education, the reality of climate change, prison reform, the origin of human life, gun control, the nature of good and evil, the separation of church and state...

There is a lot of ground that can be covered in a few hours. Yet each time we approached a subject we found we had completely incompatible arguments. Take abortion, an issue in American political life that has long proved divisive. I made an argument that ran something like this: In a free society, each person has the right to control their own body. An embryo is part of the mother’s body. Since a mother has a right to do what she wants with her body she has the right to freely make a decision about whether or not she will have an abortion. Therefore, abortion is morally permissible.

My seatmate started from a different place. He claimed that an embryo is actually an identifiable human being. As such, it was accorded rights of its own. The chief of these rights is the right not to be murdered. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.*

Our positions were, as I suggested earlier, conceptually incommensurable. They were based in different assumptions about what it means to be human. There was no way to rationally reconcile them. It was almost as if we were talking different languages. Actually, it was worse than that. Es posible por me decir el mismo cosa en Español que digo en Inglés. It is possible for me to say the same thing in Spanish that I say in English. But it was not possible for my seatmate and I to agree on what we meant when we used words that were central to our vocabularies. The words like life, murder, and body meant different things to each of us.

Friends, this is where we are right now in our political history. We have reached a point where people cannot agree upon what words mean or what it means to be human. Indeed, this country’s resurgence of white supremacy and nationalism indicates that people cannot even agree upon who is a human being. The poor suffering migrants who are wending their way from Honduras to the United States border are human beings. They breath, they cry, they hunger, they love, they fear, they struggle, the same as anyone in this sanctuary this morning. The same is true of the eleven Jewish elders who were murdered last week as they gathered for worship at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. The same is true of the two black people recently killed in a Kroeger in Kentucky. The same is true of the two women killed at a yoga studio in Florida on Friday. They were all humans with hopes, loves, fears, families, friends, favorite foods, like any of us. And yet, their murderers failed to recognize them as such. Instead, their murderers saw them as something other than human.

It is not just that we cannot agree upon our fundamental values. It is that we cannot agree upon who is a who human being. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan may have argued, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” but apparently, he was wrong. People seem very much to have their own facts. And sure, you might, and I might, argue that certain facts are, well, facts based in an objectively measurable reality but that would be beside the point. We cannot get everyone to agree to what the objectively measurable reality is. For many people, it is an objectively measurable fact that the scriptures--be they the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon--are divinely inspired. For me, they are great works of literature containing much wisdom and not a little foolishness, testaments to the infinite power of human creativity, the luster of poetry that lies within.

The great challenge before us is collectively finding our way out of this mess. And here I could make the observation that there is no historical example of people defeating totalitarianism through debate. And that it has only ever been defeated through mass mobilization. And that it has not always been defeated. And I could list the examples of the great life affirming, antifascist, movements that have stood against totalitarianism in Europe, in Latin America, and in the United States. And I could talk with you about the tragic defeats of those who stood against the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Or the loss of Spain to the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in the 1930s. But I do not think that would bring us any closer to figuring out a way forward that does not reenact the great struggles of the past.

And so, I want to turn to my sermon title, “The Virtues of Conservatism.” It hints at one path that might be available to us, the path of virtue ethics. Ethics is organized around the question, How should I live a good life? This is the question that faces us today, on the Sunday before the election, just as it is a question that we will face next week after all of the ballots have been counted. It is a question that we must answer within the context in which we live, under the threat of rising totalitarianism. It is a question we will answer somewhat differently ten or twenty years from now when the political, cultural, and ecological world we find ourselves in has changed.

Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. It has been favored by some of the great fighters for freedom and justice. Malcolm X was one of the true heroes of the twentieth-century. He taught us to struggle for freedom and justice “by any means necessary.”

Virtue ethics is the third broad school of ethics. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... These traits are called the virtues.

Virtue ethics are favored by many conservatives. Such thinkers tend to treat the virtues as static. There is one meaning to being brave or honest. There is one meaning to compassion. Such thinkers also tend to think that social roles are fixed and that we are best selves when we perform the roles we are given when we pursue the virtues inherent in them. There is one way to be a good, and virtuous, parent, or worker, or child, or spouse or whatever.

Virtue ethicists tend to talk about how the presence of virtue is expressed in character. The conservative intellectual David Brooks writes a lot about the relationship between virtue and character. One of my friends accuses of him being a crypto-moderate, but Brooks speaks for a certain element of patrician conservatives. His interest in virtue ethics is mirrored in other patrician conservatives like William Bennett; Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, he wrote an entire book called “The Book of Virtues.”

But here’s the thing, virtue ethics has a long connection to Unitarian Universalism. It was particularly favored by our Unitarian ancestors. Let me give you an example.

Lately, I have been poking around in the church library. It is something I do instinctually. I have spent enough my life doing historical research that if you put me within smelling distance of an archive I will start digging through it like a pig rooting for truffles.

A couple of weeks I happened across a beat-up pale green volume. Coffee stains on the front, it is marked “Scrap Book.” It contains a selection of newspaper and magazine cuttings about First Church and Unitarianism from the late 1920s through the early 1940s.

One of those articles contains a sermon that was preached when this congregation dedicated its first building here on Fannin and Southmore. The minister was then Thomas Sanders. We have already read the closing paragraph of his sermon. I want to draw our attention to its last sentence, “The church must generate moral power as well as instruct, for salvation is found in the development of character.”

Salvation is found in the development of character. It is about a clear a statement of the classical Unitarian theology of New England as I can imagine. In this view, the purpose of the church is to provide people a moral education so that they can strive towards self-improvement and live good lives. These Unitarians understood themselves to be Christian because they believed, as one wrote, “the character of Christ... sets before us moral perfection.” Christ was someone who had developed perfect character and who tried to teach others how to develop it. By following Christ’s teachings, they thought, people could discover the inner light within and begin to approach what they called “the likeness to God.” The great nineteenth-century Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves, and realize our own likeness to God, by nurturing such virtues.

The virtues for someone like Channing were not unlike the virtues for many contemporary conservative philosophers. They came out of respecting a certain set of fixed social roles. Nineteenth-century New England Unitarians contained many of the country’s mercantile elite. They had much clearer ideas of what it meant to be a Unitarian minister or a banker or a ship’s captain or a wife or a husband or a judge or a student than we do today. I suspect that many of us would disagree with how they understood those social roles. I certainly have no interest in receiving the kind of deference from congregants that a man like Channing could expect. Nor do I am interested in serving the elite in the same way that he did.

But that misses the point, the possibility, that I see in virtue ethics. It allows us to possibly find an entry point into a conversation with those who occupy different political, philosophical, and theological positions. We can probe the writings of Channing and discover what he meant by words like courage. His definition was different than ours. It centered on Jesus. I doubt many contemporary Unitarian Universalists would resonate with his claim that we express our moral freedom by leaving “all for Christ.” And yet, we can recognize that he valued, as we do, the importance of speaking our own truth and of being brave in the face of injustice.

I suspect that the same is true of my seatmate on the airplane. We were able to keep talking because we could at least agree upon which words might be important in our lives, even if we had completely different understandings of them. I was able to ask him, What does it mean to live a good life in your community? And he was able to ask me the same. It is true that our conversation went nowhere. But, unlike the man I met at the party, we were able to keep talking.

I have this inkling, this thought, that it might that the best we can hope for over the long haul is the possibility of staying together in a collective conversation. It is true that the ends, the goals, I seek have a lot more in common with Malcolm X than with the man I was sitting next to on the plane. I am against white supremacy. I am against totalitarianism. I am against economic inequality. I am for the great project of collective liberation, the unleashing of the human spark that can leap each to each.

But it is also true that I suspect that on some level each of us can articulate a vision of the good life. It might not be found in the words we speak. It may only be present in the actions we take. But, nonetheless, I imagine it can found in the lives we try to live and the lives we valorize. I have a suspicion that each of you has some sense of who is a good person and the kind of people you admire. And sometimes, we can even find something to admire, some sense of virtue, in those people we find ourselves in violent disagreement with. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the greatest philosophers in this country’s history. He was able to say that there was “something noble in the figure of Jefferson Davis” even as he denounced Davis’s white supremacy and observed that there was “something fundamentally incomplete about” the standards by which the old Confederate had tried to live.

Such an appeal to virtue ethics might be a foolish hope. But then again, Unitarian Universalism has been labelled a faith without certainty. I would be lying to you if I told you I knew exactly what must be done, today or tomorrow. I know that totalitarianism has only ever been defeated by mass mobilization. But I also know that even as we confront the present horrors of the day we must try to stumble our way forward for the long haul. And that something must change if we are not to endlessly repeat, as it seems we are now, the cycles of totalitarian rise and defeat. And maybe, just maybe, those stumbles include a focus on the common vocabulary that exists across political difference. As David Brooks has observed, virtue ethics “is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness.” And so, I leave you, on this Sunday before the election, not with a clear charge or solid instructions on what you must do but rather with the glimmer of hope that we can seek and find a common vocabulary with those we disagree. I do not hope that we will agree. I only that we might find a way to remain in a conversation.

Maybe then we might each discover the shining light within. Then maybe, just maybe, against all the odds, and the heart break, and the human error, our lives will echo with the words offered by the African American poet Thylias Moss:

You will be the miracle.
You will feed yourself five thousand times.

May those words be true for each of us.

Amen and Blessed.

* My reconstruction of our argument owes something to Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” third edition (Norte Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 7.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston 2018 Election Montrose Halloween Conservatism Donald Trump Gun Control Abortion Sappho White Supremacy Totalitarianism Tree of Life Congregation Daniel Patrick Moynihan Virtue Ethics David Brooks William Bennett Thomas Sanders William Ellery Channing Malcolm X W. E. B. Du Bois Thylias Moss

Oct 29, 2018

Sermon: Collective Memory, a Sermon in Response to the Shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation

as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 29, 2018

This morning I find myself needing to give a rather different sermon than I had planned. Yesterday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, the week’s bomb threats by would-be a right-wing terrorist, and the current presidential administration’s ongoing assault on truth, decency, and democratic norms require it.

Today, we need to stop and recognize where we are. Today, we need to stop and articulate who we are. Today, we need to stop and talk about what we must do.

I am going to begin my sermon by doing something that might seem a little odd to you all. I am going to take off my stole. I wear this stole as a symbol of my religious office. In our tradition it means that I am an ordained minister.

I am taking off my stole right now because I want to address you for a few minutes as something other than your minister. I recognize that is not fully possible. I am in the pulpit and, right now, I am religious leader of this congregation.

But for a little while, I want to consciously address you from another place--from another role I inhabit. I am not just a parish minister. I also a scholar. I have a PhD from Harvard University. And one of the things I specialize in is the study of white supremacist and white nationalist movements and totalitarian regimes. Just last month I gave a talk at San Francisco State University on the political ideology of the Ku Klux Klan.

And so, I want to be clear that what I about to say is not something I say lightly. I want to be clear that I say it with the full authority of someone who has spent years of his life studying the dynamics of terror, authoritarianism, and white supremacy.

This country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. More precisely, this country is on the verge of becoming ruled by a neo-Confederate regime. In many ways, it already is one. The country has become what’s called a mixed regime. It already exhibits aspects of a totalitarianism even while it remains, formally, a liberal democracy.

I am going to talk with you about each of those claims. I want to be clear about where we are right now in the arc of human history. We cannot live authentically as a religious community if we do not recognize the context within which we live, the moment of history that we inhabit. We need to recognize where we are if we are to live our faith authentically.

This country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. Totalitarian states are organized around the personality for a charismatic leader who personifies the state’s power. A totalitarian state seeks global domination and total subjugation of all who live within its borders. Its leaders identify a racial or minority group who must be purged from the body politic in order for their vision of society to thrive. Totalitarian states have no respect for the rule of law. Instead, they concentrate power in the head of state.

The Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt described this last dynamic most clearly when he argued, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” By this he meant, that the sovereign, the person who holds power, is inherently above the law because he is the law. Therefore, the sovereign can do nothing illegal. Since he is the law, any action he takes is fundamentally legal. If this sounds somewhat familiar, it should. There are clear parallels between Schmitt’s views and those of the man just confirmed as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. The newest Justice appears to believe that the President cannot be subpoenaed by employees of the Justice Department because they work for him.

This is not the only parallel to be found among right-wing partisans and totalitarian philosophers and politicians. The philosopher Hannah Arendt pointed out that in order to function, totalitarian regimes have a deliberately loose relationship with the truth. She wrote, “Totalitarian politics... use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality... have all but disappeared.” Let me repeat that quote, “Totalitarian politics... use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality... have all but disappeared.” The constant cries of fake news and attacks on the press by the man who currently holds the nation’s highest office should make the dynamics Arendt describes seem familiar.

Arendt has much to teach us about what totalitarianism is and how it comes about. In her classic text, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt makes two further observations about totalitarianism. First, it is based in the politics of terror. Second, that its origins lie in antisemitism.

