Feb 17, 2020
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, January 12, 2020
I am thrilled to be in the pulpit with you this morning. I am excited to be staying on as your developmental minister for the next five and a half years. And I am deeply appreciative of all of the enthusiastic notes of support that the Board and I have received via email and through Facebook. I am also aware that there are a few of you who are not keen about the news that I will be staying. I also know that a few of you are concerned or unclear about the process that the Board used to reach its decision to hire me. If you do feel that way, I hope that you will attend this afternoon’s congregational town hall or come and share your concerns with me. I am your minister and this your religious community. And while I am here, whether you are excited about me staying or not, I will do the best I can to meet your spiritual needs and to serve all the members of First Unitarian Universalist. And the Board will do its best to democratically govern the church.
I believe our time together will be an opportunity to develop a powerful shared ministry that is devoted to building a compassion filled beloved community and confronting the urgent tasks of the era. These, I have suggested, are dismantling white supremacy, revitalizing democracy, and addressing the climate crisis.
The next several years will be some of the most crucial in human history. They will determine whether or not we, as a human species, address the causes of global warming. We will choose our collective legacy. It will either provide our children a vibrant and sustainable future or calamitous one.
The fate of Unitarian Universalism in the next years will be determined by whether or not we live up to our commitment to be a relevant religion. We will thrive if religious communities like First Unitarian Universalist equip people with the spiritual tools to confront society’s challenges and adjust to its changes. We will fade into irrelevance if we do not.
While we answer the question of whether or not we are a relevant religion on a grand scale, we will also have to continue answering this question individually, on a personal scale. No matter what happens, in the midst of all the world’s changes, some things will remain constant. The cycle of life and death, birth and aging, will continue. The Earth will orbit the sun as it always has. The Moon will bring tides to the water. And people will need to find meaning in the rich mess of our lives. They will ask questions about the meaning of life and the power of love.
First Unitarian Universalist’s challenge over the next few years will be this: Can we be a religious community that is relevant to the great crises of the hour while at the same time providing a spiritual home for people throughout all the days of their lives? I think we can. And so, I also think that the brightest days for both Unitarian Universalism and the congregation are in the future. I look forward to seeing how it all unfolds. And because I believe this, I am incredibly excited to serve as your senior minister as we continue together in the work of collective liberation and the task of building the beloved community.
One of the central missions of such a community is the cultivation of friendships and the deepening of connections. This month in worship we are exploring friendship as a spiritual practice. Ralph Emerson argued, “Friendship demands a religious treatment.” All this month we are attempting to give it one. This morning, I want us to consider one of the most difficult kinds of friendships: friendships between enemies.
The friendship between Jacob Taubes and Carl Schmitt was one of these. It must have been one of the strangest of the twentieth century. Taubes was a rabbi and philosopher. He taught for many years at the Free University of Berlin. And Schmitt, well, Schmitt was a Nazi. And he was not just any member of the Third Reich. Schmitt was one of the regime’s chief legal theorists. After World War II, he remained an unrepentant fascist and bigot. He lectured in Fascist Spain and refused de-nazification.
Taubes knew all of this. He and Schmitt met after World War II. Taubes survived the Holocaust because his family moved to Switzerland. Studying at the University of Zurich while the world around him burned, in the early 1940s Taubes came across Schmitt’s work for the first time. It inspired him to take a new line of argument in his own scholarship. One that was controversial enough that it earned Taubes a rebuke from the professor with whom he was studying. Taubes was taken to task for reading the work of an “evil man” and told that his own argument was “monstrous and unidimensional.” His professor’s response caused Taubes to question his own place within the academy.
Following the war, Taubes found himself in Jerusalem on a research fellowship at the Hebrew University. He encountered Schmitt’s work when he discovered that the Israeli’s minister of justice had taken an interest in it. This was immediately after the founding of the state of Israel. Much of Jerusalem was under the supervision of the United Nations. For reasons that are unclear to me, the library of Hebrew University was “locked up on Mount Scopus,” outside of the city limits under armed guards. These guards changed every two weeks. Taubes recalls, “Contrary to the terms of the official true, which said that nothing could be taken from Mount Scopus, and nothing from the city to Mount Scopus, the decree was circumvented with the help of members of the guard who, when they came back to the city, filled their trousers and bags with books that the university library had labeled ‘urgent.’”
The minister of justice, it turned out, had urgently needed one of Schmitt’s books. He wanted to consult it in his efforts to write a Constitution for the state of Israel--a document, which, incidentally, still does not exist. Taubes was much surprised to learn this story from the chief librarian. He took out the book when the minister returned it, re-familiarized himself with Schmitt, and again began to consider the connection between Schmitt’s thought and his own. He wrote a letter to a friend of his, a man named Armin Mohler who Taubes had known back in Zurich when he was a student. The two held different political positions. “You could say that he was on the extreme right and I was on the extreme left. Les extrêmes se touchent--at any rate, we had the same views about the middle,” Taubes recalled about Mohler.
Taubes poised his old school friend a question, “It remains a problem for that... [Carl Schmitt] welcomed the National Socialist [as the Nazis called themselves] ‘revolution’ and went along with it and it remains a problem for me that I cannot just dismiss by using such catchwords such as vile, swinish.... What was so ‘seductive’ about National Socialism?”
So, here we have a point of unexpected engagement. Taubes, a self-described “arch-Jew,” approaching his friend the goyish, which is to say non-Jewish, arch-conservative with a query of interest about a lethal enemy. He wanted to know the answer to a question that perplexes so many of us today: How is it that intelligent, even brillant, people can devote themselves to ideologies and political movements that are obviously evil? I suspect that many of you have asked such questions of scholars, intellectuals, politicians, business executives, clergy, friends, family members, and neighbors that you respect.
I know I have. More than once in my life I have found myself struggling to understand how someone who was obviously intelligent, who was educated, could subscribe to odious ideologies. I often find myself wondering this about climate change deniers--especially now when Australia burns, when we are experiencing some of the warmest, weirdest, weather on record, and when there is a scientific consensus that the changing climate is driven by the human consumption of fossil fuel.
Back in September many of us participated in the global climate strike. We turned out about seventy-five people from the congregation for the event organized by local youth and 350.org in solidarity with the movement inspired by Greta Thunberg. Some of you might remember, that in support of the climate strike I published an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle. You probably do not know that the next day the office got a call from someone named Dr. Neil Frank who wanted to urgently talk with me. He wanted to clarify some things for me about climate change.
