Apr 2, 2020
Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in a Zoom call with leaders of the The Metropolitan Organization (TMO). TMO is the Houston affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston is not a member but a few of the lay leaders from the congregation’s Justice Coordinating Council have been urging us to explore membership, I have met with some of the organizers, and some members of the congregation have attended some of TMO’s events. I was also one of the founding members of Greater Cleveland Congregations, the IAF in Northeast Ohio, when I was serving the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland. The Zoom call was to help TMO spokespeople prepare to talk with the press about the issue of food insecurity during the pandemic and the TMO organizers asked if I would be willing to speak with a reporter--which I was happy to do.
The whole interaction got me all thinking about what we should be organizing for during this time of crisis. The conversation clarified my own thinking and so I thought I would take the opportunity to compose something that might help facilitate further organizing.
We want health, food, and housing security for everyone living in the United States of America for the duration of the pandemic. These demands are public health demands. If people do not have health security they will not seek testing and treatment. This will lead to the further spread of the virus. If people do not have food security they will have to leave their homes to secure food for their families. This will lead to the further spread of the virus. And if people do not have housing security they will not be able to shelter in place. This will lead to the further spread of the virus.
It is only by ensuring that all people living in the United States--regardless of citizenship status--have health, food, and housing security that the crisis can be mitigated. Citizens must have health, food, and housing security. Undocumented migrants must have health, food, and housing security. Even students and tourists who have become stranded in the country because of the pandemic must have health, food, and housing security.
The United States is the world’s largest economy. Historically low interest rates coupled with the federal government’s ability to “borrow” money from the Federal Reserve essentially mean it can print money and spend as much as necessary to address the situation. There’s no reason why the federal government shouldn’t be ensuring that everyone has health, food, and housing security throughout the duration of the crisis.
The federal government can also mobilize manufacturing to ensure the production of adequate personal protective equipment and medical equipment for the duration of the crisis. It can pump money into research for a vaccine and treatments and the training--on an emergency basis--of medical staff.
Here in the Houston region, there’s a few things we can be demanding right now that would help bring about health, food, and housing security:
1. Food distribution workers are essential workers. The city and county should mobilize its resources to both procure and, if possible, manufacture personal protective equipment to all essential workers. Given the scope of the emergency, legal niceties such patents should be ignored in order ensure the production of personal protective equipment. And, if necessary, the city and county should attempt to exercise eminent domain over local manufacturing facilities to repurpose them for the production of vital equipment (this will probably fail for a lot of reasons but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try).
2. The Houston Independent School District should reopen safe food distribution as soon as possible. Other area school districts have figured out how to safely do so and HISD, as a major food distribution point for families in need, should follow their suit. [Note: This is scheduled to happen on Monday.]
3. State officials should put Disaster-SNAP benefits in place immediately. The Texas is in a state of disaster. That means that state officials can begin to pursue this benefit for people in the state who need it. Following Hurricane Harvey many people received DSNAP benefits, which were around $500 per month per family. This would greatly reduce food insecurity for families that have lost income due to the pandemic.
4. People should be able to use DSNAP benefits to get takeout from restaurants. This would both provide additional food distribution sites and subsidize businesses, which would, in turn, ensure that some people who would otherwise lose their jobs remained employed.
5. There should be a universal mortgage and rent freeze. No one should be required to pay either rent or mortgage during the duration of the crisis and no one should owe money to a bank or a landlord at the end of the crisis. Many people are facing extreme pressure from landlords to pay rent, even if they lack the resources to do so, because even if there’s a freeze on evictions landlords are threatening to evict them as soon as the freeze lifts. It is only by completely freezing rent and mortgage payments during this time that the most vulnerable can be protected.
6. Vacant hotels should be opened to house homeless people and others who are facing housing insecurity. This has already begun to happen in some cities. Houston and its environs need to follow suit. Getting homeless people off the street, where they cannot easily practice appropriate hygiene or physical distancing, needs to be a priority. Otherwise, the virus will spread quickly through this vulnerable population.