In a totalitarian regime no one is ever secure. The threat of arbitrary violence haunts every waking. People who live under a totalitarian regime never know when or where violence will erupt. They only know that regardless of who they are or what they have done they may meet a terrible end. Arendt tells us, in totalitarian regime, “nobody... can ever be free of fear.” “Terror,” she warns, “strikes without any preliminary provocation... its victims... objectively innocent... chosen regardless of what they may or may not have done.” As I offer you those words, I want you to think about this country’s epidemic of gun violence. And I want us to pause and hold in our hearts yesterday’s eleven victims of antisemitic gun violence at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.

Yesterday’s attack on a synagogue would not have surprised Arendt. She understood that antisemitism was an essential element of totalitarianism. Totalitarians gain power by identifying a societal enemy, a scapegoat, on whom they can lay the blame for society’s ills. They then target those people for violent excision from society. Jews are often the scapegoats. For hundreds of years there have been those who blame a secret conspiracy of Jews for the world’s ills. This idea was at the root of Nazism. And it is present in the discourse of those contemporary politicians who seem to aspire to totalitarianism.

The Hungarian philanthropist and investment banker George Soros comes from a Jewish family. He survived the Holocaust. Today, Victor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, and the current President of the United States have all attacked him for supporting progressive causes. Soros was one of the targets of this past weeks bomb threats. During the contentious struggle over the appointment of the most recent Supreme Court Justice, the President tweeted that protesters against the then nominee were “‘professionals’ who were ‘paid by (George) Soros and others.’” Yesterday, the President laughed when someone at one his rallies shouted out the word “Soros” when he “attacked ‘globalists’ who are ‘cheating’ American workers.” The word globalist, alongside the word cosmopolitan, has a history of being used as a codeword by antisemites to describe Jews.

Globalists, in totalitarian regimes, and in the narratives of men like Orban and the current US President, are in league with another enemy. For them, that enemy is migrants, the Mexicans who many fear are coming to take their jobs. Jimmy Santiago Baca reminds us that such narratives serve the powerful, not the weak. He writes,

I see this, and I hear only a few people
got all the money in this world, the rest
count their pennies to buy bread and butter.

Totalitarians divide society in order to preserve the privilege of the powerful. That is exactly what is happening when men like the current President attack migrants. It is also what is happening when he attacks transgender people, another favorite target of totalitarians.

When I say that this country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state I have all of these dynamics in mind. A charismatic leader who feels he is above the rule of law, widespread campaigns of lies, terror, antisemitism... all of these are present in our society today.

The totalitarian state that I fear is emerging is not a generic totalitarian state. It is one rooted deeply in American culture. It is an aspiring neo-Confederate regime. Let me explain, since its inception a leading strain of thought, culture and economic practice in the United States has been brazenly white supremacist. The Constitution was written to favor slaveholding states. The Electoral College is partially a legacy of slavery. It was designed to ensure that Southern slave states had disproportion power in the new republic. Otherwise, they threatened secession. Indeed, when a split electorate chose an anti-slavery politician as President the South did secede.

The Civil War was a war to maintain chattel slavery and white supremacy. It was also a war to maintain male supremacy. The two substantive differences between the United States Constitution and the Confederate States Constitution were that the second proclaimed that only whites and only males could be ever citizens.

When I label the presidential administration neo-Confederate I am explicitly thinking of the Confederacy’s claim to white male supremacy. The President’s most recent choice for a Supreme Court Justice and his appointment of Jeff Sessions to Attorney General can be read as a commitment to an ideology that puts the needs and rights of white males over and against the rights of everyone else.

I use the label neo-Confederate to place the presidential administration within the context of American history. I use it to remind us that this country’s rising forces of reaction are not a foreign threat. They represent a cultural and political tradition that is deeply embedded in this country. I use it to remind us that the struggle against it is not the struggle of our generation alone. It is a struggle that has been going on since the abolitionists were brave enough to imagine that this country could offer citizenship to all: black, white, male, female, transgender... It is a struggle that was at the root of the civil rights movement. And it is a struggle that continues today.

Finally, I want to turn to the claim that this country has become a mixed-regime. In some ways, the state is already functioning as a full-blown totalitarian regime. We have seen this in the caging of children at the border. We have seen it in the attack on transgender rights. We have seen it in the impunity that police officers often receive when they kill people of color. We have seen it in the way the President attacks the press as the enemy of the people. We have seen it in the way he attacks private citizens who disagree with him.

In a mixed-regime elements of multiple kinds of political systems are present. For many people of color, for many immigrants, for many transgender people, the United States is already essentially a totalitarian regime. And yet, it maintains aspects of a liberal democracy. Many of us, especially people with what one of my friends likes to call “the complexion connection,” still have the right to vote. We still have freedom of speech. We still can tell the truth. We can denounce lies. We can still feel safe in our own homes and in our places of work. Such privileges are not true for all of us. And to name that dynamic is to recognize that for many people totalitarianism has already come to the United States.

This country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. It is on the verge of transforming into a neo-Confederate regime. For many people, it already is one.

I admit, all of this political philosophy and history is dense material for a Sunday morning. And it is not exactly a sermon fare.

And so, now, I am going to put my stole back on. And I am going to read a letter that Bob Miller and I sent this morning to the Congregation Jewish Community North, where our Tapestry campus rents space. And then I am going to invite Mark and the choir to sing to us. And then I am going to offer you a brief homily on who we are and what we must do.

Dear Rabbi Siger and Members of the Congregation Jewish Community North:

Like people of good faith everywhere, we are distressed to learn of yesterday’s attacks on the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. Antisemitism is a vile form of hatred. We mourn this week’s dead in Pittsburgh. We mourn all of the millions who have lost their lives over the centuries to antisemitism. We join our voices with those who denounce it. We join our hands with those who work against it. We join our hearts with those who weep at the devastation that it continues to cause.

Our Tapestry campus is honored to share space with your congregation. If there is anything we do for you please let us. This includes working with you to support any existing or future plans around security.

On behalf of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, we offer a prayer for a peaceful world free from hatred and violence.

love,

The Rev. Dr. Colin Bossen, Interim Senior Minister
Bob Miller, Board President

I would like to now invite Mark and the choir up to sing us a song they sang last week, “Al Shlosha D'varim.” As Mark told us last week, the Hebrew of this song translates, “The world is sustained by three things: by truth, by justice, and by peace.” There are no better words for times like these.

[Pause]

The world is sustained by truth, by justice, and by peace. Originally, I was going to offer you a sermon specifically tailored to the last days of the month and first days of next month. The end of October and the beginning of November are home to a host of holidays: Samhain, Halloween, the Day of the Dead, All Souls Day... Neo-pagan theologian Starhawk describes this time of year as when “the veils between the worlds begin to thin.” Across different cultures and religions people gather to remember ancestors, to mourn the dead, to reflect upon mortality, and consider each of our places within the cycle of life.

I do not think we need, or have time for, a full sermon in light of all I have just said. Instead, I want to relate the season’s holidays to the events of the hour. Earlier I said, it is important to recognize where we are. But that is not enough. We also need to articulate who we are and what we must do.

These are tasks for the religious community. As the President of our Association, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray has told us “this is no time for a casual faith or a casual commitment to your values, your community, your congregation, your soul, and your faith.” When we articulate who are and what we must do we become anything but a casual faith.

Out of respect for the season’s holidays, I want to hone in on a single aspect of who are we and what we must do. We are a community of memory. This is one of the gifts of religious community. It offers us the opportunity to take part in conversations that stretch beyond a single generation. It gives us the chance to be part of something that will survive us. It lets us find hope and wisdom in those who were here before us. In doing so, it enables us to connect to something greater than ourselves: the great flow of human history. When we do we are reminded that our own lives are transitory. Yet at the same time we are also reminded that when we die we leave much behind on this Earth. This is true for us no matter how humble or haughty we were while we trod across this muddy blue ball of a planet.

As a community of memory we describe what is and what has been. This truth telling is one of the most important functions of a religious community in these times. We are reminded of this when we read the works of someone like Anna Akhmatova, the magnificent poet who survived Stalin’s terror. In her great poem “Requiem” she reminds us that simply describing the what is of the horrors of the world is a profound act of resistance. Writing of her time in a gulag, she recounts a conversation she had with another inmate:

“‘Could one ever describe
this?’ And I answered - ‘I can.’ It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.”

As a community of memory our church exists across time, across the generations. There is a story that preachers like to tell about how participating in such a community can draw us out of the private pains of our own lives and connect with us the justice, the peace, and the truth that sustain the world.

The story is about the Cathedral of Chartes. It is in France, located a bit South of Paris. It is considered one of the true treasures of the world, the sort of thing that inspires flights of poetry and stirrings of the soul. The stained glass, I have read, is particularly beautiful. Edith Warton captured something of it in her poem “Chartes:”

Immense, august, like some Titanic bloom,
The mighty choir unfolds its lithic core,
Petalled with panes of azure, gules and or,
Splendidly lambent in the Gothic gloom,
And stamened with keen flamelets that illume
The pale high-altar.

Like many a medieval cathedral, it took years to build. Many of the people who started building it died before it was completed. Or they began working on the church when they were young adults and finished when they were grandparents.

One day, in the middle of the construction, the story goes, a traveler came to Chartes. She went to the site as the day was winding down. She asked one worker, covered in dust, what he did. He was a stonemason. She asked the next. He said he was a glassblower. She asked another, a blacksmith.

As the traveler walked into the cathedral’s interior she encountered a woman with a broom. She was sweeping up the chips of stone from the stonemason. She was cleaning up the cast aside incandescent filaments from the glassblower. She was picking up fragments of iron left behind by the blacksmith. The traveler asked the woman what she was doing. She paused. She leaned on her broom. She looked around her at the columns without roofs, at the windows without panes, at the floors without flagstones, and said, “Me? I’m building a cathedral for the Glory of God Almighty.”*

Unitarian Universalists do not generally build cathedrals for the Glory of God Almighty. There are a few exceptions: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple outside of Chicago; Albert Kahn’s First Unitarian Church of Rochester; Universalist Memorial Church in Washington, DC... The best parts of our tradition have done something else. They have sought to maintain the human in the face of the demonic. They have struggled against the totalitarian regimes of yesteryear. They have sought to build the better world, the world that is always almost come but never quite here. Women and men like Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frances Ellen Watkins, James Luther Adams, and, today, Mark Morrison-Reed, and Susan Frederick-Gray have repeatedly called out from the depths of our tradition to remind us that we are at our most human when we are seekers of truth, peace, and justice.

Their teachings are a gift we have given the world. It is the cathedral we have sought to build, generation-to-generation, metaphoric stone by metaphoric stone. It is incomplete. What we are called to do today is to do our part, contribute our bit, to this great work of sustaining the world through truth, justice, and peace. On a day like today, we honor the ancestors, the Theodore Parkers and Elizabeth Peabodys, the Sophia Fahses and the Clarence Skinners, who have gone before. We remember the dead of this congregation. The women and men who sustained it in previous generations. They sustained it, in part, so that we could contribute our own bricks to the great cathedral of justice. Adorn Strambler, Sarah Nelson Crawford, and John Kellet, none of whom I knew, helped to make this community what it is: a community of devoted to love and justice sustained across time in pursuit of peace and truth. When we gather we honor them. When we gather we unite with many who have gone before and contributed to the great struggles that we now find ourselves engaged in.

Now, the scholar in me wants to offer a footnote about how this is not all of our tradition, or even the majority of it. I could point that out the white supremacist John C. Calhoun, the man who the historian Richard Hofstadter once called “the Marx of the master class,” was a Unitarian. But I am not going to do that. Instead, I want to again say that this is the best part of our tradition. It is the part of the tradition that we are called to honor. And it is a tradition that teaches that one of our most radical acts is simply to assert our own humanity in the face of dehumanizing totalitarianism.

Friends, in times like these, we are called to speak truth,
we are called to work for justice,
to march,
to protest,
to sit down,
and sit-in,
to be cogs in the wheels of the machine
that would crush the human from the earth.

But we are called to much more than that,
we are called to be human,
to delight in the unseasonal sun,
to laugh with our friends,
to celebrate vegetable gardens,
to pet dogs,
to play,
to love each other.

For ultimately,
whatever else,
it is this common human decency,
that will save us from all of the terror
that we face.
It is common human decency,
the sense that we are all part of the same human family,
that each of us deserves respect,
that each of us is worthy of love,
that we strive to protect
in these difficult times.

And so, I say, today,
if you feel overwhelmed,
as I do,
by the rising madness of it all,
let us remember
that it is important to march,
and struggle,
but it is more important
to simply embrace the human in each other
to see the pain and the joy
in each other’s faces.
It is by being human with each other
that we will ultimately live into a world
where truth, justice, and peace,
reign,
and the terror of totalitarianism
has become but a memory,
echoing in the past.

As I close I invite you to join with me a simple prayer:

Oh, spirit of life,
that some call God,
and others name,
human goodness,
be with each of us,
as we struggle to see the human in each other,
and remind us,
always,
that in our human hands
and our human hearts
lies the power
and the hope that we are looking for,
the power to embrace our loves
and the power to change the world for the better.