Now, I am relatively new to Houston. I had no idea who Dr. Neil Frank is. So, I asked Jon Naylor, who is one of my sources of knowledge for all things Houstonian. Neil Frank, Jon Naylor told me, is the much beloved retired weatherman from the local CBS affiliate KHOU. He is also the former director of the National Hurricane Center. I asked Jon to set-up a meeting for us. And so, Dr. Frank came by my office one afternoon and tried to convince me that the changes in the climate we are now experiencing are driven by something other than human action.
It was a fascinating conversation. Dr. Frank has PhD in meteorology. His goal, it became clear, was to convince me that everything I knew about the scientific consensus on the climate crisis was false. He admitted that the planet is warming. This, however, he told me was a result of natural climate cycles. High CO2 levels, he also wanted me to know, was good for plant life and was, ultimately, nothing to worry about.
We had a long discussion about the role of peer-review in research. He told me that critics of the thesis that climate change is human caused had been locked off academic journals by something he called “the global warming industry.” This industry has, through some unspecified means, taken control of the peer review process. It is part of a conspiracy by, in his words, “some very wealthy people” to create one world government. This one world government would be birthed when people became convinced that they could only address the climate crisis by forming it. The one world government would start with treaties like the Paris Agreement which would both undermine national sovereignty and redistribute the world’s wealth. Inequality, he told me, is the great creator of prosperity and creating a more economically equal society would be disastrous to human progress.
A shadowy group of unspecified individuals conspiring to create one world government, undermine national sovereignty, and redistribute wealth... As someone who has spent many years studying white supremacist movements I have to admit that I was a bit taken back. It is classic antisemitic claim that there is a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world. I am not saying that Dr. Frank is an antisemite. But his argument against taking action on the climate crisis certainly reminded me of one of antisemitism’s root mythologies.
We can learn, surprising, sometimes distressing, things when we try to reach out in friendship with those who we disagree. I am not sure that I would describe Dr. Frank as my enemy. And we did not end our session together as friends. However, we stand on the opposite side of two vital issues--Dr. Frank is also an evangelical Christian--and I learned important things from our conversation. We can expand our ways of understanding the world when we engage across difference. At the very least, we can gain clarity into what motivates people with whom we disagree. And that clarity is valuable in and itself.
Such clarity was what Jacob Taubes sought in his letter to his friend Armin Mohler. This was in the pre-internet days but the written word, in whatever form, has long had a capacity to move beyond its original audience. Mohler showed the letter to a friend. Who showed it to a friend. Who showed it Schmitt himself. This prompted Schmitt to write Mohler and ask him for Taubes’s address. Thus began what was for many years a one-sided correspondence. Schmitt would send Taubes inscribed copies of his books and the texts of articles. Taubes would not answer them.
Taubes’s refusal to respond to Schmitt did not prevent the rumors from circulating that the two men were friends. One evening at Harvard, after Taubes made a presentation, a young scholar came up to him and said, “Oh, I am so pleased to meet a friend of Carl Schmitt!”
Taubes responded, “Me? Friend of Carl Schmitt? Never seen him and don’t even want to meet him.”
The young scholar replied, “But I know of your letter to Carl Schmitt!”
“Me? A letter to Schmitt? Never wrote one, don’t even know where he lives,” was Taubes’s retort.
“But I have read it!,” the young scholar insisted.
It turned out that the letter Taubes had sent to his friend had become, through the grapevine, a letter directly to Schmitt.
Taubes still refused to meet with the unrepentant Nazi for many years. His friends throughout the academy kept pushing him to do so. Yet, even when he was in Schmitt’s neighborhood Taubes would not drop him so much as a card.
One famous philosopher finally wrote Taubes taking him to task for his insistence that he would not meet with Schmitt: “Put a stop once and for all to this ‘how did he say that’?--as if everything were a tribunal--you... and Schmitt, you are all the same, what’s the point?”
Taubes finally concluded, “Listen, Jacob, you are not the judge, as a Jew especially you are not the judge... I know about the Nazi period. ... You are not the judge, because as a Jew you were not party to the temptation.” He decided that because there was no possibility of him ever becoming a Nazi, a possibility foreclosed to Jews, he could only attempt to understand Schmitt’s decision to become an antisemite by engaging with him directly.
And so, Taubes finally went to visit Schmitt. The two men had, in Taubes’s words, “the most violent discussion that I have ever had in the German language.” And Schmitt showed Taubes “documents that made my hair stand on end--documents that he still defended.” Years later, Taubes wrote, “I really cannot bear to think about it.”
Schmitt, Taubes realized, was primarily motivated from a fear that society around him would collapse and that dangerous change would come. Schmitt was a lawyer and he feared more than anything disorder. Schmitt came to understand that law, however, was not based on some set of abstract principles. It came, he believed, from a strong state and a strong ruler. Without such a structure to support it the law, Schmitt thought, would become meaningless. His support for the Nazi regime had come because, he believed, in a time of chaos liberals were unable to ensure that the law endured.
During the course of their conversation Taubes came to understand Schmitt and in doing so came to understand something about why people can come to defend the indefensible. Taubes even decided that he was willing to call Schmitt his friend. This was not an insignificant statement on two levels. First, and foremost, the friendship between a Jew and Nazi is not one without a little controversy. I suspect that a few of you might even be disturbed by the concept of it. For, after all, Taubes and Schmitt were, in Taubes’s words, “opponents to the death.”
Second, one of Schmitt’s primary contributions to philosophy is the claim that politics begins with the distinction of friends and enemies. In politics, he argued, we struggle with our friends, with whom we share a common interest or identity, against those who are enemies, individuals that oppose our interest or identity. Politics, he believed, was primarily about making this distinction. By naming Schmitt as his friend, Taubes was in some sense undermining Schmitt’s political project. He was calling into question the kind of politics practiced by Schmitt.
The political projects of people like Schmitt requires that we divide the world into enemies and friends. In such a world, politics is not necessarily a domain separate from the rest of our lives. It occurs anytime we decide that we must divide ourselves into opposing groups and then struggle for dominance, one group over the other.
Certainly, this is what is happening today. We live at a moment of sharp political division. For many of us, political identity has divided the country into friends and enemies. Politicians seek to block legislation not on the basis of policy implications but rather from the fear that they will allow political enemies to score points with the electorate. Democrats do not trust Republicans. Republicans do not trust Democrats.
Perhaps the first step out of such an impasse is to attempt to understand what motivates each other. We might find ourselves surprised or disturbed. It might be that we discover that our motivations are irreconcilable--I am not going to become a climate crisis denier based on the idea that there is a global warming institution conspiring to create one world government. But it might be that we discover surprising basis for connection.