Organizing is, in many ways, more difficult than ever right now. And so, it is challenging to know exactly how power might be built to achieve these goals. A few basic ideas include:
1. Strikes by Essential Workers
This is already happening some places. It is leading to increased access to personal protective equipment for essential workers and increased production of vital medical supplies, including ventilators. Religious communities should support these strikes and workers.
2. Pressure on Local, State, and Federal officials
With people stuck at home they should have more time to call politicians and sign petitions. Letting politicians know what we want and need as frequently as possible is critically important. Large corporations are already doing this through their lobbyists--many are receiving unprecedented rollbacks of regulations and financial support. Ordinary people should not be shy about putting pressure on politicians at this time. As Frederick Douglass said, "power concedes nothing without demand."
3. Rent Strikes
Again, this is already happening in some places. A lot of people know that they are going to have to make a choice between paying rent and food and medicine. They are saying that they will refuse to pay rent. If enough people refuse to pay rent it will be impossible for landlords to evict even a fraction of them. It is also notable, that some large corporations--particularly fast food chains--are already stating that they are going to refuse to pay rent in April. And again, religious communities should support these strikes and workers.
4. Build New Networks
We are all in this together. The virus threatens everyone. It is only by building new connections of mutual aid and support, new networks in our workplaces, and new networks with our neighbors and within the global community that we will be able to collectively address the pandemic. This is one reason why I have prioritized connecting with groups like the TMO. I also hope to use the weekly forum I am doing to help expand my congregation’s networks.
I am sure that both these policy positions and strategies will evolve over time. These are some of my initial ideas, based on conversations I have had and research I have done, to put society on the path to secure health, food, and housing for everyone. And it is only by doing that we will be able to successfully address the grave crisis we face.
Apr 1, 2020
as preached for the online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 29, 2020
I do not know about you, but in these strange days, I have found myself doing many new things. In the last couple of weeks, I have been invited to virtual dinners, virtual dance parties, and virtual cocktail hours. Recently, I was even invited to a virtual tea-time. There was a story on NPR about virtual first dates. My son is starting online--which is to say virtual--school on Tuesday. And, of course, right now you are joining us for virtual worship.
In essence, we are doing new things but calling them by old names. We are in a time of metaphors. “Metaphor,” Aristotle wrote many centuries ago, “consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” We use metaphors when we say that one thing is another thing. A metaphor is something that represents something else. Metaphor is essential to art and poetry. “And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Love is a stone / that settled on the sea-bed / under grey-water,” scribed Derek Walcott. “[V]erdad del río que se va perdiendo;” “the truth of the dying river,” we find in our morning’s reading by Amanda Berenguer. The sun is a bucketful of gold. Love is a stone. The river is dying. Each is a metaphor where one thing is said to be another.
I have come to realize, that for me, virtual worship is a metaphor for life as it used to be. This is our third week of recording our service in an empty sanctuary. There are only a handful of us here. We are practicing appropriate physical distancing.
We are also cleaning the pulpit, microphones, piano, and other equipment each time a different person uses them. In order to safely offer an online worship service, we are filming everything out of sequence. Alma and Scott recorded their portions of our liturgy prior to me recording mine. Mark recorded much of the music in his home studio. This week, he is not even here for the sermon.
Christian and Alma take this out of sequence audio and video and splice it together so that we can provide you with an approximation of our regular Sunday morning service. We want to offer our regular Sunday morning worship participants a continuing feeling of connection to the religious community that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. And we want those of you who are joining us online without ever having entered either our sanctuary in Houston or sanctuary in Richmond to know that when we gather again in person you will be welcome among us. But we do so with the knowledge that virtual worship is not the same as in person worship. You are not sitting in a room filled with people. You are not joining your voices with a crowd of others in song--though I hope that you are singing along with Mark’s excellent arrangements of our hymns.