And before the congregation says Amen,
I invite you into a minute of silence,
to honor the dead,
to consider our own place in the work
of building the cathedral of justice,
and to contemplate all that has been said.

We descend into silence with the hope that our sermon,
with all its many imperfections,
has done its own small work in building
the cathedral of justice.

There will now be a minute of silence.

Now, let the congregation say Amen.

* This version of the story is partially drawn from Robert Fulghum, “It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It” (New York: Random House, 1988), 74-75.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston Tapestry Campus Tree of Life Congregation Congregation Jewish Community North Pittsburgh Antisemitisim Ku Klux Klan Totalitarian Totalitarianism Carl Schmitt Neo-Confederate Brett Kavanaugh Donald Trump Hannah Arendt George Soros Victor Orban Jair Bolsonaro Jimmy Santiago Baca White Supremacy Civil War Jeff Sessions Starhawk All Souls Day Samhain Halloween Day of the Dead Susan Frederick-Gray Anna Akhmatova Cathedral of Chartes Edith Warton Robert Fulghum John Calhoun Richard Hofstadter

Dec 8, 2017

Into the Dark of the Night

The title of this morning’s sermon is “Into the Dark of the Night.” It is December, the first Sunday of Advent, and there are eighteen days until the longest night of the year. In a town like Ashby, in a state such as Massachusetts, I suspect that during days of the late autumn and winter the long nights are very dark. I imagine that when we gather to light the Christmas tree on the common this afternoon the sun will be on the cusp of setting and the sky, the sky... the sky will be edging towards pitch.

The start of Advent is the best time of year to contemplate the dark of the night. The dark of the night... winter... There’s too little sunlight, too many grey days and seeming unending nights. Some days I get to my office at Harvard before the sun peaks out between sludge clouds and leave after the day star’s rays have disappeared. I bike home in the ice cold, pass through dim streets, and arrive in a chilled apartment just as the radiators kick on. The next morning it is hard to get out of bed to greet a day with little light or little warmth. And so it goes... the end of November, December, January, the long curse that is February, the false hope of March, and, finally, the bright promise of April.

The winter months are not without hope. There are tonight’s bright Christmas tree lights. There are the flames of the menorah. The shamus glows in the center. Each night more lights move in from the edges until at last the branched brass or oil globes or treed silver shines nine strong against evening’s lack. There’s Kwanzaa with its seven candled kinara. Each wax dipped wick represents a community principle. In all, the dark of December contains at least half a month of sacred light.

The holidays are not the only hope to be found in the dark months. One morning soon we will awaken and discover the world a perfect blanket of quiet crystalline white. The day might become a quick sled ride down a long hill; a misshapen snowball thumping wetly against a woolen coat or nylon jacket; a fort or lumpy sculpture that arises from damp and thick winter flakes; or—or is it and?—a mug of steaming mulled cider or, better, hot chocolate resting on the kitchen counter. Humans signs of warmth and creativity against the season’s harshness.

It is during the winter months that I come to know most fully a simple truth: we need each other to survive the dark of the night. This truth is matched by another: we never know for certain what will come out of night’s darkness. This first Sunday of Advent, let us sit awhile and pull at these adjacent two truths. We need each other to survive. We never know for certain what will come out of the dark of the night.

The ordinary hope of winter is predicated upon understanding these two truths. Where I live, enduring the coldest season requires a certain amount of faith that the basic fabric of society will continue to be tended to no matter how brutal the ice and snow. It also requires acceptance that winter plans are never quite reliable. How many times have you gone to bed at night only to awaken in the morning to the news that the weather has rendered your world slightly different? Your power lines are down. Your child’s school is closed. The roads are impossible. The day’s agenda for work has been suddenly whited out.

Tomorrow, or maybe the next day, this interruption will be rendered moot. The roads will be plowed. Your neighbor will stop by with their snowblower. You will host a friend whose power is still out for dinner. The unpredictably of the weather will be made manageable by human sociality.

What is faith but the trust that difficult seasons, challenging epochs, will be overcome? That misery is not the entirety of the human condition? Certainly, the Christian promise of salvation is rooted in the hope that our terrestrial challenges are destined to be vanquished through the aid of the divine. In most Christian theological narratives the passing grotesquery of death is translated into the unceasing beauty of eternal life.

Such narratives may work for some of us, providing consolation when none might otherwise be found. For others, they may appear inadequate, illusory gossamer thrown over muck and mire. In either case, we can find some wisdom when we confront the dark of the night. Theodore Rothke’s poem reminds us of this.

His words, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see,” recall times of insomnia. It is three in the morning. Coming to consciousness suddenly, the night, the apartment, is pitch around me. In the distance, the city flickers, but in my bed, restless thoughts obscure the meager moon and the street’s luminous lamps. I arise troubled by some half-insight: a friendship that has become complicated, a worry about family, or the unceasing demands of academia--Did I phrase that claim right? Do my footnotes provide the evidentiary support for my argument? I agonize about what remains of our public life. A hastily passed tax bill, the possibility of new wars, the almost unending stench of old ones, epidemics, evidence of election interference, unchecked white supremacy, and rampant patriarchal violence all add to my sleeplessness. I brood about the human place in the universe and wonder: Where does my life fit in amongst the infinite oceanic vastness of space? I find myself and lose myself, a creature composed of star dust wondering about the stars. Does any of this ever happen to you? Do your eyes crop open when all the house is quiet? What wakens you then?

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas gave insomnia a central place in his thinking on how we come to know the other. In one of those overly dense passages that some philosophers love, he tells us: “Insomnia... tears away at whatever forms a nucleus, a substance of the same, identity, a rest, a presence, a sleep. Insomnia is disturbed by the other who breaks this rest...”

Out of the dark of the night comes something that disturbs our sleep. It may be the thought unbidden, the unexpected snow, or a set of bad dreams that crash us awake. All are knowledge that something exists beyond this self, this me, this creature trying to sleep. As Roethke put it, “A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.”

Roethke’s poem and the insomnia of Levinas both relate to the famous religious idea articulated by the Spanish poet and mystic St. John of the Cross. He called it the dark night of the soul. It is the experience of crisis when it seems like the gloom of winter or the gloom of our lives will never end. At such moments, a deeper kind of spiritual insight than is usual might appear.

This morning we have been wending our way around three kinds of crises: the natural, the personal, and the social. Each is an opportunity to remember two truths it can be easy to forget: The world is ever unpredictable. We need each other to survive.

Winter in New England is an ever returning natural crisis. We build houses, drive in cars, and buy wool blankets to escape it. Perhaps I have said enough about the dark of winter already... It is what confronts us each year on the first Sunday of Advent. But just as it arrives we are reminded that year will turn again. 2017 will soon become 2018. Spring will arrive. Blue crocuses will crack through retreating films of ice. The natural crisis of winter will be replaced by spring. We do not know exactly what form the crisis of winter will take. We do know that surviving is a communal task, something that requires all of the infrastructure of our society.

The same lessons can be found in our periods of personal and social crisis. We never know what is coming out of the dark of the night. Most often, if we persist, we persist together, with the aid of our human fellows. We humans are social creatures, each of our selves formed, bolstered, and assisted by the other selves around us. What about you? How have you faced the crises in your life? Alone or with the aid of others?

Personal crises are always with us. We share our joys and sorrows each Sunday because of this enduring aspect of the human condition. Coming together on a Sunday morning makes it a little easier to cope with the tragedies, the crises, large and small that we find in our lives. Speaking of death in community reminds us that the love that is each of our lives will continue even after we have physically ceased to be. Sharing our concerns about illness or the lives of family and friends means that we do not have bear our burdens alone. Whatever comes out of the dark of the night we can gather on a Sunday morning assured that we are not alone.

We need each other during times of social crises just as much as we do when we face personal crises. And these days, it seems like social crises are ever with us. This autumn has been hard. This winter may be harder. The United States Congress just passed the most substantive tax bill in more than a generation. It was hastily pushed through the House and the Senate. It is still unclear what, exactly, it contains since it was passed without substantive public debate. It appears, however, to be a redistribution of wealth from poor and middle income people to the richest. It appears to be an assault on higher education. And it appears to be an attempt to raise the deficit in order to undermine the social safety net--Medicare and Social Security.

There are signs that the country could be headed towards an even larger crisis, a constitutional crisis. The news this week about Michael Flynn’s decision to cooperate with Special Counsel Mueller has made the prospect of the impeachment of President Trump more likely. And whether President Trump is impeached or not, the ongoing investigations into the 2016 election has led many to believe that the political institutions of the United States face disaster.

Whether you agree with my assessments of these social crises or not, I suspect that you will agree that these are difficult times across the globe. The philosopher Hannah Arendt has some words for us that come from an earlier epoch of social crises. She wrote them after living through World War II and witnessing the rise of Nazism and Soviet totalitarianism. She tells us: “even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination... from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth... Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of a blazing sun.”

I cannot sleep in peace.
The voices of nature speak
To the trouble hearts of men.

In the dark of the night, when we awake with insomnia, when we confront an unknown other, when we are called out of our sleepy selves, we can find comfort and illumination in our human fellows. When I awake to the gloom of winter or a personal crisis or a social one, I often turn to poetry. Art reminds me what others have faced and attempted to endure. Even so dour a poem as “Midnight” by the obscure Chinese poet Jen Jui provides a testament to the light we can offer each other in the dark of the night. Her light may have been a candle. It might have only burned for a moment and then been extinguished in sputtering smoke. But still, it was some slight glow and it reminds me that many others before me have struggled through social crises. Thus far, the human species, friendship, community, and beauty all continue.

We never really know what is coming out of the dark of the night. We need each other to survive it. My prayer for us this morning is simple. Will you join me in it?

Oh, all there is,
oh, unknown
and unfathomable
collapsing
and expanding
infinite whirl of star dust
and stellar light,
of which we are a part,
and which is so much greater
than any of us
or my meager words,
may we each remember
on this fine autumn morning,
and on all the mornings of our lives,
that no matter
what the dark of the night contains,
there is another truth,
that we are not alone
but each part
of the great human family
we name all souls.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags First Parish Church Ashby Advent Chanukah Kwanzaa Theodore Roethke Jen Jui Hannah Arendt Emmanuel Levinas St. John of the Cross Michael Flynn Donald Trump Robert Mueller

May 9, 2017

Deeper Shadows to Come

as preached at Hopedale Unitarian Parish, March 20, 2016

This morning I want to talk with you about the prophetic power of liberal religion. That power is something I imagine is familiar to many members of this congregation. After all, Adin Ballou, your congregation’s founding minister, was one of the great prophets of non-violent civil disobedience. Ballou, of course, did not use those words. He called his belief system Practical Christianity. He preached pacifism He counseled that only moral force was powerful enough to solve social problems. The use of violent means would only beget more violence.

Ballou is by no means unique for holding up the transformative power of prophetic liberal religion. My mentor at Harvard Dan McKanan suggests that prophetic power has two dimensions. It can “denounce... condemn those who would [in the words of Isaiah], ‘grind the face of the poor into the dust.’” It can also announce or, as Dan writes, “proclaim God’s Kingdom that will be realized here on earth, the beloved community of black and white and brown together, the new society within the shell of the old.”

The formula is present in our biblical reading from this morning. There Jeremiah warns the people of Israel, that they have gone astray. If they change their ways, he tells them, they will have God’s blessing. If they don’t then they will face disaster. This is the essence of prophetic power. And, so, what I am telling you this morning is that we as a country face disaster if we do not change our ways.

I want to start our meditation on the prophetic power of liberal religion this morning with an unlikely religious symbol, a bucket. Yes, I said a bucket. But not any bucket. Rather, I have in mind very specific bucket. Come along with me and I will show it to you.

To see this bucket we have to go to a rural Universalist church in Northern Ohio. In some ways, it is quite similar to this one. It was started in the middle of the 19th century by people who believed, like Adin Ballou did, “.” And like your congregation, it played a small role in the struggle to end slavery.

That congregation’s building was built in the style of an old New England meeting house. You probably know what I mean. Iconoclastic. White walls, wood floor, wooden pews, simple windows, not much to look at on a Sunday morning when you diligently ignoring the minister’s sermon. But like most churches that were built in that style, the congregation had a rickety aged bell tower. That’s where we are going.

The tower is only accessible from a ladder that can be up through a trapdoor. Up the ladder we go. Watch that rung. The fourth one. It probably needs to be replaced. We are on small platform now. There are little slits in the tower walls. Light comes in and we can see out. In front of us is solid rope. Do you want to ring the bell? Now over in that corner is the bucket I want to show you. It is not much to look at it. It is just a bucket. But it is really old. And it is filled with all kinds of nasty junk. There are nails and stones and broken pieces of pottery. What’s the deal with the bucket you ask? I almost forgot the most important part. It has sat in that corner for more than 150 years. You see this bell tower used to be the place where the congregation sheltered escaped slaves. The junk in the bucket: missiles to be thrown down the ladder if anyone came to drag the church’s wards back to slavery.

When I saw the bucket I was a guest minister, preaching at that little Ohio church. Apparently, they show it to all of their guest clergy. I suspect that it is the congregation’s most important religious symbol. It is a sacred object that represents an aspect of the community’s heritage that the feel a need to preserve it and share it.