Carl Schmitt found that Jacob Taubes shared with him a common devotion to scholarship and that the two men understood each other. Maybe it was not enough to heal the world of political division. But it disrupted it. Today, Dr. Frank and I did not end our conversation as friends but I gained greater clarity into a crucial issue. And we spoke to each other, despite our differences--just as Taubes and Schmitt finally did.
In her poem “Who Said It was Simple,” Audre Lorde reminds us that in the world of politics nothing is simple. Those who proclaim themselves to be our friends are sometimes not entirely on our side. Her poem was written in response to the civil rights movement, which Lorde supported, and the complexities of the alliances between people who struggle on the same side of an issue. She asks, “which me will survive / all these liberations” to raise the question of who really is her friend. Are the women at the lunch counter actually on her side? Or are they serving some of other interest, one which she fears will ultimately destroy her?
Lorde’s question prompted her to consider the power of difference in the struggle for social justice. Like Taubes, she ultimately rejected the friend enemy distinction, instead coming to see that it is our differences that make us who we are. In the face of those who divide the poor, the marginalized, or any of those who struggle for a better world into different groups with competing interests, Lorde challenged people to “take our differences and make them strengths.” She warned, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
The philosopher Hannah Arendt urged us to converse across difference. She said, “We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.” Taubes learned something of Schmitt’s humanity through their discourse. In some way, he overcame Schmitt’s most deeply held bigotry, his antisemitism, by his conversation with Taubes. He decided that Taubes, his supposed arch-enemy, understood him more fully than anyone else.
Key amongst the master’s tools that Lorde knew would not save us was the division of the world into friend and enemy. The simple act of seeking to converse across differences can help us to subvert this division. It is not easy. Sometimes, in the heat of conflict, it is impossible. And, yet, breaking down divisions between friends and enemies might be the only thing that can ultimately save us, the human species, from the destruction we are wrecking upon this planet and upon each other. The truth that climate crisis teaches is that we are all--whether friends or enemies--in this together.
And so, my challenge to us this morning is this: Let us seek out dialogue across difference. Not seeking, as is so often the case, to argue with our enemies but to understand them as we might try to understand our friends. For it is only, ultimately, by understanding what divides us that we might learn to come together as we must--a human family living at a crucial hour.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Feb 6, 2020
I keep a running list of the books that I read all the way through--as opposed to read selectively in, which is how I approach most works of academic history, critical theory, and theology. For a few years I posted this list to my blog with commentary on some of the books. I fell away from that for awhile but am now getting back to it. I will be posting a list of all of the books I read over the last decade in the next week or so as well.
In 2019 I a read a bit in French because I was in France for awhile. I hope to read a bit of Spanish and French for pleasure in 2020 as well--though a month into the year I haven’t really gotten to either of them. My French reading level isn’t great and while I read a good portion of Pascale Tournier’s book “Le vieux monde est de retour, Enquête sur les nouveaux conservateurs,” I didn’t complete it. I did read several volumes of the delightful early French readers series Quelle Historie. They’re almost exactly at the level of French I can read without a dictionary.
In terms of books in English, the best novel I read was a translation of Soseki Natsume’s “I Am A Cat.” It is an early twentieth-century classic about the life of a cat who lives in the house of a somewhat eccentric minor Japanese scholar. The cat is witty and absurd and various passages find him doing such things as “worshipping my honored Great Tail Gracious Deity” and meditating on the ways cats “trod the clouds” because “[c]at’s paws are as if they do not exist.
Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here” is an important work about the rise of dictator in the 1930s United States and the eventually successful efforts to overturn his rule. It isn’t great literature but its heroes are a Unitarian and a Universalist and it has some useful insights into the possibilities and limitations of liberal religious resistance to fascism.
Like Lewis’s book, much of what I read was for my Minns lectures. Daniel Walker Howe’s “The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861” and Juan Floyd-Thomas’s “The Origins of Black Humanism in America: Reverend Ethelred Brown and the Harlem Unitarian Church” deserve special mention for their important work on Unitarian intellectual history. If you have heard me preach in the last twelve months these two works have been lurking somewhere in the background.
I didn’t read anything particularly bad in the 2019 but, as I discuss at length in my third Minns lecture, I was pretty disturbed by Timothy Synder’s complete elision of the US’s history of white supremacy in his “On Tyranny” and his attacks on anarchists and antifascists in “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.” For indigenous nations and many people of color the United States has been a totalitarian society since its inception. To pretend otherwise, as Synder does in his widely read “On Tyranny,” is exceptionally dangerous at a moment when some white people are waking up to the reality that they may soon be living in a totalitarian society. If we--and the we I am writing as here are what I might call white people of good hearts--are going to resist the rise of totalitarianism then we had better make allies with indigenous nations and people of color. They have, in many cases, successfully resisted this country’s totalitarianism for generations. We will be more powerful together and we--again writing for the plural white people of good heart--have much to learn from other resistance movements.
Synder’s scorn for antifascism and anarchism is ahistorical nonsense--his passages drawing equivalences between anarchism and fascism are particularly problematic. Here’s what I said on the subject in my Minns lectures:
Such equivalences marginalize the rich critical resources these traditions offer—[Hannah] Arendt herself was enamored with the anarchist celebration of “the council system” and critique of bureaucracy as a form “tyranny without a tyrant.” And they forget, as events in Charlottesville should remind us, anarchists and other antifascists have have played crucial, though often overlooked, roles in trying to contain various forms of totalitarianism. It was the anarchists in Spain who initiated the fight against the fascist coup to overthrow the Republican government. It was a Spanish anarchist tank division, serving the French Foreign Legion, which first entered Paris to liberate it from the Nazis. And today, anarchists in Rojava, the historically Kurdish area of Syria, have played a critical role in the defeat of the Islamic State.
That aside, when Synder isn’t attacking anarchists or fetishizing the state (as he does in a number of passages in both books) his work offers insight into the nature of totalitarianism, the machinery of death, and how both might be resisted. I certainly learned a great deal about the Holocaust from him and the parallels he draws between 1930s Germany and our present moment are important. However, Hannah Arendt remains by far the most useful critic of totalitarianism and fascism. And if you really want to understand the antecedents to our historical moment I suggest you read her “The Origins of Totalitarianism” instead (reading it alongside W. E. B. DuBois’s “The Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880” and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s “The Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” will really give you a complete sense of how the United States has gotten to the point it has).