We do all of this in the hopes that our virtual worship will provide you with a sense of connection and comfort during these strange days. Our hopes for these online worship services remind me of a fable from the Hasidic tradition. In one of his books, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben recounts a version of it that he found in the work of the Jewish mystic and scholar Gershom Scholem.
The Hasidic tradition was founded by the Baal Shem Tov--the Master of the Good Name--in early eighteenth-century Europe. He was reputed to have been a pious, wise, and compassionate man. He was also supposed to have been a great worker of miracles.
It is told that when he had an insurmountable problem before him, he would go into the woods to a special place. There he would “light a fire and meditate in prayer.” And then the problem he had sought out to solve, the miracle he was hoping to perform, would be done.
After the Baal Shem died, his successor went to the same special place in the forest. He had forgotten a little about the ritual. He said, “We can no longer light a fire, but we can pray.” And then he was able to work a miracle.
The Baal Shem’s successor died. And the day came when the Rabbi of the next generation was faced with a great task. So, he went to the special place in the woods and said, “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we know the place in the woods, and that can be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.
The fourth generation came into being. And the Rabbi of that generation was called upon to perform a great task. But he did not even know the place in the woods. And so, he said, “‘We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayer, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of all of this.’ And, once again, this was sufficient.”
Our online worship services make me feel like we are somewhere inside Gershom Scholem’s tale. We cannot kindle the fire of our faith together. We cannot meditate together. We cannot go to the woods--or gather in our sanctuary--together. But we can offer you a video, a story, about what worship might like if we were to gather.
And we can hope that it is sufficient.
Most of the metaphors we are offering each other these days are offered in the hope that they will be sufficient. We provide each other the metaphors of virtual schooling, virtual dance parties, virtual dinners, virtual dates, and virtual tea times in the hopes that they will be sufficient to see us through these strange days.
But, in these strange days, we need to be careful of our metaphors. Some of them can be dangerous. It is unwise to let some things stand in for others. And here we come, at last, to the title of our service: illness is not a metaphor. Illness does not stand in for something else. Illness is just illness. It is not something that should be freighted with moral weight or political valence. It should be for what is, a global health crisis, and not imagined as something else.
For the virus is not a metaphor. The virus is only a virus. It does not represent something else. It is, like all viruses, a small organic infectious agent that replicates within living cells. It replicates and it spreads, from host to host, and bringing suffering to those who it encounters.
The virus is not a metaphor. It does not have consciousness that imagines, that dreams, that tries to discern truth from lies, or that refers to one thing by calling it by another name. The virus does not write poetry or create the metaphors of music, painting, and photography.
What is more, the virus does not care about human metaphors. It does not respect national boundaries, or religious beliefs, or race or ethnic identities. It is not, as some would say, a Chinese virus. It can potentially infect everyone. There is no cure. There is no vaccine. And while we must pray that these are found soon, we must also recognize that until they are everyone is vulnerable.
That, indeed, is one of the lessons of the hour. That we humans, no matter how great or powerful, weak or marginalized, we might be are alike in our human mortality. The Prime Minister of Great Britain has tested positive for the virus. Rita Wilson and her husband Tom Hanks have tested positive for the virus. The basketball player Kevin Durant has tested positive for the virus. The playwright Terrence McNally has died from the virus. Indeed, many people--rich and poor alike--have been stricken ill and died from the virus: people in Italy, in New York, in China, and here in Houston.
There is a way in which the global pandemic reminds me of a verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This was a verse beloved by many of our Universalist religious ancestors. It bespeaks the idea that God loves everyone, no exceptions, an idea that lies at the core of the theology of our Universalist forbearers and Unitarian Universalism today. It suggests a fundamental, non-metaphorical, truth: there is only one human family and we are each a part of it.
