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
Nov 13, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 11, 2018
“Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.” Those words about the United States are attributed to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They are apocryphal. He did not actually say them. But it is a good quote. And sometimes it feels like an accurate assessment of this country.
Today might be a day when many of us resonate with Churchill’s apocryphal assessment. The midterm elections were on Tuesday. They returned the federal government to mixed rule. The group of people who have just been elected to Congress includes the largest number of women ever. There will now be more than one hundred Congresswomen. Many of them are left-leaning and opposed to the current presidential administration. This may put a check on the President’s more autocratic and totalitarian tendencies. At the same time, the firing of the Attorney General and the appointment of an Acting Attorney General appear to be pushing the country closer to a constitutional crisis. If that comes then we will see how many people in this country are really interested in doing the right thing: struggling against rising totalitarianism and for the project of collective liberation.
At the same time there has been another mass shooting, this time in Thousand Oaks California. These events have become so common that there are now people who have lived through two gun massacres. They have become so common that they are in danger of no longer being news. They have become so common that the writer Roxane Gay felt moved to pen a column pleading, “Be shocked by the massacre at a bar. It’s not normal.” They have become so common a few days after Gay’s column was published news of the massacre has largely disappeared. They have become so common that few politicians seem to even feel the need to make cursory gestures to finding solutions to the ongoing epidemic of gun violence.
All of this takes place at a time when scientists are warning us that we may have only two years to address the existential threat of climate change. And, as this week’s news has made clear, it is an existential threat. California is burning. More than twenty-five people are dead. Billions of dollars of damage has been done. Forests are wrecked for the coming generations. But despite this horror there appears to be no collective will to address this profound crisis.
I picked today’s sermon topic, “Democracy in Crisis,” knowing that no matter which party won the midterm elections democracy, and the human species, would continue to be in crisis.
I also picked today’s sermon topic with the knowledge that this Sunday marks the anniversaries of two great crises in democracy. Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I. World War I was great crisis in democracy. During and immediately after the war the administration of President Woodrow Wilson waged an all out assault on this country’s grassroots democratic movements. Thousands of political dissenters and antiwar activists were jailed. Dozens of them were killed. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly were effectively outlawed. The great Socialist Party of Eugene Debs was all but destroyed. At the same time, a dramatic rise in white supremacist violence unleashed epidemics of race riots and lynchings. The regime of Jim Crow and white supremacy were effectively solidified throughout most of the country for several decades--a crisis in democracy if there ever was one.
This weekend also marks the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht--the Night of Broken Glass. The name comes from the smashing of the windows of Jewish places of worship, homes, and shops. It signaled that the remnants of liberal democracy in Germany had been destroyed. It signaled that the country had fully become committed to a policy of anti-semitic genocide. It was the start of the Holocaust. The administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded by speaking out against it. And Roosevelt’s administration responded by doing nothing to aid the thousands of Jews who were trying to flee to safety. The ascent of totalitarianism, the closing of borders to its refugees--crises in democracy.
And so, I picked the topic of “Democracy in Crisis” for today because I understood that whatever happened this week there would be a need to talk about the crises of democracy. Maybe this is because democracy seems to be perpetually in crisis. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has claimed that contemporary “politics is civil war by other means.” There are no ultimate resolution to political questions. No one ever wins, not really. This group is dominant and then that. Totalitarianism seems to be defeated in one generation but comes back in the next. Political liberalism appears to offer the most stable form of contemporary government and then it seems to dissolve before waves of demagoguery. Democratic socialism, syndicalism, all the forms of the grass roots democracy surge then and disappear in a generation. There is no final outcome, only ever shifting sands.
We can see this in the United States when we look at the current political situation. As the great baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “It’s deja vu all over again.” The writer Rebecca Solnit recently published a piece in the Guardian arguing that the Civil War never ended. She wrote, “In the 158th year of the American Civil War, also known as 2018, the Confederacy continues its recent resurgence.” Other writers and scholars, myself included, have made similar claims.
We can also see the same dynamic at play when we look to Europe. Today Poland’s elected leaders are joining with avowed nationalists, anti-semites, and even Nazi admirers in a march in Warsaw. More than hundred thousand people are expected to attend. The anti-fascist counter protest will be much smaller. The alliance of the government of Poland with fascists is a reminder that the crisis of democracy is global.
Increasing global inequality is another reminder that the crisis of democracy transcends this country. Here in the United States more than forty years of assaults on labor rights, widespread automation, and the advent of a global integrated economy where workers from different countries directly compete against each other have had their toll. Today the richest three people in this country have more wealth than the poorest fifty percent of the population. Similar dynamics can be seen across the world. Such economic inequality is directly tied to the overall crisis of democracy.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked with you about some of the other contours of the present crisis of democracy. We spoke about how this country is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. Last week we spoke about the possibility of the tradition of virtue ethics to help us find a way out of the crisis. Today I want to share with you another resource as we struggle to confront the crisis. It is the radical imagination.