So, after all of that, here’s my list for 2019:
Books Read in 2019
It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis
Strange Weather in Tokyo, Hiromi Kawakami
An Illustrated Guide to Japanese Cooking and Annual Events, Hattori Yukio
How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Neil Gaiman
The Professor’s Daughter, Joann Sfar
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, Neil Gaiman
Paper Girls Deluxe Edition Volume 1, Brian Vaughan
Hope without Optimism, Terry Eagleton
I Am A Cat, Soseki Natsume
The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
Anxious Church, Anxious People: How to Lead Change in an Age of Anxiety, Jack Shitama
Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World, Otis Moss III
The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861, Daniel Walker Howe
The Origins of Black Humanism in America: Reverend Ethelred Brown and the Harlem Unitarian Church, Juan Floyd-Thomas
The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation, Benjamin Moffit
Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History, Mark Harris
Catstronauts: Mission Moon, Drew Brockington
The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians, Anthony Wallace
English Traits, Ralph Waldo Emerson
Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus, 1511-1553, Roland Bainton
Power in the Pulpit: How America’s Most Effective Black Preachers Prepare Their Sermons, ed. Cleophus LaRue
John Calhoun and the Price of Union, John Niven
Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, Margaret Fuller
Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution, Hannah Arendt
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Timothy Snyder
The Complete K Chronicles, Keith Knight
On Tyranny, Timothy Synder
F Minus, Tony Carrillo
Assembly, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
The Stainless Steel Rat for President, Harry Harrison
The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie
Nobody Knows My Name, James Baldwin
Quelle Historie: Angela Davis
Quelle Historie: Voltaire
No Name in the Street, James Baldwin
Quelle Historie: Histoire de France
Quelle Historie: La Socrellerie
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, Naomi Klein
Maroon Comix: Origins and Destinies, ed. Quincy Saul
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, George R. R. Martin
More Power in the Pulpit, ed. Cleophus LaRue
Quelle Historie: Anne de Bretagne
Deathworld I, Harry Harrison
The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, updated edition, Martha Nussbaum
Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology, trans. Steven Carter
The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds: Self-Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in the Afrin Region of Rojava, Thomas Schmidinger
The Three Musketeers, Alexander Dumas
The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, Linda Gordon
Soft Science, Franny Choi
Deathworld II, Harry Harrison
The Courage To Be, Paul Tillich
Disoriental, Negar Djavadi
Black Rights/White Wrongs, Charles Mills
American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals & Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice, Albert Raboteau
Fall or Dodge in Hell, Neal Stephenson
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Feb 3, 2020
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, February 2, 2020
Today we launch our annual stewardship campaign. It is the season in congregational life when you decide how much money you will pledge to support First Houston in the coming fiscal year. In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, churches are owned and governed by their members. Making an annual financial commitment is an affirmation of membership that signals that you have made a personal, spiritual, and monetary commitment to be part of this congregation, build the beloved community, and uplift Unitarian Universalist values.
The theme of our stewardship campaign is “Loving the Hell Out of the World.” The phrase comes from Joanna Fontaine Crawford. Some of you might know her. She was on First Houston’s ministerial staff for a couple of years in the early part of the last decade. She moved on to serve a congregation in Austin. She drew inspiration for the phrase from the theology of our Universalist religious ancestors.
You might remember that Universalism was founded on a simple theological proposition: God loves people too much to condemn anyone to an eternity of torment in Hell. My friend Mark Morrison-Reed quotes the late Gordon McKeeman to describe this doctrine. He once heard McKeeman “say, ‘Universalism came to be called ‘The Gospel of God’s Success,’ the gospel of the larger hope. Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last, unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable... to resist the power and love of the Almighty.’”
Mark continues, “What a graphic, prosaic picture—a divine kidnapping. The last sinner being dragged, by his collar I imagined, into heaven. What kind of a God was this? ... This was a religion of radical and overpowering love. Universal salvation insists that no matter what we do, God so loves us that she will not, and cannot, consign even a single human individual to eternal damnation. Universal salvation--the reality that we share a common destiny--is the inescapable consequence of Universal love.”
One of the earliest and most important advocates of this doctrine was Hosea Ballou. In the early nineteenth-century, he was a circuit rider who traveled widely spreading the message of God’s universal, unconditional, love. Ballou is reputed to have had a quick wit. There are a number of stories that have been preserved about his encounters with orthodox Christians who rejected the idea that God loved everyone without exception. One such story was collected by Linda Stowell.
It seems that once when Ballou was out circuit riding, he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. Over dinner Ballou learned that the family’s son was something of a ne’er-do-well. He rarely helped out with chores or did work on the farm. He stole money from his parents. He spent it late at night carousing at the local tavern. The family was afraid that their son was going to go to Hell.
“Alright,” Ballou told them, “I have a plan. We will find a spot on the road where your son walks home drunk at night. We will build a big bonfire. And when he passes by, we will grab him and throw him into the fire.”
The young man’s parents were aghast. “That’s our son and we love him,” they said to Ballou. Ballou responded, “If you, human and imperfect parents, love your son so much that you would not throw him into the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect parent, would do so!”
It is a pretty fun story. It exemplifies the logic of universalist theology. God loves everyone, no exceptions. So, we should love everyone no exceptions. But as I have been thinking about the story I have come to recognize that it is not without its flaws.
It presents Ballou as a sort of lone hero--traipsing about and spreading the gospel of universalism. This portrayal elides a larger truth. Ballou did not spread universalism alone. He was but one of many early preachers who discovered the doctrine, a doctrine that is found in the Christian New Testament and in the theological works of early Christian theologians.
Someone like Ballou read a verse such as “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive,” to mean literally what it said. Ballou and others interpreted this verse from First Corinthians to hinge upon the word “all,” which appears twice. All were condemned to mortality by Adam’s disobedience to the divine in the Garden of Eden. All will be given immortality through Christ. Not some. Not only the believers. Not just the righteous. But all. Every last sinner dragged screaming and kicking into heaven.
Ballou was not the first one to discover universalism in verses like First Corinthians 15:22. Origen of Alexandria was an ancient Christian theologian who lived in North Africa. Almost eighteen hundred years ago he taught that all would eventually be united with God. Taking a slightly different position than Ballou, he wrote “and there is punishment, but not everlasting... For all wicked men, and for daemons, too, punishment has an end.”
Ballou and Origen lived close to two thousand years apart. Their similar theological perspectives suggest one reason why Ballou and other circuit riders like him were so successful in spreading the Gospel of God’s Success. Lots of people believe that God is love and that a loving God does not punish. However, since this belief is held to be heretical by orthodox Christianity many people think that they are alone in their belief. Encountering someone like Ballou in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century did not convince them of universalism. It gave them permission to profess universalism. It helped them to recognize that they were not isolated in their beliefs.