Today, we might consider re-casting the words from Galatians as there is neither Christian nor Muslim, neither Italian nor New Yorker, neither citizen nor undocumented migrant, for all are alike to the virus. There are some religious leaders who are saying that the virus must be understood as God’s judgement upon this country and the world. If it is, then the only interpretation that I can find is that we are being reminded, in the words of the Christian New Testament, “that God is no respecter of persons”--words meant to suggest that the divine does not care about human status but instead loves, and calls upon us to love, everyone the same. We are being reminded, in the sense of the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that we all part of the same interdependent web of existence. That we are each, in William Ellery Channing’s famous words, a part of the great family of all souls.
Yet, historically, people have often draw, precisely the opposite lesson from pandemics. They have turned illness into metaphor. One of the oldest ideas in human history is to view pandemics--which we sometimes call plagues--as forms of collective punishment. In such a narrative, one group of people, usually the powerful, label another group of people as responsible for the pandemic. In Europe, during the Black Death, Jewish people were often blamed for outbreaks of the plague. As a result, many Jewish communities were destroyed and many Jewish people were killed. And, of course, the truth was that Jewish people had no actual connection to the plague. They were just blamed for it because they were different from the rest of the population.
Some years ago, at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, before there was a treatment for HIV, the philosopher Susan Sontag wrote insightfully about the dangers of using illness as metaphor. She observed three dangerous things about illness as a metaphor. The first two I have already alluded to. The pandemic is cast as a form of collective, and sometimes individual, punishment. Responsibility for it assigned to “a tainted community.” And, finally, “the disease invariably comes from somewhere else.”
Over and over again, human history has shown each of these ideas to be false. Illness is not punishment. It has the potential to impact all alike. Cancer, one of the diseases that Sontag wrote about, can strike anyone. People across the world have been infected by HIV--babies have been infected with it by their mothers; and, though it was once cast as “gay cancer,” everyone must practice safer sex if they want to reduce their risk of contracting it.
Illness happens because we have organic, permeable, human bodies that can host viruses and bacteria. Illness happens because to be alive is to be mortal and subject to the possibility of pain and suffering. Illness is not a metaphor.
Responsibility for illness cannot be borne by a single community. The virus that causes COVID-19 might have started in China but it is not a Chinese virus. It does not recognize the imagined human community of nation. Instead, it reveals the truth that human beings are far more alike than we are different. Whether you live in Italy, China, New York, Houston, or Fort Bend County, you are vulnerable to the virus. Little can be accomplished by assigning blame for it to one group of people. Illness is not a metaphor.
The disease might have started in Wuhan, it might have come from there, but the virus is teaching us, again, that disease cannot be contained. Quarantines may slow the spread of the virus--and staying home continues to be one of the best things that non-essential workers can do--but they will not stop it. China has paused the spread of the virus and is now trying to prevent its resurgence by isolating anyone who visits from outside the country. This may slow the spread of the virus. But it will ultimately prevent it from continuing to inflict people in China.
Eventually, the virus will reach every corner of our globe. The virus is no respecter of nations, just as the scripture says God is no respecter of persons. It can only be slowed. Pathogens have always spread across humanity--smallpox might have started someplace in the Mediterranean but it eventually spread throughout the globe; syphilis could have originated in the Americas but it is now found everywhere. Every lifeform can become sick. Illness is not a metaphor.
Illness is not a metaphor. Illness is simply illness. But we can learn from illness. It can teach us that the entire human family is in this together and that each of us is vulnerable. All of us are mortal and our bodies are vulnerable to the virus. The threat of the virus will only end when a vaccine is found--not a vaccine for some of the people of the world but a vaccine for all of the people of the world. The spread of the virus will only be slowed when we all act together--engaging in only essential work and practicing physical distancing.
And that will only be possible when we recognize that in these strange days, when all but essential work must stop, most of us are economically vulnerable. I already know of people who are members of this congregation who have lost jobs. I have friends who are wondering if they are going to have to make the choice between paying rent, paying for medical bills, and eating. Some economists are anticipating that the unemployment rate will soon hit twenty, or even thirty, percent.
