Nov 15, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 3, 2019
For about ten years I edited “Workers Power,” a monthly column that appeared in the labor newspaper the “Industrial Worker.” It was a forum for working people to share their experiences organizing a labor union. The people who wrote for it worked all kinds of jobs. Over the years I ran pieces by baristas and bartenders, bicycle messengers and truck drivers, grocery clerks, nurses, teachers, and a host of others. One of the wonderful things about the column was that it put me in touch with a huge range of people.
The prominent historian and labor lawyer Staughton Lynd even asked me, at one point, if he could submit something for the column. He wrote a beautiful piece remembering his friend Vicky Starr, one of the women who had organized Packinghouse Workers union in the Chicago stockyards in the 1940s.
Staughton’s profile of Vicky was a portrait of someone who had lived a courageous life. The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined courage as the midpoint between fear and confidence. He wrote, “whoever stands firm against the right things and fears the right things, for the right end, in the right way, at the right time, and is correspondingly confident” is the courageous person. When we are courageous we name our fears and then we act to address them. We act not with the certainty that we can overcome what we fear. Instead, we act holding onto the possibility that we can overcome. We find such a sentiment referenced in Abdellatif Laâbi’s poem “Life:”
I have seen what I have said
I have hidden nothing of the horror
I have done what I could
I have taken everything from love
given everything to love
Vicky had courage. She knew that the only way that her life and the lives of her co-workers was going to get better was if they acted together. And she knew that doing so carried significant risks. But that did not stop her from acting. When someone Vicky worked with lost a finger making hotdogs, she convinced everyone on the production line to put down their tools and walkout. The company quickly put in safety equipment. Unfortunately, Vicky was identified as a leader and lost her job.
A little while later Vicky was back at the plant. She used the name of a friend to get rehired. Over the next few years, she led short strikes when people died or were injured on the job. Vicky found the women easier to organize than the men. In order to recruit men for the union she discovered she had to go to where they hung out after work. Though it made her uncomfortable, she started visiting the bars they frequented. She learned to shoot pool and bowl.
Eventually, the union was established. Recalling the experience Vicky told Staughton, "You had this sense that people were ready to get together, to protect each other.”
The courage that people like Vicky exhibited was a common thread that united many of the columns. Workers sometimes wrote about getting fired and the difficulty they had in making ends meet as a result. Other times they wrote about standing up to a bully of a boss. Often the writers would reflect on how the courage they discovered while organizing on the job helped them to move from “low self-esteem” to exuding “confidence.” They would be courageous, confront their employer, win a modest victory and gain a bit of confidence in their ability to improve their lives. Some of these victories would be extremely modest--winning an extra bathroom break or new oven mitts for the kitchen staff--but each little victory would help them gain courage for their next action.
In their courageous acts, workers often exhibited a lot of creativity. In one the author described how he and his co-workers had forced their employer to pay them back wages that they were owed. They worked at a bar and hadn’t been paid in some weeks. They put up a picket outside and began handing out flyers with the headline “Free Drinks.” The text explained that since the workers were not getting paid the drinks at the bar should be free. Some customers went inside, presented the flyers to the bar owner, and demanded their free drinks. He was not amused. The workers soon got the money they were owed.
Courage often sparks creativity. It frequently comes when, in Martin King’s words, we find ourselves needing “to make a way out of no way.” It appears when, as Vicky said, “people... [are] ready to get together, to protect each other.” In such moments the ordinary rules cease to apply. People begin to imagine new ways of being and new forms of action.
Seventeenth-century English universalists used to call this the experience of “the world turned upside down.” It comes when, in times of crisis, people realize that the regular hierarchies of life--hierarchies such as class, race, and gender--are no longer serving them. And that in order to confront the crises they face they have to try to figure out a new way to live.
Have you ever had such an experience? Where you had to stop what you were doing and reimagine the way you and those around you related to each other? Where you began to find, if only briefly, a new way of being? Where you witnessed the world turned upside down?
Over the last few weeks, some of you will remember, I have been trying to draw your attention to the situation in Rojava. Rojava is the region of Northern Syria where the Kurds and their allies have been working with the United States military to destroy ISIS. The people of Rojava are the ones who were betrayed by the President’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
Rojava is important because the people there have been attempting to turn the world upside down. That region of the world is traditionally a very patriarchal culture. The people of Rojava have come to realize that movements like ISIS are based in patriarchy; and that the only way such movements can ultimately be defeated is by liberating women. They have inverted the social hierarchy and placed women at the top. They believe women’s “freedom and equality determines the freedom and equality of all sections of society.” And so, they have created a remarkable system of governance, which they call democratic confederalism, which says that every unit of society has to have both male and female representatives. They have an army led by men and an army led by women. Their town’s have two mayors--one male and one female. And, in order to fully turn the world upside down, the women have veto authority while the men do not. Now, obviously, this does not include all genders. But it is a radical reshaping of society--an incredible instance of collective courage--for a society where the alternative is a brutal system of patriarchal rule where women are treated as objects--even bought and sold as slaves--rather than human beings.
My own experiences of turning the world upside down mostly come from my work in the labor movement. When an employer refuses to address a health and safety concern and workers organize to deal with it anyway they are turning the world upside down. They are inverting the system where their employer gets to make decisions about their working conditions. Instead of management determining, for instance, if they are going to work with insufficient equipment they decide they won’t work until such equipment is provided. Sometimes, they might even provide it themselves--I know of more than one worksite where workers came together, bought equipment they needed, and then presented their boss with a bill.