I suspect Ballou’s circuit riding was a bit like the contemporary phenomenon of discovering people who are Unitarian Universalist without knowing it. Have you had this experience? It is a somewhat common one for Unitarian Universalist ministers. And I think it is a relatively common one for Unitarian Universalist lay folk as well. It runs something like this: You go out to coffee with a relatively new acquaintance. You chat about your friends and your families. Maybe you tell them about the foibles of your cat. Perhaps they share with you gardening tips. At some point, the conversation turns serious. You might not know how you got on the subject but suddenly you are discussing your core beliefs. You tell them you are a Unitarian Universalist. They say, “I have never heard of that.”
You explain. You might tell them that Unitarian Universalism is religious tradition that celebrates the possibility of goodness within each human heart, the transformative power of love, and the clarifying force of reason. You perhaps share that we offer to be a religious home for all wish to join us: welcoming the GLBT community, declaring that love has no borders, proclaiming that black lives matter, toiling to address the climate crisis, and struggling for democracy. It could be that you quote Unitarian Universalist author Laila Ibrahim:
It’s a blessing you were born
It matters what you do with your life.
What you know about god is a piece of the truth.
You do not have to do it alone.
Or perhaps it is that you cite Marta Valetin. She reminds us our world contains the good and the holy when she writes:
The golden present ever reaches for you
and wonders if you’ll come
to unwrap its gifts.
Whatever the case, your friend says to you, “Hey! That’s what I believe. I guess I was a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it.”
Now, what comes next? Do you invite your friend to come with you to First Houston?
I wonder what happened next in Ballou’s story. Did the farm family start a universalist church? Did they gather their friends together and form a small community of people who proclaimed, “God loves everyone, no exceptions?”
We do not know. But what we do know is that belief is not enough. We are called not just to believe in the power of God’s love. We are called to love the Hell out of the world. And if we serious about heeding that calling, we are called to build and sustain institutions like First Houston that empower us in our efforts to love the Hell out of the world. We cannot love the Hell out of the world by ourselves. We need others to do it with us.
I will return to the subject of the importance of building and sustaining institutions like First Houston at the end of the sermon. But, first, let us be honest, there is a lot of Hell in the world right now. For many of us, the current political situation seems bleak. The last several years have witnessed a steady erosion of democratic norms. And, as I have told you before, I fear the country to be sliding towards totalitarianism. Totalitarian states are organized around the personality of a charismatic leader who personifies the state’s power and projects a totalizing view of society. Totalitarian leaders might gloat, as the current President does, of leading a country with “unmatched power, strength, and glory” and boast to their enemies “if conflict comes—we will dominate the battlefield, and we will, win, win, win.” They might propose, as the President has in reference to immigration courts, “we should get rid of judges.”
Rather than respecting the rule of law, totalitarians concentrate power in the head of state--often following the maxim of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” In efforts to consolidate power, pit the populace against itself, and stoke a climate of fear, totalitarian leaders identify a racial or minority group who are cast as representing an existential threat to the social order. They claim this group must be purged from the body politic for the health of the country.
Such logic has been present in the current administration’s Muslim ban and immigration policies. This past week the federal government extended it to seven new countries as part of the President’s policy of, in his words, creating “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He has portrayed Muslims as purveyors of terror who threaten the safety of country and who must be excluded to ensure its security.
He has further brutalized this country’s policy towards migrants launching what he has called a “zero tolerance” approach. This has been manifested in a family separation policy that has removed least 5,400 children from their parents--babies, toddlers, and adolescents all torn from their parents’ embracing arms. It has also been manifested in the expansion of what many scholars of totalitarianism have disturbingly named the concentration camps along the border. Concentration camps are not necessarily extermination camps, where people are sent to be killed, they are places where, in the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt, “The human masses sealed off in them are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of interest to anybody.” They are locations where migrants are put out of sight so that their suffering will remain out of mind. And suffer they do, with more than thirty of them dying in governmental custody since the President took office.
At the same time, white supremacist terrorism has dramatically increased and there have been numerous mass shootings. The situation is a stark reminder that in a totalitarian regime no one is ever secure. People who live in a totalitarian society never know when or where violence will erupt. They only know that it is always possible for them to meet a terrible end at the hands of agents of the state, paramilitaries, or, today, supposedly lone actors whose violence is fueled by a shared white supremacist ideology. Arendt describes the phenomenon this way: in a totalitarian regime, “Terror strikes without any preliminary provocation... its victims... objectively innocent... chosen regardless of what they may or may not have done.” In such a society, “nobody... can ever be free of fear.” It is hard to find better words to describe the epidemic of gun violence. In 2018 firearm deaths reached a fifty-year high, costing almost forty thousand lives. Meanwhile, as mosque shootings, synagogue massacres, temple invasions, and other hate crimes have shown, white supremacist violence has reached historic levels.
All of this has formed the background for what can only be described as an assault on democratic norms. Foreign actors have been invited to interfere with federal elections by the President himself. Ample evidence--including accounts by some of his former advisors--exists that he pressured the Ukrainian government to influence the upcoming election by investigating one of his political opponents. This evidence led to the House passing two articles of impeachment. A Senate trial has now taken place--a trial without evidence or witnesses, a trial whose results appear to be foreordained, a trial in which the President’s acquittal seems to be guaranteed.
The situation could be described as one of permanent emergency. This permanent emergency is a struggle over who shall rule. The coming years may well witness the further undermining of liberal democratic norms, the continuing erosion of the Voting Rights Act, an increase in gerrymandering, the appointment of two more reactionary Supreme Court justices, and the complete the normalization of white supremacist anti-human immigration policies. They might even pose an existential threat to humanity in the form of an administration that is committed to a denial of the climate emergency as the brief window to address it closes. The historical moment is evocative of George Orwell, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
The temptation in such a situation is to prepare, as more than one partisan has suggested, to go “all in” on the upcoming election. Now, I do not want dissuade anyone from mobilizing or participating in voter turnout and registration efforts. In fact, in the coming months I will be urging First Houston to participate in the campaign for the 2020 election that the Unitarian Universalist Association has named UU the Vote. But I also want to remind you that “going ‘all in’ is a gambling term” where, as activist Andrew Sernatinger warns, “you either win big or leave with nothing.”
Whatever happens in the upcoming election, and whatever side of the partisan divide you might fall on, we should not leave 2020 with nothing. Whoever wins the presidential contest the forces of love and justice should complete the year stronger than before.