Such a high level of unemployment threatens massive social disruption. Many people who might, in other times, think of themselves as economically secure will suffer--I know of scientists with PhDs who have already lost their jobs. At such a time, we cannot afford to think of illness as a metaphor. The virus is not a respecter of persons. And the disruptions it brings do not care about your level of education or your current level of economic security. If this pandemic continues for twelve or eighteenth months--as many think it might--it will most likely upend the lives of many people.
At such a time as this, when illness is not a metaphor, we are challenged to rise to meet the situation with compassion. As Scott told us at the beginning of the month, “Sympathy is the ability to recognize that a person is in pain.” “And empathy is the ability to... experience some [of] their feelings,” he continued. But compassion is putting “those thoughts and feelings into action.” We demonstrate compassion when we move beyond simply worrying about other people, or the state of the world, and try to do something about it.
When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor, we come to understand that the only response to the global pandemic is a compassionate one. We do this, in part, because we recognize that we must protect the most vulnerable among us. It is the moral thing to do but it is also the necessary thing to do. In some cities, but not in Houston, homeless people are being given shelter in closed hotels so that they do not spread the virus. Such an action protects both the homeless and everyone else. For the virus does not recognize rich or poor.
The disruptions can impact everyone. And because of this, the disruptions will only be mitigated if we work to provide for all people during this time. And, here, I am reminded of another passage from the Christian New Testament, this time from the Gospel of Matthew. There we find Jesus say, “Truly I tell you: anything you did for one of... [the people] here, no matter how insignificant, you did for me... A curse is on you... [if I can say] For when I was hungry, you gave me nothing to eat; when thirsty, nothing to drink; when I was a stranger, you did not welcome me; when I was naked, you did not clothe me; when I was ill and in prison, you did not come to my help.”
Those ancient words speak a truth in a time of crisis like this, when illness is not a metaphor and when all of us are vulnerable. And that truth is this: we can only address the health and economic dimensions of this crisis by acting together and protecting everyone. That means that everyone is vulnerable. Everyone must be protected--and that everyone who needs them be given access to personal protective equipment. Such equipment is now, to slow the spread of the virus, a need for all people and something that federal government should be mobilizing to produce on a mass level. If it will not, then local cities and counties must step into the gap.
Here in Houston, we had a troubling illustration of what happens when we personal protective equipment is not available to all. On Thursday and Friday, the Houston Independent School District had to shut down its food distribution sites. A lack of personal protective equipment made them unsafe for both people distributing and collecting food.
At a time when people are food insecure at greater rates than every before a lack of equipment, here in the richest country in the history of the world, made it even more difficult for people to get food.
When we recognize that illness is not a metaphor we also recognize that the only way the virus will contained is if we have a coordinated health care policy that makes treatment and testing available for all. And that the state of Texas is wrong for declaring that some essential health care services, such as abortion and family planning, should not be available at this time. Such actions will prompt to travel. And that brings the risk that they will spread the virus further. If we do not treat health care as a human right, in this time when illness is not a metaphor, then it will be impossible to coordinate efforts to slow the spread of the virus and, eventually, find and distribute a cure.
It is only by recognizing that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to end this time of living primarily in metaphors. It is only by acknowledging that illness is not a metaphor that we will be able to return to actual shared dinners, dance parties, tea times, and cocktail hours. It is only by rejecting illness as a metaphor that school and non-essential work will resume. And it is only be casting off illness as a metaphor that we will be able gather together, as a religious community, in worship and in fellowship and physically unite in the difficult, though rewarding, work of building the beloved community.
These are my words for you, offered to you from Houston, Texas, in the midst of a pandemic, as part of a virtual worship service, that is a metaphor for religious community. In this time of anxiety and illness, I pray that they are sufficient. And so, I invite you, wherever you are, to say Amen.