Turning the world upside is a form of what we might call collective courage. This month we are talking about courage. This week we are talking about collective courage. Next week I will talk with you about individual courage. I start with the collective for two reasons. First, we are in a period of great social crises. This year in worship we are focusing on developing the spiritual and religious resources necessary to confront the grave crises of the hour: the climate crisis; the resurgence of white supremacy; and the global assault on democracy. We can only confront them by joining together. We can only address them by developing collective courage.
Second, if we are part of a community that practices collective courage then we are much more likely we practice it as individuals. The workers whose stories I edited for my column were not acting by themselves. They were part of a labor union. Their membership in such an organization gave them the confidence, gifted them the courage, to act and try to turn the world upside down. It would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, for them to do so, if they had been on their own.
The congregations that make up the Unitarian Universalist Association have been practicing collective courage and turning the world upside for hundreds of years. Our insistence that congregations should be run by their members was, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a profound act of turning the world upside down. The idea that all people had within the “likeness to God,” as William Ellery Channing taught, was a revolutionary one in a society that taught that people were born with original sin. The idea that congregation’s should select their own ministers was radical. It inverted the traditional hierarchy that placed the clergy in control of the church. Equally radical was the idea that ministers did not have a special relationship with the divine. We were understood to be people with special skills and a particular education that could guide the congregation in living its covenant and realizing its vision. Despite these skills, our congregants knew that they had the same relationship with the divine that we did.
At a time when kings still had divine rights, such a conception of a religious community was an act of collective courage. It was tied to our understanding of human nature. In the mid-nineteenth-century, the Unitarian theologian James Walker preached, “We are not born with a character, good or bad, but only with a capacity to form one.” People formed the congregations that became Unitarian Universalist as places to help each other cultivate good character. They believed that it was very difficult to develop good character on one’s own. It required participation in a larger collective.
Character, in the sense that our Unitarian forbearers used it, was not an idea unique to them. They were deeply influenced by ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle. Our character, Aristotle understood, was the sum total of our virtues and vices. Virtues are those habits of ours--those things we do over and over again until they become part of our very being--which are praiseworthy. Vices are, well vices, are the opposite.
We are a society more beset by vice than virtue. Voices of reason are telling us that if we are to survive as a human species we need to find collective courage and turn the world upside. This week the academic journal BioScience published an article signed by more than 11,000 scientists that declared “clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.” They warn that urgent action is needed if we wish to avoid “significant disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies, [and] potentially makes large areas of Earth uninhabitable.”
At almost the same time, the President notified the United Nations that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Paris Agreement is the major international agreement suggesting how the human species might confront the grave emergency we face. And the President has decided that the United States should not be part of it. The impact of the decision of world’s largest economy to not--on a federal level--act and confront humanity’s existential crisis is likely to be significant.
In this era of existential crisis, we need communities that will help us nurture the necessary virtues to respond to what Martin King called “the fierce urgency of now.” The climate scientists are telling us that, in King’s words, “This is no time... to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism... It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.” Chief among the virtues, the resources, that we need today, in this time of fierce urgency, is courage.
There are two practices of collective courage that we might nurture in this community and find helpful in our efforts to face the fierce urgency of the moment. Each of them was present in Vicky Star’s life. We can manifest each of them in our own. They are: fellowship and accompaniment.
The courage of fellowship is the courage of association. It means, building a community of people who might not otherwise come together. It is a core virtue of any congregation committed to the task of collective liberation. We find it described in the Christian New Testament as one of Jesus’s central activities.
For Jesus, it meant radical table fellowship. It was one of the most profound ways he challenged the powers and principalities of his day. He brought people together across social classes and across ethnic divisions.
The story is recounted in multiple gospels. Jesus had among his followers many tax-collectors and sinners. And they ate together. This might seem like a fairly innocuous activity. It was not. It was a great act of collective courage. In ancient Palestine, in the Jewish community, tax-collectors and sinners--by whom I suspect the text meant prostitutes--would have been some of the most despised people around.
In those days much of Jewish life was organized around ritual purity. Only the ritually pure could worship at the Temple. Only the ritually pure could find favor with the divine. Tax-collectors and prostitutes were not ritually pure. It was an act of social disruption to bring them together. It was an act of ritual impurity to eat together. It was a way in which Jesus turned the world upside down.
The Christian New Testament claims, Jesus, this great religious teacher, choose to eat amongst them and not amongst those who were already virtuous. I have suggested in the past that the key to understanding the Christian New Testament is found in Luke 17:20-21: “‘You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God will come. You cannot say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is!’ For the kingdom of God is among you!’”
The practice of fellowship is one way we bring the kingdom of God among us. In order to organize her meatpacking plant Vicky Star had to bring together, to engage in fellowship with, people who often hated each other. She brought people into the union who never would have talked to each other otherwise--black and white workers, Jewish and Catholic workers, Irish, Polish, Mexican, and Italian workers. It was by doing so that she and her co-workers were able to find the collective courage to address the challenges that they faced.