One of the best ways we can do this is to live into the vision of our Universalist religious ancestors and commit ourselves to loving the Hell out of the world. It is to devote ourselves to building a beloved community that offers a foretaste of the world we dream about, a world where all are accepted and love is the organizing principle of the hour. Love has the power to create communities where isolation is vanquished. Love creates empathic bonds and inspires ideals that prove totalitarian narratives false. Loving bonds and loving communities, along with the loving truth that, to cite William Ellery Channing, we are each a “member of the great family of all souls,” are targeted by the totalitarians’ narratives of fears. But never yet, not in all of human history, have they been fully successful in completely breaking the traditions that foster love.
Khia’s moving testimonial of being welcomed by this congregation as a queer woman of color is a testament to the possibility of First Houston to live out a theology of love. Such a theology of love is why I am asking you to participate in this year’s stewardship campaign and support First Houston. As I said at the beginning of my sermon, in the Unitarian Universalist tradition churches are owned and governed by their members. Your financial gifts account for more than 75% of our annual income. This year we are hoping to raise $550,000 in pledges at the Museum District campus--a 10% increase from last year--so that we can continue to grow the congregation and our collective capacity to love the Hell out of the world. Committing to sustain and grow First Houston is one way that you can help ensure that no matter who wins the 2020 Presidential contest, no matter if the country as a whole continues its slide towards totalitarianism, there will continue to be religious communities where we teach that love is more powerful than hate. Where people can dream what historian Robin Kelley calls freedom dreams, visions of “life as possibility” in which exist “endless meadows without boundaries, free of evil and violence, free of toxins and environmental hazards, free of poverty, racism, and sexism... just free.”
Just free... the theme of worship this month is imagination. It is imagination that reminds us that however imprisoned we might feel by the historical moment there is always the possibility of casting a larger vision where we might, in the words of our choral anthem, dream of “[s]oaring and spinning and touching the sky” like the “boy who picked up his feet to fly.”
It is the imagination that helps us envision what our congregation and Unitarian Universalism can become: a place where, in the words of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, we can go “when the task feels too great, when life is too much, and it’s all too heavy, we can stop, breathe and lean into each other.”
Imagination is tied to stewardship because it inspire us to envision how we can transform and sustain our religious community across time into a place devoted to loving the Hell out of the world, inspiring collective liberation, and dismantling white supremacy. Where we can come together and constitute here, in the city of Houston, a different sort of vision for the world than the one pedaled by hate mongers and white supremacists, a community where all are loved and welcomed be they migrant, Muslim, transgendered, cis-gendered, white, black, Latinx, indigenous, or any other member of the human family. In such a place we can embody a kind of democracy that inspires the rest of society. Such a vision is not absurd. The Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams observed our religious ancestors “considered their free church to be a model for a democratic” society. We might foster such an ideal again and love the Hell out of the world.
Is such a vision foolishness or unwarranted? Perhaps the boot that Orwell predicted will soon come grinding down. Perhaps we will prove incapable of imagining our community thus and living as the beloved community. I cannot answer that question. I can only assert that amongst the purposes of religious community is the gifting of hope. And it is my hope that somehow, somewhere, maybe even now, maybe even here, as we consider our annual stewardship drive, a new vision for this country and our world will arise among us. It may grow from the smallest of seeds and in the most unlikely of places: the streets where we mass to protest, the neighborhoods we live in, or in religious communities like ours.
In that spirit, I close with a parable about that old metaphor for the beloved community, for creating a space for loving the Hell out of the world, the Kingdom of God, as attributed to Jesus: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered… Other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
Whoever has ears, let them love the Hell out of the world.
Let the congregation to say Amen.
Jan 6, 2020
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District, January 5, 2020
Happy New Year! I was not supposed to be in the pulpit with you this morning. But plans change, people get sick, and I find myself with you today on the first Sunday of a new year and a new decade. It is good to be with you. It is good to be with even though the news at the opening of this, what will perhaps be the most important decade in human history, is bitter and harsh. It is good to be with you precisely because it is when the news of the world is bitter and harsh that we need religious community the most.
The assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani by a United States military drone strike on sovereign Iraqi soil has pushed the Middle East into crisis. Soleimani was killed alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi military leader whose political party controls almost fifty seats in the Iraqi Parliament. These illegal acts of war violate both international law and the United States War Powers Act. They may lead to war between the United States and Iran. They have already led to further destabilization of the Middle East. Hundreds of people will almost certainly be killed because of the decision of the President of the United States to authorize Soleimani’s illegal political assassination. Thousands or tens of thousands or possibly even hundreds of thousands of people will die horrible violent deaths if this country goes to war with Iran.
I cannot help but wonder about the timing of the President’s decision to have Soleimani killed. He will soon be on trial in the Senate. The House has passed two articles of impeachment and he could, theoretically, be removed from office. Of course, there is every sign that his allies in the Senate will prevent witnesses from being called or from a serious trial taking place. The Senate Majority Leader even claims that he is coordinating the trial with the White House in order to facilitate a speedy acquittal. The position of the President’s Senatorial allies is clearly concerning. In his year-end report Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., warned “we have come to take democracy for granted.” Roberts will oversee the trial in the Senate. It appears that the Senate Majority Leader’s position has him worried about his ability “to do our best to maintain the public’s trust that we are faithfully discharging our solemn obligation to equal justice under law.”
Drawing the United States military into a conflict abroad will almost certainly make it more difficult to have an honest debate and trial on the House’s articles of impeachment. There will be calls for national unity. For the many, the President will be transformed from a divisive figure to a unifying head of state. It will be harder to criticize him. War dissenters and pacifists will be castigated for being unpatriotic. There might even be calls to delay the President’s trial. This country’s liberal democracy may move closer to a defining crisis.
Over a hundred years ago, as the United States entered World War I, the writer Randolph Bourne warned that war is the health of the state. He wrote, “The moment war is declared... the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy... with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation. The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, [and] revives all his military memories and symbols... Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear toward the society of which he is a part.” When war is the health of the state it is challenging to be a critic of either the President or the actions he directs the military to take. It is no wonder then that the current President is not the only one to authorize dramatic violent action during the impeachment process. President Clinton did the same thing in December of 1998 when he launched air strikes in Iraq as the House stood poised to impeach him.
Over a hundred years ago the Unitarian minister, pacifist, and first friend in the United States of Mahatma Gandhi, John Haynes Holmes stood before his congregation in New York City and told them, in the idiom of early twentieth-century Unitarianism: “War is an open and utter violation of Christianity. If war is right, then Christianity is wrong, false, a lie. If Christianity is right, then war is wrong, false, a lie...”