Aug 22, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, Museum district campus, August 19, 2018
The course is set on hope.
The course is set on hope.
Our second reading comes from the Russian revolutionary Victor Serge. By turns an anarchist, a Bolshevik, and a dissident Communist--always a radical--he finished his life an impoverished exile in Mexico. He bore witness to many of the grand tragedies of the twentieth-century. He saw his dreams of a democratic socialist republic die in Russia. He watched his friends, his “constellation of dead brothers,” die under Stalin. He was there when Nazism smashed its way across Europe. And after all of that he could write, “the course is set on hope.”
The course is set on hope. Last week, I suggested that the way forward is with a broken heart. If we love the world, we will be wounded, I proposed. And I argued that one of the central tasks of this religious community was the work of healing: healing the wounds in our individual lives, healing the wounds of First Church, and healing the wounds of the world. This morning, I want to talk with you about the context in which this healing work must take place. I want to talk with you about the permanent emergency. And I want to talk with you about the role Unitarian Universalist congregations like this one might play in addressing it.
Rising populist nationalism in Europe; a President in the United States who echoes classic totalitarian language by calling the press “the enemy of the people;” hatred of migrants; bodies washed up on shores; heat drying out the great sequoias of the redwoods; the seemingly unstoppable horror of global warming; increasing inequality... We live in a time of profound economic, ecological, moral, and political crisis. I could turn every sermon into a litany of woes if I followed the injunction to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
What good would a constant litany of despair do you? Or me? Or any of us? We are in midst of a permanent emergency. The task is not to denounce the state of the world. It is find hope amongst all of the heart break. It is find some small honest joy while claiming a healing place in the great disorder of things. It is to say, yes, the world is full of tragedy, the world is in the midst of a permanent emergency, but maybe, just maybe, there is a way forward, there is hope to be found.
Doing so requires that we penetrate deep into the dynamics of the permanent emergency we face. By understanding it we might discover its true causes and stumble our way forward. In our effort to do so, you will forgive me, I hope, if I momentarily divert our sermon from the grave crises of the world to the more banal matter of my move to Houston.
Moving to a new place requires integration into the local governmental infrastructure. I have to get a new drivers license. I have to register my son for school. I have to register to vote. In my attempts to do so, I have come to the conclusion that Texans love their bureaucracy. Why else would you spend so much time with it? Monday, I attempted to get a Texas drivers license. I drove out to the Department of Public Safety on Dacoma. I discovered a line, a line that stretched all the way around the block in the humid, roasting, heat. Without the day to wait, I left, no Texas state id in hand.
Thursday, I took my son to register for Middle School. It took four hours. Four hours. Four hours in an uncomfortable auditorium where the air conditioning was turned so high the wooden chairs shivered. Four hours. Four hours with wiggling middle schoolers, bored, unhappy summer was ending, and anxious about a new school year.
You know, four hours is a long time. It turned my liturgical mind to thinking. “My son and I undergoing a bureaucratic rite of passage,” I thought. First, came the ritual of humiliation. We entered the ritual chamber, the auditorium, and divested ourselves of our individual identity. We became not people with names but numbers. Then we had to wait, and wait, and wait, as the clock ticked in the corner and number, after number, after number, not ours, was gradually called.
We were powerless to enter the community ourselves. We needed the help of a guide who finally summoned us to a folding table, “number 35, number 35.” And we were there, at the threshold, a folder thick of papers that had to be shuffled, stamped, photocopied, indexed, and stapled before our guide ended our ritual of humiliation and let us begin the process of entering the community of middle school.
Next, we endured the ritual of purification. We had to show the school nurse, a helpful, humorous, but harried woman, that my son had the correct vacations--that he had undergone the proper rites of purification--to be fully admitted into the middle school community. She marked this piece of paper. She marked that piece of paper. She deemed my son clean enough to be incorporated into the community. She sent us out of the auditorium into the attendance office. There we underwent one final ritual, the ritual of acceptance.