How might we apply the collective courage of fellowship to our lives and our religious community? After the service you will be having an opportunity to discuss my assessment report of First Church. We will be holding the first in a series of cottage meetings on the future of the congregation. Two of the things I have suggested you might wrestle with in the coming years as a religious community touch directly on the collective courage of fellowship. These are the questions, implied in my report: What is the vision of First Church? And who is First Church for?
That we will be having this conversation as a congregation is a legacy of our religious ancestors decision to, in their churches, turn the world upside down. For, it is ultimately you, the laity, who will develop your vision, your expression of collective courage, for this congregation.
This leads me to the collective courage of accompaniment. Staughton Lynd, and his wife Alice, have developed a theory of it. The Lynds names might be familiar to some of you. They are well known peace activists. Now in their nineties, they spent many years in late sixties and early seventies counseling draft dodgers. This experience led them to develop what they called the theory of “two experts.” They describe it this way: “The draft counselor was presumably an expert on Selective Service law and regulations, and on the practice of local draft boards. But the counselee was an expert on his own life experience, on the predictable responses of parents and significant others, and on how much risk the counselee was prepared to confront.”
The collective courage of accompaniment is one well suited for congregations like ours. Many of you are experts in particular fields--doctors, lawyers, social workers, human resource professionals, the list goes on. The theory of two experts is a way for those of us who have significant expertise in one subject to meet those we work with as equals. And in meeting as equals we practice the collective courage of turning the world upside down.
Staughton was able to write about Vicky because he and Alice had gotten to know her when they applied their theory of two experts to the field of labor history. Rather than presuming that they, Ivy League educated professionals, knew what the lives of working people were like they asked them. They gathered priceless oral histories of people coming together to collectively improve their lives and developed theories of organizing that have recently inspired Uber and Lyft drivers in their own efforts to create labor unions.
Members of First Church have practiced, without I suspect knowing it, aspects of the theory of two experts and accompaniment in your work with Neighbor-to-Neighbor. I have heard you tell me that when you work with partner organizations you follow their lead--offering the expertise and volunteer time that you have while letting them craft the agenda. This is an act of collective courage. For those of us who are used to being charge and making decisions, it means recognizing that people have an expertise that comes from their own experience.
I used my own understanding of the theory of two experts in my efforts to craft the assessment report that we will be discussing over the coming weeks. I met with more than forty of you to listen to your stories about First Church. And then, using my understanding of congregations and religious life, I attempted to use my expertise as a minister and a scholar to offer a portrait of yourselves. As the month proceeds and I listen to your responses to the report I will find out the accuracy of my portrait. And you will, as experts in your experience of First Church, get to decide how you want to cultivate character, craft collective courage, as a religious community in the coming years.
Fellowship and accompaniment can lead to the collective courage of action. That was certainly the case in Vicky Star’s life. By bringing people together and traveling with them on a journey she was able to help them act to improve their lives and to, perhaps only briefly, turn the world upside down.
In these days of existential crises, when the world can seem drear and dismal, collective courage comes to us well recommended. By practicing fellowship and accompaniment we might yet figure out how to make a way out of no way, and ultimately address the grave challenges of the hour. For, it is like the Unitarian Universalist minister Wayne Arnason has said:
Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
For deep down, there is another truth:
you are not alone.
In that spirit, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Nov 7, 2019
A few people from the congregation I serve and from the broader Unitarian Universalist community have been asking me for more information on Rojava, the autonomous region in Northern Syria now under attack by the Turkish military and the reactionary Islamic militas that aligned with it. I have compiled this brief list to aid those who would like to learn more. I intend to update it as I find more useful materials. Here are some of the resources I have found useful:
To Dare Imagining: Rojava Revolution, ed. Dilar Dirik, et al (New York: Autonomedia, 2016)
Thomas Schmidinger, The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds: Self-Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in the Afrin Region of Rojava (Oakland: PM Press, 2019)
Web-sites and Periodicals Covering Rojava
Rojava Information Center, an organization devoted to providing journalists, politicians, and others with up to date information about what it is happening in Rojava
Emergency Committee for Rojava, an organization “to encourage and help facilitate coordinated action to end the occupation of Afrin and support autonomy for Rojava”
Organizations in Rojava
Kongra Star Diplomacy Rojava, a confederation of women's organizations in Rojava
Syrian Democratic Council, Rojava’s political organization
Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), the umbrella organization for the aligned military forces of Rojava
People’s Defense Units, also known as the YPG, the main, primarily Kurdish, military organization in the SDF
Women‘s Protection Units, also known as the YPJ, the autonomous women’s military organization in the SDF
Organizations in Houston and Internationally
Kurdish American Foundation of Houston, a local organization celebrating Kurdish culture and community
Kurdish Red Crescent, a humanitarian organization with offices in Germany and Kobane providing medical aid to the people of Rojava. It is currently the only NGO remaining in the region
Dilar Dirik, Political Sociologist and PhD student at the University of Cambridge, active in the Kurdish women’s movement
Kongra Star Diplomacy Rojava, official account of the women’s movement in Rojava
People’s Defense Units, also known as the YPG
Nuri Mahmoud, official spokesperson of the YPG
Rojava Information Center
Elif Sarican, Anthropologist based at the London School of Economics, active in the Kurdish women’s movement
Oct 21, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, October 20, 2019
When I was twelve or thirteen one of my friends showed up to church in a suit. It was crisp and navy blue. It was paired with a lightly starched white shirt and a butter brown leather shoes polished to a glossy shine. With it, he wore a tie with a classic four in a hand knot that he done up himself.