Today, I believe that the same thing can be said in twenty-first century words. Unitarian Universalism upholds the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Not some people. Not only citizens and residents of the United States. All people. Speaking only for myself, I can rephrase Holmes words: War with Iran is an open and violation of Unitarian Universalist values. If such a war is right, then Unitarian Universalism is wrong, false, a lie. If Unitarian Universalism is right, then such a war is wrong, false, a lie...”
You may have other views. We affirm the right of conscience and the search for truth as central to our tradition. These are mine and they mean that I will never pray nor preach for victory through arms or pretend that the people of Iran are any less human, any less worthy of my love or the love of the divine, than any of you.
And so, this morning, I find myself gravely concerned for the future of this country and this world. I find myself gravely concerned because not only do the President’s military actions represent a political crisis and a crisis in democracy, they are a distraction from what must be the central focus of the next decade: addressing the climate emergency.
The next ten years or so will determine whether or not humanity chooses to address the climate crisis. What we do now will impact the lives of not only our children and our grandchildren but the lives of those thousands of years from now--if there are humans thousands of years from now. At such a moment in humanity history, I find myself often reflecting upon the words of James Baldwin in the closing passage of his magnificent essay “The Fire Next Time.” Baldwin’s essay was written during the civil rights movement, that historic movement to overturn Jim Crow and defeat white supremacy. He saw that movement for racial justice as something that would determine the future of country--whether it would be a liberal democracy or a white supremacist apartheid state. Baldwin wrote: “And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we--and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others--do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
We are on the precipice of the fire next time. We are on the precipice because we, as a country, have been unable to overcome white supremacy. The current President is a white supremacist populist and many of his supporters have made it clear that their highest loyalty is to the maintenance of a white supremacist racial order and not liberal democracy.
We are on the precipice of the fire next time. Literally and figuratively, while the world is distracted by the threat of war Australia is literally burning. Figuratively, because the racial conflagration that has raged since Europeans arrived on the shores of this continent is threatening, once again, to consume the country.
The fire next time, in worship we have been focusing on the spiritual and religious tools that are necessary to live through such times of crisis. Today, and for the month of January, we will be focusing on what I believe is one of the most important of these tools: the cultivation of friendships. The philosopher Hannah Arendt observed that the cultivation of friendships was a crucial tool for those who survived the brutalities of totalitarianism. The creation and sustaining of friendship in such times is a sign that “a bit of humanness in a world become inhuman had been achieved.” And in such hours of crises as the ones we now face maintaining our own humanness and recognizing it in others is one of our crucial tasks. It is difficult to kill others whom we recognize as humans. Killing, especially on a mass scale, often requires the abstraction of human being into a categorical other: the human being who is a friend, a lover, a parent, a child, a sibling, or a neighbor becomes the Jew, the migrant, the black person, the indigenous person, the queer person, or the Iranian.
And so, now let us turn to friendship and consider the alchemical power it provides to make us human to each other.
The image of an elderly Emerson, perhaps resting in dusty sunlight on an overstuffed armchair, asking his wife, “What was the name of my best friend?” is moving. It suggests that Thoreau's name faded long before the feelings his memory evoked. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are not exactly the type of people I usually think of when I think of friends. Thoreau, the archetypical non-conformist, sought to live in the woods by Walden Pond to prove his independence. His classic text opens, “I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself... and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.” For Thoreau solitary life was permanent while life amongst his human fellows was but a sojourn, a temporary condition.
Emerson was equally skeptical about the social dimensions of human nature. In his essay “Self-Reliance” he claimed, “Society everywhere is a conspiracy against... every one of its members.” He believed that self-discovery, awakening knowledge of the self, was primarily a task for the individual, not the community. When he was invited to join the utopian experiment Brook Farm, Emerson responded that he was unwilling to give the community 'the task of my emancipation which I ought to take on myself.'”
Yet both of these men sought out the company of others. Emerson gathered around him a circle of poets, preachers, writers, and intellectuals whose friendships have become legendary. And whose friendships sustained them through the struggle for the abolition of slavery and their work for the liberation of women. That circle contains many of our Unitarian Universalist saints. I speak of the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, of course, but also the pioneering feminists Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody, the fiery abolitionist Theodore Parker, and the utopian visionary George Ripely. What we see when look closely at Emerson and Thoreau is not two staunch individualists but rather two men caught in the tension between community and individuality, very conscious that one cannot exist without the other.
Emerson wrote on friendship and in an essay declared, “I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with the roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know.” Margaret Fuller drowned at sea at the age of forty. Her tragic death prompted Emerson to write, “I have lost my audience.” Emerson thought that Fuller was the one person who understood his philosophy most completely, even if they sometimes violently disagreed. Of her he wrote, “more variously gifted, wise, sportive, eloquent... magnificent, prophetic, reading my life at her will, and puzzling me with riddles...” Of him she wrote, “that from him I first learned what is meant by the inward life... That the mind is its own place was a dead phrase to me till he cast light upon my mind.” Perhaps Fuller's early death is why Emerson recalled Thoreau, and not her, in the fading moments of his life. But, no matter, a close study of their circle reveals an essential truth: we require others to become ourselves.
The tension between the individual and the community apparent in the writings of our Transcendentalists leads to contradictory statements. Emerson himself placed little stock in consistency, penning words that I sometimes take as my own slogan, “...a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Let us consider Emerson the friend, rather than Emerson the individualist, this morning. If for no reason than when Emerson was falling into his final solitude he tried to steady himself with the memory of his great friend Thoreau. Emerson himself wrote, “Friendship demands a religious treatment.”
Have you ever had a good friend? A great friend? Can you recall what it felt like to be in that person's presence? Perhaps your friend is in this sanctuary with you this morning. Maybe you are sitting next to them, aware of the warmth of their body. Maybe they are distant: hacking corn stalks with a machete, sipping coffee in a Paris cafe, caking paint on fresh stretched canvas, or hustling through mazing, cold, Boston streets. I invite you to invoke the presence of your friend. Give yourself to the quiet joy you feel when you are together.
Friendship is an experience of connection. Friends remind us that we are not alone in the universe. We may be alone in the moment, seeking solitude or even isolated in pain, but we are always members of what William Ellery Channing called “the great family of all souls.” If we are wise we learn that lesson through our friends.
Again, Emerson, “We walk alone in the world. Friends such as we desire are dreams and fables.” Such dreams and fables can become real, they can become, “the solidest thing we know.” Seeking such relationships is one of the reasons why people join religious communities like this one.
When I started in the parish ministry it took me awhile to realize this. In my old congregation in Cleveland we had testimonials every Sunday. After the chalice was lit a member would get up and share why they had joined. Their stories were often similar and, for years, I was slightly disappointed with them. The service would start, the flame would rise up and someone would begin, “I come to this congregation because I love the community.”