More pieces of paper were marked. More photocopies were made. My son was given a new name; a seven-digit number. It is how his new community, the Houston Independent School District, will refer to him in its internal documents. “Welcome to Middle School,” the kindly registrar said. We had completed the ritual of acceptance. He was now enrolled in middle school.
This is the permanent emergency. It is the process by which your humanity, and mine, is stripped away. It is the process by which we become not primarily people but numbers wending our way through databases and disheveled stacks of paper. It is the process by which we render our muddy blue ball of plant--the only Earth on which we have to survive--into tables of extractive resources and sums of profits and loss. It is the process by which we learn to treat the people, the animals, the world, around us as things we can use instead of entities with which we are in relation.
The permanent emergency is at the root of all of the emergencies that we, as country, as a human species, collectively face. Let us consider one example: racism. Like all of the ills that face us--the crisis of democracy, the ecological crisis, misogyny--it is a crisis with a history. It comes from somewhere.
Race is not a natural category. It is not something that exists independently in the world. It is something that we humans have created. If we ask any honest scientist, they will tell us that race has little genetic basis in reality. They will tell us that race is a social construction. It is even possible to pinpoint the precise moments when race as we think of it was created. And those moments have everything to do with treating other people as things, as numbers, as tools, rather than as people.
The idea that black people and white people are somehow different races begins on August 8, 1444. That was the day Prince Henry of Portugal arrived at the port of Lagos with a human cargo of 235 slaves. Until that moment human with black flesh had not been described by European thinkers as inherently different or inferior. The arrival of a large group of African slaves to the European continent marks the beginning of European ideas of racial difference. And it comes from the desire of wealthy Europeans to create a category of people whose lives can be reduced to the sums on balance sheets: profits, losses, income, and expenses. It is followed by other moments that we can identify. There is 1662, when Virginia passed a law that race was a legal category someone inherited from their mother. There is 1787, when the United States Constitution was adopted with its infamous three fifths clause. There is the 1857 Dred Scott case, when the United States Supreme Court decided no black person could be a citizen. Each of these instances was an effort to reduce a human life to something other than a human life: a number, a sum, an abstraction to be tracked across ledger sheets.
The permanent emergency... As Martin King told us, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.” The permanent emergency will continue until we collectively can effectuate the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented one. This shift is something Unitarian Universalist communities like this one are well poised to address. The first principle of our Association: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” The seventh principle of our Association: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
Unitarian Universalism was born amid the permanent emergency. Consider our friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our tradition’s great theologians. He wrote his essays as attempts to find a way forward as a person in an increasingly thing-oriented society. Like us today, he lived in a period of profound social displacement, strife, and heart break. Like us today, he objected to much of it. He objected to the genocide of the indigenous peoples of North America writing, “Such a dereliction of all faith and virtue, such a denial of justice, and such deafness to screams for mercy, were never heard of in times of peace.” He objected to chattel slavery, telling his audiences, it was as “evil, as cholera or typhus.”
Emerson’s words from yesterday might well be applied to the crises of today. The crimes of the United States government at this state’s border could easily be described in the same terms he used to described equally awful crimes two hundred years ago. But Emerson was wise enough to recognize that the crises of the moment were but expressions of a deeper crisis, a profound crisis, the treatment of human beings as things rather than as people, the alienation of each human soul from the other, the permanent emergency.
Let us briefly turn to the essays he wrote in his attempt to find his way forward as a person in a thing-oriented society. In them he speaks of the sense of dislocation that it is so easy to feel, “Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.” And in them, he offers two solutions to the permanent emergency: to unleash our imaginations and to form real friendships. Calling imagination genius, he tells us, “In the thought of genius there is always a surprise; and the moral sentiment is well called ‘the newness,’ for it is never other.” He advises us on friendship, “When they are real... [friends] are the solidest thing we know.”