This confused the rest of us. We were a group of perhaps half a dozen Unitarian Universalist kids. It was the late eighties. Typical Sunday morning garb consisted of the least sloppy tie-dyed shirt or punk rock pin festooned jacket that our parents could force us into. If we were going to be in the sanctuary for a special service--Christmas or Flower Communion--we might be strongly encouraged to wear jeans with no visible holes and some kind of shirt with buttons. But a suit? Who in our Middle School group ever wore a suit?
My friend, it turned out, had found religion. Or, more accurately, he found another religion besides Unitarian Universalism. He was at the beginning of his conversion process to some kind of fundamentalist Christianity. One Sunday it was his suit. Another Sunday found him enthusiastically talking about Jesus. A subsequent Sunday he told us that he had been “born again.” And a few Sundays after that we did not see him anymore.
He left and began attending a conservative Christian church with a grandparent. His parents and older sibling stayed in our congregation. Years later, I talked with them about why my friend had left Unitarian Universalism. They told me that he seemed to like the clear answers and structure that his new church provided him. It was organized around finding salvation through Jesus. The church leaders taught that the Bible had the answers to all life’s questions. Their preaching and teaching consisted of sharing these answers. And they claimed that the afterlife was more important than present life.
Our congregation was completely the opposite. In our religious education program we were never offered an explicit salvation narrative. We were never told that the Bible had all the answers. We were taught that our religious journeys consisted of asking questions and seeking answers. We were on a search for truth and meaning. We were not given clear definitions of either term. And we were told that our present life was more important than the afterlife. For, as Shakespeare wrote, death is “The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” At best we can only speculate about what happens after we die. We are immersed in life.
Over the years, I have found myself thinking about my friend and the path he chose. In Unitarian Universalist circles it is far more common to find people who convert from some kind of fundamentalism to Unitarian Universalism than the other way around. Comedian George Carlin’s old joke, that he was Catholic “until I reached the Age of Reason” resonates for a lot of us. How many of you came to this congregation from a more rigid faith? And how many of you have a close friend or family member who left Unitarian Universalism for a variety of strict orthodoxy?
The nineteenth-century religious dissenter Francis W. Newman claimed, “God has two families of children on this earth, the once-born and the twice-born.” He went on to describe the once-born this way, “They see God, not as a strict Judge... but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmony.” Building off Newman’s dichotomy, the philosopher William James placed our tradition firmly within the category of the once born. He complained that we generally suffered from “an inability to feel evil.” And that we lacked an understanding of the religious experience of conversion.
Is that why my friend left Unitarian Universalism? Did he feel evil sharply and need assurance that it could be conquered? Did he think he could be born again and escape it? I do not know his answer. But I am unsympathetic to James’s claim that we do not feel evil. I do not think that most of you would accuse me of suffering from an inability to feel evil. If anything, I have been accused of being too “doom and gloom” and not optimistic enough to be a good Unitarian Universalist preacher.
It is certain that I am once born. I have never had a conversion experience. Nor have I left Unitarian Universalism for another faith tradition. I have found within our tradition resources sufficient to help me weather the crises of my life--of which there have been more than a few--and to help me come to terms with the tragic. I have found resources sufficient to help answer one of the key religious questions: What does it mean to lead a good life?
It is one of the oldest questions in religion and philosophy. My friend who left my youth group found a certain answer to it by looking into the metaphysical realm and discovering his connection with, and salvation through, Jesus. My own answers have been less certain. It was, in part, that ambiguity that made my friend uncomfortable. What truth I have discovered I have discovered precisely by embracing ambiguity and placing myself amid the rich mess that is a worldly life. This is why the words of humanistic poetry, like this snatch from Alejandra Pizarnik, resonate with me:
dice que el amor es muerte es miedo
dice que la muerte es miedo es amor
dice que no sabe
She says that love is death is fear
She says that death is fear is love
She says that she doesn’t know
I find a similar sentiment in these beloved words from the Chinese poet Tu Fu:
Every day on the way home from
My office I pawn another
Of my Spring clothes. Every day
I come home from the river bank
Drunk. Everywhere I go, I owe
Money for wine. History
Records few men who lived to be
Seventy. I watch the yellow
Butterflies drink deep of the
Flowers, and the dragonflies
Dipping the surface of the
Water again and again
I cry out to the Spring wind,
And the light and the passing hours.
We enjoy life such a little
While, why should men cross each other?
It is also present in my favorite verse from the Greek poet Glykon:
Nothing but laughter, nothing
But dust, nothing but nothing,
No reason why it happens
There are no certain answers to be found in these poems. There is no suggestion that we should be born again. There are just questions and a certain humility: “She says that she doesn’t know;” “We enjoy life such a little / While, why should men cross each other?” “No reason why it happens.”
The orientation of these poems is worldly. In their worldly orientation we find a hint of a Unitarian Universalist response to question: What does it mean to live a good life? Our tradition teaches that we are to root ourselves in the here and now. We are not to place our hopes in some unspecified future when we shall be dust.