“That's it?,” my internal dialogue would run. “You come here because of the community? You don't come seeking spiritual depth or because of all of the wonderful justice work we do in the world? Can't you get community someplace else? If all you are looking for is community why don't you join a book club or find a sewing circle? We are a church! People are supposed to come here for more than just community! Uh! I must be a failure a minister if all that these people get out of this congregation is a sense of community!”
Eventually, I realized that community is an essential part of the religious experience. The philosopher William James may have believed, “Religion... [is] the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude,” but he was wrong. Religion is found in the moments of connection when we discover that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Life together, life in community, is a reminder of that reality. People seek out that experience in a congregation because of the isolating nature of modern life. In this country we are more alone than ever before. A few years ago, Newsweek reported that in the previous twenty years the number of people who have no close friends had tripled. Today at least one out of every four people report having no one with whom they feel comfortable discussing an important matter.
Congregations like this one offer the possibility of overcoming such a sense of isolation. When there are crises in the world, or crises in our lives, a religious community like this one can be a place to discover that are not alone in our struggles. We offer a place for people to celebrate life's passages and make meaning from those passages. Friendship requires a common center to blossom and meaning making, and breaking isolation, is are pretty powerful common centers.
Aristotle understood that friendship was rooted in mutual love. That love was not necessarily the love of the friends for each other. It was love for a common object. This understanding led him to describe three kinds of friendship: those of utility, those of pleasure and those of virtue, which he also called complete friendship. Friendships of utility were the lowest, least valuable kind and friendships of virtue were the highest kind. Erotic friendship fell somewhere in between. Friendships of utility were easily dissolved. As soon as one friend stopped being useful to the other then the friendship dissipated.
It took me until I was in my twenties to really understand the transitory nature of friendships of utility. I spent a handful of years between college and seminary working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. I worked for about a year at on-line bookstore. When a recession hit there were a round of lay-offs and, as the junior member of my department, I lost my job.
Up until that point I spent a fair amount of social time with several of my colleagues. We would have lunch and go out for drinks after work. I enjoyed the company of one colleague in particular. I made the mistake of thinking that he was really my friend. He had a masters degree in classical literature. Our water cooler conversations sometimes revolved around favorite authors from antiquity, Homer and Sappho. “From his tongue flowed speech sweeter than honey,” said one. “Like a mountain whirlwind / punishing the oak trees, / love shattered my heart,” said the other. Alas, when I lost my job a common love of literature was not enough to sustain our relationship. My colleague was always busy whenever I suggested we get together. Have you ever had a similar experience? Such friends come and go throughout our working lives. Far rarer are what Aristotle calls friendships of virtue. These are the enduring friendships, they help us to become better people. Congregational life provides us with opportunities to build such friendships.
The virtues might be understood as those qualities that we cultivate which are praiseworthy. They are qualities that shape a good and whole life. A partial list of Aristotle's virtues runs bravery, temperance, generosity, justice, prudence... Friendship offers us the opportunity to practice these virtues and, in doing so, helps us to become better, more religious, people. The virtues require a community in which to practice them. That is one reason why as we have been considering the spiritual and religious tools we need in this era of crisis we have speaking of the virtues in worship.
Let us think about bravery for a moment. The brave, Aristotle believed, stand firm in front of what is frightening not with a foolhardy arrogance but, instead, knowing full well the consequences of their decisions. They face their fears because they know that by doing so they may achieve some greater good.
Seeking a friend is an act of bravery. It always contains within it the possibility of rejection. Emerson observed, “The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.” I have often found, when I hoped for friends, that I need to initiate the relationship. I need to start the friendship. I am not naturally the most extroverted and outgoing person. Many days I am most content alone with the company of my books or wandering unescorted along the urban edges--scanning river banks for blue herons and scouring wrinkled aged tree trunks for traces of mushrooms.
But other people contain within them possible universes that I cannot imagine. My human fellows pull me into a better self. And so, I find that I must be brave and initiate friendships, even when I find the act of reaching out uncomfortable or frightening. Rejection is always a possibility. I was rejected by my former colleague. Rejection often makes me question my own self-worth. When it comes I wonder perhaps if I am unworthy of friendship or of love. But by being brave, and trying again, I discover that I am.
Bravery is not the only virtue that we find in friendship. Generosity is there too, for friendship is a giving of the self to another. Through that giving of the self we come to know ourselves a little better. We say, “I value this part of myself enough to want to share it with someone else.”
We could create a list of virtues and then explore how friendship offers an opportunity to practice each of them. Such an exercise, I fear, would soon become tedious. So, instead, let me underscore that our friends provide us with the possibility of becoming better people. This can be true even on a trivial level. A friend visits. I take the opportunity to make a vanilla soufflé, something I have never done before but will certainly do again. We delight in its silky sweet eggy texture. It can also be true on a substantive level. A friend calls and inspires me in my commitment to work toward justice. He reminds me that we can only build the good society together. We can only do it by imaging the possibility of friendship between all the world’s peoples.
How have your friends changed your life? Emerson and Thoreau certainly changed each other's lives. And I know that the two men, whatever their preferences for individualism, needed each other. I half suspect that Emerson's tattered memory of his friend, “What was the name of my best friend?” was actually an urgent cry. As Emerson disappeared into the dimming hollows of his mind Thoreau's light was a signal that could call him back into himself.
I detect a similar urgency in Elizabeth Bishop's poem to Marianne Moore: “We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping, / or play at a game of constantly being wrong / with a priceless set of vocabularies, / or we can bravely deplore, but please / please come flying.” Whatever was going on in Bishop's life when she wrote her friend the most pressing matter, the strongest tug of reality, was that she see her friend. Surely it is an act of bravery to admit to such a need. Truly it is an act of generosity to wish to give one's self so fully.
Let us then, be brave, and seek out friends. Such bravery can be a simple as saying, “Hello, I would like to get to know you.” Let us be generous, then, and give ourselves to our friends, saying, “I have my greatest gift to give you, my self.” Doing so will help us to lead better, more virtuous, lives and may draw us to unexpected places and into unexpected heights. Doing so will help us to recognize the possibility of friendship, the community humanity among, inherent in all peoples. Doing so will equip us to thrive in an era of crisis and remember the promise of our faith tradition: someday, somehow, we will remember that we are all members of the great family of all souls and, so united, we shall overcome war and hatred to build the beloved community.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Oct 29, 2018
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.
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.
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 sit down,
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 love each other.
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,
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,
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,
be with each of us,
as we struggle to see the human in each other,
and remind us,
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.
Dec 8, 2017
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,
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.