The bucket represented what we might call prophetic memory. Prophetic memory can alternatively be cast as honest history. It begins with an acknowledgement of human agency. We human beings have done much to create the world in which we exist. With our hands, hearts, and minds, out of the soil, under the blessing of the sun and rain, we have hewn our society. This acknowledgement of human agency leads to a second aspect of prophetic memory. We human beings are responsible for the evil we inflict upon each other. Here, Rebecca Parker offers a helpful definition of evil. “Evil,” she writes, “is that which exploits the lives of some to benefit the lives of others.” Evil, the patterns of exploitation that shape our lives, is historically constituted. It comes from somewhere. Prophetic memory begins with the admission that the world we live in has a history. It continues with the observation that we are held in the bonds of that history, it shapes everything we do. It finishes with the proclamation that the bonds of history can only be escaped if we face them.

In Dan McKanan’s framework, prophetic memory, like other prophetic acts, combines the act of denunciation with an announcement. It denounces a historic evil and announces that if people had not acted that evil would have remained in place. In doing so, it reminds us that we have been shaped will to continue to be shaped by history.

Many people in this country, particularly white people, try to escape history. It can be easier, more pleasant, to imagine that we are somehow free from history’s bonds. Such an act of imagination can provide a false sense of freedom. Resisting patterns of evil are reinforced by ignoring their roots.

The pretense we are not formed by history is a dangerous one. History matters. It shapes us in two very substantive ways. First, our communities have been created over time. They are the results of specific acts and decisions by specific historical actors at specific times. The history of Hopedale would have been far different if Adin Ballou had not gathered a utopian community here.

Second, the way we remember history matters. In this sense, history is not some static unchanging thing. It is something that we construct out of an available set of resources and view through a specific lens. It is essentially a narrative act. Historians take the accumulated detritus of society’s archives--books, letters, half-remembered stories, faded photographs, company ledgers--and fashion a story about the past from them. Ordinary people do the same thing with our lives and for our communities. We find old buckets and make stories of them.

In the last months, as the rhetoric on the Presidential campaign trail has grown increasingly ghastly, I have found myself thinking about prophetic memory and the debris filled bucket. I have asked myself the question, what do we, as religious liberals, need to be announcing and denouncing today? That ratty old bucket and the ugly words of the Republican Party frontrunner remind me of a uncomfortable truth about America. The central problem in this country since before its founding has been the problem of white supremacy. This is the history that we need to be prophetic about and that many white people are trying to escape.

This morning I am speaking as a white man to a predominately white congregation that is part of a largely white religious tradition. The term white supremacy might make you uncomfortable. It is an uncomfortable moment to be white. The rhetoric of the Republic Party frontrunner has made it clear that we have two choices, and only two before us. We can denounce and actively work against the peddling and practice of virulent hatred. Or can we be complicit with white supremacy.

What the bucket reminds me is that the choices for white people in the United States has have always been thus. For hundreds of years, white people have had to decide whether we would accept the system of white supremacy or whether we would fight it. The majority of us who believe ourselves to be white have chosen, to this country’s enduring shame, to accept the system. I use the word believe intentionally here. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has so eloquently reminded us in his recent work, race is a belief. It is not a biological fact. And yet despite its illusory nature, it is a belief with profound social consequences.

Let me put my premise slightly differently. Those of us who believe we are white have two choices. We can accept the belief that we are white. In doing so we can benefit from everything that white supremacy offers us. Or we can reject this belief and try to make a different world. The prophetic act is to denounce race for the social construct that it is and then announce, in the words of William Ellery Channing, we are living members of the great family of all souls.

I can well sense an objection that might be murmuring amongst you. There is a crisis in white America right now. Decades of deindustrialization, the heroin epidemic, the dissolution of white working-class communities, increasing death rates amongst poorer whites... The subject of white supremacy might seem irrelevant, a distraction from more urgent issues at hand.

Here, I return to us to the words from our readings this morning. Herman Melville, “Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.” The shadows cast upon poor working-class communities, just as those cast upon the communities of people of color, are shadows cast by white supremacy. The only way to escape the deeper shadows is to step out from the clouds of white supremacy.

White supremacy can also be understood as a system of racialized capitalism. W. E. B. Du Bois offers a formula for racialized capitalism. The formula runs the exploitation of brown and black bodies plus the despoliation of the natural resources of the planet equals the foundation of white wealth. Du Bois lays out a central problem with racialized capitalism. It pits white workers against black and brown workers by promising white workers what David Roediger as evocatively called “the wages of whiteness.” These wages include a sense of superiority, the belief held by many whites that no matter how bad things get at least they are not black. They also include easier access to a whole host of society’s institutions. Today, people of color are not barred formally from educational or employment opportunities, as they were in the past. That does not mean that they have equal access to them.

The fear that is so pervasive amongst American whites today is directly related to the loss of the wages of whiteness. Immigrants are linked to a fear that they will take away the jobs of white Americans. There is an often unspoken fear that the presence of blacks within predominately white communities will lessen the strength of the public institutions within those communities. Phrases like “good school” or “good neighborhood” are code words for schools and communities largely free of people of color. The success of the Republican frontrunner is directly tied to his ability to both symbolize the wages of whiteness and articulate many white people’s fears of losing them.

Under our system of racialized capitalism, white people are taught to blame brown and black people for our problems. Under capitalism corporations compete against each other for the cheapest labor. So, the problem is not people of other races. The problem is that capitalism itself is an essentially exploitative system that pits groups of workers against each other.

Du Bois posited a solution to this conundrum, something he called abolition democracy. He used this term to describe the ideology of abolitionists in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Civil War. These nineteenth-century men and women believed that white free labor was undermined by black slave labor. The only way for both blacks and whites to escape the exploitation of racialized capitalism was to unite to end it. Before the Civil War this meant the destruction of slavery. After the Civil War it meant that the creation of strong public institutions, like universal free public education, that served everyone, not just specific groups in the community. Du Bois rightly understood that existence of a disadvantaged racial group in society undermined the possible existence of equality and justice. The collective poverty of blacks served as a constant threat to whites. It created a labor pool that could be endlessly used to undermine white labor. And it offered a threatening example of what might happen to white workers if they failed to buy into racialized capitalism.

So, here is the historical truth with which we as a religious community of memory must struggle. Here is the prophetic truth we have been given. This country has long been caught between white supremacy and abolition democracy. The one, insists that we can somehow escape history and that we can meet in the state of nature. It pretends that whites have not benefited from generations of white supremacy. The other, proclaims that we have to wrestle with history and form interracial alliances if we are ever to transform our society.

All of this brings me back our bucket. It suggests that once upon a time that congregation, like many others, practiced abolition democracy. In this historic moment the question is will we as a religious people practice prophetic history and revitalize abolition democracy? Or will give into America’s other tradition, the tradition of white supremacy? Can we step clear of the shadows or forever to be stuck under them? Can we clear the shadows or do they foreshadow? Let us choose wisely.

Amen, Blessed Be, and Ashe

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags Hopedale Fall River Adin Ballou Dan McKanan Rebecca Parker Donald Trump Ta-Nehisi Coates W. E. B. Du Bois Universalism Herman Melville

Jan 30, 2017

President Trump's Klan-like Rhetoric

President Donald J. Trump reportedly modeled his Inaugural Address after Andrew Jackson, a white supremacist who was the architect of one of the most shameful events in American history, the Trail of Tears. Listening to President Trump’s Inaugural Address I heard another horrifying historical echo. When Trump used the phrase “This American carnage,” claimed that his inauguration signaled the transfer of “power from Washington, DC... to you, the people,” and promised to “make America great again” he sounded an awful lot like Hiram Evans, the Imperial Wizard of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan.

The white supremacist Evans is no longer a household name. But ninety years ago he was known and by turns feared and celebrated throughout the country. Under his watch the KKK reached its largest membership. In 1924, millions of white men belonged to the Klan. Senators, Governors, and Congressmen from nine states either openly declared their allegiance or owed their elections to the violent racist organization. Today white supremacists call themselves the alt-right and their movement is growing again.

As Imperial Wizard, the titular head of the Klan, Evans offered blueprints for other Klan leaders to follow in his speeches and pamphlets. His texts typically contained the same set of elements. He warned of terrifying enemies both inside and outside of the country. He believed there was a “vast horde of immigrants” threatening to overrun the nation. He claimed African Americans, Catholics, and Jews weakened it from the inside. He declared the country was in a state of decline. He said a “spirit of lawlessness is abroad in the land... fast ripening into an anarchy.” He argued that action must be taken immediately, before it was “too late for the redemption of the Republic.” Trump’s speech on Friday contained some of the same elements.

Just as Trump berated the political “establishment,” Evans attacked “politicians [who] seek not the common welfare, but their own success.” He berated civil and religious groups who focused on their own particularities rather than “the forces of evil.”

He also offered a formula to solve the problems the country faced. His formula was inevitably “unity” and a return to what one of his followers called “that real, genuine Americanism of... our forefathers.” To return to this idealized America where “life is easy, health is good and conditions ideal” the Klan hoped to “Americanize America.” This meant keeping out immigrants and purifying the country of everything that caused “white civilization” to “degenerate.”

Sadly, these themes were present in President Trump’s Inaugural Address. The new President painted a picture of American decline. Just like Evans, he claimed that there are external and internal enemies bent upon the nation’s destruction. He also promised rejuvenation through unity.

Replace the word Muslim with the words Catholic and Jew in many of the President’s campaign speeches and it’s difficult to tell the difference between the new President and Hiram Evans. Klan leaders complained of American citizens who “owe allegiance to an institution that is foreign to the Government of the United States.” Trump has repeatedly questioned the loyalties of American citizens whose parents were immigrants. He continually questioned the country of President Obama’s birth. He has also made frequent use of the term “Americanism,” a word that appears in innumerable Klan pamphlets and speeches.

The terrifying thing about the Klan, of course, was not the words of its leaders, but the actions of Klansmen across the country. These violent white supremacists assaulted, lynched, murdered, and abused African Americans, political radicals, Jews, Catholics, and anyone else they viewed as a threat to their vision of America. Immediately following the election, there is good reason to think that the words of now President Trump emboldened contemporary white supremacists to violent action. There has been a spike in hate crimes.

This brings into focus what is at stake in normalizing the words of President Trump and his administration. Their language has direct parallels to the violent language of earlier generations of white supremacists. This is unacceptable. The Klan was eventually marginalized by women and men speaking out, marching, and organizing against the white supremacist terrorist organization. The Klan-like rhetoric of the President cannot stand. The global Women’s Marches sparked by his misogynistic behavior were but the first steps towards stopping it. Proving that the words of white supremacists have no place in the global discourse will require more marches, more organization, and a constant practice of speaking out.

Note: I sent this around to several major publications last week as an op-ed. I got a couple of very encouraging replies but no one was willing to publish the piece. The slightly dated references in the piece are due to the timelag between submitting the piece, having it rejected, and deciding to post it on my blog. Also, all of the citations of the Klan are from my dissertation. I would be happy to provide them to anyone who is interested.

CommentsCategories Contemporary Politics News Tags Ku Klux Klan Inaugural Address Donald Trump Andrew Jackson White Supremacy Hiram Evans

Nov 30, 2016

The Curious Case of the (Russian) Spam Bot

Sunday I preached a sermon that leveled a prophetic critique against the incoming Trump administration. I labeled it a neo-Confederate project and argued that in the coming years liberal religious communities would be called to resist it and dream freedom dreams.

Curiously, in the last 72 hours my web site traffic has spiked. The spike in traffic has not come, sadly, from my sermon going viral. Rather it appears to be coming from a Russian spam bot whose browser language is set to “Secret.ɢoogle.com You are invited! Enter only with this ticket URL. Copy it. Vote for Trump!” Traffic from the Russian spam bot as of this evening is accounting for 95% of my site traffic. I would be interested to know if other folks out there who have been outspoken about the next President are seeing a similar phenomena. I can’t but wonder if there’s a connection.

CommentsCategories News Tags Donald Trump Russia Spam Bots

Nov 27, 2016

Let Us Dream Freedom Dreams (Sermon)

as preached at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, November 27, 2016

I am grateful to be back with you. It now seems worlds ago, but I was last with you the Sunday you installed Sarah Stewart as your twelfth minister. I understand you colloquially know her as M12.

M12’s installation took place, you might remember, a couple of weeks after the death of Freddie Gray. In the days leading up to the service there were large protests in Baltimore against police brutality. People were mobilizing to proclaim Black Lives Matter. Ministers and congregations across the country, I observed, were spending their Sundays talking and praying about the need for racial reconciliation and racial justice. I suggested that I was, at best, skeptical about such efforts. In many liberal religious communities, I complained, serious conversation about racial and social justice only take place against the backdrop of calamity. The crisis occurs. Congregations confront the tragedy with much hand wringing. Little changes. The traumatic event is largely forgotten, or becomes normalized, or fades into the background of daily life.