But Unitarian Universalism teaches something more than that. That something lurks in the background of these poems. And it lurked in background of my friend’s departure from the congregation of my childhood. Unitarian Universalism teaches that we are shaped by the communities of which we are members. When my friend left our youth group he left one narrative about the good life for another. His new community made that narrative explicit. Our congregation was less clear, but the teaching was there.
It was not present in words. It was present in deeds. It was found not by looking to Jesus for salvation. It was found in the lessons we could discover in sharing our lives with each other. I do not remember anyone telling me that as a child. But as I have studied Unitarian Universalist theology over the years, I have come to realize that the teaching was present all along. Usually, it was offered implicitly rather than made explicit.
Early generations of Unitarian Universalist theologians used the phrase “salvation by character” to summarize their understanding of our tradition. This phrase signifies that we are to judge each other not by our creeds--what we say we believe--but by our deeds--what we do. Over time the choices we make, the things we do, eventually add up to who we are.
This conception of the good life, that we are what we do, was something that my home congregation gave us the opportunity to discover on many occasions. One Sunday morning from my youth group made a particular impression. By then I think I was fourteen or fifteen. We had a guest in our class that morning--someone who was a member of the church but who I knew only vaguely.
He was an out gay man. He was there to share with us his coming out story. This was Lansing, Michigan in the early nineties. At the time, the city only had one gay or lesbian bar. There was no pride parade. The local newspaper still occasionally “outed” local civic figures who were living in the closet in an effort to damage their careers.
Unfortunately, I only remember the outlines of the man’s story. He had attempted to live the “straight” life for years. He had come out after several years of being married to a woman. He told us that he had lived a lie. That he had pretended to be someone he was not. While he did, he suffered immensely. He was depressed. He considered self-harm. He engaged in dangerous behaviors. And then, finally, once he left the marriage, and he found himself. He was living a life where he was authentically himself. He had even found a man who loved him. And he and his partner had recently moved in together. And they were happy.
The story had an impact on us. We talked about it afterwards. A couple of the kids in my youth group identified as queer. The man’s story gave them permission to be themselves. And it gave all of us a role model, a resource, we could turn to if we were questioning our own orientation.
The religious path of salvation by character can be found in my vignette about my youth group. There are moral exemplars in the world. We can learn from them. We can model our lives after them. And maybe, just maybe, if we do, we might be able to become something like them.
The man whose story I recounted was undoubtedly far from perfect. I am sure he had struggles beyond his sexuality that he did not share with us. I imagine that, like most of us, he had his petty moments, that he sometimes spoke harshly to his children or his partner or that he held grudges. Salvation by character does not mean that we are perfect. It comes from an understanding that we can do things to make our lives and the lives of others better. We can make choices that lead us to live lives of authenticity.
We need a community to do so. My Unitarian Universalist community provided that man a place where he could share his story. And it provided us with the opportunity to listen to him. In those days, there were few other places in Lansing where we could collectively question the social norm that to be happy people had to be in heterosexual relationships. In those days, there were few places where that man could feel accepted and loved by his community, live his authentic life, and offer what he had learned to others.
Salvation by character, the life story he shared was not a clear path to salvation. It did not offer the neat narrative of the born-again Christian--which my friend had turned to. It did not tell us that there was a single solution, a single path that we all should follow. Yes, it did contain an element of transformation, the man left a life where he could not be authentically himself for one in which he could. However, his story was about embracing who he was in this world--not rejecting it. It was not a story about confessing his sins and seeking salvation through Jesus. It was a story about admitting to himself who he was and then having the courage to be himself.
Our lives are short and fleeting things. The words we had from Jimmy Santiago Baca are meant to remind us that we have only one life that we know and how we live it matters. Baca tells us:
Who we are and what we do
appears to us
like a man dressed in a long black coat
Lo que somos y lo que hacemos
se nos aparece
como un hombre de abrigo negro y largo
That man, presumably, is death. He warns us we must bring our lives to account, must constantly cash the promissory notes that are our actions until they become our very being. We each have only one life. Time is short and so, the man tells us,
“I have many others to see today.”
“Tengo muchos otros qué ver hoy.”
Salvation by character, we are what we do. We learn how to live a good life in relation to a community. These are ideas are very old. They are much older than our tradition--something I hinted at in my invocation of seventh century Chinese and ancient Greek poetry. We might look back to Aristotle to find an early systematic treatment of them. He taught that the salvation we find in character is best expressed through the virtues. These are the elements of a good life, the things that we do which are praiseworthy--which we would hold up as examples to others.
The bravery of the man who visited my youth group was praiseworthy. He had been brave enough to leave an inauthentic life to discover one in which he was authentically himself. And that bravery was something he could help us discover in ourselves through his example.
Aristotle taught that these virtues were shaped by and informed by the community to which we belong. There was an element of what is called moral luck to this. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be born into a community or born with the circumstances to pursue a good life and sometimes we are not. Sometimes, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum has observed, things “just happen to” us. It is difficult to, in her words, “make the goodness of a good human life safe from luck.” Even as we seek to build a community where we might develop virtue--create a space where someone might share and live their authentic life--we find ourselves constantly buffeted by forces beyond control.