Unleashing the imagination, forming real friendships, these I suggest are what provides paths forward in the permanent emergency. What better to pursue in our Unitarian Universalist community? So many of us come to church seeking community and hope. What is hope but the imagination that life can be different than it is? What is community but a place in which to find abiding friendships?
Unleashing the imagination, all the crises that we face were imagined into being. Racism, I suggested earlier, is a product of the imagination. We can imagine alternatives. Indeed, we have imagined alternatives and we have struggled to bring those alternatives into being. The movement to abolish chattel slavery originated when abolitionists imagined society could exist without slavery. The feminist movement began when women imagined that they could live in a society where they were treated as people rather than as objects. Each movement for liberation has begun with a vision that the world can be different.
If you lived in a person-oriented society what would it look like? How would your home be different? How would your neighborhood be different? How would this church be different? How would Houston be different? How would this country be different? How would our world be different? These are questions we can pursue, together, in this religious community.
Forming real friendships, like the imagination, friendships are at the core of moving towards a person-oriented society. When we are friends with someone we focus our universal claim that we respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person on a particular individual. We encounter them not as a thing first but as a person first.
And here, I want to invite you to do something with me. I want to invite you to turn to your neighbor and tell them something. Now, I recognize this is something you might not have done before in your congregation. So, I apologize if it makes you uncomfortable. If you are uncomfortable you can always decline my invitation. I invite you to turn to your neighbor and say, “Neighbor, I recognize your inherent worth and dignity.” Try it, “Neighbor, I recognize your inherent worth and dignity.” Recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of particular people, that is where friendship starts. Recognizing the inherent worth dignity of particular people, that is one part of the way we move from thing-oriented society to a person-oriented one.
Imagination and friendship, I will have much to talk with you about both during our time together. But less you think that all of this talk of hope amid the permanent emergency is merely my preacherly penchant for abstraction let me close with a story and an observation.
The story is about Grace Lee Boggs. She was an activist and a philosopher who lived in Detroit for much of the twentieth-century and well into the early twenty-first century. Like Martin King, she understood that the crises we face are not primarily economic, political, or even social, they are moral.
Grace Lee witnessed the desolation of Detroit. She saw the city shrink from two million to less than seven hundred thousand. She lived among the abandoned factories and the burned out homes that stretched block upon block, mile upon mile. And she saw a new vision for the city, a greener vision, a vision in which her task was “planting the seeds of Hope.”
And plant she did. Working with others, she led a movement to regreen the city. She helped organize the creation of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of community gardens across Detroit. That ruined block became a vegetable garden. That one was turned over to flowers. Did her work completely transform the city? No, but it did create human connections amid isolation. It led to friendships across racial and economic lines. It generated new community organizations. It enabled thousands of impoverished people who would not otherwise have access to fresh fruit and vegetables to grow their own food. And it began with an act of imagination that vacant lots were not blight but “opportunities to develop urban agriculture and build a new society from the ground up.” It came from a recognition that there is an “inseparable interconnection between our minds, hearts, and bodies.” It originated with a vision that her city could be different than it was.
My closing observation is about Victor Serge. After all of the horrors of the first half the twentieth-century he was able to claim, “The course is set on hope.” Why? Because he experienced real, deep, friendship amid all of it. This gave him the knowledge that, however horrible humans can be to each other, we still retain the ability to recognize the inherent worth and dignity that resides in each of us. And through it all, he remained ever aware of the possibility of the imagination to uncover a better world. The last word of his last poem, found upon him after he died: “dazzling.” Dazzling, the last word of someone who had seen all of the crises of his age. Dazzling, the last word of someone who refused to let his imagination be stifled or forget power of friendship to save our world. Dazzling... the course is set on hope.
So that we may unleash our imaginations, build real friendships, and, together, as a religious community, confront the permanent emergency, I invite the congregation to say, Amen.