The only way this pattern would change, I argued, was for religious communities like yours to become sites for conversion. Conversion might be defined, I told you, in the words of James Luther Adams as a “fundamental change of heart and will.” Conversion brings with it a new perspective, a shift in a point of view. After the death of Freddie Gray, and the deaths of far too many others, I offered that most whites in America needed to undergo a conversion process. Those of us who imagine ourselves to be white, I urged, need to shift our point of view to see the United States from the perspective of people with darker skin. Whites must come to understand that white supremacy is not an abstract concept or a political slur. White supremacy is an economic and political system in which white wealth is built upon the dual exploitation of brown and black bodies and the natural environment. Those of us that claim we are white must empathically comprehend that racism is as much physical as it is psychological. For human beings with brown and black bodies, racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “is a visceral experience… it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”

It is only once those of us who believe ourselves to be white imaginatively shift our perspective, I claimed, that we can begin to participate in the work of dismantling white supremacy. Otherwise, I warned, the pulpit would remain silent on issues of racial and social justice except at moments of crisis. Speaking out only when tragedy strikes is a form of idolatry. It allows the pretense that the community uplifts justice when in reality it worships comfort and complicity.

In retrospect my sermon from last year appears quaint. For many of us, the world in late November 2016 feels fundamentally different than it did in May 2015. The United States has been through a desperately polarizing election. A new President has been elected through the undemocratic peculiarities of the American political system. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by more than two million votes. He lost the popular vote by a larger margin than any successful candidate for the national executive since 1876. The man who assumes the executive office on January twentieth will be at the head of what can only be termed a minority government.

He gained that office by what can best be termed bad faith. His tactics were those of a con man: misdirection mixed with outrageous lies. He violated electoral norms. He praised autocrats and called for foreign intervention in the presidential election. He refused to release his taxes. He revealed himself to be a sexual predator. At times, the man who will be the next President stirred base human instinct: fear, hatred, misogyny, and racism. He verbally attacked immigrants, Muslims, women, and anyone who challenged him. He received open support by white supremacists and an endorsement by the Ku Klux Klan. Despite all of this he will soon head the most powerful government in the history of the world.

We have now come to a moment when there are calls to unite behind the incoming President. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, urged such unity in her concession speech, “We must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” The current President has offered a conciliatory tone. He has enjoined American citizens “to remember that we’re actually all on one team.”

The New York Times columnist Charles Blow responded this week writing, “Let me tell you here where I stand on your ‘I hope we can all get along’ plea: Never. You are an aberration and abomination who is willing to do and say anything--no matter whom it aligns you with and whom it hurts--to satisfy your ambitions.” Russian American dissident and critic of autocracy Masha Gessen has spent her life writing about the regime of Vladimir Putin. She warns that calls to reconciliation that fail to recognize that “Trump is anything but a regular politician and this has been anything but a regular election” are foolhardy. In her analysis, he is an aspiring autocrat, a proto-totalitarian, a neo-fascist.

Now me, I’m not much of a political liberal. I place myself in a similar camp to Blow and Gessen. I trust the President-elect. I assume that he will govern like he campaigned. He has already indicated he wants figures whose politics are best described as white supremacist as part of his administration. He has indicated that he will be intolerant of dissent. He intends to round up and deport several million immigrants. He refuses to place his businesses in a blind trust, creating the possibility of conflict of interest and corruption on an unprecedented level. I reject the idea of normalizing our next President.

I suspect that there are a few present here who would like to stop my wind-up to a jeremiad at this point. My litany of woes may seem out of place on a Sunday morning. I imagine that those of you whom I am making uncomfortable desire to remind me that religious communities are not places for partisan politics. So, let me be clear. I am not being partisan. I am offering a prophetic critique. If Hillary Clinton had been elected President, I would be standing before you a warning of the Democratic Party’s complicity in attacking immigrant communities. More people have been deported under President Obama than under any other President. I would be reminding you of Secretary Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy tendencies. She was instrumental in pushing for the violent overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi. It was an event which resulted in civil war, the deaths of thousands, and the further destabilization of an already instable region. I would be criticizing the Democratic nominee for her longstanding practice of promoting economic programs that benefit the few at the expense of the many. And I would prod you to remember that she helped oversee the massive expansion of a prison industrial complex that targets human beings with brown and black bodies. In the 1990s she notoriously coined the phrase “super predator.”

But Secretary Clinton did not win the majority of votes in the electoral college. She is not going to be the forty-fifth President. Donald Trump is. And so he, not her, is the subject of my critique. And while Clinton would have represented yet another figure in the long standing, tragic, crisis of the moral bankruptcy of political liberalism, Trump represents something even more sinister, neo-Confederate autocracy. The question before this religious community and each of us as individuals is not to figure how to live responsibly in Hillary Clinton’s America. It is to discern how to live responsibly in Donald Trump’s.

Drawing from the prophetic liberal religious tradition, I suggest that this congregation and other Unitarian Universalist congregations like it have five tasks ahead. We must boldly proclaim our vision of what it means to be and flourish as humans. We have to develop a historical and social analysis that allows us to truthfully describe our present moment. We need to dream freedom dreams of what might be possible and, in the words of Robin Kelley, aid us “to see the poetic and prophetic in the richness of our daily lives.” We are called to translate those dreams into action. We must maintain a spiritual practice to sustain ourselves through difficult years.

We are part of a liberal religious community. These tasks are not tasks for an individual. They are tasks for our collectivity, our gathered community. If we accept them, we will accept them as a community that upholds the inherent worth and dignity of each individual human being; a community that practices democracy; a community that honors the web of interrelation and interconnection of which we are all a part.

Unitarian Universalism is a religious tradition with a particular understanding of what it means to be a human being. Close to two hundred years ago your congregation, like other New England Unitarian churches, rejected a theology that taught that human beings were innately depraved. Our religious ancestors instead favored a theology that viewed human nature as predicated upon freedom. We each contain within us, in William Ellery Channing’s famous words, “the likeness to God.” The choice whether we will tilt towards that likeness or give ourselves over to baser instincts is ours.

What ultimately distinguishes religious liberals from religious conservatives is that we believe that human nature is not fixed. It is flexible. People can change. This assertion is more a matter of faith than it is a scientific claim. That we uphold it is one of the things that makes Unitarian Universalism a religion. Human freedom has yet to be empirically proven to be true or untrue. Faced with this wager we boldly bet on freedom, on the possibility that we can freely choose who and what we will be.

As a religious tradition we are comfortable with our claims about the essential nature of human freedom. In contrast, developing a historical and social analysis that truthfully describes our present moment is a far more difficult task. White American society--the society that celebrates the Declaration of Independence, worships the Constitution, and lionizes consumer choice--is quite comfortable with abstract discussions of freedom. But historical and social analysis is something that is widely frowned upon. Media outlets like Fox News and the white supremacist Breibart mock rigorous analytics as an egg-headed, liberal, elite activity.

So be it. Our religious tradition is one which is committed to telling truths in church. Describing the world as it actually exists is the most important form of truth telling. Offering a detailed analysis of what happened on November eighth and is happening now would require far more time than we have remaining on this bright Sunday. But allow me to make a few gestures that might help you as a community in your own truth telling. If you disagree with me at the very least my words will give you a helpful data point for the “not that.”

The presidential administration of Donald Trump will be a neo-Confederate autocracy. Like other kinds of neo-fascist, fascist, proto-totalitarian, autocratic, or right populist regimes, it emerges from a failure in political liberalism.

Since its inception a leading strain of thought, culture and economic practice in the United States has been brazenly white supremacist. The Constitution was written to favor slaveholding states. The Electoral College is partially a legacy of slavery. It was designed to ensure that Southern slave states had disproportion power in the new republic. Otherwise, they threatened secession. Indeed, when a split electorate chose an anti-slavery politician as President the South did secede.

The Civil War was a war to maintain chattel slavery and white supremacy. It was also a war to maintain male supremacy. The two substantive differences between the United States Constitution and the Confederate States Constitution were that the second proclaimed that only whites and only males could be ever citizens.

When I label the rising presidential administration neo-Confederate I am explicitly thinking of the Confederacy’s claim to white male supremacy. The appointment of Stephen Bannon as Trump’s Senior Counselor and the nomination of Jeff Sessions to Attorney General can be read as a commitment to an ideology that puts the needs and rights of white males over and against the rights of everyone else. As Senior Counselor, Bannon will push Trump to consider the needs of white voters, the next President’s electoral base, over the needs of all others. As Attorney General, Sessions should be expected to launch a full assault on what remains of the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow like efforts of voter suppression will go unchallenged by the federal government. White supremacist hate groups will not be investigated by the Justice Department and police will not be held accountable for violent acts.

I use the label neo-Confederate to place the new Presidential administration within the context of the American history. Neo-Confederate reaction first emerged as a national political force after the Civil War, during the failure of Reconstruction. In the years of and immediately following the Civil War the United States government was largely controlled by a political alliance that the great W. E. B. Du Bois called abolition democracy. Abolition democracy was an alliance between abolitionist and anti-slavery Northerners and Southern African Americans against white supremacy. It was committed to ending chattel slavery and incorporating freed blacks into the American body politic. It collapsed in the mid-1870s when the Northern white elite decided that it had more in common economically with the Southern white elite than it did with African Americans.

The demise of abolition democracy brought about an era of reaction that created the regime of Jim Crow. This regime of legalized racial discrimination was only partially overturned when abolition democracy reconstituted itself in the civil rights era. Again, in the 1950s and 1960s Northern elites allied themselves with African Americans and other people of color to oppose what was then the neo-Confederate state governments of the South. This project reached a great pitch in the mid-1960s with the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. It could be argued that it reached its zenith in the Presidency of Barack Obama. And it might be said that the failed candidacy of Hillary Clinton represents its second collapse.

One way to describe Democrats like Clinton is that they believe that American elites have more in common with global elites than they do the working class. Clinton advocated free trade, possessed a dodgy record on civil rights, and abandoned the Democratic Party’s base in labor unions. She lost for the same reason that abolition democracy fell apart in the 1870s. Working people of all races stopped supporting it in sufficient numbers to maintain it because they felt that liberal elites did not have their best interests at heart.

Knowing what went wrong in the past and what is wrong with the present can aid us in dreaming of a different future. If we want to live in a world where the neo-Confederate vision of white supremacy and male dominance is relegated to the dust bin of history then we must imagine a world that is structurally different than the one in which we live now. We must dream freedom dreams.

One of my intellectual heroes, the historian Robin Kelley urges us to dream such dreams. Drawing from the teachings of his own mother he challenges “us to imagine a world free of patriarchy, a world where gender and sexual relations could be reconstituted... to see the poetic and prophetic in the richness of our daily lives.” We need to dream of a world without white supremacy before we can build one. Poetry can help us.

Sun Ra:

Imagination is a Magic carpet
Upon which we may soar
To distant lands and climes
And even go beyond the moon
To any planet in the sky
If we came from
nowhere here
Why can’t we go somewhere there?

Diane Di Prima:

Left to themselves people
grow their hair.
Left to themselves they
take off their shoes.
Left to themselves they make love
sleep easily
share blanket, dope & children
they are not lazy or afraid
they plant seeds, they smile, they
speak to one another. The word
coming into its own: touch of love
on the brain, the ear.

I will not tell you what your freedom dreams should be. I just suggest you should cultivate them. Look to your daily life. When do you feel most fully yourself? Gardening? Cooking? Playing with your children? Riding your bike? At work? At rest? With your partner? Your friends? Alone? At a worship service? Perhaps such moments are good places to start looking for freedom dreams. True freedom is about the transformation of everyday life.

I invite you now to pause and complete the sentence: “I dream of...” Take a moment in silence “I dream of...” [Wait a minute.] Now, if you are comfortable turn to a neighbor and share what you dream of. [Wait a minute.]

Our freedom dreams will only become reality if we share them with each other. If we share them not just inside this building but outside of it with members of our family, our community, and throughout the world.

This sharing is the first step towards action. For action is the next task before religious communities in this time of crisis. I am not your minister. I am just a guest that you have generously invited into your pulpit. I don’t want to overstep my bounds. And so while I want to stir your dreams and push your analysis I suggest that finding your path forward is your collective task, not mine.

I can offer you this advice. Action will not be successful if you act alone. The new President will be at the head of a minority government. Actions that succeed in challenging him will come from mobilizing the majority of the populace. So build networks, resist together, not alone. Reach out together. Forge new relationships and strengthen the ones you already have.

The next four years will be difficult. The neo-Confederate agenda is clear. In order to survive and to act it will be necessary to maintain a strong sense of self and a calm center. The last task before us is simply to take care of ourselves, to nurture the spiritual practices that will sustain us again and again in what I know will be disappointing work. Meditate. Pray. Write in your journal. Cook a nice dinner for your family. Tell your partner that you love them. Hug your kids. Go for long walks on the edges of the city, through autumnal forests, or by frozen river banks. Ride your bike across town. As you nurture yourself you will find that you nurture others.