This, I suspect, is one reason my friend found comfort in his experience of becoming born again. It offered a permanent experience of salvation. Our once born humanistic path offers no such assurances. It, and the communities that sustain it, are vulnerable and can be lost. The good life of this world is not permanent, death, Baca’s man “in a long black coat” comes to all of us. Whatever salvation we achieve by character is at most secure for the span of our effervescent lives.
And here, as we near the close of the sermon, I am going to offer a final example of a community in which it is possible to pursue the humanistic virtues. What is happening with that community highlights the vulnerability of the good life. My transition is jagged; one of those moments when I like a jazz musician or house DJ, inelegantly switch between songs in the middle of a set. So, forgive me, as you might forgive the saxophonist who melody suddenly becomes discordant or turn tablelist whose record skips, as I jump from one thing to another.
I am going to talk about what is happening in Syria for a moment. Syria has been heavy upon my heart. In Northern Syria we find an example among the pluralistic community of Rojava of a place where it has been briefly possible to begin to pursue, to imagine, the good life. The people who live in Rojava are often called Kurds in the news. In truth, they are a multi-ethnic community of Arabs, Kurds, Yazidi, and others have spent the last several years imagining how they can create a space where they might be able to build a society where the good life is available to all people.
Following the withdrawal of the Syrian government from Northern Syria, the people of Rojava have attempted to build a community organized around three principles. These are direct democracy, ecology, and the liberation of women. Few accounts have made to the United States of exactly what this new society is starting to look like. The accounts that have emerged suggest that the good life imagined by those in Rojava is radically different than the one propagated by the oppressive, anti-ecological, patriarchal, regimes that normally reign in the region.
The people of Rojava have mandated that women must have a central role in society’s leadership. All leadership positions must be occupied by co-chairs--a man and a woman. There is also a man’s army and a woman’s army. Decisions are made at the local level, by those most impacted by them, and then coordinated across different communities. They attempt create ecological, democratic, and what we might call feminist consciousness in all that they do. This community is not perfect. Some reports suggest that while LGBT people are more welcome in Rojava than they are elsewhere in the Middle East they do not yet feel fully free to be themselves. But seven years is only a brief time to try to build a new society and invite people into a new way of being. I suspect that if Rojava survives it will, in time, become a society in which members of the LGBT community can be open about who they are and who they love. The openness to and encouragement for women’s leadership suggests that the people of Rojava are willing to make radical change.
Let me offer a brief pastiche of words from Rojava that hint at their new social vision. Here a few from Evren Kocabicak, a leader of Rojava’s women’s military wing. Three quotes: First, “nature is... a power that enables humans to achieve self-consciousness.” Second, “We have a system where every action, education or meeting is collectively evaluated; a system where such direct democracy is exercised.” Third, “Women may have a free personality and identity only so far as they have emancipated themselves from the hands of male and societal dominance and have gained power through their free initiatives.” Here are a few words from Dilar Dirik, a young Kurdish PhD student who left the region to study at the University of Cambridge. First, “All is sacred because it belongs to me, to you, to everyone.” Second, “Giving power to people who never had anything requires courage, requires trust, requires love.” Third, “Knowledge is everywhere, it needs to be valued and shared.”
I suspect that many of you hear resonances of Unitarian Universalist values within these words--of a conception of the good life that says that we must orientate ourselves to this world because we do not know what might happen in the next one. It is the society that has produced such beautiful visions that is now threatened with collapse. The United States withdrawal of troops from Northern Syria has given Turkey permission to invade. It has prepared the way for ethnic cleansing, a polite term for mass murder and dislocation. It has allowed ISIS cells to reactivate. And it has forced the people of Rojava to choose between an alliance with the repressive regime of Bashar al Assad and annihilation by the Turkish military. Their conception of the good life will almost certainly be replaced by something repressive and awful. In the words the Syrian scholar Hassan Hassan, the vision of Rojava is likely to be subplanted with a community ruled by “the worst of the worst.” Woman who have organized will be repressed and likely murdered. Democracy will be destroyed. And an ecological vision will be abandoned.
In the next week or two, we will be having an opportunity, as a religious community, to learn more about Rojava and the conception of the good life its members have. In partnership with the Kurdish American Foundation of Houston we are offering a forum featuring direct eye witness accounts of Rojava. It has not yet been scheduled. Once it is, I believe it will be the first such event in Houston. It will be a chance to learn about this new conception of the good life that after the current President’s betrayal is now under profound threat.
But for now, let us leave the subject of Rojava and attempt to bring our closing chord back into alignment with the rest of the sermon. What I have attempted to articulate, inelegantly perhaps, throughout this sermon is a simple message. We are what we do. We should orient our lives to the present world, which we know, rather the next one, from which we have, at best, scant reports. Whatever salvation there is to find we will find together. We will find it by lifting up what is best, virtuous amongst each other, and living authentically as we can: being brave, being honest, and nurturing the spark of brilliance, love, and hope that resides within each of us.
So that it might be so, I invite the congregation to say “Amen.”
Oct 10, 2019
I was asked to repost this open letter from the administration and faculty of the University of Rojava and Kobanê. This is a university started by the people of Rojava to create their radical educational institution devoted to serving the needs of the region’s people. You can read more about the University here.
For universities and associated academic and intellectual institutions
These eight years there has been a revolution taking place in Rojava/Northeast Syria, with gains in the areas of democracy, tolerance, a culture of fraternity of peoples, respect for diverse religions and beliefs, gender equality, and individual liberty, a unique example growing in the Middle East. Despite all the radicalism in the region, we can live together, and both support and accept each other. We in the university also want a democratic social order that can strengthen modern science.