The radical imagination... Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Our own Ralph Waldo Emerson told us, “Imagination is a very high sort of seeing...” The eighteenth-century poet Phyllis Wheatley asked, “Imagination! who can sing thy force?” So it should be no wonder that the contemporary poet Diane di Prima has warned us, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” Even as she urged us to remember, “every man / every woman carries a firmament inside / & the stars in it are not the stars in the sky.”
The radical imagination... I want to tell you something very important. Every struggle for justice, every social movement, every attempt to make the world a better place, starts with an act of imagination. It begins with some group of people who are bold enough to imagine that the things can be different than they are.
Such imaginings can be acts of bravery. As di Prima put it, “the ground of imagination is fearlessness.” We are often told that things are what they are, they cannot be changed. And yet, things have changed. And when they have it has been because people have been willing to say, as the indigenous movement the Zapatistas have said, “In our dreams we have seen another world, an honest world, a world decidedly more fair than the one in which we now live.” The Zapatistas represent some of the poorest of the Mexican people. Many of them live on less than a dollar a day. And yet, over the past twenty-five years they have been able to articulate a vision of a different world where “peace, justice and liberty” are common, concrete, and not abstract concepts.
The abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries who fought to end slavery were bold enough to imagine a world where slavery did not exist. This despite the fact that until their victories slavery had existed in some form in every human civilization. The ancients Greek had it. Europeans enslaved each other throughout the middle ages. Slavery was practiced in Africa, in Asia, and among the indigenous nations of the Americas as well. Until 1865 slavery formed the bedrock of the United States’s economy. And yet, men and women like Frederick Douglass could imagine a day “When the accursed slave system shall once be abolished.”
Generations later, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders like him had, in King's words, "the audacity to believe" that the world could be free of racism and violence. They imagined that world and then set about building it. Today in this country slavery is outlawed and the overtly racist laws of Jim Crow, the disgusting claim of “separate but equal,” have been overturned.
Susan B. Anthony and other nineteenth and early twentieth-century feminists could imagine a world in which women had equal rights with men. She could declare, “there will never be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” Using their imagination, they were able to organize and struggle to win voting rights for women. And that at a time when many men could not imagine women as doctors, or lawyers, or religious leaders.
I could go on. I suspect that you get the point. Every struggle for justice begins with the radical imagination, the audacity to believe that the supposedly impossible will become the possible. And so, today, as democracy is in crisis, I want to give you gift. I want to give you a space to unleash your own radical imagination. I want to ask you the question, What is your vision for a just world? My friend Chris Crass has developed an exercise to help people imagine the world they would like to create.
I invite you to get comfortable. Close your eyes. Notice your body. Notice how it feels to sit in your pew. Notice how it feels to sit in this sanctuary filled with people inspired by our Unitarian Universalist tradition’s vision of love for humanity. Take a deep breath. Feel the air as it enters your lungs, bringing with it the force of life. As you exhale, feel your body releasing any stress and any negative emotions you have. Feel that negativity drain to the ground. Stay with your breath and focus on it as you inhale and exhale five times. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Now, give yourself permission to think creatively and expansively about: The world you are working to create. What is your vision for a just society? What is your vision for a society where democracy is no longer in crisis? There is so much violence that exists in the world. It exists in the government. It exists in our communities. Sometimes it exists in our homes. If you could imagine all of that shifting, all of that hate and fear disappearing, what would the world be like? If you woke up tomorrow and democracy was no longer in crisis what would the world be like? If you left your home a week from now and discovered that white supremacy had been dismantled what would your neighborhood be like? If you went to work a month from now and found that climate change was no longer a crisis what would humanity’s relationship to the planet be like? What can you imagine? What would it look like in family or your home? In your neighborhood? How would people relate to each other? How would people relate to resources and to the planet? In this new vision, what is valued, who is valued and how?
Imagine that the world you dream about has come to fruition. Imagine that the honest world, the fair world, has arrived. Imagine that you encounter it today, after you leave this worship service. When you depart from this sanctuary what do you find outside of the door? As you travel down the street what kind of institutions and resources do you discover? What do they look like? What sort of services are there? What values are the economy based on? As you return to your home, what does it look like? What is your neighborhood like? What kind of activities are going on? How are decisions being made? How is conflict dealt with? Can you think about the rest of the city of Houston? What are other neighborhoods like? What about other cities? What is Dallas like? Or other states or countries? What is California like? Or Poland?
When you are ready, bring yourself back to what is happening in our sanctuary. Hold onto your vision. As you do, I invite you to consider these words from Arundhati Roy, "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing." Your vision, however, tenuous is part of the better world’s quiet breath.
Today, after you leave this service, I invite you find someone you do not know already and share with them some part of your vision. By speaking it aloud you may just bring it closer to being. By speaking it aloud you might just strengthen your own resolve to work towards creating it.
With that invitation to share your vision in mind, I close our sermon with these of words commission from our tradition:
Go out into the highways and by-ways,
Give the people something of your new vision.
You may possess a small light,
but uncover it, let it shine,
use it in order to bring more light
to the hearts and minds of all people.
Give them not hell, but hope and courage.
May it be so,
Amen and Blessed Be.