As you nurture yourself you will find strength for the tasks ahead. You will find companionship. You will find joy and, perhaps, a modicum of peace. You will find yourself dreaming. Let yourself dream. For in our dreams we can see a better world, a world that stirs in our hearts. It is a world that no matter how treacherous the path before us we can yet bring into being. So, let us set ourselves to the tasks ahead. And let us dream freedom dreams. And let us share those dreams with others.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Contemporary Politics Human Rights News Sermon Tags Worcester First Unitarian Church Worcester Masha Gessen Charles Blow Robin Kelley Sun Ra Diane Di Prima Freedom Dreams White Supremacy Donald Trump Ku Klux Klan Hillary Clinton neo-Confederate 2016 Election

Nov 19, 2016

Expecting President Trump

It has been a week and a half since Donald Trump was elected President. In the past ten days he has begun to make clear the direction of his Presidency. He has articulated a plan for his first hundred days and started to make political appointments. The agenda of his administration is a hard right agenda. Here are ten things I expect from it:

1. President-Elect Trump has made it clear he is committed to the project of building and maintaining white supremacy. The appointment of Stephen Bannon and Jeff Sessions should not be interpreted any other way. Under a Trump administration, there will be an increase in racialized violence and an assault on civil rights legislation. Given his track record, Sessions should be expected to launch a full assault on what remains of the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow like efforts of voter suppression will go unchallenged by the federal government. White supremacist hate groups will not be investigated by the Justice Department and police will not be held accountable for violent acts.

2. Under a Trump Presidency families will be torn apart and lives irreparably damaged as the President-Elect moves forward with his pledge to round-up between two and three million undocumented migrants. Neighborhoods and police throughout the United States will be further militarized as a result.

3. A Trump administration will likely unleash government suppression of dissent at a level not seen since the 1960s. The rhetoric of law and order and the President-Elect’s complaints about protestors do not bode well for those who oppose him, articulate an alternative leftist vision of American society, or speak out against racialized violence and white supremacy.

4. During a Trump administration any kind of externally triggered crisis, such as a climate disaster or a terrorist attack, will be used as an excuse to further militarize the country and possibly the world. The Bush administration was able to turn the 9/11 attacks into an excuse for launching a disastrous war of choice in Iraq, a massive clampdown on dissent, and the destruction of international human rights norms.

5. The Trump Presidency represents a threat to human existence on two levels. On one level, it will be run by committed climate change deniers at a moment when it is critical that the human species address human fueled global warming. On another level, Trump seems to be in favor of tactical uses of nuclear weapons and supports the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

6. The Republicans plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). They have not articulated a clear plan to replace it. It is likely that any plan that they do propose to replace it will include an effort to defund or privatize Medicaid. If the Republicans repeal the ACA without a plan to replace it as many as twenty two million people will lose their health insurance. This will lessen the spans of the people’s lives. It will increase the amount of general ill-health in the population, both reducing many individuals’ quality of life and their ability to contribute to the economy.

7. The appointment of reactionary Supreme Court justices who will almost certainly launch a full blown assault on women’s rights, civil rights, and the rights of the LGBT community. President Trump will most likely make equally reactionary appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, the Environmental Protect Agency, and a host of other federal agencies.

8. The announced Trump tax cuts will increase the federal debt by as much as $7 trillion dollars. This will make future spending on social projects difficult. The Bush tax cuts fueled inequality and were the largest source of the federal deficit during the Obama Presidency. The Trump tax cuts will increase inequality and saddle future generations with even more government debt.

9. The increase in deficit spending from tax cuts will be coupled with increased spending on defense. Again, this will increase the deficit and make the funding of future social projects difficult.

10. Throughout the Trump years there will be unprecedented corruption. He has already refused to place his businesses in a blind trust and will instead hand them over to his children. This will create conflicts of interest on a level unseen before. The President-Elect’s anti-corruption rhetoric should not be taken seriously. He is already attempting to escape press scrutiny. His actions fail to either address his own conflict of interest or do anything meaningful to get monied interests out of politics. For example, he does not support overturning Citizens United. Terms limits on Congress would most likely result in the increased power of corporate lobbyists in Washington.

President-Elect Trump was elected by a minority of American voters. He received less votes than Hillary Clinton. More Americans decided not to vote than voted for either of the major candidates. The hard right agenda of the Trump administration does not represent the views of the majority of the American populace. Combating his agenda will require more than just pointing out all of the things that are wrong with it. It will require developing clear alternative demands such as health care for all, full employment, living wages, affordable housing, an expansion of civil rights, good schools, nuclear disarmament, and then organizing people around and for that alternative vision. Let’s not lose heart. Let’s build a better world.

CommentsCategories Climate Change Contemporary Politics Human Rights News Tags Donald Trump Supreme Court Black Lives Matter Health Care Nuclear Weapons Militarization Jeff Sessions Stephen Bannon White Supremacists Republicans Democrats Corruption

Nov 8, 2016

Let Us Dream Freedom Dreams

I write this as it becomes apparent that a xenophobe who has openly boasted of sexually assaulting women and been supported by white supremacist organizations is going to become the next President of the United States. Like so many, I am feeling a mixture of emotions: shame, anger, fear, frustration, paralysis... Already the political pundits are talking about what went wrong. Those of us on the left need to start talking about what happens next. But even more importantly than that, we need to start talking about what we are going to do.

There are 73 days until President-elect Trump assumes office. Once that happens it is pretty much anyone’s guess what will occur next. He has promised to round-up 11 million people. Elements within the FBI clearly support him and, my guess is, will probably launch some sort of intensified renewed version of COINTELPRO against Black Lives Matter, the water protectors in North Dakota, and other social movements. Whatever the case, we should expect increased white supremacist violence as Trump’s supporters go after the communities of color and others he has encouraged them to target.

The temptation in the face of this looming disaster will be give into despair and become defensive or isolate ourselves. We must not give into that temptation. Instead, we need to use the next 73 days to build a movement that cannot only protect the communities that will come under increasing assault but point a way forward. This movement must aim beyond recapturing the White House in 2020 or Congress in 2018. Instead, if it is to be effective, it must work to recast the political terrain, claim the moral ground, and, in the coming years, build institutions on the left that are powerful enough to challenge the resurgent white supremacist right.

I will not pretend to fully know how to do this. I can suggest some concrete actions. The first and most important comes from the recognition that we are far more powerful together than when we are alone. We humans are social creatures and we gain strength from each other. If you are not already part of an organized group, join one. If you can’t find one to join then form one. If you’re part of a group already then work to connect your group with others. The goal is ultimately to build a mass movement made up of many groups that can resist the coming Trump regime and push past the dawning national turn to the right.

Second, don’t give into despair. With despair comes immobility and inaction. What we need is action. Find something to give yourself a little hope. In far darker times than these people have dared to dream freedom dreams. Tomorrow, when all seems impossible, ask yourself what is your freedom dream? In it you will find a kernel of hope.

With these two things in mind, here is what I am going to do in the next few days. I am going to reach out to friends and comrades. I am going to let them know that I am committed to the work of movement building. I am going to share with them my freedom dreams and encourage them to share with me their own. I am going to encourage every person I contact to reach out to someone else and share a little of their vision. Perhaps in this way we might spark some of the hope and imagination that we need to get us through and move us beyond.

I will also ask my friends and comrades if they are currently part of a group. If they are not I will suggest that they consider visiting a prophetic religious community. I will make this suggestion not because I want to save their souls but because I understand that in the United States prophetic religious communities have played an important role in sustaining radical alternative visions in times of crisis. This weekend visit a Unitarian Universalist congregation, a radical church in the United Church of Christ like Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, a progressive mosque, a Jewish Renewal synagogue, or a progressive Baptist church like Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland. I know my friends will find a little of the vision they need there and more than that they will connect with others looking for a way forward.

These are but first steps. Others, wiser than I, will offer further steps or, perhaps, point a different way that we must take. We have 73 days until President-elect Trump assumes office. That hour is late. The path ahead is dark. Let us begin. Let us dream.

* The phrase freedom dreams comes from Robyn Kelley's Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.

CommentsCategories News Tags 2016 Election Donald Trump Robyn Kelley FBI

Nov 7, 2016

A New Heart and a New Spirit (Revised)

On the Sunday before the 2016 I preached this signficant revision of the sermon I delivered two weeks earlier at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Grafton and Upton. So, here's the A New Heart and a New Spirit as preached onNovember 6, 2016 at the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson, Hudson, MA.

It is nice to be with you again. You have invited me here each of the past three autumns. This academic year, if all goes well, I will be finishing my doctorate. It is likely that this time next year I will be living someplace other than Massachusetts, working a new job, and no longer doing regular pulpit supply in New England. So, let me begin my sermon with a simple note of gratitude. The support of your congregation and congregations like yours has made a real difference in my ability to support my family while I have been in graduate school. Thank you.

This Sunday, I wish I could build the sermon around a sustained note of gratitude. Unfortunately, Tuesday is the presidential election. Gratitude seems like an inappropriate emotion for the closing hours of what I have come to think of as a national tragedy. Instead of gratitude, I find myself obliged to talk with you about the need for national repentance. As a wide variety of political commentators have suggested, no matter what happens next week the impact of the election will be long lasting. One of the candidates has received the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan. The other has been embroiled in endless scandal and controversy. Regardless of who wins, the deep cleavages in American society have been exposed and exacerbated. On Wednesday morning, it will not be possible to pretend that America is a country that does not contain enduring patterns of misogyny. On Wednesday morning, we will not be able to declare that America has left behind its long history of white supremacy. And on Wednesday morning, we will not be able to say that this nation does right by the poor, the marginalized, the most needy, the people who Jesus called “the least of these.”

Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is revealed to be the nation’s next President, these problems will endure. I grew up in a family where we followed politics the way most people in follow sports. One of my oldest family friends is fond of saying that “politics are sports with consequences.” I was about sixteen or seventeen when I realized that no matter which team won the election most of the country, and, indeed, most of the world, lost. Throughout my life, under both team donkey and team elephant, the United States military has started or continued needless foreign wars. Congress has passed legislation to expand the prison system and cut back on social programs for the poor. The President has advocated for bills that favor bankers and business executives instead of ordinary working people and overseen the vast expansion of economic inequality. No matter who has been in the White House, for the past thirty years the wealth gap between whites and people of color has grown.

The current election has me doubting the collective capacity of American society to engage in acts of national repentance. At almost every turn collectively we seem to reject the opportunity for national conversation about the deep structures of American society that lead to destructive behavior. It is true that there are bright moments. The braggadocios misogyn of the captain of team elephant seems to have sparked conversation about the unacceptable place that sexual assault and exploitation hold in our society. For too long men, particularly white and powerful ones, have inflicted sexual violence on women. It seems possible that the reaction to the boasts of one of the candidates about his sexual exploits has begun to shift this dynamic. However, only time will tell if shift is permanent--if we as a society can repent--or if the conversation around sexual violence is transitory.

This election has had me repeatedly turning to the Hebrew prophets. The prophets were horrified by injustice. In ancient days Isaiah and Jeremiah wandered the dusty streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed that God was angry with the people for failing to take care of the poor. Ezekiel stood at the gates of the Temple and announced that his country was doomed because its leaders worshipped false gods.

These religious leaders warned that their community faced destruction if its members did not change their behavior. And they then offered the possibility of transformation. Like a doctor they diagnosed their community’s illness and then proscribed a cure. They suggested that the problems that others took to be the disease were mere symptoms of the essential malady. They made their proclamations as foreign invaders threatened the very existence of their country. Their peers took the Babylonian or Assyrian armies to the problem that troubled Israel. The prophets knew better. They warned that the external threat that their country faced was a result of its own internal contradictions. It was supposed to be the chosen land of God yet within it the poor struggled for survival and the rich worshipped false deities.

In face of this contradiction the prophets offered a solution. They clarified what was the essential problem--mistreatment of the poor and the worship of false deities--and suggested a path forward. They told their people to repent and change their actions. Ezekiel suggested that in order to escape doom people needed to “make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” It was only by becoming fundamental different, and moving forward together on a new road, that the prophets believed their people could escape calamity.

Not so many years ago, at the very end of his life, the greatest of American prophets, Martin King, made similar warnings and offered a similar solution. In the last months of his life, just two weeks before we was gunned down, he spoke to an audience of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. King cautioned, “I come by here to say that America too is going to Hell... If America doesn’t use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty.” Almost exactly a year earlier, in his famous speech against the Vietnam War, King warned the country risked being destroyed by “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”

Like the Hebrew prophets of old King called for “a radical revolution of values.” He believed that without such a shift this country was doomed. So long as people valued their things more than they valued each other they would remain separated and unable to experience human solidarity. But that human solidarity was desperately needed, he understood, because humanity faced the existential threat of nuclear war. He warned, in the non-gender neutral language of his day, “We must live together as a brothers or perish together as fools.” What was true in King’s day is even more true today. We do not just face the existential threat of nuclear war but also the threat of climate change.

I thought of these prophets--King, Jeremiah, Ezekiel--as I watched the Presidential debates. Not once during any of the three debates did I hear either of the candidates mention the plight of the poor or express solidarity with the working class. Both spoke of helping the middle class but neither mentioned the homeless. Neither seriously discussed climate change. Neither offered support for reparations for slavery. Both favored violence as a means to peace. The stern admonitions of generations of anti-war activists have fallen stone deaf on their ears. King might have understood that, in his words, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death” but Clinton and Trump do not.