We wanted to become a centre of enlightenment and revitalisation of universal moral and social values that humanity has gained over its long history, preparing for free and peace loving future generations. But unfortunately, our university in Rojava, which is a garden of democracy, finds itself under the boot of the armies of the Turkish state and their thugs.
You know that Turkey, for the entirety of the Syrian war, has supported ISIS, and their hand is found in every massacre which has been carried out against the people of Syria. Today Turkey is trying to breathe new life into the Caliphate of ISIS, which had been brought down thanks to the resistance of the people of this region, and this dark force has helped it to organise itself anew.
All the so-called opposition forces of Syria which have a fanatical and radical, the Turkish state embraces them, lets them grow, and supports them so they may be employed as tools of war for them. Most of them are former members of ISIS and al-Qaeda, and Turkey now provokes them and lets them loose against our democracy and our advances.
Doubtless, the ignoring of rights, the censorship of our views, mean the acceptance and approval, the green light of great states such as Russia and America. On behalf of all the states that seek to benefit, Turkey will again carry out a significant massacre against the peoples of the region.
If there is a great threat and danger upon us now, if Islamic radicalism can move forward and amass forces with ease, if Turkey can organise massacres and slaughter as the largest terrorist organisation in the world, it is our belief that a historical role and responsibility rests upon the intellectual and academic communities of the world.
After the massacres of the Holocaust that were committed by Hitler, Adorno, in criticising the lack of responsibility shouldered by the intellectual community of his time, said “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”.
Now too, in the particularity of Rojava, where the armies of Turkish fascism and Islamic radicalism have brought down every value and virtue of humanity, we hope that the scientific and intellectual community of the world will immediately take action against massacres such as those that have occurred in the Holocaust and in Şengal, which are still occurring, and will uphold their duties and responsibilities to humanity.
In this letter, we are writing to you so that you, among your own people, help resist against these armies which have tasked themselves with tearing down science and the work of the university, in the name of the defence of existence and honour.
Greetings on behalf of the administration and faculty of the University of Rojava and Kobanê
Jan 15, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, December 24, 2018
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“for hate is strong
and mocks the song
of peace on earth,
to all good will.”
These words were penned by the great Unitarian poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He wrote them on Christmas Day in 1863. He wrote them in the middle of the Civil War, shortly after his son had joined the Union Army without his permission. He wrote them two years after his wife died. He wrote them when this country was in the midst of a profound crisis and when he was caught in his own personal crisis.
“And in despair I bowed my head,” these are good verses for tonight. Christmas 2018 finds this country and our world again in severe crisis. The federal government is shutdown. Migrants are dying at the border. Climate change continues to wreak havoc across the planet. Turkey threatens genocide against the Kurds of Syria. I do not have it within me to offer you a light and cheery Christmas homily.
Perhaps that is alright. Christmas is a complicated holiday. When we turn to the ancient texts we find much in them to suggest that the world was not right two thousand years ago. There is Caesar Augustus organizing a census to count the people of the Roman Empire. He did so not to aid the poor but to benefit the wealthy. There is Herod flying into a rage massacring “all the boys aged two years or under” because one of them might have threatened his rule. The names may have changed but the story has not. We can replace Caesar Augustus with the current President of the United States and the narrative will not be all that different. We can swap Herod with Basar al-Assad or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and our discussion of executed or planned massacres will mirror the gospel texts.
The fundamental conceit of the Christmas holiday is that two thousand years ago a child was born who threatened this great disorder of things. We are supposed to be celebrating the advent of a messiah whose birth meant that God was going to bring about peace and joy to the whole world. We are supposed to celebrating the coming of the kingdom and the reign of the divine. For Christians this event is so important that it actually divides time in two. First there was the era known as B.C., Before Christ. And now there is the era of Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord.
For Unitarian Universalists, the holiday is more convoluted. Most of us do not believe that Jesus was the messiah. A few of us wonder if he existed at all. And yet, we celebrate the holiday.
Sometimes this prompts people to tell jokes at our expense. A few of these are jokes are quite mean spirited. Others a bit more gentle, “What’s the Unitarians favorite Christmas movie? Coincidence on 34th street.”
Occasionally the holiday prompts us to poke fun at ourselves. One of my favorite bits along these lines is the late Unitarian minister Christopher Raible’s holiday hymn, “God Rest Ye, Unitarians.” Appealing to the hardcore rationalists among us it begins:
God rest ye, Unitarians, let nothing you dismay;
Remember there's no evidence there was a Christmas Day;
When Christ was born is just not known, no matter what they say,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.
A rationalist reading of the Christmas story would examine other aspects of the ancient texts as well. It would point out that their references to a census by Caesar Augustus and Herod’s massacre of the innocents are metaphoric at best. There seems to be little historical evidence that either occurred.
And yet, in 2018, Christian readings of the Christmas story that celebrates Jesus as the world saving of messiah and rationalist readings that offer “Glad tidings of reason and fact” both miss an essential point. The Christmas story, whether metaphor or fact, suggests something crucial about what we are called to do when in despair we bow our heads. It is a lesson of where we are supposed to look for hope.
When we read the story carefully we discover that the invention of Caesar Augustus’s census and Herod’s massacre of the innocents turn Jesus not only into a messiah. They turn him into a child of migrants fleeing political persecution. They turn him into a child of the least of these. The great messiah is not born to the high and mighty. He is born to outcasts so poor they must take shelter in a cave or a stable because they cannot find room in an inn.
This story suggests that we are to look for hope on the margins of society. We will not to find it by looking to the powerful. We will not find it by turning to Caesar Augustus or Herod or the President of the United States or Assad or Erdoğan. We will to find it by looking to the prisoners, the migrants, the refugees, the civilians who endure the horrors of war... all of those who bravely insist that there is another way.
I have been thinking of this dimension of the Christmas story over the past weeks as my heart has been burdened by the death of seven-year-old Jacklin Caal. She was the young Guatemalan migrant who died in the custody of the United States Border Patrol after being denied medical attention. If Jesus existed he was born into a family like Jacklin’s, a family that was fleeing violence and death.
And let me tell you, that is exactly what Jacklin’s family was fleeing. The countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are some of the most violent in the world. They routinely have murder rates that mirror those of countries at war. I have gone to El Salvador and interviewed the victims of that violence. I spent years doing human rights work in southern Mexico and spoke with migrants who passed through that country on their way to the United States. I could recount their stories and on this Christmas Eve push you to despair.
If were to do so, I might tell you that the violence found in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala was produced by the powerful in this country. Their histories of instability are a result of the United States government’s systematic undermining of their movements for democracy. Their recent spikes in violence a result of our government deporting Central American gang members back their home countries in the nineties. Addressing their widespread poverty would do more to stem the flow of migrants than Donald Trump’s quest to build a wall. The budget for building a wall is almost the same as the entire budget of the government of Honduras. The budget of the US Customs and Border Patrol is about five times the budget of El Salvador. Imagine how different the lives of people in Central America would be if the money spent keeping them out of this country was spent to improve their countries instead.
But I digress. The Christmas story does not just remind us that the powerful are so often responsible for the violence of the world. It reminds us that hope is to be found at the margins of society. It is to found amongst those who have the most at stake in changing the world: the migrants who flee violent lands with a dream of peace in their hearts; the prisoners who are bold enough to imagine a world without prisons; the labor militants who believe that it is possible build a world where there is prosperity for all; the peace activists who dream of the end of war; the ecological activists who hope that there is way that we might yet live in harmony with the earth... When the world changes for the better it will be because of the work of those on the margins.
When we remember that we can go beyond the third verse of Longfellow’s hymn, “And in despair I bowed my head:” and hear the bells of the fourth:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
“God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;
the wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
with peace on earth, to all goodwill.”
My prayer for us this Christmas is simple:
May we hear the deeper peals of the bells
and, rationalist or believer,
remember that the story tells us to look for hope
not among the powerful--
the architects of wars
and government shutdowns--
but at the margins of society.
It is there
that we might find hope
just as it was there
that the ancient texts
found hope in the birth
of a child
fleeing political persecution
some two thousand years ago.
Much love to all of you,
have a wonderful holiday
Jul 29, 2017
Yesterday the New York Times brought news that famed photo editor John Morris died at the age of 100. Morris was the photo editor of the New York Times during the Vietnam War and made the decision to publish two of the most famous images of the war on the newspaper’s front page--the informally titled “Napalm Girl” by Huỳnh Công Út and Eddie Adams's "Saigon Execution." He made sure that these images appeared on the top fold of the paper, which meant they were seen even by people who didn't build the Times. He was Robert Capa’s photo editor for many years and the founding photo editor for Magnum Photo. You can read the Times’s obituary of John Morris here. They've also made a nice video tribute.
John was a long time friend of my parents. I believe they met him through their friends Nicole Ewenczyk and Gilles Perrin--my father collaborated on a book with them a few years ago. Last summer, while I was visiting them in Paris, I had the pleasure of attending one of his lectures. John’s talk focused on his century of experience as a photo editor. He spoke about his commitment to pacifism and his belief that photo editing could be a kind of anti-war activism. The selection of images that highlighted the horrors of war, he hoped, could engender empathy for the victims of violence and inspire people to oppose their government’s involvement in international conflicts.
After John’s lecture we all had dinner at the little bistro across the street from his studio. I was seated next to him and we talked about the civil war in Syria. A few years ago I penned a piece for the Huffington Post arguing against military intervention after the Assad government used chemical weapons. I have since had some ambivalence about the question of military intervention and come to support, in principle, the Kurdish anarchist movement, Democratic Union Party. I have never been convicted of absolute pacifism and, as in the case of my longstanding support for the Zapatistas, believe that organized violent resistance to various forms of fascism and totalitarianism can sometimes be the only way to arrest them.
John did not agree. After his experiences in World War II, he felt that violence always beget further violence. Any support of a military movement in Syria, he believed, would only extend the conflict and cause further suffering. I suspect that his position was also tempered by his Quakerism.
Unfortunately, the bistro was too loud for us to converse more in-depth. Nonetheless, it was a memorable experience. It deepened my already deep respect for the photographers, and their editors, who strive to document our world as political and ethical acts. Social documentary photography is an art form and art in all its forms can be a powerful act of resistance to the viciousness of human brutality.