The debates have had me thinking about the need for national, and individual, repentance. I have concluded that true repentance consists of four things: clarity, confession, apology, and action. Clarity is ability to see the source of the problem. In the prophets term, to extend the medical metaphor from earlier, it is to diagnosis the disease rather than focus on the symptoms. Confession is two-fold. It requires that we acknowledge our own complicity in the creation and maintenance of negative patterns of behavior. It also necessitates us to admit that we benefit in some way from those patterns of behavior. Apologizing should be obvious. It means saying we are sorry for our behavior. Finally, we have to act for all three of the previous steps of repentance are meaningless without action.

To begin our path towards national repentance we need to gain clarity about the sources of social ills. I suggest that we must seek to understand how team donkey and team elephant are made up of players who are after the same goal. I suggest that clarity will come from an understanding that the creation of the current economic and political system has been one in which both parties have been complicit. The Democrats, particularly under Bill Clinton, and the Republicans have continued to build a government that deepens the plight of the poor, exacerbates economic inequality, fuels mass incarceration and police violence, engages in the repression of political dissent, encourages the destruction of the environment, and fights catastrophic and needless wars. As I see it, America is sick and both different expressions of the country’s illness. One might be the symptom while the other could be understood as the disease: a political practice of speaking about social progress while doing little to aid the marginalized.

In my own life repentance has taken two forms. On an individual level, it has required me to try and mend my relationships when they have become broken and heal the harm that I have done. On a collective level, it has necessitated a commitment to social justice and the ongoing work of understanding how I have been complicit in and benefited from systems of oppression.

Sin can be understood as those actions and beliefs that keep us separate from each other. It can be individual and collective. Individual sins turn us into strangers when we seek intimacy. They are the lies, the slights, the acts of casual and intentional selfishness that make it difficult for us to find an authentic connection. Collective sins are the deep structures and communal actions that create arbitrary groups of people and then keep those groups of people separate from each other. We are all members of one human family. Yet, nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and systems of white supremacy trick us into thinking otherwise. We imagine ourselves and others as white or black, American or terrorist, male or female... Instead of understanding that in our common humanness we share an origin in the darkness of the womb and a destiny in the gloom of the grave.

None of this is easy. I have found individual repentance to be incredibly challenging. It usually requires admitting that I am wrong and that I need to change my behavior. Who likes to do that? Looking at our own flaws is some of the most painful work. Often, it is far easier to gloss over our mistakes and let relationships fall away that be introspective about the ways in which we need to change our behavior.

Sometimes, though, we do not have a choice. I learned a little about the difficulty and the reward of individual repentance when I was first starting out in the parish ministry. More than a decade ago, I served my internship in congregation of about three hundred members. I was in my late twenties and full of energy and enthusiasm. I was committed to the ministry and learning how to be a good minister. I was filled with what the poet Kenneth Rexroth used to call “the wisdom of youth,” which is to say I did not take criticism particularly well. When confronted by someone with something they were unhappy with my tendency was to become defensive. I would try to explain my actions rather than work to correct them.

Predictably, this pattern did not serve me well. Everything came to a head during my mid-point evaluation. My internship committee, and supervising minister, sat me down and told me that people had very mixed feelings about my tenure as congregational intern. In general, I was liked and my commitment to Unitarian Universalism and the ministry was palpable. However, there was a segment in the congregation who felt that I ignored them and did not tend to their needs.

Specifically, I was told that many of the congregational elders, particularly those who were women, felt that I did not pay enough attention to them. My first reaction on hearing this was to deny that it was true. I paid attention to everyone. The conversation proceeded, I dug in my heels. I refused to accept the criticism. This only made matters worse. The internship committee grew frustrated with me. And then my supervising minister managed to shift the discussion from the abstract to the concrete. She named a particular behavior: my preference for talking with people around my own age during coffee hour. And she reported her observation that she had seen me turn away, on more than one occasion, from a woman in her seventies or eighties, to chat with someone in their twenties or thirties.

I recognized the truth in what she said. I gained clarity. I was crestfallen. I think I might have sat in stunned silence for a couple of moments. Then I admitted that my behavior had been problematic. I confessed. The minister suggested a path towards correcting my behavior. She urged me to go and visit the women who I had ignored. I did and in doing so both I apologized and changed my behavior. Over the course of a few months and a series of coffees and home visitations I repaired relationships with my congregants. I also came to understand how my own behavior fell into the larger patterns of behavior within a misogynistic culture that often renders women over a particular age invisible.

This is a painful subject and my behavior around it should not be understood in anyway as perfect. I share my story not to illustrate how great I am but rather to draw attention to the relationship between individual and collective sin and the practice of repentance. Sin, again, can be understood as those actions and beliefs that prevent people from recognizing their fundamental kinship as human beings. Collective sin, in my story unconscious misogyny, fed individual sin, the failure to develop relationships with some of the women in the congregation. Repentance required clarity around my own patterns of behavior. It required confession that I had done ill. And then it necessitated an apology and a change in behavior.

Sin and repentance are not frameworks that religious liberals like to use. Our religious ancestors rejected original sin, the idea that human beings were innately wicked. Instead, we favor the teaching that each of us is born with potential to inflict harm upon ourselves and each other and at, the same time, reach great moral heights. The great 19th-century Unitarian, William Ellery Channing, taught people that each of us contains the likeness to God. He believed that when we focused our attention rightly and committed to lives of right action we could discover that likeness within and approach spiritual perfection. Channing thought that this was what Jesus had done and he urged others to do likewise.

The emphasis on the innate potential within has often caused religious liberals to downplay sin or the need for repentance. I suspect that since we historically have believed that human perfection is possible we sometimes have committed the error of thinking that we ourselves are perfect. If anything, the path towards uncovering what our Quaker friends have called the inner light lies through developing an understanding of those larger systems and individual actions that keep us continually building false walls between each other. In the words of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker, we must realize that “We are the cause, and we can be the cure” for much is what is wrong in the world. It is only through examining our mistakes and attempting to correct our actions that we can make progress as either individuals or a society.

This returns us to the subject of national repentance. For me, this election has brought clarity. There is little to celebrate about either political team. America is sick. No matter who wins the election the illness will continue until we, as a nation, are brave enough to confess. We must confess that in this country the poor continue to be exploited. We must confess that white supremacy and misogyny remain the norm. We must confess that the natural world is being destroyed to feed our materialist addictions. And we must confess that a failure in the political imagination means that unreflective militarism is offered as a violent solution to international problems.

Each of these confessions deserves an apology. But more that, they demand a change in behavior. What would our government’s policies be if America’s politicians took seriously the project of eliminating poverty? How would we treat each other if we tried to move beyond white supremacy and misogyny? What would our lives, and our relation with our ecosystem, look like if we recovered from our addiction to materialism? How would our foreign policy be different if it was not based on the threat of violent force?

As we move towards the close, I invite you take to time in silence. What do we as a nation need to repent for? How are you as an individual in need of repentance? What kind of clarity do you need? What do you, or we, have to confess? How might you, or we, apologize? What would a change in action look like?

[Two minutes of silence.]

My prayer for us this morning is that we may find the inner strength and collective solidarity to overcome those things that keep us separated from each other. May we learn, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, week-by-week, and life-by-life, to join our human hearts with our human hands and engage in the difficult work of creating a great moral revolution.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags 2016 Election Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Martin Luther King, Jr. Sin Paul Tillich Rebecca Parker Feminism Hebrew Prophets Jeremiah Ezekiel Bill Clinton Democrats Republicans Liberalism Ku Klux Klan

Oct 29, 2016

A New Heart and A New Spirit

as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Grafton and Upton, October 23, 2016

It is nice to with you again. I had the opportunity to preach here back in April. The primary season was underway and I offered you a sermon on democracy as a religious practice. I think I must have been in a more hopeful mood. I suggested that the religious practice of democracy is found in the ordinary practice of congregational polity, a commitment to conversation, and the quotidian rituals of liberal religious communities. I remember even lifting up spaces like board and congregational meetings as places where you could nurture individual and collective experiences of transformation.

This Sunday, I am afraid I come before you in a more pessimistic mood. I want to talk with you about repentance and the need for national repentance. Repentance is a concept that generally makes Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable. In the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament it is understood as the admission of sins before God. When an individual repents they also commit to change their behavior.

Sin can be understood as those actions and beliefs that keep us separate from each other. It can be individual and collective. Individual sins turn us into strangers when we seek intimacy. They are the lies, the slights, the acts of casual and intentional selfishness that make it difficult for us to find an authentic connection. Collective sins are the deep structures and communal actions that create arbitrary groups of people and then keep those groups of people separate from each other. We are all members of one human family. Yet, nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and systems of white supremacy trick us into thinking otherwise. We imagine ourselves and others as white or black, American or terrorist, male or female... Instead of understanding that in our common humanness we share an origin in the darkness of the womb and a destiny in the gloom of the grave.

In my own life repentance has taken two forms. On an individual level, it has required me to try and mend my relationships when they have become broken and heal the harm that I have done. On a collective level, it has necessitated a commitment to social justice and the ongoing work of understanding how I have been complicit in and benefited from systems of oppression.

None of this is easy. I have found individual repentance to be incredibly challenging. It usually requires admitting that I am wrong and that I need to change my behavior. Who likes to do that? Looking at our own flaws is some of the most painful work. Often, it is far easier to gloss over our mistakes and let relationships fall away than to be introspective about the ways in which we need to change our behavior.

Sometimes, though, we do not have a choice. I learned a little about the difficulty and the reward of individual repentance when I was first starting out in the parish ministry. More than a decade ago, I served my internship in congregation of about three hundred members. I was in my late twenties and full of energy and enthusiasm. I was committed to the ministry and learning how to be a good minister. I was filled with what the poet Kenneth Rexroth used to call “the wisdom of youth,” which is to say I did not take criticism particularly well. When confronted by someone with something they were unhappy about my tendency was to become defensive. I would try to explain my actions rather than work to correct them.

Predictably, this pattern did not serve me well. Everything came to a head during my mid-point evaluation. My internship committee, and supervising minister, sat me down and told me that people had very mixed feelings about my tenure as congregational intern. In general, I was liked and my commitment to Unitarian Universalism and the ministry was palpable. However, there was a segment in the congregation who felt that I ignored them and did not tend to their needs.

Specifically, I was told that many of the congregational elders, particularly those who were women, felt that I did not pay enough attention to them. My first reaction on hearing this was to deny that it was true. I thought I paid attention to everyone. The conversation proceeded, I dug in my heels. I refused to accept the criticism. This only made matters worse. The internship committee grew frustrated with me. And then my supervising minister managed to shift the discussion from the abstract to the concrete. She named a particular behavior: my preference for talking with people around my own age during coffee hour. And she reported her observation that she had seen me turn away, on more than one occasion, from a woman in their seventies or eighties, to chat with someone in their twenties or thirties.

I recognized the truth in what she said. I was crestfallen. I think I might have sat in stunned silence for a couple of moments. Then the minister suggested a path towards correcting my behavior. She urged me to go and visit the women who I had ignored. I did. And over the course of a few months and a series of coffees and home visitations I repaired relationships with my congregants. I also came to understand how my own behavior fell into the larger patterns of behavior within a misogynistic culture that often renders women over a particular age invisible.

This is a painful subject and my behavior around it should not be understood in anyway as perfect. I share my story not to illustrate how great I am but rather to draw attention to the relationship between individual and collective sin and the practice of repentance. Sin, again, can be understood as those actions and beliefs that prevent people from recognizing their fundamental kinship as human beings. Collective sin, in my story unconscious misogyn, fed individual sin, the failure to develop relationships with some of the women in the congregation. Repentance required recognizing my own patterns of behavior, and trying to understand how they fit into social practices, and changing how I acted.

Sin and repentance are not frameworks that religious liberals like to use. Our religious ancestors rejected the idea that human beings were innately wicked--which is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. Instead, we favor the teaching that each of us is born with potential to inflict harm upon ourselves and each other and at, the same time, reach great moral heights. William Ellery Channing liked to tell people that each of us contains the likeness to God. He believed that when we focused our attention rightly and committed to lives of right action we could discover that likeness within and approach spiritual perfection. Channing thought that this was what Jesus had done and he urged others to do likewise.

The emphasis on the innate potential within has often caused religious liberals to downplay sin or the need for repentance. I suspect that since we historically have believed that human perfection is possible we sometimes have committed the error of thinking that we ourselves are perfect. If anything, the path towards uncovering what our Quaker friends have called the inner light lies through developing an understanding of those larger systems and individual actions that keep us continually building false walls between each other. It is only through examining our mistakes and attempting to correct our actions that we can make progress as either individuals or a society.

This dynamic has me feeling quite pessimistic. In these, the closing weeks of what I have come to think of as a national tragedy, I suppose the political liberals among us would want me to be optimistic. It appears that voting will largely be a formality. Hillary Clinton has what might be an insurmountable lead in the polls over Donald Trump. She is even polling ahead of him in states like Arizona which rarely vote Democratic. Statistician Nate Silver, of the web site FiveThirtyEight, currently has Clinton with a 85% chance of being the next President. Roughly nine out of ten Unitarian Universalists vote Democratic. I suspect that many of you here today find comfort in the probable election outcome.

I find myself rather more disturbed than comforted. I grew up in a family which followed politics the way most people in follow sports. One of my oldest family friends is fond of saying that “politics are sports with consequences.” I was about sixteen or seventeen when I realized that no matter which team won the election most of the country, and, indeed, most of the world, lost. Throughout my life, under both team donkey and team elephant, the United States military has started or continued needless foreign wars. Congress has passed legislation to expand the prison system and cut back on social programs for the poor. And the President has advocated for bills that favor bankers and business executives instead of ordinary working people and overseen the vast expansion of economic inequality.

The current election has me doubting the collective capacity of American society to engage in acts of national repentance. At almost every turn collectively we seem to reject the opportunity for national conversation about the deep structures of American society that lead to destructive behavior. It is true that there are bright moments. The braggadocios misogyn of the captain of team elephant seems to sparking much conversation about the unacceptable place that sexual assault and exploitation hold in our society. For too long men, particularly white and powerful ones, have inflicted sexual violence on women. It seems possible that the reaction to the boasts of one of the candidates about his sexual exploits has begun to shift this dynamic. However, only time will tell if shift is permanent--if we as a society can repent--or if the conversation around sexual violence is transitory.

This possible moment of repentance aside, this election has filled me with despair. It has also had me repeatedly turning to the Hebrew prophets. The prophets were horrified by injustice. In ancient days Isaiah and Jeremiah wandered the dusty streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed that God was angry with the people for failing to take care of the poor. Ezekiel stood at the gates of the Temple and announced that his country was doomed because its leaders worshipped false gods.

These religious leaders warned that their community faced destruction if its members did not change their behavior. And they then offered the possibility of transformation. Like a doctor they diagnosed their community’s illness and then the proscribed a cure. They suggested that the problems that others took to be the disease were mere symptoms of the essential malady. They made their proclamations as foreign invaders threatened the very existence of their country. Their peers took the Babylonian or Assyrian armies to the problem that troubled Israel. The prophets knew better. They warned that the external threat that their country faced was a result of its own internal contradictions. It was supposed to be the chosen land of God yet within it the poor struggled for survival and the rich worshipped false deities.

In face of this contradiction the prophets offered a solution. They clarified what was the essential problem--mistreatment of the poor and the worship of false deities--and suggested a path forward. They told their people to repent and change their actions. Ezekiel suggested that in order to escape doom people needed to “make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” It was only by becoming fundamental different, and moving forward together on a new road, that the prophets believed their people could escape calamity.

Not so many years ago, at the very end of his life, the greatest of American prophets, Martin King, made similar warnings and offered a similar solution. In the last months of his life, just two weeks before we was gunned down, he spoke to an audience of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. King cautioned, “I come by here to say that America too is going to Hell... If America doesn’t use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty.” Almost exactly a year earlier, in his famous speech against the Vietnam War, King warned the country risked being destroyed by “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”

Like the Hebrew prophets of old King called for “a radical revolution of values.” He believed that without such a shift this country was doomed. So long as people valued their things more than they valued each other they would remain separated and unable to experience human solidarity. But that human solidarity was desperately needed, he understood, because humanity faced existential threats from nuclear war. What was true in King’s day is even more true today. We do not just face the existential threat of nuclear war but also the threat of climate change.

I have been thinking of these prophets--King, Jeremiah, Ezekiel--as I have been watching the Presidential debates. Not once during any of the three debates did I hear either of the candidates mention the plight of the poor or express solidarity with the working class. Both spoke of helping the middle class but neither mentioned the homeless. Neither seriously discussed climate change. Both favored violence as a means to peace. The stern admonitions of generations of anti-war activists have fallen stone deaf on their ears. King might have understood that, in his words, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death” but Clinton and Trump do not.

The debates have had me thinking about the need for national, and individual, repentance. I have concluded that true repentance consists of four things: clarity, confession, apology, and action. Clarity is ability to see the source of the problem. In the prophets term, to extend the medical metaphor from earlier, it is to diagnosis the disease rather than focus on the symptoms. Confession is two-fold. It requires that we acknowledge our own complicity in the creation and maintenance of negative patterns of behavior. It also necessitates us to admit that we benefit in some way from those patterns of behavior. Apologizing should be obvious. It means saying we are sorry for our behavior. Finally, we have to act for all three of the previous steps of repentance are meaningless without action.

In my story from earlier, I had to gain clarity around my own deep rooted misogyn. I had to admit that it impacted my behavior and that, perhaps, I even benefitted from that behavior. It was emotionally easier not to examine how I acted than to change my actions. I had then apologize and finally I had to change my behavior. Saying I was sorry would have been meaningless if I had not begun to pay more attention to members of the congregation who I had marginalized.

To begin our path towards national repentance we need to gain clarity about the sources of social ills. I suggest that we must seek to understand how team donkey and team elephant are made up of players who are after the same goal. I suggest that clarity will come from an understanding that the creation of the current economic and political system has been one in which both parties have been complicit. The Democrats, particularly under Bill Clinton, and the Republicans have continued to build a government that deepens the plight of the poor, exacerbates economic inequality, fuels mass incarceration and police violence, engages in the repression of political dissent, encourages the destruction of the environment, and fights catastrophic and needless wars. As I see it, America is sick and both candidates are different expressions of the country’s illness. One might be the symptom. The other could be understood as the disease: a political practice of speaking about social progress while doing little to aid the marginalized.

Maybe your clarity is different is mine. If so, perhaps your confession will be different too. I confess as a highly educated white male that I have benefited from the system. I know my life is easier than the lives of so many other people. I have benefited from the exploitation of unnumbered people whose names I will never know.

Apologizing is hard. I do not believe in white liberal guilt. It makes little sense for me to apologize for the systems that I benefited from. I did not choose to be born someone who had easy access to education and financial support. Instead, I think I should apologize for the times that I have failed to understand what I have gained from the existing social system and continued my complicity in the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism.

As for action, for me that means trying to move beyond the present political system and create a new one. It might mean something differently for you. Maybe you even do not agree with me about the need for national repentance or think that one of the candidates offers a solution to the national ills.

Whatever the case, as I move towards the close, I invite you to take some silence to contemplate things you or we might need to repent for. How is clarity needed? What would that clarity look like? What do you, or we, have to confess? How might you, or we, apologize? What would a change in action look like?

[Two minutes of silence.]

My prayer for us this morning is that we may find the inner strength and collective solidarity to overcome those things that keep us separated from each other. May we learn, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, week-by-week, and life-by-life, to join our human hearts with our human hands and engage in the difficult work of creating a great moral revolution.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags 2016 Election Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Martin Luther King, Jr. Sin Paul Tillich Feminism Hebrew Prophets Jeremiah Ezekiel Bill Clinton Democrats Republicans Liberalism

Apr 29, 2016

A (Sort-Of) Review of W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America or Some Thoughts on Trump and the Klan

The comedian W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America premiered on CNN this past weekend. The show’s first episode focuses on the contemporary Ku Klux Klan. A portion of my dissertation is on the 1920s Klan. I decided to watch the show to get a better sense of the Ku Klux Klan of today. I am glad I did. Overall, I found the program to be informative and, often ironically, funny.

One of the most entertaining moments in the show comes when Bell offers direction to Thomas Robb as he films his video program “This is the Klan.” The black media professional instructs the white amateur on how he might better communicate to his audience. In doing so Bell disproves the whole premise of white supremacy, that people with “white” skin are somehow innately superior to people of color. If there was any truth to that superiority Robb would have been the one offering instructions.

The Klan the Bell portrays in his show shares significant continuities with the Klan of the 1920s. Like its predecessor, it is a white supremacist Protestant Christian organization. Robb and many of the other Klan leaders that Bell encounters are Protestant clergy. The words used at the cross burning Bell witnesses are words of Christian ritual.

Bell’s piece would have been even more compelling if he had highlighted not only the continuities but also the dissimilarities between the epochs of the Klan. This would have meant offering a more nuanced historical background to the Klan. Bell assumes that his viewers know the movement’s history and that the Klan has exclusively targeted black people. This glossing over of history represents a missed opportunity.

There have been three separate Ku Klux Klan movements. The Klan of 2015 is a different organization, or rather set of organizations, than the Klan of 1871 or 1920. Its members have different concerns than their earlier brethren. By examining those different concerns Bell could have demonstrated how white supremacy has changed, and how it has remained constant, over the course of the last 150 years. In doing so, he could have made a statement about our current political moment.

The first Klan was the Reconstruction-era Klan. It was founded in late 1865 or early 1866 by former Confederate soldiers. Under the leadership of the detestable Nathan Bedford Forrest, it terrorized and assassinated black and white radical Republicans and former Union soliders in an effort to reassert white supremacy in the South. It was suppressed by the Grant administration and rendered largely irrelevant by the betrayal of Reconstruction by Northern whites in the mid-1870s. After the 1874 mid-term elections white supremacists in the South no longer needed masks to kill black and white radicals. (For more on the first Klan see my recent lecture at Harvard).

The second Klan was founded in 1915 in Atlanta, Georgia. Its founder, the execrable William Joseph Simmons, was inspired by the W. B. Griffith’s white supremacist fantasy Birth of a Nation. This second Klan grew slowly at first and took until about 1924 to reach its peak. At its height it could claim five million members and held significant political power in nine states.* This Klan lasted until late 1940s by which time it only had a few thousand members.

The second Klan was distinct from the first in three important ways. First, it was as anti-immigrant organization. While the Klansmen (and Klanswomen) of the 1920s certainly terrorized blacks they were mostly concerned with the threat that European immigrants posed to “Anglo-Saxon civilization.”** They feared that “our government would be overrun with undesirables, and instead of being a Nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, become a veritable melting pot for the scum of the earth.”

Second, it was both an anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic organization. One of the primary objections that Klan members had to immigrants was that the undermined the place of Protestantism within the culture of the United States. They supported things likes women’s suffrage and universal public education because they saw them as strategies to both counter the influence of the foreign born within politics and force assimilation.

Third, the second Klan was a national, not sectional, organization. Its leaders claimed they had several hundred thousand members in states like Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Oregon. These claims are believable in that the Klan exhibited significant public strength in these states either through large rallies or the election of public officials who openly supported the Klan.

The third Klan, the Klan that Bell encounters in his show, is more similar to the first Klan than the second in that it is primarily an anti-black and Southern movement. The first Klan owed its origin to white supremacist opposition to Reconstruction. The third Klan began as a white supremacist reaction to the civil rights movement.

If Bell had spent even a couple of minutes tending to the second Klan something would have become clear to his viewers. Its rhetoric is similar to that of the presumptive Republic Party nominee, Donald Trump. Like Trump, Klansmen of the 1920s painted immigrants are fundamentally threatening the nation. Compare this 1924 statement from the Grand Dragon of South Carolina to some of Trump’s utterances:

“The immigrants who come to this country form communities by themselves and congregate in the great cities. Paupers, diseased and criminals predominate among those who land upon American soil. They have a very low standard of morals, they are unable to speak our language and a great majority of them are unable to read and write their own language. They come from countries where they have been accustomed to a lower standard of wages and living and therefore, compete with American labor which is already overcrowded.”

Or contrast this statement about Catholics from Hiram Evans, the second Imperial Wizard of the Klan, to Trump’s words on Muslims:

“In Protestant America we must have time to teach these alien peoples the fundamental principles of human liberty before we permit further masses of ignorant, superstitious, religious devotees to come within our borders.”

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. As the Washington Post and other news outlets have documented his father, Fred Trump, might have been affiliated with the Klan. He has appears to have been arrested at a Klan rally during a time, 1927, when the Klan could hundreds of thousands of white Protestant men as members. It would not have been unusual for the elder Trump to have been a Klan member. A number of prominent Protestant white men at the time either were members or openly sympathetic to the Klan.

Whether or not Fred Trump was ever a member of the Klan is probably beside the point. Far more relevant is that by briefly discussing the second Klan Bell could have shown through his documentary how the ideas of that incarnation of the white supremacist Protestant terrorist organization are at the center, and not the margins, of contemporary American political discourse.

*For membership numbers see Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), xi. The states where the Klan held significant political power were Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Texas (see David Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, third edition (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987), 80, 59, 200, 127, 72, 162, 57). I define a state in which the Klan held significant power as a state in which either a Governor or a Senator openly affiliated with the Klan was elected or a state in which the election of a Governor or a Senator was due to the mobilization of the Klan. Chalmers claims that Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, and Indiana were the states where the Klan held its greatest political strength.

**All quotes are drawn from my dissertation research. If you’d like the precise citation feel free to contact me.

CommentsCategories Human Rights Tags Donald Trump Ku Klux Klan W. Kamua Bell United Shades of America 2016 Election

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